Author's notes: This story was directly inspired by the short story The Many Faces of Radek Zelenka by James, which I unfortunately can no longer find on the internet. The story is about Radek Zelenkas from many different universes and is a lot of fun, but one of the many nifty alternate universes she described grabbed me particularly, and this story was the result.
(What I didn't know is that the au that inspired me is also a multi-fandom series. My story has nothing to do with James' series beyond the obvious ::g::, but you can find the Atlantis part of the series here.)
Squeaky did an alpha read for me, which was extremely helpful and terrifically kind.
(The wonderful cover is by Severusslave, with many thanks!)
The first time John Sheppard allowed himself to show anyone what he truly was, he was in the Pegasus galaxy, and he had just shot his commanding officer to keep him from getting his life sucked out by a Wraith.
John had spent his whole life hiding his real self, doing things the way everyone else did, and he hadn't expected that to change, not ever. He'd certainly been prepared to carry out the rescue mission--Giant space ship, evil, gothic aliens and all--using C-4 and big guns and his totally unexpected ability to make Ancient technology do whatever he wanted just by thinking about it. It had been all he'd needed too, until he'd been knocked out and captured, and then suddenly hiding his real self wasn't an option anymore. Not if he wanted to live long enough to get Ford and the prisoners out.
So he changed, for the third time in his whole life, and used the surprise and his new size and strength to kick the Wraith bitch to death, then pulled a very stunned Ford (who apparently had a problem with following orders) onto his back and ran back to the prisoners, to lead them out of the ship.
John had figured he'd switch back to his human form before he got to the cells, take Ford aside later and ask him not to let anyone know what John could do. Ford seemed like a cool guy, and like he could be discreet when he had to, so he was pretty sure Ford wouldn't betray his secret.
But somehow John didn't actually switch back, and he ended up at a slow gallop, carrying two Athosians and watching the Marines' eyes get wider and wider as he approached, and then it was far too late to ask anyone to keep secrets, and it was just a matter of time before Weir knew, and then all of Atlantis, and John would never, ever be able to pretend he was normal again.
At first, at the welcoming party for the Athosians, it looked like Weir thought he was just upset about Sumner's death, and that was why he was being so quiet. But she had a whole bunch of newly-refugeed Athosians to make nice with, not to mention the entire mission team to worry about, so John was sure he wasn't a priority and that suited him just fine. Ford seemed to have gotten over his initial shock, and was treating John the way he had from before they'd gone through the gate back at the SGC, which was great, and Teyla just did her friendly forehead-touching thing as if she saw people who could change form all the time. And who knew--maybe she did. Or maybe after a lifetime of waiting for vampiric monsters to attack, nothing much surprised her anymore. Whatever it was, John was just as happy for it. The other Marines who had come with him on the rescue mission still seemed a little spooked, but they all 'yes, sir'd' him with enough respect that John thought that they would eventually be okay with it, too. He was beginning to think it would all blow over, that he'd just give it a few weeks, and everyone would forget, and he'd just be very, very sure never to change again and it would all be fine. Part of him regretted it, sure—-it'd been excellent, being able to let go for a few minutes, to just be for nearly the first time in his life. He was going to miss that. But on the other hand, he'd been walking on just two feet for a very long time.
Then Jinto ran up to him while he was leaning on the balcony, having a nice conversation with Weir.
The kid jiggled his arm, looking up at him with bright, expectant eyes. "Can you do it again, Sheppard? Please? Become the running animal? I want to see it!"
"Not now," John said, speaking softly through clenched teeth, hoping Weir wouldn't notice. "I'm kind of busy."
"Please?" Jinto insisted. "Please can I see the running animal?"
"Jinto..!" John hissed, but it was too late, and now Weir was looking at him, smiling quizzically.
"Running animal?" She asked. "What is he talking about?"
"Nothing," John said, trying for one of his easy smiles. His heart was beating so fast he was amazed Weir couldn't hear it. He yanked his arm out of Jinto's grasp, too worried to be gentle. "It's just a game."
Jinto's face fell. "But my father said--"
"Not now!" John snapped. "Sorry," he said to Weir, who was looking at him like he was probably insane and a complete bastard to boot. "I, uh... I think I need a drink. You want something to drink?" He winced inwardly, but kept his smile as big and genuine and as relaxed as he could, hoping he was actually managing it.
Weir just held up her silver mug. She raised an eyebrow.
"Right. Just me, then." John pushed away from the balcony railing, fully expecting that Jinto would trail after him, still pleading to see the 'running animal.' John was thinking that maybe he could duck into one of the corridors, give the kid a quick show before he ran bawling to his dad or something and made the situation even worse.
But John turned and nearly banged into Ford.
"Sir," Ford said, face deadly serious, "she needs to know, Sir."
Weir had moved so that she was standing in front of them both, now, looking confused and concerned. "What?" She asked. She stared hard at John, putting her hand on his shoulder so he'd be forced to look at her. "What do I need to know?"
John took a breath, ducking his head and covering his eyes with his fingers, as if that could let him hide for just a moment. He'd been so fucking stupid, to think it wasn't all going to come crashing down so fast. He looked up, meeting Weir's eyes.
"It's okay, sir," Ford said. John looked at him then, and Ford gave him an encouraging nod, clapped him on the arm. He grinned. "It was pretty cool."
"What is it, John?" Weir asked him. Her eyes were wide and very dark, and he wanted to trust her so badly, to know that it was going to be all right.
He swallowed. God, he didn't have a choice, anyway, did he? He'd been so fucking stupid, and now it was all going to hell. He wondered what she'd do to him—-exile him to some far part of the city? Send him to an uninhabited planet and put the shield up behind him?
"John," Weir said, her face and voice intense. "Tell me. Please."
"All right," John said. "All right." He rubbed his hand over his face. He took another breath, then another, trying to get calm. "You, uh, you might want to stand back."
