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Summary: When John Sheppard was thirty-nine, the Wraith made him a Runner.

Categories: Slash Pairings > Lorne/Zelenka, Slash Pairings > McKay/Sheppard
Characters: Carson Beckett, Elizabeth Weir, John Sheppard, Major Lorne, Other, Radek Zelenka, Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan
Genres: Action/Adventure, First Time, Romance
Warnings: None
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 18638; Completed: Yes
Updated: 25 Jul 2008; Published: 25 Jul 2008

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Story Notes:
Written for the Home Team during LJ's McShep Match 2008, with the prompt Weakest Link. With massive thanks to Wesleysgirl and chelle, who did a fabulous beta, and any mistakes remaining are mine.


A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain.
- William James


When John Sheppard was thirty-five, he sat in a chair and had the universe open up for him. He'd become a pilot because he wanted to fly, needed to see the world speeding below him and know that all that was between him and freedom was his own mind.

There had been hitches along the way, some minor and some not, some that left scars people could see and some that left scars so far down even John denied them.

And then he'd flown a General across a barren ice land and realised that he was being offered so much more than just the sky.

Needless to say, he took it.

~*~

Elizabeth Weir looked around the meeting room at the people sitting there, one of the chairs very obviously empty. Raising a hand to her earpiece, Elizabeth triggered a private channel on the radio. "Weir to McKay. Rodney, are you--"

"I'm here! I'm here!" The door opened to reveal Rodney balancing his laptop, a cup of coffee and a power bar.

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow as he sat down, powering up the laptop and taking a deep drink of the coffee.

Rodney waved a hand in the air, forestalling her question. "Important things were happening in the lab, I had to be there." He looked over at Elizabeth. "I should still be there, instead of at a randomly called meeting. And why are we here anyway?"

The corners of Elizabeth's lips twitched as she glanced over at Major Lorne. "Trust me, Rodney. This one you'll be glad you left the lab for."

Rodney looked unconvinced. "Important things, Elizabeth," he reiterated.

"Important as in 'wow, that's so cool' or as in 'we'd better evacuate Atlantis'?" Sheppard asked.

"Oh please," Rodney replied. "If we had to actually evacuate Atlantis you seriously think I'd turn up to the meeting? The only thing you'd hear is me yelling at you as I went through the 'gate."

Elizabeth hid her smile. Rodney McKay had already proven, even if it hadn't been in that timeline, that he was willing to sacrifice his life if it was necessary.

"It's great to know you care, McKay," Sheppard commented, leaning back in his chair slightly, the amusement dancing in his eyes at Rodney's words proof that he was thinking exactly the same as Elizabeth was.

"I care," Rodney replied, sounding rather affronted that Sheppard dared to question him. "I can just care a lot better from perfect safety." He glared at Sheppard, the look on his face daring the colonel to contradict him. Sheppard just smiled.

"If we're all ready." Elizabeth cut off whatever retort Rodney had been about to make, glancing around the table and taking in the nods of agreement, and the wave of Rodney's hand as he continued to type, power bar that Elizabeth knew tasted nothing like the chocolate it claimed to be sticking out of his mouth. "Okay. As you all know, AR-2 have just come back from M3X-924. Carnava," she added, using the native name for the planet. "And they found something I think you'll all be interested in."

Rodney snorted. "Unless it's a fully functional Ancient lab, I don't see why you're wasting my time."

After no one spoke for long moments, Rodney looked up slowly, eyes meeting the amused smirk of Major Lorne.

"Spoil my surprise, why don't you." Lorne pushed the folder in front of him across to McKay.

Hand grabbing at the folder spinning across the table to him, Rodney opened the file, eyes devouring the photos inside. "We have to go there," he said, his words overlapping with Sheppard's.

"Will the natives object?"

Lorne turned his attention to Sheppard. "No," he answered. "In fact, they invited us back." He shrugged. "It helps that apparently only people with the ATA gene can open the door to this place. The Carnavans didn't even know it was there until Parrish got close and the temple opened up for him. They're willing to let us have total access. Anything to help rid the galaxy of the Wraith."

Teyla nodded. "I am not surprised. The Carnavans are one of many people who have lived through too many cullings."

"Why are we still talking?" Rodney closed his laptop and stood up.

Elizabeth ignored him, looking at Sheppard. "Colonel, take your team and check it out. Once we know if it's viable to send through a larger group, we will."

Sheppard nodded and pushed himself to his feet. "Thirty minutes and then we go," he said, looking at the other members of his team.

~*~

"Thank you for meeting us, Orvin." Teyla greeted the man warmly, touching her forehead to his.

"I could do nothing else when I heard it was you who was coming," Orvin smiled, pulling back and glancing at the others with her.

"These are my friends, Colonel John Sheppard, Dr Rodney McKay and Specialist Ronon Dex."

"Welcome to Carnava." Orvin bowed. "We hope that you will find much in the place of the Ancestors to help against the Wraith." He turned and motioned down a path. "Please, if you will follow me, I will take you straight there."

They walked down a meandering path, the sun overhead as Orvin told them of how the temple had been there as long as his people could remember, an old ruin from the Ancestors among the scattered trees. The path stretched on for a couple of miles before the temple finally appeared in the distance.

"This has always just been a ruin to us. A piece of our history, but nothing more than that," Orvin explained, a note of awe in his tone as they reached the building, parts of the stonework weatherworn and broken. "We certainly never thought there was anything else to it."

Dex stepped forward, running his hand over some of the intricate carvings on the stone. "I can't see an entrance switch."

Rodney joined him at the wall, his fingers moving over the places Ronon hadn't touched. "Lorne said that Parrish just--" His words were cut off by one of the symbols on the wall glowing blue and the inside wall of the temple smoothing gliding open.

"Ten thousand years and it doesn't even need WD-40," Sheppard commented at the silent opening.

"There's no life signs," McKay said, checking the detector in his hand and taking a step forward, stopping when Sheppard's hand landed on his arm.

"Let's be on the safe side," Sheppard said, stepping around McKay to enter the temple first. "It may be a few thousand years since anyone was last here, but that doesn't mean they didn't leave anything for us."

Keeping his P-90 up, Sheppard took a step into the temple, pausing as the lights came up around him and illuminated the room.

"Move. Move, move, move." Rodney was behind Sheppard as soon as the room lit up, hand on Sheppard's arm and pushing him out of the way. "I need to-- oh." His voice trailed off, hand still resting on Sheppard.

John glanced at Rodney, smirking at the look of wonder on his face. "You know, the last time anyone looked at me like that I'd just bought them a diamond."

"Huh?" Rodney wasn't paying any attention to John.

Shaking his head in fond exasperation, John slapped Rodney lightly on the arm. "Come on, Genius, let's see what Aladdin's Cave has for us."

"There are things you can use here against the Wraith?" Orvin had entered the temple behind them and was now standing next to Rodney.

"I'll need to have my team go through everything, but hopefully, yes," Rodney answered, obviously having listened to at least some of the diplomacy lessons Elizabeth had given them enough to realise it was in his best interests to be polite to the nice people whose planet homed the Ancient lab they were standing in.

"Good, good," Orvin smiled. "Well, I shall leave you to your work. Colonel, Doctor." Orvin nodded to them before stepping outside and stopping next to Teyla to talk further.

Ripping his tablet off its Velcro home on his back and handing it to Sheppard with a "Here, hold this," Rodney put his pack on the floor and started pulling cables from it. "I'll need Zelenka," he said absently, taking the tablet back off John and connecting it to one of the consoles. "And Kusanagi and Simpson." The console lit up and code started to run across the tablet screen, Rodney's eyes scanning over it.

"I'm going to head outside with Teyla and Ronon. Unless you need me to stay in here and turn something on?"

Lifting his attention from the tablet, Rodney raised an eyebrow as he looked over, and John could almost hear the unspoken words in the air before Rodney waved him away, smirking slightly dismissively. "I'm sure I can cope without your super gene, Colonel."

"Maybe later, then," John commented as he left McKay and headed outside to check with the rest of the team.

~*~

John glanced down at his watch. They were due to check in with Atlantis, and it would take some time to walk back to the 'Gate. Heading back into the lab, John slipped his sunglasses off, not needing them in the false light. "McKay, time to check in with Mom and ask if it's okay for the other kids to come out and play."

Rodney looked up, fingers not stopping as he typed. "I'm going to need more people than I'd first thought." A grin was threatening at his lips and John was sure for a brief moment that he was going to start bouncing on his feet.

"I take it you've found something?" Voice calm, even though Rodney's enthusiasm was almost infectious. After all, if McKay was getting excited about something he'd found, then it should be good.

"Oh yes," McKay replied, turning his laptop to face John, hands holding it steady.

John's eyes were drawn to the laptop, scanning over the diagrams and equations that filled the screen. Numbers seeping into his mind, he re-read the words, eyes jerking up to meet Rodney's. "Is this right?" But more importantly, "Is it possible?"

"Yes." McKay paused. "Well, it should be if we can get into the computer cores and enough of the data is uncorrupted."

"Oh, Elizabeth's definitely going to let the kids out for this," John said, unable to stop the smile. It was about time something in Pegasus went their way, and this? This was--

"Sheppard!"

really bad timing, he cursed, his train of thought derailed as his name was yelled.

Ronon's voice reached in to the lab, echoing slightly off the silver walls, and making Rodney's head jerk up in surprise. "What?"

But John didn't need to ask why Ronon was shouting, could already hear the faint whine in the air. "Darts!"

"What?!" Rodney's eyes widened as he tilted his head slightly, hearing the Wraith ships. "No. No, no, this is bad." His fingers running frantically over the tablet, he looked at John. "Sheppard, if they find this place--"

His words trailed off, but he didn't need to finish the sentence for John to get it. If Rodney was right, then the lab could hold the research needed to form the basis of understanding how to build both the stardrive and ZPMs.

"Can you reseal the temple?"

"I won't need to," Rodney replied. "It should seal itself once there's no one with the gene inside."

"Then let's go." Sheppard started grabbing the cables not attached to anything and shoving them back in Rodney's pack. "If the Wraith find us near here, they're going to wonder what's so interesting." Because even though the lab's shielding had hidden it from previous Wraith visits, John didn't want to take the chance that their presence there could have changed that.

Rodney nodded, typing a few more things into the tablet before unhooking it and pushing it into his pack alongside the cables, barely zipping it shut before grabbing it and following John out of the lab.

Ronon didn't spare them a glance as they emerged into the sunlight, blaster already aimed into the sky. "At least four darts," he said. "They headed towards the village, but they'll probably do a pass over this way, too."

Unless they were too preoccupied with what they found in the opposite direction. "What about the villagers?"

"They will have gone into the hills," Teyla answered. "There are caves there that offer some protection from the culling beams." From the way she said it, though, the 'some' was never enough.

John's first thought was to head there, too. Help the villagers; protect the planet. It was a mantra that had insinuated itself into his being since the day he first set foot on Athos and realised how very fucked they were.

