kageygirl

Atlantis slash

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Atlantis kageygirl

Inductive Reasoning

Title: Inductive Reasoning

Author: kageygirl

E-mail: kageygirl@gmail.com

URL: http://www.kageygirl.com

Feedback: LiveJournal

Archive: Ask first.

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Rating: PG (language only)

Feedback: Please and thank you.

Beta: The ever-wondrous Leah (maching_monkey), for whom my love is boundless. Thank you also to wickdzoot and miera, for letting me torment them with this run this past them, in zoot's case like a billion times.

Disclaimer: Have they been to the planet where the wearing of clothing is punishable by death? No? Then they ain't mine. No money being made here (though if the producers wanted to run with the "clothing=death" idea, I hereby cede all rights to it).

Spoilers: Enormous for "The Brotherhood", small for "Sanctuary" and "Hide and Seek."

A/N: Much dialogue quoted directly from the episode. I have no idea how it got this long. I think it's almost longer than the ep itself. And I'm not even sure why. Oh, and this is totally, 100%, All Zoot's Fault. *g*

Summary: "The Brotherhood" (Ultra Woobie Slash Remix)

"Allina. I know I've said this before, but, ah—thank you so much for letting us in here, helping us through the material… it's been utterly fascinating." Rodney was circumnavigating the ancient monastery's main hall with Allina, one of the Daganian scholars, raving about her assistance. John watched them from the big wooden table and tried not to frown.

Rodney was being… complimentary.

Rodney… was never complimentary.

John fiddled with the rough paper of the book he'd been handed. Okay, maybe that was a little out of line. Rodney was occasionally complimentary, but it got slipped into the stream of whatever he was going on about at the time, so it was the blink-and-you-miss-it kind of complimentary.

John sometimes wished that Rodney had a rewind button, just to confirm that what he'd said three or four sentences back really had been flattering. It was important that John give him proper credit, instead of making sweeping statements that might not be true—like "Rodney was never complimentary."

So, Rodney was complimentary. He was just never this complimentary.

Or, he hadn't been before now. "Never" clearly didn't apply any more, since it was happening right in front of John.

He winced. Rodney was confusing him, and he wasn't thrilled by that.

He'd thought he had Rodney pretty well pegged.

John watched Rodney gushing over Allina, and it kept distracting him from the books he was supposed to be looking through. Somehow that hadn't made it into Elizabeth's sales pitch: see a whole new galaxy, meet interesting people, and, oh, yeah, get stuck doing their homework.

Not to mention having to see Rodney fawn all over someone. It was just—embarrassing.

It wasn't as if Rodney had a discreet bone in his body—it seemed like what came into his head, came out of his mouth—but maybe he could make an effort now and then. Because watching this made John uncomfortable. On Rodney's behalf.

John shifted on the hard wooden bench and tried to skim the same paragraph for the fourth or fifth time, but he didn't absorb the words.

Maybe this was just how Rodney acted around a woman he was attracted to. Maybe this was how he'd been with that Colonel Carter that John had heard way too much about. He'd have to figure out a way to ask Ford if he'd been at the SGC for any of that, if he'd seen the two of them together.

"If I didn't know better, I'd almost think he liked her, or something."

John blinked, a little disconcerted to hear Ford turn his thought inside out. Teyla turned a page and smiled down into the book in front of her. "Yet I do not believe Dr. McKay is interested in Allina in that way."

"You don't?" John looked over at Rodney. Rodney's face was lit up, and he was talking really fast, the way he did when he was particularly pleased about something. John had to fight to keep up with him sometimes when Rodney really got rolling, but he did it anyway, because Rodney's self-satisfaction was such fun to snipe at. Trading cheerful insults with him when he was like that made Rodney's eyes shine.

Allina only nodded distractedly and rearranged a stack of books.

John rubbed the back of his neck and shifted his eyes to Ford. "Sure seems like he is."

"It's McKay." Ford grinned. "You know how he gets, sir. Focused. On a problem." Resting his elbows on the table and leaning forward, Ford bobbed his head in amusement. "He really wants that ZPM."

Teyla gave Rodney another glance, then canted her head in her elegant way. "I too believe his enthusiasm is merely for the research."

Ford nodded, still grinning. "I'm not sure he's noticed that she's a woman, let alone pretty. I think he's just interested in her brain."

"Smart is sexy, Ford," John said. He looked across at Rodney again, gauging the speed of his words by the speed of his hands. Still too fast for John's peace of mind. "Besides, he's an astrophysicist. They're a pretty savvy group, in general. Very involved in… plotting things." John paused, raising his eyebrows. "Tracing curves."

Ford and Teyla laughed, more than the joke deserved, but they sounded so happy that John had to join in, despite himself. Glancing past Ford, he caught Rodney heading towards them, not looking happy. Oops. And now they were about to get busted for goofing around in study hall.

"What is going on here?"

John felt himself turn a little surly as he looked up at Rodney. He'd never liked getting called on the carpet, and he wasn't convinced that Rodney was the only one who had reason to get snippy here, anyway. "Just having a little fun, McKay."

"Can we get back to work now?"

As Ford asked a question and Rodney went authoritarian on him, John felt kind of guilty, because Rodney did have a point, and they did have a mission here. John probably should have been keeping them on task a little better. But he didn't regret having gotten Rodney's attention back where it belonged.

