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Fic: Cut my feelings to the bone (McKay/Sheppard, PG-13) Part 1/2

Title: Cut my feelings to the bone
Author: gottalovev
Recipient: hyx_sydin
Pairing: John Sheppard/Rodney McKay
Rating: PG-13
Word count: ~ 14 200 words
Disclaimer/warnings: No warnings apply.
Author's Notes: A last hurray for sga_santa? How could I resist! Thanks, mods, for years of a wonderful challenge and to my Beta for the last minute save ♥. Dear recipient: I hope you enjoy, Happy Holidays! And yes, I borrowed the title from Pat Benatar's "We belong". It's that kind of story. ;)
Summary: They're back in Pegasus, once again intrepid space explorers, and John couldn't be happier (the hopeless pining after Rodney is fine, he's used to it). Unfortunately there's a catch: Atlantis starts acting up.


***

It's been a long day, and John's thoughts are starting to stray. He loves the full body and mind experience of flying Atlantis, but hours upon hours of constant trajectories and status updates gets monotonous. They've prepared this trip meticulously for months, and since everything is going according to plan John thinks he can be excused if he doesn't dedicate all of his attention to a glorified autopilot function at this stage of the journey.

He lets the process and technicalities of navigating towards the planet they chose for their big return in Pegasus aside to experiment with the link itself. He can feel Atlantis like a presence in his mind every second he's in her, discrete but there, but when he sits in the chair it's a lot more intimate. There's a conscience below the controls, of that John is convinced.

He can't have conversations with Atlantis, but he's learned to decode the city's moods. Over the years she started to communicate with him through colors: from the general impression behind his eyes being almost universally blue like the outside manifestation of Ancient tech at first, she has started to vary the color of their mental exchanges in different contexts. If the glow of the chair remains the same, in his head he picks up other tints.

John asked around, and there are very few who have the privilege to communicate with her in that way. Lorne gets hints of colors when things are charged, Rodney says he's getting flashes but also some matrices in which the writing is color coded and Mia from Operations, who is a back-up pilot, barely gets anything at all. Too bad for them; the ever-changing rainbow hue of flying is pretty spectacular.

"Sheppard! Ready for the drop?"

John shakes his almost trance, opening his eyes to get back to reality; Rodney must have tried talking to him more than once, judging by his frown and the impatience in his tone. John rapidly checks the calculations, and they are still perfectly on track. The drop from hyperspace is... in 10 minutes? Okay, so he zoned out, there was an hour left at what feels like moments ago.

"Yes, all systems ready."

"Get your head in the game," Rodney says, squeezing his arm. "From the specs we have on M45-343, there should be plenty of water for a smooth landing, but I don't want to ricochet like a pebble if I can avoid it."

"Of course not. Doubting me, McKay?"

"You're passable; it should be fine." Rodney's smirk is teasing but the words are sincere. In Rodney-speak, it's a pretty straightforward compliment of John's skills and everyone in the room knows it.

The sector where they drop out of hyperspace is thankfully devoid of visible threats, and there, shiny and beautiful on the displays in the chair room, is M45-343. There's a murmur in the room, surely because the color scheme is so reminiscent of Earth. When John zooms in on the planned landing site, there's a collective intake of breath. In a good way.

It looks like the Caribbean Sea, with turquoise to indigo water and a coastline covered in white sand and vegetation similar to palm trees.

"Really?" Rodney says, looking almost offended.

"This is the opposite of a problem," John replies, and he thinks he's talking for everyone.

"Oh, I'm not complaining. But this planet's suggestion by the database is clearly Atlantis trying to butter you up. Could you scan for activity, especially near the main archipelago?"

The sensors detect a group of twenty five persons on the biggest island, plus isolated pairs on what appear to be a half a dozen fishing boats. It's very small for a settlement. The only structures visible from their position are rudimentary housing and storage. Since nothing in view can be labeled as a threat until a full assessment is made, John follows protocol and makes sure the city is cloaked before he starts the landing sequence.

***

John is sitting on the edge of the South-West Pier, exhausted from the journey – and his flawless landing, thank you very much - but too wired to go to bed. He's on his second beer when he hears the closest door swish, seconds before Rodney comes to sit beside him. The sun is setting on the horizon, bight orange skies warring with purple clouds, and it's absolutely breathtaking.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Rodney asks.

"That there must be a catch?"

"Exactly," Rodney says. "It makes no sense that there's only a handful of people on this planet."

“Well, there's no gate, for one. And maybe Pegasus natives aren't into tropical paradises?" John asks. They must be crazy, because this is perfection.

“That, or every life form is poisonous, venomous or especially aggressive."

"Always the optimist," John says, nudging Rodney with an elbow.

"I'm just saying we should be careful."

"Agreed. But in the meantime? Let me enjoy this."

Rodney snorts as he lies down on the Pier, hands linked on his chest and closing his eyes.

"Enjoy away." While it lasts, is implied.

Whatever Rodney says, he looks pretty content.

John is distracted from the sunset by the way Rodney's blue t-shirt stretches over his chest and biceps.

Either way, the view is pretty great.

***

The day after the landing, John's first order of business is to reunite Teyla with Kanaan and Torren, who later move with them on Atlantis. Half of their gate teams are sent out to visit their key partners, while John and Woolsey plan for the first contact with their new planet's inhabitants. They've observed them from afar, and it looks like a working crew: no children, with only able-bodied men and women and a handful of elders.

A week after landing and a couple of recon and analysis on other parts of the planet – mostly uninteresting, very arid – John makes his team gear up for their first mission out on the main archipelago, with Lorne as a backup in an invisible jumper, just in case.

Everyone is a good mood, even Ronon who keeps smiling as he twirls his gun. John flies the puddlejumper high into the atmosphere before uncloaking and coming back down towards the encampment. No need to give up Intel on Atlantis at this point.

There is some pointing at the jumper when they are spotted, but no outward sign of aggression. Several men take out what look like guns, but it's only prudent when about to engage with an unknown force, so John can't blame them.

