blue flamingos

Fool Me Once

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Slash, NC-17

Year/Length: 2007/ ~9647 words

Pairing: John/Rodney

Spoilers: up to 4.06 Tabula Rasa

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Summary: It started, John would realize much later, with a call for help

Author's Notes: Written for the Urban Legends Challenge. Prompt: A serial killer in Baton Rouge lures his victims out with the sound of a crying baby

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

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It started, John would realize much later, with a call for help. Not that calls for help to Atlantis were a totally unknown occurrence, which was probably why he didn't realize what it was at the time; even then, though, there'd been something strange about it.

"She's using your name," Carter said when John skidded into the gate-room, still in his work-out gear. She nodded to Chuck and the voice came through loud and clear.

"My name is Pierrelle, my people and I have been injured and trapped on an abandoned planet. Please, we request the help of the people of Atlantis and Major Sheppard."

"Do you know her?" Carter asked.

John shook his head slowly. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but not so much that he could identify her. "If she's saying Major Sheppard, she's someone we met in the first year. We've met a lot of people since then."

Chuck lowered the volume on Pierrelle's transmission, which kept going in the background – apparently she wasn't going to give up until they contacted her back or the wormhole collapsed.

"So?" Carter asked. "Lower the shields?"

John looked down at the shimmering wormhole. They'd been to a lot of planets that first year, met a lot of people – it wasn't that unlikely that more people remembered him than he remembered. "We can't bring them back to the city," he said. "But we could send a team to the planet with someone from Medical, check it out."

"And reveal the continued existence of the city?" Carter asked

"I don't think we're actually fooling many people with that these days," John offered. "Plus, you know, she's got our new gate address from somewhere, I guess she knows the city exists." Not that it was entirely a surprise to learn that their new address had already gotten around the galaxy – nothing stayed secret in Pegasus for long. "Send them via the alpha site if you're worried."

"Please," Pierrelle said over the transmission, sounding desperate. "We cannot get home. Please help us."

"All right," Carter said. "Get a team of marines up here and we'll send someone through as soon as the wormhole shuts down. Chuck, can you get Dr Zelenka down here to find out where the transmission's coming from please."

"My team can go," John offered. "Take Dr Keller with us."

"No. This doesn't need you or your team. Let the marines handle it."

John opened his mouth to respond, then realized he was about to say that Elizabeth would have let him go, and closed it again. "I'll have a team up here in twenty minutes."

He caught Lieutenant Gutierrez before he and his team got to the gate-room. "Watch your back out there Lieutenant. They say they're hurt but –"

"This is Pegasus?" Gutierrez offered with a grin.

"Something like that," John agreed.

"Will do, sir."

The wormhole had shut down by the time the team was formed up in front of the gate, along with two doctors. Carter leaned on the barrier to look down at them, and John felt a weird moment of déjà vu, watching Elizabeth do the same thing thousands of times. "Ready to go, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, ma'am," Gutierrez said with a grin.

"Good. Check in when you get to the planet, and every half hour from then." She waited for Gutierrez to confirm, then nodded for Chuck to dial up the gate.

John watched them go through and the wormhole shut down behind them, fighting a sudden urge to call them back. He had a bad feeling about the whole thing, and his bad feelings pretty much always panned out. He could have told Elizabeth, had her send a cloaked jumper through with the team – which, now he thought about it, wasn't a bad idea – but he wasn't sure about Carter yet.

"Only you," Rodney said abruptly at his shoulder, startling John, who hadn't heard him coming – first time for everything.

"Only me what?" he asked as the symbols on the gate started lighting up.

"Only you could get an inter-planetary call from a damsel in distress you don't even remember meeting." He sounded disgruntled, but not all that much, more like he was protesting out of habit. John wasn't even sure what he was doing in the gate-room anyway.

"And I suppose you do?"

"Please." Rodney rolled his eyes. "As if I have time to keep track of all the alien women who throw themselves at you."

John thought about pointing out that he'd kissed a grand total of four women in their three and a bit years in Pegasus, had in fact kissed McKay more often than all the women put together, but he had a nasty feeling that he'd just end up digging himself in deeper. The wormhole wooshed into existence before he could decide.

"Atlantis base, this is Gutierrez."

"Receiving, Lieutenant, what's your status?"

"We're here, ma'am, but there's no sign of anyone and we're not picking up any life signs."

"What?" Rodney nudged Chuck away from his station and started typing, Zelenka crowding close and trying to peer over his shoulder.

"Lieutenant, I don't mean to suggest that you can't dial a DHD properly..."

"But are we sure we're on the right planet, sir?" Gutierrez asked, sounding somewhere between disgruntled and amused, which was pretty much where John would be in his place. "Yes, sir. Unless Dr Z got it wrong."

Zelenka looked up from Chuck's station long enough to mutter something vile sounding in Czech.

"Yeah, I don't think so," John drawled. He tapped his earpiece off and looked over at Carter, who shook her head. "Maybe they got help from their planet?" he suggested.

"You think they managed to send something through to pick up Pierrelle and her people, even though they couldn't dial into their own planet?"

"Sure," John agreed, though he hadn't actually got as far as thinking how they could have gotten off the planet in the few minutes between the wormhole shutting down and Gutierrez's team getting there. "Lieutenant, any sign of what might have picked them up?"

"Negative, sir. There's some footprints round the gate, but that's it."

"Okay." He looked over at Carter again, waiting for her to nod. "Come on back, I guess. Via the alpha site again, please."

"Understood, sir," Gutierrez said, and the wormhole shut down. A few moments later, it activated again, returning Gutierrez's team and the doctors from possibly the shortest mission the Atlantis expedition had ever undertaken.

"Well, that was different," John offered, and left Carter to supervise Rodney and Zelenka, since he was only in charge of the military.

