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No Good Deed

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John sat on top of the fence separating the backyard from the horse pasture. His small legs dangled back and forth. He squinted in concentration and his lips moved silently, trying to wrap themselves around the long, complicated words of his book. The autumn was beginning to paint the trees red and yellow, but the days were still warm. A light breeze ruffled John's already messy hair, blowing the too-long bangs in front of his eyes. He stuck out his lower lip and puffed. The soft bangs of hair rose for an instant and fell down again, obscuring John's vision. He swatted them away with brusque fingers.

"John, come play!" his little brother demanded, throwing a red ball at John.

John moved aside, and the ball skipped past him harmlessly, bounced off the ground and rolled harmlessly on the grass on the other side of the fence. "Leave me alone, Dave," John said, trying to find his place in the book again.

As usual, Dave ignored him. Instead of minding his own business, he ran to John, kicking up the falling leaves as he raced through the backyard. He rammed into the fence with a loud laugh and plucked the book from John's fingers.

"What are you reading?" he asked.

"A book," John snapped. He jumped down and tried to get his book back, but Dave was fast for such a little boy and kept it out of John's reach, laughing.

"What is it about? What's it called?"

"Anna Karenina," John said. He grabbed Dave's arm with more strength than was necessary and forced him to give back the book. John was probably hurting him, but he didn't care. Maybe if he hurt him enough, Dave would stop being so damn happy all the time. It wasn't worth it, though. His brother would just run to their dad, and then John would be lectured on being mature and responsible again.

"You're reading a book about a girl? Eek!" Dave scrunched his face in disgust. For a moment John remembered what it felt like to want to smile. "Why are you reading a girls' book?" Dave asked, and John's desire to laugh disappeared, leaving a hollow ache in its place.

"It was Mom's," he said. "She was reading it at the hospital. She didn't finish it. I—" he trailed off. Once, when he was six, John's new pony, Black Prince, had kicked him in the stomach. He didn't remember it hurting this much.

John didn't even like the stupid book, but it had been his mom's and she'd liked it. He wanted to finish it for her. He'd started it seven months ago and was still on page one hundred fifty-eight. He didn't mind going slowly. Contrary to his mother, time was on his side.

"Oh," Dave breathed in, as if in pain. His laughter died away. He sat on the ground next to John's feet and gazed at him seriously, looking older than his five years. "May I see it?" There was a reverence in his voice that hadn't been there before.

John handed over Anna Karenina with reluctance and sat down next to him, hovering protectively over the book. Dave's small hands were careful as they touched the bindings. His fingers trailed slowly over the golden letters on the cover. He glanced at John after a while and gave him back the book with a sigh. "Can you read it?"

"Of course," John huffed, offended. "I'm seven and three quarters! I've known how to read for ages."

"So, will you read it to me?" Dave leaned against John's shoulder, regarding him with expectation. "Please," he added in a small voice.

John sighed in defeat. He was powerless against that voice. It was a good thing that Dave didn't use it all that often.

"Fine." He opened the book and leafed through the pages until he found where the first chapter started. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay. Chapter one," he read aloud. The words were heavy on his tongue. He felt self-conscious hearing himself read. John pushed the awkwardness down and went on slowly, taking time to pronounce each word as best as he could. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Dave listened to John without interrupting, not even when John read words aloud whose meaning Dave couldn't possibly know because John himself didn't understand them. He grew thirsty, stumbling over the words more often than not, but his brother didn't complain. They had made it all the way to page seven when their nanny called them for dinner. John hadn't realized that so much time had passed.

"Did you like it?" he asked Dave, and his heart beat fast with dread.

"It was Mom's," Dave shrugged. It was the only answer that mattered.

John squeezed his eyes and fought against the sudden urge to cry. "Yes," he said. "If you want, I could read some more to you before we go to bed." The offer took even him by surprise. He had spent the last months hiding in the stable and avoiding everyone, especially Dave and his father.

"Really! You'll read it to me? Yeah! Thank you!" Dave beamed at him with a smile so bright that for a moment John was tempted to take the offer back. Something dark and twisted flared with rage inside John whenever he saw people laughing as if nothing was wrong with the world. Everything was wrong in John's world. What hurt the most was that Dave and his dad should feel the same way, but somehow they didn't.

He avoided Dave's gaze, taking extra time to carefully place the bookmark on page seven. "Sure, it was okay, reading it to you." It wasn't even a lie. "Come on, let's go change for dinner. Dad is going to be mad if we're late."

"You're always late anyway," Dave complained, but stood up and followed John back to the house nonetheless.

"Yeah, and Dad is always mad." John's lips twitched a little.

Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe things could become—not quite right—but right enough.

John made it to dinner on time. His father was already there, waiting. Ms Dolores, the nanny, brought Dave in a couple of minutes later. Dave smiled at John and demanded to sit next to him.

"It's all right," John said when his father started to tell Dave that he was old enough now to sit alone on his side of the table. "I don't mind," he added for good measure.

John suspected that Patrick Sheppard was just trying to avoid another scene like last week's. John had screamed at Dave for something he couldn't quite remember and had run away, leaving his dinner untouched.

Patrick's head turned, and he scrutinized John's face. John suppressed the desire to shift in his chair, knowing it would probably start another lecture. After what seemed like forever his father turned to Ms Dolores and dismissed her with a nod. One of the new maids—John didn't remember her name—hurried to change Dave's place at the table.

"How was your day, boys?" Patrick asked.

John ignored him, as usual, letting his brother answer for both of them.

"John went to the stables again, and Mr Petersen yelled at him because he rode Black Prince bareback. Again," Dave said, relishing being the center of attention. He prattled on about everything he and John had done that day. He didn't mention John reading to him, though. It surprised John a little; usually Dave would not shut up until he'd told his father everything he and John had done. Even at five he was already as good as John's father at filling in the silences and keeping people entertained with useless small talk.

Dave skipped over the hours spent reading in the backyard with a half sentence, changing the subject so seamlessly that it took John a while to notice that that part of their afternoon wouldn't be subjected to his father's scrutiny. John relaxed, not even realizing he'd been holding his breath. He glanced at Dave with curiosity. His brother smiled at him knowingly and carried on with his tale about a little family of hedgehogs he had found in the forest earlier that day.

Patrick listened to the stories and laughed in all the right places, trying every now and then without success to get John to talk, too. John made sure to take a bite of his food whenever he was asked a direct question. Things like table manners mattered to his dad. He'd never force John to talk while his mouth was full.

John didn't manage to escape his father all together, though. As soon as dinner was over Patrick called John to his office. He followed his father, dragging his feet and glancing at the gardens outside with longing. Patrick turned around and placed a hand on his shoulder, pulling him forward and forestalling John's attempt to escape.

His father closed the office door as soon as John came in and guided him to the leather armchairs in front of the fireplace. He pushed John down gently, silently urging him to take a seat, before he sat down, too. They looked like two grown-ups about to have a business conversation.

The chair gave under John's weight, almost swallowing him. He dug his fingers into the soft padding of the armrests, fighting the desire to relax. He straightened his back and focused on his father warily, not sure what the lecture was going to be about this time. He didn't remember having broken any of his father's many rules, but there were times when just breathing too loud seemed to be enough to earn a reprimand.

John wasn't good with rules; his mother had known it. She always—John pushed the thought down. It would just give his father another excuse to remind him that Sheppards didn't cry. John knew that lecture by heart. It started with his father pointing out how much younger Dave was, and how much better he was coping. He'd ask John to be more like his brother, mentioning stupid words like responsibility and duty and being a proper Sheppard. Usually, it ended with John running away mid-lecture to hide in the stables, feeling small and alone, hating his father and the world, but especially Dave.

It was better to avoid crying all together.

"John, relax," his father said, "you're not in trouble. Ms Dolores told me that you played with your brother today."

John shrugged, not sure what the right answer would be.

Patrick sighed. "I'm not—I'm proud of you, son. You should spend more time with your brother. We're still a family, even if Emily—I'm glad you two are getting along again." He started to reach for John but stopped midway, as if thinking better of it. "Did you have fun together?"

John studied his father curiously. He didn't remember the last time his father had told him he'd done something right. He waited for something inside him to thrive at the words, but he felt as empty and wary as before. The silence stretched uncomfortably between them. "It wasn't so bad," John finally said.


"Don't call me that!" That had been his mother's name for him.

His father raised his hands in a placating gesture. "John. Yes, of course. I forgot. Let's not fight, all right. I'm not the enemy. I just—I want to help." He paused for a moment, waiting for John to say something. "I—Tomorrow, I'm going to have some friends over," he continued when it became obvious that John wasn't going to talk. "There's someone I want you and Dave to meet. Things will be all right."

"Fine. Okay. Can I leave?"

"May I," his father corrected him.

"May I leave now, please?" John repeated, trying his best to imitate the stilted politeness his father seemed to like best.

Patrick stood up and kissed John's forehead. John flinched back, taken by surprise. A hurt look crossed his father's face, but it smoothed over into indifference almost instantly. John wanted to apologize, but that was something that Sheppards weren't allowed to do either.

"You may go," his father said after a while.

John hesitated, wanting to ask his father for another kiss. He'd do better this time. Instead, he gave a formal nod and walked away.

John pretended to be asleep when his nanny came to check on him. After the sound of her heels faded in the distance, he took his mom's book and sneaked into Dave's room. His brother was already asleep, but John shook him awake.

Dave blinked, blurry-eyed, but smiled warmly when John showed him the book. He made room for John under the covers and snuggled closer to him as soon as John climbed into bed.

John ruffled his brother's hair and gave him a tentative smile. Dave's smile widened in response, lighting up the whole room. To John's surprise, Dave's obvious happiness didn't make him want to run. He opened the book and started to read aloud, hoping that Dave recognized the gesture for the apology it was.

John fell asleep on Dave's bed without noticing. When Ms Dolores woke them up the next morning she didn't chastise John, though. Instead she ruffled his and Dave's hair and gave them both a hug. His father, too, seemed to be in a good mood that morning, redoubling his effort to draw John into their conversation. He didn't even protest when the maid brought John chocolate ice cream, something his father didn't approve of for breakfast.

"John, why don't you take Dave with you today, when you go to the stables?" Patrick asked. "Mr Petersen is going to start Dave's riding lessons today. He asked me if you could help."

"Really?" John was surprised. Usually Mr Petersen tried to run John out of the stables.

"Sure," his father said. "You're really good with horses, just like—I'd feel better if you were there for Dave's first lesson."

"Yeah! I'm going to learn how to ride all by myself!" Dave jumped up and down on his chair, shouting with joy.

John held his breath, expecting his father to tell his brother to behave like a proper Sheppard, but Patrick just smiled indulgently at Dave's enthusiasm, winking at John as if they were sharing some big secret. John dropped his eyes, suddenly angry, but unable to say why.

His anger dissipated as soon as they were with the horses. Then it was just him and Black Prince, riding so fast that it felt like flying. Mr Petersen screamed after him, but John ignored him, urging Prince to gallop even faster.

He jumped over the fence as if it was nothing, leaving the stables behind. John laughed with delight, forgetting to be surprised by the fact that he still knew how, ignoring Mr Petersen's angry shouts as he ran after John threatening to tell on him.

When he rode back to the house hours later, Dave was waiting for him on the stables, his first lesson long over. Dave waved at John and John waved back, smiling sheepishly at him. Dave smiled back, too exited about his first lesson to be angry with John for not being there to witness it after all.

One of the grooms took Black Prince away. John sneaked out of the stables, successfully avoiding Mr Petersen's wrath. He was tired of hearing Mr Petersen's dreary predictions about how John was going to get himself killed jumping over a fence one day. John was never going to stop doing it; it was too much fun.

The house was in uproar when Dave and him returned late in the afternoon, everyone busy with the preparations for their father's party. John took Dave up to the playroom on the third floor, knowing from past experiences that it was best to stay clear of the catering staff. They had a tendency to trip over little boys in their hurry.

By the time his father came looking for them, John had beaten Dave and Ms Dolores at Memory enough times that he was starting to consider letting his brother win one round. It was hard, though. Dave needed two to three tries to match his cards. John had to almost sit on his hands to stop himself from picking the right matches as soon as they appeared.

"John, Dave, come here," their father said as soon as he entered. "There's someone I want you to meet. This is my friend Victoria."

A woman trailed in behind his dad, wearing a black cocktail dress that showed more skin than was probably necessary. John's mom would have never worn anything like it. Victoria was almost as tall as his dad. Her black, long hair and pale skin went well with the dress. John was used to meeting women like her in these sorts of parties. She probably had a silly, high-pitched laugh, too.

John knew her kind. Before the evening was over she'd try to smooth down John's rebellious hair, telling him that he looked just like his dad, which was a big lie. John looked like his mom; even his dad said so. He disliked her on principle.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am," he said with as much politeness as he could muster without choking on it. Dave's shy "hello" was much more sincere.

"Hi, John," Victoria said. "It's good to finally meet you. Your father talks a lot about you, and Dave, too, of course."

John glanced at his father out of the corner of his eye, not sure how to answer. His father smiled down at him. John guessed he wasn't doing too badly, after all. He offered Victoria his hand and she took it, giggling softly. The sound grated on John's nerves, but he tried not to let it show. He stepped back and pushed Dave forward, letting his brother distract everyone with his happy, idle chatter, taking the spotlight away from John.

As soon it was polite enough to make excuses, John told his father he needed to get ready for the party. Usually, Ms Dolores would have had to chase John down and force him to take his bath. Right then, though, he needed to get away. This was the most he'd talked to a stranger since his mom's funeral. He was about to lose the fight against his ingrained desire to make a run for it and hide.

"Of course," his father said. "Victoria, do you mind staying with Dave and Ms Dolores and helping Dave get ready? I'll accompany John."

John frowned. He'd wanted to be alone for a while, not have his father trailing him. He didn't know how to tell his father that without sounding offensive. He ignored Patrick's hand and ran ahead instead, enjoying the rush of air across his face as he glided down the handrail of the stairs as fast as he could. He was panting by the time he made it to his rooms.

His father came in a few moments later, at a more leisurely pace. "Do you need my help to select your clothes for tonight?" he asked.

John shrugged. "If you want to help." He wouldn't be allowed to wear the more comfortable clothes he'd prefer anyway. John sat down on the bed and waited for his father to come back from the closet. He wrinkled his nose, when he saw the small, black tux his father had picked. He wasn't really surprised by the choice, though.