Weir blinked and looked at Ford, who nodded. She followed him a few healthy paces back, pulling Jinto with them.
"Okay," John said. Then he closed his eyes and changed.
Even before he opened his eyes he could hear Jinto's astonished gasp, Weir's cup clanging against the metal floor. The sound seemed to create its own wake of silence, rippling out from the balcony until the entire large room was completely quiet. And John knew they were all looking at him.
"Oh my god," Weir said quietly, and John opened his eyes.
He was looking down at her from a much higher vantage point now, and he saw that she'd taken another few steps back, which saddened him but didn't surprise him much. Ford was smiling warmly at him, though, and Jinto was looking up at him with wide, happy eyes.
"The running animal!" Jinto exclaimed.
"It's... You..." Weir was visibly containing her shock, but she hadn't moved towards him yet. John found himself wishing she would, that she would stop looking so scared. "You're a horse."
"Centaur," John corrected thickly. He was stepping back and forth, hooves making small clanging noises against the balcony floor. He knew it was from anxiety, the animal part of him wanting to whirl and run. His ears would be flicking back and forth if they hinged that way. He crossed his arms defensively over his chest.
"Holy fuck." Oh god, that was McKay, pushing his way through the crowd, still chewing on something. "Holy fuck. You're a horse."
"Centaur," John said again. He started pawing at the floor with a fore hoof, stopped it with an effort. "I'm a centaur. Not a horse."
McKay pushed his way between Ford and a still shocked-looking Weir, so he could stare along John's flank. "Wow. Your body's the same color as your head." He put his hand on John's massive horse shoulder, and John tried not to flinch. "Wow. How tall are you like this, anyway?"
"I don't know," John ground out. "I've never checked."
"All of us were astonished to see such a thing," Teyla said, approaching John now. She looked curiously at Weir. "But I thought this was common among your people. This is not so?"
Weir made a small sound like a strangled laugh. "No. No, not at all. In fact, this is the first time I've ever seen anything like this." She shook her head. "I had no idea that this was even possible."
"It shouldn't be," McKay said quietly. He still had his hand on the shoulder of John's foreleg, rubbing a little bit. It was strangely comforting, and John focused on that, while everyone else was staring at him. "This shouldn't be possible. It goes against everything we know about biology, physics..." He looked up at John's face. "How are you doing this?"
"I don't know," John said, probably more harshly than he should have. "I just do it, okay?"
"And you... You've always been able to do this?" Weir asked. She finally moved closer to him, and John allowed himself to feel a little relieved because of it. "There wasn't anything about this in your file."
John laughed, sharp and bitter, but it was McKay who answered.
"Right," McKay said. "Because the Air Force wouldn't have any problem with a pilot who can turn into a horse."
"Centaur," John sighed.
"Centaur. Right," McKay said. And patted John's shoulder as if in apology, and the heavy slap of McKay's palm was strangely comforting, too.
"Fair enough," Weir said. She flattened her lips, obviously thinking, and John's human heart dropped right to the center of his equine body, while he imagined exile, or confinement, or worst of all--quiet distrust and never being able to fly again. But then Weir nodded, and gave him one of her rare, true smiles, and held out her hand, reaching upward so he could take it. "You've already more than proved yourself, Major," she said. "I have a feeling that your... unique abilities will continue to be a great benefit to Atlantis."
There was still a certain wariness in her eyes, but she was smiling and holding out her hand, and it could have been so very much worse.
"Thank you," John said formally, taking her hand. "I'll do my best." Weir returned his grip strongly and didn't pull away, and John started thinking that maybe it was going to be okay after all.
Weir's smile turned a little apologetic, and she let go of his hand. "You can turn back now," she said. "I think we've all seen everything we need to."
"Sure," John said, suddenly feeling kind of embarrassed, like he'd been standing there naked--well, okay, human naked--while everyone was examining him. He switched back gratefully.
"Where do your pants go?" McKay asked. He seemed to realize that his hand was now resting on John's hip, still gently rubbing, and he whipped it back like it was on fire. "Why don't they rip, or something?"
"I don't know," John sighed. Actually, he had a theory, but he didn't want to get into it now.
"What do you mean, 'you don't know?'" McKay sounded astonished, maybe even vaguely horrified. "They're your clothes..!"
Weir put her hand on McKay's back, and he turned to look at her. "Why don't we give him some space?" Weir said, in a voice that suggested it was anything but a question. "This has been a huge discovery for all of us."
"But--!" McKay protested, then caught a look at John's narrowed eyes and relented. "Fine. Don't let me stand in the way of your relentless pursuit of ignorance." He stalked off, muttering something about lemons and the buffet table.
John grinned, he couldn't help it. Yeah, things were probably going to be okay.
"Don't you eat?"
"Not when I'm not hungry," John said, turning to look blandly at McKay. They were both on the balcony nearest the gateroom. John was leaning with his forearms on the railing, staring out at the seemingly endless ocean. He had come out here to be alone--obviously that wasn't going to work. "Something I can do for you, McKay?" He asked pointedly, hoping McKay would get the hint and leave him alone.
McKay, of course, either ignored the hint or missed it entirely. "How could you not be hungry?" McKay asked, sounding like the very idea was inconceivable. "You've got that huge horse-body and a human-sized stomach. You should be hungry all the time."
"I only need to eat for this body when I'm in my normal form," John said. "I have a regular appetite like everyone else."
"Not everyone, obviously," McKay snorted. Then his expression changed and he was looking at John quizzically. "Is this your normal form? I mean," he explained, when John looked at him, startled, "how do you know it's not your hor--your centaur form? Or can you choose, or something?"
John blinked. He'd never actually thought of that. "I was born with just the two legs, if that's what you mean." He shrugged. "I guess I always just assumed that the human form was like the default."