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The thing was, it had been weird, but on the Pegasus scale of weirdness, it barely rated a two. Stranger things happened to them before morning staff meeting, and that was when he didn't count the days with Wraith attacks and crystals that tried to kill people through their dreams.

All in all, it was pretty easy to forget the whole thing, especially when Rodney stopped needling Zelenka about the possibility (extremely unlikely, he confided to John when Zelenka left their table in disgust) that he'd traced the transmission back to the wrong planet.

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One day, when he wasn't so busy trying to keep everyone alive and forcing himself not to undermine Carter's authority just because she wasn't Elizabeth, John was going to sit down and write out The Laws of the Universe According to Pegasus. Somewhere around the top of that list would be the way he always got called to the gate-room to deal with something when he'd just got done being tossed around the training room by Teyla and/or Ronon, sweaty and out of uniform and feeling about as much like the military commander of Atlantis as he did like the city's prom queen.

Which was to say, not at all.

"We've got another distress call," Carter said, looking at him out of the corner of her eye like she was thinking of moving away from him. It wasn't his fault people couldn't time their distress calls a little better.

"Another one?" John asked, running a mental roster of off-world teams and failing to remember getting a distress call from any of them since they'd gone out.

"Well, strictly speaking a new one," Carter said. "It doesn't seem to be coming from the same group."

"Who's it from?" John was getting a little worried: either Carter had forgotten to mention a distress call to him and then forgotten that she'd forgotten, or he'd forgotten getting it. Neither scenario sounded all that good; he really wasn't ready for another city-wide amnesia attack, especially when Lorne had only just stopped giving him shifty, guilty looks over the events of the last one.

"She's not giving a name this time." Carter nodded to Chuck. "Maybe you recognize the voice."

Chuck hit a key on his laptop and a hushed female voice came through the speakers. "My comrades are cut off from the ring and under attack from fanged animals. I fear they will not survive the night. Please, we are in great danger. Our people cannot come to our aid. Major Sheppard of Atlantis promised his aid should we need it. Please speak to me. I cannot return to my comrades, I fear they are already killed. Please. Charank is a barren place, there is no safety for us here –"

Carter nodded to Chuck, who lowered the volume again so only he could hear it clearly. The look she gave John was pure Elizabeth: well-concealed distress with a hint of potential for mistrust. It came across as more-or-less blank, and John wished he was as good at hiding what he was thinking, well aware that he telegraphed most things more than Rodney did if someone knew how to look.

"Like – what was her name? The woman from last week."

Carter nodded. "Do you recognize her voice? Or the name of the planet?"

"No, but Teyla might. It doesn't sound like she's on her home world." He turned away from Carter and tapped his ear-piece on, hoping Teyla wasn't in the shower. She wasn't. "Do you know a planet called Charank?"

There was a pause, then Teyla said, "Yes. It is not a planet many visit, there is little there. I would be surprised if there was anything worth us sending people."

"No, we're not planning a mission, we've had another distress call. Actually, could you come up and listen to it? I don't recognize the voice, but you might."

"I will be right there," Teyla promised, sounding like she was already moving.

"On her way," John told Carter. He looked down at the open wormhole, the faint sounds of the distress call just audible. "We can send a jumper through, scan the planet. Teyla knows it, we can dial as soon as the wormhole shuts down. If there's no-one there, we'll come straight back."

Carter nodded slowly. "Staff Sergeant Rikeman's on call for flight runs today, he can take Lieutenant Gutierrez's team to check it out."

"I'll go," John offered, then, before Carter could object, "I've got time to shower and change before the wormhole shuts down."

"It's not your personal hygiene that's stopping me, Ma – Colonel," Carter said, grimacing at her mistake.

John swallowed down the crack about being demoted that lurked at the back of his throat; seriously, what was with everyone calling for Major Sheppard on these things? It wasn't like they'd never met anyone who might be in distress since he'd been promoted. He'd been a Lieutenant Colonel in Pegasus longer than he'd been a Major there; statistically they were more likely to get called on by people who knew him under that title.

"Staff Sergeant Rikeman doesn't have much combat flying experience in the jumpers," he pointed out. "If we have to engage with hostiles –"

"I think he can probably handle some hostile fanged animals from a jumper," Carter said firmly. "And if he hasn't got much combat flying experience, it wouldn't hurt to have him clock some more in relatively safe conditions."

Only in Pegasus could a potential rescue against hostile fanged animals be described as relatively safe conditions.

Scrambling rescue jumpers was pretty much old hat to Atlantis, though John wasn't often around to watch it happening, and the jumper was hovering in the gate room, armed with Teyla's address for the planet, when the wormhole shut down.

"Update as soon as you've done the scan please, Lieutenant," Carter said as the wormhole wooshed open.

"Roger that, ma'am," Gutierrez said cheerfully, and the jumper shot through the gate, the wormhole closing behind them.

Teyla joined John on the balcony, giving John the chance to ponder just how it was that she'd managed to get clean and tidy in the five minutes he'd been with Carter after leaving her at the gym. Some days, he was sure she did it just to mess with him. "Do you think they will find anyone?"

John shrugged. "Don't see why not. I guess Pierrelle and her people got taken back to their world after they let the wormhole close."

It had seemed, when he'd written a quick note to accompany the report, the most likely explanation – Pierrelle's distress call to them had prevented a perfectly good rescue coming through from her planet, one which had been swiftly executed between her wormhole shutting down and Gutierrez's team opening a new one from the alpha site.

"I meant rather than I wondered if they would find anyone who had not succumbed to the animals of Charank," Teyla said. "They are reputed to be terribly fierce when angered."