He wasn't sure, though, whether he should be thinking in terms of where Rodney's attention belonged.

~~~

"All right, I'm sold." Elizabeth nodded at them. "Major—take your team back to Dagan, see if you can get us a ticket home."

Rodney bounded out of his seat, and John followed him more slowly. Rodney'd made his presentation to Elizabeth with such persuasive optimism that all John had to do was sit back and enjoy the show. He wouldn't be surprised if Elizabeth found it as difficult to say no to Rodney as John did when Rodney was like this, like an energetic puppy. Though god forbid Rodney ever found out about that particular quirk of his.

And it was great to think that they might find a ZPM—a fully charged one, no less—just sitting around somewhere, waiting to be taken back to Atlantis. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Maybe that's why this whole thing didn't have John as thrilled as it had Rodney. It was almost too easy. Well, if by "easy," he meant, "after they unraveled a centuries-old mystery left behind by a secretive bunch of priests who'd been wiped out by the Wraith."

But John figured that if anyone had both the intelligence and single-minded tenacity to decipher where the ZPM was hidden, it'd be Rodney.

"Major!"

Speaking of—Rodney nodded to someone in science blue, then trotted over to fall in beside John. "McKay," John greeted him, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he ambled down the hall.

"I was just about to go see Corrigan about the equipment we'll need to take back to Dagan, to find the ZPM." Rodney's face was still bright with anticipation, and John felt himself echoing that eagerness, but distantly, as if there were only so much overt glee that the two of them could demonstrate at one time, and Rodney was using up their entire share. Which was weird, because he and Rodney usually fed off each other's moods, like a giant positive reinforcement loop.

Maybe that's what was throwing John off—he'd never seen Rodney so continuously positive for so long before. John was a pretty upbeat guy himself—in fact, he was usually the one trying to get Rodney to look on the bright side. Rodney didn't need any help from John this time, though, and that made him feel almost… extraneous.

For that matter, Rodney didn't even seem to need John to help him carry on the conversation. "I've got a really good feeling about this," he said, and that was enough to make John stare at him as he walked. Rodney looked like a kid in a candy store. "This is such an incredible stroke of luck. I mean, an untouched ZPM—think of what we can do with that."

Rodney ticked off the points on his wish list with neat, economical gestures and a pleased grin. "Charging the shield generator; getting the rest of the city up and running; figuring out all those systems that we haven't been able to bring on-line because we don't have enough power to go around…"

"Not to mention being able to dial home," John said, remembering Rodney going off on Ford about that very thing, and Elizabeth's parting words.

Rodney waved him off. "Yes yes yes, of course being able to dial Earth is critical. But think about everything we can learn, here, with that kind of power at our disposal." He gave John a bright, almost mischievous smile, like he had when he'd found the personal shield. When he'd pretty much invited John to come out and play with him. John couldn't resist that smile, and he found himself smiling back.

There was some relief mixed in there, too, because as huge as it would be to contact Earth, as important as that was, John didn't really want to leave Atlantis, not permanently. And he'd thought that, after Rodney's impassioned speech, maybe Rodney felt differently. It made him feel better enough that he had to needle Rodney a little. "Of course, that's assuming we can actually find the thing."

Rodney waved him away airily. "Oh, ye of little faith."

John wasn't going to tell Rodney what he really thought about that, either, and risk swelling Rodney's head any further. But the irony made him smirk.

~~~

"Excellent work. Seriously, I mean, I'm—I'm very impressed here."

There he went again. John looked up from the square stone tile as Rodney praised Allina some more and tried not to roll his eyes. The Quindosum archeological puzzle was pretty interesting, John had to admit, but Rodney's enthusiasm was almost alarming.

Usually, Rodney went off on the softer sciences as bunches of monkeys trying to figure out the behavior of other bunches of monkeys in a big incestuous monkey circle.

Maybe it was just the thrill of the hunt—how often did Rodney get to solve a nice juicy problem outside of his lab when he wasn't under the gun, when their lives weren't depending on it? This was probably a refreshing change for him, getting to put his brain through its paces without some threat of impending doom.

That probably explained why they were here without Corrigan, or any of the other archaeologists. Rodney wanted to play, and being chief scientist meant he got to pull rank when he chose.

John didn't blame him for wanting to have a little fun. Really, he didn't. But…

But Rodney was being… complimentary, again. And now, Allina was smiling and blushing, and her thanks sounded less perfunctory and more heartfelt. And despite what Teyla and Ford had said, John wondered if Rodney wasn't being thrilled by a different kind of hunt.

John's interest in the riddle of the Brotherhood of Fifteen was starting to go a little sour, but he tried not to show it. It seemed juvenile to be so out of sorts just because Rodney was focused on something—or someone—else.

He needed to get past it and clear his head, so that he could help Rodney find the damn ZPM. And then they could get the hell off this planet, and things would go back to the way they were and Rodney would stop being… complimentary.

And confusing.

~~~

Digging. Digging had definitely not been mentioned in the Pegasus Galaxy brochure. "Explore strange new worlds, and come back with a pound of their dirt in your shoes" would have stuck in his mind. That line probably got cut when they edited out the part about the homework, too.

John jammed the shovel into the ground and swiped his sweatband across his forehead. He was hot and tired and sore and dirty, and he was still thinking too much.

When they'd split up into teams to go hunt for the stones, he'd sent Rodney off with Allina and Sanir.

He tried to tell himself he was doing Rodney a favor, giving him a chance to spend more time with Allina. To see if Rodney could capitalize on that gleam John had seen in her eyes, when Rodney'd marked out the excavation grid on the map. But he'd kind of been doing himself a favor, too, because this way, John didn't have to be there for it, didn't have to try to ignore the odd twist in his gut when Allina smiled shyly at Rodney and ducked her head.

He took a swig of water from his canteen, then capped it and tossed it onto a handy pile of dirt, before picking up his shovel again. Digging was one of the punishments they used to inflict on prisoners who were sentenced to hard time, right? Maybe there was some deep-down connection between digging and penance. John hoped that he was paying off his karmic debt for not being happier about Rodney potentially being happy.

Maybe if he worked himself hard enough, he'd stop feeling so bad about the fact that watching Rodney with Allina bothered the crap out of him.