"Huh," McKay grunted, apparently thinking about that. "Are either of your parents centaurs?"
"Yeah," John nodded. "My mom. I never saw her in her centaur form, though. She just told me when I was a kid." And emphasized how desperately important it was that no one ever, ever know that he wasn't the same as everyone else, not even his father. She had driven that warning home so effectively that even years after he knew he could change, he had been too frightened to try it.
McKay nodded, as if that was only what he'd expected to hear. "And if, say, she'd been a centaur when she'd given birth—-would you have still been born just as a human?"
John turned away from the balcony, facing McKay, trying not to gape. He had this sudden image of his mother dropping him like a foal in a field somewhere, and it was really unpleasant. "I don't know," he said. "And could we not talk about this? I don't really feel like sharing birth stories, thanks."
"Oh," McKay said, sounding a little chagrined. "Sorry."
"Thank you," John said. He turned back to the view of the ocean, wishing he could drop his forehead against the cool rail, but he didn't want to have to deal with McKay's reaction to that.
"You okay?" McKay asked him suddenly. "Do you want a Power Bar, or something?"
John was about to say no automatically, but he was hungry, he just hadn't wanted to face everyone in the mess hall; after the day he'd had, the idea of people staring at him--or worse, asking questions--was more than he wanted to deal with.
Of course, McKay was both asking questions and staring at him, but it wasn't really so bad. Maybe because John knew he could tell McKay to fuck off any time he wanted, and the man would probably bitch and moan but he'd actually leave. There was a certain freedom in that, which was almost as good as being left alone.
"Sure, thanks," John said, and he didn't even have to force a smile as McKay slapped one of his Power Bars into John's hand.
"It's apple flavor," McKay said, "so you'll probably like it." He smiled innocently.
John smirked as he opened the wrapper. He figured he might as well get used to that kind of ribbing now. "I'm just tired," he said, in response to McKay's other question. "I spent the whole day being tested by Beckett and Patel in the medical lab. I think they've got some kind of secret vampire cult thing going on."
"Yeah," McKay snorted. "It's all voodoo, eh? Let me guess--Patel found out you weren't actually a horse and Beckett discovered that—-who knew-—your test results were the same as before you came to Atlantis?"
"Pretty much," John nodded, taking a bite. He did like apples a lot, but he didn't see any point in telling McKay that. "They took blood from me as a human, then as a centaur, then after I changed back... I had to lie in that damned MRI machine twice, before and after I changed. I think they would have shoved me into it in centaur form, if I would've fit."
McKay shuddered theatrically. "Probably lucky you didn't."
"Yeah." John turned around so that his back was to the ocean, leaning his upper body on the railing. "I know I should have expected it, but it just felt... kind of invasive, you know? Like I was some new toy they'd stumbled across and they just couldn't leave it alone. Patel especially."
McKay nodded in understanding. "Who knows if we'll even find animals out here, let alone ones she'll be able to study. She was probably just thrilled at having something to play with." He put his hand on John's shoulder, patting a bit awkwardly. "If it's any consolation, Elizabeth asked for my advice on a new clause she's adding to our non-disclosure agreements--all the members of the Atlantis expedition have to consent to keep the whole centaur thing secret when we get back."
John blinked again, surprised at how touched he was. He really hadn't expected anyone to be concerned about him, his future. "I hadn't thought about that." Hell, he'd just revealed something that he'd kept secret his entire life to nearly 200 people just the evening before--he wasn't sure all the ramifications had sunk in yet.
"Yes, well," McKay said, smiling. "That was stupid of you, but luckily between Weir's and my skill at handling the minions, your secret will be safe even if we do actually manage to find a zed-PM in the next fifty years." He stopped, considering. "Hey--if you, say, marry Teyla and have kids out here, would all of them be centaurs? Or does it work by Mendelian genetic principles—-?"
"McKay," John growled.
"Right," McKay said, quickly. "Sorry."
McKay was actually quiet, for awhile after that. They both stayed leaning against the railing, with the wind coming over the ocean cooling their backs. John finished his Power Bar and stuffed the wrapper into his pocket. It was nice, having McKay there, John decided, even if it was a small miracle getting him to shut up for more than five--
"Can I see?" McKay asked.
"For fuck's sake, McKay!"
"No, seriously," McKay said, bouncing away from the railing. "Because I'm working out a theory on how you can change body shape so drastically--not to mention the whole pants and boots thing--while keeping consistent with the law of conservation of matter and energy. This is scientifically important."
John rolled his eyes, but stepped away from the railing. "Fine. Just, move back so I don't crush you."
"Yeah, yeah, sure." McKay moved away, obviously excited.
John sighed, and changed, and was looking down at McKay again. He still had on his jacket and shirt, but the night breeze was no longer nearly as cool against the fur on his equine body and the greater heat he was producing. He was instantly starving, as well, but ignored it--he'd be fine once he took on human form again.
"So, I changed. Happy?"
"Ecstatic," McKay said sarcastically. He put his hand on John's front, right where his human flesh melded into the dark brown chest of the horse body. "That is so cool," McKay said, grinning up at John. "It's totally seamless."
"Of course it is," John snapped. He tried not to shiver as McKay's fingers snaked under the edge of his shirt, before they pulled away. "It's not Leggo, McKay—-pieces don't just pop on and off."
"So," McKay said, ignoring the barb. "I think I know what happens to the extra matter and energy when you switch back and forth."
"It goes into a different dimension," John said.
McKay stopped, mouth open. He shut it with a snap of teeth. "Yeah, that's what I was thinking. I just didn't... How did you figure that out?"
"It's not that big a deal," John shrugged, secretly thrilled that he'd gotten one over on McKay again. He liked the idea of making McKay a little off-balance sometimes, of being able to show him he wasn't just some dumb flyboy who could turn into a horse. "There's a lot of evidence from the SGC for alternate realities, right? Why not one full of all the extra matter and stuff? Like socks."