He lands just short of the encampment, near a row of army-like tents. When the hull opens, the team steps out with weapons holstered, trying to project that they are friendly and trustworthy. They've had five years to practice this particular routine; John feels as if they are pretty good at it.

"Greetings," Teyla says.

"Salutations to you," one of the oldest-looking guys says, inclining his head. He sounds pretty angry, no matter the civil words. "Our transport was not supposed to be here for twenty more days. We are not ready."

John shakes his head and waves the word off. "That's not us, don't worry."

Rodney chimes in. "We were, you know, around. Decided to come and say hi."

Which… Rodney knows better than to engage, it's not his job.

The men and women look perplexed.

"I am sorry; let me explain better," Teyla says. "I'm Teyla Emmagan from Athos, and my friends are Ronon Dex of Sateda, and John Sheppard and Rodney McKay of Lantea. We're here to explore and meet new people."

"We are of Doemas; I am Milas," the old man says. John has never heard their planet's name, but Teyla smiles more widely, and Ronon relaxes. That's always a good sign.

"Pleased to meet you," John says.

One of the younger women leans towards someone who looks like her mom to whisper into her ear.

"Your names echo," the lady says, squinting at them. "The Travelers have stories about the Lanteans, and they are not always flattering."

"The Travelers, of course," Rodney says. “Well, we have stories about them, too."

“Rodney, please," Teyla says with a meaningful widening of eyes that shuts Rodney up. "We have had successful alliances with the Travelers, for the most part. I understand you are not airborne yourselves?"

The first elder scoffs. "Not a chance. Using their services is a necessity for commerce, but I cannot say I enjoy space travel."

"That's because they have lousy ships," John says.

The girl who knew about them speaks up. "Is it true your people live in the city of the Ancestors?"

If they’re bound to be neighbors, at least for the next twenty days, it's best to be honest.

"We do. Those are for our day-to-day transport," John says, gesturing to the puddlejumper. "You're here to fish?"

It's the logical conclusion, with the several smoking racks in usage, and the boats they've seen.

"As much as we can in forty days, yes. Are you looking to do it too?" Milas, whom John thinks is the leader, seems a bit wary.

"No. We could be interested in some fish, though," John says. "If it's to the taste of our people."

The man smiles, his posture relaxing. "The ullu is a high-prized delicacy. I am sure one taste will be enough to convince. Mac, go prepare bites to try."

One of the youngest guys immediately scuttles off towards a tent, and satisfied they're getting a relatively warm welcome, John walks down the ramp, and approaches Milas.

"Am I wrong in thinking you don't have a permanent team here?" John asks.

"Permanent? As several months?" the man looks astonished. “Heavens, no."

"Why not?" Ronon asks. "The Travelers could come and collect the fish from time to time."

"Not with the weather."

"It seems pretty great to me!" John says. They've been here a week with a stable 80 degrees in the day, light wind and almost no humidity.

"Now. In fact, we have been extremely fortunate lately. But the storms that the planet withstands most of the year are too harsh."

"Ah, that's the catch," Rodney mumbles and John sighs. Of course there had to be something.

"Tell us more," Teyla asks.

***

The little courtyard of the temple on Cellinor is packed, all seats taken at the tables that have been placed in a spiral pattern. Many more people are milling about, stopping to chat and laugh with each other. John is slouching in his chair, hands linked on chest, content to soak in the sun as he watches his team having fun, too. Ronon says something to Teyla who throws her head back and laughs, and frankly it doesn't get better than that.

There are some chimes, and the High Priest at the dais at one end of the courtyard starts reading from an old-looking book, but his voice doesn't reach them, at least not enough for John to pay attention to whatever he's so intent about. He's not alone; many people around them are having hushed conversations as the High Priest goes on and on. There are more rituals they've seen a million times, like the blessing of a pitcher of dark red liquor that is poured into a close equivalent of shot glasses. John's attention is brought back to his team when Rodney leans into him to say something.

"Ah, the sweet sound of religious nonsense in the morning. Weirdly, I might have missed this."

John uses a hand to hide his smile, but yes, indeed. There's a certain rhythm to life in Pegasus that is not just Atlantis, commerce, fighting the Wraiths and scientific discovery. He nudges Rodney away so he can pay attention, or at least fake it.

Once the High Priest is done, several boys and girls enter the courtyard with trays holding bowls of food. Everything looks great, but doesn't always taste as expected, which is also par for the course. McKay becomes animated when a purple sauce tastes almost like chocolate.

"We've got to bring whatever this is made of back to the botanists."

"We can always ask," John says.

The Cellinians are friendly, smile a whole lot and are maybe a little too fond of public displays of affection. Couples are particularly demonstrative, and there are many casual touches between friends and strangers alike, from touching an arm to be sure they have their interlocutor's attention to squeezing or clapping someone else's shoulder to punctuate a sentence. When everyone sat down to eat, Rodney and Ronon took chairs on each side of him to act as human barriers from all of this touching, and John's glad he didn't even have to ask for it.

John can't help it, he checks out Rodney's expression, as the music starts when the High Priest is finished. It doesn't disappoint, as Rodney looks horrified at the amount of flute in the almost-jig they are now subjected to. He looks back at John, eyes wide, who smiles and shrugs.

I know, buddy. I know.

No need to say it aloud. There's something reassuring in knowing someone that well. In most things, at least, because John's pretty sure that Rodney has no idea that his feelings go beyond platonic friendship. Rodney's always been a little dense about things like that, which suits John just fine: he doesn't want to jeopardize their friendship with unrequited feelings.

One of the young priests, or maybe an apprentice, is slowly making his way from table to table with a tray of the shots John has noticed earlier. People are eager to get their hands on the little glasses, and then they catch eyes with their neighbor and down them with enthusiasm.

When the young priest reaches them, he distributes shots to the team with a smile.

"May you all be blessed in life and love," he says, with no hint of deception.

Since everyone, natives and guests alike, are drinking it, John lifts his glass, the dark red liquid catching the sun.

“Cheers, Rodney."

