December 2005

Disclaimer: no pop stars or stargates were harmed in the writing of this story. Written for Lainy. Many thanks to elynross, Merry, Dorinda, and several other lovely people. Do not archive this story without permission.

Poptarts in Atlantis

He'd thought he would have days and days on the Daedalus to get used to it, but then there was some kind of emergency that everyone said he shouldn't worry about because it didn't affect him, so of course he worried about it, right up until he was being bundled through the wormhole along with a dozen other people and a lot of crates and he stumbled and staggered and felt vaguely sick and then he was lying flat on a metal floor that wasn't the metal floor he'd just left. Somebody large and blond and marine-shaped picked him up, gave him a sunny smile and said, "Welcome to Atlantis," and moved on to pick up a crate of equipment instead.

JC straightened his jacket and looked around at the bustle for a moment, trying to get a sense of where he was and how far he'd come; then he went to help out, too. The gate shut down, and all the new equipment and supplies and people were sorted out and sent on to where they were going, which involved a lot of trudging through long windowless corridors that might as well have been the SGC, except the color scheme was marginally better.

Then he got to his assigned quarters, and things improved. The room was much nicer than anything he'd seen since he'd gotten his security clearance, and that wasn't even counting the window, and the balcony, and the incredible view. JC stepped outside and took a deep breath. Different air, different sea, different planet, different galaxy. He leaned out over the railing and took in the city, as much as he could see of it. Dark and spiky, kind of like a sea urchin. The water was a deep clear blue with swirls of green glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

"Cool," JC said and kicked off his boots. The metal plates of the balcony floor were warm under his bare feet.

After a while, he went out into the city and tried to count doors and turns back to the control room. Most of the doors looked the same, and if anyone had been standing around handing out little Welcome to Atlantis leaflets with a map on the back, he'd missed them. He stopped at a T-junction and looked thoughtfully left and right and left again.

"You look a bit lost." The large, blond, marine-shaped person walked more quietly than JC would have expected, especially in those boots.

"I get that a lot," JC said. Then he shrugged. "And right now it's true. I wanted to start checking out the labs, get to unpack my stuff and all that."

The marine cocked his head. "Your stuff isn't in your room?"

"Well, my underwear and my toothbrush, yeah," JC said. "But my stuff, man, that's out here somewhere and I need to get to it."

"Okay." The marine spun JC to the left with a light touch on his shoulder and started to walk alongside of him. He took up a lot of space.

JC glanced sideways at him, then dug into his pocket for a scrunchy and pulled his hair back in a ponytail so he could see better when he did it. "You know where my stuff is?"

"I don't know what your stuff is." The marine grinned at him. "But I know where you can find out." He glanced down and then up again. "Aren't your feet cold?"

JC blinked. "Uh, no?"

They took another two turns and went down a flight of stairs, and JC wished he had breadcrumbs in his pockets because there was no way he'd remember how to get back again. The next hallway was bigger, and JC could hear voices from somewhere. There was a soft hum in the air, something like an engine only not; it was a comforting sound, JC thought, kind of relaxing in its way. Behind them, someone yelled, "Carter!"

It took another two steps for JC to realize that the marine had stopped. He stopped, too, and turned around.

"Sorry! Duty calls. Shouts. Something. Down there, second door to the left, you can't miss it." Carter the marine took off at a run, and JC watched him go, then turned back. He liked this hallway; there was Ancient writing on the walls, and a bit more color here and there, swirly blues, a little orange.

Also, he could smell coffee. JC hummed to himself, and followed directions. He went through the second door on the left and found himself staring at the back of a familiar head. "Hey."

McKay turned around. "It's you," he said, glaring. "Chavez."


"Whatever. Great. Now I suppose I have to find somewhere for you to—" He gestured around the lab, which looked fairly empty.

"You knew I was coming," JC said. "Good to see you, man. Have you been working out?"

"If by working out you mean running for my life from hostile aliens, yes."

"Well, whatever works for you," JC said peacefully. "I started doing yoga last year, and—"

"And you wouldn't believe how little I care about that. In fact—" Someone short and scruffy and kind of cute wandered up with a cup of coffee. McKay turned on him abruptly. "Zelenka, good. Zelenka will make sure you're settled in. Someplace out of the way." He stomped off.

"Radek Zelenka," short and scruffy said, holding out his coffee-mug-free hand. "You have managed to offend Dr McKay already, or did you know him before?"

"Not really," JC said. "I mean, I haven't seen him in a couple of years. But he was my thesis advisor for about two weeks, except we didn't really get on, and then Marie talked him into being there for my diss, and then there was this project over at MIT where I guess we didn't see eye to eye, and then that business when he reviewed my book and didn't even like the cover—"

"You're Dr Chasez." Zelenka grinned. "The space cowboy."

"Yeah, with the crackpot wormhole theories that no one could possibly believe in." JC grinned back. "And somehow, here we are. Where did you get that coffee?"

Zelenka showed him around, got him his own mug of coffee, his own workstation, and his own password to the Atlantis network. "And if there is anything else you need, ask. Like boots."

"Boots?" JC put his coffee mug down on someone's notes about weather patterns and looked at his feet. "Oh. I forgot to put them back on." He flexed his toes. "Listen, I had a crate of equipment and I'm not sure it was labeled right..."

By the time JC got back to his quarters again, it was dark outside. He went out on the balcony to retrieve his boots, and stopped to look up at the stars. Different stars, stars he'd never seen before, sprinkled across the sky in strange new patterns. JC left the balcony door open and went to bed.

During the next few days, he learned the way from his quarters to the mess hall, from the mess hall to the gateroom, and from the gateroom to several labs and equipment rooms, and also to recognize the Ancient sign for toilet at a hundred paces. He was introduced to a lot of people in a very short time and forgot most of their names, then gradually started to learn some of them again.

The second morning, he noticed someone running on an outdoors walkway, and found that she didn't mind company, it gave her someone to talk to. The fourth morning, he noticed that if he got up two hours earlier, some guy ran the same circuit, and he didn't mind company either, as long as he didn't have to talk. JC decided to alternate between the two.

He was drafted to play on the scientist basketball team against the marines, even though he explained that he sucked, and after he'd played he was drafted into the Atlantis madrigal society instead.

McKay mentored him into the work by dumping a box of printouts and a battered laptop on his deskspace and saying, "This is all the documentation we have. If you have any questions, take them to someone else. Is that a pink t-shirt?"

JC tugged at the zipper of his jacket. "Um. Laundry error?" McKay just gave him a look that spoke volumes, possibly in some language that hadn't been invented yet, and stomped off. JC sighed.

Then he remembered the view from his balcony, and smiled a little to himself as he pushed his reading glasses up into his hair and went to find Simpson to discuss combinatorial search algorithms and the personal habits, hygiene, and possible livestock interactions of Ancient software engineers.

One afternoon when he had a couple of hours to himself, he went left instead of right out of the lab, up two flights of stairs, back down again, through seven hallways and twice round a storage room the size of a hangar, looking for another door. He came back out again and looked at red bubbles rising slowly through a glass panel, like a flat lava lamp.

"Are you lost again?"

"No." JC grinned over his shoulder at Carter the marine. "I just wanted to see if I could get to the water. It's all around every day and I haven't even dipped my toes in it."

"I don't think a lot of people have." Carter eyed JC for a while, then nodded. "C'mon. I know a place."

Carter led him to the nearest transporter, and JC craned his neck to see over Carter's shoulders so he could memorize the destination. He'd used the transporters before, but he didn't know that many places he could go, and he had been told by enough different people that experimental joyriding was strongly discouraged that he actually believed it.

They came out in a long dimly lit hallway, and it took JC a moment to realize that the faint grey light was actually daylight filtering through from somewhere. He stood looking around for a while, until Carter nudged his shoulder and they went down the hallway to a door with grey panels framed in blue in that delicate latticework style that reminded JC of classical Chinese architecture.

The room inside was very large, grey and disused-looking, its metal ceiling high with echoes. They stood on a broad metal dock, and to the left and to the right ran broad metal walkways, and the center of the room was a pool, its water almost level with the floor. JC frowned. Not really a pool; the far wall of the room was a metal grille, and the water went on, all the way outside. "Oh," JC said. "It's the sea."

"It's not outside," Carter said apologetically. "We can go outside if you want. I just like the way the water comes inside the city."

JC looked around. The room was very quiet, quieter than it should be. "There should be. Something." He took another step inside the room, brushing his hand just past the doorframe, and there it was, the soft hum, as lights came on in panels along the side walls and under the water. It made everything look warmer. JC grinned and went forward to the edge of the water. With a slow scrape and rattle, the grille rose. The parts that had been in the water looked a lot cleaner than the parts that hadn't.

"Wow," Carter said, coming up behind JC. "Wanna go outside?"

JC nodded, and they went along the left-hand walkway. There were lights in the floor, too, JC saw, right at the edge, but no steps down into the water, and no bollards, either. A drop of water from the grille fell on the back of JC's neck, and then they were outside, right at the waterline, and the sea opened up in front of them. They were standing on the lowest of a series of broad, shallow steps, and when JC turned around, he saw Atlantis rise up behind them, first a long stretch of pier, and then the sharp rise and thrust of towers and spires.

Some of them were damaged, with broken edges and smashed windows, and a few were outright broken, snapped off, tapering to the wrong kind of jagged point. "We should fix that," JC said. Carter raised an eyebrow at him, and JC pointed. "That. The city's broken."

Carter shook his head slowly. "We're a couple hundred people living in a city made for, what, millions? It's not like we're about to run out of living quarters."

"No, but. It just seems wrong." JC tugged at his hair. "Like, we came to this amazing place, and then we broke it."

"The Wraith broke it," Carter said, distance in his voice, and when JC turned around, Carter was walking away along the water, very quiet in his heavy boots.

JC thought about going after him, and then he thought maybe he should wait a bit. He sat down cross-legged and stared out over the ocean, and after a while he took his flip-flops off and dangled his feet over the edge instead. The water was cool but not painfully cold, and little waves slopped up over his calves. He squinted out over the water and thought about wave patterns and tried to remember what that cute oceanologist had said about how the angles of the piers made them act like breakwaters.

When he looked to the left again, Carter had disappeared. JC frowned. He pulled his feet out of the water and rubbed at his toes; his toenails had a bit of a blue tinge to them. If he tried to follow Carter, he'd probably get lost. JC stood up and put his flip-flops back on and went back the way they'd come. The grille had stopped dripping, though the walkway beneath it was wet and slippery.

