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Synaesthesia by alyse [PG-13]
[ - ]

Summary: When he sleeps, he hears them in his dreams; skittering and chittering, just below the surface.

Mostly gen but with overtones of a John/Rodney/Teyla pre-relationship.

Categories: General, Threesomes and Moresomes > All Varieties
Characters: Carson Beckett, John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan
Genres: Angst, Episode Related, Friendship, Pre-relationship, Team
Warnings: None
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 11817; Completed: Yes
Updated: 14 May 2006; Published: 14 May 2006

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Spoilers: Season 2, through to Conversion

Notes: Written for angelic_mand for the Atlantis: Back to Basics challenge and who asked for Post Conversion -Sheppard/Teyla/McKay, Sheppard/McKay or Weir/Teyla. Some of the dialogue in the last section (from Teyla greeting John to the first time she uses his name) is taken from the episode Conversion. The rest is all my own words.

Thank you to both Davechicken and The Pouncer for betaing duties.

---

When he sleeps, he hears them in his dreams; skittering and chittering, just below the surface. If he strained, he might understand them, sink his consciousness down into theirs until he - they - are One.

When he wakes, heart pounding and body drenched with salt sweat, making him itch and ache, he doesn't make a sound. He catches it behind his teeth and swallows it down until he has enough control to kick the covers off and roll away from the sweat dampened sheets beneath him, feeling the rough fabric catch against his skin.

He doesn't know if it will be a scream or a cry of longing.

He doesn't know if it will be human or not.


---

"How are you feeling today?"

It was a complicated question but John didn't let any of the complexities show on his face. Not that it mattered; Beckett's eyes had skittered away to his clipboard as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as he'd shown the proper 'doctorly' concern.

"Fine."

It was a catch-all response for a situation that couldn't be defined but John couldn't shake the feeling that he was somehow cheating by coming out with something so stock.

"Fine?"

Beckett still wasn't looking at him and he resisted the urge to stick his tongue out, just to see if the man caught him at it. It wouldn't help. Sticking it out meant pulling it back in again and there was something disquieting about the slickness of it, something that wasn't quite 'fine'. It felt wrong in his mouth, as though it no longer fit there.

He hadn't shared that with Beckett either, too worried that it meant something. Too worried that it didn't.

Beckett's head started to lift, to turn in his direction, and he summoned up a slick answer with that too slick tongue. "Fine. Dandy..."

There should be a third word but it escaped him. Something to fit the rhythm of the sentence and be equally meaningless. The beat was off, the rhythm didn't fit. It didn't samba or rhomba or whatever it was supposed to do.

His hand had started to lift, move in the air involuntarily, as though it was reaching for the word he couldn't catch with his mind. It hung there for a moment, fixed in his gaze - blue and scaled and right wrong in a way he didn't want to define - before it dropped to the covers with a soft, muffled thud.

"Tired," he offered, avoiding the gaze that Beckett finally turned towards him.

"I'm not surprised." Beckett's words were almost as tentative as his smile, softened into a burr by the emotion in them. "Nurse Cartwright said you had another rough night."

He hoped it was shame. Hoped, for a savage second, that it was guilt that made Beckett's eyes drift back to words on the page and not... disgust... anything else.

If it had been Heightmeyer, she'd have asked if it had been his dreams that had kept him awake, whether he was having 'disturbing' thoughts. Beckett, however, thought of things in terms of synaptic responses, physical ailments, things he could catalogue and fix.

"How much discomfort are you in?"

He curled his fingers, feeling his claws rip into threads beneath him - one fibre, two, three snapping beneath his touch - and thought of answering honestly.

Discomfort.

"I'm itchy," he offered instead, watching Beckett's head nod as if by rote. He wondered if Beckett's notes reflected what he was actually saying or if Beckett was even listening.

"We'll try some aqueous cream. It might help with the..." He finally lifted his head up to stare down at John's hand, curled and scaly.

"Shedding," said John brightly, watching Beckett's head dart up, finally face him, the man's expression cycling through a multitude of different emotions. It appeared as though the good doctor was suffering some 'discomfort' of his own.

He hoped it kept Beckett awake at night too. Hoped it fedtoresuckfeed bit.

Beckett cleared his throat, eyes slowly drifting away from John's too fierce gaze back to the safety of his clipboard. John swallowed, closing his eyes and letting himself sink back into the soft bed, relaxing muscles he hadn't even realised that he'd tensed.

"Sounds good," he said softly, listening to Beckett shuffling uncomfortably. He didn't need to open his eyes to feel the man shifting around, all sharp, rustling colours.

Beckett finally moved away to talk to the nurse. Their voices were muffled to his ears, a soft murmur that he didn't strain to hear. It was too much effort to do more than let it wash over him, like white noise, growing louder as they headed back in his direction.

He kept his eyes closed as the nurse came closer him, catching the scent of her, too sickly sweet, and feeling the heat rising off her body even though she kept out of arms' reach. It curled behind his eyelids, wavering in the air in front of him and he could almost taste her.

It made him sick to his stomach, and he tightened his throat against the bile that rose in it, turning his head away into the coolness of the pillow.

Beckett made some meaningless sound of comfort, reaching up over him to adjust something on the drip feeding into his arm. The scent of Beckett this close was even worse now, making his mouth water, half with the need to vomit and half with something else.

It was the something else that finally had him rolling over onto his side and giving in to the urge, flailing for, and missing, the grey, cardboard bowl by the bed.

It hit the floor at the same time as his lunch.

Beckett's sounds of comfort turned into a dismayed cluck then orders that were snapped out over his head.

He bet this made him even more popular with the nurses.

"Here, son. Look, roll back and we'll get you cleaned up, all right?"

He didn't need to be cleaned up. He needed to get out here, away from the harsh smell of the bottles of disinfectant being opened, ready to be poured on the floor too close to him, away from the moist scent of their bodies.

Beckett was handing him a cloth and for a moment he was grateful, grateful that Beckett didn't touch him when he didn't think he could bear those hands on his skin. Grateful until he realised that the lack of touch was probably more for Beckett's comfort than his.

The thought made him pull back again, pushing himself upright, digging his heels and bringing his knees up.

"'m fine."

"Sure you are, Colonel. Look, let's just..."

He turned the full force of his yellow gaze onto Beckett, both enjoying the way that the man's words stuttered to a stop and ashamed of it. To Beckett's credit, however, he didn't turn away even though John could see the point at which he made a conscious effort to stiffen his spine.

It was John who looked away first, John whose gaze dropped when he reached for the water that Beckett had poured for him and tried not to hear the clink of claws against glass.

Beckett cleared his throat. "How's the synaesthesia?"