Rodney salutes back, and they sip at their glasses. It tastes fruity, mostly like berries, while John expected alcohol. He does feels a shiver go down his spine after he drinks it all, though, which he doesn't like; years of interacting consciously or not with Ancient tech has made him cautious of this sort of feeling. All around them people keep on chatting, as if there's nothing out of the ordinary. Rodney looks at his drink as if he's perplexed, though, and John is about to grab his P90 when Rodney makes a face and swallows the rest of his shot. It must be nothing.

Soon after they start serving the desserts, and with them more purple chocolaty sauce and yeah, the excited little moans Rodney makes at his food are very distracting. He definitely needs to get his hands on whatever it's called for the mess hall. Reassured that everything is fine, John eats a little but mostly just sits back and enjoys the day.

It's good to be back.

***

John has a meeting in the armory in thirty minutes, but he decides to go by the labs first to bring them a weird little cylinder Lieutenant Dion found in one of the new living quarters. John tries guessing what it is, but it mostly stays inert apart from a blue light shining from one of the tips. It could be a glow stick of a sort, but imagining Ancients having a party (or even having fun in general) is weird. Maybe Rodney will make sense of it.

In the lab, Jennifer is in an animated conversation with Radek and Rodney at the whiteboard. When Rodney and Jennifer split a month after landing in the San Francisco Bay, everyone walked on eggshells for a couple of weeks. Knowing Rodney's temperament, expecting drama wasn't that far-fetched but the break up seems perfectly smooth, and they remain friends. It's not that John wants anyone to be unhappy – especially not Rodney – but he might still resent Jennifer (he was so jealous, it was ridiculous), and hates himself for it. She did nothing wrong, and he needs to get over his bullshit.

Jennifer throws her hands in the hair when Rodney and Radek start contradicting each other about – from what John understands - a molecule from an indigenous plant and how it could potentially be purified to give a strong antipyretic agent.

"You guys are not helping at all!" she complains.

"Maybe you'd get better results asking the actual chemists," John says, making the trio look at him.

Rodney has the gall to look affronted. "Excuse you, this is not rocket science."

"Exactly. You know rocket science inside out. Not this."

Jennifer smirks. "You know what, John? You're absolutely right. I'll go see Doctor Lambert. Anyway, it's freezing in here. I think a trip to the greenhouses will do me some good."

John meets Rodney's eyes as Jennifer leaves with her notes, and they frown. The labs have a strictly regulated temperature, and it feels fine. Maybe she's coming down with a cold.

But, well, she's gone, and Rodney rapidly moves his focus to John.

"Did you need something?"

"Nothing urgent," John says. He wiggles the little cylinder before putting it down on the workbench.

"What's this?"

"No idea," John says with a shrug. "Dion found it in someone's living quarters."

Immediately Rodney picks it up, humming, and when Radek walks closer to have a look too, Rodney curls around it protectively.

"You are ridiculous," Radek says, rolling his eyes.

"He brought it to me, so," Rodney says. "Find your own toys."

John can't help the smile as he leans against the desk: this is going to be fun. Radek throws his hands in the air and walks away, though John almost chokes when Zelenka mutters, "Of course he brought it to you. Stupid courtship ritual."

Thankfully, Rodney was fully absorbed in making the blue light shine and didn't hear it. John feels his ears turning red and he hopes Rodney doesn't notice it either. Anyway, he needs to go, so he makes a strategic exit.

***

John's been feeling weird in the last couple of days, but it's been quite hectic with several tornadoes battering at their shield and all but uprooting the trees on the archipelago. He was on puddlejumper ferry duty as he moved the fishermen in and out of Atlantis, eating and sleeping when he could. The storms on M45-343 are extremely violent, as advertised, and their experts are having a hard time making accurate forecasts with the planet's complex marine undercurrent and three moons that govern the climate. Fortunately, Atlantis has good shields.

The fishermen appreciate being brought to safety with the fish they had smoked and packed for trade, but they are now ready to go, with the Travelers due to come and get them in two days. John asked them to be discreet about Atlantis being on the planet, but who knows if they'll talk, and to whom.

After a night of sleep that wasn't as restful as it could have been – he'll ask for antacid tablets when they come back – John's team gears up and leaves for M91-203. It's important to secure the partnerships they already have, but they need to keep on with the exploration of the worlds that have a potential for interesting resources, too.

Their mission is kind of a bust, but not really. The weather was great – welcome after the deluge they sustained in the last days – and they've walked for a couple of hours without any bad surprises. Even though they had nothing new to bring home, especially not a clue for a ZPM, they took some fresh air and had a good time. John felt better as soon as they stepped onto the planet, and the nap he took after lunch near a lake was rejuvenating.

All and all, John is pretty happy to have become an intrepid space explorer. Aside from the inevitable mortal peril situations and occasional suffering, there's a little ass kicking from time to time, (which is fun), they get to help folks with their defenses against the Wraiths (pretty great, too), and from every so often they have quiet days like this.

And, after every mission, John goes back to Atlantis with his friends. That's pretty sweet.

***

They have finished the maintenance on John's puddlejumper and are touring the others when Rodney is distracted by one of the new mechanics, Sharon Cullen. She greets them with a wide smile even though she surely noticed Rodney staring a little. Or the smile is because Rodney has been staring, who knows?

"Hey Doc, Colonel," she says with a nod.

"Hi," Rodney says.

John has a good idea why he seems fascinated: she looks like a young Samantha Carter. Very blond, pixie cut, big blue eyes, and there's potential for disaster right there.

"There's something weird with the back hatch of this one," Sharon says, pointing to the next puddlejumper in line.

"Weird how?" Rodney asks, but he's looking at the girl, not the ship.

John feels as if he suddenly disappeared, and he hates it. Not that Rodney seems interested in someone that's not him - it was bound to happen sooner or later - but that he's affected by it. He can't help the stab of envy, and when he reaches for the hull of the puddlejumper at the same time as Sharon does, an electric shock startles them both.

"Ow!" they say simultaneously.

John shakes his hand, as it tingles still, but has no idea what happened.

Sharon scrunches up her nose. "That's really annoying."