There was a splash in the water, and JC stopped and leaned forward, looking down. Something big and streamlined was swimming back and forth between the walls of the not-a-pool, making lazy rolls that just barely rippled the water.

"Wow," JC said. He looked up at the grille, and the grille started to rattle back down again. JC really hoped Carter the marine had found another way back into the city. He leaned farther out, trying to see better, and a broad, flat tail broke the surface and splashed water on his face and his knees. JC grinned hugely, wiped his face on his sleeve and hurried back towards the transporter.

Dr Richardson was some kind of biologist, and here on Atlantis he was called a xenobiologist, which sounded kind of kinky, and he sang bass in the madrigal group, which was the reason JC remembered his name and what he looked like. He was in the mess hall when JC came in, eating his way through a giant plateful of stir-fried vegetables, and JC sat down across from him and said, "I found this really big fish, you wanna see it?"

Richardson chewed and swallowed. "If it's the one in the cooling system behind the exercise rooms, I've seen it."

JC shook his head. "No, man. Big fish, like, bigger than a dolphin. Okay, that's not a fish, but you get what I mean."

Richardson put his fork down. "Did you see it from one of the underwater galleries? It might be gone by now."

"No, see, I kind of trapped it. In a big pool." JC stole a small carrot-like vegetable from Richardson's plate. "But I think I'm gonna have to let it out again soon, I bet it's getting hungry already, so you should probably come pretty soon."

"If you trapped it, there's time for you to have dinner first," Richardson said, slapping at JC's fingers with his fork. "Since obviously, you're getting hungry. And have you had time to look at Fine Knacks yet?"

JC got himself a few almost-carrots of his own; they were good, still crisp and covered in something spicy-sweet. When he'd finished, he drummed his fingers on the table until Richardson smacked them with his fork again, and they put their trays away and went to the transporter, trying to sing a bit as they went along, although they kept messing up at I keep a fair. JC was glad he'd paid attention to the coordinates; he'd hate to leave the fish to starve to death.

Stepping out of the transporter, JC just about walked into Carter the marine. He took half a step backwards and walked into Richardson instead.

"Hey! Um, did you get back in again okay? I didn't mean to try to lock you out, it's just, there was this fish. This really big fish." JC gestured to demonstrate and skimmed his knuckles against the wall.

"I went around," Carter said. "I just got back here." He nodded at Richardson. "Hey. You along for the fish?"

Richardson shrugged. "It's what I'm here for."

It was twilight-dark in the water room, but when JC walked through the door the lights came on again. He knelt down by the edge of the pool, and the underwater lights came on, too, and a big tail cut the water with a huffy splash. "Sorry," JC said. "Didn't mean to startle you."

"Interesting," Richardson said from behind JC's left shoulder. "Can you get the lights a bit brighter?"

"Yeah, but I don't think he likes it." There were lights down at the bottom of the pool, too, and when they lit up, there was another upheaval in the water and JC saw a roll of smooth chocolate-brown back and a dorsal fin before the tail splashed and obscured his view.

"That's not a fish." Richardson sounded very pleased. "Just look at that tailfin, and did you see the blowhole?"

"Yeah. Just the one," Carter said. "Pretty small for a whale, though." He sounded as if he were smiling. "You should requisition a boat, you know, go out a ways and—"

"And make sure you're assigned to security detail, in case we run into Genii infiltrators disguised as plankton." Richardson sounded as if he were smiling, too. "I'd rather take out a jumper for survey purposes, but if we do get a boat, you're first on my list, Nick."

JC stood up and turned abruptly, surprised both by Carter the marine having a first name and by Richardson the xenobiologist knowing it. His foot skidded on wet metal, he flailed a bit, teetered, and fell backwards.

The water really was pretty cold.

JC surfaced again, salt stinging in his eyes and in a shaving cut on his neck. He snorted water out of his nose and reached up to grasp the edge of the pool, but his fingers slipped on the wet metal. Carter crouched down and reached towards him, and JC twisted in the water to get a better angle, and Richardson said, "Look out!"

Something bumped into JC, shoving at his legs, and he did his best to spontaneously levitate, flailing his arms wildly until someone grabbed them and he could get his feet braced against the wall of the pool. He shot up out of the water like a cork, and Carter had him and hauled him in and they fell in a wet heap on the floor. JC lifted his head and looked towards the pool, and saw the not-a-fish rear up and then flop back down into the water. "Those are really big teeth," he said faintly.

"I don't think it was trying to eat you," Richardson said, sounding more thoughtful than reassuring. "Maybe it just doesn't like company."

"Maybe we should let it out now." JC wrung water out of his hair. "Before it eats my flip-flops." He leaned forward to see them floating sole-up right by the edge of the pool.

Richardson sat cross-legged and seemed not to notice the water soaking into his pants. "We're not equipped to hold it in captivity, but I hate to let it go without gathering more information. Nick, can you get back to the bio lab and get Ferngren and a camera and one of those bioscan kits?"

"Sure," Carter said and started to scramble to his feet. The whole front of his clothes was soaked through.

"There are bioscan kits?" JC leaned forward a bit more to see if he could reach his flip-flops, and Carter grabbed the back of his jacket. "I was thinking, it would be really useful if there was some kind of scanning technology here, because—" A holographic screen display popped into existence two inches in front of his nose, with a 3-D rendering of the big not-a-fish turning slowly around and around. "Cool."

"I take it your gene therapy worked well," Richardson said, scooting over to get in front of the screen.

"Actually, I never had any. Turned out I already had the gene," JC concentrated on getting a second display next to the first one, "lucky for me, cause I hate needles."

Nick leaned forward between them. "Why is there a flower on that screen?" He let go of the back of JC's jacket to point. It was a pretty flower, even rendered as a 3-D diagram, but it didn't seem to have anything to do with small, chocolate-colored, bad-tempered killer whales. "I'm just guessing here, but, you know, I don't think it's just a decoration."

"We need someone who can read Ancient," Richardson said. "But considering the list of material from the database waiting to be translated, it might be faster if we learned Ancient ourselves."

The flower reminded JC of his flip-flops, and he leaned forward again. They were bobbing less than a foot out from the edge of the pool, and he could see a bulky shape swimming back and forth over by the grille. he stretched out, reaching, and then leaned out a bit more, and a bit more, and Carter shouted, "Look out!" and something big and toothy reared up in front of him and grabbed his shoulder and dragged him down.

JC waited for the excruciating pain of having his arm bitten off, but it didn't come. He'd never been any good at keeping his eyes open underwater, and when he blinked he just got confusing, terrifying glimpses of air bubbles and lights and very big teeth much too close to his face, but he realized he was being dragged down towards the bottom of the pool and pushed into a corner.

He reached out with his free hand, trying to grab something, anything; his fingers scrabbled across something bumpy and metal, and then it slid up and closed around his wrist. JC panicked for about point seven seconds, and then the giant jaws loosened around his shoulder, and a holographic display of a foot-high Ancient person popped up in front of him and began to talk, not that he could hear it.

JC flailed a bit more, not panicking any more but trying to kick off, and a broad chocolate-covered back pushed in under his arm and began to lift him. They surfaced to find Richardson shouting worriedly into his radio and Carter pointing a gun, and JC waved his not at all bitten off arm at them. "It's okay," he said, spitting and coughing. "She's not gonna hurt me." He patted a spot close to the blowhole, and got a whistling snort in return. "Everything's fine."

Carter didn't lower the gun. "What's that around your arm?"

Richardson stopped shouting into his radio. "How do you know it's a female?"

"Um." JC really wanted to swim some more with his new friend, but instead he boosted himself up to sit on the edge of the pool, feet dangling in the water. The taeba butted her head gently against his shins. "I just do. And she's kinda hungry, so we shouldn't keep her here for too long."

"That thing around your arm," Carter prompted. He lowered his gun, but didn't put it away.

JC looked down. It was a metal bracer, covering his arm from elbow to thumb joint, but so light and comfortable that he barely noticed he was wearing it. "I think," he began, and then five people burst into the room and waved their weapons around, and there was a whole lot of talking and shouting and explaining.

Eventually, the shouting died down, and Richardson apologized for not getting back on the radio and explaining that there wasn't an emergency after all, and Carter the marine apologized as well, sounding all military and stiff and "it was my fault, Colonel," which JC really didn't think it was, but he figured maybe he'd better not say so; instead, he used his feet to rub the taeba where her chin would have been if she'd had one.

There were little buttons on the inside of the bracer, a neat row of them across his wrist. JC poked one of them, and the small hologram popped up again, and now that he didn't have water in his eyes he could see that it was a woman, not wearing quite as many layers as most of the Ancients he'd seen. Also, her hair looked slightly damp. Her mouth moved, but there was no sound, and now and then, she flickered.

"What's that?" The colonel, whose name was Sheppard, which was easy to remember since people talked about him a lot, crouched down next to JC.

"I think it's the manual," JC said. "Probably if we could hear it it would say something like, do not leave this device in the water for ten thousand years." He poked the same button again, and the woman disappeared.

Sheppard grinned. "Well, maybe McKay or Zelenka or someone can fix it, if we need it to work." He tapped the metal bracer with one finger. "What does this do?"

"I don't know. The manual's broken." JC poked a second button. Nothing happened. The taeba nudged at his legs again, more urgently, and he rubbed her head. "Yeah, okay."

"Yeah, okay, what?"

"She wants out," JC said, gesturing vaguely towards the grille, which began to rise. The taeba took off, swimming out as soon as there was enough room for her under the grille.

"Damn." Richardson was looking at the holographic screens. "We could have used some more data before you set it free. Still, there's a lot to work with here. This species—"

"Taeba," JC said.

Richardson gave him an eyebrow-heavy look. "—seems to have an unusually large brain, as well as some inner organs that—"

"Sounds like you have the situation under control," Sheppard said, standing up. "I'll just leave you to it." He nodded at the marines, who began to leave, except for Carter, who was crouching next to Richardson pointing at things on one of the screens. "Try not to — okay, everybody out of the pool, now."

The taeba came back fast, her elegant fin cutting the water and sending up a fine spray. "That's odd." JC leaned forward as she came to a stop in front of him, bobbed higher in the water, and opened her mouth. "Wow, you brought me a fish?"

"Listen, Dr Chavez," Sheppard said tensely, "I think given the size of those teeth, you should get your legs out of the water as fast as you can."