"Let's just hope no-one's angered them today then," John offered. It wasn't like he wasn't perfectly willing to help out people in distress, particularly people in distress who weren't trying to kidnap his team as a way of getting out of it, but the prospect of becoming a galaxy-wide search and rescue force didn't really appeal. They didn't have enough jumpers, or personnel, for one thing, and for another, they needed the jumpers they did have to run search and rescue for their own people, who seemed, even excluding John's team from the count, to go missing with alarming frequency.

It took twenty minutes – twenty minutes which John could have spent taking a shower and putting on his uniform, rather than watching Masterson finish sweeping the gate-room floor and start polishing the banisters – before the gate activated and Gutierrez's IDC came through.

"We've done a full sensor sweep of the planet, sir, ma'am. Picked up plenty of life signs but visual confirms none of them are human."

"There was no-one at the gate?" John asked, surprised. Even if the rest of the party had been devoured by animals, he would have expected whoever had made the call to be waiting for the rescue.

"Negative, sir. If anyone was out there, they're gone now."

"Thanks, Lieutenant." He glanced at Carter, who nodded. "Bring your team back to the city."

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"We could send a science team through," Rodney suggested in the mess that evening, when Teyla and John recounted the pointless excursion to him and Ronon over something that proclaimed to be beef stew but seemed to lack any actual beef.

"And what?" John asked, poking at his food with a vague longing for the Travelers' odd dishes, which had at least been that way for a reason. "Go to their planet and demand to know if their people have been eaten by fanged animals after asking us for help? I'd rather not point out our failures if I can help it."

"I thought you might like to know which planet was producing women who still remember you after three years," Rodney said. "But clearly I was mistaken. I suppose there had to be a first time. Just don't expect it to happen again."

"I won't," John said, giving up hope of pointing out that anyone who'd just escaped near death at the fangs of a wild animal wasn't likely to be eager to leap into bed with him, even if he'd wanted her to. As payback, he also decided that he wasn't going to invite Rodney over to watch the latest series of CSI, for which Rodney had an irrational, given his criticism of the science, fondness, and fool around, even though he'd been contemplating it with a faint buzz of arousal all day. It wasn't like they were a regular, or even a particularly frequent thing; sometimes it was comfort, sometimes it was celebration, sometimes it was just about getting off, and since it wasn't easy, particularly for John, to find someone they (a) weren't responsible for and (b) wanted to sleep with, they went to each other. John figured it was one of the benefits of having a best friend now he was an adult.

"Good," Rodney said absently, slurping his coffee. "Hey, did I tell you we found a record in the Ancient database for a planet with, and I quote, energy sources of the highest magnitude?"

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Energy sources of the highest magnitude turned out, disappointingly but not entirely surprisingly, given their history, to refer not to ZPMs but to high calorie plant stems that bore a strong resemblance in both taste and effect to glucose tablets.

Since it took them eight hours of walking across the planet to figure it out before promptly handing the mission over to Lorne's team since, hey, he'd foolishly chosen a botanist for his team, Rodney wasn't in the best of moods for the next couple of days.

John was perfectly willing to join him there when his ear piece went off as he was reviewing the last set of reports for the data-burst, a task he'd been trying but failing to hand off to Lorne since Lorne's third day in the city. He wanted to be more surprised when Carter's voice informed him that they'd received another distress call for Major Sheppard, but he'd been half-expecting it for the last couple of days, because Pegasus was nothing if not predictable, and things pretty much always got stranger before they got normal again.

"I'll be right there," he told her, and snagged the rest of his team on the way, in case they recognized something he didn't.

Carter looked a little taken aback when the four of them walked in, but gamely turned up the volume on the transmission to cover Rodney's mutterings about John's existed-only-in-Rodney's-head harem, filling the gate-room with the sound of a high female voice; same old same old.

"Any thoughts?" Carter asked, not sounding especially hopeful.

John shook his head. "Any names? Planetary designations?"

"Nothing so far, but there's nearly twenty-five minutes of gate time to go."

"There's a team on the way?" John asked. Carter nodded. "You know, since they're asking for me, maybe it would be best to send my team."

"Oh, that is so completely typical of you," Rodney grumbled, tapping at the data-pad he'd hooked into the gate-room computers, tracing the planet's address. "Any potential to get laid and –"

"McKay," John growled. "I really don't think people making a distress call are going to be particularly interested in sex. Even if I wanted to. Which I don't."

"Please, like women don't throw themselves at you in stranger situations every week," Rodney said.

"I do not believe I recognize the voice," Teyla said loudly, cutting them off. "Ronon, is it familiar to you?"

"Sounds like half the women in the galaxy," Ronon said with a shrug. "You really think she knows you?"

John looked up to see Carter looking at him. "No," he said. "I really don't."

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The team reported no life signs on the planet, to the surprise of approximately no-one, and Carter refused to send a science team through to try and trace the last dialed address, pointing out that the calls really weren't much more than a nuisance. Next time, she announced firmly, they'd just ignore them until the caller stopped.

It didn't turn out that way.

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"Colonel Sheppard to the control room. Colonel Sheppard to the control room."

So much for ignoring the calls, John thought, handing the Ancient device he'd been playing with back to Rodney, who had never quite given up his theory that John could make devices work where no-one else could, despite a complete lack of evidence to prove this.

"What?" Rodney asked. The device beeped unhappily and he glanced at it briefly before looking back to John.

"Wanted in the control room. We're about due another distress call."

"Right." Rodney powered down his laptop and grabbed his data-pad. "We're going to track the call back to the planet it's coming from, then I'm sending a science team out there to figure out where these people keep going and you can go explain to them why they need to stop doing this."

John blinked. "Okay."

Rodney nodded decisively and followed him out of the labs.

Carter was waiting when they got to the control room. "Another distress call?" he asked.

She looked at him and Rodney the way people usually looked when the next words to come out of their mouths were going to include 'hive ships', 'Atlantis' and 'here in a matter of days'. "It's not exactly like the others."