His father laughed. "That, there," he said, placing a finger over John's nose. "It's the same look Emily used to give me whenever I dragged her to one of my work parties."

"Did she—did you let her get away with not going?" John asked, curiosity winning over the fear of being reprimanded for talking about his mother. His father had broken the rule first, anyway.

"No," Patrick chuckled. "I did make it up to her later, though."


His father smiled at him. "You're probably too young for that answer. There was this one horrible party I forced her to go to. She was very polite to everyone, extremely so. The next day I took her to England and told her she could choose whichever horse she wanted, and it'd be hers. That's how we ended up with Seth. That horse is a menace."

"If I'm polite to everyone tonight, will you let me ride him?" It was worth a try.

"Not unless you want me to die from a heart attack."

John's whole body tensed. He pinned his father with a fearful gaze. "No! You can't die! You can't! Promise me!" He couldn't bear it.

"God, Johnny, I didn't mean it like that." He pulled John into a hug. John's heart twisted inside him. He was so scared that he forgot he didn't like to be called Johnny anymore. He clung to his father's shirt. "Hush, it's all right. I apologize; that was a stupid thing to say. I'm not going to die. I promise."

It took a while for John to calm down. He stepped away from his father's arms, feeling small and ashamed. He tensed, waiting for his father to scold him for crying, but his father didn't.

"How did you like Victoria?" he asked instead.

John was thankful for the change of topic. "Okay, I suppose. Why?"

"She's a good friend. Normally, I—I don't want for you and Dave to miss anything in life, John, not if I can do something to help it. I've talked to her. She's willing to live here with us, help me take care of you and Dave, be there for you when you need her. She's a good choice."

"Like Ms Dolores?" John asked, trying to make sense of his father's words. "Is Ms Dolores leaving us? I don't want her to leave," John whined. His father could make her stay. He was good and getting people to obey him.

"No, of course not, Ms Dolores is staying here. Don't worry about that," his father assured him. John released a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Victoria—she'll be like a new mom for you and Dave."

"We already have a mom," John pointed out with a tight voice. "We don't need another."

"That's not what I meant. She's not trying to take over Emily's place, Johnny. You and Dave need a mother, though. I don't want for you to lack anything. After I marry Victoria, she'll be here for you, when you need her. It'll be like having two moms instead of just one," his father tried to explain. He was using his reasonable voice, the one he reserved for when John was being particularly stubborn.

"No!" John screamed. Sheppards didn't lose control like that, but he didn't care. "I don't want another mom. I don't want Victoria! I want my mom! You can't marry her! I'll hate you forever and ever!"

"That's enough, John!" Patrick's voice sharpened. "This is for the best. You might not think so now, but given time you and Dave will thank me for it. Victoria will be good for you. You'll be polite to her. If I see you throwing a tantrum or trying to turn Dave against her, you'll be forbidden to go to the stables. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir," John spat.

"Good," Patrick said. He shut his eyes for a moment and took a deep, calming breath. "Now, go get ready for the party. I'll be watching you John. I want you on your best behavior. None of your antics tonight."

John didn't bother to answer. He stomped into his bathroom and slammed the door, not waiting for his father to leave the room. He took off his clothes with jerky movements and threw them on the floor. The water in the shower was icy cold against his skin, but he didn't bother to adjust it. He stood still under the cold spray until Ms Dolores came to help him get ready. She turned off the tap, urging him to step out of the shower. She dried him with careful hands, not saying anything.

"She's not my mom," John said after a while.

"Oh, Johnny!" Ms Dolores pulled him into a hug. John was too numb and cold to fight against it. He wanted to burrow into her warmth and never let go. "It's going to be all right, you'll see," she said.

"No, it's not," John answered in a quiet voice and let himself be dressed.

John spent most of the party hiding in a corner, waiting for his curfew. Victoria was there, next to his father—stealing John's mother's place. John hid behind the big curtains of the dining room whenever they came near him. Once, Victoria kissed his father on the lips, and John had to bite his tongue to stop himself from shouting. They broke apart almost immediately, and Victoria laughed, looking flustered.

It was then that John saw it: His mom's favorite diamond and ruby necklace reflecting the light of the chandeliers on Victoria's neck.

It was family jewelry. His mom's face had shone with happiness when she'd told the story of how John's father had given it to her as an engagement present. It had been in the family for over a century. Every Sheppard wife had worn it. His mother had used to tease him about it, telling John that when he was old enough to marry, he'd have to ask his future wife to wear it, too. John had made a face at her, saying that he was never ever marrying anyone. His mother had used to laugh then, claiming that he'd change his mind in time.

John couldn't abide seeing the necklace around the impostor's neck. She had no right to it. The necklace belonged to his mother.

The fury that had been seething inside John for months without an outlet hardened into something cold and brittle. The rage and the pain inside him focused, giving him purpose again. The sudden certainty coursing through his veins made his head reel. Even the pain faded away for a while.

The rest of the evening passed without John's notice. He remembered coming out of his hiding place as soon as his father and Victoria had left. He had forced himself to mingle with the guests, giving them his best Johnny smile, a bastard mix between happy and devil-might-care. At some point he even managed to talk to Victoria, without screaming at her to leave them alone. He didn't even flinch when she stroked his hair. His father was proud. It was strange that he could see that, when he had spent the last months trying to figure out Patrick Sheppard's feelings and reactions without any success.

He bit down the urge to laugh at their faces. Grown-ups shouldn't have been that easy to fool.

He was good at it—that game of lying and pretending he had chosen for himself. He enjoyed it. The realization was staggering. It was as exhilarating as riding at full gallop through the forest without a saddle: reckless, dangerous, bound to get him grounded if he was caught, but so much fun.

John spent the next days doing his best to be the perfect son, or as close to perfect as he could get. He smiled at everyone. He played with his brother without prompting. He even started to participate in the evening meal conversations when his father or Victoria asked him questions.

He bided his time, playing nice. Becoming the person others wanted him to be was easy; it was means to an end. The few times when John allowed himself to remember that it was just a big game of make-believe, his heart beat faster with anticipation and something similar to fear. It couldn't be fear, though. People didn't like fear. Whatever it was, John loved it.

Victoria moved into the house, and John plastered a smile on his face and welcomed her. His plan still burned in the back of his mind. He didn't mind the wait. There were days, weeks even, in which he almost forgot he was waiting at all, so intent on playing the little, spoiled and happy child. There were two Johns living inside him: one who woke up every morning, ate, played, talked, and went to school; and another John, quiet and withdrawn, full of hate and pain, hiding, waiting. Sometimes even he forgot which John was the real one.

Months went by before the opportunity finally arose.

Victoria fluttered around her room, searching the perfect dress for a function Patrick was taking her to that day. John was with her; he almost always was.

"You should wear a dress that goes with the diamond necklace my father gave you. It looks really pretty on you," John said, unbidden anticipation making his heart beat madly in his chest. He lowered his head when Victoria turned to him, afraid that she might see the other John lurking inside

"You're right!" Victoria said with excitement. "It's the perfect occasion to wear it, and I know just the dress for it." She ran into her closet and came back a few minutes later, brandishing a deep crimson dress in her hand. "What do you think?" she asked him.

"It's pretty," John said. He was so nervous he almost stumbled over his next words. "Maybe you should try it on… with the necklace. I—It's difficult to say without seeing them together."

"Hmm, yes, of course. I'll be right back."

Victoria placed the dress carefully on the bed. The sound of the thin plastic garment bag was loud in John's ears. He swallowed down his nervousness and followed her into her studio. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as he hovered behind her. She stepped around the mahogany desk and moved aside a landscape painting hanging from the wall. John held his breath as the safe hidden behind the painting was revealed. He watched her fingers avidly as they rotated the combination dial back and forth. The safe opened with a click.

John committed the sequence of numbers to memory. It was easy. Numbers made sense in a way that people seldom did.

That night he couldn't sleep. His imagination ran wild, keeping him awake, the possible outcomes so vivid on his mind that at times he had to remind himself that he hadn't stolen the necklace yet; he was still safe. Not once did it occur to him to let Victoria keep the necklace. It was his mom's; John would make sure that no one else could ever wear it.

He didn't act immediately. He didn't know what stopped him. It was just that now that he knew how to claim back the jewelry, he could afford to wait. He had become adept at waiting.

John's birthday came and went, followed by Dave's. Keeping up his charade had become almost second nature by now. He read as many books as he could; it became an addiction, a place to hide when the world around him, and the lies, became too much. He still didn't like Tolstoy much, but he read his books nonetheless, one page every day. Time wasn't an issue. He loved books about thieves the most. He learned about fingerprints and alibis, grafters and con-artists. He dreamed himself Robin Hood, Arsène Lupin and Simon Templar.

When he finally made his move, stealing the necklace was so easy as to be almost boring. Every member of the staff was interrogated, even Dave had been questioned. Not John, though, he'd been ill the day of the robbery, sleeping in his bed under the influence of a doctor's prescription. No one suspected him. The police came and went. They didn't find anything.

John should have been elated. He felt hollow instead. Holding the necklace in his hand wasn't as satisfying as he'd hoped. It didn't bring his mother back; it didn't push Victoria away. It was just a bright piece of jewelry, cold and pretty, like everything else in John's world. He missed the feeling of anticipation and excitement which had been his faithful companion during the last months. He missed the other John, his quiet presence in the back of John's mind, constantly studying and plotting. He was alone once more.

The experience taught him something: The fun wasn't in stealing per se, but in the plotting and the execution. It was a lesson he would always remember. He hid the necklace under a loose floorboard in his closet and forgot about it. Two weeks later, when the pressure of being the perfect John became too much, he got into a fight at school and was called to the principal's office. He pretended to listen to the principal's lecture, but his attention was on the Mont Blanc pen lying on the desk. The principal loved that pen.

In the back of his mind the other John awoke again, filling the emptiness with his presence and pushing back the pain.

John looked up at the principal and apologized for causing so much trouble. It was such a heartfelt apology that the old man sighed, ruffled John's hair and let him go.

Becoming once more the perfect John didn't seem so hard any longer.


Everything hurt. Cameron tried to open his eyes and couldn't. He fought a wave of nausea, took a deep breath and did his best to ignore the lingering pain in his still twitching muscles. He hated being zatted.

"Don't try to move," a voice said. "The spasms will pass in a couple of minutes."

Cam cracked his eyes open and regretted it immediately. The glare from the lights felt like a blunt hammer against his skull. Being zatted twice in one day with barely enough time in between shots to regain consciousness took its toll on the body.

"I told you not to move!" The voice rose with annoyance. "Can you listen to simple instructions? Why do I waste my precious time telling stupid people what to do, if they aren't going to listen anyway?"

The shrill voice didn't do anything for Cam's pounding headache. "Shut up," Cameron said. It came out as an indistinct mumble.

"What? What? Did you say something? Are you concussed? Oh my God! You're probably brain-damaged! Wait, wait, I don't know what to do in case of a concussion. Don't move! Do you want to throw up? Don't you dare throw up on me!"

"Shut up," Cam tried again. This time the words were clearer.

"That's so typical! You're brain-damaged and concussed, and yet you're already asking me to shut up," the voice prattled on, its volume rising further. "Well, I'll have you know that I'm a very important scientist. You should feel privileged that I'm talking to you at all. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't even acknowledge anyone with an IQ lower than one hundred."

Cam tried opening his eyes again. A head hovered over him. Cam recognized the face of Doctor Rodney McKay, double PhD, from the pictures General O'Neill had showed SG-1 during the mission briefing. Maybe his rescue attempt wasn't going as badly as he thought.

"Doctor McKay, right?" It wasn't really a question. He considered getting up, but dropped the idea almost as soon. He was still too queasy. Showing the doctor any kind of weakness wouldn't be a smart move on his part. Obviously, Daniel hadn't been lying when he said that McKay's ego was bigger than a solar system.

McKay stared at him suspiciously. "How do you know who I am? I've never seen you in my life. Did they send you here to spy on me?"

"Wow, you really are paranoid." Cam sat up carefully. He waited for the room to stop spinning before continuing. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell, team leader of SG-1."

"I don't remember you. What happened to O'Neill?"

"I'm the new team leader of SG-1. O'Neill is now the general leading the SGC." Cam tried to keep his voice calm, but the anger seeped through. The guy rubbed him the wrong way.

"They didn't give SG-1 to Carter?" McKay sounded almost angry on her behalf.

"For a while. She's leading the science and military personnel at the Antarctic outpost, now," Cam explained.

"Oh, I bet she likes that," McKay said.

"She actually does." Cam was a tad resentful. He was happy for her, but really, it'd have been nice if she'd still been on SG-1 when they gave it to him.

"I supposed they couldn't let Teal'c lead the team. He's an alien after all."

Cameron swallowed an angry retort. "Teal'c is on Dakara, working for the Jaffa Nation Council."

McKay gaped at him. "Is there any member of the original SG-1 on your team?"

"Doctor Jackson."

"Oh, the linguist," he said in the same disgusted tone other people used to talk about cockroaches. "Great, that's just great!" McKay stood up and started to pace. "I'm captured by idiots who want to use my superior intelligence for their nefarious purposes. I risk my very valuable life feeding them false information and sabotaging their experiments, while pretending I'm collaborating. In yet another bout of brilliance I manage to hack their systems and pass on a message to the SGC, letting them know that I'm being forced to work for the enemy. And how do they repay me? They don't even bother to send the real SG-1 to save me. No, they send a second-rate copy of O'Neill who doesn't even a have a proper SG-1 team and who manages to get captured alongside me to boot! I hate my life!"

Cam gritted his teeth. He bit down the first answer that came to his mind, the second and then the third. He settled for reassurance instead. "Look, Doctor McKay, there's no need to panic. I'm here to rescue you."

"You are here to rescue me," McKay repeated slowly. His gaze traveled back and forth between Cam's face and the locked door. "Fine," he said after a while. "Could you please explain to me how being captured and dropped unconscious into my cell fits into your daring rescue plan?"

Blood rushed to Cam's face, tainting his cheeks pink. He was sure that these things never happened to O'Neill. "It's a very complex plan," he stalled.

"I bet," McKay murmured with a sneer. Cam had seen feral cats with better temper.

"It's not as bad as it seems," Cam said. "I'll get us out of here."