~~~

John sat back down at the table with his dinner, trying not to stare at Allina staring at Rodney, and failing miserably.

Rodney must have looked especially good by candlelight, because she was practically glowing at him. John couldn't tell how he looked, since they were standing by the big wall decoration, and John was all the way across the hall. He knew that Rodney was tired, though, from the way he was standing stiffly, and how his hands were subdued.

John was sure that Allina would be more than happy to put Rodney to bed.

He shook his head—all that manual labor hadn't made him any less conflicted, but it had, apparently, worn him out enough to disable some of his filters. He should probably turn in for the night, to keep from doing something stupid—like accidentally insulting Ford or Teyla in their unreasonably good mood. But he couldn't bring himself to stop watching Rodney. And Allina. Rodney and Allina.

He suspected this counted as stalking in some places.

Teyla turned to John and Ford with that knowing half-smile. "When I was younger, we… had an expression." John gave her an unnecessary nod, out of habit. By this point, Teyla's grasp of Earth vernacular was pretty strong. She glanced over at Rodney, moving just her eyes, and then looked back at them. "Allina must be cold. She follows Dr. McKay as if she wishes to share his clothing."

Ford laughed aloud, and John attempted a smile of his own. He was glad it was pretty dark where they sat, because he wasn't sure how well he succeeded. John said, "We've got a similar saying, only ours is more like 'she wants to get into his pants.'"

Teyla gave a slow nod, her lips curving. She was still smudged with dirt here and there, like the rest of them, food having taken precedence over a really thorough washing, but she didn't look anywhere near as gritty and uncomfortable as John felt. That seemed unfair, somehow. "It appears our cultures share certain elementary notions."

Ford nodded back at her, chuckling. "Maybe too elementary. Elementary-school elementary." He ducked his head with a sneaky expression, eager as a kid. "All those smarts, and McKay doesn't have a clue that she likes him."

"He doesn't?" John looked across at Rodney again. How could Rodney not know that Allina liked him? It seemed like she was never not looking at him.

And Rodney'd been doing all that complimenting earlier. John hadn't decided whether Rodney was now playing it cool, or just stringing her along. He looked away, focusing on Teyla and Ford again. "How can he not know?"

"Sir." Ford grinned at him. "You're kidding, right?"

"I must agree with Lieutenant Ford." Teyla gave Rodney another glance, then broke off a piece of bread and dipped it into her soup bowl. "I believe Dr. McKay has not noticed Allina's interest. His actions are far too…"

"Normal," Ford chimed in. Teyla gave him a quelling look, but Ford just chuckled again.

The two of them chatted idly. John stared into the candle flame, letting the bright light wash out his peripheral vision, so he wouldn't be tempted to stare at anything else. In the night's quiet, he could just hear Rodney's voice, but he couldn't make out the words.

When he stopped hearing it, he glanced over to see Rodney heading for them—and he did look good in firelight, even gently bemused by exhaustion. John looked back at his plate, before his thoughts could wander any farther afield.

Rodney was alone, though John wasn't sure how long that would last. Ford and Teyla exchanged looks that said they'd been thinking the same thing. As he passed John, Rodney said, "I'm heading to bed."

It was out of John's mouth before he could stop himself. "Yeah, which bed might that be?"

Rodney made a humming sound, then stopped suddenly, somewhere behind John. "What?" He sounded utterly confused, but John couldn't bring himself to face him.

Ford, being the helpful junior officer that he was, jumped right in. "I think Allina might have a little crush on you, Doc."

"Oh—she does?" There was no coy diversion in Rodney's voice—he was genuinely clueless.

John took a bite to cover his mild shock, keeping his eyes front.

"It is very clear to us all." Teyla spoke slowly, as if to a small child. Though, now that John thought about it, a small child probably would have been more on the ball.

"It is?"

"Well, to everyone but you, apparently." It came out a little snarkier than he'd meant, but John couldn't believe his misread. Rodney had really had no clue.

So much for having him pegged.

"Well, should I have, um…" Rodney fumbled for words. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure, yeah." And he was kind of wishing Rodney would stop asking, because he was already regretting having brought it up in the first place.

"What should I do?"

That brought John up short, and he had to turn to Rodney, finally. "You don't know what to do?" Well, what the hell had all the complimenting been about, then?

The ZPM. It really had been the ZPM. That, or he'd been replaced by Pod Rodney.

Rodney gave him a look of impatient frustration. "I know what to do eventually, I mean, what should I do now—should I say something, something tonight?"

This was some horrible cosmic punishment for how he'd treated Rodney while Chaya was on Atlantis, John just knew it. He'd told Rodney in no uncertain terms that his personal life was none of Rodney's business, and now—well, crap. "Tell you what, Valentino—wait till tomorrow, you'll be more on your game after you get some rest."

"Oh, right. Right. Good answer." Rodney sounded relieved. "Goodnight!" He said it too loudly, and John wondered how he could ever have thought Rodney had been playing it cool.

Rodney left the room, and John felt pretty relieved, himself. Rodney had suddenly made it very difficult for John to maintain his air of detachment.

Rodney had been so obviously exhausted and flustered, and John had wanted to get out of that conversation, had definitely not wanted to play Cyrano. But neither of those was the real reason he'd told Rodney to wait.