"Okay," John said patiently. He had jumper training scheduled with three of the new marines in twenty minutes and they'd already decided to ignore the calls and hope they went away. "You want me to listen?"

Carter nodded to Chuck, who looked down at the console, then back up, clearly uncomfortable.

It was a male voice this time, young-sounding, calm and rational, and then John registered the words and the voice wasn't just a voice. He watched the same realization dawning on Rodney's face, and could only hope his own face didn't show the same shock and distress that Rodney's did. Knowing that he wasn't the only one hearing it didn't make him feel much better.

"John?" Carter asked.

John cut himself off before he could tell Chuck to turn it down. "That's Ford."

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"I don't get it," Ronon said from across the briefing room table. "I thought he was on that hive ship you blew up."

"So did the rest of us," Rodney said, which wasn't strictly true. Ford was still officially listed as a deserter, after John and Elizabeth had lost to Landry on that one.

"Look," John said, leaning forward to look at Carter. "Why don't we send a transmission back? If it is him..."

"If it is him, which it probably isn't, then we have no way of knowing why he's doing this. He could have been captured and turned by the Wraith, or be being held by whoever sent the first messages, and I think we all agree they weren't just helpless citizens of Pegasus –"

"Did he send his IDC?" Teyla asked, cutting Rodney off right before John would have snapped.

"No." Carter sighed. "I appreciate your concern for one of your people, John, but the likelihood of this actually being him is pretty remote. It's too much of a risk to drop the shield, even just to talk."

"So what? We just leave him there? He's asking to come home." He was – he kept repeating himself, but the basic message was the same: Ford wanted to come back to Atlantis, but not without someone they trusted to bring him through.

"And he's asking for you by your old rank," Rodney said. "Just like the call last week, just like the two before that. You don't think that's a little bit suspicious?"

"Maybe it's a coincidence," John offered. "Maybe he's forgotten I got promoted. He's probably had other things on his mind."

"I still knew the ranks of everyone on my team when I was Running," Ronon said, which wasn't really what John wanted to hear, not to mention not really being the same thing.

"Great. Look, Colonel, we have to go and see. If there's no-one there, we'll come straight back." With Elizabeth, he'd always been able to tell when she was wavering, but he hadn't learnt how to identify it on Carter yet. "I'll push back jumper training with the marines, take my team through in a cloaked jumper, he won't even have to know we're there."

"Because there's no chance that anyone will realize what it means when the gate activates and nothing comes through right after making a call to Atlantis."

John forced a smile, trying not to think that sometimes, he really understood how people could dislike Rodney. "Fine. The transmission's coming from P4N 917, there's a space gate less than a ten hour jumper flight from there, he won't even know we're on the planet."

"I don't like it," Carter said, leaning her chin on her folded hands. "All the messages have asked for you specifically, and, apart from the last one, they've all been from people that you and your team don't recognize. I think there's a strong possibility this is being used to try and lure you off Atlantis, and if we send you out there in a jumper, even cloaked, we'll be playing right into their hands."

"Like the serial killer with the recordings of crying babies," Rodney said, then looked surprised when everyone turned to look at him.

"What?" John asked. There was no-one like McKay for derailing a discussion, usually at the most inappropriate moment, but that was a stretch, even for him.

Rodney waved it away. "Urban legend, obviously, there were never any reports of that actually happening, but there are some similarities."

"You think this is a recording?" John asked. "Why would someone make a tape of Ford requesting to come home?"

"I *think* someone in Pegasus has decided they want you, which, by the way, has never historically turned out well for us, and they figured the best way to get you to go was to play on your hopelessly sympathetic nature when it comes to the helpless, which, oh yes, is exactly what you're falling for."

"All right," Carter said, and didn't point out, as John would have done, that Rodney had just rehashed her argument, only with a few more slurs to John's character. "Regardless of how or why they're doing this, clearly ignoring it isn't a viable option any more. I'd like to send Major Lorne's team out instead."

"Um," John said hesitantly. "Last time Lorne and Ford met, it, er, didn't go all that well." Most of which, admittedly, hadn't really been Lorne's fault, but there was no telling what Ford's memory of the event was like.

"Then working together on this can be a sign of his reform and desire to come back," Carter said firmly, and stood up. "I'd like the jumper underway within the hour, Colonel."

"Yes, ma'am," John said darkly, and went to find Lorne.

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Rodney caught up with him as he was leaving the control room after watching the jumper go through the gate. "Major Lorne's team get away all right?"

"They're fine," John told him. Lorne had made a face when John explained the situation to him, the kind of face that meant he didn't like it any more than John did, but, unlike John, he knew better than to complain to his CO about it. "They'll radio in when they get to the planet. We'll just have to hope Ford doesn't leave like the others."

"Hmm," Rodney said. He looked both ways down the empty corridor, then stepped a little closer to John. "I know you're not going to sleep until you hear from them, even though it'll be four in the morning before they get there, so I thought you might like to, you know –" He dropped his voice even further. "Come over."

"What, for dinner?" John asked. "Should I bring flowers?"

"Fine, mope in your room if that makes you happy. I was just trying to do a nice thing." He looked genuinely put out and John felt weirdly guilty, like he didn't have enough to feel guilty over, worrying about Ford.

"Thank you. That sounds good. I've got new CSI DVDs, I could bring those."

"Sounds good." Rodney patted him briskly on the arm. "Nine o'clock?"

"See you then."

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John got held up dealing with a minor confusion over who was supposed to be taking night duty in the control room, and ended up going to Rodney's room late and still in his uniform when he'd meant to change, thus giving Rodney the opportunity to crow over his own punctuality. This despite the fact that nine out of ten missions that went off late for their team were because of Rodney's inability to watch a clock when it mattered.