John swallowed back a laugh, letting it drown instead in the water that his suddenly parched throat was greedy for and that his stomach tried to keep down.

"Fine."

That word again, as meaningless as any that Beckett had uttered since he'd become a permanent resident of the infirmary.

Synaesthesia.

It was a wonderful word for what he was going through, almost as meaningless as John's own 'fines'. A wonderful word for being able to see what was going on around him when his eyes were shut, when 'skin deep' took on a whole new meaning. When he 'heard' with his tongue, feeling the vibrations in his mouth as though he could taste the footsteps drawing closer to his bed.

He wondered if Beckett threw the terms he used around like a shield - synaesthesia, nerve confusion, hallucinogenic side effects. Label them, pin them down, render them harmless. To be named was to be understood, examined. Catalogued and filed and placed neatly on Beckett's clipboard.

What would Beckett do to make him harmless when names wouldn't do the trick?

He turned away, using the glass Beckett had given him as an excuse to avoid his eyes by placing it on the side table, as far away from Beckett's sympathetic gaze as possible.

The nurse's gaze wasn't sympathetic. It was both fascinated and repulsed, revulsion clear in every line of her face. A face that dropped as soon as John's eyes locked with hers.

It didn't help. He could still feel the way that her heart was beating rapidly, sending the blood rushing around her body, warming her extremities ready for flight.

It made him hunger draw his knees up more closely to his body and turn his own head away, the tension building again as his fingers... claws dug into the skin through his pants.

Beckett seemed oblivious, turning away to busy himself again with the drip as a drop of blood welled up through the fabric.

He could almost taste that too, a sharp tang on the air, and resisted the urge to let his tongue flicker out, let the taste settle there.

It would freak Cartwright out though, and that made it almost worth it.

Almost.

He was tired suddenly, too tired to play the 'let's name and control' game with Beckett, too tired to deal with the nurse's censure. Too tired to do anything but crawl into his pit cave and tell the world to go to hell; sleep until this nightmare went away. Until his skin had been shed and he was back to what he had been.

Not tainted. Not that.

He mustered up a smile from somewhere, trying not to think about how it must look, twisted on his face. Twisting up his face, all ridges and bumps and - worst of all - the blue-grey colour of decay. It wasn't a face for wheedling, not like his face was. Had been.

But he was starting to forget which face was the real one.

To his credit, Beckett didn't recoil but the concern on his face had a similar effect.

"Look, Doc..." His voice was low and desperate. "I'm getting a little tired of being the main attraction in the freak show around here." Beckett's eyes flickered quickly towards his colleague and then back again. It shouldn't have surprised him that the man would be that perceptive, but perhaps it was just that Cartwright had been that obvious. "I'm lucid now, right? You said so yourself. No episodes of freaking out?"

Beckett had that look on his face, that one that was part 'confide in me' and part 'I'm listening but I'm not hearing'.

"Let me go back to my quarters."

"Colonel - "

"I'm climbing the walls here." Beckett's eyebrow did some climbing of its own, towards his hairline. "Well, not literally in this instance, but..." He dropped the act. "I... Please."

The urgency in his request was enough to have Beckett's eyes flicking around the infirmary as his fingers twisted at the corners of his ever present clipboard. Eventually they had no choice but to settle back on John.

"Might I remind you, Colonel, that you've just thrown up what food you have managed to keep down."

"It's the smell," he admitted, pained to have to admit that much of a weakness, but better that than to admit to the greater one. "In here. It's..." He shrugged, grimacing. "A little too much and a little too strong."

Beckett's expression veered between understanding and disbelief. There were a thousand questions in his eyes and hovering behind his lips, and John didn't feel like answering any of them, not now, not ever.

He never wanted to hear the word 'synaesthesia' again.

"Put guards on the door." His voice was flat now, not completely empty of hope but as near as damn it. "You can take the drip out now. I'm keeping down water."

"You are now... or you were until about five minutes ago, but I can't risk it, son. Dehydration is a significant risk in your condition."

He clenched his teeth against the urge to snarl biterend. "Look." It was a struggle to keep his voice even, but he'd had plenty of practice at reining in his baser instincts over the years. "I thought you'd figured out that the reason I couldn't keep water down was because of the electrolytes. Salt water bad for bugs, remember?"

He couldn't keep all of the anger out of his voice, not entirely, and barely paused when Beckett's face twisted with something close to guilt again; just long enough to sink all the way in, dig its claws into Beckett's conscience and leave its marks.

"However, I'm now on a saline drip." He turned his arm, so that the paler, inner flesh - not as horned or scaled as the outer - was visible. "Successfully this time." For all of the... healing properties brought by this renegade DNA, the burns were still clear on his skin, mapping out his veins. Healed enough not to bleed - not any more - but marked nonetheless.

Beckett flinched, his face no longer just close to guilt but well in the neighbourhood and settled there.

"Whatever's going on, it's gone on long enough that salt water's no longer toxic, and my electrolyte balance or whatthefuckever you want to call it is closer to..." He couldn't quite say the word 'human', not when the skin that Beckett was staring at was anything but. "...normal. This is stable, remember? That's what you told me last night."

Beckett's eyes flicked back up to meet his, yellow and decidedly not normal.

"I want out." It was a simple request, and he made it simply. "I want..." To hide, for a while at least. "To be somewhere I can get some sleep and some peace. Hell, it's not like I can go anywhere. And lucid, remember?" Lucid and desperate and in spite of his care some of that desperation crept into his voice.

There was a clatter from the other side of the infirmary, too loud when his nerves were already stretched, and he flinched, drawing back in on himself. Beckett's head jerked sharply up with irritation, a frown creasing his brow, before his attention was drawn, inexorably, back to John.

"All right." The words were soft but they were enough to have the tension draining from John's body again. "I suppose I can always make house calls." The equally soft humour drew an unwilling smile to John's face, though it felt strange.

"Talk to Elizabeth," he said, unwinding further and not surprised when his muscles gave a protesting twinge. "She'll need to make security arrangements." Better Elizabeth than Caldwell. At least on some level. And Elizabeth would do it.

He could still feel the rapid pulse in her throat beneath his fingers.

"That won't be -" Beckett began.

John silenced him with a look. It seemed to drive home the message. It appeared that the eyes were good for something, even if it was only re-emphasising how not normal he was these days.

"Fine." Beckett threw his own word back at him. "But you'll need this." 'This' was a large white pot Beckett fished out of the pocket of his lab coat, labelled with the innocuous seeming words 'aqueous cream'. "It... it should help with the itching and the..."

Beckett obviously hadn't decided on a word for this aspect so John went with his own.

"Shedding?"

Beckett's face twisted for a second. "Aye. If you'd like. I was going to go with peeling myself, but you use whatever term you're most comfortable with."