"What did you do, again?" Rodney accuses John.

"Nothing!" he protests. "Something sparked."

He gets an eye roll for that. "It must be your hyperactive wonder gene again, go take a walk."

John hadn't planned to take the puddlejumper out again, but maybe it's for the best before he says or does something he'll regret.

"Fine, see you later."

"At six in the rec room?" Rodney asks expectantly, and it soothes John's ruffled feathers. He refrains from looking at Sharon, to see if she got the hint to stay away.

"I'll be there," John says, and can't help but smile back when Rodney grins.

Once out, John pushes the jumper up and up until he's left the atmosphere, before launching in a series of acrobatics. Flying has always been a sure way to make him feel better, though he might have overdone the rolls and spirals because he's gone from pissed to slightly nauseous.

When John flies down to the planet's surface, he's almost at the North Pole, the surface a frozen wasteland. There's nothing interesting to explore in the area so he speeds towards Atlantis, making once again making a mental note to go by the infirmary to pick up something for his stomach. This frequent heartburn is getting old fast.

***

Rodney always follows a logical grid pattern to find John's boats when they play Battleship, while John favors random hits. He's lucky, more times than not, which infuriates Rodney. But that's not the way John plans to play today. He feels like teasing Rodney a little, to get a rise out of him. A red-faced, eyes-shooting-arrows Rodney is a sight to behold, and John indulges himself every so often.

"C-5," Rodney calls as he starts the game.

"Miss. C-5," John counters, acting as casual as he can, slouching exaggeratedly in his love seat. They've had the place all to themselves until now, which is unusual but welcome. It should fill up soon.

Rodney rolls his eyes. "Miss. H-8."

"Miss yourself. H-8," John says.

That earns him a squint from Rodney. John wonders when he'll go from slightly aggravated to calculating.

"Miss too. H-3," Rodney tries.

And shit. Rodney's got one, a three pins submarine. John had hoped to ramp up the repetitions a bit before that happened. But hey, he'll stick to the plan.

"Hit," he says, as cool as possible, but nonetheless amused at how Rodney crows in delight.

"I'm going to bring you down, Sheppard," Rodney says.

Always so dramatic, John rolls his eyes. "It's one hit, the game is young. My turn: H-3."

Rodney snorts. "Seriously? What are you, four years old?"

"Are you saying those are bad choices?" John asks with a smirk.

Rodney frowns: he can't say that, being his own calls. "Well no-"

"H-3. Hit or miss?" John interrupts.

"Miss," Rodney says with a sigh. John is pretty sure he can call the next shot, and Rodney doesn't disappoint, continuing his grid instead of trying to sink John's submarine. "C-8."

"Miss." John is about to call C-8 when there's a weird sound coming from the door. Then, audible only if they pay attention, what sounds like knocking.

John and Rodney look at each other because… what? No one knocks to enter the rec room.

"What is it?" Rodney shouts.

"Rodney?" It's Zelenka, voice faint but clear across the door. "Are you okay?"

"Yes! I'm with Sheppard, we're fine. What's going on?"

"Oh! Oh. Sorry for interrupting…"

"What are you talking about? And why aren't you coming in instead of yelling through the door?"

"Because it is locked! That is why I am here: we have had multiple complaints about how the door does not open."

That's really fucking strange. Perplexed, John goes to the door, Rodney on his heels, and it does take a very firm mental command for the door to open. Zelenka is on the other side, hands deep in the control panel, and looks at John in surprise.

"Ah, there it goes. It was just you two?"

"Yeah," John says. "We watched an episode of Twilight Zone, and we'd just started a game of Battleship.”

"How long was the door shut?" Rodney asks. "We didn't realize it was locked."

Radek checks his tablet. "Maybe one hour?"

Huh. That's about the amount of time they've been in there. John makes the door open and close several times.

"It looks fine, now."

"Good," Rodney says, rocking back on his heels. He then turns to John. "Come on, I have a game to win."

John scoffs. "Yeah, right. We'll see about that. Sorry Radek, no idea what happened."

Mako and Dion, who had been waiting by the door, follow them in and race to the air hockey table (well it's not exactly that, but a fairly equivalent Ancient version. It's very popular).

When Rodney and he sit back down to resume their game, John immediately calls C-8 and laughs when Rodney starts bitching. He doesn't care if he doesn't win the game, the show is well worth it.

**

John is doing inventory, chewing on the end of his stylus, when he gets a call.

"Sheppard, can you come to the chair room?"

It's Rodney, and the request has John frowning. They are working on the ventilation system today, and he didn't expect to be called in for reinforcement.

"Is everything okay?"

"Your girl is being difficult, can you come over now?"

"Sure thing, on my way."

Once there he finds a frustrated Rodney and also a frowning Lorne, which is cause for concern.

"What's the problem?"

"Atlantis doesn't power the systems as she should. We need two gene bearers to override a security point – and yes, everything is fine; it's not because of a safety issue – but it didn't work with Peterson in the chair. Nor with Mia who is a natural gene carrier."

"Or with me." Lorne says, and that makes John pause. Evan is the strongest natural carrier they have after himself, and if he can't do it, there could be a problem.

John walks to the chair and sits down. Atlantis connects immediately and the blue glow envelops him with the familiar enquiry undertones. She's generally very eager to please.

"What do you need me to ask?"

Rodney shoves a tablet in his face. "I want power in those sectors and for her to unlock the grid when I ask her at my end."

The beauty of mind-controlled tech is that the response is almost immediate. John asks, and suddenly all the right sectors light up on the map as Atlantis makes a great imitation of a purring cat in his head, mild yellow.

John taps the chair's armrest. "That's my good girl."

"Typical," Rodney says with an eye roll. It sounds fonder than annoyed, though.

John tries to convey to Atlantis that she needs to listen to Lorne and Rodney, and she turns back to blue. The equivalent of "All systems ready" in Ancient appears on the control and John scoffs. She can be a little cheeky, sometimes.

He won't lie; he likes being special for Atlantis. If he smirks a little bit at her playing favorites again, well, he can't help it.