He'd told Rodney to wait because he really, really didn't want him to get involved with Allina. Not tonight. Not ever.

And he had a sinking feeling it had nothing to do with Allina.

John chewed slowly, staring across the table. He wasn't very hungry anymore, and he swallowed the bite in his mouth, then set the piece in his fingers back on his plate. "I'm heading up, too. Need to rest up for more of that exciting digging tomorrow."

Teyla and Ford waved their goodnights with matching smiles, and John tried not to envy them their easy good humor.

They'd been given a little room in the former monastery that the Daganians used for housing visiting scholars. Allina had still been in the main hall when John left, but his mind wasn't really on the darkened hallways, and he took a couple of wrong turns before finding their room. When he got there, he was reassured to see that Rodney was alone and asleep on his pallet.

He leaned against the wall for a few minutes, watching Rodney sleep, thinking about why seeing Rodney alone had eased the muscle tension in his shoulders.

Maybe it didn't really mean anything. Rodney was the one who could read Ancient, the one with the best chance of figuring out what to do with the map stones when they found them all. He could use all the rest he could get.

Yeah. Right. And maybe John shouldn't be teasing Rodney for missing the obvious.

He sat down heavily on the pallet next to Rodney's and closed his eyes, wiping a hand over his face. He was wiped out, and not just from the hard labor. But he was the one listening to Rodney's breathing, not Allina, and he had to admit to a vicious sense of satisfaction about that.

Okay, so maybe he was just an idiot. And maybe he was kind of screwed for taking so long to figure it out that he'd actually pointed Rodney at Allina. But the advice he'd given Rodney was sound. He'd worry about it more in the morning.

Besides, starting out behind was the only way to make a rousing comeback in the second half.

~~~

John liked to think of himself as a decent person. Maybe not the best ever, but in general, he considered himself to be a pretty nice guy.

Nice guys shouldn't be happy about watching a friend crash and burn.

Despite that, John shifted another shovelful of dirt, watching Rodney corkscrew into the ground right in front of him, and he couldn't feel bad about it. He didn't even feel bad about not feeling bad.

Which was probably… not good.

No big deal. He could always adjust his self-image later.

At breakfast, Rodney had been antsier than he'd been the entire time they'd been on Dagan. And while Teyla and Ford kept trading significant looks, John pretended not to notice. He'd had a crazy notion occur to him when Rodney sat down next to him, instead of the open space on the bench next to Allina.

Then, later, he'd had it reinforced, when he'd managed to derail Rodney's deranged attempt at the most uncasual casual conversation ever with a smart remark. He'd had Rodney going for a good five minutes, as verbose and acerbic as ever.

It seemed to John that he might be late getting into the game, but he might not be so far behind after all.

Because John realized that he had home-field advantage with Rodney. Pretty much "Miami in the Orange Bowl" home-field advantage.

Maybe this made him a bad person, too, but John wasn't above taking advantage of that. And a blow-out could be just as much fun as a come-from-behind victory.

Now, out here at what should have been the location of the last stone, Rodney was talking to Allina over the eight pieces they'd already found. While John was a little too far away to hear them, he could see that Rodney was doing one of his fast-talking things again. Except that this was the panicky, uncomfortable one. And Allina was looking at him like—well, like most people looked at Rodney when he was particularly weird.

This seemed like a good time for a digging break. John casually moved a few steps closer and listened to the end of the conversation as he took a drink.

He could see Rodney almost twitching as he tried to be nonchalant. "—You've got a lot of things going for you, even when things don't—yeah."

"Is everything all right?" Allina sounded confused, and John didn't blame her. Not that he was sympathetic, mind you. But speaking Rodney was an acquired talent.

Though John had been a natural right from the start, hadn't he?

Rodney said, all in a rush, "Yeah, everything's great, it's great, everything's really—why, why wouldn't it be?"

No, not so much playing it cool. Either Rodney was really, really bad at this, or his heart just wasn't in it. John was glad to be wearing his sunglasses as he diverted Rodney's attention—it was easier to keep a straight face when he didn't have to worry about Rodney seeing his eyes. "You sure we're in the right place? We've almost doubled the size of the dig site, and we haven't found anything yet."

Rodney turned to him as if he'd been expecting John to be standing there, and he didn't seem bothered by the possibility that John had overheard his botched attempt at flirting. Home-field advantage, all right—Rodney accepted his presence as a given, and had no problem talking to him. "It's got to be the right place. The other eight stones were almost exactly where we thought they would be—why would this one be any different?"

"Major!" Ford called from his own patch of dirt.

John turned quickly at the excitement in Ford's voice. "Tell me you found the stone." And that they could stop all this digging.

"Not quite, sir. But I think McKay should take a look at this."

~~~

"Dr. McKay! So wonderful to hear your grating voice again." Kolya paused just enough for emphasis. "How's the arm?"

It was good for all of them that the first moment of shock and anger had passed for John, and he'd tamped them down until later. Because trapped or not, John already had the urge to shoot Kolya just on general principles, and that remark made it seem like an even better idea. And then his henchmen would have killed Ford and left the rest of them to die down here.

Rodney stepped forward, into the square shaft of light pouring into the chamber, and looked up, glaring at Kolya with such deliberate contempt that John was grimly proud. "You want to keep trading barbs, or do you want to find the ZPM?"

Rodney flashed John a look that he didn't quite process. "Look, lift me out of here, I'll help you find it. But then you let my team go."

Apologetic, John realized, a few seconds too late. And then the anger was back—not all of it for Kolya, either—mixed with a good dose of fear, and he wasn't sure which of those mangled his voice more. "Shut up, McKay."