He did something vaguely threatening with his gun, and JC glared at him. "Chasez," he said before turning back to the taeba. "He's not gonna shoot you," he said to her, and reached for the fish. The bracer slid easily across her teeth, and it suddenly made perfect sense that it was the shape it was. JC grabbed the fish by the tail and pulled it out, and it began to wriggle hysterically in his grip; it was longer than his arm, and pretty heavy, and pretty strong. Then there was a very fast snap of jaws, and he held a headless fish corpse instead. "Er. Thank you, I think," he said to the taeba, watching fish blood soak through the knees of his pants.

"Look at that," Sheppard said, pointing at the inside of JC's arm. One of the button-like bumps across the wrist of the bracer had lit up with a clear greenish-white light.


"Um, Dr Chasez?" Carter was craning his head trying to see around Richardson and Sheppard. "Does that fish have a stripe on the dorsal fin and spots on the ade-adipose fin and a sort of—"

"The what fin?"

"Well, cause there's a picture here," Carter said, pointing to the screens. "With the whale and the flower and that thing on your arm and a fish."

Sheppard sat back on his heels and rubbed at his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Sometimes I really wonder about the Ancients."

Richardson got on the radio again and made Ferngren come down with a box full of ice for the fish, and JC petted the taeba some more and asked Richardson if it was okay that she'd eaten the fish head, and if it wasn't, it was really too late to do anything about it, and Sheppard sent the marines away, and Carter somehow made himself invisible over by the holoscreens and stayed. They packed the fish in ice. JC finally got his flip-flops out of the water. The taeba butted her head against his feet in a friendly fashion and swam off, and they went to the transporter, with Richardson in the lead talking excitedly with Ferngren, and Sheppard on the radio with Dr Weir and McKay, and Carter carrying the big box with the fish.

The bio lab always smelled a bit funny, but this time, JC couldn't really tell over the smell of fish. Richardson and Ferngren took charge of the fish. JC borrowed a laptop that was just sitting there on an empty workstation and logged in so he could call up the scans they'd done on the taeba as well as all the other information that had popped up on the holoscreens. He didn't have his glasses, and when he leaned closer to the screen to see better, a large hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.

"You're gonna drip into the keyboard," Carter said. "You should go change."

JC looked down at himself. "Oh, yeah. I just wanna see if I can figure out the connection between the taeba and this," he waved his metal-covered arm, "because obviously she wanted me to find it and put it on, and that's kind of weird."

Carter leaned against the edge of the table. "Yeah, but." He wrinkled his nose. "That fish really smells. Anyway, that thing must have been lying in the water since the Ancients left, right? Cause no one else has been here since then." JC nodded. "So are you saying that whale is ten thousand years old? I mean, how did she know it was there?"

"Um." JC leaned back in the chair so he could look up at Carter. "But she did."

There was a commotion at the door. "Colonel, you couldn't have told me I needed a gas mask to survive in here? That thing smells like it's been dead since the Ancients left."

"Don't be such a wuss, Rodney. It's just a fish."

"Yes, I can see that it's a fish. Which is why it's here in the biology lab. What I don't see is why I have to be in the biology lab, considering that dead fish are not my primary area of expertise and I have, oh, about five hundred things I could do that are more important than inspecting the catch of the day."

"I wanted you to have a look at this," Sheppard said and towed McKay over to where JC was sitting.

McKay closed his eyes. "Chavez. I should have known."

"Chasez," JC said and held his arm up. "You seen anything like this before? We're not sure how it works."

"The manual is broken," Sheppard added, straight-faced.

McKay grabbed JC's wrist and turned his arm this way and that, elbowing Carter out of the way. "Where did you find this?"

JC explained. McKay poked the buttons, and nothing happened. JC poked the first button, and the flickering, silent hologram popped up, and poked it again to make it disappear. McKay made Sheppard poke the button to see if he could get a better result, and nothing happened. McKay made JC poke the button ten more times, and the hologram appeared and disappeared, and then McKay told JC to take the bracer off.

"Um, apparently I can't," JC said ten minutes later.

Sheppard bent closer. "Where does it open, anyway?" He poked at the smooth, non-responsive metal. "What did it look like before you put it on?"

"I kinda had water in my eyes," JC said. He turned back to the laptop and tapped a few keys. "But I think there's a description in here, if we can get someone to translate it." Something warm wrapped around his shoulders, and he looked back to see that Carter had brought him a blanket. "Hey, thanks."

Trying seventeen more times didn't make the bracer come off, and since nobody's life was in any immediate danger, all the info about the bracer and the taeba and the fish and the flower went into the queue of things waiting to be translated, and McKay made another face at the fish smell and stomped off with Sheppard in tow, and Richardson drafted Carter to help him and Ferngren with the fish dissection, and JC went to his quarters and took a long, hot shower.

The fish blood left some interesting stains on his pants, kind of like they'd been tie-dyed.

The next morning when JC turned up for work, Zelenka announced that he needed someone to help him with jumper repair and maintenance, and JC wanted to know more about how the jumpers worked, so he didn't say no when McKay volunteered him. He spent the next couple of days alternately trying not to breathe too hard on the microcircuits, and hammering out dents and welding things back together. Zelenka was fun to work with, even if he insisted on teaching JC drinking songs in Czech and then mocking his pronunciation.

Wearing the metal bracer became second nature to him, and he stopped even noticing it was there, except for the time a spark flew from the welding torch, and then he was pretty damn grateful.

The Atlantis madrigal society was starting to get the hang of Fine Knacks, and they'd just started working on Weep O Mine Eyes when the lights went out. A couple of people had flashlights, and JC found a strip of emergency lighting over the door. McKay came on general broadcast to say that there was no need to panic, just a minor glitch, stay where you are and don't do anything stupid.

They all looked at each other, shrugged, and went back to singing. An hour later, McKay came back on to say that there was still no need to panic and it was still a minor glitch, but it might take a while to fix, so they didn't actually have to stay where they were, but not to use the transporters.

When the madrigal society rehearsal ended at the usual time, the lights still weren't back on, so they split into groups based on who was going where and who had a flashlight. JC ended up with Richardson and another bass called Bass, which, yeah, he'd remember that one. They walked off towards the center of Atlantis, humming a bit to themselves. Bass the bass had quarters in the same corridor JC did, and he was in Atlantis to work on translating—

"So you know Ancient, huh?" Richardson put a hand on Bass's left shoulder.

"That's great," JC said and put a hand on Bass's right shoulder. "See, we kind of have this tiny little problem. Well, mostly I have it, actually." He held up his bracered arm into the beam of the flashlight. "Maybe you could help us out."

Bass the bass looked thoughtful. "Sure, but—"

"This guy has the ATA gene," Richardson said, pointing his thumb at JC. "I mean, if there's something you need to fix that isn't working right."

"Hey," JC said, but Richardson and Bass the bass ignored him and went straight into a negotiation of work hours.

The lights came back on again in the middle of the night, and McKay came on general broadcast to say that everything was functioning as usual now but not to do anything stupid anyw— and then someone apparently turned his radio off. JC turned the lights out, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Very early the next morning, JC borrowed some of the jumper repair tools and went to Bass the bass's quarters and managed, with a combination of coaxing and hammering, to make his bathroom controls work the way they were intended to. Bass promised to get to the downloaded files about the taeba as soon as he had some free time. JC and the tools arrived back in the jumper bay just as Zelenka turned up, looking very sleepy and clutching an enormous mug of coffee. "Good morning," he said and yawned.

JC waved a salute with the hammer. "Did you, were you up all night fixing the lights or something?"

Zelenka nodded. Then he shook his head. "I was up all night watching Rodney fix the lights. Next time, I have decided it will be someone else's turn."

"You know," JC said, "I really don't think we need to do any hammering right now." Zelenka looked at him. "I could sort through that box of components for the spare parts we need, and you could, um. Do some basic stress tests on the benches inside that jumper. One of them, anyway. See how it holds up under a little horizontal pressure."

Zelenka blinked. Then his eyes smiled behind the smudgy lenses of his glasses. "I knew you were not as stupid as Rodney says you are." He paused to yawn. "Of course, if people were as stupid as Rodney says they are, humanity would have already perished in terrible ways. Here, have my coffee." He handed over his mug and went into the jumper.

JC sat down and started to look for spare parts, and only a few minutes later, he heard soft snores coming from inside the jumper. He grinned to himself.

When he went down to the mess hall for lunch he ran into Carter the marine, who looked a bit the worse for wear. "Hey," JC said. "What happened to you?"

"Ronon Dex." Carter rolled his shoulders gingerly. "This is nothing, though. I mean, after the first time, I was walking like I was someone's great-grandpa."

JC took a tray and handed one to Carter. "Do you have any idea what happened last night when the lights went out?"

"Naw, I was gonna ask you." Carter started putting an unbelievable amount of food on his tray. "I figured it was a scientist thing."

"Hey," JC said, mock-offended, "I'll have you know I've never caused a blackout in an entire city." He thought about it. "Only a couple of city blocks. Once. By mistake."

"Yeah, could happen to anyone," Carter agreed and put a couple of slices of bread on JC's tray. "Like, once when I was in — um, you know, never mind." JC quirked an eyebrow. Carter grinned. "Classified. Hey, grab the corner of that table before anyone else gets there."

JC plunked his tray down. "Is that my soup or your soup? Cause I'm gonna eat it."

JC wasn't sure how Carter planned to eat all that food, since every time he talked he had to put his knife and fork down so he could gesticulate. Once he realized JC didn't know the names of most people in Atlantis, he kept up a running commentary on everyone coming into the mess hall. "But you know who Dr Beckett is, right? And that's Cadman with him, they're kinda cute together, and that little guy is Dorough, he's a, um, autoimmune specialist, something like that, they brought him over to look at something to do with what happens inside people when the Wraith, you know."

"I know," JC said and shuddered, trying the soup. He waved at Cadman, who waved back without taking her eyes off Beckett.

"He seems like a nice guy. And those guys there in the corner, that's Andersen and Fatone and Erdrich and Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick's the one who's putting the mashed veggies down the — oh, man. But he's a fun guy, you know?"

"I'll take your word for it." JC took a piece of bread, since it was lying on his tray. "So it sounds like you like the people here in Atlantis."

"I guess I do. Mostly everyone here's a nice guy, really." Carter looked thoughtful. "Well, except for Dr McKay, 'specially when he wakes people up in the middle of the night, but I kinda like him anyway."

JC grinned. "Yeah, I know what you mean." He tried some of the mashed veggies himself: they tasted mostly like turnips. "I was thinking about going down to the water tonight, see if the taeba's there. You wanna come along?"

"Yes," Carter said very decisively. "I'll meet you at the transporter. Are you gonna eat that?"