***

Several days later, John goes on a mission with Lorne's team: they suspect that they'd need to show a little firepower to a group of mercenaries who have started to harass a village of allies. They want to enroll the teens, maybe even by force, and just don't understand the meaning of the word 'no'. Nothing impresses more than a fully loaded puddlejumper appearing out of thin air; it's John's favorite trick, so he insisted on doing it himself.

The showdown went without a hitch, and now John takes a moment to rest under a tree, looking for shade. He feels queasy again and needs to go to the infirmary to find something stronger than Maalox. He hopes he doesn't have stomach or liver problems, which would suck. John suspects he might have eaten something weird, but it's been getting worse at the weirdest times.

"You know, sir," Lorne says as he joins him, throwing John a water bottle that he accepts gratefully. "I think Atlantis is starting to play favorites.”

"I've always been the favorite," John says with a shrug. It's just how things are.

"Of course. But tasks that I used to do perfectly fine on my own are sluggish at best if you are on base, but if you are off-world with your team, it's fine. I am afraid that it might become a security issue."

It's worrying indeed.

"I'm sure that if I was incapacitated, she would defer to an able individual."

"What about... you know, what happened when the aliens took control of Dr. Weir and you?"

"Possession? I sure hope that won't happen again." Lorne is right, though, Atlantis did obey Thalan that one time.

"Maybe you could..." Lorne makes a face.

"Reprogram her? I can't control Atlantis," John says. He can input basic commands, may it be directing a flight or when she needs to defend herself, but Atlantis has a mind of her own.

"Fix some parameters and nudge her in the right direction, maybe?" Lorne suggests.

"I see what you mean." It's reasonable, and he'll look into it with Rodney.

He drinks his water, frustrated that it doesn't calm the fire in his stomach, when something dawns on John. "You waited until we were out of Atlantis to talk to me, did you?"

"I might be paranoid, but she reads minds." Lorne says with a shrug.

Which... okay, fair point.

"Are we done, here?" John asks.

"Yes, sir," Lorne says.

"Okay, let's go home."

When they get back, Woolsey is in the jumper bay, frowning.

"Colonel, we have to talk," he says, turning around and walking briskly towards his office.

"What is it?"

Woolsey pauses and looks around, as if he's afraid to be overheard.

"Atlantis started acting out when you left. Whatever we tried to do that meant interacting with the city's systems only worked on the third try."

"What? How widespread was it?"

"Communications, transporters, basic equipment, all of it. No one managed to even turn on a puddlejumper, let alone make it fly. Atlantis kept trying to open the gate to the planet where you were."

That's a real fucking problem.

"Did McKay look into it? Maybe it's a virus." John needs to know how screwed they are ASAP.

"McKay is in the infirmary," Woolsey says as they enter his office.

"What?" John exclaims, and Woolsey leans back slightly, startled.

Before he can explain what happened, Rodney barges in. His eyes are a little wild with panic and he's totally disheveled.

"What the ever-loving fuck!" Rodney says, breathing hard. It must be bad because he rarely swears.

"Are you okay?" John asks, scanning him from head to toe. He doesn't look injured.

Rodney swears again, then continues on his momentum and doesn't stop until he reaches John. He grips John's uniform sleeves and drops his forehead on John's shoulder.

"Do not move," he mumbles. "Give me a second."

John might be panicking a little bit because... What the fuck? He doesn’t know where to put his hands, and he's rapidly getting flustered the more the almost-hug continues. He would very much like to know what is going on.

"It seems that the migraine that started when you left disappeared just as you came back," Rodney offers as an explanation.

Rodney's been having headaches? It's the first he’s heard about it. Immediately, John thinks about how he's been feeling sick, too, generally when he's far from Rodney... Could Atlantis be trying to play matchmaker? Is his crush is so obvious that he's been found out by a city? But then again, she does have access to his thoughts.

Woolsey's got his thinking face on. "It's as if she's trying to keep you both at hand."

That explanation would fit with Lorne's theory about Atlantis playing favorites. John has the strongest gene and Rodney believes he can fix whatever is wrong if needs be. It might sound conceited, but the two of them are indeed an essential part of the crew.

John really hopes that what's going on is based on who's best for running the city, and not because Atlantis is trying to make them hook up. Rodney doesn't reciprocate, anyway, so it would be pointless.

Whatever is going on, Atlantis needs a good talking to.

"I'll go in the chair," John says.

"What, you'll ground the city?" Rodney asks, picking his head up to throw him a disbelieving glare. He's close, very close, and John can see the lines of tension on his face. The migraine must have been a bad one, and that can't be tolerated.

"Something like that."

John briskly walks to the chair room, and he doesn't wait for a second, he immediately sits down. Atlantis pulses as they connect, extra pleased to see him, and as always the feeling of communion remains a rush, like a siren call, but he can't be swayed, or distracted from what he came to say, or, more appropriately, think. He refrains from his usual mental pat in return and Atlantis' mood turns questioning.

As clear and direct as he can, John forms the thought:

Never. Ever. Hurt. Rodney.

The feeling that immediately flashes back isn't guilt, it's outrage. Orange in his mind, it shivers under his skin.

John continues. You do not toy with people. Do not get in the way. Do not shock people. Do not play with the temperature. Do not lock us together in a room. Do not interfere.

The communication turns to red, angry.

Always answer to someone with a gene. Not just me. Immediately. he persists.

It's pulsing red, now, as if he's reaching the limit of Atlantis' patience. They are on the razor's edge for a second, and then everything goes dark. Atlantis has shut down, not only the mental link but the power in the chair and everything around them, too, and John gapes, both surprised that she went there and absolutely fuming himself. It's like dealing with a teenager, even if she's millions of years old.

In the chair room – and possibly everywhere else – all controls and systems have switched down to their emergency levels. The lights have dropped, the ventilation is at a minimum and John doesn’t want to play that game. He gets up from the chair, convinced he should not give in.

Rodney walks into the room, and judging from the time it took for him to react, he must have been right outside of the door.