He had a feeling that he was being gently mocked. In a weird, half-assed way it was actually almost reassuring.

He held up the pot, reading the ingredients more to avoid Beckett's eyes than anything else. "Petroleum jelly based? Why, Doctor Beckett. I didn't know you cared." He waggled his eyebrows, pleased that he seemed to have that much mobility back in his face at least.

Beckett snorted. "We use it for eczema and the like. With any luck it will help with that," he gestured vaguely towards John's cheek, where his human and... not human bits met, and where John had been scratching. "But if you have any reaction, you're to let me know immediately, all right?"

He flipped Beckett a sloppy salute, the relief of finally being able to have some privacy almost making him dizzy.

"You'll need some help, probably," Beckett continued, turning automatically towards the interior of the infirmary, where Cartwright was probably still lurking.

John went cold. The idea of other hands on this skin - on his skin - was more than he could bear, not like that. Not touching him like that, even dispassionately.

The idea of Cartwright touching him, with a lip curling in disgust no matter how hard she tried to hide it and how professional a demeanour she projected, was even more abhorrent.

"I'll cope."

The words were harsh, but Beckett's argument seemed to die on his lips as he turned back. Instead, there was something close to understanding as well as sympathy in his eyes, and John could barely stand that either.

Beckett sighed, giving in, and now the guilt was firmly back in John's court.

"Aye. I'm sure you will."

---

He's too cold, too dry. Not right, not right, not right.

There's an itch beneath his skin that can't be scratched. He tries, claws curved and drawing lines upon his skin. Into his skin, deeper and deeper until the blood, deep purple in the dim light, wells up and rolls out, fat liquid drops splattering on the sheets.

Underneath he catches glimpses of his real skin. Glistening and black.


---

He'd grown almost used to waking up, hot and feverish, with the covers kicked off the bed and his heart in his throat. The heart in his throat thing wasn't new - he'd had that choked, panicked waking from dream nightmares more than once in his life. Afghanistan and after, for example.

The whole blue, scaly face and scary yellow cat's eyes thing that greeted him when he finally lifted his face up from the sink, greedily drinking water from his cupped hands instead of fumbling for a glass and caught sight of his reflection? That was new. That had him savagely clicking off the lights and fleeing before the water had even finished dripping off not his chin.

It wasn't something he'd ever get used to. He hoped.

He fled for the balcony outside his quarters, pushing back the clinging white drapes and gulping in the harsh, salty air. It burnt as he drew it into his lungs but whether that was his hurt - the effect of cold night air on heated skin - or the remembrance of another, alien hurt he couldn't say.

Didn't care. Hadn't the energy to care, not when it took more than he had to even stay upright.

The floor of the balcony was cold too, and the curving metal against his back seemed to suck the heat from him through his shirt. If he shifted, a thousand little cracks in his soon-to-be-rid of (Oh, God to be rid of) skin reminded him of their presence. The sea air found them too; a thousand cuts and salt in every one.

The itching was worse now, because of the salt or because of his dreams he couldn't say. He couldn't scratch, and that wasn't because he was afraid still a little freaked.

He closed his eyes instead, trying to sink himself into the pattern of breathing that Teyla had been trying - and failing through no fault of hers - to teach him. He was too restless, and he'd prefer to use his downtime just sleeping than meditating or whatever the hell it was she did. He had the soldier's knack of sleeping anywhere and at short notice - usually - and better to store it up when he could, right?

But while he was used to that wakeful restlessness of combat, of hurry up and wait, this inactivity was damned hard. Damned hard to wait for a return to normality and harder still when that return was dependent on the skills of the person who'd fucked it up in the first place.

It wasn't fair to blame Beckett and his team for his predicament - he knew that on some level, even on a conscious one - but at two a.m., with his skin crawling and smarting, the salt air in his lungs and the shivers of a retrovirus in his veins, it was easy to give in to the anger.

A little. Only a little. He couldn't risk further, not when he could stretch out his hands, spread his fingers wide and watch the lights from the tower opposite glint off hard, black keratin.

He thought it was keratin but it could be Wraith anything.

He curled his hands back into fists and placed them deliberately on his knees, ignoring the sting as his cla... nails dug into his palms. The lights opposite blurred as he let his eyes unfocus, let a hundred different discomforts drift away until there was only the sound of his breathing and the hungry sea beneath him.

It wasn't anything Teyla would recognise as meditation - the things that still roiled beneath the surface weren't silenced - but it was as close as he could get. Close enough to finally have some of the tension leaching from his body.

Close enough for him to hear, even over the sound of the waves, the door that lead back into his room reopen.

He flinched back from the light that spilled forth, retreating back into the shadows where it didn't hurt his eyes. Where he belonged.

"Sir?"

The question was respectful but he didn't let that fool him. It didn't take turning his head and seeing the man's hand resting far too casually on the butt of his weapon to tell him that the man was treating him as potentially hostile.

"Sergeant." The word sounded hoarse, even to him, and he cleared his throat but made no effort to move back into the light. "Something wrong?"

Best form of defence, or so he'd heard, but his time in the military had left him mostly convinced that it might be true for football but little else.

"I'm not sure, sir. Is there?"

Still respectful but something else there too, something that told him that the man wasn't going to be fooled that easily. Something in the way the man moved maybe, twisting unconsciously so that the light was behind him and his expression couldn't be seen. He was haloed there, just a dark form against a brighter light, at least until John's eyes adapted.

They probably adapted more than his guard had anticipated. Not really sight - not quite but John pushed down the differences, filed them away until some other time when threats things weren't so fraught - but it outlined the man more clearly anyway.

"Needed some fresh air," he explained, still staying far back in the shadows. "A little hot in there."

Now that he could see - in hues of blues and shadows but 'see' nonetheless - he could read the man's polite disbelief clearly. He could understand it. Atlantis wasn't somewhere you would describe as 'hot', not when the chill of ten thousand years under the ocean still seemed to cling to the cool blue of the corridors. He felt forced to explain anyway - by the tilt of the man's head towards where he lurked still as much as by the man's hand still resting casually on his gun - and resented that. "Beckett's retrovirus."

It was all he was willing to offer and it still stung his pride, but it had the desired effect, the man's form shifting slightly, the weight settling back on his heels. Not relaxed but ambling in that general direction. Hell, they'd just shoot the breeze and saunter there together, right?

"Do you need me to call the Doc, sir?"

The man... Marine - John searched for a name and finally called it up. Henderson, one of the men brought by the Daedalus on her first run. He should know them by now - prided himself on knowing the names of everyone he served with, everyone who served under his command - but it wasn't the only thing that had slithered away from his memory in the past few days. Henderson was leaning forwards, straining to see him. He could understand that. In Henderson's place, he'd have done the same.