JC took some bread and cheese with him and went back to the jumper bay and woke up Zelenka, who was in a much better mood after his nap, and they worked peacefully for the rest of the day, mostly along the lines of Zelenka saying "Now try turning on the thing," and JC turning on the thing, and Zelenka saying, "No, no, the other thing." One of the things that JC turned on that was supposed to have been the other thing turned out to be an internal check-up routine for the propulsion systems, though, so that was pretty useful after all.

On the way to dinner, they ran into Richardson, who was walking away from the mess hall. "They won't let me in," he said.

JC took three steps closer, and stopped. "That's cause you smell like a ton of dead fish, man."

"It was just one dead fish." Richardson sniffed at his stained sleeve. "I can't even smell it any more. I think I may have permanently damaged my sense of smell."

"I think if you stand there much longer you will permanently damage mine," Zelenka said. "Or perhaps my appetite. Excuse me." He wriggled past, plastered to the wall, and sprinted in the direction of the nearest bathroom.

JC pinched his nose and said, "Do bat did you vind out about de vish?"

"I'm not sure. There are some interesting points, but for all we know, the Ancients trained whales to catch these fish because they wanted to have them for dinner."

"Id seebs weed," JC agreed. "Baybe you could loog id up id de dadabase."

"Maybe I could just go take a shower. It's going to drive me crazy if people keep talking like that to me." Richardson took a step forward. "And I'd look it up if I knew what it was called."

"I'b goig do idroduce a dew fugtiod," JC said, but Richardson just waved a hand at him and walked away towards the stairs. JC shrugged and realized he wasn't going to be hungry for a while.

He went and got himself some bread and stuffed in his pocket, waved a hi to the guy he went running with in the mornings, and ducked back out and went to the transporter. JC punched in the coordinates, took his jacket off, and stepped out of the transporter again and almost walked right into Carter, who reached out a hand to steady him. "Hey."

"Hey," JC said, grinning. "You been here long?"

Carter shrugged. "A while," he said. Then he grinned back, sudden and bright. "I got permission."

JC fell into step beside Carter as they walked down the hall. "Permission to stand outside a transporter and wait?"

"Well, sorta." Carter slid the door open and they walked into the room. JC had left the grille up, but the pool was empty. "Permission to make sure a member of the science team doesn't drown or get himself eaten by something. Colonel Sheppard is really against that kind of thing."

"Oh." JC walked up to the edge of the pool and looked in. "I wasn't gonna."

"Well." Carter put a hand on his shoulder. "I don't think people plan to get themselves eaten by sea monsters, like, usually. It's just one of those unexpectable things."

They went outside into the warm evening sunlight. JC took his flip-flops off to feel the warmth of Atlantis' metal skin against the soles of his feet. He stretched, arms above his head, and the metal brace on his arm caught the sun and almost blinded him. "It's beautiful here," he said happily.

He sat down on the nearest step, and Carter sat next to him, leaning back on his hands. "Yeah. I like the water. Just wish there were boats. I mean, the jumpers go over the water and in the water but they don't really go on the water."

JC frowned and wondered if there was a way to arrange that. He took a deep breath and realized that he could smell salt and metal, so the stench from Richardson's clothes hadn't totally killed his nose. "Is that why you joined the marines? Cause you like the water? But I guess the marines aren't all that marine any more and you couldn't have known you'd end up in Atlantis."

"Well, actually." Carter peered at the horizon. "I kinda joined up to get away from my family. This is about as away as it's possible to get, you know?"

JC looked at the horizon, too. It was just a smudge, a suggestion of a line between blue and blue. The sea looked endless all around them, the sky just as endless above them, and JC was suddenly grateful that he hadn't come in on the Daedalus, that he hadn't seen the blackness of space all around and the planet hanging tiny as a teardrop. This was big enough for him right now.

"You don't like your family?" he said carefully.

"I love my family. It's just, you know. My mom, she had these ideas about my life, and I guess I had different ideas." Carter drummed his fingers against the pitted metal plate. "But I've been here from the start, and that whole first year when we were cut off, it was." He glared at the horizon like he expected it to glare back at him. Over his head, JC could see one of the broken spires. "It was kinda tough. Anyway, I sent a message to my little bro, we keep in touch now."

"That's good." JC stretched. "I should write to my family, too. Wish I could send a postcard of this, right here. It's incredible."

"And it's really incredibly classified." Even saying it all casually in that light, gentle voice, Carter sounded suddenly very military.

"Doesn't it just make you want to fling your arms out and start singing, like somebody in a musical? Atlantis, Atlantis, I just met a place called Atlantis..."

Carter gave him a sideways look. "No."

JC let himself fall back to lie with his arms open wide and his eyes closed, soaking up the sunlight. "What this place needs," he said, "is a waterfront park. With deck chairs."

Carter chuckled, apparently getting into the spirit of things. "And boats."

"And boats. And a better way of getting into the water than just falling in. And a better way of getting out, I guess is the really important part."

They constructed an imaginary waterside park together for a while, and then JC's stomach rumbled and he sat up and picked up his jacket and dug into the pocket for bread. He gave half of it to Carter and took the other half with him, standing up and walking down to the water.

"Are you gonna fall in again? Cause I'd like some warning this time," Carter said with his mouth full of bread, and JC flipped him off, scattering breadcrumbs all over.

The bracer caught the light again, sending red and green dots across his field of vision. "I wonder if this thing is just out of batteries."

"What?" Carter stood up and came over, too.

"This." JC tapped his bracer, fingernails making a light metallic click. "Maybe it just needs more juice for the holographic manual to work." He poked the button again, and the small flickering figure of the Ancient woman appeared, pale and hard to see in the sunlight. "But there's no obvious port or interface anywhere, maybe it just draws energy from whoever wears it — whoa!"

A spray of water shot up right in front of them, and there was the taeba, bobbing in the water not a foot from the lowest step of the pier. She whistled merrily at them. "You sure that's the manual and not a call button?" Carter said.

"Hey," JC said in delight, dropping to his knees and reaching out to pet her. Her skin was rough and water-slick under his fingers. "Good to see you again. Sorry if I called you here and you were in the middle of something important." The taeba whistled again, and it sounded like a snort. "No, I mean it." She butted her head against his hand. "Sure, I'll come swimming with you, just let me take my pants off this time."

JC pulled his shirt off and tossed it back over his shoulder. Maybe he should look into getting a wetsuit. Or at least remember to bring his trunks.

"Wait," Carter said, sounding a bit strangled. JC stood up and reached for his zipper, and Carter clamped an arm around his chest and held him still. "No. You're not going in the water right now."

"What," JC said, confused at the sudden manhandling, and then he looked up. Farther out in the water, he saw something like a really big windsurfer sail. It moved, pushing up, and JC realized that it was the dorsal fin on another smooth chocolate-brown curved back that was rising, and rising, and rising. It was like watching a submarine surface. Except bigger. "Oh, God." JC stared. "She's huge."

Carter let out a tense breath right by his ear. "Yeah, and probably her teeth are huge, too. So don't go in the water."

JC shivered. "I almost can't believe she's real." He pressed himself back against Carter's side and stood staring, squinting against the sun, trying to take it all in until the enormous whale dived below the surface again with a flick of the tail that could have crushed a jumper. JC let his breath out. "That was really cool. And kind of scary. And cool."

The small taeba flicked her tail too, in the same graceful, powerful arc, splashing water over their feet. "Sorry," Carter said, "but Dr Chasez can't come out to play today." He rubbed his free hand over his head. "Oh, man, now you've got me talking to her like she can understand me, too."

"I could go in the water now," JC said, not making a move to step outside the protective circle of Carter's arm. "I mean, great-grandma or whatever she is is gone now."

"Yeah, gone how far? I mean, unless you can scan and show to me that she's not just lying under the surface right there." Carter dropped his arm, very slowly. JC shivered again, because despite the sun still shining, he felt cold. "We should tell Kevin about this. He's gonna hate that he missed seeing it."

JC blinked at the sudden introduction of a new character. "Kevin?"

"Dr Richardson." Carter bent to pick up JC's t-shirt.

The taeba flicked her tail once more and whistled. JC knelt down, getting the knees of his pants soaked through. "Look," he said, "it's nice that you want me to meet your family and all, but. I don't think I'm ready for that, and you're making the nice marine nervous."

"Sure, blame me," Carter said.

The taeba made a sound like a squeaky hinge. JC shrugged apologetically at her and started to get up, and she rose vertically in the water, right in front of his face. He jerked back in surprise and slipped on the wet surface of the pier, and didn't even have time to say oh, not again before his head grazed something hard and then he was in the water. Under the water, even, salt water stinging his scalp and forehead. The taeba nudged at him, pushing him away from Atlantis instead of towards it.

JC blinked and saw, there under the waterline, a huge dark shape, hovering. Maybe Carter the marine was psychic.

He clung to the taeba and thought no and up as hard as he could, kicking his feet. Something else moved in the water next to him, and then he rose up, with the taeba on one side and Carter the marine on the other. JC spat and said, "I thought we weren't going in the water."

Carter just frowned at him. "Try and get your arm up on the pier. Good." He braced himself in the same way, grabbed hold of the waist of JC's pants under the water and heaved, which was kind of painful. "Okay, push."

"Against what," JC said, coughing up a little salt water.

"Not you, her." Carter and the taeba pushed and hauled, and JC crawled up on the pier and rolled over, snorting more salt water out of his nose and then breathing deep. He only had a few seconds to enjoy it before Carter had come up on the pier, too, and hovered next to him, frowning even more. "Okay, who's president?"

JC sighed. "I'm fine," he said, working on sitting up. His heart was racing a bit, but he figured that was normal for nearly meeting a really big and scary whale, as opposed to a fairly small and cute one. "I just fell in the water."

"You hit your head."

JC touched his head and got blood on his fingers. "Oh. Yeah. Not that hard. I'm fine."

"Infirmary," Carter said, apparently not listening. He got up, and started hauling JC upright, too.

The taeba whistled, bobbing in the water. She sounded kind of apologetic. "I'm fine," JC said to her over his shoulder as Carter led him away. "Say hi to grandma for me." Carter shot him a worried look. "Seriously, fine."

The taeba followed them in the water as far as she could, swimming into the indoor pool and squeaking at them as they went through the door. JC made a face as they stepped into the transporter, and then another one as Carter punched the buttons. He tipped his head to one side, and wobbled. "Maybe you should lean against the wall," Carter said, propping him up.