"We should have asked Ronon and Teyla along," John said when Rodney finally took a breath. He considered waiting for Rodney to notice that he was still standing just inside the closed door, then decided that was a waste of time and sat down on the edge of the bed to remove his boots.

"Mm." Rodney took the DVD case and fiddled with his laptop. "I doubt they would've come anyway."

"Did you piss Ronon off again?" John asked, only half-joking.

"No! Well – not that I know of, anyway. I meant that they have – plans."

"Plans?"

"Yes, Colonel, plans. I realize you run your command mostly on a series of systematic wild-ass guesses and grunts on a good day, but surely you must know the meaning of the word."

"Yes, Rodney, I know what plans are. I was asking why Ronon and Teyla have plans without us."

Rodney gave him the eye-roll of you-are-too-stupid-to-be-breathing-my-air-but-unfortunately-you're-too-visible-in-the-city-for-me-to-kill. "Pretty much the same reason you and I have plans."

"Oh," John said, then, "Wait a minute. How do you know this before me?"

"Because I listen?" Rodney suggested. John looked at him until he caved, turning back to the laptop. "Okay, because I overheard them talking when I was looking for you. So, technically, it is because I listen."

"It's because you happened to be in the right place at the right time and shamelessly eavesdropped on a private conversation," John corrected. "Hey, do you mind if I take a shower? I've been wearing these clothes since five this morning."

"When you put it that way, go right ahead. Though you'll have to put them back on again at some point."

John entertained a brief fantasy of what they could get up to, naked, for the next six and a half hours. "I left a pair of jeans and a shirt here last time," he said, shrugging off his jacket and peeling off his socks.

"You did? Are you moving in at an incredibly slow rate and hoping I won't notice?"

"You and everybody else in the city," John muttered. "And no, I'm not. I had early duty, remember, I brought my uniform to change into so no-one would wonder why I was going on duty in the clothes I'd been wearing the night before?" He waited for Rodney to nod, even though he was pretty sure Rodney had no idea what he was talking about. "I forgot to come by and pick those clothes up."

"Oh. Actually, that does explain why I had a black shirt that was obviously too small for me in the laundry."

"There you go," John said agreeably. He stood up to remove his boxers and fold his clothes neatly on the chair in the corner, making a mental note to come by and pick them up when no-one would notice. "You want to start the DVD, I'll only be a minute."

"Sure."

John liked the Ancient showers a lot, though he wasn't wild about Rodney's hypo-allergenic shampoo, which, whatever Rodney said, definitely had a distinctive scent. That said, he wasn't likely to make it back to his quarters to shower before Lorne's team dialed in and he had to go on duty, so he'd only end up showering in it again.

He was lathering up his hair when the bathroom door slid open, and he turned to the wall to hide his smile. Rodney could be very predictable at times.

A moment later, the shower door opened as well, and Rodney stepped in close behind him.

"Help you with something?" John asked, turning round.

"Thought you might need a hand with those hard to reach spots," Rodney offered with a grin, pulling him close.

John let himself be pulled, tilting his head to kiss Rodney, tasting clean water and a faint hint of freshmint toothpaste. Rodney kissed back, slow and easy, and slid a hand between John's legs, making his breath catch.

"That's not a hard to reach spot," John pointed out.

"Human anatomy, I get so confused," Rodney offered, stroking John's cock just firmly enough for him to start getting hard.

"You need a refresher course?" John asked. Rodney nodded, looking like he was on the verge of laughter. John couldn't exactly blame him – they sounded like the dialogue track to not very good porn. "I'll start at the top –"

"At the top or on top?" Rodney asked, and John couldn't stop his laugh.

"Sometimes I wonder how you get anyone to sleep with you," he said, though not really all that often, if he was honest, especially when Rodney's hand was doing amazing things to his dick, hard and already leaking.

"Got you, didn't I?" Rodney asked, and John really didn't have an argument for that, even if Rodney hadn't chosen that moment to kiss him again, taking John's wrist and guiding his hand to his cock.

The one bad thing about the Ancient showers was that the water didn't stay hot long enough for shower sex to include any kind of post-orgasmic glow; if John believed in the city being sentient, which he didn't, he'd say it knew when they were finished, because they always got just long enough to clean up before the water started running ice cold.

It was a relief to climb out of the shower and fall into Rodney's unmade bed, still naked and damp, pressed close together out of necessity, the laptop set up at the foot of the bed, out of range of wayward limbs when they inevitably got bored with the DVD and started making out instead. John was never going to admit this, but Rodney's prescription mattress really was a lot more comfortable than his own standard issue, and he was drifting, half-asleep, half-listening to Rodney, who'd got distracted by some truly terrible bit of science, when Rodney went suddenly quiet and pulled John closer to him.

"What?" John asked.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep."

"I'm not sleeping," John said, wide awake again. He fumbled for his watch, which told him it wasn't even midnight yet. "What is it?"

Rodney looked down at him, blue eyes weirdly shadowed in the light of the laptop screen. "It's nothing. I just – you really think it could be Ford, don't you?"

John swallowed hard, turning slightly so he couldn't really see Rodney's face. He'd pretty much accepted that Ford was gone after the hive ship, but that hadn't stopped him chasing down every possible sighting of him. He honestly wasn't sure if he was hoping that Lorne's team found Ford or that they didn't. "Yeah," he said quietly, then, knowing the answer, "You don't?"

Rodney went very still, for long enough that John thought he wasn't going to answer. When he did, John kind of wished he hadn't. "No, I don't." He squeezed John's shoulders where his arm was still wrapped round them. "I'm sorry."

"You think I shouldn't have talked Carter into sending someone?" John asked, grateful for the mostly-darkness of Rodney's room. Rodney was the only person he ever let himself ask those kinds of questions to.