He kept his eyes on Kolya, not looking at Rodney, but he could hear how tense Rodney was, too. "You got a better idea?"

Dammit to hell—Rodney knew that he didn't, and he hated that he didn't, hated having to admit it. "No."

Rodney was falling back on irritation and disgust, John could tell, as Rodney looked back up through the open shaft. "Do we have a deal or not?"

John could see Kolya considering his options, and he kept himself from raising the P90, kept his finger resting loosely on the trigger guard. "You and the two Daganians will be raised out. Along with everyone's weapons and radios. The rest of you will remain here. If Dr. McKay finds the ZPM, the others will be let go." Kolya looked down at them with an almost reptilian lack of expression. "I give you my word."

"Well. We have his word." God, he sounded bitter, but they were being forced to help a guy who'd proven himself a cold-blooded liar and killer, who'd blithely had Rodney sliced up and who had a pretty healthy grudge against John, too.

"I don't see that we have much choice," Rodney said bitingly, and some part of John that wasn't furious about the whole situation was glad that Rodney was exactly that difficult, because that free-floating antagonism would see him through dealing with the bastard waiting on the surface.

The resolve on Rodney's face let John get a grip, too, made him pack away the anger and fear until he had a better chance to act. He didn't say anything more, and Rodney turned back to the opening, raising his voice. "I'm coming up!

~~~

Maybe it was the very real possibility of impending death, without any convenient incoming fire or life-sucking Wraith bugs to distract him. Most of his attention was focused on the damn puzzle, of course, but random thoughts kept popping into his head, out of nowhere. Probably because this might be their last chance to show up, and Jesus, he'd be worried about how much he could identify with Rodney's hatred of "certain doom" if he weren't trying so damn hard to avoid it for himself.

He was setting the stone tiles down pretty much randomly, to keep his hands busy and give himself something to look at while he pushed past "fuckfuckfuck" and tried to come up with an arrangement that made sense. That wasn't going to kill him for getting it wrong.

The thought ambushed him that he was still really pissed at Rodney for volunteering to go with Kolya. Even though they'd really had no alternative, and Rodney had come back in one piece, after all.

Rodney, who was standing rigidly beside him, so tense that he wasn't even fidgeting, and staring at the stones like he could arrange them properly by sheer willpower. But that wasn't happening, so John said, "You know, any time you want to start—"

"I'm thinking, I'm thinking." John caught Rodney making a sharp motion out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't look up. The answer had to be here, damn it, and he couldn't spare the attention, he needed to see it.

John started talking it out. He was going a little panicky in his head, and he really wanted Rodney's input. "All right, we tried one to nine…"

"Thank you, yes." Rodney's voice was clipped and tight.

"How about nine to one?"

"Possibly." Rodney wasn't even trying to hide his impatience. "Look, Pranus was right, the center stone is the only one that locks into place, all the others must move around it. I'm just trying to think of a combination that makes sense with five in the middle."

In the middle. Like the wall map in the monastery, where Rodney'd found the last stone, as he'd been telling John before Kolya told them to shut up and get to work. Those monks were all about the repetition… "Fifteen. It's got to have something to do with fifteen. Or—nine, or five…"

"Shut up. Please? I'm trying to think." Rodney sounded unbearably annoyed with him.

John let himself vent a little, out of frustration and, yeah, fear. He was going to die if they screwed this up, and Rodney really wasn't helping. "I'm not going to shut up, Rodney, my life's at stake!"

"Exactly, so simmer down and let me save it," Rodney said, like that ended the discussion right there.

John was too close to completely freaking out to let Rodney's superior act deter him. He needed to keep talking, needed Rodney to keep talking. "You heard the term 'two heads are better than one'?"

"It's a common misconception." Now Rodney sounded annoyed and dismissive.

Dammit, Rodney wasn't the one facing down the poisoned palmprints, so maybe he could be just a little bit less of an ass. John actually shot Kolya a frustrated look. "Gimme the gun, I'll shoot him myself."

Kolya just looked bored. "This is taking too long—choose and go."

Rodney turned to Kolya, and okay, it was gratifying to watch Rodney snap at Kolya. Particularly on his behalf. "What, you got somewhere you gotta be?"

"Choose and go." Kolya's face was stony.

Rodney turned back to John, and it was like someone had thrown a switch. The arrogant distance was just—gone. "I've got nothing." Rodney's voice was soft with anguish.

No, dammit—that was not what John wanted to hear, and Rodney's haunted look was almost worse than his admission of defeat. If Rodney lost it, he was going to lose it, too. "Thanks for the pep talk."

"It's nine to one, that's all I can think," Rodney said quickly, miserably.

That was all John had, himself. "Okay, step back."

"I'm sorry." Rodney sounded so horrified that—

No, dammit—John could not think about that right now. There was no more room in his head, not right now, for thoughts like that, about what the pain in Rodney's voice meant. He said, as much for himself as for Rodney, "I'm not dead yet."

"Yeah. Sorry." Rodney backed off—reluctantly, John thought. He was glad he wasn't looking at Rodney, because hearing him so devastated was hard enough; the way Rodney showed everything in his eyes…

Kolya's voice broke into his thoughts. "Major. Now."

John stared down at the arrangement of stones, not thinking of the sound of Rodney's grief, not thinking of anything else, not letting himself think of anything else, because this was it, dammit, if he got this wrong, it didn't matter what anything else amounted to—

Fuck.

"I got it!" Amounted to—those sneaky bastards, it was just like Rodney'd said earlier, nothing they'd done so far was straightforward—

"What?" Rodney moved up next to him, but John was too stunned to look at him.

"The Brotherhood of Fifteen!" —and they were so fucking obsessed with their special numbers, it was like he'd always heard, the easiest codes to break were the ones where the cryptologists were too hung up on their own cleverness…

"What about it?"

"The numbers one to nine can be put in a three-by-three grid so they add up to fifteen in every direction." A math trick, it was a damn magic square, and thank Christ he'd remembered that in time.

"Oh, you're right! How did you know that?" The anxiety had left Rodney's voice, John realized, through his own haze of relief. He just sounded astonished. Maybe a little grateful.

"It was on a Mensa test." John felt almost giddy. It was so clear now, that had to be right…

"You're a member of Mensa?" Rodney was shocked, he could tell, but he didn't mind, because it was a happy kind of shock. Hell, John was reeling, himself.

John grinned, breathing easier, though he still felt shaky. "No, but I took the test."

"When?" Rodney demanded.

That snapped John out of his daze—he had to trigger the mechanism and prove it, after all. Not to mention dealing with their Genii audience. "You wanna talk about this now, Rodney?"

That got Rodney back on track, too. "Right, right. Okay."

They placed the stone tiles in order on the grid, and Rodney looked at him with something like wonder. "That's it, that's got to be it."

Before he could really savor the look of geeky communion in Rodney's eyes, Kolya interrupted them. "Good luck."