The transporter doors opened again and Carter walked out backwards, leading JC, who didn't have time to tell him to look out before he backed into Sheppard and McKay, mostly McKay. "Is it too much to ask that people look where they're going? Or is walking around backwards some brilliant new military strategy? On second thought, it can't be new. It would explain so much."

"Sorry," Carter said, turning around neatly and taking JC with him.

McKay sniffed. "Yes, well. I assume there's a reason why you're dragging a wet, half-naked, bleeding physicist around with you?"

"It's just a wild guess, but maybe they want to get into the infirmary," Sheppard said. "And Carter, I want to have a word with you later." He steered McKay to one side, and Carter moved forward and delivered JC into the hands of what seemed like ten people, all of them shining lights in his eyes and bringing him towels and asking who was president, or in some cases, prime minister. It had to be a slow day.

A while later, JC sat on the edge of an infirmary bed with Beckett hovering on one side and a brown-haired woman on the other, both of them threatening to shave his hair off if he didn't hold still. Carter the marine stood with his arms crossed, watching, and dripping a bit on the floor, because apparently no one had thought to give him a towel. He turned his head when another guy came into the room.

"Hi, Nicky." It was one of the guys Carter had pointed out in the mess hall. Dorough, JC thought, and decided that if he could remember that, it meant his short-term memory was working about as well as it ever did. Dorough looked from Carter to JC and back again. "Trouble?"

Carter nodded. "Dr Chasez had an accident."

"I'm fine," JC said for the umpteenth time.

"He hit his head," Carter said.

"I'm fine," JC said. Beckett swabbed at his forehead with something stingingly antiseptic. "Ow."

"Pass me those butterfly bandages, would you," Beckett said over his shoulder, and Dorough came up with them and stayed to help hold JC's hair out of the way. "Have you had time to look over the material yet?"

"Most of it," Dorough said. "There are some lines of research I'd like to explore further. Looking at what happens in human and Wraith bodies when they interact, particularly considering some of the data from Hoff—"

"You might want to consider taking a different tack. That didn't exactly go as planned," Beckett said, yanking a couple of JC's hairs out by the root. Over Beckett's shoulder, JC saw Sheppard look into the room and crook a finger at Carter. Carter immediately uncrossed his arms and went.

"I wasn't planning to replicate the work on the vaccine," Dorough said. "But I think it would be interesting to look into the possibility of creating a blocking agent that works in some other way, not to inoculate humans, but—"

"To poison the Wraith directly, you mean? Aye, but we can't offer to give them flu jabs, can we?"

"Time enough to consider the delivery method when we've found out if we have something to deliver."

"You may have a point," Becket said slowly, patting down the last butterfly bandage and letting go of JC's hair. "Here, now, Dr Chasez. Off you go, but come back here if you experience dizziness, nausea or—"

"I promise," JC said, sliding off the bed. "Thanks for letting me keep the hair."

"Oh, I'm used to working around that kind of thing," Beckett said absently. He took Dorough by the arm and started leading him away. "Now, about that idea of yours..."

The brown-haired woman, who had never introduced herself, patted JC's shoulder, handed him a few painkillers and vanished, too. JC walked across the room, made a face at the way his wet pants clung in some very personal places, and went out into the hallway. Carter the marine was standing with his back to the wall, sort of drooping where he stood, listening to Sheppard, who was just wrapping up whatever he was saying by tapping Carter's chest with two fingers for emphasis. Sheppard turned his head and saw JC, nodded at him, and walked away.

JC went up to Carter. "So what was that all about?"

"Nothing," Carter said, not very convincingly. JC raised his eyebrows in doubt. "Well, I wasn't supposed to let you fall in the water and get eaten by a sea monster."

"Not eaten," JC said, wiggling his fingers. "I'm fine. I could do with some dry clothes, though." He poked at Carter's chest. "So could you. Oh, and I bet grandma has eaten my flip-flops by now, and those were my favorites. Maybe I could go back and—"

"Oh, no way." Carter pushed away from the wall. "C'mon, let's go."

JC didn't really think he needed a military escort to get to his quarters, but he did feel a lot better after a shower, and the dry clothes were a pretty good idea, too, so, okay. Turnabout being fair play and all, he went with Carter back to his quarters and waited while he showered and dressed, and didn't ogle him while he was wandering about in just a towel. Much, anyway.

Carter insisted that they had to go by the mess hall and get food before they did anything else, and JC had to admit it turned out to be the strategically sound thing to do, because afterwards, once they tracked down Richardson, they had to explain to Richardson and then to all of the biology department ten times over just how big the big taeba had been and what kinds of sounds the small taeba had made and how she'd helped Carter get JC out of the water, and the whole thing took forever.

"And I think she was apologizing at the end there," JC said.

Richardson did something intricate with his eyebrows. "And that was a whistling sound?"

"No, that was more of a squeak. Right?" JC looked at Carter, who nodded.

"It seems like an over-interpretation, though," Ferngren said. "Can we really assume they are that intelligent?"

"Well, actually." Bass the bass came into the room, laptop tucked under his arm. He nodded to Richardson and JC. "Based on what I've been able to translate so far, they definitely could be. Apparently the Ancients could communicate with these, uh, taeba in several ways, and that control device is just one of them."

JC looked down at his arm. "You get anything about how to take it off?"

Bass shook his head. "No, I was looking for you to say that you might want to look into other sources to find information about the actual device. So far, what I've got is material about the taeba and some kind of research project the Ancients were working on."

Richardson looked intrigued. "A research project about the taeba?"

"Not exactly." Bass hitched himself up to sit on the edge of a desk and opened his laptop. "The Ancients must have known about the taeba and started training them a long time before this record was written. From what I've been able to piece together, they're very intelligent and very long-lived, and whoever wrote this document strongly implies that they share and pass on some fairly complex information within a family group."

"So she's not ten thousand years old, she just heard about this," JC tapped his arm, "from her grandma, who might have heard about it from her grandma, who... wow. Still, that's amazing. How old do they get, anyway?"

"I don't know yet. Apparently they keep growing their whole lives, but I don't know how fast. The Ancients only trained the young taeba, because the older ones got too big to be able to catch and deliver the fish with precision, so that has to mean they can get pretty big and pretty old."

JC nodded, and so did Carter. "Oh, yeah."

"There must be more files specifically about the taeba. What I can tell you is, the Ancients taught the taeba to hunt that fish for them because it produces some kind of substance that they were using in a research project."

"That's interesting." Richardson leaned over Bass's shoulder, staring at the screen. "Is that it?" He pointed. "Any notes on how they kept the smell from killing them?"

Bass looked amused. "You'll know as soon as I do."

Carter cleared his throat. "What about that flower?"

"I haven't gotten that far yet." Bass handed the laptop to Richardson and slid off the desk again. "I was focusing on finding information about that control device that Dr Chasez seems to be stuck with, for the time being, but there isn't much. It appears that the taeba handlers wore them, and there's a few references that make it clear they were linked to the hunting of these fish, but there's nothing about how to take them off."

"Well, it's not like it's hurting me or anything," JC said philosophically. He turned to Richardson. "Do you need more of those fish to look at?"

"Hmmmm," Richardson said, eyes on the laptop screen. "Yes, that would be good. Try not to drown."

Over the next couple of days, JC didn't have any time to go fishing, as two escapees from a prison planet had somehow ended up on Atlantis, and the subsequent lockdown and manhunt disrupted everyone's working routines, not to mention their leisure hours. Once the situation had been resolved in some way that apparently involved Colonel Sheppard rerouting a transporter, Teyla Emmagen breaking one of her fighting sticks, and Ronon Dex somehow cutting a whole new door in the wall-plates of a lower-level corridor, things went back to what passed for normal.

"Apparently one of them had a metal plate in his head," Zelenka explained over breakfast. "Please, pass the salt."

JC passed the salt, and brushed some breadcrumbs off the table with his sleeve. Movement caught his eye, and he looked down to see a small bird hop over and start to peck at the floor around his feet. "Huh."

"What?" Zelenka looked down, too.

"We have mall sparrows," JC said. He crumbled some more bread. "Alien mall sparrows."

McKay set his tray down on the table with a clatter and a clunk, and the bird fled. "Chavez, are you aware that bio has put in a request to borrow you so you can, and I quote, do some fishing for them? They seem to be under the impression that turning Atlantis into SeaWorld is more important than—"

"Chasez," JC said. "Does the gate have any kind of safeguard against biological contaminants?" McKay rolled his eyes and shoveled in a large mouthful of porridge. "I mean, it would suck if those birds had Pegasus bird flu."

McKay caught sight of the sparrow sitting with its head hopefully cocked not two inches from his foot, and choked on his porridge.

"Do not tease Rodney," Zelenka said, but he was grinning. Then he sobered abruptly. "Atlantis would implement a lockdown. We have seen this."

"Dr Chasez?" JC looked up to see Carter the marine, looking all fresh-scrubbed and energetic. "I'm here to escort you down to the pier." JC stared. "So you can get the fish for Dr Richardson."

"I'm eating," JC said. "Give me five minutes."

"I'm his supervisor," McKay said. "Didn't Richardson at least have the sense to tell you to grab Chavez when I wasn't looking?"

"Chasez," JC said.

"I got my orders from Colonel Sheppard." Carter looked from JC to McKay to Zelenka.

McKay flung his hands up. "Oh, if Colonel Sheppard has decided that biology is more important than physics, obviously I can't argue with that. Oh, wait, yes I can." He pushed his chair out and stood up. "And as soon as I find him, I will." McKay took two steps away from the table, turned back and grabbed his bowl and spoon, and stomped out of the mess hall.

"You should probably go now," Zelenka suggested to JC. "If you have time later, we can do final checks on propulsion systems."

Carter stole a piece of bread off JC's tray, and they headed out, collecting Ferngren and a handcart full of ice boxes on the way. It was nice to spend some time down by the water, and with the taeba, who seemed to really enjoy hunting for fish. This time, she didn't bite the heads off them, either. JC found his t-shirt lying in a sad, wrinkled little heap, but his flip-flops had apparently floated out to sea.

The taeba came back with the third fish, and JC had just lifted it out of her mouth and was turning around to hand it to Ferngren when he heard a low, mournful sound, like a very large foghorn contemplating the sadder things in life. Ferngren stared over JC's shoulder. "Herrejävlar," she said.

JC turned back to the water. The big taeba had surfaced again, closer to the pier than last time. She hooted again, and the small taeba whistled back, splashed her tail at JC, and swam away from the pier. The big taeba moved, too, and the two of them left together.

"I guess we're done," JC said. "I hope three is enough."