"What the hell? What did you do?" he asks, immediately accusatory.

Without waiting for John's answer he goes to the chair. John wants to tell him to stay far away while Atlantis finishes her tantrum because he's convinced it's temporary, that she'll come around eventually. When Rodney touches the chair, it comes back to life.

“Hey, hey, it's fine. I don't know what Colonel Grumpypants said, but it's okay. Just give us the power back," Rodney says, petting the armrest.

She does, and Rodney coos. "Good, that's good."

John rolls his eyes and leaves. He'll deal with Atlantis later.

***

"This, I haven't missed," Rodney yells, as they dodge staff blasts from the Wraiths, running through one of their hive ships. The intruder alert sirens are flashing and tooting, urging them on.

"Liar!" Ronon says as he turns and shoots, and John can't help the chuckle.

"What?!" Rodney protests.

"We all know you secretly like when a mission goes to hell!" John adds.

"Allows you to save the day," Ronon says with a smile.

"Well there is not much saving the day going on right now, it's more like running for my life. I have no idea why you'd think I enjoy this!"

"Adrenaline," John says. He sure gets a rush himself.

Teyla is waiting for them at the exit they've agreed on.

"The explosives are all set in the hangar," she reports.

"Then let's get out of Dodge!"

They zig-zag between several crates of materiel and Darts pinned down for maintenance, aiming for the exits before everything blows up.

When they get out in the evening air, they have lost their pursuers. It's not like they want to linger, though, and as rapidly as possible they run to their cloaked jumper. John maneuvers it to overlook the valley, and they watch the fireworks destroying the Wraith outpost with huge smiles. There's a hefty dose of adrenaline coursing through his veins, and it's been days since John's felt this great. No belly or stomach ache; life is good.

"Okay. I might enjoy this a little," Rodney says, making them all laugh.

***

Everyday life goes back to normal, and Atlantis doesn't try to lock John and Rodney together even once. She responds lightning-quick to everyone with a gene, but seems to give John the attitude still. When he cannot coax the performances he should get from his puddlejumpers, he goes back to the chair.

They connect instantly, but all is blue. Standoffish. A little orange still.

Look, I'm sorry. Is that's what you want me to say? I was hard on you. But Rodney got hurt and I was scared, angry.

Immediately the connection soothes, the tint magenta or close. But Atlantis obviously wants to communicate more than by moodlight, because characters start flashing in John's head and begin to fill some screens in the room. They are written with the Ancient symbols but are simple enough to decode.

Not Atlantis. Not Atlantis. Not Atlantis.

The message increases in agitation, too, writing faster and faster. Radek, who is in the room with John, tries to type on the terminal, but Atlantis doesn’t stop until John says he understands, and then steps out of the chair. He's perplexed, though. She was malfunctioning: the way she wasn't responding to him for the last three days is proof of it.

"What happened?" Radek asks.

"I don't know." She sounded honest, truthful. Not deceptive. "She says she's not to blame for what happened lately. Can you double-check for some kind of virus?"

"Will do. But all of the diagnoses we ran in the last couple of days turned out fine."

"Except for when I asked for something."

"Except for that," Radek says with a smirk. "That is what happens when you get in a fight with your lady."

John doesn't say that he's never felt like Atlantis' favorite in that way. When they got here she was relived to finally have someone to awaken her. Then, as they worked together, she started responding more and more, and over the years she has begun to feel more like a child or a sibling.

"Tell me if you find anything," John says.

"Of course, Colonel."

John pats the doorframe as he exits. They'll fix whatever is wrong.

***

Gun requalification is surprisingly popular with the scientists. Some of them are even pretty gifted at gun handling and target shooting, which makes his Marines extra-competitive (John won't argue with what gives results). Even Rodney got into it over the years. He's not good, not really, but he's decent enough, and he knows how to handle every firearm they keep. Everyone gets to practice on most of the arsenal, even the Wraith stunners they've collected over the years. There's just Ronon who still won't share his gun, but no one call him on it.

John leans against the back wall as Rodney does the Beretta qual. Rodney's form is almost perfect as he fires on his target, and the focus he displays as he aims is pretty hot; John won't lie. He's in a thin white t-shirt and BDU pants that hug his frame just right, and it's possible that John's eyes wander from what he's supposed to observe. He snaps out of it only when Rodney turns to him with a crooked grin, calling his target close.

"Let's look at this," John says.

The shots are grouped, all deadly in center mass and one to the middle of the face for good measure. John whistles; it's a marked improvement from six months ago.

"Have you been practicing?" he asks.

"Chris gave me a couple of pointers," Rodney answers.

John can't help the flash of hurt, because if Rodney needed tips, he would have helped. And then he realizes that Chris can only be Lieutenant Cafferty, one of the second to last wave of Marines. He's gorgeous, stupidly endearing and not shy about making his interest known to women and men alike. From what John heard – Lorne is the biggest gossip – Cafferty has slept with half the base and is still friendly with everyone, somehow.

"Lieutenant Cafferty," John says to confirm.

He can't help the frown. Did Chris hit on Rodney, too? He hopes he doesn’t have a harassment problem on his hands.

Rodney nods. "Yes. Cute and knows it, but somehow manages not to be obnoxious about it?"

John grunts but his mind is reeling. Could Rodney be less straight than John thought all of these years? Chris is a blue-eyed blond, though, which only proves that Rodney has a type.

Acting jealous won't give him anything, so John tries humor. "How did he get you to train? I need pointers."

Rodney scoffs. "He disguised it as a date. Sneaky, I have to give him that."

John's jaw almost unhinges and Rodney reddens, taking it the wrong way.

"As you know, this is an international mission. Don't you dare give him trouble."

"I wouldn't do that!" John protests. He's still processing that Rodney is bisexual, and that may be why he blurts out his next sentence. "It would be pretty hypocritical of me, anyway."

John immediately turns around, hoping he's not beet red. He takes his Para-Ordnance, puts on his earmuffs and aims, trying to escape this conversation. Unfortunately, Rodney doesn't go away (of course he doesn't), and when John has emptied his clip and cannot avoid it anymore, he turns to see Rodney observing him like a good equation. He expects a comment, maybe being asked flat out what he meant, but once again Rodney surprises him.