McKay rolled his eyes and slumped against the wall in defeat. "Oh God," he moaned, "you're one of those glass-is-half-full kind of guys, aren't you? I must've done something terrible in another life to deserve this. Could this day get any worse?"

Cam groaned. "Did you have to say that aloud?"

"Please kill me now." McKay exhaled slowly. "Optimistic and superstitious! Why couldn't they have sent the original O'Neill instead?"

Cam didn't rise to the bait. He stood up and stretched his legs, thankful that the pins and needles in his limbs had disappeared. He tested the door's strength. It was made of solid metal, and the hinges looked sturdy. A small rectangular opening in the door, located at eye level and protected by iron bars, was the only source of light and air in the cell.

The room outside resembled a warehouse turned into a computer lab. Two armed men guarded the main door, which was sixty feet away from their jail. Some of the monitors in the lab were on, but Cam couldn't read the displays from a distance.

"I've tried that already," McKay said as Cam studied the door opening mechanism. "It's a hybrid between Goa'uld and human technology. Access panel is on the outside. It's protected by a numeric code as well as voice and retina recognition. It can't be accessed from the inside. Believe me, I've tried."

"Nothing wrong with checking again," Cam said, although he suspected that McKay was right. The door would be impossible to break. That left overpowering the guards as the only available escape route. Their chances didn't look good.

"How long have you been held here?" Cameron asked. That was one of the main questions the SGC hadn't been able to answer. McKay had quit working for the Russian government almost three years ago. For seven months he worked as Chief Science Officer of one of Farrow-Marshall's subsidiaries. Back then the SGC hadn't known that the company was just an extension of Ba'al on Earth. If they had, they might have investigated McKay's sudden retirement further. By the time they discovered it, McKay had been dead for over a year, or so they had thought—a car accident. Receiving McKay's encrypted transmission asking for help had sent the SGC into an uproar.

General O'Neill had launched a search almost immediately, while Carter tried to judge how much damage someone with McKay's intelligence and insight into the program could have caused working for Ba'al.

"Almost two years," McKay answered, a tremor coursing through his body. He twisted his hands and looked away.

"I suppose leaving the SGC to make money didn't work out so well for you after all." Cam didn't bother to hide his scorn.

McKay turned to him with a growl, face red with rage. "How dare you! You know nothing! Nothing at all about me! Don't you fucking dare judge me! Ba'al kidnapped me! He put a snake in my head and forced me to torpedo my career with the Russian government and the SGC!

"When he realized that the snake could control my body, but still had no access to my genius, he graciously allowed me to become myself again. He faked my death and made sure I knew it. Do you know how helpless I felt, knowing that no one, no one at all was searching for me? Knowing that even if they thought I was alive, they wouldn't bother to come for me, because to them I was a traitor?" McKay balled his hands into fists and scowled. He turned away and stared at the wall, as if seeing something there that only he was privy to.

"They put me in this tiny cell which doesn't have so much as a bathroom. I've been living here for twenty months, two weeks, and five days." He laughed bitterly. "I have to beg to use the facilities. The guards find it hilarious to deny me. When my research doesn't advance fast enough to suit their tastes, they starve me." The slant of his mouth sharpened. "When you've been through what I've been, only then do you get to fucking judge me."

"I'm sorry," Cam said, averting his face, unable to suppress his discomfort. It had been the SGC which had betrayed McKay. They had all assumed that the scientist had been cooperating of his own free will at the beginning, and then had gotten in over his head. According to Carter, McKay was an arrogant genius without backbone. One of the reasons why O'Neill had given the rescue mission such high priority was because they were afraid of what McKay could do while working for Ba'al. No one, not even Carter had stopped to consider that his cooperation might not have been willing.

Being confronted with the truth left a bitter aftertaste in Cam's mouth. The SGC had misjudged McKay. Beneath the prickly, arrogant exterior there was more to the scientist than met the eye.

"We didn't know," Cameron said. It was a weak excuse, but he didn't have any better.

"Of course you didn't. Not everyone can be expected to be as brilliant as me. Although I would've thought that at least Carter would've figured it out sooner." He shrugged.

"How far along are they in the project you've been researching?" Cameron asked.

A small, smug smile crooked McKay's lips. "Much further behind than they were before they kidnapped me, that's for sure. After what they did to me they didn't deserve any better."

Cameron smiled. "Well done, Doctor."

McKay snapped his head around and gawked at him with surprise. His cheeks reddened slightly. He shrugged and waved his hands in a dismissive gesture, at a loss for words. Then he gave Cam a tight smile. "Yes, yes, of course," he hurried to say as if suddenly remembering that it wasn't in his nature to let compliments pass without acknowledgment.

"Look," Cam tried to put the conversation back on track, giving McKay time to gather himself. "I need to get a feeling for the schedule around here. At what time do they pick you up to work in the labs? How many guards come?"

"They pick me up early morning every day. Two guards come into the cell with zats; two remain outside. They shadow me the whole day, even during the few toilet breaks they allow me," he said with a tired laugh. "I don't even remember what the word 'privacy' means. At least they aren't intelligent enough to really comprehend what I'm working in. Not many people are. Ba'al visited once." McKay hugged himself, rubbing his hands over his upper arms without being aware of it. "It wasn't pleasant." He shook his head, focusing back on the present. "Anyway, I really can't tell you more than that. I don't pay attention to such details. It's not as if I was going to try anything by myself. I'm not good at running and fighting. That's what the military trains grunts like you for."

"I'm not a grunt," Cam pointed out. "If you want to be technical, I'm a flyboy."

"Oh, please! Do you really expect me to waste brain cells remembering the proper nicknames for grunts?" McKay sneered.

"You're right, of course. Someone with a PhD in Astrology shouldn't worry over such trifles." Cam gave the scientist his most guileless look.

"Astrology!" McKay sputtered. "I'm a physicist! I have a PhD in Physics and in Mechanical Engineering, not astrology! How stupid can you be?"

"Sorry, Doc, I probably can't afford to waste brain cells remembering the proper title of geeks." Cam smiled at him.

McKay's eyes narrowed. He nodded, as if confirming something to himself. "Okay then, flyboy it is."

"Tell you what. Call me Mitchell, and in exchange I'll do my best to remember that you wouldn't know what a Tarot card is, if it danced naked in front of you. Deal?" Cam offered McKay his hand.

After a small hesitation, McKay took it. "So, Mitchell, do you already have a brilliant plan to get us out of here?"

A careful study of the room didn't turn up anything that could be used as a weapon. The cell was as Spartan as it could get. A thin mattress without bed frame lay in a corner. There were no chairs or a table, not even a basin with water. Only the walls gave the cell a personal touch. Equations covered every available surface as high as McKay could reach. Even parts of the door had been written on with black ink.

McKay saw him studying the equations. "They didn't give me anything to write on. It was hard enough earning the right to keep the marker." He twisted his hands. "There was nothing to do."

"I understand," Cam said. He wanted to add something reassuring, but in that moment all the lights in the complex went out, plunging them into absolute darkness. Cam couldn't even see his own hands as he stumbled towards the door with his arms stretched in front of him, wanting to test if the lack of power had rendered the locking mechanism useless.

The guards cursed in surprise as they fumbled with their radios in the darkness, trying to find out what was going on. Their nervousness increased when no one answered their frantic calls.

The warehouse's main door creaked, raising goose bumps along Cam's spine. Two shots followed at short intervals, too quiet for the average silencer issued by SGC. The flare of zat fires pierced the darkness.

Cam's heart raced with adrenaline. "Get down," he hissed to McKay as two more shots followed in quick succession.

Whoever was behind this attack didn't belong to the SGC. It didn't meet SGC's usual MO. That worried him. If Cam had learned something in his one year as leader of SG-1, it was that in this galaxy the enemy of your enemy was seldom your friend.

If he concentrated, he could hear the sound of bodies being dragged coming from the main entrance. "Hush," Cam whispered, trying to quiet down McKay's panicky murmurs of "Oh, God! Oh, God! We're going to die." To his credit, McKay obeyed, even if his anxious panting was still too loud in the quiet room.

Cam felt his way around the door and pushed. It didn't budge. He positioned himself next to the control panel access and waited.

The lights came back on a few minutes later. Cam stood up slowly, wanting to assess the situation outside without giving away their position. McKay chose that moment to scream for help, rendering Cam's attempts at stealth useless.

"We're in here! Somebody help us!" McKay bellowed.

Can sighed, frustrated, banging his head against the wall once. He looked out, searching for the intruders. There was no longer any point in being subtle now that the element of surprise was gone.

The main door was closed. The two men who had been guarding it were nowhere to be seen. One darkly clad figure stood near the computers. Cameron's gaze swept the room as far as the angles of the window allowed, but he didn't see anyone else.

The intruder wore a dark grey, long-sleeved turtleneck and dark, comfortable-looking trousers. Dark gloves covered his hands and a ski-mask hid his face and hair. Not a single bit of skin was exposed.

The person turned briefly towards them when McKay, who at some point had stood up, started pounding against the metal door, screaming at the top of his lungs: "We're in here! Get us out!"

The man studied them for a moment, his head slightly bent, as if unsure about what to do. After a moment he checked the watch on his left wrist, turned around and ignored them. He pulled a small laptop from his backpack and connected it to one of the computers. It booted fast and silently, and he started to type almost immediately.

"He's hacking the system," McKay murmured, more to himself than to Cameron. "Look, whoever you are, get us out of here, and I'll help you," he said aloud. "My name is Doctor Rodney McKay. I'm a physicist. I've been working in this lab for over a year. I can tell you anything you need to know. I have the passwords! Just helps us get out of here. Please."

The man didn't react. At random intervals, he stood up and walked to one of the other computers, sometimes checking their monitors, sometimes just typing at their keyboards for a while before going back to his laptop.

Half an hour passed. McKay sat on the floor, silent. His arms rested over his knees and his forehead lay on top of them. He had tried screaming, pleading and cajoling over and over again, alternating between one or another randomly. Eventually, he'd given up, slumping against the far wall of their cell and sliding down to the floor.

Cam snapped to attention when he saw the intruder moving towards them on silent feet. He signaled McKay to come closer and be on his ward.

"So, Doctor McKay, how much are you willing to pay to get out of here?" the man asked, coming to a halt three feet away from the cell. His eyes were almost as black as his pupils; they looked alien. His voice was accented by a clipped, short staccato rhythm, which was difficult to understand at first.

"Are we in Germany?" McKay asked, helping Cam placed the odd-sounding accent.

"Where we are is irrelevant," the guy said. "The only important thing is if you want to get out of here or not."

"Of course I do, what kind of stupid question is that?" McKay snorted. "I want to put this hellhole behind me once and for all. I'm actually looking forward to the years of therapy, if only because it'll mean that this nightmare will be over. Look, if you get us out of here, I'll give you the passwords to the computers and tell you where all the information you need is stored," McKay offered.

"What's in it for me? I've already accessed and copied the information I came to retrieve."

"What?" McKay's eyes widened. "You're bluffing! There's no way you managed to hack this system in less than an hour. Half the security protocols are alien. Unless you're an alien, too…" he trailed off.

"McKay!" Cam cut him off, before he could talk more. "Don't mind him; he watches too much science fiction."

"Well, some of the protocols were so advanced that they could've been from another planet," the man said. "However, computers like me. I've yet to meet one that could resist my natural charm. Is there someone who'd be willing to pay good money for you? I don't think you can afford my usual price, but I'm already being paid for this job, so I'll be willing to accept five hundred grand for each of you and call it a day."

"Five hundred grand! Are you out of your mind?" Cameron said, because come on. "The SGC doesn't pay kidnappers. You're not getting any money from us."

"Ignore him," McKay snapped. "I'm paying the five hundred grand for myself. You can keep him as a tip." He glared at Cameron. "I'm sure you'll find some use for an Air Force pilot. They tend to come in handy when one is least expecting it."

"Air Force? Canadian or US?" Those unnatural blacked eyes pierced Cameron with intensity.

Cam's skin prickled with unease. He raised his chin and squared his shoulders, the muscles in his arms and back rippling with tension involuntarily. "Does it matter?"

"Nah. Flyboys are cool." He studied the door's opening panel and whistled. "Well, they sure have gone the extra mile to keep you in here. You must be worth something. I've broken into bank vaults with less security than this."

"Great, we're being rescued by a thief. Why do these things always happen to me?" McKay complained.

Cameron didn't say anything. He didn't believe that a common thief could disable Ba'al's security so effortlessly. There were things their burglar wasn't sharing. It was the only explanation.

"'Thief' sounds so negative." Amusement filled the man's words. "I prefer the term 'broker'. I help my clients to acquire items they desire for a small commission, all without bothersome and time-consuming negotiations. A win-win situation for all parties involved."

"I doubt that the party you're acquiring the property from feels the same," Cam said with a fake smile.

"You'd be surprised," the thief muttered, his low words almost impossible to understand. "Let's agree to disagree and move on to business," he said, raising his voice. He turned to McKay. "You've got yourself a deal. You may call me Raven for the duration of our acquaintance. Here's how this is going to go." He pulled a pair of handcuffs from his backpack and threw them through the bars at McKay's feet. "You're going to cuff our zoomie's hands behind his back. I don't want him getting any funny ideas while we're escaping." He turned to Cam. "Nothing personal, I don't trust authority. It's an occupational hazard."

"No," Cam argued. "That's not going to work."

"Look, Mitchell, can we discuss this when we're far away from here?" McKay whined. He picked up the cuffs and moved towards Cam.

Cam stepped aside, shoved McKay against the wall and took the cuffs away from him in one swift move.

"Buddy, that's not a nice way to treat your cell mate," Raven said mockingly.

"Well, what would you expect from a grunt?" McKay spat, glaring at Cam. "What's your problem? Trust me; we're better off with a thief than we are with Ba'al and his guards."

"Hmm, you should listen to McKay, Mitchell. He's obviously the brains in this relationship," Raven said. "And speaking of guards, the drugs will wear off in half an hour. I intend to be far away from here by then. Decide fast."

"Can you please just take me with you and leave him here?" McKay pleaded. Cam's heart twisted with guilt instead of anger. The scientist had been trapped in this hole for almost two years. This was his one chance at escaping. Yes, Cam could understand the desperation.

Cam hated the helplessness of the situation. He regarded McKay's pleading expression and sighed in defeat. "Fine, fine." He handed the cuffs back to McKay and allowed himself to be restrained.