McKay was gaping again. "Socks? You think there's a sock dimension out there? Is there one for spare change, too? One for car keys, maybe?" McKay shook his head. "Socks."
John glared at him, something he thought was nicely emphasized by his greater height. "Forget the socks. But I'm right, aren't I?" He smiled, feeling smug. "The extra matter and energy is stored in another dimension."
"Well, we don't know that--"
"Ha!" John exclaimed gleefully. "You're just jealous that I figured it out first!" He pranced a little bit, kicking up with his front and back feet.
McKay stared at him. "What, you're a Lipizzaner Stallion now? I said it was just a theory, anyway. And you can cut out the horse-is-a-horse crap, Hidalgo. I'm getting a neck cramp." He sounded grumpy.
John just grinned. "Actually," he said. "I think I'll stay like this awhile, thanks." He was feeling better than he had all day, aside from the hunger.
"Fine." McKay shrugged like it was suddenly all the same to him. He walked to John's flank, studying it curiously. "If I cut you on your side, here, would the wound show up on your human body?"
"Don't try it," John snarled warningly. But, "yeah," he said. "At least, I'm pretty sure."
McKay looked back up at his face, surprised. "You've never gotten hurt as a centaur?"
"No," John said testily. "Amazingly enough, I've never had the opportunity to do anything risky as a centaur, okay?" Or much of anything at all, but he didn't bother mentioning that.
McKay had his hand up by his mouth, obviously thinking. "There's an easy way to find out. Hang on." He fumbled in his breast pocket until he pulled out a black sharpie, then uncapped it and held out his hand. "Give me one of your hooves."
"Front or back?"
John thought McKay would just give him a sarcastic reply, but McKay stopped instead, considering that. "Front hoof first."
"Sure," John said. He lifted his right foreleg and McKay took it by the ankle. John watched bemusedly as McKay inked a thick black line on the front of the hoof. His hooves were dark, like the rest of his equine body, but it was just possible to make out the line.
"Okay," McKay said, letting his leg go, "change back."
John did, and was instantly colder and less hungry. He bent over and began untying his right boot before McKay could order him too. He pulled off his sock, and there was a thick black line on the front of his foot.
"Neat," he said.
"Very," McKay nodded. "Okay, switch to horse again."
John didn't bother to correct him, or put his sock and boot back on, since it wouldn't make any difference. He changed. "Which hoof?"
"Left rear," McKay said.
John lifted his leg obediently, only realizing when McKay was marking his hoof that the way McKay was standing would give him a great view of the whole horse-naked thing. John felt a blush creeping up his neck, but tried to ignore it. Maybe McKay would be too intent on marking his hoof to notice anything...
"So," McKay said conversationally. "Not a gelding, eh?"
"No," John said tightly, feeling the hot pulse as his blush went right to his ears. There were definite advantages to wearing pants.
McKay seemed to be taking at least twice as long with his back hoof than he had with the front, and John was considering just pulling his leg out of his hand. "Are you done yet?" He asked testily. "I'd like to get my foot back."
"Would that make you Atlantis' herd stallion, then?" McKay asked, completely ignoring him. McKay had stopped using the sharpie, at least, but he was still standing with his hand around John's ankle.
John had no idea if McKay was joking or not, absolutely no idea. He licked his lips. "If you come to my quarters," he said, "I can show you."
He felt McKay's fingers tighten around his ankle, then let go completely.
"Okay," McKay said quickly, "let's see where that mark ends up."
John changed back, then immediately bent to untie his left boot, trying to hide his embarrassment. McKay had put his hand on his stomach, for Christ's sake, under his shirt—-how could John not have gotten that right?
He was being reckless, that was his problem. Far too reckless and stupid. He's shown everyone he was a centaur and suddenly he was figuring he could make passes at his male colleagues.
Maybe, if he was really, really lucky, McKay would just figure it was a bad joke.
John yanked off his sock, and there was another black line on his left foot. "Wow," he said, staring down at his feet. They were getting very cold.
"Actually, that's pretty disturbing," McKay said, and John's head snapped up, thinking he meant John's come-on, but McKay was still looking at his feet. "Does that mean that if, say, you broke all four of your legs as a centaur, you'd end up with double the fractures on both your human legs?"
"That is disturbing," John said. He had no idea. He started pulling his socks back on. At least it was distracting him from his recent humiliation. He gave a small laugh. "Guess I should be careful doing the centaur thing on missions."
"Yeah, you should," McKay said. He sounded completely serious.
John stepped into his boots, began tying them. "I'll keep that in mind."
"I'm sorry," McKay said, all of a sudden.
John looked up.
"It's not that I don't appreciate it. The offer," McKay said in a rush, "I do. I mean, you're really handsome, and you've got great hair, but I'm--"
"Straight," John finished for him.
"Oh," John said, trying not to be hurt by that. He finished with his boots and unbent, rubbed his mouth, wondering why he was bothering to pursue this. "I... I kind of thought we had a connection."
"We did," McKay said immediately. "I mean, we do. It's just..." He gave a sad little half-shrug. "You're not really my type."
"Oh," John said again. Maybe McKay really did just see him as a dumb flyboy. "What is your type?"
That shrug again, even sadder. "Humans."
John told himself he would never switch to his centaur form again, after that.
He actually kept that promise for awhile. Even when they were on missions, even when he probably shouldn't have. Being able to gallop away from the containment unit would have made it safer to play bait when the energy-sucking creature was roaming around the city, and if he'd been in his centaur form, he might never have run into that Wraith-bug that nearly killed him. He knew it was useless, that Rodney wouldn't forget that John could change, even if he never did it again, but part of him—-optimistic and reckless and stupid—-couldn't drop the vain hope that if he never changed again, Rodney would want him. And John really wanted Rodney to want him. But he wasn't human, so Rodney wasn't interested.