"No." Again the word was hoarse and harsh and he swallowed, softening it slightly with, "Doctor Beckett has done what he can. Just have to let..." Nature, he wanted to say, but this was anything but natural - retroviruses created in test tubes and now creating havoc in his body. "... things take their course."

If his face had been his own, he'd have risked a smile, something that spoke of shared weariness with the quacks, with the scientists who knew nothing of a grunt's life. But his face wasn't his own and he had to settle for stretching his legs out so that at least part of him was clearly visible, even if it meant that his face stayed shadowed.

It was... comfortable to remain caved hidden.

Henderson shuffled again, and John's fingers twitched, driving fresh ribbons of pain into his palms. "Anything I can get you, sir?"

It was a rote question, and there was still a faint thread of suspicion in Henderson's voice, colouring it red with doubt, but it was a temporary out and one he was more than willing to exploit, just to put some space between himself and the man's heat. "Actually... a glass of water would be cool."

A brief, professional nod and Henderson slid back into the room. He at least had the decency to move a few steps into the room before John caught the quiet clicking of his headset, murmured comments that he didn't want to make out.

He couldn't blame the man. He'd taken more than one Marine down in the past few days, lost two men trying to save his own skin. After over a year working side by side with those in the Corps, he understood them well enough by now to know that even if there was some grudging respect at his speed and agility, there'd also be some resentment. They were... human after all.

He let his head sink back against the unforgiving skin of Atlantis, and concentrated on the cool, ocean breeze brushing against his face. Hot, cold. He was both and neither and it was unsettling him more than he wanted to admit.

He heard Henderson's footsteps returning, felt them vibrate through him. "Sir?"

"Just put it down, thank you."

Henderson was professional enough not to keep his hand resting on his weapon this time, but it hovered thereabouts and his eyes never left the dark corner where John sat. He didn't relax until he had straightened again and even then there was still a frown creasing the skin between his eyes, casting shadows across his face.

John was parched suddenly - again - and again he had no idea if it was a side effect of the mild fever or his altered physiology. He should care more, but the cool, blue scent of the water - fresh this time instead of salt - made it difficult to think of anything but the gummy taste in his mouth and the dryness of his throat.

He reached for the glass, and the light, once again, glinted on the black claws that clicked against the floor of the balcony.

For a long moment he didn't move, staring numbly at them before drawing his hand back, slowly this time so as not to spook Henderson any more than he had to.

When he finally raised his gaze, Henderson was motionless, his eyes fixed on that wall several feet above John's head in a way that the Corps seemed to drill into their initiates - looking at nothing and seeing everything. He felt an absurd rush of gratitude towards the man.

"If there's nothing else, sir?"

The words were formal and a little stilted, but the disgust he'd seen in Cartwright's eyes wasn't showing on Henderson's face. A little freaked, maybe - and John couldn't blame him for that - but not that stomach roiling sickened look.

"No. Thank you."

Henderson dropped his gaze to somewhere in the vicinity of John's head, and for a split second their eyes met, whether Henderson realised that or not. He couldn't be sure. His own perception was so fucked up now that he had no idea whether what he saw was within the human visual range or not. Then the man saluted, turned briskly on his heels and disappeared back inside.

But not before he'd managed to cast his eyes around the balcony one last time, his eyes flickering both around and up.

John swallowed down a bitter chuckle, reaching for his water from memory of its position alone. He didn't want to catch sight of himself if he could help it either; he'd had enough of that for one night. For one lifetime.

But no. He could put Henderson's mind at ease on that point. He wouldn't be climbing any walls tonight.

At least, not literally.

---

He stands on the ledge, the sea whipping up in peaks below him. The spray reaches for him and it's hungry. The wind is howling, tearing at his clothes, tearing at him where he clings to his perch.

He's supposed to do something, something to do with the grounding station he thinks, but all he can think of is the sea reaching for him.

He slips, clings harder, but his fingers scrape uselessly along the metal of the wall. It's not enough. He falls, water sucking him down greedily, acid against his skin, burning burning.

He screams.


---

"Want to run?"

He wasn't sure what he'd expected when his door chimed this late at night, but Ronon hadn't been it. He hadn't seen much of his team since he'd been sprung from the infirmary, and he wasn't sure if that was due to his discomfort or theirs.

So, yeah, Ronon leaning against his wall, eyeing him with frank curiosity, was kind of unexpected but also kind of... pleasant. In a weird, fucked up kind of a way. There was something... honest about Ronon's quiet curiosity, the way that he didn't look away, even when John turned his head away and stayed back in the shadows.

It should have been off-putting but maybe he was getting used to being the latest exhibit in the zoo.

"Running?"

Ronon shrugged, not offended by the sceptical tone of his voice. "Figured you'd be getting stir crazy by now. I know I would. Figured it would help."

"Just a nice little scenic tour of the base?"

Ronon flashed him a quick grin. "I cleared it with Weir." And wouldn't John have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. It wasn't even weird that he could literally have been that fly less than a week ago. Actually, he probably shouldn't have thought of that, not after he'd done the real Spiderman thing and Ronon had shot him for it.

As if sensing his thoughts, Ronon's grin widened. "Told her I'd be armed."

He'd use it too. John might have only had vague recollections of the second time - it was all a morass of heatneedhungerfeedmate that he hadn't a chance in hell of sorting out - but the first time had goddamned hurt.

It appeared that even Iratus Bugs didn't bounce.

"And she was okay with that?"

Still sceptical because... just because. Ronon wouldn't fuck around with him - he had no concept of deception - but hope... well, hope was a fickle thing at the best of times and he was tired of fate fucking around with him.

But to get out, even for a while. To move, lose himself in the rhythm of running, in endorphins that were his and human.

It was a hell of a temptation.

Ronon shrugged, the movement rolling smoothly through his body and John didn't envy him that, not one bit in spite of his own sore, itchy and downright cranky body.

"She figured it might help too."

And yes, John could see that she would. For all of her hesitation sometimes, and for all that it frustrated him a lot of the time, Elizabeth was no fonder of standing idly by than he was. It had probably made her feel good to be able to make that decision, to feel like she was offering him something. Some nice little gesture towards him that said we trust you.

You're still one of us.

Ronon was still eyeing him. "Cleared it with Beckett. He said to make sure you drank enough."

John snorted. Sounded like Beckett. "Since when do you think it's a good idea to run at midnight?"

Another shrug. "Beckett said you were mostly nocturnal these days."

He wondered who'd squealed. He wondered if he should explain that it wasn't by choice, that it was... what? Heat? Disturbed nights that left him aching and exhausted during the day? The impatience and the restlessness that sapped him of the strength he had left, wasting it in fretfulness and bad temper?