"Thank God!" McKay said. He fingers trembled around Cam's wrists. "Okay, now get us out of here."

"My pleasure," Raven said. He pulled a small tool case out of his backpack and started to dismantle the door access panel, baring the cables hidden underneath. "Hmm, one of those again, nice," he murmured to himself.

"What're you doing? Just shoot the panel already; you can't disable it. That's Goa—it's a prototype that's not in the market yet. It'll take you forever to figure it out," McKay said.

"Ye of little faith," Raven replied, not looking up from his work. "Besides, shooting it isn't an option. It'd trigger an alarm outside the complex. They'll suspect something's wrong and send reinforcements. Thanks, but no thanks. We just need to make sure that the system believes it's working."

The angle of the door window didn't allow Cam to see exactly what the thief was doing. Somehow he'd managed to connect his laptop to the door panel. He squatted down in front of the door, his fingers flying over the keyboard.

"I don't care how good a thief you are, or how many banks you've broken into," McKay's voice rose in irritation. "You won't be able to open this door without appropriate knowledge. Since I'm on this side of the door and thus unable to assist you, I doubt you'll be able to hack it. So please just shoot the door already."

"Wow, someone does think highly of himself," Raven chuckled. He typed one last word with flourish and looked up at them. The door's locks clicked. Raven stood and pulled the door wide open. He stepped aside with a gracious bow, gesturing for McKay to step out.

McKay's jaw hung opened in surprise. "What? How? That's not even possible! I thought you were just a thief. Who do you work for?"

It was the same question Cameron had been asking himself since they met Raven.

"You, of course. I thought that was clear." There was still laughter in Raven's voice. He gathered his computer and the rest of his tools. "I'm the best in my market segment. If I needed help to open locks from people who can't even break themselves out of jail, my professional career would have ended at the tender age of seven."

"You started stealing when you were seven?" Cam couldn't hide his surprise. At that age he was running with his brother around his parents' backyard, trying to figure out how to climb onto the highest tree without his mother catching them.

Raven's head snapped up. He studied Cam for a moment, before he continued picking up his tools. With jerky movement he shoved the last of his gadgets into the backpack, closed it and stood up.

"We don't have time to lose. Get moving," he snapped, his tone suddenly sharp. He went into the cell, grabbed Cam's upper arm and pulled him in the direction of the main door. He turned to McKay and came to a sudden stop, his eyes riveted on the cell's walls. His hold on Cam's arm slacked. He let go and stepped closer to the equations, tracing over them with careful fingers, enthralled.

Cam threw McKay a fleeting glance to check his reaction. The physicist was studying Raven with the same concentration with which Raven was studying the walls. It confirmed Cam's suspicion that the writing on the walls meant more to the thief than they did to him. He knew how scientists could get—the thief had to be one for him to understand McKay's work—when confronted with things that piqued their curiosity. He was about to remind them all that they were on a tight schedule when Raven suddenly burst out laughing.

"This is brilliant!" He turned back to McKay. "You miscalculated a pre-factor here, though." He pointed to an equation on the second wall.

"I doubt it," McKay said, not bothering to even check the math.

"I'm quite sure, actually. That mistake breaks with the pattern of mistakes you've purposely built into the equations. I don't think it was intended."

"You can see the mistakes?" McKay gaped at Raven. The physicist squinted briefly at the place the thief indicated and did a double take, his eyes quickly following the equations on the wall.

"Sure. You've numbered your equations and put in mistakes following a Fibonacci pattern: a math mistake for every odd numbered equation in the pattern and a physics mistake for every even one. I'm not too sure about the physics mistakes, but the math ones are rather obvious. This one here breaks the pattern," Raven said. "The pre-factor should have been 2.278 and not 2.728. It carries through all other equations."

"Oh my God! I can't believe this. Why are you stealing things when you could make just as much money changing the world of mathematics?" McKay was appalled. "You're wasted as a thief."

"But stealing things is much more fun than writing numbers on walls," Raven mocked.

"I hate to break this up, but time is a-wasting," Cam pointed out.

"He's right," Raven said. He checked his watch again. "We have about fifteen minutes to get out safely. We're going to be cutting it rather short." He pulled a small gadget out his backpack and pointed it at the walls.

It took Cam a moment to realize it was a camera, which Raven used to photograph the equations. It took McKay a while, too, to understand what was going on. "Hey! You can't take pictures of that. It's my work. You're not stealing my equations, you, you, thief!"

Raven guffawed. "Don't worry, McKay. I'll give you a copy of these. I don't think the price I could get on the market for—wormhole theory, right?—is high enough for it to be worth my time. I just thought that you'd want to keep them."

"Oh, well, yes, of course. Thank you," McKay said, flustered.

"I'm done." Raven put away the camera and pulled out a gun. "Let's get moving."

Cam came froze, angry at himself for not having seen the gun before. More than that, the fact that he was surprised enraged him. At some point, somehow, a part of him had started to trust the thief without Cam even realizing it.

"Chill out, buddy," Raven told him. "It's just a tranquilizer gun." He held it in front of Cam's face for inspection.

Cameron forced the muscles in his back to relax. With his hands bound behind him, he was helpless. The fact that Raven used tranquilizers instead of bullets only gave him a small measure of security. If SG-1's typical luck proved true, the burglar could still turn out to be a nut job.

Between him and Ba'al there was not contest at all, though.

"You can't shoot me with a tranquilizer!" McKay screamed, backing down instead of moving forward. "I'm allergic to citrus and penicillin and pretty much everything, really. I could go into an anaphylactic shock and die. I'm not joking. You name it, I'm probably allergic to it."

The thief sighed. "Note to self: Stealing human beings is more trouble than it's worth. Look, your price just went up another hundred grand. The gun wasn't even meant for you—unless you try something stupid. The guards are going to be waking up any time now, and I'd rather be prepared for that. Now, move. If you do try anything," he said to McKay, "I'll try my best to Vulcan nerve pinch you or something, instead of just shooting you."

McKay snorted. Even Cam bit down the desire to laugh out loud.

"Great. I'm rescued from an alien jail cell by a Trekkie. My life couldn't be more bizarre." McKay rubbed his temples, but he started to move.

"I'm not the one who thinks that aliens are real," the thief said, still shoving Cam in front of him.

At some future point in time, Cam promised himself, he would have a serious conversation with McKay about the meaning of the word 'classified'. In his two-year captivity, McKay had forgotten that not all information was meant for public consumption. For now Cam would count himself lucky if they made it back to the SGC alive. If the trail of unconscious bodies he saw on their way out was anything to judge by, leaving Raven behind wouldn't be an easy task, six hundred grand or not.

John made sure to keep Mitchell in front of him at all times. The colonel was the wild card in the game, and John didn't trust him. He still didn't know what had possessed him to help the two prisoners escape. It hadn't been the money. He didn't need to get out of bed for less than two million: the perks of being the best at what he did. His clients paid for quality of service, and John knew how to deliver it.

Stealing humans—he refused to call it rescue—was not his usual gig. It was too damn risky. He should probably drop them outside the complex and let them fend for themselves, except that they were in the middle of nowhere in the Amazon jungle. They would never make it out alive. For all that John liked to call himself a ruthless bastard, he couldn't do that to them. Besides, he'd taken McKay up on his offer, and John always finished his jobs. It was a matter of professional pride.

Getting out of the building was easier than John had expected. Most of the guards were still unconscious. Ridding himself of the few who were starting to wake up was no challenge at all, as they were still sluggish with the after-effects of the narcotic. Under normal circumstances the drug should have been enough to keep the guards out for at least six hours. It was fast and effective, even if it tended to leave the targets weak and in pain for weeks afterwards. It was still better than a bullet to the head in John's modest opinion.

Usually, John wouldn't have been expecting any trouble, but some of guards in the complex had shown a resistance to the drug—a first since John had started using that particular blend. Breaking into the facility had been one of the closest calls of John's career. Three of the guards had woken up after just half an hour and managed to take him by surprise. John still couldn't quite believe his plan had backfired like that.

Only fast reflexes and good luck had allowed him to take them down again with a second shot. John had been afraid that he had killed them without meaning to. The drug was powerful enough that too much of it could have paralyzed their lungs. When he checked for a pulse, though, he found that not only were they still alive, but that their pulse rates were higher than they should've been after the drug took effect. It explained how they had been able to metabolize the chemical so fast. It still didn't explain why. It just wasn't normal.

After that he'd been more careful, taking the time to tie the guards down and check their pulses. He had found two more guards with higher than average pulse rates and increased their dose while they were till unconscious.

The extra precautions paid off. The three of them made it out of the complex without further troubles.

"Where the hell are we?" McKay squinted, trying to see in the darkness. He looked up at the sky, splashed with stars so bright and clear that it seemed surreal. The night was moonless, one of the reasons why John had chosen that evening for his attack. "I'd forgotten how beautiful the sky is," McKay added in quiet murmur.

"Yeah," Mitchell said, raising his head, also transfixed.

John glanced up, unable to suppress the sudden desire to see what had enthralled Mitchell and McKay so. He shook his head, focusing back. He pulled his night-vision goggles from his backpack and put then on. The darkness around him reshaped itself into green and black. "We're in the Amazon. We still need to walk quite a bit before we reach our goal. Let's move."

"This is a jungle!" McKay squealed.

John laughed. "For someone who claims to be so brilliant you tend to point out the obvious a lot. This way." He pushed Mitchell in front of him, confident that McKay would follow.

The first line of trees was barely thirty feet away from the building complex. The jungle thickened almost immediately, swallowing the feeble starlight. No trails led in or out of the complex. The only access point was a helicopter landing pad on top of the roof, not that John had seen any helicopters flying in or out in over two weeks of surveillance. He still didn't know when Mitchell had been brought in, and it bothered him. Usually his surveillance was flawless. His life—more important yet, his freedom—depended on it.

The whole job was turning out to be more difficult than he'd anticipated. Industry espionage was actually rather boring. It was the main reason why John rarely took contracts for it. The pay had been very good, though, especially for such a simple gig. John was starting to suspect that the CEO of Hammel Technologies knew more than he let on when he hired John to steal Farrow-Marshall's secret R&D results before they were patented.

John would be glad when this operation was over. Between the surveillance mistakes, the guards' unexpected drug resistance and John's stupid decision to rescue—steal—the prisoners, this was turning out to be the most poorly executed theft of his professional career. Maybe Raven needed a vacation.

"Could you please slow down," McKay panted.

They'd been walking for twenty minutes and had barely advanced at all. McKay kept tripping in the darkness. Worse yet, he was unable to keep quiet. "I can barely see anything! It's hot! My feet and my knees hurt. I've fallen on my face more times than I care to count. I need a rest!"

John bit back his retort. His long-sleeve pullover stuck to his back and chest. His face felt sweaty and hot under the ski mask. He wasn't dressed for the heat of the jungle, even if his disguise was the only safe way to make sure that he didn't leave any DNA or prints behind. Modern technology made his work easier in many ways: people trusted computers much more than they should. But after years of struggling with progress the police were starting to move with the times, too.

"We don't have time to rest," John repeated for what felt like the hundredth time. "I've planted some fake tracks on the other side of the camp along with time-triggered distractions that ought to keep the guards busy chasing after phantoms for a while, but we need to move. You two are slowing me down enough as it is. If you don't want to walk, you can always stop here and let them capture you. I'm sure your tiny cell will offer you ample opportunity to rest," John snapped without really meaning to. He regretted it almost immediately. He wasn't used to working with others, and it showed.

"I'm moving as fast as I can," McKay whined. "As you just pointed out, some of us have spent the best past of two years stuck in tiny cells instead of frolicking around in the wild. Excuse me if I'm not in good physical shape. At least my IQ is high enough to know if 15,485,867 is prime or not."

"Prime," John said, just to be spiteful.

"How did you—23,997."

John knew a dare when he heard one.

"Oh come on, you're not even trying. The digits add to a multiple of three; you might as well have given me an even number. Not prime," John said, being careful not to exaggerate his German accent too much, keeping it natural instead of forced.

"I was going easy on you. It doesn't count," McKay protested and hurried after John. "959,183?"


"Lucky guess." McKay's lips thinned in displeasure.

In front of them Mitchell chuckled. "Give it up, Doc. Raven knows his numbers."

"What would you know? He has a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. He's guessing."

"We could make it more interesting. Up the ante, if you will," John said, realizing that if he kept McKay's mind occupied, the scientist would maybe walk more and complain less. John just needed to give him something else to complain about. "For every wrong answer, I drop one grand off your rescue price."

"And for every good one?" Mitchell hurried to ask, before McKay could agree.

John smiled, glad that they couldn't see it. Mitchell wasn't just brawn, it seemed. "I get another grand; it's only fair."

"Forget it," McKay said, eying him with suspicion. "You'd rip me off within minutes."

John chuckled. "Didn't you just say I was guessing?"

They had gained more terrain in the last five minutes than in the first twenty. His plan was working.

"You are guessing. You just happen to be good at it. I've met people like you. I bet you're even good-looking under that stupid mask." McKay frowned in annoyance. "Some people have all the luck."

John laughed out loud; he couldn't help it. "We could turn the game around then. I give you a number and if you guess right, I drop a grand. If you guess wrong I add another. That way you'd be depending on your own intelligence. Unless you don't think you are good enough?" Baiting McKay was as easy as stealing candy from a child. John felt almost guilty.

"You're on," McKay said.

By the time they made it to the clearing where John had stashed his helicopter, ninety minutes later the count was five hundred twenty-three grand in John's favor. There had a been a moment when John had skirted perilously close to four hundred, but he had managed to save the score by multiplying very large primes mentally and confronting McKay with them. Even then, the scientist was right more often than not. To John's surprise, he enjoyed the silly game almost as much as he did McKay's sharp intelligence and Mitchell's not-so-quiet amusement. He didn't even mind losing money because of it.

John was relieved to see that the booby traps he'd placed on the helicopter were still intact. At least something was going according to plan on the insane job. He helped Mitchell climb into the cabin and buckled him into a seat.

"Look, this isn't really necessary," Mitchell said, wriggling in his seat, trying uselessly to find a comfortable position with his hands tied behind his back. "I give you my word that I won't try anything until we're out of here and safe. I'll even give you a fifteen minute warning beforehand."

"A warning," John repeated, tilting his head in curiosity.