He cast a glance behind him in time to see the entrance to the lab slide smoothly shut, temple standing there like it was nothing but an old ruin to a god that had abandoned Pegasus long ago.

"Teyla, is there another way to those caves?" Because if they could get there without the Wraith finding them, that would at least give them the element of surprise.

Teyla's eyes scanned the horizon before her gaze finally settled back on John. "We can go via the mountains," she said, "I believe there is a network of entrances there."

"Let's go, then."

Get to the caves, rescue the people, save the day, back home in time for lunch. Just another morning in Pegasus.

But Pegasus was nothing if not fickle and the whine of darts as they neared the Gate all but drowned out Rodney's muttered curse.

The sky was alive with darts and John's P-90 was suddenly feeling too heavy, too useless, in his hands.

"Change of plan," he yelled, veering towards the Gate. "We're going to need help." Because as much as he wanted to get to the villagers there was no way he could take his team into that without back-up. No way they'd be able to fight their way through with what they had.

"We're not running!" Ronon grabbed his arm, jerking John to a stop.

"No, we're not," he replied, yanking his arm out of Ronon's grip. "We're coming back, but with more people, 'jumpers and bigger fucking guns." His gaze tracked the darts nearest to them, knowing they'd barely have seconds once the Wraith noticed the Gate was dialling. "McKay!"

"I'm on it!" Rodney shouted, hand already slapping the first chevron on the DHD.

"John!"

And they hadn't even had seconds, Teyla's cry alerting them to the oncoming darts.

"Rodney--" John lifted his P-90, barely aiming as he fired at the dart streaking over their heads.

"Going as fast as I can!" Another chevron.

"Go faster!" Another.

"We're done!" Rodney's voice broken by the stuttering of weapon's fire.

"Go!" yelled John, holding out his IDC, already sending the code as the final chevron locked and the Stargate flared to life.

"Sheppard!" Ronon's voice was barely audible above the sound of the dart that was nearly overhead.

"We're right behind you!" John grabbed McKay's arm, pulling him along with him. "Go!"

Ronon nodded sharply, pushing Teyla through the Stargate ahead of him as he stepped into the event horizon.

John willed his legs to move faster as the screeching pierce of several culling beams reached him, his entire world reduced to getting to the gate. He could feel the roughness of McKay's jacket under his fingers and he realised he still had his fingers wrapped around the other man's arm, forcing him to run at John's pace.

They were only a few steps away from the Stargate, legs carrying them up the rough-hewn steps that lead to the stone ring. John reached out, his fingertips almost touching the wormhole, feeling the electric charge of the event horizon dance over his skin.

Another step.

Two.

White light surrounded him.

And then nothing.

~*~

"It's AR-1's IDC," Chuck called from his position behind the command desk.

"Drop the shield," Elizabeth nodded, expecting to see Rodney coming through the gate and shouting for members of the science department. Which is why when Ronon and Teyla appeared through the wormhole, still running as their feet hit the ground beneath them, it took a few seconds for her mind to process it.

The security detail in the gate room, however, reacted instantly, falling to a formation and aiming all weapons on the gate.

Jogging down the steps, Elizabeth took in the figure of Teyla, bent over and panting from exertion. "Medical team to the gate room," she called on her radio as she cleared the last couple of steps and hurried across the floor. "What happened?" she asked, almost knowing the answer already.

"Wraith," Dex answered. "They started culling when we were on the planet."

"Where are Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay?" So far, only half of the team had come through the wormhole.

Teyla looked at her, surprise in her eyes that Elizabeth had asked the question and already half turning around as she answered. "They were right behind us," she said. "They should be--" Teyla never got to finish the sentence as she stared in horror as the gate shut off.

There was silence for a heartbeat, broken when Beckett ran into the room, followed by two nurses. "What happened?"

"We need to go back," Dex said, ignoring the question.

"You're not going anywhere." Beckett reached out and wrapped his fingers around Dex's wrist, studying a large slash down his forearm.

Dex pulled his arm out of the doctor's grasp. "Sheppard and McKay are still on that planet."

Beckett looked at them in confusion.

"A culling started while we were there," explained Teyla.

Beckett's face turned a shade whiter. "And Rodney and Colonel Sheppard?"

"Are still there," Dex growled. "Which is why we need to go back."

Elizabeth looked at the two people in front of her, at the fierce determination written on both of their faces. "Major Lorne," she said, speaking to the man she could sense standing behind her. "Get your team ready; you're taking a jumper back to Carnava."

~*~

John opened his eyes slowly, wincing when the light hit him. Rolling over, he carefully pushed himself to all fours before kneeling up. He remembered being barely a step away from the Stargate, fingers around Rodney's arm, and the sound of the culling beam getting closer.

"Fuck," he muttered, dropping his head into his hands as a wave of nausea washed over him. Closing his eyes and breathing deeply, he squashed the urge to throw up and lifted his head back up, gaze falling on the other person in the room with him.

Crawling over to the still unconscious McKay, John reached out and shook him gently. "Rodney," he whispered, not sure if the Wraith were listening in or not.

McKay groaned and batted John's hand away. "Oh god, that felt horribly familiar," he moaned, covering his eyes with a hand. "We were caught by that dart, weren't we?"

"Yes." John didn't see the need to sugarcoat it. If he was being honest with himself, there wasn't much sugar anyway.

"And we're in a hive ship, aren't we?"

"Yes." John recognised the design of the walls. Better Living for the discerning Wraith.

"They've taken all the weapons, haven't they?"

"Yes." John's P-90 was nowhere to be seen, and the lack of weight against his leg signalled his sidearm was missing.

"We're going to be drained of life and die amazingly painful deaths, aren't we?"

"Ye--No!" John just managed to stop himself from reaching out and hitting McKay on the arm.

Rodney moved his hand and stared at John in disbelief. "Feel free to correct me, but we're sitting in a Wraith hive ship with no way out, so exactly how does that not equate to dying in a painfully excruciating way?" Rodney pushed himself up to sit against the wall behind him. "Oh god, we're going to die. We're going to die and I haven't even received my Nobel Prize yet." McKay's breath was coming in short gasps.

John reached out, wrapping his fingers around Rodney's wrist, the heat from Rodney's skin seeping through into him. "Rodney! Stop it. Panicking isn't going to help."

"Maybe not," McKay admitted, "but it's making me feel a whole lot better."

Letting go of Rodney's wrist, John pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the web-like substance covering the exit. Reaching out, he trailed a finger down a sticky line, half expecting an electrical charge and quite surprised when none came. He grabbed the length of fibre and pulled, unable to stop the groan of frustration when it wouldn't move.

"That would have been too easy," Rodney commented from his position against the wall.

"Probably." John admitted. "But if I hadn't tried it and then found out it would have snapped and we could have gotten out of here, I would have felt all sorts of stupid."

McKay snorted softly. "What happened to Teyla and Ronon?"

"They got through," John replied. He lowered his hand, ignoring the way the gelatinous strands stuck to his skin, soft and clinging, like wet silk.

"Are you positive?" Rodney sounded unsure.

John moved away from the door, stomach roiling slightly at the squelching sound the fibre made as he pulled away from it. "I'm sure." Because the image he had in his mind of Ronon following Teyla through the Stargate couldn't be wrong.

Walking across the floor, he turned and slid down the wall. His knees brushed against Rodney's and he turned to look into sharp blue eyes. "They got away," he said, resolute in the knowledge.

"At least two of us did," Rodney replied, wrapping his arms around his legs and resting his chin on his knees.

"Yeah," John nodded, joining Rodney in the waiting silence.

~*~

"Jesus."

Teyla ignored Major Lorne's muttered curse, her eyes fixed on the devastation below them. As a child she'd been told stories of when all the Wraith were awake and the cullings that happened, had been told of the death and destruction they left in their wake. And now, it seemed like she was being forced to face it time and time again. It was becoming easier to count those people she knew who were still alive, simply because the list of those she had lost was becoming too long, and growing with each passing culling.

As the jumper continued to fly, Teyla forced herself to look at each and every destroyed home. To look away would be to deny these people, and Teyla couldn't do that.

"We should land," Ronon said from behind her. "There may be survivors."

Lorne turned the jumper in the air, circling as he looked for a suitable landing place. Finally, he put the still-cloaked jumper down in a field. Unbuckling himself, he stood and turned to the team sitting behind him. "Fan out and stay in radio contact. The scanners can't find any sign of darts in the air, but that doesn't mean they won't come back." He picked up his P-90 and put the strap over his shoulder. "Bring any survivors back here." Pressing a button, he released the jumper's back hatch, watching as it lowered. "And people," he added, waiting until everyone had left the jumper before he joined them, "let's be careful, okay?"

~*~

The weight of Rodney's head was heavy on John's shoulders when the noise roused him from the fitful slumber he had fallen into. "Rodney." He shook the other man awake.

"What?" Rodney asked, groggily.

"Footsteps." John stood up, needing to face whatever was coming on his feet.

McKay's eyes snapped open, and he scrambled to stand after John.

The footsteps got louder and a ripping sound that reminded John of flesh tearing from bone signalled the fibres that crisscrossed the door pulling back, leaving a gaping black hole in the wall.

A beat passed, two, before something finally stepped into the cell.

John looked at the Wraith in front of them, delicate facial decorations calling up the memory of the girl in the tattoo parlour on the Southside of Venice where Mitch had gotten the red devil tattooed on his ass. She'd tattooed Mitch and smiled at John and had been out back sucking both their cocks as soon as they were done.

But this wasn't Venice, and the thing standing in front of them wasn't about to kiss him with the taste of his friend still on its lips. "So nice of you to visit," John drawled, eyeing the door and the distance between them and wondering if they could make it if they just ran. "I'd offer you a coffee but we're fresh out and I just haven't had time to run to the store."

The Wraith ignored him, directing the two guards behind him to Rodney with a careful motion of his hand. "That one first."

A harsh intake of breath and a sudden litany of "nononononononono," sprang up behind John, and he didn't have to look to know that Rodney was trying to sink into the wall.

The very air seemed to stop, motion and particles and kinetic energy grinding to a halt, and then the guards moved, advancing on them like an unending plague.

John reached back, squeezing Rodney's hand briefly before moving. The Wraith might be bigger and meaner, but John had righteous desperation on his side, and he'd learned that it went far when you let it. He didn't even register the embarrassment of being batted to one side like nothing more than a nuisance child, brushed out of the way as the guards reached Rodney.

John wasn't the only one fighting, and Rodney's struggle was impressive but brief as he was dragged out of the cell.

Forcing himself to his feet, John ran over to the exit, trapped once more by the webbing that had crawled back across the space. "Rodney!" he yelled, his voice echoing into the dizzying silence until he was hoarse.