"I think you wouldn't be you if you hadn't," Rodney said. "And you'd never have stopped wondering if you should have tried harder to make it happen."

It wasn't really an answer, but it was enough. John leaned forward to shut down the laptop and put it carefully on the floor, then turned to climb over Rodney and push him flat onto the bed. "You up for another anatomy lesson?"

Rodney grinned, resting a hand on John's ass. "I could be persuaded."

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John wasn't surprised to find Teyla, Ronon and Carter sitting round the table when he made it to the control room at 0345. "Any news?" he asked, taking a seat next to Ronon and accepting the coffee mug Teyla handed over. He hadn't slept well, waking up twenty minutes after he'd fallen asleep and lying in the dark, watching the hive ship explode over and over whenever he closed his eyes, listening to Rodney breathe next to him.

"Nothing yet. They should be in range to scan for life signs in a few minutes," Carter said.

"McKay not coming?" Ronon asked.

Rodney had woken up briefly when John climbed out of bed, and asked if he should go. John had said no, well aware that there would be nothing Rodney could do, but, seeing the way Ronon leaned into Teyla in silent support, he thought maybe he should have accepted the offer. "Needs his beauty sleep," he said.

There was something slightly creepy, John decided, about the control room in the early hours of the morning, the lights dimmed and only a skeleton staff around. The sound of the gate activating echoed through the empty space, making John jump as Ronon pulled him out of his seat and the conference room. It had nothing to do with the way his eyes had begun to slide closed in the silence.

"Atlantis, this is Major Lorne."

"Go ahead, Major," Carter said.

"We've just completed a fly-over of the planet, and we're picking up twelve life signs about five klicks from the gate. Request permission to go take a closer look."

John swallowed down his surprise and nodded to Carter.

"Permission granted," Carter said. "Stay on the radio, please."

"Yes, ma'am."

There was a brief burst of silence as Lorne took the jumper down towards the planet, then someone said, "There."

"Hold on," Lorne said, then, "What –"

Something thumped on the other end of the connection, and Lorne swore. "We're taking fire," he said calmly. "Hang on."

There was another thump, and John felt his hands tighten on the barrier, watching the open wormhole in the gate like that was going to tell him anything.

"Major Lorne?" Carter asked.

The answer came in the form of three thumps in rapid succession.

"Major Lorne?" Carter said again.

Over the radio came the unmistakable sound of a jumper going down.

A moment later, the gate shut down.

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"Do you really think this is a good idea?" Rodney asked, buckling his vest in the locker room.

John shoved a fresh clip into his 9mm. "We don't leave people behind."

"I know that," Rodney said, sounding exasperated. "You might as well have it tattooed on your forehead. But Lorne's jumper was cloaked and they still managed to shoot it down."

"We know they've got a reasonable level of technology, we're better prepared this time." He'd already had this argument with Carter after the gate shut down, backed by Teyla and Ronon, and he just wanted to get on and do it, no more talking. Of course, this was Rodney, so that wasn't likely to happen.

"If by prepared you mean walking into a situation about which we know absolutely nothing other than that they might have better technology than we do."

John sighed, looking down at the bench he was sat on. "I sent him out there. He's my responsibility, they all are. They wouldn't be there at all if I hadn't let Carter send them."

"No, we would be and, no offence to Major Lorne and his team, but I'd rather have us running the rescue than them."

John laughed. "I'm telling him you said that," he said.

"I don't think he'll be particularly shocked. He has a botanist on his team, for pity's sake." Rodney dropped onto the bench in front of John, their knees brushing, and wrapped his hand round John's forearm. "You all right?" he asked quietly.

John couldn't look up, suddenly absurdly close to losing it, to telling Rodney that this was more than never leaving anyone behind, that this was more important because it was Lorne, and he'd lost two COs, three if you counted Everett, which he mostly did, as well as one second in command since he got to Pegasus and the thought of losing another one made his throat hurt. He let his head drop down until his forehead was resting against Rodney's, and closed his eyes, inhaling the familiar scent of Rodney's shampoo and his shower gel, Rodney silent and patient against him.

"Yeah," he said finally, drawing a deep breath. "I'm good."

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M7T 437 actually looked like its people could have been on their way to developing a society that rivaled the first world parts of Earth, before they'd apparently been victims of the Wraith. A paved road led away from the gate through fields, clearly divided up by human hands at some point, given the uniformity of the stone walls beneath the over-grown vines.

John hustled the team behind one of the walls as soon as they stepped through the gate and nudged Rodney. "Life signs?"

Rodney pointed over his shoulder, down the road. "That way. Looks like twelve, but they're all on top of each other, it's hard to tell."

"In a building, maybe?" John suggested, peering at the screen over Rodney's shoulder.

"Did Major Lorne not say that there were twelve life signs when he flew over?" Teyla asked.

"Yeah. You picking up anything else?"

Rodney shook his head and John sighed. There were too many possibilities to put together a contingency plan: the lack of the four additional life signs he'd expected to see could be accounted for by anything from Lorne's team having taken out some of their attackers when the jumper was fired on to the detector display just not being fine enough to distinguish sixteen people.

"All right. We'll follow the original plan, just – keep an eye out for anyone unexpected."

"Shouldn't be too hard," Ronon said as they started down the road. "Anyone comes our way, we'll see them in plenty of time."

"Yeah," John agreed, looking at the open fields they were walking between. "Just like they'll see us."

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"Anything?" John asked.

"If by anything you mean any signs of life, yes, still. If by anything you mean anything that wasn't there when you asked me five minutes ago, then no, because I value my life too much not to mention to you if there was."

"Just checking," John said through gritted teeth.

"Hey, Sheppard." Ronon paused in his scouting ahead and gestured for John to join him on the crest of the slight rise they were making their way up.