"Sure, something like, 'Thanks for the trip. I appreciate it, but fifteen minutes from now I'll do my best to leave your awesome hospitality. Have a nice life.' Or something like that anyway." Mitchell shrugged.

John's lips twitched under the mask. Mitchell looked so earnest and wholesome. He might even be stupid enough to actually keep his word. John was inclined to believe him. Worse yet, he wanted to trust him. The unexpected insight gave him pause. He couldn't remember the last time he'd wanted to trust anyone.

He sighed. "I'm so going to regret this, but what the hell. This operation's already screwed; I might as well make it final." He released the buckles from Mitchell's seat belt, pulled the cuff keys from his backpack and released Mitchell's hands. He jumped back, bracing himself for an attack.

Mitchell remained sitting. "Thank you," he said, rubbing his wrists to help bring the circulation back into his hands. "You won't regret it. Do you need help flying this?"

"Nah, it can't be that hard. I'm sure I'll figure it out," John deadpanned.

"What!" McKay froze, one foot at the edge of the cabin and the other still on the floor. "I'm paying you to rescue me, not to drop me into the middle of the jungle in a burning mass of steel because you're a stupid moron who thinks real helicopters are like computer games! Let Mitchell fly; he gets paid for it."

"Relax, McKay," Mitchell said, re-fastening his seatbelt with expert hands. "He's just yanking your chain."

"Guilty as charged," John said, offering McKay a hand and helping him into the cabin.

McKay spluttered in annoyance, his face turning red. John helped the scientist find a seat and double-checked that he had buckled his seatbelt correctly, ignoring McKay's offensive name-calling. Only then did John sit behind the controls and put on his headphones. It took McKay a while to figure out that unless he put his headphones on, too, no one could hear his complaints. John used the break to check the controls, position the throttle and start the engine.

He stared at McKay carefully. "Have you ever ridden in a helicopter before?" he asked through the mike, while he waited for the rotors to reach the right RPM.

"I was a civilian contractor for the military for years. What do you think?" Even through the headphones McKay's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"I've never been a civilian contractor for the government. I've no idea what it entails. Have you or haven't you been in a helicopter before? I need to know if you're going to throw up all over us. I didn't bring any paper bags since I wasn't expecting passengers."

"I won't." McKay's face hardened with determination.

It was all the confirmation John needed. He pulled slowly on the collective and pressed down the left pedal, lifting them smoothly into the air. He kept the helicopter close to the treetops, thankful for the night vision goggles, which allowed him to see despite having turned off the helicopter's running lights. The low altitude should be enough to keep them off Farrow-Marshall's radar, even if they managed to clean the virus he'd slipped into their computers.

John's good luck seemed to be improving; they made it to Marco González's small airport before dawn without being followed.

"You haven't behaved like an idiot yet, Mitchell, so I'm giving you fair warning. This isn't the place for you to try to make a run for it. The Columbian mafia has more trouble with authority than even I do. Try to run here, and they'll put you down like a dog with rabies. I'm going to have enough trouble convincing Marco not to kill you as it is. He doesn't like surprises, and you two weren't part of the plan."

"The mafia?" Rodney's high-pitched scream made John's ears hurt.

"McKay, not so loud," Mitchell complained. At least John wasn't alone in his misery.

"He belongs to the mafia! How can you be so calm?" McKay didn't bother to lower his voice. If anything, it rose in volume.

John needed to clear the situation before they landed. If Marco sensed any trouble, he wouldn't hesitate in shooting McKay and Mitchell. He wouldn't shoot John, but that didn't necessarily mean his end would be kinder. "I'm my own man, McKay. Marco just happens to owe me some favors. You can say what you want about the mafia, but they usually repay their debts: the good as well as the bad."

"What could he possibly owe you?"

"What can I say? He's a very satisfied customer. I gave him some information a couple of years ago that went above and beyond my contract with him. He owes me."

"Fair warning then, Raven," Mitchell said. His voice was tight and low; his mouth curled into a frown. "Fifteen minutes from now I'll do my best to escape. I don't cooperate with people with ties to the mafia."

John snorted. "Get off your high horse, flyboy. Two of Marco's drinking buddies work for the CIA. If your government doesn't have qualms about cooperating with the mafia, why should you?"

"You have no proof of that," Mitchell said. "And even if you did, I still don't care." He leaned forward, trying to loom over John, but the seatbelts activated, locking him in place. "I'm not doing business with someone who works for the mafia."

"I don't work for them," John repeated slowly, as if talking to a small child. "Look, I didn't lie to you about my profession. If you didn't like it, you should've stayed at Farrow-Marshall. Do you expect me to do a moral screening of my customers before I accept a contract? That would go over so well. 'I apologize for the inconvenience. Sadly your certificate of good conduct didn't pan out, thus I won't be stealing the highly illegal information you intended to pay me for,'" John sing-songed derisively. "What world do you live in?"

Mitchell remained silent, as did McKay.

John started the descent, shifting his attention to the instruments. He bit down his seething anger. Mitchell had no right to judge him; he knew nothing about John. Not that John cared about the stupid flyboy's opinion. He landed the helicopter, his mind still reeling with fury.

"If you make a run for it, you're just going to get us all killed," he said as they waited for the rotor blades to slow down. "Marco's lending me a small plane to fly back to the States. Can you at least keep it under control for another ten hours? By then, we should be far away from here, and we can all convince ourselves that this was just a nightmare. If you don't cooperate, I'll have to tie you again. That's bound to bring questions I'd rather avoid."

"What are you going to tell them?" McKay asked.

"The truth: You were being held against your will. You offered me enough money as to make it worth my while to rescue you. I took you along. He'll probably try to get a cut of the deal, but that's just Marco being Marco. I'd be more suspicious if he didn't." John sighed and turned to Mitchell. "Listen, you're wearing civilian clothes; they don't even need to know you're military. I know your type. As soon as you're free, you'll be calling Interpol, ratting me out. Can we postpone the chasing and betrayal until then? The mafia's hospitality doesn't have anything to envy over Farrow-Marshall's, except for the part where they have no use for physicists."

Mitchell watched McKay with a guarded expression, and John knew he'd give in. Mitchell wasn't going to risk McKay's life like that. It was written all over his face.

"All right, but I want something in exchange," Mitchell said.


"Your face. When Interpol comes asking, I want something concrete to give them," Mitchell said, probably thinking he'd balk.

John pretended to think about it. If he gave in too easily, Mitchell would suspect something was off. With what he hoped looked like reluctance, he took off the night goggles and the ski mask. It wasn't a big deal; it was just a face. John made a point of wearing a different one for each job he took. It was safer that way.

He breathed out, forcing the muscles in his neck and shoulders to relax. There was no danger here. Mitchell could meet John Sheppard on the street and wouldn't be able to recognize him. John's current hair was black with strands of white mixed in it; even his eyebrows were dyed and his eye color was off. His cheekbones seemed rounder; a beard and a mustache disguised the shape of his chin. His hair was long enough to cover his ears, which were John's one distinct feature.

A big scar cut diagonally from his right eyebrow to his jaw. The best way to stop people from remembering him, John had learned, was to give them something else to remember instead. The only thing McKay would recall about Raven would be the scar. Mitchell might prove trickier. John wasn't too worried, though. He looked about fifteen years older than he truly was. He'd just have to stay off this disguise for a couple of years, until whatever waves Mitchell managed to create died down.

Once the mask was off he smiled widely for Mitchell, giving him a good look at his fake, yellowish teeth. They were the expensive, high quality sort that passed for real even under close scrutiny. They had the added advantage of helping John mask his real accent. He didn't believe in saving money with his disguises: good craftsmanship had a price, and he was willing to pay it.

"Not as pretty as you expected," John told McKay, "but it's the one I've got. My line of work doesn't come without risks. So, Mitchell, are you going to play nice for the time being?"

"For the time being," Mitchell said, studying him with intensity, as if he wanted to engrave John's face into his memory.

Good luck with that, John thought and didn't bother to hide his smirk.

"Show time, children." He opened the cockpit door and jumped down, waving at Marco and his men, who stood a few meters away, waiting for the wind blast of the rotors to die down.

"Marco," he greeted the man in Spanish. "¿Cómo estás? Disculpa la sorpresa, pero me he encontrado con unos amigos por el camino y no quise decirles que no cuando me pidieron peaje. Sabes que me gusta ayudar."1

"Cuervo, tú siempre tan servicial," Marco laughed. "¿Y cuánto te están pagando tus amigos por el pasaje?" 2

"Una miseria, nada que valga la pena mencionar,"3 John said, relieved that Marco, as predicted, was focusing on the money rather than his passengers.

When the opportunity presented itself, John turned to Mitchell and McKay and explained to them in hushed tones what was going on. "Marco and I are going to talk business. His men are going to keep an eye on you. He doesn't want you nosing around, so please see that you refrain. People here are extremely trigger-happy. In an hour or so they should have our plane ready. I'll be back before then."

"You can't leave us alone with the mafia," McKay hissed, grabbing John's arm and not letting go.

"Get a fucking grip, McKay," John snarled, prying McKay's fingers away. "See that he doesn't do anything stupid," he said to Mitchell, and trotted after Marco.

Four of Marco's men approached Mitchell and Rodney and signaled for them to follow. John did his best to ignore the proceedings, hoping that Mitchell would be smart enough not to try anything.

Despite John's misgivings, they managed to board the plane without any altercations. McKay reeked of sweat and fear; his hands were clammy, and he looked as if he was about to faint. Mitchell was angrier than before, but none the worse for wear. This time around John cuffed the two of them to their seats, aware that Mitchell could knock him unconscious or kill him and still fly away. He didn't seem as inclined to play meek, as he had on the helicopter.

The crates of cocaine filling the cargo space of the Cessna weighed on John's mind; it was the price for Marco's services. He did what he had to; having a conscience was something his profession didn't allow. John didn't understand why Mitchell and McKay's disapproving glares felt like a knife to his gut, painful and unforgiving.

He checked his watch and started the plane. His favorite part of this operation was about to begin: flying undercover. It took as much skill as stealing from high-security Swiss vaults, and it was even more fun. John kept the plane as low as he could manage, hiding from the radar in the land clutter. The challenge wasn't in leaving Columbia unnoticed, but in making it into the States the same way. The timing had to be perfect.

Marco's source at the Bogotá airport sent him a message letting him know the moment an old cargo Boeing without a Traffic Collision Avoidance System left for the States. John flew his Cessna closer to the Boeing, being careful to remain within the pilot's blind spots. He guided his plane with practiced ease until it was just below the Boeing's belly. Adrenaline rushed through him. It was like dancing with death. Not every pilot could avoid the vortex and the prop-wash and still remain undetected. The most difficult part lay ahead, still. The cargo plane protected him from the radar, but the precision required to shadow the plane's flight for three and half hours without colliding was a test of John's nerves, and he loved every minute of it.

Behind him McKay kept making panicky noises, predicting their deaths in creative and colorful detail. John egged him on despite his better judgment, enjoying McKay's paranoiac antics. He expected that Mitchell would order them to shut up, but the colonel remained silent during the whole flight, watching John with a frown on his face.

As soon as the Columbian cargo plane entered the US and reached John's desired altitude, he sideslipped the Cessna and flew away. He landed fifteen minutes later at a private airport in Florida that belonged to Marco's contacts in the US and masqueraded as a flying school. He blindfolded Mitchell and McKay before allowing them to leave the plane. He didn't want to make an enemy out of Marco if he could help it. He had a strong suspicion that Mitchell would try his best to destroy Marco's operation once he realized he couldn't get his hands on John. Hell, he'd probably try to do it anyway. People with morals were troublesome like that.

He guided Mitchell and McKay into the back seat of a white Ford with tinted windows that Marco's men had arranged for him and sped out of the airport, glad that his business with Marco was over. Now he only had to deliver the stolen information to Hammel Technologies and collect the second half of his two million.

He checked on his two guests through the rear view mirror and sighed. He needed to get rid of them first.

He drove for hours, making wrong turns on purpose every now and then, until he was sure that no one was trailing them and that Mitchell wouldn't be able to identify how far away the airport was from their final destination. Five hours passed before John dared stop the car. He helped Mitchell and McKay out and took off their blindfolds.

They were in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest town.

"Our ways part here," John announced. "Doctor McKay, here is my account number." He placed one of his many business cards into McKay's pocket. "I expect you to transfer the five hundred twenty-three thousand dollars within the next two weeks. If you don't, I'll make it my business to transfer the money myself, and then I'll have to charge you another twenty per cent administrative fees." He smiled at McKay broadly, showing his yellowish teeth.

"I'll transfer the money," McKay promised, nodding at him. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again."

John laughed. "Same here, Doctor. Once the money is in, I'll send you the files with the pictures I've taken of your work. Maybe I'll even correct some of the most glaring mistakes."

"I made all those mistakes on purpose," McKay sputtered.

"Keep telling yourself that." John chuckled. He pulled out his knife and threw it away as far as he could. "There you go," he said to Mitchell. "Use it to cut through your bindings. The next town is three hours away from here, walking at a normal pace. Once there, I'm sure you can contact whoever you need to come pick you up. Have a nice life." He mock-saluted him.

Mitchell's glare intensified. "This doesn't end here."

"I beg to differ," John said. "Tell Agent Brown not to waste too much time following me. I'm going on vacation for a year or so. Do tell her I said 'hi'." He got back into his car, shifted into gear and sped away.

It was time for John Sheppard to come back from his villa in Hawaii. Raven needed a vacation.

Cam had just barely managed to fall sleep after yet another should-have-been-easy-but-the-locals-still-tried-to-kill-us mission, when the doorbell rang. He ignored the noise at first, hoping that whoever it was would just go away, but the bell kept ringing uninterrupted for what seemed like forever. With a curse, Cam flung himself out of bed, still in his underwear, and went to see who needed to talk to him so desperately.

The clock on the wall marked a quarter to eleven in the morning, a decent time for people to visit under normal circumstances, but Cam had just spent four days running for his life, climbing mountains, and hiding in caves in a desperate attempt to free his team before they were executed. The only positive thing that had come out of the mission was that Doctor Kavanagh had quit SG-1 as soon as they made it through the gate, saving Cam hours of paperwork. He was becoming good at requesting new scientific personnel, but it was still a pain to fill out all the forms needed to ask for change in team members.