~*~

The first thing Lorne noticed when the field was in sight was the large group standing around the depression in the grass, standing around the machine they couldn't see that promised to carry them to salvation. He stopped for a moment, eyes following the line of the depression, mind supplying the dimensions of the puddlejumper waiting for them. It seemed strange to think about it, but it wasn't something he'd noticed before when he'd looked at a cloaked jumper. Maybe he'd just always assumed that the Ancients would have found a way to stop that. That technology so many light years ahead of their own would have worked out a way to not be given away by a flattened patch of grass.

"Major?" Teyla stopped next to him, looking at him with confusion written on her face.

Lorne clenched his fist, stopping himself from pointing out the grass, stopping himself from wondering aloud and asking what she thought. He wanted to know what she'd say, but talking about it when a world lay destroyed behind them seemed wrong somehow.

He stared at the depression for long moments before turning around, his eyes taking in the ruined village behind them and the trail of a dozen people following them, all ragged and dirty like their entire world had come crumbling down. "We're going to need more jumpers," he said to no one in particular.

~*~

John was on his 17th round of Prime Not Prime -- and didn't it say something that the Rodney he was playing against was only in his head and John was still losing -- when he realised the noise he could hear wasn't just the sound of his head banging against the wall behind him. He looked up in time to see the tendrils across the door slither back and two guards walk in, dragging something between them. There was a beat before John realised that the thing being dragged was Rodney, body still and unresisting, and they were going to be in for a surprise if they seriously expected him to sit there with Rodney's corpse and wait for his own time to come.

They dropped Rodney to the ground, uncaring, and left. Ritual and burial didn't happen when you were a meal. And John was suddenly feeling empathy for an untold number of hamburgers that were once breathing creatures.

Only Rodney wasn't dead. His breathing was too shallow and the movement was slight, but it was there. Galvanised into action by a soft groan, John scrambled across the floor. His hand reached out, wanting but hesitant. It was still Rodney, but he didn't know how much they'd taken, how he'd look. But he had to. Because if he could look at Sumner and he could look at Everett then he could damn well look at Rodney.

His hand touched Rodney's shoulder and the flinch was barely noticeable, but it was still there. Rodney rolled towards him and John prepared himself for the worst. Prepared himself for the tissue thin skin and a friend that looked more like his grandfather. But Rodney's age hadn't changed. There weren't extra lines on his face or extra years weighing him down. The only thing written on Rodney's face was pain, not time, with his eyes squeezed shut and tears leaking from the corners.

John brushed away the trailing moisture with his thumb before carding his hand through Rodney's hair, the short sweat-slicked strands running through his fingers. "Did they--?" But his words trailed off, unsure how to ask the question. Did they feed? Did they kill you just a little bit?

"No." The reply was soft, brittle in a way that Rodney had never been. His fingers flexed slightly before they curled into John's jacket, gripping the material so tightly it turned his knuckles white.

It looked uncomfortable, Rodney's body twisted and lying on the cold floor, so John moved, settling Rodney's head carefully onto his thigh. "What did they do?" he whispered the question, unable to keep it inside. He asked it because whatever was in his head had to be a hundred times worse than the reality. He asked it because part of him was frightened that it wasn't.

Rodney opened his eyes, dull blue looking out at John and pinning him, a butterfly to a board, unable to escape no matter how much it tried. "Never ever ask that again," he said before turning away.

John simply nodded into the darkness and carried on running his fingers gently through Rodney's hair.

~*~

Elizabeth looked at the weary faces of the people around the table. "How many people were on Carnava?" she asked.

"I am unsure," Teyla admitted. "But the population was at least the size of that on Athos."

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a brief moment. Thousands of people reduced to the 74 survivors the team had managed to find. "Carson?"

Beckett looked at her. "We've already lost two of them," he informed everyone. "Another seven are critical."

"And the rest?" Lorne asked.

Carson smiled slightly. "The rest are fine." He barked a quiet laugh, shaking his head. "As fine as you can be after watching your entire world consumed. Angry and grieving, but that's only to be expected."

Teyla reached out and placed her hand on Carson's, smiling at him. "I have already spoken to Halling. There is room on the mainland for any who wish it. I do not know if any will desire to return to their world."

"Even if they do, I doubt if it would be possible," Elizabeth commented. "Seventy people don't exactly make a sustainable society."

"Or a gene pool," added Carson.

Elizabeth paused, not wanting to ask the next question. "And Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay?"

Teyla looked at Lorne before answering. "Two of the survivors saw them being swept up by a dart seconds after Ronon and I entered the Stargate."

"We should have stayed." Dex's voice was low.

Lorne shook his head. "If you had, you would have been taken, too."

"We still should have stayed, should have fought."

Elizabeth didn't have an answer for him, found herself half agreeing, even if she knew she shouldn't.

Silence reigned until Carson finally stood up. "If we're done here, I should get back to the infirmary."

"Of course, Carson." Elizabeth looked at him, at the dark smudges under his eyes that spoke of too much work and too little sleep. "I'll--" Her words trailed off. She'd do what? Contact Earth and tell them that it looked like Caldwell was getting the job after all? Let Zelenka know he'd been promoted to Chief Scientific Advisor? Ask people to go through John and Rodney's quarters?

She clenched her hand under the desk, nails digging into the soft flesh of her palm. They weren't classed as KIA yet. There was still another 4 weeks before she could place that stamp on either file. Instead, they were just missing.

Missing.

Elizabeth hated that word. It was a word that gave too much hope. Missing. Like they went out and just got lost. Missing. Like they were still trying to find their way home. Missing. Like they weren't captured by the Wraith.

"Meeting dismissed." She didn't watch as they all left.

~*~

Rodney was still asleep when they came, breath even and soft, head heavy as he lay on John's thigh.

"Rodney--"

John didn't know what they'd do this time, but he'd be damned if they were going to take McKay again.

Rodney mumbled something, body still loose and pliant before the sound of footsteps penetrated his brain. And John could tell, could pinpoint the exact moment Rodney knew, although he wasn't sure if it was the fingers digging into his leg or the sudden tension in Rodney's shoulder, solid and there, until McKay moved, scrambling to his feet.

John was just as graceless, pushing himself to his feet and trying to ignore that the pins and needles running through his right leg. It was his own fault; he should have moved Rodney as soon as he could barely feel his leg anymore. But McKay's grip on his BDUs had tightened the first time he'd tried it and his fingers running through Rodney's hair was its own form of comfort.

The drones didn't look at them as they walked into the cell, and it wasn't the first time John had wondered how they saw through their face masks, wondered if they saw the world in crystal clarity or muted shades of grey.

Two of the drones took a step towards Rodney, and John was already in front of him, already blocking Rodney's body with his own before he realised the other two were coming for him.

Thick fingers wrapped around his biceps, pulling him towards the door, out of cell. He could hear Rodney behind him, cursing Wraith ancestry with words John was surprised Rodney even knew, bravado still unable to completely mask the fear in his tone.

John wasn't sure where they were being taken, tried to remember the twists and turns they were being led through. Tried to remember it right up until the moment he thought they passed the same corridor twice. Maybe they had. Maybe the Wraith were trying to keep them totally off-balance by looping them around the ship seventeen times before they actually reached their destination. Or maybe they just favoured the minimalist ideals that meant every corridor looked exactly the same as the others.

"You know," John commented, "a nice throw rug and some cushions would make this place look more homey." After all, surely after living in a place for thousands of years you'd want to put some personal touches to it. Then again, what did he know? All they'd been seeing were the miles of grey corridor. Maybe all the living quarters had lava lamps and overly large portraits of the Wraith version of Elvis hanging above the beds.

More corridors gave way to even more corridors and finally, finally, they arrived at their destination, drones pushing them into a large open room with four Wraith staring at them.

John felt like dinner, and for some reason he had the bizarre urge to mutter "Resistance is futile," but he'd escaped being pegged as a geek for that long, it would be a pity if he fell at the final hurdle.

One of the Wraith stepped forward and started to circle them.

"Hey, Ringo," John called, "the rest of the Beatles are starting to feel left out."

John could hear Rodney's breath quicken next to him, but neither of them said anything as Ringo completed his circuit. He paused in his study of them, eyes lingering on Rodney a little too long for John's comfort.

"You will die," Ringo said suddenly, and John felt himself tense. They were stuck god knows where in a damn hive ship, but he wasn't going down easily. If there was anything John Sheppard learned when he was younger it was that cotton candy tastes like heaven, fast cars are better than fast women, and how to fight dirty. He could thank his Uncle Rory for that. Rory made sure that John knew how to get out of any bad situation that was going to come up, and if that meant kneeing a guy in the balls and gouging his eyeballs when he was least expecting it, then bring it on.

Ringo moved closer, and John shifted slightly, weight going onto the balls of his feet, half prepared to spring forward. But Ringo didn't do anything, just looked at him like John was dinner and a movie all wrapped up into one.

A finger trailed down John's cheek and Ringo laughed when John pulled away, a puff of breath over his cheek that smelled bizarrely like peppermint.

"I hope you survive longer than the last." The words came from George as his hand hovered over the control panel. He pressed a button, and all John heard before they were taken by a transport beam was, "Run."

~*~

It was a moment or two before they realised they'd actually been beamed off the Hive ship. Stark forbidding grey giving way to lush forest and greenery.

"Okay, I'm confused," Rodney said, waving a hand. "Don't get me wrong. On the whole I'm pretty happy about not having been killed by the life sucking aliens, but, you know, I'm still confused."

"Run," John said quietly. Feeling a shudder run through him that was nothing to do with the soft breeze playing through the trees, John lifted a hand to the back of his neck, pressing carefully. Grabbing Rodney, and ignoring the squawked protest, he turned the other man around and gently pulled at the back of his t-shirt and jacket.

"Hey!" Rodney tried to bat John's hands away. "Not without dinner first!"

"Runners," John said, dodging the flailing hands and eyeing the incision scar at the top of Rodney's spine. The matching one to the one he himself sported. "We're Runners."

"What?" The flailing stopped as one of Rodney's hands came up quickly, pushing John's fingers out of the way and immediately finding the scar. "Oh god, I think I'm going to be sick." He bent over, breathing heavily.

John could feel the heat of Rodney's body as he rubbed circles on the other man's back. "Just breathe," he said softly, hand continuing its hopefully soothing motions.

"Why does shit like this always happen to us?" Rodney muttered, steadfastly keeping his eyes down.

"Look on the bright side," John said, "at least when we get back we'll be able to tease Teyla about being the odd one out."

"Sheppard, we have Wraith tracking chips in our necks, no weapons and no way to get back to Atlantis. If you can seriously see a bright side in this, I've got a very large bridge in San Francisco to sell you."

John could feel the glare even without Rodney looking at him. "I take it you're feeling better?" He was never sure with McKay, since a man who had once ranted his way through a bullet wound could probably rant through a bout of fear-induced vomiting without thinking about it.

Rodney nodded, still not lifting his head. "For now," he replied. "Although I retain the right to continue panicking at a time of my own choosing."

"Fine," John agreed. Considering he was seriously thinking about crawling into a small hole to do some panicking himself, that was the least he could allow Rodney. "But it'll have to be later, because right now we need to leave."