He'd never figured Rodney to be prejudiced. But then, John was pretty sure Rodney had never expected to meet anyone who could instantly switch from two legs to four, either.
Not changing was harder than John had thought it would be, which was surprising, considering he'd spent the vast majority of his life that way. But he didn't want to give it up, now that he'd admitted he could do it. Didn't want to deny himself anymore.
But all the same, John didn't change again until their plan to capture a Wraith nearly went belly-up, and Teyla had run off to fight the Wraith squad leader entirely on her own. As it was, he reached her in his centaur form just as the Wraith got the upper hand and threw her to the ground. John didn't want to think about what might have happened if he'd followed Teyla in his human form, except that he might have been too late.
After that mission, John decided he wasn't going to worry about being a centaur. Just about everyone on Atlantis seemed to have accepted it, made their 'wow' noises and gone on with their lives, and if anyone hadn't, well, John didn't know about it and he didn't want to care. It was an asset, like his ATA gene or Ford's knowledge of explosives, and they had few enough assets here that John couldn't afford not to use his just because it made Rodney uncomfortable.
And Rodney couldn't have been all that uncomfortable, really, because he hadn't refused to join John's exploration team, even though John had been sure he would. In fact, Rodney had been all-too thrilled to work with John apparently, centaur and all. And if John didn't entirely understand that, he was privately too happy to care. And right after joining John's team, Rodney had received an artificial ATA gene, and had gone to John to test the Ancient shield device, no one else. And Rodney had seemed gratifyingly concerned when the Wraith-bug was chewing on John's neck, too. So maybe, despite John being so different, he and Rodney still had that connection, they were still friends.
They would just never be more than friends. John figured he could live with that. It was just that he wished he didn't have to.
John galloped down the length of the corridor, going flat out, pushing his legs, his two hearts and two sets of lungs, as hard and as fast as he could. It was exhilarating, especially the part where he had to stop at the t-junctions at either end before he smashed into a wall.
It looked like this time he'd pushed himself a little too fast and hard, and even skidding on all four hooves, there was no way he was going to be able to stop in time. And that wall looked like it was really, really going to hurt.
In desperation, John switched to human form, hoping the loss of mass would help slow him down. It worked, mostly--John didn't break his nose, but he did bounce off the wall and end up on his back on the floor, palms stinging from hitting the wall and lungs and heart roaring. He wanted to laugh, but it came out more like a gasping wheeze.
"Well," someone said--Rodney, of course--"that was impressive. But I think if you're going to take up a hobby as a battering ram, you might consider getting a helmet."
"Hey, McKay," John panted, raising a hand weakly in greeting before he let it flop back to the floor. He didn't feel like getting up just yet, not until his heart stopped pounding quite so mercilessly, at least.
Rodney was standing next to his head, staring down at him with his hands in the pockets of his tan jacket. "What are you doing down here, anyway? Is this exercise? Or some secret masochistic tendency of yours that I probably don't want to know about?"
"Exercise," John gasped, grinning. He lifted his hand again, and was very happy when Rodney grabbed his forearm and helped haul him upright. He staggered to his feet, still panting though not as badly, and walked to where he'd left his pack. He snagged his towel and started drying his hair, peering at Rodney from under the cloth. "What are you doing all the way down here?"
"Your calisthenics were apparently triggering a seismic monitor in the control room," Rodney said. "I told Grodin I'd ask you to keep it down to a dull roar."
"Oh," John said. He pulled the towel down to his shoulders. "I didn't know it was that bad."
Rodney shrugged. "I guess the Ancients didn't anticipate having extremely large, hoofed mammals racing down their corridors."
"Probably not," John said. He nodded. "Thanks for letting me know. 'Guess I'll have to move the sprinting to the mainland, or something."
"Yeah," Rodney said, sounding distracted. His eyes grazed the length of John's body, from his sweat-spiked hair to his bare chest, to his loose exercise pants, finally stopping at his sneakered feet, then sweeping up again.
John didn't move, just standing casually, holding each end of the towel around his neck, taking in Rodney's appraisal. He could feel his own, returned, interest in his groin, but he didn't try to hide it.
"Well," Rodney said, with a casualness that was completely belied by his expression and the particular intensity of his eyes, "I should be going, leave you to your galloping or whatever."
"Sure," John said.
He didn't move. Rodney didn't either.
"You want to go for a ride?" John asked. "I mean," he amended quickly, when he realized what that probably sounded like. "On the mainland. You know, riding," he said lamely. He pulled up one of his best smiles.
But Rodney blinked, and whatever might have been happening between them disappeared, just like that. He stepped back, and John schooled his expression not to show his disappointment.
"Maybe later," Rodney said. He gestured in the general direction of the transporter. "I, ah, really need to get back to the control room."
"Sure," John said. He smiled, though he knew it was nowhere near real. "Tell Grodin I'll hold off on the earthquakes."
"Right." Rodney nodded. "Later, then." He turned and headed down one side of the t-junction. He looked back once, and his expression seemed wistful.
John hoped that was a good sign.
The first time John had become a centaur, he was thirteen years old.
He'd known what he was since he was four, had known he could change at least that long, a knowledge so deep it was like being aware he could breathe, but his mother had told him that he should not, that it was something terrible, so he hadn't. Not until one night when he was totally alone, and he wanted to feel what it was like so badly that for the first time he was willing to risk the consequences.
Not that there were any--he was very careful about that. He went into his parents' room, because they had a full-length mirror, and he closed the curtains, to keep anyone from looking in. He was surprised that changing was so easy--it didn't hurt, or really feel like anything at all, but suddenly he was half a horse: four gangly, dark brown legs and scrawny colt's body, with his normal, thirteen-year old upper torso, still wearing the same t-shirt.