Kavanagh was the fourteenth scientist he'd tried in eleven months. It was slowly becoming a running joke in the SGC. Soon, the SG-1 Scientist office pool would trump the Unscheduled Off-World-Activation pool in popularity. Kavanagh had been a last resort. Cam would have preferred asking McKay, even though the physicist hadn't been that long in the mountain, but both Daniel and O'Neill had vetoed him.

Cameron was almost willing to sell his first-born in exchange for a half-way competent scientist who didn't panic off-world at the slightest provocation or quit as soon as the first mission went wrong, which sadly happened more often than not. He'd actually tried to bribe Sam, if she agreed to come back to the team. She had just laughed at his plight and told him to save his offer for off-world negotiations. Apparently there were planets on which first-borns were in high demand.

It had been a mock-offer anyway. As long as the Pentagon wanted Sam on the Antarctic project, she'd have no choice but to remain there. After two years being held against his will and so much time spent inside a prison cell, McKay had categorically refused to go to Antarctica—or any place, for that matter—where he couldn't go outside and see the sky without freezing to death. O'Neill had gone to bat for him with the President, making McKay head of science at the SGC and sending Doctor Lee to Antarctica in his place. No one had protested. McKay was an ass, but everyone agreed that he'd been through enough at the hands of Ba'al. The SGC owed him.

The doorbell rang again, startling Cam out of his thoughts. He'd worry about the potential fourth member of his team later. "Coming," he yelled.

He looked through the peephole and groaned when he recognized Agent Brown in her tight, black suit, holding her briefcase. He let his head slump against the door and breathed out, trying to find the energy to deal with Interpol.

"What a surprise," he said, opening the door and inviting her in. He plastered a smile on his face, blaming his father for failing to teach him how to be rude to women. It just wasn't in him. "Please come in. How may I help you?"

"You're a difficult man to get a hold of, Colonel Mitchell." She entered, inspecting his place with open curiosity.

"I work for the Air Force, Agent," he said, indicating that she should follow him into the kitchen. He needed coffee to deal with this conversation. "I don't get to decide where I'm going to be deployed, or for how long. I apologize for the inconvenience."

"You're a pilot, if I remember correctly. Does the Air Force have flying missions departing from NORAD?" she asked, leaning back against one of the counters in the kitchen.

"That's classified, I'm afraid." Cam gave her his most innocent smile, knowing they weren't fooling each other. The first statement he and McKay had given her had been more like a cross-examination than a witness account. She was ruthless and efficient in ways that left Cam feeling almost bad for Raven. With her on his trail, he doubted that the thief would stay free for much longer. She was a scarily competent at her job.

She smiled at him, cold and professional. "As classified as whatever business you and Doctor McKay had in Columbia?"

"Afraid so."

"We've contacted Farrow-Marshall, the company you said Raven was originally stealing information from. Interestingly enough, they haven't noticed any security breaches in their facilities. They also denied having any kind of research complex in Latin America." Agent Brown studied his reaction with apparent nonchalance.

"The information came from Raven. He might have been misleading us on purpose. You did mention that Interpol has been searching for him without success for over two decades. If he threw around useful information like that, he'd have been captured ages ago." Cam shrugged. "It's probably safe to assume that he was lying through his teeth."

"Maybe," she said. "Interestingly enough, the CEO of Farrow-Marshall himself took the time to talk to me. He reassured me that his company had in no way been attacked. He was very helpful and very curious about our sources. Subtle about it, too. I had the impression that he took more information from our conversation than I did. Not something I like." She eyed Cam with calculation. "Do you know Mr. Balthazar? His company has dealings with the US military."

The coffee maker chimed. Cam turned away and poured coffee for the two of them, grateful for the small break.

"Do you have an idea how many private companies have business with the US military? I hardly know all of them. I suppose that the higher-ups in Washington would know more about it than me. I just fly planes and go where they send me. Sorry, but I can't help you there. Sugar and milk?" he asked, facing her again.

"Nothing please. Black is fine."

Cam wasn't surprised. "Here you go." He handed her the mug and sipped at his own coffee. "You still haven't told me why you're here?"

"I just wanted to go over some details in your statement," she said.

Cam managed to suppress the urge to sigh. Barely. "We've already been over my statements a couple of times. I've told you all I remember and then some. You probably know the underwear color I wore that day."

She gave a cold smile. "I would've remembered such an important detail. You didn't tell me. As you see, there's always more information waiting to be found."

Cam sighed in defeat, knowing that there was no point in resisting. The agent wouldn't leave until she was satisfied with whatever answer she came for. He might as well give in gracefully while he still had the choice. "Fine, what exactly do you want to know?"

"I've brought some sketch pictures from other cases which have been attributed to Raven." She handed him a folder. "Can you identify him in any of them?"

"We already gave our description. What's the point of—" his voice trailed off as his eyes roved over the pictures. None of them were alike. "These two pictures here are of women," he pointed out, looking up in confusion. "Does he have an accomplice?"

"He's a master of disguises," she said. "We've only managed to attribute most of the cases to him because his MO is so distinct: He creates a new persona for every job, uses it to infiltrate his target. As soon as he's gathered whatever information he needs to breach security, he steals his objective and disappears without leaving a trace. He's been everything from a museum curator to a housekeeper to a highly-paid business man." She pointed at the picture Cam was holding in his hand: an old lady, between fifty and sixty, gray hair, a bit on the thick side, dark brown eyes and big round-framed glasses that covered most of her face, the kind that Cam's grandmother used to wear. "He uses whatever it takes to achieve his goal, from outright physical attacks to social engineering. And he's very successful at it, to our detriment."

"None of these pictures are even similar," Cam said, flabbergasted. "Have you run a computer analysis to try and find common traits?"

"It's been no use so far. He alters the shape of his cheekbones, nose and forehead, even his ears. At first the agents assigned to these cases thought the thefts were carried out by an organized criminal group. It took us a while to realize that it was probably the same person using different disguises."

"Maybe his parents were thieves, too. If he started stealing at seven, he must—"

"At seven?" Brown interrupted him. "How do you know that?" She put her coffee cup down and pinned Cameron with a steely glare.

"He mentioned it in passing," Cam said slowly. "I told you about it before, didn't I?" he asked without hope, suspecting he'd just obliterated any chances he might have had of getting rid of her quickly.

"No, you didn't mention that, Colonel Mitchell," she said in too-sweet a voice. She pulled out a recording device, placed it on the table and activated it. "Let's start from the beginning. Tell me where you and Doctor McKay were when you first saw the suspect?"

Cam gulped down the remains of his coffee, pulled a chair out from under the counter and sat down. It was going to be a very long day.

Four hours passed before the agent decided that no more information could be squeezed out of him. By then he was constantly yawning and she had to repeat her questions at least twice before he could answer them. Drinking four mugs of coffee in as many hours didn't seem to help against his deep-seated exhaustion.

He accompanied her to the door, too tired to even fake politeness, and crashed on the couch as soon as she left. He slept for eight straight hours before his doorbell rang again.

It took him three tries to manage the necessary coordination to get off the coach and go to the door. He remembered with forlorn fondness the time when two hours of sleep were enough to get him running for another five days. He felt older than his age.

Cam breathed out in relief when he saw Vala and Daniel on the other side of the door. He opened it and braced himself for Vala's enthusiastic greeting.

"We were starting to worry you'd been kidnapped again," she said, hugging him more tightly than was necessary. "Where were you? We've been ringing the bell for hours."

Daniel rolled his eyes. "We've only been here for two minutes, Vala."

"I was asleep," Cam said.

"Asleep? Asleep!" Vala glared at him accusingly. "You promised us beers and music and dancing, a Tau'ri celebration for finally getting rid of Kavanagh. You're not changing plans on us now! I'm sick of the mountain and I want a night out. You promised," she whined.

"I'm not breaking my promise. Give me ten minutes and I'll be ready. I didn't realize it was this late. Agent Brown was here again, questioning me about Raven," he explained.

Vala's interest piqued. "Again? It's been over two months since you met him. Did they find him? I hope they didn't. He seems like a very nice person. You Tau'ri are all so proper and law-abiding and boring. It's good to know that there are exceptions out there. I felt like such an alien before."

"You're still an alien now," Daniel pointed out.

"Yeah, but I'm not alone in my alien-ness," she said, giving him a wide, saucy smile.

Cam shook his head, not even bothering to try to understand Vala's reasoning. "I'll be back soon," he said, heading upstairs.

"Take your time," she called after him. "The night is still young and we're going to be out until dawn. Doctor Lam said that's a tradition in Tau'ri outings."

"God, please help me," Cam groaned. Faced with Vala's barely contained excitement, he almost hoped for a sudden foothold situation. It'd probably be the greater kindness.

In hindsight, it had been naive of him to even think something like that.

Their mobiles phone started ringing on cue a bit after three o'clock in the morning. It was the no-nonsense, this-is-no-joke, report-immediately-to-SGC ringtone accompanied by SOS-patterned vibrations. Sam herself had programmed the side-routine in the SGC's lock-down protocol that automatically sent the SOS message to all essential personnel who were off-base the moment the lock-down alarm activated.

They ran to Daniel's car. Daniel handed Cam the keys without prompting. He sat in the back seat and hung on tightly. Cam drove like he flew, precise and controlled but breathtakingly fast. Vala, who had turned out to be as much of a speed junkie as Cam himself, rode shotgun, urging Cam to go faster. Cam ignored her; driving faster wasn't physically possible. At least, not in Daniel's car.

They made it to the SGC in twenty minutes. All main entrances to the mountain were sealed, but Daniel took them through the fields surrounding the complex to a hatch hidden in the bushes. "Jack showed me this entrance once. We've used it before. The only catch is that we have to go down for over fifteen levels using emergency ladders. We'll still need to unlock the panel codes to gain access. That was Sam's part of the job. I'm not sure if we'll be able to manage it without her."

Vala rubbed her hands in glee. "Leave the locks to me. Your pitiful Tau'ri security is easier to break through than children's candy."

"All right, let's get going," Cam said, not bothering to correct Vala's metaphor.

It took all three of them to heave up the hatch's heavy metal door. The enormous hand-wheel didn't want to move at first, rusted from the rain. They needed five tries to finally get it to move. A steep tunnel opened in front of them; it went down and down, disappearing into pitch-darkness.

Next to him, Daniel breathed out wearily. "I'm getting too old for this. Maybe I should retire to a desk job, researching, translating, something with the word 'consultant' somewhere in it. It doesn't sound bad."

"You'd be bored out of your mind within hours," Cam said, hoping it was true. He didn't want to lose the last member of the original SG-1. It wasn't just Cam's childish desire to have the old crew back; Daniel's off-world experience and his language skills were irreplaceable. Without him they wouldn't have made it out of many tight situations. Although, to be fair, without him they wouldn't have been involved in many of those situations to begin with.

"Probably," Daniel said. "It'd still be nice to give it a try."

"I'll go first." Cam changed the topic. He climbed down into the hatch, tested the strength of the ladder's steps carefully and started to descend.

By the time they made it to level minus fifteen, they were sweaty and hot. The klaxons were still blaring through the base's speakers, helping them disguise any noises. Vala was good to her word, bypassing the door's security within minutes. Cam cringed at the ease with which his teammate rendered what were supposed to be high-security, alien-proof locks useless. Daniel didn't seem either impressed or surprised, which left Cam feeling at a bit of a loss. Breaking into a high-security military base shouldn't be so easy.

"Relax," Daniel said, as if sensing his thoughts. "The mountain is secure. It's just that security is aimed at stopping people from breaking out. They don't worry as much about people breaking in. No one in their right mind would be interested in finding out what deep space telemetry is all about."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Cam said, thinking of some of the enemies the SGC had on Earth.

"The access panels are all located on the outside," Vala said. "Trying to get out is much more difficult than getting in. I should know. The first months here I thought I was going to go crazy if I didn't see the sun at least for a while. I spent a lot of time studying security. Breaking out is not as easy as it sounds."

"You saw the sun off-world," Cam retorted, feeling guilty.

"It was just the principle of the thing, Mitchell. You can't deny that this place is built like a high security jail," Vala said.

"We need to go to the armory to get weapons and ammunition." Cam chose to ignore Vala's remark. "Then we need to find out what the hell's going on."

Cam's sense of unease increased as they approached the armory. All the guards they found in the corridors were unconscious. He signaled Vala and Daniel to stay behind, while he led the way, checking for possible attackers. They found none. The armory was empty too, or so they thought.

"Drop your weapons and turn around slowly," someone said from the darkness. The high whine of a zat being activated resounded in the emptiness of the armory, startling Cam.

"My name is Daniel Jackson. We mean no harm," Daniel said, using his we-are-peaceful-explorers-please-don't-shoot voice. Cam knew from experience that it had as many chances at success as at failure. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

"Oh, thank God!" McKay's distinct voice came from behind them. "What took you so long? We activated the alarm hours ago!"

Cam spun around, feeling stupid and careless. He'd checked the room before they went in. How come he hadn't seen them before? One person he could understand, but missing two was the kind of mistake that got off-world teams killed. Cam couldn't afford such sloppiness.

"It hasn't been an hour yet," Cameron bit out, taking his anger out on McKay. He regretted it almost immediately. "What the hell is going on here?"

"McKay, you were supposed to stay hidden until we took care of the intruders," the first person who'd talked said, stepping away from the shadows. His hair was in total disarray as if it'd never seen a comb in its life.

"Relax, Sheppard," McKay said. "They're SG-1. They belong to the good guys."

"Need I remind you that all the good guys suddenly turned bad without warning," Sheppard said tersely.

"Yeah, but SG-1 is SG-1." McKay hand-waved the other man's concerns away. "They don't get taken over."

"He's right," Vala said, beaming proudly.

"I'm always right," McKay said, puffed up by Vala's words.

"Is that so?" Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "Because I distinctly remember—"

"That was just the exception that makes the rule," McKay interrupted him, a bit piqued.

Sheppard snorted with amusement. "Well, it doesn't sound as if they've been compromised." He faced Cameron. "I'm John Sheppard, by the way. I work for McKay in the labs as mathematician. And that's Lieutenant Aiden Ford behind you," he signaled to the far corner of the armory.

Cam spun around in time to see another man, wearing a Marine uniform, stepping out from behind the ammunition creates stashed at the far end of the room. He was holding a zat, too. Cam did a double take. His cousins in high school looked older than the Lieutenant did. He was ashamed to realize that he'd been taken by surprise by two civilians and a child, Lieutenant or not.