John had barely jogged a couple of steps when Rodney's voice stopped him. "Wait a minute. I was nearly just violently sick a moment ago and now you want me to start running."

John didn't point out how Rodney's voice nearly broke on that last word, too focused on getting them away from where they were to think about the phrases he'd probably be avoiding for a while.

"Rodney, think about it. The Wraith beamed us down here which means they know our co-ordinates. Now, I don't know how much of a head start they're willing to give us, but I'm not planning on sticking around to find out."

Rodney looked at him for long moments, the silence broken by the call of a bird in one of the trees. "Okay, then, which way?"

"I have no idea," John admitted. "But any way's better than staying here."

Rodney glanced around them, gaze flicking from tree to tree to tree. "This way it is, then," he commented, heading in the direction John had been planning on going originally, a light "You coming?" thrown over his shoulder.

~*~

Elizabeth paused outside John's quarters. It was like the city could tell he was gone, taking that extra second to open doors, responding just that little bit more slowly to those who weren't her favoured child.

Reaching out, she pressed the panel next to the door, command override allowing her entry. She released the breath she hadn't even realised she was holding as the door slid open and she stepped inside.

She'd always been curious why John had never asked for one of the bigger quarters. When they'd first arrived on Atlantis, none of them had had much with them, personal items left by the wayside in favour of the other things the expedition had needed. But now they had contact with Earth, now that the Daedalus made regular runs between the Milky Way - strange how she never thought of it as home anymore - and Pegasus, and John had gathered more things to him-- still he stayed in the original room he'd been assigned.

She looked around, soft frisson of guilt running through her. She'd only been in his room a few times, and being in there now, when Sheppard wasn't there, felt too much like an invasion of privacy, like too many parts of John Sheppard were displayed for her to see.

Absently, she reached out, finger running over the guitar leaning against the wall. She hadn't even known he'd played until she'd heard Teyla commenting on it. She'd hoped to persuade him to play for her one day, hoped to persuade Rodney to do the same when she'd heard he used to play the piano. Not that there was a piano on Atlantis; but the next time they'd been back on Earth, then maybe--

And now--

Turning sharply, Elizabeth pressed the door panel, stepping back into the corridor as she chastised herself. John and Rodney deserved more, so much more, than her already thinking of them in the past tense. The SGC might have just been waiting to stamp the files and sign them off, but Elizabeth had lost too many people, good people, to give up on two others, especially these two.

Resolute, she lifted her hand to her radio, asking Zelenka and Lorne to meet her in her office. After all, the day was still early, and they had people to find.

~*~

The first night had been cold and silent, and John wasn't ashamed to admit he much preferred taking watch with the reassuring weight of his P-90 in his hands.

"Anything?" Rodney's voice was low behind him, still heavy with sleep.

"Nothing," he replied. The night had been quiet, far quieter than John had anticipated. He'd been half expecting the Wraith to dive out of the bushes, pinpointing their location as soon as they'd stopped. It hadn't been ideal, but they'd had no idea where they were going in the daylight, never mind doing it in the dark, and they'd been moving for hours. Both of them had been exhausted, and even though carrying on would have been John's preference, when they'd come across the cave, they'd had no choice but to rest, sleep and wait out the dawn.

John looked up, the tops of the trees barely visible, sunlight streaming through the canopy. "We need to start moving." Because if there was anything you didn't do when they were chasing you - no matter who they were - it was stay still and wait for them to find you.

"And I need to pee," Rodney said, moving past John. "I'll just go and--" he waved an arm in the direction of the trees.

"Don't go too far," John warned.

Rodney jerked around the face him. "You don't think--" his words trailed off and John could almost see the image inside Rodney's head, Wraith hand against his chest and draining his life as he pissed against a tree.

"I think if they were there, we'd know already," John reassured him. "But still, it pays to be safe."

Rodney nodded, eyes darting from tree to tree as he made his way to a private spot.

"And we need to find water," John continued. Not that they'd be able to carry it, considering all the Wraith had beamed them down to the planet with was the clothes on their backs. "And something to--" But John's words crashed away from him, subsumed by the whiteheatpain that lit up every nerve in his body.

A scream echoed through the trees.

It was John.

It was Rodney.

It was his wife crying as he walked out of the house, bags in hand.

It was the imprint of his sister's hand across his cheek at their parents' funeral.

And then it was nothing as darkness finally took him.

~*~

When John Sheppard was 23 his parents died in a car crash. It had been a Wednesday night and he'd been busy eviscerating some of the theory in one of the science journals he'd received when the phone rang. He didn't remember much about the following conversation, just bits and pieces, snatches of sentences. But he remembered Jeannie on the telephone, crying so hard he could barely make out her words.

Icy roads, the police had told them. A drunk driver coming too quickly on the wrong side of the road. Ironically, said drunk driver had survived without a scratch on him and was waiting for them, trying to be suitably contrite and apologetic when they'd arrived at the hospital.

John had called him a murdering bastard, tightened his grip on Jeannie's hand and gone to identify the bodies of his parents.

He barely remembered the funeral, two for the price of one going past in a blur of rain and speeches. He did remember having to borrow a suit off a friend, because the only one he owned was back at Northwestern.

And he remembered Jeannie begging him to stay. Remembered refusing, shaking his head and telling her that he'd worked too long to get out of the back-water town they called home to come back to it now. Remembered, always remembered, the feel of her hand across his face, the scathing tone calling him selfish, saying he'd never once thought about them after he'd left.

He remembered Jeannie crying, long into the night. Crying as he packed his bags and refusing to look at him as he left for his flight.

He remembered that it was the last time he'd set foot in his parents' house ever again.

When John Sheppard was 23 his parents died in a car crash. But, of course, they didn't.

Because that wasn't his life at all.

~*~

John liked to think that he hadn't actually whimpered a little when he'd opened his eyes, sunlight too bright, too loud, which seemed ridiculous because it wasn't like light made a sound.

His head was pillowed on soft moss and the dampness of the dew was seeping slowly through his clothes. There was a throb in the back of his head, but that was okay, because at least it wasn't the brain-wrenching agony that had been there before.

And it wasn't until he'd heard the voice that John realised Rodney was right next to him, fingers wrapped around John's wrist and John knew he should have been able to feel it but he didn't. He didn't feel it because it didn't feel like someone else, felt like the touch was his and his alone.

"Okay," Rodney's voice was quiet, soft in a way John had never associated with Rodney before, "let's never do that again."

~*~

"I'm sorry, Dr Weir, I wish I could be more help, but the truth is I've heard nothing about Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay being taken." Ladon's tone was nothing but solicitous and helpful, and it made Elizabeth's skin crawl.

"Thank you, Ladon," she replied. "If you hear anything, though--"

"Oh, if I hear anything, you will, of course, be the first to know."

They signed off with the usual pleasantries, fake and insincere as always. As soon as the screen was blank, Elizabeth raised a hand to her forehead, fingertips massaging her temple briefly. She nodded at Chuck as she turned back towards her office, acutely aware of Lorne following her.

"He's not going to tell us anything even if he knows," Lorne said, as soon as the door closed behind him.

"No, he's not," she agreed, but then she hadn't expected anything more from the Genii leader. "And he's not going to tell his people to keep their ears open for any news, either." Because if he did that, if he let it be known that the military leader of Atlantis was missing, then there were factions within the Genii government that would push for another assault against the city. Ladon wouldn't tell his people because he was too enamoured with the status quo that kept him where he was.

But even though Elizabeth understood his reasons, that didn't mean she had to like them.

~*~

"Do you think this was what they intended?" Rodney said, voice still rough. Or did something go wrong?

"I don't know," John replied, ignoring the words Rodney hadn't spoken. If lips didn't move then it didn't count was the new motto he was living by. He felt terrible, even if he was unable to pin it down beyond that, and the soft sensation of badwrongnotme in his mind wasn't helping.

He wasn't sure how long they'd lain in the forest, all he knew was that the sun had been further overheard than it had been when he'd first opened his eyes and he could still feel Rodney in the back of his head.

"I don't know why they didn't just handcuff us together and be done with it," Rodney muttered.

But that was exactly what the Wraith had done, only they'd done it better, more insidiously, more completely than any band of metal around their wrists could have done it.

John could have handled just a mental link - and hey, wasn't that a sentence he'd never thought he'd say - but only being able to go a certain distance away from Rodney McKay without his brain feeling like it was boiling in his head?

Yeah, better than a set of handcuffs any day. And, he glanced at Rodney, squashing down any thoughts before they even had a chance to rise to the surface, infinitely more dangerous.

~*~

"I think we're still on Carnava," said Rodney suddenly, coming to a stop after they'd been walking for what seemed like hours.

John looked around at the surrounding trees. "How can you tell?" They might as well be in Vancouver for all John knew, instead of standing on an alien planet. They'd managed to find a river a few miles back, but apart from that? Trees. Trees and bushes with the occasional patch of grass just to spice things up a little.

Rodney glared at him, the look saying everything his mouth wasn't as he grabbed a handful of berries off a bush and held them up. "These look like those tavaberries. According to the botanists they only grow on Carnava."

John looked at Rodney in surprise.

"What?"

"Soft sciences."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Even those in the soft, gooey sciences are still my scientists, Colonel. And I do listen to each and every one of them. Much as, I assume, you do with your military grunts."

"Of course," John glanced away as he answered. He listened. Whenever he couldn't find Lorne and make him do it. His gaze drifted to the berries in Rodney's hand "But what does that have to do with--" And then his words trailed off, the answer to the question brushing against his mind. Because it wasn't about the berries at all.

"Because if we're still on the planet, then--" John looked at Rodney, smile playing at his lips.

"Stargate." The words overlapped as they spilled from both their lips.

"We just have to get there." Get there and get home and, more importantly, get Carson to remove the damn trackers the Wraith had so very kindly put in their bodies. Get rid of the trackers, get rid of Rodney. And it wasn't a pang of regret John was feeling. It wasn't.

But if Rodney was picking up on the thoughts running around John's mind, then he wasn't showing it. "Of course, getting back to the 'Gate may prove difficult, seeing as we have, oh, no way of knowing where on the planet we are."

"But it's a start, Rodney," John said, refusing to let Rodney bring down the only bit of hope John had felt since they were teleported down to the planet. He was right, it was a start. And it was a damn sight better than they'd had ten minutes before.

~*~

The muted sound of chattering stopped completely as Evan walked into lab three, silence reigning for a brief moment before the scientists saw who it was and went back to what they'd been doing.

Catching Radek's attention, Evan nodded towards the door leading to the small office Rodney sometimes used. The bed in the corner of the room hadn't been made from the last time McKay hadn't managed to get back to his own quarters, military issued blanket bundled haphazardly into a pile at the foot of the cot.

"What did Radim say?" Radek asked, the door closing behind him and blocking all the noise from the lab.

"Exactly what we thought he'd say," Evan replied. He didn't voice the 'Fuck all' at the end; he didn't need to, not with Radek.