"Let's go eat," Rodney says, dropping the subject.

And that is that, for now.

***

The residents of M78-567, or Nomani as they call it, are long-time partners. They mine Naquadah, which makes them strategic allies, and John thanks the universe every day that, for the moment, they're definitely on their side. They don't deal with the Genii, and the Wraiths haven't culled them in two generations. They are doing everything so it stays that way.

The Nomani people drive a hard bargain but are honest and quite friendly when you've earned their trust. The mayor of Bila, the town that is adjacent to the main mining site in operation, is a middle-aged man called Koren that John would not call a close friend, but is a fun acquaintance. Koren is curious about all things Ancient, and John is convinced that he would be an archeologist on Earth. Each time they visit, John brings a couple of Ancient doohickeys: it costs them all but nothing and makes for a fun afternoon while Rodney goes down in the mine to help the Nomanis improve their process and survey production. Of course, John never lets Rodney go by himself, Ronon acts as a shadow, but by now the arrangement is routine, and they never had an incident.

It's probably because of that false sense of security that John is taken by surprise when he starts feeling very bad shortly after dinner. Due to his recent stomachaches, John had a complete check-up the day before and got a clean bill of health.

John excuses himself from turning on and off an Ancient music box for Koren, who has eyes as large as saucers, to go to the bathroom. With every step he's feeling worse and worse; he's feeling hot all over, his stomach is cramping and he has an overwhelming desire to throw up. He's half convinced that he's been poisoned – feels like nerve agent or something - when he calls Teyla, one hand on his radio and the other on his gun as he slumps in a corner of the room.

"Teyla, meet me at the south sanitary block, right now," he orders, biting back a moan of pain.

"I am on my way, Colonel," she answers immediately, which reassures John a little. Teyla sounds fine; maybe he just ate something bad.

"Sheppard, we're coming up, something's wrong with McKay," follows on the coms. It's Ronon, and his tone is clipped, which means he's either pissed, scared or both.

This sends a chill down John's spine. That's it, the Nomanis turned. Or maybe it's because Rodney and he have the Ancient gene? Teyla appears, her P-90 at the ready, and kneels at his side, visibly worried.

"John? What is wrong?"

"I feels like I'm going to pass out," he says, though the urge to puke has passed. Maybe he should do it anyway, and expel whatever he ate or drank. He doesn't have any ATNAA, nothing, and he feels helpless.

Teyla helps him get up, and when Koren appears in the doorway, looking concerned, John hisses, trying to get to his sidearm.

"Mayor, could you please stand back? We're going to the ring of the Ancestors," Teyla says, tone cool but not aggressive.

"Are you sick?" Koren asks, but then he notices the guns and whitens. "Did something happen?"

"I don't know, why don't you tell me?" John says through gritted teeth.

Koren frowns, completely bewildered. Then he gets it and his mouth opens in shock. "How can you even think..."

"We're in the elevator," Ronon says. "We'll be up in five."

In the background, John can hear Rodney whine, "That's it; I'm dying, oh god!"

"Meet us at the gate," Teyla says, starting to drag John towards the door. Karen steps back to clear the way, hands rising reflexively.

"Doctor McKay is sick too? He asks, puzzled. "How? Why?"

John is starting to feel a little better, and it seems more and more likely that if there is a ploy to take them down, Koren isn't involved.

"I have no idea." John very much would like to know, though, and catch the perpetrator.

"Could you please make sure no one approaches our friends?" Teyla asks.

"Yeah, Ronon can be a little trigger-happy when stressed," John adds.

"Of course, of course. We'll make light of this, Colonel, you have my word," Koren says, jogging towards the mine's entry.

He hopes whoever is behind this won't try to take Koren down, too. It wouldn't the first time that an elected official would fall when there's a putsch.

John relies on Teyla to guide him at first, his guts tied in knots so painful that it makes everything hazy, but the pain starts to lessen as they approach the gate.

"Where are you, Ronon?" Teyla asks as John leans on the DHD and takes deep breaths.

"We're up, getting out of the mine right now," Ronon says.

"Let me down, you big oaf!" Rodney says in the background.

"Seems like McKay is doing better," Ronon adds, drawl almost back, and John sags in relief.

"Rodney, status report," John orders.

"I'm better; headache becoming more manageable by the second. I have no idea what fresh hell this was," he says.

Instead of dialing out to get back to the base, John starts walking towards the mining site, Teyla by his side.

"You seem better, too," she says, tone speculative.

"Yes, lots," he says, distracted.

In fact, as soon as he sees Rodney appear, still guided by Ronon who has a hand on his bicep and his gun at the ready making the Nomanis back away, John feels perfectly fine. He jogs to them, and grabs Rodney's head, peering into his eyes to check for signs of pain.

"You good?" he asks.

Rodney's eyes are clear blue, no strain. The only sign he wasn't okay is that he doesn't try to get out of John's grip in annoyance but sort of pushes into the touch. He has a hand hooked on John's tac vest, the other squeezing one of John's forearms reassuringly.

"Yes. It was like the other week, but ten times worse."

"Huh."

Like on Atlantis, when Rodney was hurt, and it got better when John came back. But they are not in the city, and they didn't even bring a puddlejumper today, so it can't be her influence. Not Atlantis. Not Atlantis. she has said.

Reluctantly, John lets Rodney go.

"What the fuck?" he murmurs, completely baffled by the whole thing.

"My thought exactly," Rodney says.

"It felt like I was shot in the gut," John says. "I'm fine now."

Immediately Rodney looks alarmed. "You were in pain too?"

"Yes."

"How long as this been going on?" Ronon asks.

"I don't know, a couple of weeks? But never as bad as today," John says.

"It's worse when we're far apart," Rodney says, turning around to stare at the mine. "I don't want to risk an aneurism in going back down there, but why don't you go take a walk while I stay here?"

"You want to test this?" John asks.

"We have to, sooner rather than later."