None of that sounded too good and none of it was anything John wanted to share, especially not with Ronon, someone so self-contained he seemed to need nothing but himself. But Ronon... That was the thing about Ronon. He didn't need explanations.

He'd like to think that Ronon's life had always been so simple but he suspected that it had been pared down to this, stripped of everything but the bare essentials during his seven years on the run. He'd sometimes thought of asking Ronon if he ever felt... alone. Lonely maybe. If the self-contained thing was nothing but a shell. But that felt like asking an amputee, 'Say? Do you miss it?'

Ronon had had his whole life cut away. Kind of put things in perspective. If he felt inclined to perspective.

Mostly, at the moment, he felt inclined to hide in a dark corner and skulk sulk.

"Think you can keep up this time?"

It was bravado - he and Ronon both knew it - but it felt good to say it anyway.

Ronon's grin took on a whole new aura of smugness. "Watch me."

That momentary good feeling evaporated. Ronon wouldn't be the only one being watched. For a second he let the two impulses war in him - run or hide - but at the end of the day, he'd never been one for hiding. Not when he was himself.

He reached for the Athosian robe that Teyla had lent him - the second, a replacement for the one he'd abandoned. She hadn't said anything - she hadn't needed to. For all that the Athosians were not a wealthy people, and the cloak he'd abandoned had probably taken a week or more to be woven and sewed, she'd not hesitated to leave another in his quarters, a quiet and considerate gesture from a woman whose concern had rendered him speechless. Thus armed, he finally met and held Ronon's eyes, his own still more yellow than brown, pupils halfway between a cat's and a man's. The blue may have faded from his face, leaving the skin dry, but it was still visible around his chin, down his neck.

Under his clothes. And if the robe provided him with another set, one that he could hide more safely within, so be it.

Ronon said nothing, just shrugged, his lips curling in the tiniest of smiles. With Ronon that could mean anything from 'I'm hungry' to 'you're nuts'.

It still left him feeling strangely defensive. "Ready to get your ass kicked?"

The smile broadened. "And by 'getting your ass kicked' you mean that you might actually keep up this time?"

"Hey, I kept up last time!"

"Yeah, but this time you can't pull out the bug thing to save you."

The jibe was casual, no more than any other of a thousand macho exchanges in his life, but it bit anyway, maybe because it was true.

Maybe because he feared it wasn't, feared that when he reached for the bug thing it would still be there. Underneath. Beneath his skin.

Ronon's hand rested momentarily against John's shoulder as he moved past, heading towards the door with that purposeful stride of his.

Run or hide?

He chose run.

---

His feet hit the ground, a steady slap, slap that echoes back to him, harsh and metallic. The gangway bounces beneath his feet and the rushing of his blood through his veins sounds in his ears.

It's peaceful. Familiar. Until he stops.

When the panting slows he's aware of another sound, one that's on the very edge of his hearing. He tilts his head, turns his face this way and that, straining to make it out.

Something's coming, drawing closer with each breath.

Something that clicks and chitters and scuttles.


---

"So... how long before you..."

Rodney made one of those gestures with his hands, the ones that were frequently more eloquent than the man's words and considerably more informative.

At least if you spoke 'Rodney'. And John was becoming remarkably fluent in that.

"Beckett thinks at least a couple of weeks before..."

"Before you're... back to normal. Or at least what passes for it in your case."

John swallowed a smile. God. He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually smiled and meant it but there was something just so familiar and so... right about Rodney's casual and automatic insults. The smile felt strange on his face, for all that the muscles there had reverted back to what passed for normal. In his case.

"Oh." Rodney's face was a picture as it finally dawned on him what he'd said and for a second John almost wished for a camera. Almost. It wasn't often he saw Rodney at a loss for words. But on the other hand, he figured he was probably the most interesting photographic subject in the room. "I meant..."

"I know what you meant, Rodney." He kept his voice gentle. They'd... well, they'd pretty much been tiptoeing around each other since Duranda, something slightly off kilter in their interactions, for all that on the surface things seemed fine. And he was tired of the tension.

Tired of everything that lurked below the surface and never got said.

"So..." Rodney put his hands behind his back, rocking on his feet in a way that was simply so Rodney that John had to swallow down another smile. "How are you feeling? You are looking a little better. Not quite so..." He gestured towards John's face and neck. "...blue."

"I'm..." He abandoned his first impulse - to answer with a simple 'fine' - because Rodney deserved better than that. "Okay."

"Well. That's informative."

God, he'd missed this - Rodney's trademark snark and exasperation. "I'm getting there," he said. "Slowly. It's... um..." He made a vague passing motion over his chest, just below the open neck, showing where he ended and the other began now. His fingers were still mutated, but in his (rare) optimistic moments, he thought that they might be a little less gnarled, a little less blue and scaly.

"Ah." Understanding dawned on Rodney's face and, suddenly seeming embarrassed, he looked away, his eyes darting around the room as he sought some other distraction. It was another thing that was becoming familiar about Rodney, that need to snatch at something else when the atmosphere grew too uncomfortable, too... emotional. To divert and distract, whether it was with an insult, a random fact or a change of subject.

He settled on John's guitar. "So... you play?"

"No, Rodney. I figured it would make a great ornament, though. Kind of... gives the room an ambience. And, hey. The girls like it."

Rodney snorted. "Why am I not surprised? Mind you, I think any ambience would be an improvement on the current one. Seriously? What is with the lighting in here? Please tell me you're not reliving your teenage years. Do we need the Daedalus to bring you a supply of black paint on the next supply run? Maybe some... I don't know... Marilyn Manson posters?"

"I'm impressed, Rodney. You know who Marilyn Manson is. Of course, I'm going to have to kick your ass for the rest of that commentary."

He hadn't intended it to come out harsh - and, really, he didn't think it had - but the smirk on Rodney's face rapidly disappeared. Maybe it was just the juxtaposition between those words and eyes that still weren't quite human. He dropped his gaze, the smile that had formed sliding away as rapidly as Rodney's had. "It's the lights. They still bother me."

"Ah."

There was an awkward silence, and he hated that. Things hadn't been this awkward with Rodney before the universe had decided to fuck with their world views. And their view of each other.

"I used to play the piano," Rodney said suddenly, the non sequitur taking John by surprise. He could imagine it, though. Rodney and the piano. It fitted somehow with the way that the man used a keyboard, fingers never hunting and pecking but dancing over the keys with a mixture of passion and bravado.

"Oh... Good?"

"I was good at it too." His face twisted with something like self-contempt and his eyes didn't meet John's.

"Do... you still play?"