The rise made one side of a bowl in the center of which lay a large town of uniform red-brick houses that reminded John vaguely of some of the military housing he'd lived in as a kid. It was obviously abandoned, and probably had been for a while, given the holes in the roofs and the missing windows, though the paved roads were still intact.

"Any idea which building they're in?" John asked, grateful beyond words that they were finally getting somewhere. He'd never again complain about being attacked the moment they stepped through the gate – it beat the hell out of a long hike into an unknown situation as a prelude to a rescue. They hadn't even been able to travel by jumper, since they had no way of knowing if whoever was on the planet really had seen through the cloak or if it had just failed at the worst possible moment.

"They're not," Rodney said, still looking at his scanner.

"What do you mean, they're not? You pointed us this way."

"And unlike you, Colonel, there's nothing wrong with *my* sense of direction. They're not in any of these houses, because they're in that direction." He pointed further along the ridge to a patch of pine trees.

"Why would they choose to keep their captives in a place such as that when they could use one of the buildings?" Teyla asked. "The trees do not seem to offer much protection."

John felt uneasily that he might know why – there weren't many reasons to go out of a nice defensible building when you'd taken prisoners, unless your prisoners weren't worth defending any longer. "How many life signs?"

"Twelve still," Rodney said, looking up to give John the kicked puppy look he got when he thought John wasn't going to like what he was saying. "But there could be more, I mean, it's hard to tell from this when they're so close together –"

"I got it," John said, holding up a hand. "All right, here's the plan..."

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In the end, as it turned out, they didn't need a plan at all; they were still making their way along the ridge when Rodney said, "Oh. Oh that's different."

"What?" John asked impatiently.

"They're moving. Eight life signs, heading for our position."

"You think they know we're here?" Ronon asked, bringing his gun up to point at the trees.

"Well, it's a pretty big coincidence otherwise, don't you think?" Rodney asked. "They just happened to choose now to go for a little stroll, just as we got here?"

"McKay," John said, then, "What about the rest of them?"

"Still in the trees. I think there's six still there."

"Perhaps it would be best if we remained here and waited for them to come to us," Teyla suggested, though John noticed she'd put herself between Rodney and the trees and had her P-90 up. "We may be able to explain that we did not mean them any harm, and retrieve Major Lorne and his team without further violence."

John was all for further violence, actually – they had his people, and they'd shot down one of his jumpers, and he'd not slept well anyway – but he could see the logic in Teyla's idea. "Fine. And keep an eye out for Ford." He carefully ignored the glances he could feel being exchanged behind his back by the rest of his team, well aware that he was in a minority of one on that point.

They'd stopped within shouting distance of the trees, close enough to see that the first two people to emerge from the bushes weren't theirs. The man and woman were armed with familiar looking weapons, and dressed in even more familiar uniforms.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Rodney muttered, which John thought was probably a fair interpretation of the situation.

"Are they Genii?" Ronon asked.

"I believe so," Teyla agreed. "At least, that is what their uniforms seem to be."

John was going to kill Ladon when he got back to the city. Slowly and unpleasantly. They'd had a *deal*.

"John," Teyla said, nodding to the trees as six more people emerged; four of them were wearing Atlantis uniforms, and John breathed a very quiet sigh of relief. Apparently they really were stupid enough to hide out in the trees when there were plenty of defensible houses at their disposal.

"Major Sheppard," the older of the two men called when they got closer. "I'm so pleased you've decided to join us."

"It's Colonel, actually," John said, and saw Lorne shake his head slightly. Like he wouldn't correct anyone who got his rank wrong.

"Colonel, my apologies. This news did not make it to my people."

"Yeah." John took another look at the four guards surrounding his men, none of whom looked familiar. "You want to tell us who you people are? Since you already know us."

"We are members of the Federation for the Freedom of the Genii. I am our chosen leader. You may refer to me as Captain Janus."

"The Federation for the Freedom of the Genii," John repeated, taking in his team's equally blank looks. "Because the Genii aren't free already?"

"The Genii," Janus said, drawing himself up and puffing his chest out in a way that reminded John of Cowen, even though Janus, John's age, Ronon's height and stick thin, couldn't look less like him. "Will never be free until the usurper Radim has been removed from his position of power and replaced with someone who understands and respects the traditions of the Genii."

"Right," John said slowly. Some days, he really wished they'd never gotten involved with the Genii – things never went well when they had to interact, and this was just one more example of that. Also, what was it about Lorne that he kept getting involved in fights for leadership of the Genii? "So, you've got my people because..."

Janus shifted slightly, though he wasn't showing any signs of going for a gun. John really hoped the rest of his little band wasn't sneaking round behind them. "We had hoped that it would be you on the ship," he said. "You are well known amongst my people for your daring attempts to rescue those close to you."

"But not by my correct rank," John muttered, unsure whether to be flattered or insulted that he was some kind of known figure among these people. "Well, sorry to disappoint you."

"We were not disappointed," Janus said. "After all, you are here now, and that has made our trials with your people most worthwhile."

"Trials?" John asked, looking at Lorne, who gave him an innocent grin. "You're supposed to be the well-behaved one."

"Sorry, sir," Lorne said, sounding anything but. "He threatened to mess with the jumper."

"Oh well, in that case..."

"Though on that subject," Rodney interrupted, pushing past Teyla. "How did you manage to shoot the jumper down in the first place?"

"You are not the only people with technology," Janus said. "We have created a device which can be used to neutralize most cloaking technology. It was a simple task to start it running when we sent our first message, having seen your ships on our home planet."

"Anti-cloaking technology," Rodney said, giving John a worried look. "That sounds, er, useful."

"I assure you, it is. It has brought us Major – my apologies, Colonel Sheppard – after all."