~~~

God, this day'd had more ups and downs than a Ferris wheel.

His face hurt from Kolya hitting him, and he was still a little freaked about how close he'd come to not figuring out the magic square thing and getting killed by the Brotherhood's trap. But they'd subdued Kolya and his goons and gotten the ZPM without anyone on his team getting hurt, so John thought the day had ended pretty well, all things considered. He spoke without taking his eyes off Kolya, sighting along the barrel of the Genii sidearm. "We good?"

"Yeah. As far as I can see." Rodney laid the sarcasm on thickly, and that was enough to let him know that everything really was all right.

Pretty well indeed, even if Rodney was cranky about the flash-bang. Actually, that little piece of normal was helping a lot with the almost-getting-killed thing, was pulling him back from wanting to shoot Kolya in the head. John forced himself to keep breathing evenly, and kept his voice level as he left Kolya slumped on the floor and turned back to his team. "Let's move out."

John passed the gun to Allina and snagged the lines of the descender. Rodney was staring at him, now, though his eyes were still watering. "I can't believe you never mentioned the Mensa thing."

John answered Rodney absently as he checked the ropes. "I took the test. I never joined."

"But you passed."

He let the incredulity go—he understood that Rodney wasn't confused by his having passed the test, but by his passing up the membership. "Yes."

He'd apparently sent Rodney right off the rails again with that—Rodney seemed to have forgotten everything else. "Well, do you know, we have a—we have a chapter on Atlantis, you could become an hon—"