It was beyond surreal - him, still half bug and Rodney, eyes darting around the room and never settling on anything, discussing music.

"No." Rodney's head dipped, his eyes meeting John's for a second before they flittered away. "I was good. I just wasn't good enough."

John frowned, wondering how the hell they'd got on this subject.

"No artistry," Rodney continued, bringing his hands up towards his chest. His fingers started to move, a subtle twitching that John doubted he was even aware of on a conscious level. "Oh, I had the technique down..." The word 'technique' was loaded with enough venom to have John twitching uncomfortably. "But there was no... passion. No life."

He shrugged, his hands dropping to hang limply by his side. When he looked at John again, there was that familiar, slightly contemptuous twist to that lopsided mouth, only John suspected that it was aimed at Rodney himself.

"You're an artist, Rodney."

He had no idea where the words came from, and as soon as they were out of his mouth he was embarrassed, feeling the blood rush to his face. God, he sounded like a particularly cheesy motivational tape. "I mean... look at the way you pull our asses out of the fire on a regular basis."

This time he suspected that the contempt lurking behind Rodney's expression was aimed at him. "It takes..." God, he couldn't think. He'd lost the rhythm of this too, the banter with Rodney. He was off beat, as well as off-beat, and the words were slithering away again.

"Look," he said, making a decision and turning to face Rodney head on, for probably the first time since Rodney had walked into the room. "It takes more than technique to put together some of the... well, to be honest, completely insane ideas you've come up with when we've been up against it. And if doing that - if... I don't know, putting together all those different things, all those different equations and facts and half-assed theories you've got swimming around in that computer you call a brain, putting them together and coming up with something that works... If that isn't 'artistry', whatever the fuck that is, then I don't know what is."

He stopped, still embarrassed but still holding Rodney's disbelieving eyes.

Rodney swallowed and turned away, but not before he'd caught a glimpse of the same kind of embarrassment in Rodney's eyes.

Good. He'd hate to feel like he wasn't spreading the awkwardness around a little.

"Yes... Well." Rodney cleared his throat, his hand making one of those abortive wave moves that he did when he was actually at a loss for something to say. "I see that the Iratus retrovirus hasn't done anything to damage your truly execrable need to indulge in meaningless pep-talks. Seriously. What is it about you Americans and this need for 'buck up, buddy' conversations?"

"I was trying to help," John said, relieved that things seemed to be back on track and the whole emotional thing receding rapidly behind them.

Rodney let out a rude snort. "Well, don't," he snapped, but there was no real heat in it, and this time when the silence settled, it wasn't as awkward.

"So... the whole guitar thing. Let me guess. You wanted to be Jimi Hendrix when you grew up?"

"Johnny Cash," he replied, stretching, finally relaxing.

"Why am I not surprised? 'The man in black.' It explains a lot, really."

"Explains what?" he started to ask, turning back towards Rodney.

Rodney, who was staring at him, staring at his body. Not the little, sideways glances he'd caught before. No, this was full on, mouth slightly open like his jaw had dropped staring.

John went cold, his hand coming up to the neck of his loose shirt, already curved to pull the opening more tightly closed before he remembered what his hand looked like.

The best defence.

He turned to face Rodney again, something biting already forming on his tongue.

"You're bleeding," Rodney said. He sounded numb. The cold seeped away from John, replaced by a surge of heat as his skin flushed again. "I'll call Beckett."

"No." The word came out hoarse and he cleared his throat. "It's okay."

"It's okay?" Even the outrage building in Rodney's voice was better than the numbness he'd heard earlier. "How in heaven's name... you are bleeding, Colonel. Would you like me to use smaller syllables than that? I get the stoic thing, even if I think it's incredibly stupid, but blood? Are you going to tell me it's just a scratch?"

"Crack." His own lips were numb now, and if he stared hard enough at the wall opposite him, he could see the way that the dim light coming from outside almost danced on it, reflections of the waves he could barely hear.

"Excuse me?"

Rodney sounded pissed now, and John had no idea why, nor could he figure out why the hell he wasn't getting pissed back, except for the fact that he felt pretty much the way he had when he'd managed to spill diet soda down his pants on a date with Mary Jane Lubbick. Yeah. Never lived that one down either.

"Cracked. Not scratched." Make it short, clipped and to the point while staring fixedly at the wall. Who said he couldn't have made it as a Marine? "It's..." He couldn't bring himself to use the word 'shedding', not to Rodney. It was too fucking humiliating. "My skin is dry. It's just a little bit, okay. Nothing to freak out at."

There. Put it back in Rodney's court. Make nothing of it. "It's not like I'm actually losing blood, Rodney. Not going to bleed to death on your watch."

"All right," said Rodney stiffly. "I might have overreacted a little bit. But surely Beckett can give you something for it. Might I remind you that stoic and stupid are remarkably similar things when it comes to the military?"

"You mean the fact that they start with the same two letters?" Actually, Rodney might have a point about that, given some of the airmen he'd had the pleasure of serving with. "Look, Beckett's given me some cream to use. I just... it's just that spot between my shoulder blades."

"If you can't reach, why the hell didn't you ask someone for help? One of Beckett's not necessarily completely unattractive nurses, for example?"

"Because I don't want to be fucking touched!"

The sudden anger surprised him as much as Rodney. He took two careful steps backwards, back towards the bed, his heart pounding in his chest and ice water in his veins. He hadn't even realised he'd moved. It was too... he was remembering things, had been remembering things since waking up in the infirmary again; the red wash of anger, Elizabeth's frightened eyes. He couldn't look at Rodney, not in the eye, and ended up staring somewhere in the vicinity of Rodney's neck.

Elizabeth's throat in his hands, her fingers scrabbling against his horned skin for purchase, for air.

He took another step back.

"I... God, Rodney, I'm tired of it, okay?" Softer now but still intense. "I've been poked, prodded, had my reflexes tested. They've taken so much blood I'm surprised there's any still left to come out. Biro even took some fucking Polaroids."

"Yes." Rodney sounded a little dazed, and John couldn't say he blamed him. "I'm sure she did. She's kind of... weird like that. She was probably hoping for a nice corpse to dissect." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Rodney had the grace to flinch.

"That's a cheery thought."

"Yes. She had quite the fun time during that little nanovirus outbreak."

John matched Rodney's flinch with one of his own. "Look -"

"I'll do it."

"What?"

Rodney got that look, the one where he set his mouth in a stubborn line and lifted his chin. The one that said he was shit scared but doing it anyway. "I said, I'll do it. Take your shirt off."

John had no answer to that, just stood and stared, everything - every word in his head - gone.

"What?" The snap was back in Rodney's voice, that hint of irritation that he always used to hide everything else underneath. "Gone all shy of a sudden, Colonel? Afraid I'm going to freak out on you?"