"Sorry about the welcome," Sheppard continued. "Alien invasions are not an everyday occurrence."

"You haven't been working here long enough," Daniel muttered.

"Obviously," McKay agreed. "He started two weeks ago." He pinned Sheppard with a steely glare. "You aren't going to let something as insignificant as an alien invasion scare you away from the SGC, are you? I went to a lot of trouble to get you in the program, and I want your math skills available to me for the length of your contract. Don't chicken out now!"

"Wouldn't dream of it." Sheppard's mouth twisted into a half-smirk.

Lieutenant Ford cleared his throat. "I'm just at the end of my Orientation and Training for Off-world Gate-teams," he confessed. "We were going to have our last test tomorrow. It'll probably be postponed now. I guess General O'Neill wasn't lying when he warned us to always be prepared for the worst. Not two weeks in and already an alien invasion." He sounded more exited than worried—typical Marine.

"Huh, that actually explains a lot," Daniel said with a pensive frown. "Wait, why are all the guards unconscious? That doesn't make any sense."

"The attackers probably did it," Vala said.

"Actually, we did it," Sheppard said, shrugging. "The klaxons started to blast about one hour ago. Major Lorne and some SFs were evacuating us when other airmen attacked. We don't know exactly how the aliens operate, but they seem to take over the hosts."

"Yeah, but they aren't Goa'ulds," Lieutenant Ford hurried to say. "No glowing eyes. Most of our group was stunned. Doctor Sheppard and I, two other recruits and Doctor Parrish, one of the new botanists, managed to escape. It became impossible to tell who to trust. We picked up Doctor McKay from his lab, following Sheppard's suggestion. We needed someone with knowledge of the SGC security systems. Then Doctor Parrish remembered that the botanists were working on a new sleeping gas in lab 34. Sheppard came up with the idea to release it into the air system. That way we'd render everyone unconscious without having to kill them. It worked like a charm.

"We left Parish and the other recruits protecting the labs. McKay, Sheppard and I went to the control room to activate the emergency alarm, letting the White House know that the base had been compromised. Whoever managed to activate the lockdown mechanism was taken over before he could set the emergency alarm. We were hoping that reinforcements would arrive before everyone woke up. We came here to gather as many zats as we could in case it took longer."

Daniel snickered, and they all turned to look at him. The snicker turned into a full out laugh when he saw the dumbfounded expressions on their faces. "This is—this is the most perfect thing ever. I did warn Jack that one day his little joke would backfire, but he didn't listen."

"Joke?" Cam blinked, fearing that Daniel had finally lost it for good.

The word only seemed to fuel Daniel's mirth. He clutched his stomach and gulped ragged breaths in between guffaws, trying uselessly to control himself.

"What's wrong with him?" Vala asked, gaping at Daniel in disbelief.

Sheppard rubbed his face. "How should I know? Maybe he's been compromised, too." He shifted his aim carefully, pointing his zat at Daniel. He didn't seem the kind of person who liked to be taken by surprise. "This is the craziest job I've ever done and that's saying something," he mumbled to himself. "Pod people, all of them. Life was simpler before I found out that aliens were real."

"Oh please, this has nothing to do with aliens," McKay said. "He's a linguist. He's just snapped under the pressure. What did you expect from soft sciences?"

"Should I stun him?" Sheppard asked.

"There's no need," Daniel said, still chuckling. "I'm over the worst of it. I'm one hundred per cent sure that the alien invasion was just the last practical training exercise Lieutenant Ford was referring to. It's supposed to give new recruits a feel for how soon things can get out of hand around here," Daniel explained. He turned to Ford. "General O'Neill had the brilliant idea a couple of years ago. He said it'd be good for new kids to learn in advance what a typical week at the SGC is like."

"I can't believe nobody told me there was going to be another stupid mock foothold situation! I'd have stayed home," McKay said, irritated.

"You knew it," Jackson retorted. "It was discussed during the last staff meeting. You were there."

"I was working on a more pressing project," McKay said angrily. "You don't really expect me to pay attention to insignificant details about stupid military training exercises, do you?"

"Then don't complain that you didn't know," Jackson shot back.

Cam groaned. "Today is Friday?"

"Yes," Vala, Sheppard and Ford chorused.

Cam scrubbed his face in a tired gesture. "Great, I forgot. The foothold training exercise was scheduled for today. Three civilians and three marines managed to render the SGC defenses useless. The paperwork on this is going to be murder. So much for a nice, relaxing weekend." He glared at them.

"Don't scowl at me like that," McKay said. "I have nothing to do with your pointless military tests."

"Oh God," Ford whimpered. His face blanched a bit and he looked queasy. "I shot at superior officers!"

"Yeah, but they were evil superior officers." Sheppard waved a hand in dismissal. "Come on, they can't blame you for that. We did what we were supposed to do. Wait a minute! How do we know for sure that this isn't some alien plot to get us to lower our guard?" His fingers tightened on the zat, and he studied Vala, Daniel and Cam with a frown.

"You don't get to be paranoid," Daniel protested. "You've only be here for two weeks. After nine years and a couple of deaths, then and only then do you get to tell me that the world is out to get you. Now, put down that stupid zat and follow us. We need to do some damage control before real aliens invade us because all the SGC personnel are unconscious."

"I suppose it's safe to believe them," McKay agreed reluctantly. "O'Neill mentioned something about testing the new recruits; I just didn't pay attention to that part of the meeting."

"Imagine that," Sheppard said curtly, lowering his weapon. "We should warn Parrish," he added, as an afterthought. "We ordered him to release more of the gas if he thought we'd been compromised, too."

"Wonderful," Daniel said. "This day keeps getting better and better, and it's not five o'clock in the morning yet."

"Next time you could let people know that there'll be a mock foothold in their future," Sheppard said defensively.

"Kids, there's no need to fight," Cam said, taking pity on Ford, who seemed as if he was about to faint. "How long does the drug you used remain active in the body?" he asked.

Sheppard glanced at Ford for a moment. His shoulders slumped before he turned to face Cameron. "We don't really know; Parrish didn't either," he mused. "I did mention that they were still testing it, right?"

"You released an untested alien drug into the air systems of the SGC," Daniel repeated slowly in a chilly tone.

"We were being attacked by aliens," Sheppard snapped back. "There wasn't time to consider the practicalities."

"Do you have something against aliens? I'm started to feel offended here." Vala crossed her arms over her chest, irritated.

"I don't have anything against aliens, per se. I just don't like it when people point weapons at me, regardless of planetary origin."

"It wasn't real," Daniel reminded them once more.

"How precisely were we supposed to know that?" Sheppard clenched his fists and took a step forward.

"If he'd paid attention as he was supposed to," Jackson glared at McKay, "you would have known."

"Time out, everyone!" Cameron interrupted in a sharp tone before McKay could protest. He didn't want the disagreement to escalate further. "Daniel, contact Washington and let General Hammond know what's going on. I don't want them to bomb the mountain by mistake. See if O'Neill is unconscious, too. Vala, you go with him. McKay, take the Lieutenant with you and see what you can do to deactivate the lock-down mechanism. Sheppard, you come with me. We'll go find Doctor Parrish and see what he can tell us about this drug."

Daniel hummed his agreement and left, followed by Vala. Ford and McKay weren't far behind.

"All right," Cam said to Sheppard. "Take me to Doctor Parrish."

"Sure. This way," Sheppard said, pointing to the right as soon as they stepped out of the armory.

"So, Doctor Sheppard," Cam said, trying to sound casual. "Are you interested in being a member of an off-world team?"

Sheppard stopped in his tracks and stared at him. "Not particularly. I don't think I have the necessary qualifications."

Cam raised one eyebrow, not trusting his ears. "You don't think you have the necessary qualifications," he repeated, giving the unconscious SFs on the floor a pointed look.

Sheppard had the good grace to flush. "That was just dumb luck," he said defensively.

Cam laughed out loud. "That's all right; we could use dumb luck on SG-1."

John fumbled with his uniform, trying his best to make sense of all the straps and buttons. His own working clothes usually involved less straps and more storage room; they were also less bulky and more flexible, designed for speed and inconspicuousness.

"Aren't we supposed to be peaceful explorers?" he glared at Mitchell, trying to fasten his thigh strap. "These clothes don't seem peaceful to me," he muttered. Looking the part was important if you wanted people to believe you.

"People try to kill us a lot," Daniel said without even glancing at him. "It's best to be prepared."

Why am I not surprised? John thought to himself.

"Let me help," Mitchell said, stepping closer and pushing John's hands away. He attached the vest straps with practiced movements, checking John's gear carefully. Once he was done he handed John a helmet.

"You've got to be kidding me," John said, regarding Mitchell with disbelief.

"Afraid not," Mitchell smiled at him, softening the blow. "Civilians are required to wear headgear when off-world. Regulations."

"She isn't wearing anything," he pointed an accusing finger at Vala, who just smiled at him.

"She's an alien. Don't ask me how, but Teal'c managed to put in some very handy exceptions for aliens working for the SGC, back in the day, something about cultural heritage and whatnot. Technically, she doesn't even need to be in uniform. They must've been desperate to have him on the team to agree to that." He put the helmet on John's head, fixing it in place. "You're a civilian, though, not an alien. No exceptions for you yet. After you've made it past the tenth mission and saved our asses a couple of times, we'll negotiate for a cap."

"Daniel's a civilian, too," John whined. "Can I at least wear a bandana like him?"

"Only after you've died and come back to life three times." Mitchell's smile widened a notch.

"I hate you," John muttered. "How did you get me to agree to this again?"

"I have it on good authority that I can be very persuasive when I put my mind to it. It's just a helmet, not the end of the world," Mitchell told him.

"I'm sure we can find you a planet with a sarcophagus, Doctor Sheppard," Vala said, moving into John's personal space with a wink. "I could kill you a couple of times and bring you back, if you really want a bandana that desperately."

"Nah, the helmet is all right, and the name is John, or Sheppard. I already told you, I hate that 'doctor' bullshit," he said, stepping carefully away from Vala.

"John," she said, stretching his name as if savoring it.

"Don't worry, Sheppard, once people start shooting at us, the helmet will be the least of your worries," Daniel said, adjusting his glasses.

"Daniel, please play nice and don't scare our newest team member," Mitchell admonished.

The door to the locker room burst open and McKay stomped in, pointing an accusing finger in John's direction. "It's true, then!" he shouted. "You're joining SG-1! Well, forget it! I'm the head of science at the SGC and you're under my supervision." He turned to Mitchell with a glare. "Find yourself another scientist. You're not taking Sheppard with you."

"McKay, what a pleasant surprise." Mitchell smiled at the physicist, ignoring his outburst.

"You already signed the paperwork," John said in a calm voice.

"I did no such thing! I'd never have agreed to this insanity. You're the best mathematician the SGC has had in forever. It took us five years to convince you to join, and I'm not letting go of you after only three weeks so that you can get yourself killed off-world. Do you have any idea what the survival rate of scientists on SG-1 is?"

"One hundred per cent. SG-1 is the only gate team whose members have never died—I mean, stayed dead in a permanent manner," John said, giving Rodney his best guileless smile.

"You, you—" McKay sputtered, face reddening with anger.

Cam and Vala both snickered. Daniel still looked kind of bored. John was starting to suspect that it took a lot to get a rise out of Jackson.

"They go through scientists like normal people go through underwear," McKay said.

"That's not true," John protested. "They've had fifteen scientists in nine years; that's an average of 7.2 months per scientist. Anyway, my contract with the SGC isn't that long."

"It isn't?" Daniel asked, surprised for a change.

"Nah, I'm not one for sticking around, or even working for people. I've turned down university tenure-track positions because they wanted me to stay for over a year. So not me." He turned to Cam. "I told you I suck at commitment."

"We'll see how it goes. You can't be worse than Kavanagh," Mitchell said.

McKay glared at John. "All right, you can stay on SG-1, but only if you agree to extend your contract to at least one year."

"Forget it!"

"No, you forget it! I brought you here to work in the labs and help with the math for the ZPM research. If you're going to be wasting your time frolicking around the galaxy, then I need you to stay longer to make up for it."

"McKay," John said with exasperation, "this is just the first mission. Maybe it won't work out, and they won't want me on their team, or I won't want to do this again. Let's wait. If this turns out to be more than a one-time deal, then I'll renegotiate my contract."

"All right," McKay reluctantly agreed. He loomed in Mitchell's face and glowered at him. "You'd better bring him back in one piece. If I have to go through months of interviews again to get another mathematician with half his brain because you damaged him, you'll never know what a hot shower is for the rest of your life. Mark my words." He turned around and left, yelling at some poor SF who didn't step out his way fast enough.

"You're wearing that helmet forever," Mitchell said and John groaned, while Vala snickered. "Come on, everybody; we need to be in the gateroom in two minutes."

John had seen the Stargate before, of course. It was one of the first things they showed scientists after they'd signed the confidentiality agreement, especially if they wanted to entice them to stay. Seeing the event horizon up close, knowing that he was about to step through it, was a whole different matter.

The energy rippled inside the ring like water, defying gravity and the laws of physics as humans knew them only to redefine them again. John ached to touch it. A smaller part of him—getting stronger under McKay's brutal tutelage—ached for pen, paper and enough time to translate what he saw into numbers and equations.

He hesitated before the ring, raising his fingers slowly to touch the bound energy of the wormhole. Mitchell's laughter was the only warning he got before he was shoved through. The world vanished around John and rematerialized again, too fast for John's mind to wrap itself around the sudden change in locations.

All John could see was green, wide fields, covering the planet's surface. After the air conditioning at the SGC, the heat of the sun on John's skin was a shock. Intellectually, he'd known that they were going to another planet. Somehow the reality of it was different.

"I expected more purple," he said, overwhelmed and disappointed at once.

"Why?" Vala asked.

"It's another planet. Shouldn't it be more… alien?"

"Terraforming technology," Jackson said. "The Ancients stuck to what worked, over and over and over, across many galaxies."

"So, the Ori home galaxy looks pretty much the same, too," John inquired, trying to get a feel for who their enemy was.

"Yup, pretty much, but with more prostration and prayers." Jackson said, starting to walk.

"And pyres, too." Vala shuddered, closing her eyes and shaking her head as if to dissipate a memory. "They like to burn people."

"Charming," John said. "So, what's our real mission?"