All he did was look in the mirror; he changed back long before his parents got home.
The second time was when he was in his early twenties, on leave from the Air Force. He'd spent the day surfing, on one of those beautiful, mostly secluded stretches of beaches that travel agents are constantly advertising but most people never get to see. He had just climbed out of the surf carrying his board, with the sun setting behind him, when for no reason he could name he wanted to be a centaur again, to gallop along the edge of the water.
He changed. And for a little while it was incredible, amazing. It was the first time he realized he had two hearts in this form--he could hear them beating in time, like thunder all the way through his body. He had two lungs as well, and he could feel both sets expanding when he inhaled, practically feel the oxygen flowing into his blood, the blood flowing through his body.
For the first time in is life, he felt completely alive.
And then he got worried that it wasn't dark enough yet, that the beach wasn't actually secluded enough. That someone might see him.
He changed to human, walked back to where he left his surfboard, and returned to his hotel with the last orange glow of the sun disappearing behind him. And that night he lay awake for hours, on the uncomfortable bed in the tiny room, remembering what it had been like to have two hearts, to hear them both pounding like thunder.
It occurred to him, years later, that the only thing close to what he'd felt that night was flying; that maybe he'd joined the Air Force to make up for something he'd been longing for all along, without even knowing what it was.
John kicked the heavy wooden door with both back legs, smashing the lock and sending the door crashing open. He whirled around practically on his front legs alone, and stood facing the one single occupant of the cramped, freezing stone cell.
One extremely startled Rodney McKay.
"Major?" The cell had been completely dark until the door opened, and Rodney was squinting awkwardly in the light. He sounded amazed, maybe even disbelieving, and John couldn't blame him. It had been three weeks since Rodney had been captured, after all. It had taken that long to find him, and John was sure Rodney had been thinking no one was ever going to come for him.
"Yeah," John said quickly, wishing there were time for a better greeting, enough time to tell Rodney how awful it had been without him, how terrified John had been that they would never find him, or that Rodney would be dead when they did. "It's me." He shrugged out of his jacket as he talked, holding it out. "Take it, you're shivering."
"Thanks," Rodney said. He shuffled forward, like he was in pain, and now it was easy to see the deep bruises on his face, the remnants of a black eye. God only knew what other wounds Rodney's filthy blue shirt was hiding, and John's gut twisted in a cold rage that he worked very hard to keep off his face. Rodney was shivering violently, so badly that he nearly dropped the jacket, but managed to get it on, moving stiffly. "God, it's good to see you."
"Likewise," John said, and his voice was rough. He wondered if Rodney had any idea, any idea at all, just how much he meant it.
Then Rodney saw John's forelegs and his eyes went wide. "You're hurt."
"What?" John glanced down at his legs. There was blood spattered from the hooves to up above his knees. "It's not mine," he said quickly. It wasn't--it belonged to the two guards he'd kicked to death. John extended his arm again, beckoning. "We gotta go, Rodney. I don't know how much longer Ford's diversion is going to work." He heard a sound in the distance—-an explosion--and whipped his head around to look, though of course he couldn't see anything. He hoped the Marines by the gate were all right.
Rodney heard the explosion and started like someone had fired a gun next to his ear, but when he grabbed John's arm, Rodney's hand was still sure and strong.
John had to back up until they were both outside, where there was enough space to help Rodney swing onto his back. "Hang on," he said. "I'm going to run."
Rodney didn't say anything, but his arms slid around John's waist, holding tight, and John allowed himself just one second to feel how very, very good that was, how perfect, and then he reared up to spin on his back legs, and leapt forward, running.
This part of the planet Rodney had been taken to was in the deep grip of winter, cold enough that John was uncomfortable, even in his centaur form. He was sure Rodney was freezing, despite the jacket, and John hoped the heat from his body was helping keep Rodney warm.
There was another explosion, closer this time, along with the staccato beat of gunfire, and John pushed himself to run faster, wanting to get through the gate back to Atlantis as fast as he could. The people who had taken Rodney seemed to have a 1930s level of technology, but that was more than enough to make them extremely dangerous, especially when he was presenting such a conveniently large target. He was currently dodging through winter-stripped trees, which helped give some cover, but John could do nothing about the hoof prints he was leaving in the snow, or how starkly the brown of his body stood out against the dull grey and white.
At least there was more of him to hit than the man on his back, though that was only slim comfort. What he really needed to do was get to where his team could lay down protective fire, and by then he'd be practically at the gate. Not so far, now...
The gate was nearly surrounded by trees, which his own team was using for cover as much as the locals. It meant that identifying friend or foe was made more difficult, though, and John's first real knowledge that he was near the gate was when he almost got shot at by an overzealous Marine. The Marine had time for a quick wave of apology, then had to dive back behind a tree to avoid being taken out by a thrown grenade. John leapt to the side, still running, feeling something burning graze his haunch. Rodney flinched when John moved, but didn't let go, though John heard him gasp in pain.
"Dial the gate!" John yelled, Teyla leapt out from behind the sparse cover of the gate itself and ran for the DHD, frantically smacking at the keys. The wormhole blossomed in a jet of energy, startlingly blue against the old white of the snow and grey of the trees and sky.
He didn't even see the grenade land before it exploded; it just felt like he'd been hit by a truck.
John woke up maybe seconds, maybe days later, on his side, in so much pain he couldn't even think, couldn't even register that someone was talking to him. The words drifted down into his head like snow, until finally he could work out that they meant something; someone needed him.
He cracked open his eyes, and for a long moment couldn't figure out who he was looking at. It looked like Rodney, but Rodney had been kidnapped, they were trying to rescue him...
"Oh thank god," Rodney said in a rush. "I thought you were dead." He was cradling John's head, his hands bright points of heat. John was glad it meant Rodney wasn't cold anymore.