Radek sighed. "So we are back to the beginning; waiting and wondering."

Evan nodded. He glanced towards the door, imagining that, if he concentrated hard enough, he could hear the voices of the scientists. "What's it like in here?" Because he knew what it was like outside, had already heard one argument between a new arrival writing Sheppard off and speculating who was going to get the job (it was between Caldwell and General O'Neill; apparently Evan didn't get a look in) and being slapped down by the ones who had been there since the beginning, by the ones who wouldn't be going back to Earth.

"Quiet," Radek replied. "I tried shouting at them, but I just don't have the McKay presence."

"Who does?" Evan smiled softly. "You don't need the McKay presence, Radek, just keep the Zelenka one, it's worked so far."

"Yes," Radek nodded. "And then when Rodney gets back, I will gleefully hand all problems back over to him to deal with using waving arms and a raised voice, and I will go back to being the good cop."

When. Not if, never if. Evan hoped Radek was right.

~*~

It was late in the day when the sound of running water reached them, the sunlight shining through the trees shot through with the red that seemed to herald the dusk on Carnava.

"Orvin mentioned a river running near the village, didn't he?"

John looked at Rodney, surprised that he'd taken in anything Orvin had said beyond the 'Why, yes of course you can have free and unlimited access to our previously unknown-about and apparently fully functional Ancient lab.'

"I do actually listen at times, you know," Rodney muttered, the unsubtle emanation of indignation coming from him causing John to bank down his thoughts and reply with a wry grin.

"Yes, he did," John answered. "But it's pretty unlikely this is going to be the same one." Even so, at least following it would make them feel less like they had just been wandering aimlessly, as well as giving them ongoing access to a water supply.

"Okay, that might be an issue."

John looked up as the treeline ended, understanding instantly what Rodney meant. No more forest? Check. River? Check? River apparently off the end of a cliff with no visible way down? Also check. John sighed.

"I don't think there's a way down." Rodney moved closer to the edge, peering over. "Not here, anyway."

John glanced one way and then the other. "If we carry on walking, there may be a way to get down further on."

"Which, knowing our luck, will be some sort of decrepit rope ladder covered in--" McKay stopped suddenly. "Do you hear that?" A soft rumbling underscored his words, getting louder with each heartbeat.

John's eyes locked with Rodney's, horrified realisation of why the treeline ended so closely to the cliff washing over him as the earth moved and trembled under their feet. "Don't move."

Rodney opened his mouth, snapping it shut as he glanced down, his already pale face flashing white as he picked up on what John was thinking. "John--"

And then the ground gave way beneath him and Rodney was gone.

"Rodney!" Diving forward, John reached out a hand, stretching and praying. Thanking whoever had been listening when his fingers grabbed Rodney's hand, John looked over the edge of the now collapsed ground.

"Don't you dare let me go," Rodney shouted, his spare hand frantically reaching up to John.

"I wasn't exactly planning on it," John snapped, looking down. He didn't know how far down it was to the river and rocks below, but it was obviously a damn sight more than the distance they could stay apart from each other. The earth was loose under him and his stomach clenched as he could feel it shifting against his weight. "McKay, there's a branch to your left, you're going to have to put your foot on it and boost yourself up." Because he wasn't strong enough to hold him for much longer, not with how unsteady the ground was.

Rodney looked at him, and John felt the panic in his mind.

"Rodney, trust me."

Rodney nodded, closing his eyes for a brief second, before his foot reached out for the branch. "Ready?"

John tightened his grip on Rodney's hand in response. "On three," he said, waiting for Rodney's nod before starting. "One, two, three-"

Rodney pushed himself up with the branch, the extra leverage giving John the ability to pull him back over the edge as the sound of the soil ripping further away and falling to impact on the rushing water below reached them.

They scrambled back as more loose earth tumbled from sight, not stopping until the trees surrounded them again and the ground felt secure beneath them And then they shuffled back some more for good measure.

His heart still racing, John looked at Rodney, pale and shaking and realising just how close he'd come to falling.

"You didn't let me go."

John wanted to snap something back, pithy and quick, but he could feel it, feel it coming from Rodney. A mixture of fear and relief and heat and it was pouring out of him every moment he looked at John.

"Rodney--"

And John didn't know which one of them moved first, didn't know which one of them reached out to the other. All he knew was that Rodney was under him, solid and there and alive.

His lips pressed against Rodney's as hands moved to their BDUs, fingers tangling in their hurry to free themselves.

Rodney got there first, hand reaching into John's BDUs, fingers wrapping around the hard cock and releasing it. The touch of Rodney's fingers on his dick made John falter, made him pause as he registered tight and hot and someone's grip on his cock that wasn't his own.

"John--" The whine and thrust of Rodney's hips into his hand brought John back, fingers finishing their task and finally, finally taking hold of Rodney's cock, thick and heavy and perfect in his hand. And even though they didn't do that, shouldn't do that, John wasn't about to stop.

They had danced around this for too long, edged around it since Rodney had first stepped forward and given John the key to opening the skies. Glances that lingered too long and touches that went beyond propriety were all masked by a botanist that had no chance and a reputation for chasing anything in a skirt. But this was what it was all leading to, Rodney beneath him with John's hand wrapped around both their cocks, jagged and sharp with the way eased only by pre-come.

"Come on, Rodney--" Because John wanted to feel it, that pulsing heat in the back of his mind that slid along his neurons every time Rodney moved, every time he gasped.

Rodney's fingers were tight on his arm, and John knew that there would be bruises there the next day, Rodney McKay's name written in colours across his skin.

John tightened his grip, hand moving faster as Rodney tensed beneath him, open and right and there.

And John's mind exploded, an ocean of colour and light and heat washing through him, carrying a single thought as he came.

Yes.

He didn't know whose thought it was.

~*~

When John Sheppard was seventeen, he fell in love. It was everything a first love should be - passionate, wild and completely unknown to either set of parents. They'd meet in secret and tell each other they'd love forever.

Like most teenagers, they believed they had the rest of their lives, that they could face whatever the world threw at them.

Five years later, John stood at the altar in his dress blues and listened to Nancy say her vows. She was a perfect bride - beautiful, caring, intelligent and she loved him.

She had tears in her eyes as he stood there and promised to love her, to cherish her, promised that she would be first beyond anything, and he had believed it as he'd said it.

Of course, he'd believed it when he'd told Michael the exact same thing years earlier.

It was strange how life worked out.

~*~

Trying to make their way back to the Stargate and wondering exactly when the Wraith were going to find them was a little too much like waiting for the other shoe to drop, so when they actually found the Wraith first, John discovered he was kind of relieved.

"What are they doing?" Rodney whispered, entirely unhappy that they were that close to a Wraith camp.

"I'm not sure," John admitted. He'd thought that they'd all be out looking for the two of them. After all, that was what Wraith did with Runners, track them. But, apart from the one John had christened Ringo back on the hiveship studying a scanning device, the Wraith didn't seem that concerned.

"We need to leave before they find us." The overhead whine of darts almost drowned out Rodney's words

Rodney was right. They had no weapons, no idea where on the planet they were, darts over their heads and six ground troops in front of them. Only-- John looked up, his eyes tracking the directions the darts were flying in before glancing back to the group of Wraith in the forest clearing.

"I have an idea."

Rodney followed his gaze back to the Wraith. "And I have a burning desire not to die today."

"Come on, Rodney, where's your sense of adventure?" They could do this, John knew they could.

"Back on Atlantis, right next to your sense of sanity," Rodney snapped.

John reached out and wrapped his fingers around Rodney's wrist, sparks dancing through him at the shudder of heat that ran through his mind. "We need to get back."

Rodney's eyes closed briefly before he opened them again, pinning John with his gaze. "Fine, but if I die I'm haunting your ass across every planet you set foot on."

John just grinned.

~*~

It turned out that the hardest part of the plan was actually making sure they stayed close enough together to stop their brains from splintering in agony while still making it look like Rodney was completely alone.

"And I have to be the bait why?"

John wasn't sure if the drone who reached them first wasn't supposed to check in when he found something or was just too eager to impress, but he didn't care either way. A large branch judiciously smacked into the back of the drone's head as he was advancing on Rodney worked to stagger it enough for Rodney to wrestle the stunner it was carrying out of its hands.

A stunner set to its highest level and one dead Wraith later and they were armed and ready. John hefted the stunner in his arms; it wasn't as good as a P-90, but it would do for what he wanted. And what he wanted was to cause some damage, because John Sheppard was fucking sick of being the hunted.

The thing about Wraith, John had found over the several times he'd been far too close to one, was that they were arrogant shits who thought themselves invulnerable. Which meant, when they were tracking two guys who were meant to be running for their lives, the last thing they expected was one of the said supposedly terrified guys to jump out from behind a tree, screaming and firing a stunner at them.

And since John wasn't one to let a winning strategy go, he and Rodney (sporting his own stunner by this point) did it again and again until only Ringo was left.

"I can't believe that worked," Rodney said, staring at his stunner in bemused surprise.

A slow clapping coming from behind them cut off John's reply and they turned to see Ringo watching them.

"This is how you humans show appreciation, yes?" Ringo stopped clapping and stared at them. "Strong and resourceful. Such a shame you were born meat." His eyes raked over Rodney.

John's fingers tightened on the stunner, meeting Rodney's incipient panic with calm. Because this, this was what John did. He didn't run and hide, he stood and fought, and there was something visceral about facing Ringo, the Wraith's fingers wrapped around the small blaster at his side.

This was what it came down to, who was quicker, who had the most to lose.

John felt Rodney's mind brush across his, quick and cutting and solid.

In the end there was no doubt. No doubt as they both fired. No doubt as one of them fell.

Ringo stared at John, eyes glazed as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, dark and viscous. "There will be darts coming." Voice rough and painful as he lay on the forest floor, blood seeping into the soil.

"I'm counting on it," John said, as he fired again.

~*~

They'd been surprisingly close to the edge of the forest, trees giving way to lush green shot through with colour as various plants grew wild and unchecked.

They found a place to sit and waited, John amusing himself by thinking about various images and watching Rodney flush as he picked up on them.

"I'm holding you to that one!" Rodney finally snapped after a particularly adventurous one involving the two of them and Elizabeth's desk.

John's agreement was cut off by the tension suddenly coming from Rodney, as he sat straighter, staring into the sky.

"John--"

But John could already the whine in the air above them that signalled the appearance of a dart coming closer.

Squinting into the sunlight, John pinpointed the small ship, slowing and angling down to land.

Bracing himself on his knees and ignoring the snort of amusement and brief mental image of him on his knees for an entirely different reason coming from Rodney, John lifted the stunner, balancing it on his shoulder and waiting until the dart got closer.

Relying on good aim, luck and several prayers to a god he hadn't really believed in since Afghanistan, John fired the stunner, grinning when it hit the dart dead on and the ship started to fall--

Right towards him.