"What do you want with him?" Ronon growled, suddenly a lot closer to John than he had been.

"That's a good question, actually. Not that you don't have a charming planet here, at least once you do a bit of home repair, but I kind of have a city to get back to."

"The City of the Ancestors," Janus said. "A most amazing place, by all accounts."

"We like it," John agreed. "So much so that we're pretty much set on staying in it."

"You need not fear that we would try to take over your city," Janus said with a smile that set John's teeth on edge.

"That's good to hear," John said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Which it did, in the form of several uniformed Genii emerging from, as far as John could tell, empty air to grab him and his team, Janus smiling placidly as they did so. "Why would we try to take the city, when we can merely trade for it in human hostages?"

"Funny you should mention that," John said. "Jumper 2, execute."

Fifteen feet above them, jumper 2 shimmered into existence, Gutierrez and Morris positioned on the edge of the open door, P-90s aimed down at Janus. Sometimes, hindsight really did have its uses. "Should have kept your anti-cloaking device switched on," John offered pleasantly. "And in case you were thinking about using any of my people as shields, I should tell you that Gutierrez and Morris are both trained snipers. They'll have no problem missing my people and hitting you."

Janus blinked up at the jumper, a sour expression on his face. John pretty much figured he deserved whatever he got for being stupid enough not to believe they might try and bring another jumper through; he'd even made sure all four of them kept their radios open to Gutierrez in the jumper, in case their hands were tied when someone needed to give the order.

"Do you want to let my people go, or shall I ask Lieutenant Gutierrez for a demonstration?" John let a little bit of steel creep into his voice, half-hoping that Janus would try and put up a fight. Seeing Gutierrez shoot him wouldn't be as satisfying as doing it himself, but it would come damn close.

Janus sighed, his whole body seeming to shrink slightly. "Release the prisoners," he said quietly. "Allow the ship to land."

"Is it just me," Rodney asked, shrugging off his captor, "Or does this seem like it's too easy?"

"First time for everything," John offered, though he'd been thinking much the same thing.

For once, though, it seemed like things really were going to go as smoothly as they seemed; the jumper landed without incident, and Janus' people stepped away to allow them to board, John and Ronon keeping their weapons trained on them, just in case.

John waited until everyone was on board before he turned back to Janus. He was sure he knew what the answer was going to be, but he had to ask. "Were they even real? The women on the distress calls? Lieutenant Ford?"

"Aw, come on, Colonel," the guy to Janus' left said. In person, it didn't sound all that much like Ford, but John could see how it would have done over the radio, saying the right words. "You didn't really fall for that, did you?" He grinned, and John's finger itched on the trigger of his P-90.

Ronon's hand on his arm stopped him. "Leave him. Let's go."

John nodded, too exhausted to resist when Ronon pulled him back into the jumper and let the door close.

"Where to?" Rikeman asked from the pilot seat.

"Dial up the alpha site," John said, leaning against the door since there wasn't room for him to sit. "Let's go home."

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"You know," Rodney said, rejoining John and Teyla in the corner of the mess, with his second helping of chocolate pudding. "They actually were passable scientists. I mean, assuming you discount the way they pretended to need help and preyed on your good nature, then captured Lorne's team and us in an attempt to take over the city and topple the only moderately sane leader the Genii have ever known, but their anti-cloaking device did seem to work, and they must have been using some kind of personal cloaking device in order to sneak up on us out in the open like that. They're certainly better than some of the idiots I have to work with here."

"If you discount them capturing us and trying to take over the city," John paraphrased back dryly.

"I didn't say they were good people," Rodney pointed out.

"I believe it did not need to be stated that they have their personal flaws," Teyla said diplomatically. She'd chosen to sit opposite John and Rodney, instead of next to John as she usually did, and their table seemed unbalanced. When John had asked, Teyla had said that Ronon had elected not to join them, giving John a look that he wasn't keen on trying to interpret. It wasn't like he didn't have a good idea why Ronon was staying away anyway.

"Still, though, it couldn't hurt to send a team out there to see if they'd be willing to let us look at their personal cloaking devices. They could be really useful, and we've not had much luck building one in our labs."

"Rodney," John said, exasperated. "They pretended they had Ford so that I'd give in and go there to be kidnapped. I don't think they're going to be interested in any trade offers that we can live with."

"Hmm." Rodney looked down, suspiciously interested in his empty coffee cup. "About that..."

"Trade negotiations?" John asked.

"No, the, er, the other thing. With the pretending and..." He trailed off, and Teyla took pity on him, leaning forward to catch John's eye.

"The next data-burst is scheduled for two days from now. We believe it would be wise to ask Colonel Carter to send an additional message." She looked at him expectantly, then carried on when John didn't say anything. "It has been more than two years since the hive ship explosion, and we have seen no sign of Aiden for many months. Perhaps it would be best to acknowledge that he is gone. For his family."

"Yes," Rodney said, looking solemnly at John. "What she said."

John had a Missing In Action file in his office, listing everyone whose body they hadn't actually seen with their own eyes, those who'd been taken by the Wraith, or lost to a natural disaster off-world. Most of them, he knew they wouldn't ever see again, but Dr Jackson at the SGC had died and come back, more than once. There was no reason why it couldn't happen on Pegasus as well.

Except, apparently, it couldn't.

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To: Major General Hank Landry, SGC
From: Colonel Samantha Carter, Atlantis
Subject: First Lieutenant Aiden Ford

Please accept this request that First Lieutenant Aiden Ford be re-listed as Killed In Action. Extensive searching has produced no evidence that he survived the hive ship explosion in which he was involved (November 2005, AAR #05-432).

SC

Please forward attached letter from Lt Colonel Sheppard to Ms Lara Ford (address on file as Lieutenant Ford's next of kin).

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