"'Can't breathe," John said, and talking that much was agony, deep red like the blood he could taste in his mouth. Something had happened to his horse's lungs, and he could only breathe with his human ones, and he couldn't get enough oxygen. He was panting, trying to get sufficient air for his centaur body, but he couldn't, and it hurt so much—-
"Don't change!" Rodney moved one hand to grab John's wrist, gripping so tightly it was a tiny new piece of pain. He was shouting, voice brittle with fear. "You're too badly hurt! You can't!"
"Hurts," John gasped. "Please..." If he could just change back to human he'd have enough air again, he'd be able to breathe. He'd be all right.
"No! I'm sorry, John. I'm so sorry." And now Rodney sounded stricken, like he was the one in pain. "We have to get you through the gate like this, you have to get up."
John took another set of weak, gasping breaths. "Can't. Hurts."
"I know it hurts. I'm sorry. But you have to." Rodney was already moving, laying John's head down on the snow-covered ground, letting go of his wrist. "Ford! Help me!" Rodney shouted, and a few seconds later John felt four sets of hands along his back.
"We're going to help you roll onto your knees, John, okay?" Rodney said, yelling to be heard above the continuing gunfire. "On three--you can do this. One... two..."
John made a noise that might have been a scream, if he'd had enough air for it, but suddenly he was upright, on his four knees, and Rodney grabbed his upper body tight to keep John from pitching face-first into the snow. But now at least it was a little easier to breathe.
"There. See?" Rodney said. "You did great. That was great." But he was panting himself, sounding frantic. "Okay, Ford, I need you on his other side, behind his front leg."
John heard Ford's automatic 'yessir,' felt Ford crouching next to the shoulder of his horse body. Something shifted under Ford's hand, and John hissed in pain.
"Please," John begged. "No." He was trembling, freezing cold, and moving hurt so much, he didn't want to move...
"On three, again," Rodney said, ignoring him. "One, two, three! On your feet, Major!" He and Ford lifted, shoved at John's horse shoulders, forcing John up on his front feet, then pushing him until his back legs straightened and he heaved himself up onto all fours.
John did scream, this time, and a heavy wash of copper filled his mouth, spilled down his chin. His vision went red and he swayed, his legs nearly collapsing.
"Stay with me, Major!" Rodney shouted at him, and John nodded vaguely, fighting to stay conscious. He felt a hand against his horse's chest, his human stomach, shockingly warm. "We're almost there. Just a little more, now, just a few steps..."
He walked; each step like lead, molten with pain. Ford and Rodney were still with him, still helping to hold him up, but he could barely feel them now. The gunfire had faded to muffled popping sounds somewhere in the distance, and the explosions were gone--maybe the grenade-thrower was dead. It didn't matter. John's whole world had shrunk to the blue circle of the gate, the stumbling scrape of his hooves dragging through the snow, Rodney's constant barrage of encouragement that John couldn't even understand anymore. And then there was nothing anywhere but shimmering blue, and he fell into the water and he was drowning—-
Someone was threading their fingers through his hair.
It was nice, and John just drifted with it awhile, more asleep than awake, until he must have twitched or smiled or something, because someone chuckled and John finally decided he should open his eyes.
"Hey," Rodney said softly, sounding delighted, "you're awake."
"Hi." John smiled at him, swallowed experimentally. "Thirsty."
"Oh, sure." The fingers in his hair disappeared, which was too bad, but then Rodney was holding a straw for him and that was almost better.
John drank his fill, and Rodney waited. "Do you remember what happened?" Rodney asked, once John had let go of the straw.
That took some thinking about. He'd gone after Rodney...
"You okay?" John asked. He remembered Rodney shivering in a dark cell. Rodney's face was badly bruised, and when he moved it was obvious there were other bruises hidden under his clothes. There were still bruises on Rodney's face, but they looked better now, at least. Healing.
"What?" Rodney blinked at him, then seemed to get it. "Oh, sure—-I'm fine."
That didn't seem right. "They beat you."
"Well, yeah, they did." Rodney nodded, ducking his head like getting beat on by kidnappers was somehow embarrassing. "They were a little peeved that my specialty wasn't biological weapons. I'm fine, though. Everything's healing nicely." Rodney looked up again. "Thank you, by the way," he said, voice serious. "For rescuing me. That was... What you did was amazing."
John grinned. "You're welcome."
Rodney smiled, but then his expression darkened. "You were the one who nearly died. Do you remember that? Being hit near the gate?"
John thought about that. "Blue," he said. "Everything was blue. And cold." And there was so much pain, and he couldn't breathe. He had to walk, but he couldn't breathe.
John blinked, wiggling his toes under the blanket. Something wasn't right about that. "I was a horse."
"Centaur." Rodney still smiled, but it was strangely sad. He started threading his fingers through John's hair again, though, so it was hard to concentrate on the sad part. "You had blast lung, Carson said, in your horse body, and internal bleeding. And a bunch of your ribs had broken, and were cutting into stuff." He took a breath. "It was really bad."
"Oh," John said. He didn't really remember any of that, just how much it had hurt.
"Yeah," Rodney said, now not smiling at all. His hand in John's hair had stilled. Rodney's thumb was resting on John's forehead, a small, pleasant weight. Rodney's other hand wrapped around John's, and John squeezed a little. John was surprisingly weak, but he thought that might be the drugs, since if he'd really been hurt that badly he should be in a lot of pain, but he was just feeling nicely floaty and comfortable.
"You were on my back," John said. He remembered waking up with Rodney holding his head, but that John had been carrying him before that.
Rodney smirked, but there wasn't much humor in it. "I was thrown into a tree. I cracked some ribs, but it wasn't anything much. I was a lot more scared about you." Rodney shook his head a little, closing his eyes as if he was seeing something he didn't want to. "You were so hurt, so much blood on you... You wanted to take human shape again so you could breathe, but I wouldn't let you. I knew it would be just like our experiment with the marker--that it would all end up in your human body and you would die." He opened his eyes, but they looked like blue water. "You couldn't even move, but I made you get up, walk through the gate. And you were in such pain. I'm so sorry."