Ferngren shook her head slowly. "I know you said she was big, but I didn't realize... yes, three will be enough."

When they came back to the bio lab, they found Richardson deeply absorbed in writing something on his laptop. JC left Ferngren and Carter to unpack the fish and came over to see if Richardson had found any more information about the taeba and the control device, but it turned out Richardson was just writing a letter to his cousin. "But I have to say, it's hard when everything between hi, how are you and bye, take care of yourself is classified."

"You could say the weather's nice," JC suggested. It was another sunny day, and the bio lab actually had windows.

"Or talk 'bout that stuff you guys are singing," Carter added, setting down a box with a fish in on the desk next to Richardson's elbow. "Didn't you say your cousin was into music?"

"Um, yeah." Richardson shoved the box away from his laptop. "Not exactly madrigals, though."

"I didn't know I was into madrigals until I got here," JC said. "He could surprise you. He's more of a contemporary guy?"

"You could say that." Richardson pushed the laptop aside and stood to look down on the fish. "He's Brian Littrell."

JC blinked, but Carter nodded. "That Christian country and western guy? I think Erdrich is a fan. You ever need a favor, get her an autograph."

Richardson grinned. "Too bad I can't tell him, I think he'd get a kick out of being black market currency. Are you still listening to that stuff your brother sent you?"

"It's not that bad," Carter said. "Some guy called Johnny No Name, and this band called Sister Sara."

"What about you?" Richardson said to JC. He turned the fish over and prodded its white belly with one finger. "Did you bring any music?"

"Not that much. I've got some BT." Richardson gave him a blank look. "And some Basement Jaxx." Carter gave him a blank look. "So, three fishes, will that be enough?"

Three fishes would be enough, so JC wandered off to do some work with Zelenka. He still couldn't manage the drinking songs, but he was learning quite a few Czech swear words. His welding technique was getting better, too. Being on Atlantis was half like getting the research grant of your dreams and half like being a glorified janitor. Zelenka said they were going to work on the transporters next, and JC just nodded, because hey, fascinating Ancient technology, and it wasn't like anyone had done maintenance around here for about ten thousand years, so it was about time.

Late that night, he stood on his balcony and looked out over the sea and wondered what the taeba were doing, and why the big taeba didn't want the small taeba to play with him. Then he went to bed.

The next morning, he got a call over the radio while he was shaving. Bass the bass said he'd translated the rest of the text, and would JC come down to the bio lab for a meeting, because he should probably hear it, too. JC finished shaving and decided it would probably be more time-efficient not to tell McKay; instead, he went to find Zelenka, who saved time in the mornings by not shaving so often and was already down in the mess hall. Zelenka thought it was perfectly reasonable that JC was still on loan to bio, and JC grabbed some bread and fruit and went to find out what was up.

The lab smelled of dead fish again, but not as strongly as it could have; it was chilly enough that the windows must have been open all night. Bass was sitting on the edge of the desk again, looking awake and cheerful, balancing the laptop on his thighs with one hand and holding a mug of coffee in the other. JC wondered if he could get away with stealing it. Richardson was yawning, and Ferngren looked disturbingly perky.

"So," Bass said, taking a sip of his coffee. "I've got some more stuff for you. The Ancients trained the taeba to get this fish for them, but apparently their research took a long time, and they weren't successful in synthesizing the substance they got from the fish, so there was a serious drop in fish population. When they noticed, they instituted a fishing quota, and I get the impression that they got the taeba to monitor this somehow."

"Oh, I get it," JC said. "So grandma was just being environmentally conscious." He leaned back against the wall. "You'd think after ten thousand years the population would have recovered, though."

Bass raised an eyebrow at him, and went on. "What they did manage to do was find this plant," he tapped the screen, "and extract some kind of plant gunk from it—"

Richardson cleared his throat. "Plant gunk."

"I'm not a biochemist, okay? They used a large amount of that and a small amount of the fish gunk—" Richardson frowned, but kept quiet. "—and they were starting to come up with something that apparently could kill Wraith cells under certain controlled circumstances."

There was a collective intake of interested breath. "Let me see that," Richardson said, coming to look over Bass's shoulder. "Is the plant local?"

"No, they found it on M4D-963. I've requisitioned more material about this planet from the database, but we do have the coordinates and gate address."

"You'd think they could have documented the process better," Richardson groused. "Still, we can work with this."

Bass frowned. "It looks as though they abandoned this line of research just before they abandoned the city. Maybe it wasn't really all that effective."

"It's worth looking into," Richardson said.

Ferngren went to a glass-fronted refrigerator on the other side of the lab and started to bring out racks of test tubes and ominously sloshing containers. "I'll get started."

"I'll go, um. Do something else," JC said. He wasn't about to offer to help unless he could have nose plugs and a clothespin. "Good luck!"

"Hang on." Bass handed the laptop to Richardson and slid off the desk again. "According to this text, the device you're wearing is meant to detect the presence of fish gunk and plant gunk. Did you notice anything like that when the taeba was bringing you the fish?"

"Sort of," JC said. "There's a light that comes on."

"I don't suppose you were monitoring it?" Richardson started to clear a space on a stainless steel workbench. "It would be useful if we could at least be sure of the presence of fish gunk," he made a face, "before we start our analysis."

"I wasn't really checking it then, but I can now." JC went over to Ferngren, lifted his arm and moved it slowly over the test tubes. The greenish-white light came on, shining stronger, weaker, stronger. JC did the sweep three times to be sure. "Those two have the highest concentration, and then that one."

"Thank you." Ferngren put little marks on the labels. Richardson came over and opened one of the test tubes, and JC and Bass the bass fled.

JC spent the day with Zelenka, dismantling the control panel in transporter one and rerouting people who'd missed the out of service announcement. The madrigal society was supposed to meet that night, but the meeting was cancelled because of rumors of a Wraith hive ship; the rumors turned out to be false, but by then, it was late enough that everyone just wanted to go to bed and try to sleep despite the adrenalin high. JC went on his early run the next morning, and got to the mess hall in time to have fresh-baked cheese-and-herb bread for breakfast.

He was elbow-deep in transporter guts when Ferngren stopped by. "Dr Chasez?"

JC put the pliers down. "Hey, what's up?"

Ferngren smiled. "Kevin talked to Dr Weir about our discoveries, and we're going to put together an expedition to M4D-963 to collect plant material the day after tomorrow."

"Cool," JC said. A thought occurred to him. "Tell Richardson to talk to Dorough over in medical. I think he'd like to get in on this."

Ferngren nodded. "Okay. So Dr Richardson will get back to you about the exact time, but if you could be ready early in the morning, that would be good."

"Wait." JC frowned at her. "Why do I have to be ready?"

"You're coming with us, of course." Ferngren reached out and tapped her fingers against the metal brace on JC's arm. "We need you to find the plants that are worth collecting. I'll tell Dr Richardson to get in touch with you about the time of departure!"

She turned to go and nearly collided with Zelenka, who was coming back from the mess hall. "Sorry, sorry," Zelenka said, stepping backwards to let her pass without spilling any coffee from the mugs he was carrying. He came forward and handed one mug to JC, then looked him up and down. "So what terrible disaster has befallen you since I left?"

"They want me to go on a mission," JC said. He sipped at the coffee. "I don't want to go on a mission. I think I need to talk to McKay."

"Desperate times, desperate measures," Zelenka agreed. "But I need you here to work on recalibration parameters, so please do not forget to come back."

JC wandered off to beard the wild McKay in its lair. The lair turned out to be empty, though, and he thought about trying the radio, or looking for McKay in other places, and then he thought he could just leave a note. He went up to McKay's workstation to look for pen and paper, and found an interesting little doohickey lying on top of a pile of stuff.

It was about the size of his palm, and had a tiny flat screen and a few buttons, like one of the newer GameBoys only in boring colors. Then again, JC had already figured the Ancients weren't exactly into cheerful and colorful when it came to design; their taste seemed to be stuck in early industrial, except for the clothing, which was more early monastery.

He was just getting into playing when he was interrupted. "Don't touch that! Put it down before you break it!"

JC waved a hand in the direction of McKay's voice. "Relax. It's made for kids, it can't be that breakable."

"It's... what? Why do you think that?"

"Well, just look at the interface design." JC pointed at the screen. "Like, if Dr Seuss were an Ancient, he'd've made stuff that looked like that."

"Oh, of course. Do you have any more compelling evidence, or are you just pole-vaulting to conclusions, as usual?"

"And it teaches basic math, starts with plain arithmetic and goes all the way to—"

"Really?" McKay yanked the toy away from JC. "Let me see that."

"Hey, give that back. I wanted to see if I could beat the high score."

McKay poked at the buttons. "Nothing's happening."

"Well, I wasn't done yet." JC took the toy back, and it beeped cheerfully. "Anyway, I just came by to ask you if maybe you had any idea how to get this thing off me." He wiggled his arm.

"No. Aren't you working with Zelenka today? Get out."

"No, but seriously," JC said, moving on to fractions. "This needs to come off, because apparently bio wants to put an expedition together and they kinda need to use it."

"Then they can bring you along. I'm sure they could use an extra pair of hands." McKay made a grab for the toy. "Hey, I had that first."

"I'm not a biologist," JC said. "I really came here for the theory part of theoretical physics." He looked at the grime under his fingernails. "Okay, so I haven't really been... the thing is, I don't mind doing a bit of hands-on work. Or a lot. But I'm not going on missions."

"Yes, you are, and next time, try to think ahead before you go swimming with dolphins."

"She's not a dolphin. And like you said, I'm working on the transporters with Zelenka, it's important stuff, I can't just—"

"And Chavez, when you go off-planet, you have to wear boots."

"Chasez," JC said, looking down at his bare toes in dismay. "Oh, man."

"Hey, Rodney." Sheppard came into the lab. He nodded at JC before turning to McKay. "I talked to Elizabeth, and she agrees that it would be a good idea for the team to go along to M4D-963 to check it out."

"Why?" McKay stopped trying to get the toy away from JC. "What do we know about this planet that makes it in any way significant?"

"Well, if the ancients went there regularly to pick flowers, it can't be that dangerous. Plus, according to the database, it has natural hot springs."

"That means volcanic activity," McKay said. "Yes, by all means, let's go pick flowers on top of an active volcano, that sounds like a perfect day. As if it's not bad enough that I'm getting mail from some whiz-kid back at the SGC called Timberflake who apparently thinks that he can correct my math— "

"Justin's a nice kid," JC said. "You'd like — um. Okay, maybe you wouldn't like him."