The bitterness in Rodney's voice wasn't aimed at him. He knew that on an intellectual level but...

"Oh..." Rodney drew the sound out softly, understanding dawning on his face, and that was worst of all, that Rodney got it. That he was so exposed, laid out for Rodney to see.

"I'm not. Going to freak out, I mean." The chin was up again but Rodney's eyes... the look in Rodney's eyes was raw.

He had no idea what to say, what to do except hold that gaze for a long moment, weighing up his options.

"I..."

"Okay, then." Rodney's expression softened into relief, leaving John still reeling. Whatever he was going to say, whatever he was going to do - and he was still unclear on that - Rodney had seen something on his face, something that decided things for Rodney if not for him. "Where is it?"

John sank back down on the bed, uncertain when events had gotten away from him again. He made a mute, abortive gesture towards the pot on the table beside the bed, watching numbly as Rodney picked it up, reading the instructions and muttering to himself.

That was a Rodney thing too, that small frown between his eyes as he absorbed the information, probably formulating a thousand different ways to convey it more efficiently and effectively, and John clung to the familiarity of that while everything else swayed.

"Huh." Rodney didn't elaborate but turned back towards him, the frown deepening. "I don't suppose Beckett provided anything useful like latex gloves, did he? You think a man with his fetish for hygiene would have thought of it."

John shook his head, still numb. "Beckett says I can't pass it on the way that Ellia did."

"Hello?" snapped Rodney imperiously, his free hand shooting out and the fingers wiggling. "Do you know how many germs there are on a human hand? It's one of the main vectors for... actually, that's a good point. Are you sure Beckett said you're not contagious?" He trailed off at John's look. "Oh, of course you are... Um... you'll need to... um..."

He made a vague gesture towards John's shirt, his face colouring. Yes, John knew that he needed to ...um... but his fingers seemed frozen, wrapped around the first button and resolutely not moving.

"I'll..." Rodney waved that ever moving finger in the general direction of the bathroom. "I'll just go wash my hands, okay?"

The weird gentleness in Rodney's voice almost broke him, broke him more than he was already fucked up and broken. He had to look bad if Rodney thought that he had to be gentle. The quiet, shaky laugh that accompanied the thought bordered too close to hysterical for his peace of mind.

He clenched his fingers, ignoring the ache in his dry knuckles, and went back to staring at the wall, listening with half an ear to the sounds Rodney was making in the bathroom. Familiar sounds. The tap hissing. The bubble of water hitting the sink.

The click as it switched off and he was still sitting here, staring into space and not doing a goddamned thing.

One button. It slipped through the buttonhole treacherously easy. Two. Three. Faster and faster until his shirt lay pooled in his lap. He kept his fingers - those blue and gnarled fingers - knotted in the fabric of the collar, resisting the urge to snatch it back up again, pull it on. Ignoring the faint tremor in them, the need to flee.

To go find Ronon and see if he wanted to run, Teyla to see if she wanted to spar.

Just not Rodney, to see if he wanted to touch.

Rodney's footsteps clicked across the floor and the hand towel landed beside him on the bed, brought there by Rodney's sloppy habits. He curled his other hand in that, keeping himself occupied with the feel of that fabric under his fingers instead of the thin fabric of his shirt.

"How do you...?" Rodney's voice trailed off before John could figure out the question. He suspected it would be one he couldn't, wouldn't answer anyway. His fingers tightened further and he concentrated so hard on the wall that chequered flecks danced in his vision. "Okay, I see. Let me..."

He flinched at the first touch of the cold cream against his body, barely registering Rodney's muttered, "Sorry." He closed his eyes, held them tightly closed, but hard won habit had him opening them again, sliding his gaze sideways to snatch a glimpse of Rodney's face.

There was no disgust written there, no revulsion or sick fascination. Just that familiar small frown, but with Rodney that meant nothing but that he was concentrating. Better, there was no fascination either, at least not the kind of fascination that Beckett and his fellow ghouls had occasionally let shine through.

There was just focus.

He let his fingers uncurl slightly, loosen their death grip. His palms were sweaty, and that was a change. A change back, at least.

"Here... um..." Rodney's knee came to rest on the bed beside him as Rodney tried to lean around him, contorting his body so that he could reach. "No, that won't work... Let's try..."

There was something comfortably familiar about Rodney's low level babble, as though John were simply something to fix, some new, fascinating piece of Ancient technology. He'd seen how Rodney handled Ancient tech, how he cradled it to his chest as though it were unbelievably fragile and infinitely precious.

Rodney's fingers curved down over his shoulder, stroking maddeningly lightly against his skin, the rough calluses catching slightly on the ridges and bumps, the short spiny protrusions that still marked out the line of John's shoulder blades. "This okay?"

He closed his eyes again. Yes. This was okay.

"You can... um... harder. It would be better..."

"Oh, like this?"

If John leant forward, just shifted his position slightly, he could rest his head on Rodney's chest, breathe in the scent of him. Reach out and let his fingers curl around the line of Rodney's hips instead of lie limply in his lap. Let the warmth that Rodney always gave out seep into him and just... for a second or two... let go, listen to the firm, steady pulse of Rodney's heartbeat and tune out the itch beneath his skin.

He left an inch between them, and each time Rodney breathed in, he imagined that he felt the fabric of Rodney's blue shirt brush against his forehead.

---

When he runs, the halls echo emptily. There's no movement, no life.

He runs faster, the walls flashing by, the metal walkway clattering beneath his feet.

His mouth is dry, his heart is pounding.

When he stops, the only sound he can hear is the sound of his own breathing.


---

There'd always been something incredibly attractive about the way Teyla moved, the way she held herself. He'd noticed it the first time she'd risen to greet them, back on Athos, and he'd been noticing it on and off ever since. Even removing the female factor, there was a beauty in her, a fluidity that he envied and couldn't emulate; the way her feet darted and danced, the way the sticks flashed quicksilver in her hand.

He'd always envied her that ability, always known that he'd never be able to match her. It figured that the one time he came close it would be courtesy of some alien DNA.

He more than owed her an apology for that.

She wasn't alone when he finally gathered up his courage to track her down in one of the rooms they used for training. He should have figured on that too. Teyla was a teacher by nature, whether teaching him how to spar or delivering some other of life's lessons.

"Colonel."

At least she seemed pleased to see him, gently dismissing her young pupil - and it was telling of his age when they all looked so damned young - and turning that smile on him that always made his heart beat just that little bit faster.

"Should you be up and about?"

"I've been cooped up in that damned infirmary for a couple of weeks. Give me a break." It wasn't strictly true - not even Beckett was that cruel - but he felt like it was. It was still a relief to be out and about, officially discharged and for once without an armed guard of one sort or another.