True, it's a security risk.

"I agree with Rodney," Teyla says. "I will go reassure Koren."

Koren, with several other Nomanis, are indeed keeping their distance while looking on anxiously. John feels bad for snapping at him, but he was not in his right mind. He nods at Teyla and does a thumbs up at Koren, with a smile. He'll apologize himself later.

"Okay, let's do this. I'm not risking going through the gate separately and being billions of kilometers away; it might make my head explode," Rodney says.

John shivers at the idea, and thanks god they stepped in the puddle together to come here today.

"Fine. Ronon, stay with him." Making sure to catch Rodney's eyes, he adds, "You radio me as soon as you feel anything."

"And you do the same. No stoic business."

"Okay."

With that, John turns around, and immediately, when he doesn't have his eyes on Rodney, it feels wrong. Not that it hurts, not yet, but his instinct asks him to turn, to check if he's okay. He wonders if that goes both ways, too.

"Are you looking at me?" John asks.

"He always loves watching you go," Ronon jokes. Which... what?

"Shut up," Rodney says as Ronon chuckles. "Yes, I am, why?"

"I wanna test something. Turn around for a sec,"

Rodney hums. "Interesting. Doesn't hurt, but... Go on."

John starts walking towards the gate. He doesn't feel sick right away, but now that he's actively looking for the signs, he can feel an unpleasant fluttery feeling in his stomach. It's something he'd felt several times back on Atlantis lately, but he had brushed aside as inconsequential, something weird that he ate. In fact, he had blamed the new milk because he'd made a habit to drink some at night, and the feeling was worse in the night or early morning. When he hadn't seen Rodney in a while. As John walks, the feeling intensifies.

"Rodney?" he asks.

"There's pressure building behind my eyes," he replies. "When I turned around to see you it got better."

John doesn't know what to say. Instead of going straight to the gate, which is in Rodney's line of sight, he bifurcates in a side street. Immediately he feels queasy. It's not pain, not yet, but he knows it's coming.

"Okay, that's it, come back. I don't need another headache today," Rodney says.

He agrees; it's pointless to continue this experiment when the conclusions are this obvious. John jogs back to his friends, and each step he takes makes him feel better. Physically at least, because he's starting to freak out. By the looks of it, Rodney is shaken too.

"What the hell is going on?" John asks.

"I have no idea," Rodney says, frowning. "It's obviously triggered by distance, and it's getting worse."

Teyla walks back to them. "Koren says that he is happy that you both are feeling better. He agrees it was suspect that you both were sick at the same time and is not offended by the way we reacted. He hopes we know the Nomanis have nothing to do with it."

"I'll go talk to him," John says.

Rodney's mouth pulls down. "I'm sure he gets it."

Rodney has always irrationally disliked Koren.

"I shall ask if anyone has heard tales of a similar situation," Teyla says.

"No specifics, please," John asks. "It's an insane security risk, and it could be used against us."

"Of course," she agrees with a nod.

"I'll look into it, too," Ronon says.

John sees that a couple of Nomani officials are still looking their way, so he decides to go smooth things out.

"I'll be right back," he says.

John approaches Koren, and is reassured when he gets a small smile and concern instead of scorn.

"How are you, Colonel?"

"A lot better, thank you," he says. "Sorry about earlier."

"Do you know what happened?" Koren asks.

"Frankly? No," John says. "I should not have accused..."

"No, no, I understand," Koren says. "You were in pain, and I heard Doctor McKay was too, at the same time. Anyone would have been suspicious."

"As far as I know, it has nothing to do with you, so again I am sorry if we jumped to conclusions."

"Has it happened before?" Koren asks, looking speculative. "I could not help but notice what you just did..."

John could deny, try to control the information that is definitely putting them in danger if it gets to the wrong people, but he trusts the guy. With his love of Ancient culture, maybe he's heard of something similar.

"We felt as if something was wrong when we're apart lately, but not as strong. It's getting more intense. Do you have any idea what is going on?"

"I've heard of a ritual that binds soulmates together," Koren says and John almost chokes on his spit.

"Soulmates?”

Koren has a wry smile. "Yes. I remember my grandmother speaking of a world that had a ritual to bind lovers together if they were meant to be. My cousins used to play at it, as if it was the quintessence of romantic love."

"Do you know where that ritual was from? What triggered it? How to stop it?" If it's an Ancient gizmo, John might be able to reverse the damage.

"I don't remember much; I was young when my grandmother passed. I need to ask, maybe one of my cousins would know more. If I remember correctly, the soulmate link was rare, but celebrated as sacred. I also heard about a great tragedy where soulmates were separated by the ring of the Ancestors, or the Wraiths."

It's a nice folktale, but John doesn't know how to take it. Or how to get out of this mess.

"Does it have to be, you know, romantic?" John asks, extremely uncomfortable. "Rodney and I, we're very good friends but that's it." At least for Rodney, because given a chance, John wouldn't say "no" to more.

"I wish I knew, Colonel."

"Thanks for the info." It's not much, but at least it's the start of something to explain this.

"Thank you. And again, I'm sorry for earlier. I was in so much pain I couldn't think straight."

"And I suppose that Doctor McKay being in pain, too, didn't help," Koren says teasingly, and John scoffs. He's happy he didn't make a diplomatic faux pas with partners as important as the Nomanis, but that doesn't mean he likes being poked where he's vulnerable.

"Stop it, or I won't bring you fun stuff next time," John warns.

Koren raises his hands in mock surrender. "I said nothing."

"We will come back soon; sorry about the shortened visit," John says.

"Not a problem, I understand."

John makes the hand signal of rounding everyone up, as it's time to go home.

"What did he say?" Ronon asks when they regroup around the DHD.

"We'll debrief on Atlantis." John already cringes at the idea of putting the soulmates idea on the table.

"Fine." Rodney says.

Teyla dials home, and when John and Rodney step into the puddle, it's side by side (like usual, to be honest.).

***

( Cut my feelings to the bone - Part 2 of 2 )
Tags: genre: slash, pairing: mckay/sheppard
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