He dropped the stunner and started running, feeling Rodney close behind him as they both dove to the ground, arms over their heads against the heat they could feel brushing over their backs.

Cursing the rotten sense of humour of a deity who must have heard him and decided to not let him off so easily, John breathed a sigh of relief when the dart shot by them before crashing into the ground. Rodney had accepted being turned into a Runner and stuck on an alien planet with a surprising lack of complaining, but John adding probable fiery death from the sky to the mix was probably pushing it a little too far.

"That wasn't the plan!" Rodney slapped John's arm, fingers gripping his jacket as John just grinned.

"Got it down, didn't it." Bending down to scoop up the stunner, John jogged over to the dart. The hatch was open and the pilot slumped over, half in and half out of his seat, having very obviously not survived the crash.

Rodney started to look over the dart as John removed the pilot. "You know, for having been shot out of the sky and crashed, it's not in too bad a condition," he remarked.

"Does that mean you can get it airborne?" John asked. Because if he couldn't then the whole plan had been for nothing.

Rodney just looked at him. "Hello, genius," Rodney pointed out, motioning to himself. "If anyone can, I can."

And the waves of certainty emanating from Rodney made John smile.

~*~

"You know, this part's a lot easier with tools and without the running commentary," Rodney griped, his ass hanging out of the dart as he worked.

"Come on, McKay, you're a genius, remember. You saying you can't do it?" John tore his eyes away from Rodney's ass and back towards the sky, scanning for any more darts.

"I didn't say I couldn't do it, I just said it was easier without the comments." There was muttered cursing for long moments and then, "Ha! Got it!"

John turned in time to see Rodney wiggling out of the dart and jumping back to the ground.

"Well, I wouldn't recommend taking her out of the atmosphere, but we have what should be a working dart."

"And the buffer?" John asked, because darts were only built for one which meant if both of them were going, and they were, then one of them was going in the Wraith equivalent of the trunk.

"Up and running," Rodney replied. "And empty." Which meant that either the dart hadn't been involved in the culling or, more likely, it had already long since dropped its victims off on the hiveship.

Boosting himself up and into the dart, John settled into the pilot's seat. "You ready?"

"I hate this bit," Rodney said, like there was someone out there who enjoyed having their molecules broken down and stored in a pattern buffer. Although, considering the other stuff they'd seen during their time in Pegasus, John supposed it wasn't entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Taking a deep breath, John placed his hands on the controls, failing to suppress a shudder when the canopy closed, sealing him inside. The ship quivered as it left the ground, steadying slightly as it responded to John's touch. The screen in front of him showed a solitary blinking red dot and his hand moved to activate the culling beam, only faltering momentarily before he pressed the button and the dot disappeared.

Triggering more of the systems to come online, a map of the planet appeared in perfect 3D resolution, pinpointing the location of the Stargate with a beautiful green dot.

John smiled.

Next stop: home.

~*~

Elizabeth watched as the seventh chevron locked into place, the soft, rippling shield over the Gate stopping anyone from using the unauthorised activation to enter Atlantis. "Chuck?"

Chuck's fingers skimmed the console before he finally nodded. "We're receiving an IDC. It matches the one we gave to Naorans."

"Lower the shield," she said, already moving towards the steps. Lieutenant Stevens and the rest of the Marines around the Gate had already taken up positions, ready in case whoever came through the Gate wasn't who they were expecting. They'd learned the hard way that the IDCs were too easily wrested out of the control of the people they'd originally given them to. But Elizabeth wasn't about to stop giving their allies a way of contacting them, no matter what had been suggested by the SGC, no matter what the reports said.

Whether they liked it or not, whether they'd planned it or not, Atlantis was now one of the main things standing between the Wraith and the rest of Pegasus. Elizabeth wasn't going to offer that partial protection only to withdraw it when it became uncomfortable.

She'd been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that it took her a moment to realise the people who stepped through the Gate weren't any of the Naora. Took her a moment to react, to call Ronon and Teyla to the Gate Room as she all but raced down the few remaining steps.

"Hi kids," Sheppard grinned. "Hope you don't mind, but we borrowed Timmy's cell to phone home."

The movement was automatic as she closed the distance between them, arms opening as she hugged Sheppard. "How--" she started, because the words died in her throat, because how they got there wasn't important, just that they were there at all. Pulling back from Sheppard, she wrapped her arms around Rodney, commotion and cry of surprised joy from behind her indicating the rest of the team had arrived.

"It's good to see you," she said, stepping back and making room for Teyla and Ronon.

"Believe me," Rodney replied. "It's good to be back. I've been dreaming about a shower for days."

"Smells like it," Ronon said, smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, tone taking away the sting of his words.

The four of them looked at each other for long moments, two of them dirty and scruffy and looking like nothing less than miracles.

And then Teyla moved.

Hands reaching out, she pulled John and Rodney towards her, forehead touching one and then the other before Ronon joined the circle, one hand on John's arm and fingers touching Rodney's cheek so quickly Elizabeth would have thought she'd imagined it if she hadn't been staring at them so intently.

And she knew word was spreading, could hear more people coming into the Gate Room. Lorne's voice was overlapping with Zelenka's, with both of them being outdone by Carson as question after question was fired at the prodigals.

"People!" Elizabeth held up a hand, waiting until the noise died down. "We all have questions, but I think it's best that they wait until Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay have had a chance to clean up and get checked over."

Radek looked suitably chastised, reaching out to pat Rodney's arm. "Is good to have you back, Rodney," he said. "Maybe now the labs will not be so quiet. Also, there is much paperwork for you," he added with a sly smile.

"Whereas yours has all been cleared, sir," Lorne commented, prompting John to throw a smirk in Rodney's direction.

"Oh, that's just wonderful," Rodney complained. "We come back, heroically and miraculously, I might add, and all I'm greeted with is paperwork!"

Radek smiled, backing away from Rodney. "I shall go and spread the news of hero's return," he said. "There will be much celebrating."

Rodney glanced at the still smirking Sheppard. "You should spend more time with Lorne!" Rodney shouted at Radek's retreating form. "He might rub off on you!"

If Elizabeth hadn't been watching she would have missed the way Radek's steps faltered for a split second before he carried on walking, at the way Lorne's gaze slid away to the side for only a moment.

Well, that explained... quite a lot really.

She had the urge to reach out to Lorne, to tell him that he could trust her, that they could all trust her. But the moment was broken by Carson stepping forward, hands reaching out to touch Rodney's arm.

"Right, before anything else, I'll see you both in the infirmary," he said, his tone brooking no argument. "Whichever one's done first can brief Elizabeth."

Could tell her what happened, where'd they'd been. Because she hadn't realised how many questions she had until they'd been standing in front of her, safe and alive.

Sheppard glanced at McKay before he turned back to Carson. "Yeah, about that," he said, words careful. "There may be a slight issue with that."

~*~

"Aye, I can see where that could be a bit of a problem," Carson said, after they'd told him the whole story. Walking across the infirmary, he picked a scanner up off one of the shelves, switching it on as he headed back to them. "Stay still," he told them, running the scanner over John and then Rodney, looking down at it when it beeped.

"Well?" Elizabeth asked.

"There's definitely a low level signal coming from the implants that's different to the one we took out of Ronon," Carson answered.

"But can the Wraith track it back here?" Because even though she trusted both of these men with her life, trusted them not to endanger the city, she still needed to know.

Radek shook his head, fingers moving over the laptop balanced in his hands. "No, the shield is blocking the signal from getting out of the city." It was the first thing she'd asked Radek to check once John had mentioned the words Runner and tracker.

"But not from each other," Carson said. "There's still a connection between the two trackers." He showed Elizabeth the scanner. "They're working on exactly the same wavelength. It's quite fascinating, really."

"It would be more fascinating if it wasn't my brain we were talking about," Rodney snapped.

"How does it work?" Teyla asked. "What do you," she paused, thoughtfully, before finally settling on, "feel?"

"Sometimes it's words, sometimes it's thoughts or emotions," John answered. He glanced over at Rodney and smiled. "Sometimes, like now, it's just the knowledge that he'd kill for a really good cup of coffee."

"And you, Rodney? Is it the same for you?"

Rodney shook his head. "It seems to be less intense for me. Mainly emotions, some images."

"Which may mean it's linked to the gene in some way," Carson speculated. "Colonel Sheppard's stronger, natural gene may translate to a stronger connection on his side." He looked over at Ronon. "Have you ever heard of this happening to other Runners?"

"No," Ronon replied. "Course, not like I've met any," he added, shrugging.

Carson frowned at him. "Never?"

"Didn't look," Ronon explained. "Knew they were out there, but I had enough of my own troubles to deal with without borrowing others. Besides, it's not like we were carrying signs."

Although she'd wondered in passing, Elizabeth had never actually sat down and really thought about how lonely it must be to be a Runner, never stopping, never knowing if the people you were passing were in the same situation. She knew she would never have had the strength to Run, to fight, for seven years; wondered if John and Rodney would have coped.

"Right then," Carson's voice shook her out of her reverie, "let's get these little buggers out of you, shall we?"

~*~

The infirmary had all but emptied, Carson shooing out most of the people, telling them that he'd let Rodney and John out to play when he was finished with them.

Rodney had grumbled all the way into the gown, complaining that the local anaesthetic Carson used always made him feel like he'd knocked back an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, but without the pleasant bits first.

Carson had ignored him, leading Rodney into the operating room and telling John he'd be back out for him soon.

John just managed to stop himself from following them through the doors, ignoring the clenching in his stomach when Rodney disappeared from sight. He'd spent so long making sure that Rodney was there that it was harder than he'd thought finally watching him go.

Elizabeth's hand on his arm pulled him out of his thoughts and dragged his eyes away from the door he was still staring at. She'd pulled rank in order to stay in the infirmary, simply smiling at Carson when he'd sent everyone else out. "It's good to have you back, John."

John smiled at her. "It's good that you don't have to deal with Caldwell on a daily basis, you mean." Because Caldwell was a good commander, someone John would have protecting his back without hesitation, but Atlantis was nothing like commanding a ship, and John didn't think Caldwell understood that, at least not well enough to keep the city and the people in her, the people who relied on her, safe.

It had been obvious from the beginning, some people were Atlanteans and some people weren't. One wasn't better than the other, but John had become adept at telling at a glance which of the new recruits would head back after their time was up, eager to set foot back in the Milky Way, and which ones would request permanent transfers to Pegasus.

Elizabeth matched his smile. "Caldwell's not so bad, as long you know how to handle him."

The teasing reply about Elizabeth handling Caldwell died in his throat, consumed by the wave of pain that hit him.

There was pain and there was fire and there was someone screaming.

Hands pressed at his shoulders, and John thought he could hear his name, thought he could hear someone yelling for help, but it was all drowned out, all consumed by the one words screaming in his mind.

Rodney...

~*~

Carson's eyes were bloodshot when he finally came out of the infirmary, tiredness written in every line on his face.