"—now I'm supposed to go to Planet Hot Tub and breathe in sulfur fumes?"

"I knew you'd like it," Sheppard said. "I've gotta go, I'm taking one of the jumpers out for a test drive, check out the results of the tune-up." He looked at JC. "Tell me I'm not going to crash."

"You're not going to crash," JC said. At least, not because of anything to do with the jumper, but he didn't say that. He turned to McKay. "About getting this thing off my arm?"

McKay shook his head. "I'll look into it. But if I'm going, you're going."

JC went back to the transporter and back to work. He looked a bit at the tools and at the bracer, and wondered if he could pry it off somehow, but he wasn't about to accidentally jam a screwdriver through his wrist. When they paused for lunch, he and Zelenka sat down and looked more closely at the bracer. It had four buttons on the inside of the wrist, two to each side of the little bump of non-metallic material that lit up in the presence of fish. JC already knew what button one and two did. Button three, as far as he could tell, didn't do anything, and button four sent a deep vibration through his arm; it didn't exactly hurt, but it wasn't very comfortable, either.

Zelenka rubbed a hand across the side of his head. "Are your ears ringing, too?"

"Sort of, yeah," JC said, and they went back to work.

Eventually they went to the mess hall together for dinner, got bowls of some kind of almost-rabbit stew and ignored it to argue about whether it was useful to think of transporter routing queues as similar to elevator programming or not. Sheppard came up to their table and clapped a hand on each of their shoulders. "I don't know what you did to that jumper, but good work."

Zelenka looked up. "Did you notice any difference in the performance of the inertial dampeners?"

"No," Sheppard said. "I can't say I noticed anything about them at all."

"Well." Zelenka picked up his spoon. "Good."

"I told you, man," JC said. "Nothing wrong with streamlining the power-use protocol. Sometimes margarine works just as well as butter." He tried the rabbit stew. "Okay, let me work out a better metaphor here."

The next day, they moved on to transporter two, and JC argued for a similar streamlining in a few places there, and Zelenka argued that it would be unfortunate if people suddenly disappeared because there wasn't enough energy to send them to the right places, and JC argued that there was no way that could happen, and then they spent several hours trying to figure out what kinds of fail-safes and security measures the transporters had by doing everything they could think of to trigger them. JC felt pretty distracted from his thoughts about the upcoming mission. In fact, he was so distracted that he left his laptop in the mess hall and only realized it was missing when Carter the marine brought it to him. "This is yours, right?"

"Thanks." JC tucked the laptop under his arm and put his hands in his pockets. He looked up at Carter, who was looking at him. "Um. You know, I was thinking."

The transporter doors started to open and close, and from inside them, JC could hear Zelenka swearing.

"You should probably do something about that," Carter said. He took half a step backwards, looking at JC. "And, you know, I'll see you tomorrow, when—"

"Chasez! Fix this!"

"Yeah, yeah." JC put the laptop down, looked at Carter over his shoulder for a moment, then went to help Zelenka. "What did you do, anyway?"

"I tried out your improvements," Zelenka said. "I think we start over."

They started over. The day passed. Richardson came by to give JC some more details about the mission and to tell him to get a good night's sleep. Zelenka told him to watch out for wild animals and small children. JC spent the evening doing yoga on the balcony and working on his breathing, went to bed early, and had some very vivid dreams about being eaten, not all of them unpleasant.

The morning of the mission, JC decided to forgo his usual run. Not that he really believed that life in the Pegasus galaxy was nothing but running away from hostile aliens and escaped prisoners and wild animals and small children, but still. It might be best if he conserved his energy. He had breakfast alone, for a change, and then Erdrich came to get him and he was outfitted with a vest and a pair of boots and a bunch of other stuff. "You know how to shoot a gun?"

JC shook his head. "I'm a Mennonite."

"Okay." Erdrich patted his shoulder. "Then you're all set. Off you go."

People were starting to gather in the jumper bay, including some marines JC was pretty sure Carter had never told him the names of. Richardson and Ferngren were absorbed in re-packing a small crate that Carter was holding. Dorough looked a bit surprised to be there at all, but was talking to a botanist JC thought was called Parrish. Colonel Sheppard nodded to JC, then turned to the man next to him. "Ronon, this is Dr Chavez."

"Chasez. I know."

JC blinked. "You do? Cause I never really introduced myself."

"I asked Dr Zelenka." Ronon finished strapping his knives on. "You still need to pace yourself better before the finish. You get winded."

"I'm just trying to keep up."

"You need more training than just running, though. You should come to spar sometime. Work on your coordination."

"Oh, no way," JC said. "No offense, man, but I've seen what people look like when you get through with them."

"What are you, his personal trainer?" McKay came up to them, tucking something into a pocket of his vest. "Where's Teyla?"

"I am here."

JC's second time of passing through the stargate was less disorienting than his first, what with going in a puddlejumper and everything. He did stumble a bit when he came out of the jumper, but he blamed the uneven ground and his new boots, and Carter was there to steady him, which provided a pleasant sense of continuity. M4D-963 looked very ordinary. It almost wasn't like being on a strange planet at all. JC stood looking around for a while, taking in the ordinary sunshine and the ordinary grass and rocks and the ordinary blue color of the sky, and then they started walking. JC trailed behind until McKay pointed out that he was the one with the device that could detect the plants they wanted, and then he was right up in front, looking at the light on the bracer, which stayed dark.

Richardson and Ferngren had their heads together with Dorough, discussing who would have first dibs on the plants. Parrish didn't say anything, but he looked at them and then he stuck close to JC. Sheppard and McKay were arguing about whether Athosian flatbread with cheese was anything like pizza.

"Same basic concept," Sheppard said. "Cheese, bread, served hot."

"And tastes nothing like pizza." McKay shook his head. "Unless your pizza always has fresh mint on it, which I doubt."

"Goes great with anchovies?" Sheppard grinned. "C'mon, Rodney. Served hot, you eat it with your fingers..."

Teyla cleared her throat. "You eat it with your fingers, colonel."

They had been walking for about twenty minutes when they came out onto a ridge of hard-packed dirt and sparse grass, with a few low, gorse-like bushes here and there; the ridge dropped off sharply to the right, down into a greener valley, and ahead of them was a more densely wooded area. JC kept his eyes on his wrist, with the occasional glance at his feet to make sure he didn't trip over anything. Instead, when a loud roar came from the woods ahead and everyone stopped, he walked right into Ronon Dex. "Sorry."

"Okay, this is bad," McKay said. "I mean, there is no way that this is not bad."

Sheppard made stand-back gestures with one arm. "Shut up, Rodney." The animal in the woods roared again. It sounded very large and very angry. "Okay, everyone, let's just back up, nice and quiet. Teyla, Ronon."

JC started to edge backwards, wishing he hadn't been stuck up front with his stupid bracer. There was a rustle in the underbrush, the sound of branches breaking, and a deep, angry growl. JC moved faster, and this time he backed into someone instead. "Easy," Carter said, voice quiet and intense, his hand on JC's shoulder.

The bushes shook, and a large animal leaped out. It looked mostly like a tiger, but bigger, dirty white with rust-red markings, and an arrow in its flank. It roared again, lashing its tail. Even though JC couldn't look at anything other than the tiger, he thought everyone had their weapon up and aimed at the same time, but then Teyla called out, "Wait! Do not shoot!"

People came running out of the woods after the tiger, people with bows and arrows and spears, wearing outfits that made Ronon Dex look like a fashion model and looking entirely too excited about everything. The very large tiger leaped forward. Ronon reached back and shoved JC out of the way, and JC staggered back into Carter, and they both lost their footing and went over the edge of the ridge, boots skidding on dry earth and dry grass. JC tried to slow down, but when he leaned back, he slipped completely and sat on his ass and just slid all the way down, introducing his tailbone to a couple of rocks on the way.

Down at the bottom, when everything had stopped going by really fast, JC rolled up onto his knees and looked back up the slope. He heard shouting, but it seemed to be fading away. When he looked to the side, he saw Carter, who had a scratch on one cheekbone and dirt all over his clothes. "You okay?"

Carter started to get up, and when he put weight on his right foot, he went back down again. JC looked up the slope nervously, checking for tigers, and then he went over to Carter and offered him a hand up. Carter put a bit of weight on his right leg again and grimaced, but it seemed to hold this time. He drew breath to say something, but the radio crackled and Sheppard said, "Carter, what's your status?"

JC looked up the slope again as Carter explained that they had fallen off the edge of the world. It looked even longer and steeper from down here. "We'll climb back up," Carter said.

"No," Sheppard said, and JC felt quite fond of him all of a sudden, "we don't need more people stuck in the middle of this. Circle back around and meet us at the jumper."

JC wiggled his fingers and toes. Everything felt okay. He looked along the valley, or maybe it was more of a canyon. It was pretty open down here, so they'd see a tiger coming from a long way away and have plenty of warning before they got eaten. He looked at Carter. "Can you walk?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Carter said. "C'mon." He didn't limp too badly once he got going, so JC decided he probably wasn't lying too much. The ground down here was less dry and more uneven, with clumps of thicker, greener grass between large rocks. They followed the foot of the slope, picking their way carefully. JC could tell from the strain in his calves that they were walking on a barely perceptible upslope, as the valley grew narrower around them. After a while, they saw less grass and more rock.

"How about I go first," JC suggested, watching Carter trying to pick their way across uneven ground and wincing every time he put his right foot down on something that wobbled. "I know it's not military and all, but it would suck if you broke your leg."

Carter snorted, but he stopped and waited for JC to pass him. The ground underfoot was turning from dirt with rocks in it to rock with a bit of dirt on it, and they were making their way between large boulders, some of which were taller than either of them. Far overhead, a bird circled, a small black speck in the blue sky.

"Do you smell that?" Carter said.

JC sniffed the air. "Yeah." A not-that-faint aroma of rotten eggs, and the air was getting warmer. JC had to turn sideways to get between the next two boulders, and he could hear that Carter found it even more difficult to wriggle through. On the other side of the narrow gap the valley opened up again, and JC found himself standing on a ledge by a natural hollow, a hot spring about the size of his bathroom back in Atlantis, and the flat rock under his feet was damp and slick. JC skidded, caught himself against the nearest boulder, and had just recovered his balance when Carter crowded up behind him and pushed him forward.

JC fell face-first into the hot spring.

He got his mouth full of water, and it tasted disgusting. It was warm, though, warm and comfortable, and he spat out the water and turned around and found that he could stand up, with the water coming up to his chest. Carter was standing by the boulders, staring down at him. "I can't believe you did that."