"Rodney. Rodney." Rodney's preoccupation was amusing and kind of satisfying, but he'd dwell on it later. Right now, he wanted to leave Kolya behind and get the hell out of this hole. "Up the rope."

~~~

All that work—all that digging, and the fucking Genii, and—and they'd ended up getting mugged for the ZPM. Dammit, Elizabeth was not going to be happy to hear about this.

Rodney looked like someone had ripped off his arm and hit him with it. Which, now that John thought about it, might have been easier on him than losing the ZPM.

Rodney stared off into the far distance as they hiked to the gate, where Allina's people had told them the rest of their gear would be waiting. John was pretty sure some of them were still in the woods, shadowing them, making sure they actually left. Teyla and Ford were on point, though John figured they'd already be dead if the Daganians had wanted it that way.

Rodney sounded stricken. "I can't believe she—she played me like that. She completely manipulated me."

"I don't know about—" John didn't want to hurt Rodney any worse, but he couldn't lie to him. "Yeah. I guess she did." He shrugged. "Judging from their firearms, she got one over on the Genii, too. If that makes you feel any better."

Rodney seemed to bring himself back from wherever he'd been, focusing on John. "Wait, wait, wait—you were the ones who thought she had a thing for me in the first place."

John raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, so?"

"So, actually, she played you, too." Rodney gave him a long stare that made John uneasy. "In fact, if you hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have known."

"Well, you were clueless. We were trying to help." Not that John hadn't already been kicking himself over that. "And I'm not convinced she was just using you until you went and told her that we haven't been in Atlantis all that long," he said. He wasn't sure if he was trying to reassure Rodney, or spread the blame. Possibly both.

Rodney was still watching him intently. "So it's really your fault, then."

He started to smile, but Rodney seemed to mean it. John shook his head. "You're saying it's my fault that you spilled the beans."

"What was I supposed to do, lie?" Rodney rolled his eyes. "And, no. It's your fault that I thought Allina was attracted to me. You distracted me."

John scratched his head, avoiding Rodney's eyes. There was no reason for him to feel defensive about this, dammit, but he was starting to. "I didn't do anything. I never even said that you should do anything about it."

Rodney's eyes flicked up and away, and then narrowed as he looked back at John. "Actually, no, you didn't. You told me to sleep on it."

Okay, that one he was on solid ground about. "Yes, I did."

Rodney nodded his agreement. "So you weren't very helpful there, either."

"What?" John rubbed the back of his neck and squeezed his eyes shut. "Let me get this straight. I told you she liked you—and that was wrong."

"Yes."

"I didn't tell you how to put the moves on her—" And thank god he hadn't had to. "—which was also wrong."

"Yes."

"Despite the fact that if you'd gotten anywhere with her, it would have been worse. Because she was just using you to get the ZPM." John looked over to see that Rodney's face was a study in stubborn conviction.

"But I would have gotten some action along the way."

John winced. "'Gotten some action'? Can you please never say that again?" Not only did he really not want to have locker-room conversations about Rodney's sex life, that phrase just sounded very wrong coming from Rodney.

Who was back to watching him in a disturbing way, and John wished he'd cut it out. Rodney said, "The point is, you could have been much more helpful."

"Well, Jesus, Rodney, pick an issue, at least." Rodney's labyrinthine logic was starting to give John a headache. "You can't be pissed at me for both sides of the argument."

"And you should have told me about the Mensa test."

All right, that came out of nowhere. "I should have," he repeated, trying to figure out why.

"Yes. That's at least three instances of you being unhelpful—no, four. I'm just going to count 'not taking the research seriously' as one extended incident."

"Thanks, Rodney. That's very thoughtful." He said it with sarcasm, but he was starting to worry. Rodney having a litany of complaints was pretty much par for the course, but John could usually follow his train of thought a lot more easily than this.

"You're welcome."

Feeling oddly behind—he really didn't like it when he didn't understand Rodney, he'd decided—John asked, "And what the hell does the Mensa test have to do with anything?"

Rodney raised his chin. "That's the kind of thing I should know about."

"And why is that?"

"Because—" Something indefinable passed over Rodney's face, and he seemed to change his mind about what he was going to say. "I thought we were friends."

John looked at him sharply. "We are friends."

"Friends shouldn't keep secrets from each other." Rodney's voice was level, but he wasn't quite looking at John.

What the hell? "I wasn't keeping it a secret. It just never came up."

"It came up today, didn't it?"

"And I told you about it." Which he might have done much earlier, if he'd known how Rodney was going to react. He couldn't keep from chuckling when he remembered the look on Rodney's face back in the ZPM chamber. Rodney looked over at him, and John spread a hand out in a half-shrug. "It's not like we've encountered obscure math trivia before and I've hidden it from you."

Rodney was quiet for a while, but he still looked troubled. Then he glanced over at John and said, "Five."

"What?"

"You've been unhelpful five times. I'm including not telling me about the grenades. That was really unsettling, you know."

"There wasn't time—" John sighed. He wasn't always great at the patience thing, and Rodney seemed capable of talking around whatever was bothering him all damn day. "Rodney, what the hell is this really about?"

"What? It's about you and your repeated inability to provide assistance when I required it. I shouldn't have to use smaller words, should I? As I recall, there is a verbal component to the test as well…"

Rodney was getting a little loud, and Ford glanced back at the two of them. John gestured with his chin, and without seeming to speed up, Ford and Teyla drifted further ahead of them.

John lowered his voice. "Is this about the ZPM?" He took a deep breath. "Look, Rodney, it sucks that we lost it. But that wasn't your fault."

Rodney squinted at him. "What are you talking about? 'Sucks'? It's catastrophic. I had it in my hands—enough power for the shields, all the primary and secondary systems—and now it's gone, because a bunch of religious fanatics think it's more important to keep it in a High Holy Closet somewhere. But of course it wasn't my fault."

Rodney rolled his eyes and looked away, though it seemed to John that his ire was kind of perfunctory. They walked in silence for a little while, and he watched Rodney raise a hand to push aside an overhanging branch. Something in the way he moved his arm gave John an idea.

Maybe this was about Kolya, and Rodney getting to spend some quality time with the man who'd tortured him.

That didn't feel right, though, because Rodney hadn't been at all cowed by him. John had been pretty impressed by that, actually. But maybe it had bothered Rodney more than he'd let on. John cleared his throat. "By the way, I thought you handled yourself pretty well back there."

Rodney blinked at him. "Hmm?"

"With Kolya. You didn't let him get to you."

Rodney gave him a pointed look. "Well, I suppose once you've met one stubborn and insulting military commander, you've met them all."

Then he blanched, and sucked in a sharp breath. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to compare you to—sorry."

"That's okay, Rodney." John nodded easily, carefully. Rodney looked genuinely taken aback—more so than the jab warranted.

Rodney set his jaw and stared ahead. He said quietly, "You should have told me about the Mensa thing."