She smiled at him; one of those heart-stopping, full on, holding nothing back smiles of hers. He figured that there might be some men who would kill for a smile like that. He hadn't figured out yet whether he was one of them, although his actions under the influence of his Iratus DNA said otherwise.

He picked up the fighting sticks she'd left to the side, swinging them idly while he worked up to what needed to be said.

"You are looking well. Are you feeling more like yourself?"

And therein was the million dollar question. "Well, according to my DNA I'm a hundred percent John Sheppard, yeah." Whoever John Sheppard was. There were still days he didn't feel like he fit in his own skin, dreams where he scratched the surface and found something other lurking underneath. He wore a constant reminder of that other, and it was about as far from a badge of honour as you could get.

He twisted his arm, watching the way that the afternoon light streaming through the window made it glisten. "Although, I gotta say, I'm looking forward to getting rid of this thing one day."

He was aiming for nonchalant and he'd had enough practice to think that he pulled it off. "Doc says it'll clear up eventually."

There was an awkward silence for a moment - on his part at least. It was hard to imagine Teyla ever being awkward. The silence pushed him into continuing.

"So... listen. While I've been lying there these past few weeks, I've been remembering things." Okay, maybe he'd been wrong about Teyla never looking awkward. He swallowed down whatever was currently rising in his throat and continued. "Some things I might have done that... you could call out of character."

"You mean when you attacked the security detail?" She was teasing him, and God, the relief at that. He smiled, still feeling awkward but hopefully hiding it better now.

"Yeah, that was one of them."

"Yes." Another of those smiles, and his stomach did a slow and pleasant flip. It didn't make it any easier to meet her eyes.

"There's another thing I should probably apologise for."

"Give it no further thought." Teyla's voice was warm and amused, and he snuck a look, enjoy the sight of her in the sunlight, tilting her head in that way she had, a broad smile lighting up her face.

"Good. I won't."

"Nice to have you back... John."

A duck of her head and she turned away, not bothering to hide her smile.

It felt good, talking to Teyla. Standing openly in the sunlight, feeling it on his face but no longer burning in his eyes. He swung the sticks again, feeling the weight of them in his hands, almost as familiar as the weight of the light on his face.

They were no longer extensions of his body, though, the way they were with Teyla, the way they had been with him. He figured that on balance it was a fair trade, giving up that feeling of power, of being beyond high, just to have his body be his own again. Even if it meant things went back to Teyla kicking his ass.

"Does it bother you that much?"

She startled him out of his reverie, sending his heart into a fast pitter-patter beat. He hadn't realised that she was still here, had, from the looks of things, simply gone to collect the towel from the other side of the room. It hung from her hand as she watched him, head tilted and expression more concerned than amused.

"You were staring at your arm."

There were words hovering behind his lips - flippant ones, ready to deflect and defend - but she deserved better than that. He met her gaze squarely and resisted the urge to roll down his sleeve.

"It bothers me. A little."

She moved closer, sympathy and understanding in those dark eyes.

"That is understandable. But it doesn't make you any different from who you are."

"And who's that?" He softened his smile at the last moment, making it as playful as it could, but from the frown that graced her face he knew he'd softened it a moment too late. That it had come out as fractured and complicated as he felt.

"You are John Sheppard."

He wished he felt as confident as Teyla sounded. "Yeah... well," he said, already pulling himself together, pushing the broken bits back down, beneath the surface.

Her hand settled on his forearm. The touch drew his gaze down to where her fingers curled around the scarred flesh, rich brown against the pale, blue-marbled skin.

"Do you think that I have not had the same doubts, John, about my own... humanity?" When he met her eyes again they were warm, pitiless in their affection. "Wondering if the small pieces of Wraith DNA in me marked me out as something other than human? That what I had always been told was a Gift, a boon to my people, was in fact something that made me a monster?"

He stayed silent, struck dumb by her questions, the feel of her hand on his skin. He had no hope of achieving her serenity, not even if he were entirely human.

"I am not a monster. Nor are you. You are John Sheppard and you are my friend."

"And that's enough, huh?"

The question came out a little more cracked than he'd intended but earned him another one of those small smiles of hers, indulgent this time and a little mocking of his doubt. Her thumb stroked lightly over the mark on his arm and her eyes were more than kind.

He let out a ragged sigh, his fingers loosening beneath her touch until the stick clattered against the floor. When he leant forward, she didn't pull back or recoil against his touch but pressed her forehead against his and let him breathe her in.

Another clatter, this time from the doorway, and he opened his eyes but didn't move away from her, her fingers still pressing against his tainted skin.

"I'm sorry." Rodney's eyes were wide, darting between them as his mouth twisted in a look of dismay. "I... I didn't realise I was interrupting something."

"You were not, Rodney." Teyla's voice was firm and kind, but there was still something broken in Rodney's expression.

John knew broken. He'd spent the last few weeks watching his skin peel, and the days before that turning into something other than human, something monstrous. He'd been shot, sucked dry, literally died and figuratively come too damned close, too damned often.

He knew broken and some things couldn't be shed that easily. He was tired of ignoring everything that hid beneath his skin.

He reached out his hand - his now human hand - and waited, heart pounding in his throat. Exposed. Too damned exposed, and he closed his eyes, for once not willing to meet his doom head on.

Rodney's fingers curled around his, shaky and work roughened and he pulled, ignoring the startled squawk, until Rodney's hand was pressed against his waist. His own hand rested on top of it, no steadier than Rodney's. Less so, as Rodney's fingers flattened and Rodney moved closer, a steady heat against his back.

"John."

The voice was Teyla's, and he closed his eyes, leaned forward again until his forehead was pressed back against hers and he could breathe in every breath that she let out.

"Are you...?"

Rodney's question was cut off by a soft shh from Teyla, and her free hand came up to stroke against the back of John's neck, firm and comforting. The fingers she had curled around his forearm pressed more deeply, to the point of tenderness, but he didn't pull back, didn't want her to pull back.

"You are still you, John," she whispered, and Rodney's hand flexed, settled more firmly around his waist.

His eyes still closed, he stood there in the sun and let them hold him, safely cradled in his own skin.

---

The sun is in his face and the roar of the tarmac beneath the wheels sounds in his ears, accompanied by the rush of the wind. It tugs at his hair, whips the long hair of the pretty girl sitting next to him around as she laughs.

He can't make out her face - not clearly - but it's familiar, as is the broad, square palm resting on his shoulder as their companion leans forward to make her laugh even harder.

He's on Route 66, the top down and the radio playing full blast. The scenery rolls by and the only bugs are on the windscreen.

It's a beautiful day.


The end.