"You pushed me," JC said. "Help me get out."

He reached up, and Carter bent down and took his hand, and JC got a good grip and yanked.

Carter made a very loud splash, going in.

JC giggled. Carter came up, spluttering. JC giggled some more, and Carter glared at him, and JC tried to sober up and only succeeded in wheezing for breath, and Carter took him by the shoulders and dragged him up close and glared at him some more and kissed him.

A while later, JC realized that he had stopped giggling, and also that there was no way that he could get his hand down the back of Carter's pants when they were so wet, they felt like they were glued to his skin. He drew a deep, uneven breath.

Carter was flushed, and it probably wasn't just the heat of the water. "Um," he said, and cleared his throat. "I'm, um. Sorry."

JC caught his breath. "Oh, no way," he said, wrapped his hand around the back of Carter's neck, and pulled him in close again.

A much longer while later, Carter licked JC's ear and said, "We have to get out of here and back to the jumper. C'mon."

Wearing clothes in the water wasn't comfortable to start with, and even less so when you rubbed up against someone and managed to chafe a lot of places that really shouldn't be chafed. JC nodded reluctant agreement and pulled his water-wrinkled fingers out of the waistband of Carter's BDUs. "Yeah, I think we can climb up on this side," he said and turned.

On the other side of the hot spring was open ground again, smooth rock with just a little loose scree, and farther in the distance JC could see grass again, patches of green, and beyond that, bushes and low stunted trees.

Between the vegetation and the hot spring, on the smooth rock, stood a large, dirty white tiger with rusty-red stripes.

The only reason JC didn't scream was that when he sucked in a deep breath, he choked on the rotten-egg smell. He whimpered instead. Carter reached for his gun, and water ran out of it. The tiger padded closer. It was almost pretty, the big white animal against the grey rock and the blue sky. JC considered hyperventilating.

Carter reached for JC instead, as if to push him back. His hand closed hard around JC's left wrist, and the ball of his thumb pressed the fourth button on the metal bracer.

The deep vibration rattled JC's bones and echoed all the way down to his toes. He could feel it in the water and in the rock under his feet, even through the boots. His teeth rattled in his head.

The tiger froze and made a thin yowling sound; then it turned and ran.

When the tiger had been gone for several seconds, JC let his breath out. "Wow," he said.

Carter let go of JC's wrist to rub the side of his head. "My ears are ringing. What the hell was that?"

JC lifted his arm out of the water and looked at the bracer. "Tiger repellent?" He considered the four buttons and the light. "You know, I think... okay, man, let's get out of the water."

They scrambled out of the hot spring, dripping and smelly. JC's face was damp with steam and sweat, and he shivered in the cool air. Carter put a hand on his back and walked him out into the sunshine, which felt better. "Can't be all that far to the jumper from here," Carter said, and they left the rocky area behind and were back in among the grass and bushes, which did look a lot like the terrain where they'd left the jumper. They turned their heads at the same time to check the position of the sun, then grinned at each other.

JC pressed the third button on his bracer. Nothing happened. He kept walking, and after a while, the light flickered faintly. He went on, and the light went out again. JC stopped and backed up slowly until he saw the light again. "Just, gimme a moment," he said to Carter, who had stopped to watch. Two steps to the right, and the light went out. Four steps to the left, and it shone brighter. JC kept going back and forth, like a game of hot-hot-cold. Finally he lifted his eyes from the bracer and looked at the ground by his feet, and there it was.

JC picked three flowers, and waited a little. When he didn't see any tigers come running to try to stop him, he picked a few more.

"Well, I'm glad we at least got something out of the trip," Carter said, with a small bouquet of his own in his hand. JC smacked his ass, which looked really good in tight wet pants, and Carter laughed. "Yeah, okay."

When they finally made it back to the jumper, everyone else was there waiting for them. Ronon had two tiger-claw scratches on one shoulder, which didn't seem to bother him much, and Parrish had a sprained wrist from tripping over a spear, but otherwise everyone was all right. As soon as Dorough, Parrish, Richardson, and Ferngren saw the flowers, they crowded around JC and Carter and just about yanked the flowers out of their hands, only stopping to look at the way the light on JC's bracer shone, and Parrish wanted to go off and find some more, and Sheppard had to deploy his marines like sheepdogs to round everyone up and herd them into the jumper.

"It is a ritual," Teyla said. "A successful hunt ensures a successful year to come. The Palaida had no way of knowing that we would stumble into the path of their prey."

"They could have apologized," Ronon said.

Teyla slanted a sideways glance at him. "Apologized to us because we interrupted a sacred hunt?"

Ronon poked at his shoulder. "Nothing sacred about being hunted," he muttered. Dorough pulled Ronon's fingers away from the scratches and swiped his shoulder with something antiseptic, then turned around to wrap Parrish's wrist, talking persuasively about shared lab hours. Behind Dorough's back, Ronon poked at his shoulder again.

JC couldn't even smell the sulfur any more, but he noticed the others edged discreetly away from him, except for McKay; McKay told Carter and JC outright that they stank, and directed them to sit back at the far end of the jumper. "I don't think Planet Hot Tub is going to make the list of vacation hotspots in the Pegasus galaxy," he said to Sheppard. "Obviously the Ancients thought flower-picking was an extreme sport."

Richardson frowned, turning a flower over between his fingers. "Maybe the tigers weren't around back then."

"Er, actually," JC said.

He didn't demonstrate the effect of the fourth button right then, because it seemed like a really bad idea to have it interfere with the jumper controls, but even slightly censored and without special effects, a description of their adventures made a pretty good story. The stargate whooshed to life, and they went back to Atlantis. Everyone sorted themselves out and went off, or were sent off, in different directions.

JC was ordered, by McKay, to shower before he even thought about doing anything else. He got a military escort back to his quarters.

They made it just inside the door, and then Carter pressed JC up against the wall and kissed him until he forgot how to breathe. They stumbled across the room and into the bathroom, and JC yanked his jacket and t-shirt off, and Carter's jacket and t-shirt, and then they had to spend ten minutes trying to get their wet bootlaces to come undone. JC started giggling again and licked at Carter's fingers, and the wet laces and bootleather and water tasted horrible, but the way Carter shuddered was totally worth it.

The water pressure in JC's shower was always perfect, and the water temperature never varied unless he wanted it to. JC rubbed soap across Carter's chest and pinched his nipples, and Carter growled and hauled JC in close and kissed him again, right under the streaming water, and JC decided he could breathe later, and slid down on his knees.

It turned out that Carter squeaked like a taeba when he came. JC thought it was kind of cute. Then Carter pulled him to his feet and wrapped a large, confident hand around him, and JC didn't think at all for a while.

When they finally got out of the shower, JC wrapped a towel around his hips and wandered out on the balcony. The sun was shining over Atlantis, too, a lot more warmly than over M4D-963, and the sea glittered. JC looked back over his shoulder to see Carter standing naked in the middle of the room, and decided that was an even better view. "You know," Carter said, "I could use some clothes."

JC got dressed, and then he kissed Carter some more because, well, he was there and he was naked and he looked really good. Then he went down to Carter's quarters and got some dry, clean clothes, and went back up again, creeping along and dodging around corners, because he was far too buzzed and tired and happy to come up with anything even vaguely plausible to explain why he was bringing clean clothes to the naked marine in his room.

Carter had lost his radio in the hot spring, and JC's wasn't working right any more, so once they were both dressed and presentable once more, they went to find someone who could fill them in.

McKay eyed them suspiciously, and sniffed in their direction when they walked into the lab, but then he told them that Ronon was getting a tetanus shot as soon as someone worked up the nerve to do it, and Parrish and Dorough and Richardson and Ferngren had set up camp in an empty lab down the hall and would probably be busy for weeks with the fish and the flowers. Sheppard was sitting on McKay's desk, playing with the Ancient GameBoy, and at the other end of the lab, Miko and Sunderland were doing something that looked suspiciously like playing minesweeper.

"And if the research seems promising, Dr Weir would like us to go back to M4D-963 for more flowers, and possibly set up some kind of trade agreement with the Palaida." McKay crossed his arms. "Not that they seem to have much of anything to trade with."

"So," JC said thoughtfully. He held out his left arm. "About getting this thing off me? Like, before the next trip back there?"

McKay flung his hands up. "I've already told you, I don't know how it works. Why do you keep asking me?"

JC grinned. "Because you'll figure it out, man. Burden of being the resident genius."

McKay started to smile, and then he jerked his chin up and gave JC a hard look. "Oh, no," he said. "Flattery, or rather, stating the plain and self-evident truth, will not get you out of doing the work yourself."

"I could blow myself up or something," JC said. "Or blow the lab up. Maybe I'll make my arm fall off. Maybe I'll be stuck wearing this for the rest of my life."

McKay rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, you're not entirely incompetent. I think you'll manage."

JC blinked. "Can I get that in writing?"

"No. Just," McKay's eyes flickered to Carter for a moment and back again, "go back to whatever it is you're doing that I really don't need to know about, and stop nagging."

"What?" Sheppard put the toy down and slouched up to them. "Carter, get out of here. Who's doing something?"

"Nothing. No one. Just look at that," and McKay pointed at Sunderland and Miko and started walking in the direction of his outstretched finger, taking Sheppard along with him. "No one's doing anything, and why I thought I could get away from the general incompetence of humanity just by going to another galaxy..."

JC looked at the back of McKay's head for a few moments, and then he turned to Carter, and they looked at each other and went out of the lab. "Listen," JC said.

Carter stretched and then smiled at JC, warm and happy. "Do you have to go work or something? Cause I think I just got the afternoon off."

"No. Yeah. I don't know. But listen," JC said, seriously. He looked up the hallway and down the hallway, and then he put a hand on Carter's arm. "Is this, I mean. Is this okay?"

Carter looked up the hallway and down the hallway, and then he looked at JC in a way that made all his nice clean clothes feel way too tight. "I think it's more than just okay," he said.

"Oh." JC fought the urge to rub up against Carter like a cat. "Good. It's just, you know. I don't want to get you in any kind of trouble or anything."

Carter looked at him for a long moment, and then he started giggling, sweet and high-pitched like a child, until he was leaning against the wall and gasping for breath.

Eventually he straightened up, still grinning. "Yeah, I've noticed that about you," he said. He slung an arm around JC's shoulders, all casual-like, and steered him down the hallway. "It's gonna be okay. Hey, you wanna go down and sit by the water for a while? Maybe try not falling in?"

JC relaxed and pressed a little closer. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I do."

* * *


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