All right—clearly, there was something there. "Okay, Rodney. You want to tell me why?"

"It's just—" Rodney waved a hand around. He looked tired. "That's the kind of thing I should know about."

"Why?" John asked softly.

"Because—I need to know what resources we have at hand. I mean, I knew you were—I just had no idea."

John was touched by the implied compliment, but there was still some undercurrent to Rodney's words, something that he wasn't quite seeing.

They broke through the treeline, entering the clearing around the gate. Though the sun lit up Rodney's face, John still saw a shadow there.

Ford and Teyla had pulled way ahead of them, and were already bundling up their supplies, piled next to the DHD. John slowed down, and Rodney followed suit. Rodney seemed to be close to opening up—reluctant as all hell, but what else was new?—and John wanted a little more time to talk.

He decided to take Rodney's statement completely the wrong way, just to see where that might lead. Smirking, he said conversationally, "I'm trying to decide what's worse—being called a resource, or figuring out that you haven't been that impressed with me before this."

Rodney stopped suddenly, looking at him in surprise. "What? I never said—"

John turned back to him slowly, drawing it out. "All this time, you thought I was just a pilot, a guy with a gun…"

"That's completely ridiculous. When have I ever—"

"… Someone to help with the digging while you did your Indiana Jones impression…" John looked away, raising his eyebrows and trying to look forlorn. "Just unskilled labor, I guess."

"Major, that's not what I said!"

"That's okay, Rodney—I'm sure I'll get over it." He nodded solemnly. "Eventually."

"You're not listening to me—I said nothing of the sort."

"I mean, I realize that I'm not as smart as you…"

Rodney burst out, "No, you're smarter!"

John felt his eyes go wide. Rodney looked away, then turned back, jaw clenched, as if he didn't want to look at John, but wouldn't let himself avoid it. "I had nothing. I had nothing to contribute. I was out of ideas, I didn't see the pattern—" Rodney let out a sigh of disgust. "God, we did that kind of thing in junior high, and it didn't even occur to me."

John dropped his teasing tone. "Rodney, it's not a big deal. We got out of it fine." He tilted his head to the side. "Well, not great-fine, since we lost the ZPM, but still-alive fine."

"No thanks to me!" There was something dark and ugly behind Rodney's eyes. "I was utterly useless. I should have recognized the configuration of the numbers. I should have seen it, and I didn't."

John went still. "But I did. It doesn't matter."

"It does to me! That's what I do—analyze data, look for correlations. I completely failed today, and you almost…" Rodney flexed a hand in agitation, then folded his arms tightly. "What's the point of me being here, if…?" His voice went soft, somehow sharper for it. "If I can't see the pattern."

Rodney took a deep breath, and it almost seemed to hurt him. "Had it been left to me, Major, you'd be dead now." He stared hard at John. "And if you can't rely on me—if I can screw up that badly, when it really counts—"

"Rodney." John put a hand on Rodney's forearm, and felt Rodney twitch in surprise.

Jesus. John could write Rodney a whole fucking book about not seeing what was right in front of him, couldn't he? He stepped in a little closer, and Rodney kept staring at him, as if he were waiting for John to lay into him and just wanted to get it over with. Which was really uncharacteristic of him—Rodney embodied "the best defense is a good offense," most of the time—and John really didn't like seeing him look so… defeated.

He looked into Rodney's angry eyes, and spoke quietly, but seriously. "You didn't screw anything up, dammit. You found the grid that the stones were buried in—hell, you found the center stone, when we all thought it was offworld. You said it was in that map on the wall, right?" Rodney nodded reluctantly, and John gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "So stop saying you don't see patterns."

Rodney watched his face for a moment, and John let him look, because he believed everything he'd said. Rodney dropped his head, and glanced down at John's hand, then back up at his face.

That was his calculating look, John realized, the one where he was figuring something out, where John could just about see the dots being connected. He felt suddenly exposed, but he fought off the urge to hide from that look, and left his hand where it was.

Rodney's face was serious. "I managed not to realize that Allina was interested in me." There was an odd note to his voice, and John was strangely certain that Rodney wasn't really talking about her.

John smirked, but his mouth was dry. "I'm not sure she was, at first."

"So—what changed?" Rodney didn't move away, but he didn't move closer, either. Something subtle shifted in his expression, and his eyes were suddenly unreadable.

"She opened her eyes, took a good look…" God, he felt awkward and uncomfortable, with Rodney right there but weirdly inaccessible like that. "Figured some things out."

He looked down, then, at his hand still on Rodney's arm. The hell with it. He stroked his thumb lightly over Rodney's wrist, pressing in a little to trace bone and muscle and tendon under the skin. He felt them shift as Rodney's fingers curled into a loose fist, but he only looked up when Rodney blew out a quick breath, and it tickled across the back of John's hand.

Rodney still looked mostly blank, but now a little vulnerable, too. He spoke in a low voice. "How terribly amusing it must have been for you, that I didn't notice."

"Not so much. It took me quite a while to notice it, myself." He smiled at Rodney, and it felt kind of rueful and kind of shy. But Rodney's eyes cleared, and what John saw there made something in his stomach draw up, warm and tight and hungry.

Rodney tipped his head back. "I failed to seal the deal with her, though." But there was laughter in his voice, and his lips were twitching as if he were trying not to smile.

John grinned, because he was pretty sure he was about to lose their little semantic game. And he somehow didn't mind. "I'm glad. I've gotta tell you, I think 'not falling for the lying alien woman' is actually a good team strategy for us to explore." He was acutely aware of Teyla and Ford, not that far away and not nearly as blind as they were pretending. He slid his fingers along Rodney's forearm, feeling grit and dried sweat on his warm skin.

"Mmm. Good point." Rodney turned his arm under John's hand, letting John's fingers trail over his skin, and if that was all they could do here and now, it was enough to make John's fingertips tingle with anticipation.

John had to let go, though, and he stepped back, keeping eye contact with Rodney, until he saw that Rodney understood. "And about the magic square thing—quit beating yourself up. That's why you're part of a team. We all pitch in, and we all look out for each other." He clapped Rodney on the shoulder and gave him a little push in the direction of Teyla and Ford and the gate. "And I'm still willing to let you be the big brain on the team, every now and then."

Rodney gave him a sidelong glance, but he was smiling, just a bit. The darkness had receded from his eyes, replaced by something—exciting. "If we're trading jobs, does that mean I get to fly the Puddle Jumper more often?"

"Don't push it, McKay. Just dial the gate." Rodney stepped up to the DHD, and John paused a step behind him, hand on his radio. And if he was staring at Rodney's back, well, that's just because he was between John and the gate.

He covered a smile, to keep it from showing in his voice. They had been out of contact for over twelve hours, and Elizabeth was probably worried about them—he didn't want to give her any reason to chew him out, or drag the debriefing out any longer than necessary. He and Rodney had some things to discuss afterwards.

He just hoped nothing else had come up while they were gone.