"You saved my life," John said. He squeezed Rodney's hand a little harder. "Thank you."
Rodney gave a one-shoulder shrug. "It didn't feel like I was doing you any favors at the time."
"Big favor." John grinned at him. "Huge."
Rodney's smile was back, and this time it was genuine. "Well, I guess you're welcome."
John moved his foot again, trying to remember why that was important. Oh, yeah. "I'm not a centaur," he said.
"You don't remember that?" Rodney asked, genuinely curious. "Huh," he grunted, when John just shook his head, bewildered. "I guess that makes sense, though--you were pretty out of it. You collapsed in the gate room, not even two steps out of the stargate. Just... wham, straight down to the floor." Rodney made a slamming motion with one hand, then moved it back to John's hair. "I thought you'd died, actually," he said. "You just... Anyway," he seemed to pull himself back with an effort, and John smiled at him, encouraging. "You were still half a horse, right?" Rodney went on, his mood lightening as he got into the story again. "There was no way we could get you to the infirmary like that—-we'll have to check, but I don't think you'd have fit into the transporter, even if you were mobile. So Carson and Patel had to operate on you right in the gateroom, with you lying on your back on some tarps on the floor. We used the descender to keep you from, ah, tipping over."
John blinked, trying to imagine that, especially him being totally unconscious with all four legs in the air. The image was actually pretty embarrassing. "Not very sanitary."
"Oh, god no." Rodney nodded in vigorous agreement. "I mean, we rigged up some more tarps and stuff, and used loads of antiseptic, but... Well, let's just say it's a very good thing Carson brought lots of antibiotics. Actually," and Rodney got that particular gleam that only came from scientific discovery, "it was pretty fascinating—-did you know that when you're in horse form you've got one really long trachea that connects both your lungs? That made intubating you problematic, of course, since they didn't have any tubes like that, so they ended up intubating your, ah, upper half, and using a tracheotomy for your horse lungs." He grinned. "Pretty neat, eh?"
"Yeah," John said. It was, really, as well as kind of disgusting. He was still trying to imagine part of the gate room as an improvised operating theatre. "How long?"
"How long were you operated on?" Rodney said. "I don't know. Hours, I think." He looked guilty. "I wanted to be there, but one of Carson's Gestapo nurses must've stabbed me with something--"
"Rodney," John said, cutting him off. "In the gateroom."
"What?" Rodney looked confused. "I was just—-Oh! Several days. Not on your back, of course," he added immediately. "Because your weight would have crushed your healing inner organs. And, uh, not on the floor either, because that's just really uncomfortable." And now Rodney was looking smug and happy again. "Ford and Teyla and I went and dragged down mattresses from a bunch of unused rooms, put them all together on the floor. Of course, actually moving you onto them was a bitch."
John laughed, then inhaled on a sudden sharp pain.
"John!" Rodney was completely, instantly anxious. "Are you okay? Should I get Carson?"
"No," John said. "Wait," he corrected quickly, when he saw Rodney start to stand. "I'm okay, really. Just... Forgot." He took a few breaths, sighing as the pain left completely.
"You sure?" Rodney asked, still looking worried. "Because I could..." He looked over his shoulder, as if trying to spot Carson.
John squeezed Rodney's hand again. "I'm okay. Promise."
"Good," Rodney said. "As long as you're sure..." But he finally looked relieved.
"But, I'm not a centaur now."
"I was getting to that," Rodney said, a bit peevishly. "You heal really fast, you know that? I mean, really fast. Carson and Patel decided that you were healthy enough to switch back to human, so we could finally get you down to the infirmary." He tilted his head. "You really don't remember?"
John considered that. He had a vague recollection of someone tapping his cheek, telling him he could go back to sleep if he just did something... "Maybe," he said.
"Well, it doesn't really matter," Rodney said. He moved his hand, sliding his fingers between John's, and his face, his eyes, became serious again. "I'm just so glad you're okay."
"You too," John said. He reached up with his other hand, not liking how much it was trembling, but he gritted his teeth and touched the side of Rodney's face. He could only reach Rodney's jaw with his fingertips, but he brushed the warm skin there before letting his hand drop back to his side. "I missed you," he said.
"Yeah." Rodney's voice was thick. "I missed you, too."
"Cool," John said. He sighed. He was getting tired again, but he didn't want to sleep just yet. Rodney was still holding his hand, and he didn't want to lose that. He quirked his mouth in what he hoped was a sly smile, and not a desperately hopeful one, as he feared it was. "I'm still not human," he said.
"That's true," Rodney said, "but..." He made an odd, almost demure tilt of his head. "But I think, I think you're human enough."
"Cool," John said again. He closed his hand tighter around Rodney's, hoping Rodney could see John's joy, how thrilled he was on his face. He wanted to tell Rodney how happy that had made him, but he ended up yawning instead.
"Sorry," Rodney said immediately. "You're tired. I should go." He stood, pulling his hand out of John's. The dismay John was feeling must have been obvious, though, because Rodney didn't immediately turn away. "I'll come back later," he said. He smiled, strangely shy. "I promise."
John grinned his relief, then reached for Rodney as he thought of something. "Wait."
"Want a ride?" John asked, and his grin widened when Rodney laughed.
"You're insane," Rodney said, shaking his head, but he was still chuckling. "Ask me again when you're healthy."
"Sure," John said. He shook his hand in a little wave, and Rodney gave him a formal nod and left. He looked back once.
John settled deeper into the pillows, smiling to himself as he closed his eyes.
He was definitely going to ask again. And he was pretty sure how Rodney would answer.
And then he'd show Rodney exactly how human he was.