"How are they?" Elizabeth asked, absently rubbing her arm where John had lashed out, where he'd tried to stop her from holding him down.

"Sedated," Carson replied. "And they'll be staying that way until morning, at least."

"Do we know what happened?" She looked at Radek.

"I've looked at the sensor data from the infirmary and there was a massive energy spike between the two trackers when Carson tried to remove Rodney's," Radek answered. "Problem is, we don't know if this is how the trackers were designed or if it is a side effect of the gene." He paused. "We have the tracker removed from Ronon for comparison, but we must remember that was implanted ten years ago."

"And the technology has, no doubt, moved on since then," Elizabeth sighed.

Radek nodded. "This may be function of the trackers, to stop them from being removed. So far we've found nothing to completely block the signal, but there is still much more of the Ancient database to search through."

Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly. If the Wraith tracker technology had moved on so much in just ten years, she wasn't sure if a 10,000 year old database would yield any answers.

"We will find something," Radek assured her. "It just may take a little time."

Elizabeth hoped he was right.

~*~

Elizabeth looked at them like she expected John to argue with her words, but he'd known this moment was coming since Carson's words back in the infirmary.

"I can't remove the implants."

It had been game over with those words. Even if the shield on Atlantis protected them, blocked any signal from leaving the city, they couldn't take the risk of going off-world, couldn't trust that the Wraith wouldn't be able to track them.

"Understood," he nodded. She'd had no choice, he would have done the same in her place. "I think I can deal with being in McKay's head for a little while longer. And at least it'll let me go over all of those reports Lorne finished when I was gone, make sure he hasn't put my name to anything that'll bite me in the ass." He smiled at her, glad to see some of the tension drain from her shoulders.

"And in between the reports you can help Simpson out with that box of unidentifiable Ancient tech," said Rodney. His eyes were bright and John had the flash of an image of him in lab three turning on everything Rodney put in front of him.

Elizabeth masked the smirk tugging at the corner of her lips, but not before John had seen it. "I've temporarily assigned you quarters next to each other in section 4D. Radek and Carson measured them earlier and, no matter where you are in them, you'll still be within the distance you need to be to each other. Carson would also like you to wear these." She held out two silver bracelets. "They'll monitor your vital signs, so he'll know instantly if anything does happen."

John took them off her, handing one to Rodney and snapping the other around his wrist. "Just what all the fashionable Lieutenant Colonels are wearing these days," he commented.

"It matches your eyes," Elizabeth quipped, before she met their gazes. "I'm sure it's only for a little while. It won't be for long. Carson'll figure out how to remove them."

John had little doubt about that. But until then, John had a totally valid excuse to stick to Rodney McKay like glue. And he was going to use it.

~*~

The first few days went by in a blur of infirmary visits and reports - even though Lorne had indeed cleared John's in-tray, there was still a never ending procession of paperwork associated with being the military commander of the SGC's only Pegasus base. John had taken over one of the desks in lab three, laptop in front of him, and felt constant gratitude towards the scientists, who had taken to refilling John's coffee every time they refilled Rodney's, which meant he'd yet to have an empty cup at any point during the day.

Rodney was taking full advantage of being in the labs and kept putting bits of Ancient technology under John's nose with the instruction to 'press this' and 'touch that' and 'turn this on.'

He'd become especially fond of that last request, and had started taking Rodney at his word, sending images and thoughts just to see how long it would be before Rodney cracked and ordered everyone else out of the lab so he could get his hands on John and do things that were still illegal in at least seven American states.

So far, the record was thirty-seven minutes.

Thirty-seven minutes of ignoring John's grin, flushing red and getting increasingly snippy at the other scientists until two of them had been in tears. This, considering one of them had been a 6'4 ex-rugby player called Hans, was something John wasn't likely to forget in a while.

It was Zelenka who had eventually snapped, telling everyone to take a break and hustling them out of the lab while simultaneously yelling at John and Rodney that he'd be back in thirty minutes and if the doors were still locked he was setting the lab's fire suppression system off.

"I can't believe you made Hans cry," John said, still watching the door long moments after it had closed.

"Oh, please, he'll be fine," Rodney replied. "All of these people were hand picked for this. As head of the Science Division I had ultimate say in which ones came and which ones didn't. You think I would have signed off on any of them if I thought all it took to break them was a few less than polite words from me?"

"Hand picked?"

"Every last one," confirmed Rodney

John paused. "So how do you explain Kavanagh?"

"I thought if we ever came across a planet where the natives practiced blood sacrifice he'd come in useful, and why are we talking about my scientists when we could be having sex?"

"I have no idea," John admitted, reaching out with his gene to lock the lab door, only to find that Zelenka had already obliged.

Rodney smirked as he stalked forward. "Now, I believe the last thing you sent me was an image of me right here," he said, stopping between John's legs

John couldn't remember. He'd sent a couple of various blow jobs around the lab, a few that involved either one of them spread across the benches, and he thought there was at least one that featured Ronon and Teyla as guest stars.

And then Rodney sank to his knees and John stopped thinking for quite some time.

~*~

When John Sheppard was eight years old he'd had an argument with his brother. This argument, as many such arguments between young brothers do, started with John declaring it would be relatively easy to climb on to the roof of the house without their father noticing and ended with the sudden realisation that the ground hurt.

John's abrupt meeting with concrete resulted in his leg being broken in two places, the nanny in tears after she got fired and his father banning him from leaving the house for three weeks. David, however, escaped with a stern telling off and the warning that the next time his idiot brother decided to do something so stupid he wasn't to damn well encourage him - although John was more than sure he wasn't meant to hear that part.

The eight-year old John had thought this was very unfair, seeing as the entire argument had been David's fault in the first place. This was also the time John discovered that being forced to stay in one place when he knew there was a big, wide world out there was torture. That a prison, no matter how large, was still a prison, and the one thing guaranteed to make John want to be out there was being told that he couldn't be.

~*~

It didn't really hit John until AR-2 missed a check in when they were on P2X-346. It was meant to be a quiet mission to a planet whose natives had traded with the Athosians in the past. But the check-in Lorne was meant to make came and went in a haze of silence.

When Elizabeth made the call to send another team after them, it was instinct for John to move, to call out to his team, words dying in his throat when Elizabeth placed a hand on his arm and shook her head.

"We can't risk it, John," she said, calling for Stackhouse's team to report to the Gateroom, for Teyla and Ronon to accompany them.

He stayed on the upper level, hand gripping the rail as he watched half of his team run through the pre-mission checks with Stackhouse instead of him. Stayed there after they'd gone through the Gate and the wormhole had winked out of existence. He stayed there and ignored the looks he could feel Elizabeth giving him, ignored the concern he felt coming from Rodney as the other man gave Zelenka more and more inconsequential things to do.

He stayed there right until the Stargate lit up and Chuck's voice rang through the Gate Room.

"It's AR-4's IDC."

"Drop the shield," Elizabeth ordered, coming to stand next to John. Her sigh of relief was palpable as ten people walked back through the Gate, Lorne's team looking tired and bedraggled and bitching about space pirates who'd thought it would be a good idea to raid a village for slaves, including the Atlantis team, right up until they'd had their asses kicked by six righteously indignant rescuers.

Lorne slapped Stackhouse on the back. "Good job back there."

"Well, sir, the Marines get to rescue you flyboys from trouble so many times that we're used to it by now," Stackhouse replied, the grin on his face taking any heat out of the words.

"Infirmary, Major," Elizabeth called. "We'll debrief later."

"Yes, ma'am." Lorne nodded to her as he waved away the stretcher two of the nurses had brought with them and limped off, aided by Stackhouse, in the direction of the infirmary, just as Rodney decided Zelenka had done enough for the day and should take a break.

John waited a little while longer, waited until both Teyla and Ronon looked up and signalled that they were okay, waited until the Gateroom had cleared before he moved, down the steps and into the corridor, not needing to check to know that Rodney was behind him.

The balcony was quiet when John reached it, door closing behind him and Rodney to shut out the sounds of the city, leaving them with just the ocean and the wind to contend with. His hands gripped the railing, knuckles turning white with the pressure, only easing up when Rodney's mind slid over his in a brush of warmthcomfort. Feeling something move over his fingers, he glanced down, shifting his hand slightly to let Rodney's little finger link with his on the rail.

"I never wanted to be down here," John explained. "Dad wanted me to follow him into the business. 'Sheppard and Sons' was something he'd always wanted, but me?" He glanced up, the bright blue almost taunting in its clarity. "I just wanted to be up there."

Rodney didn't say anything, but the touch against John's finger tightened.

"God, is this how Elizabeth feels every time we go through the Gate?" he wondered.

"Probably," Rodney replied. "But she stays here because that's what she does and we go through because that's what we do."

"Eloquent as ever, McKay," John commented.

Rodney glared at him. "You know what I mean."

And the thing was, John did. It still didn't make it any easier to watch half his team go through the Gate without him, to know that his people were in trouble on the other side and there was nothing he could do except see off the rescue party with a smile and a jaunty wave.

His hand massaged the back of his neck absently, fingertips almost feeling the tracker under his skin. Rodney had his people searching the Ancient database, but the information was 10,000 years out of date and the Wraith might have been hibernating, but the ones who had still been awake hadn't been stagnant.

"We'll get them out, John," Rodney promised, belief in his words pouring off him.

John didn't answer, just shifted closer to Rodney as the sun started to set.

~*~

In the end, the circle completed, as circles are wont to do, where it started: with the Wraith.

"Dr Weir, there's a hiveship entering the system," Chuck said.

"What?" Rodney swore as he jerked up from under the console he'd been fixing, the sound of flesh unexpectedly impacting on metal ringing through the air.

Elizabeth was unconcerned; she'd been half expecting this since she'd cast feelers into space the day after Carson admitted he had no idea how to remove the implants. "Are we being hailed?"

Chuck checked his console. "Yes, ma'am," he answered, surprise lacing his tone.

Elizabeth nodded. "Good. On screen."

"Elizabeth, what--" John trailed off as the screen resolved into a familiar face.

"Dr Weir," Todd grinned out of the screen, far too many teeth showing for Elizabeth's liking. "I understand you've been trying to find me."

~*~

The Marines had been ordered to wait outside the infirmary. It wasn't that John trusted Todd exactly, just that he trusted him enough to realise that making a move against them at this point would be really, really stupid.

After Elizabeth had told Todd what they needed, he'd cut the connection with a nod and landed in a dart on the north pier less than fifteen minutes later.

"Well?" Carson said, visibly uneasy at having a Wraith wandering around his infirmary. "Can you help?"

Todd put down the scalpel he'd been examining and turned to look at them. "Hmm? Oh, yes. They sound like basic duel trackers; relatively easy to deactivate if you have the right equipment. Tell me, though," he continued, "which of your stalwart warriors managed to get themselves captured? Not the Satedan, surely? Twice in one lifetime would just be careless."

John couldn't stop his eyes from sliding to Rodney, who was very carefully staring at the wall and running pi through his mind, before wrenching his gaze back. His hope that Todd had missed the by-play was dashed as the Wraith stared at him for long moments before laughing.

"I'd always hoped it would be me who ran you into the ground, Sheppard, but I'll take what amusement I can get."

"If you just came down to gloat, then I think it's best you leave," Elizabeth said sharply.

Todd held up a hand in capitulation, the human gesture looking wrong on him as the edges of his feeding slit rippled slightly. "I said I'd help, Dr Weir." He pulled a small black control out of his pocket. "Here," he said, throwing it to Beckett. "Run that over the trackers to deactivate them. You should be able to remove them without any problems after that."

"That's it?" Carson commented, looking down at the device he was holding.

"I can make it more complicated, if you so desire," Todd said

Carson shook his head. "No," he said quickly, before reverting back to the manners his mother had drilled into him as a child. "No, thank you. This is fine." He glanced at Elizabeth before looking back at Todd. "Will you be staying around while we do the removal?"

"Why would I?" Todd looked genuinely confused.

"To collect this." Carson waved the deactivation box in the air.

"Keep it," Todd said. "A gift for the," he paused, eyes sliding over John and Rodney, "amusement."

"That's very kind of you." Elizabeth said, words all but ground out and every line in her body screaming that she wanted Todd off Atlantis right now.

"It is entirely my pleasure, Dr Weir."

John wasn't sure if Todd was oblivious to Elizabeth's body language or just ignoring it, but he more than suspected it was the latter.

"Well," Todd continued, "not entirely my pleasure." He grinned lasciviously at Rodney and the movement was automatic as John stepped forward, all but blocking Rodney's body with his own. Todd stepped back, a faint smile playing on his lips. "It's been noted, when using the duel trackers, that the subjects seem to have one of two reactions to the forced closeness," he commented lightly. "I would have thought you'd have gone for killing him instead of fucking him, Sheppard, but since you're both still here I guess I'd have been wrong."

Rodney bristled for a second before his concern slid away from Todd and towards Elizabeth. John's gaze was already on her.

Elizabeth didn't take her eyes off Todd as she called the Marines in. "Sergeant Collins, please escort our guest back to the north pier and make sure he has no problems in leaving."

"Yes, ma'am," the Sergeant replied, only a look a faint disdain on his face as he and his men escorted Todd out of the infirmary.

The silence in the infirmary was broken by Carson coughing and shifting slightly. "Yes, well, I should go and check this." He motioned towards the Wraith device he was still holding before fleeing into his office.

"Elizabeth--" John started, but her hand raised, cutting him off.

"Relax, John, I'm well aware that only one set of those temp quarters is being used, even though you were assigned two."

"And you're okay with it?" Rodney asked, tone indicating he was ready to argue if she wasn't. Because this was the moment. This was the woman that had the power to decide if John stayed on Atlantis or moved in to a nice 6 by 6 in Leavenworth.

"Well, seeing as Colonel Sheppard still gets his paychecks signed by the USAF, I'd prefer it if you didn't hold hands in front of Caldwell, since I really don't have the time to break in a new military commander," she commented with a slight smile. "But it's not like you're the only same-sex couple in the city. You're not even the only ones who have to hide it." She paused, pinning Rodney with her gaze. "As well you know."

John let out the breath he'd been holding. In his head he knew that Elizabeth would support them. After all, everyone in the city was one of her people and he'd seen her defend them to hilt to the SGC, to the IOA, to anyone who had ever questioned them. But still, it was good to hear her actually say the words.

Rodney hmmph'ed. "Well, that's all right then."

Elizabeth shook her head fondly as she opened a radio channel. "Carson, you can come back in, now."

Carson appeared momentarily, gaze bouncing between all three of them. "Is it safe?" he asked.

Elizabeth smiled. "Perfectly."

"Right then," he clapped his hands together, mindful of the device he was holding. "I've checked this and it seems to do exactly what Todd said it would, so--" he turned to John and Rodney. "Are you ready to get those little buggers out of you?"

~*~

John sat on the infirmary bed, watching as Carson held the Wraith deactivation control over Rodney's neck.

"Are you ready?" he asked, waiting until Rodney nodded before he continued.

A small red light on the device flashed several times before finally blinking off.

"That's it," Carson said.

But John hadn't needed to hear the words, had known as soon as it happened that the link was gone. He looked at Rodney, unable to feel anything from him, no thoughts, no emotions, no touch in the back of his mind.

"Colonel?"

He opened eyes he hadn't even realised he'd closed to see Carson looking at him, concern etched on his face. "Are you all right, lad?"

"I'm fine," John answered, hoping the lie in his voice wasn't as apparent to everyone else. "Me next, right?"

"Aye, and then we can get those things popped right out of you." Carson replied, moving across to stand behind John. "Now, just relax; this won't hurt you a bit."

Problem was, it already had.

~*~

John was in his office going through some of the staff evaluations when it actually happened. The trackers had been out less than 24 hours and there was still some subtle itching at the back of his neck that Carson said would fade over the next day or so.

Lorne said something that brought Rodney to mind. And John had reached out. He hadn't thought about it and he'd reached out for Rodney. And found nothing--

He dropped the report onto his desk and stood up, ignoring Lorne's look of confusion. "We'll continue this tomorrow."

"Sir?" And Lorne was going to say something else. John could almost already hear it, the questions asking him if he was okay.

"Tomorrow, Major," he snapped, before closing his eyes and taking a breath. He looked back up. "Tomorrow, Lorne, okay?" His voice was softer, but the concern stayed on Lorne's face.

"Yes, sir." Lorne nodded once, and didn't say anything else as John left.

~*~

John's hand was on the jumper, smooth and soft under his touch. And it wouldn't be much to take her up, to take her skimming across the ocean. He glanced up at the bay doors, closed and blocking the light. All it would take to open them was a thought, to let the light rush in--

"John."

Rodney's voice was low, careful in a way it had never been with him before.

"Hey, Rodney."

"Lorne said you left in a hurry."

And he had obviously called Rodney as soon as John had left, although John wasn't sure if that said more about him or his XO.

I couldn't hear you, John wanted to say, but he couldn't get the words past the rock that seemed to have taken up residence in his throat.

"John?"

He heard the concern in Rodney's voice, but ignored it, keeping his hand on the jumper, keeping his eyes off Rodney.

There was a time when John would have thought the worst torture in the world would be to have Rodney McKay in his head, constant thought and movement and litany of ideas. He wasn't sure when that changed. Maybe it was the first time he looked out into a sky he couldn't go into and felt Rodney's mind slide over his in comfort. Maybe he'd just gotten used to the constant background hum of another person.

Although, he was pretty sure he'd been screwed from the first time he felt his thoughts caress Rodney's, chaotic and jumbled. Entropy in its purest form that felt like nothing less than home.

And he knew his career was fucked if the wrong people found out. He was involved with a male member of his team and it was making the body of the USAF roll over and shudder. If Caldwell ever wanted a reason to get John shipped back to Earth so quickly the entirety of Atlantis would spin, then all he had to do was take notice of the way John looked at Rodney. Because John felt himself doing it, even though he tried not to.

He felt his eyes slide over the soft curve of Rodney's ass every time he bent over, felt his gaze follow the careful swipe of Rodney's tongue when his lips were dry. And he felt the heat from the great big fucking neon sign that was parked in orbit above his head and screaming out in lurid green and explicit detail exactly what Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard wanted to do every time he was in the same room as Doctor Rodney McKay.

Maybe it was his own fault. He'd thought he could handle it. It wasn't anything but sex, a bit of fun. Hell, he'd half convinced himself it was only a side effect of whatever the Wraith did to them; that it meant nothing that he wanted to crawl inside Rodney's body and not come out.

So, yeah, not just sex. Not anymore. Maybe it never had been. And that was what terrified him.

After Michael, after Nancy, he'd resolved never to do that again. There was sex and there was fun, and that was it. Only, they were breaking so many rules already that one more didn't seem like much. Besides, he was John Sheppard and rules had never exactly been his thing.

Taking a deep breath, he turned to face Rodney, still standing there with concern, fear and annoyance written on his face.

"I think I'm in love with you."

The concern, fear and annoyance were hastily replaced by shock. And John thought that he'd really like it if Rodney replied now, but it was a voice coming from their earpieces that finally broke the silence.

"Weir to Sheppard and McKay. Lorne says you're still in the jumper bay. Is there any problem?" Elizabeth's voice came over the radio, and John could hear the unspoken words. 'You're still in the jumper bay. Has Sheppard gone batshit insane and need to be sedated by Beckett?'

There was a beat before Rodney answered. "No, no problem, Elizabeth. There's just an issue with one of the jumpers I need Colonel Sheppard's help with, I afraid we'll have to miss the briefing on the naked pygmies of MX4-278. McKay out."

Flicking off the radio, Rodney calmly closed the distance between the two of them, and smacked John on the arm.

"You idiot!" He started to pace, three steps one way before spinning and pacing back, arms waving in the air. "I had images of walking in here to find you having a mental breakdown and having to be strapped into a straightjacket by Carson while being fed pureed peas!"

"Okay, it's a little disturbing that this is the reaction you have to me telling you I love you," John replied, feeling more than a little put out.

Rodney stopped pacing and faced him. "You didn't know," he said eventually.

"Didn't know what?" John asked.

Rodney scrubbed a hand over his face briefly. "Sheppard, I know why you're afraid of clowns. And can I just say, totally justified with that one, by the way," he said, shuddering, before continuing. "I spent three nights dreaming of a helicopter going down in Afghanistan. I've never even been to Afghanistan." He paused. "John, you've been telling me you love me every time your mind touched mine."

He had? "Well. Um. Good," John said, suddenly understanding that Rodney had been saying exactly the same thing back without John even realising it. "Because I do, you know."

"Idiot," said Rodney again, leaning forward to capture John's lips with his, and this time John didn't have to be able to read his mind to know he meant I love you, too.

~*~

When John Sheppard was thirty-nine, the Wraith made him a Runner. It didn't last for very long, certainly far less time than the Wraith had hoped, and it all ended happily.

Eventually.

The bad guys didn't get to kill the hero, no matter how much they'd wanted to. The hero didn't have a complete breakdown, although he admits it was a near thing. And, most importantly, the story of boy meets boy in a secret government facility that allowed people to travel to alien worlds played out to its logical conclusion.

Of course, to hear Rodney tell it, it's a slightly different story. One that was full of evading capture with nothing but his genius, finding an Ancient research lab that allowed him (and possibly Zelenka, but only when Rodney was feeling generous) to develop a means of building ZPMs, and generally making the kind of breakthroughs that would entitle him to a Nobel at least twice over. The boy meets boy part, though. That usually stayed the same no matter who's telling the story.

When John Sheppard was thirty-nine, the Wraith made him and Rodney Runners because they wanted to track them back to Atlantis, they wanted to make them run for home. Somewhere along the line it went wrong. And yet somehow, it went perfectly the way it was meant to.

End.