Mitchell frowned. "You were at the briefing."

"Yeah, we're searching for the 'Sangraal', hidden by Merlin ages ago. In case you forgot, I'm kind of new to the SGC. I don't know what that's code for."

Jackson frowned at him. "It's not code. I explained it in the briefing: Merlin was an Ancient; he created a weapon to destroy Ascended beings and hid it. We believe this weapon is what passes in our history as the Holy Grail. According to the references we found in Merlin's library in Camelot, it looks like a pendant with a red stone in it."

"I can't believe there's actually a planet out there called Camelot. Anyway, shouldn't the Sangraal be more like a cup? At least according to Indiana Jones," John smirked.

Jackson actually growled, to John's infinite amusement. "That's the most scientifically inaccurate movie in history."

"You obviously haven't heard McKay going on about Back to the Future," John said, making Mitchell laugh out loud.

"It's not nice to make inside jokes for not Tau'ri, you know," Vala complained.

"You haven't seen Back to the Future yet?" John paused, turning to Vala in surprise.


"Well, that's an oversight we have to correct ASAP," he said. "The moment we're back on Earth, you can come to my place and we'll do a Back to the Future marathon."

"Oh, no," Daniel groaned.

Mitchell patted him on the back. "Come on, Daniel. John is the newest member of SG-1. He has the right to pick the movie for team night."

"Can we get Kavanagh back, please?"

"Do that and I'll take my daughter up on her offer and join the Ori," Vala threatened.

"I'm not as bad as Kavanagh," John said.

"So far." Daniel scowled at him. "Anyway, one of the oldest versions of the Holy Grail's myth depicts it as a stone that fell from the heavens, which supports the data we've gathered from Merlin's library about the Sangraal being a stone."

"And this planet here is supposed to have the Sangraal?" John asked, studying the lush, green landscape skeptically.

"Did you listen to anything that was said at the mission briefing?" Mitchell asked.

John ducked his head, avoiding Mitchell's gaze. "Eh… I—Doctor McKay gave me some calculations he needed done before I left and I… well—It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Mitchell shook his head with a long, indrawn breath. "Scientists. All right, next time do pay attention, please. We're looking for references to the planets Castiana and Sahal, which are said to be the places were Merlin hid the stone. We're going through all the planets where Merlin lived, according to the records in his library, in the hopes of finding further information."

"He left clues?" John asked, not really surprised. In his experience, those who took the trouble to hide things also took the trouble to leave clues behind for others to follow. John had never quite understood it, himself. Why bother hiding something in the first place if you wanted people to find it later?

"The Atlantis database is supposed to have more data, but the Pentagon won't authorize using our only ZPM to go there with Ori ships already in the galaxy and targeting Earth. The only defense we have so far is the Antarctic weapon chair," Mitchell explained, though judging by his expression, he didn't agree with the decision.

"Thus," Vala said, "we've been entrusted with the mission to find Castiana and Sahal without leaving the Milky Way. The good thing is that we won't need to share the loot with the Pegasus inhabitants."

John froze, suddenly realizing the magnitude of what they were doing. "Wait a minute, you mean that we are actually on a quest to find the Sangraal and steal it from wherever it is."

"We're not going to steal it," Mitchell said, put-upon. "Don't listen to Vala."

"Hey!" Vala's protests were silenced by Daniel, who pulled on her arm warningly.

"You're just going to leave it there after we find it?" John asked in disbelief.

"Of course not."

"Then we are going to steal it." John's mouth slanted into a smirk. Maybe he was better qualified for the job than he'd originally imagined.

"Argh, no, we aren't. In the improbable case it has an owner, we'll buy it or trade for it. We're not going to steal it," Mitchell repeated.

"I see," John said, stretching the words. "We are on a quest to not steal the Sangraal. Awesome! It's a good thing these missions are classified, because no one would believe me if I told them. Pity that; it'd look good on my CV."

"Since when do you care about your CV?" Jackson asked.

"Jackson!" Mitchell admonished him, which John found kind of cute.

John's reputation in academia as a lazy surfer-boy, too busy squandering his family's trust fund, preceded him. John had worked hard to sow that image. It surprised him that Jackson would know about it, though.

"It's fine, Mitchell," John said. "Jackson's right. I don't actually care for my reputation in academia," he said ruefully. It was true enough. Finding the Sangraal wasn't something John Sheppard cared about; Raven, on the other hand, was looking forward to it.

Jackson stared at him oddly, but John pretended not to notice, increasing his pace until he reached Vala. He questioned her about artifacts and treasures she'd acquired during her life before the SGC. Vala was without doubt a girl after John's own heart. He had almost to bite his tongue to stop himself from asking her the kind of questions that Raven would, questions no honest mathematician had any business pursuing. Vala didn't mind indulging John's ill-disguised curiosity. She enjoyed being the center of attention, playing up the danger and rewards of her adventures. John found himself laughing out loud and congratulating her on her quick thinking more than once.

John was so caught up in her tales that he barely noticed the passage of time. The walls of the city of Afallach rose suddenly before them, stretching far to either side. Its majestic, grey stones, darkened with age and moss, reached fifteen feet high, protecting the city against intruders. As the team approached they could see guards through the embrasures in the battlements, watching their every move. They stopped at the city gate, where more guards, armed with swords and spears, stood before the entrance.

"Welcome, foreigners," one of the guards said. "What brings you to Afallach?"

"We're seeking the Sangraal. It's a red stone, about this big," Mitchell said, raising his right hand to the guards, four inches separating his thumb and forefinger.

"We know the Sangraal," the guard said. "It's not hidden here, though."

"Do you know where it is?" Daniel asked, stepping forward.

"No. Any records about it must be in King Arthur's chambers."

"King Arthur's," John repeated, gaping at the city walls. It was too surreal.

"Can we visit his chambers?" Jackson asked, giving the guards a blank smile.

"The chambers are within the King's castle, which is protected by the strongest of magic. We'll take you to Lord Andras. He's the High Steward of the country and responsible for enquiries about the Citadel."

Lord Andras was about ten years older than John but in an excellent physical shape. John didn't think he'd be able to move so fast and effortlessly with so much chain mail on him.

"According to our legends, only King Arthur or Merlin himself can bring the Citadel back to life," Andras said. His eyes shone with the passion of a true believer.

"We'd like to see the Citadel anyway," Mitchell said.

"I'm afraid that's impossible. Only true descendants of King Arthur are allowed near it. Lord Merlin was very specific about that." Andras watched them disdainfully.

Why the hell not? John thought. It wasn't as if he had anything to lose. "My father always claimed that he was a direct descendant of King Arthur himself," John lied, putting in his voice just the right touch of sincerity. "That makes me a direct descendant, and I'd like to claim what's rightfully mine."

Mitchell pinched him on the arm, twisting John's flesh between his fingers with more force than was necessary. John turned to him with a bland smile. "Sir Mitchell, there's no need to go incognito. I trust the good lord here to lead us to the castle. He has the mantle of a true knight."

"Thank you, Sire," Andras said, bowing his head respectfully. Oh, yes, John's plan was working perfectly. "Sire, King Arthur left instructions in case someone ever came claiming to be his heir."

Or maybe not. "What kind of instructions?"

"There are three tests any aspirant heir must pass. If you are who you claim to be, the tests shouldn't pose a problem. I'd warn you, though, over the centuries many have taken the tests and none have survived them."

John coughed once. "Of course not. They were impostors."

"Don't mind John here. He likes to joke around a lot; he's funny like that," Mitchell said, giving John a fake smile that promised dire consequences. "We're Tau'ri and in no way related to King Arthur. We just want to check out the castle, and then we'll leave," Mitchell finished. John wanted to kick him.

Lord Andras' expression turned sinister. A cruel grimace twisted his face. "Well, that's too bad. I'm afraid that our laws grant no exceptions. Whoever claims to be an heir has to pass the tests or be executed."

"What?" Vala gulped.

"Those were King Arthur's last orders before he left. He was afraid that his enemies would try to claim what was not rightfully theirs. He made sure that none could walk away alive. Your friend will have to take the tests, or he'll be executed at dawn. No exceptions."

"Oh, one of those towns," Jackson muttered.

"It's all right. I'll take the tests," John said, exuding a calm he didn't feel.

"No, you won't," Mitchell hissed through clenched teeth.

"Sir Mitchell," Andras said, bowing to him slightly. "You have no say in this matter. Lord John has stated a claim on the crown of Afallach, and he'll have to prove his worthiness. After he's taken the tests, you'll be able to leave. Until then, I'm afraid that we'll have put all of you under guard."

"Wise." John bowed to Andras. "After you."

"After you," Andras said. He signaled his men, who pointed their spears at SG-1, forcing the team to move forward.

Mitchell grasped John's upper arm and jerked him close. "What game are you playing at?" he hissed into John's ear.

"I'm not playing at anything," John murmured back, watching the guards from the corner of his eye. "I thought they'd let us in if we claimed to be Arthur's heirs. The castle is probably protected by some kind of technology. I'm sure I would've been able to bypass it without too much trouble. That's what you brought me here for. I'm supposed to be the scientific brain of this operation, remember? I was just trying to earn my keep."

"You don't call the shots on this team, Sheppard," Mitchell said, his fingers digging deeper into John's arm. "We don't go around pretending to be people we are not. If you ever feel the need to do something that stupid again, please refrain. Understood?"


"Understood!" Mitchell repeated in a sharper voice.

"Yes, sir," John snapped, shaking free of Mitchell's grasp.

"This doesn't end here."

Wouldn't dream of it, Dad, John thought. He drew in a long, calming breath, forcing his muscles to unclench. It wouldn't do to antagonize Mitchell before he had obtained the data he'd come to the SGC to steal. It would just make his work harder. "I apologize," he feigned regret. "I didn't mean to screw up. I'm sorry. Next time I'll—strike that. There won't be a next time."

"Better." The tension eased of Mitchell's shoulders. "Don't worry. We'll find a way to get you out of this one."

"No," John said. "I want to see what these tests are about. There's probably some kind of technology involved that makes it impossible for primitive farmers to pass them, but we might have a chance."

"Primitive farmers?" Mitchell raised an eyebrow. "My parents are farmers, you know."

"Well, I'm sure that they aren't primitive. Not that there's anything wrong with farmers, primitive or not," John hurried to add. "They farm. Grow trees. Trees are important; farming is important. For people. I'll shut up now."

Mitchell chuckled. "You should've seen your face…"

"We're here," Andras said, saving John from having to come up with a worthy retort. "The first test is to pull the sword from the stone. If you truly are Arthur's heir, you'll be able to do it without dying."

Jackson adjusted his glasses with a weary sigh. "I'm losing my respect for the legend. How many does this one make?"

"Three," Vala answered.

"At this rate we can start offering Excalibur on eBay," Mitchell retorted.

"Let me guess, a black knight appears the moment you touch the sword and tries to kill you," Jackson said, unimpressed.

"No," Andras replied. "Those unworthy of touching the sword die within six hours. During that time they are haunted by horrendous ghosts that bring their worst fears to life. A suitable end for impostors and thieves."

"That's new," Mitchell said.

"Don't you think the death penalty is a bit too extreme for such a little crime?" John examined the sword warily.

"The death penalty was a common enough punishment in medieval societies," Jackson said.

John ignored him, focusing on the sword instead. Excalibur. He didn't care if it wasn't the only one out there. It was still impressive. The sword called to him. John wanted nothing more than to climb the platform and claim it. He stepped forward without even meaning to.

"Hey, none of that now." Mitchell placed a hand on John's shoulder and held him in place. "You can't just touch a sword that kills people before we find out what kind of technology is killing the people and how to deactivate it."

John shook his head, trying to clear it. "Yes, of course. That'd be an amateur mistake." The sword kept calling him. "Do you hear that?" he asked.

"What? I don't hear anything." Mitchell sounded worried.

If John concentrated he could almost make out the voice. No, not a voice, just sensations. They felt like words, too alien for him to understand.

"Sheppard, stop trying to get yourself killed! McKay will never forgive me."

"Sir Mitchell, let go of Lord John," Andras said. The guards inched their spears closer to Vala, Daniel and Mitchell.

"Ah, Cameron, I think you should let go of him," Vala said with a nervous smile. "He brought it on himself."

"It's going to be all right," John said, prying Mitchell's fingers from his shoulder. He'd never been surer of anything in his life.

The call became more insistent, impossible to ignore. So much loneliness. John took another step. Mitchell's voice faded to nothing in the back of his mind. The closer John came to the sword, the clearer the sensations became. It had been alone for so long, waiting. It ached to be used, to please, to serve. It wanted its master back.

Come to me, then, John thought, stepping onto the platform and reaching for the sword. It leaped out of the stone of its own volition, the hilt slapping into John's outstretched hand with a flare of light.

At last. Yours.

Then, silence.

John's thoughts cleared. He tested the sword's balance, trying to reconcile its length and apparent sturdiness with its feather lightness. His mind refused to believe that it could weigh so little despite the sensory input. "Excalibur," John said. "I don't care if you're not unique. You're still mine."

"Long live the King! Long live the King! Long live the King!"

John spun around, startled. All people in the square had dropped to their knees. Everyone except for Lord Andras, Mitchell, Vala and Jackson were acclaiming John as their next king.

"This is not good," he muttered to himself, stepping down from the platform.

"See what you've done," Mitchell hissed as soon as John rejoined the rest of the team. Their fearless leader seemed—angry was probably an understatement.

John braced himself for the lecture. He thought he'd be spared those after leaving home at nineteen, but a job was a job, and John was getting handsomely paid for this one. He'd just need to put up with Mitchell for a few weeks. Then he'd be rid of him forever. "You can't blame me for this," John said, trying and failing to look innocent.

Mitchell's expression turned pensive and, a moment later, smug. "Actually, I can."

John blinked, surprised. It wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting. "Eh—"

"Didn't they say tests, as in plural?" Vala asked, interrupting him. She regarded skeptically the kneeling villagers and Lord Andras, who wasn't kneeling, but whose face was focused on John almost hungrily.

"There are two more tests, my Lord," Andras said, the tone of his voice reverent.

John wanted to shift under the intensity of the man's gaze. He'd spent the last twenty years of his life trying not to be the center of attention. He was all too aware that he was showing his real face this time, and though being John Sheppard was as much a disguise as anything else, he felt vulnerable under the scrutiny.

"Bring them on," he said, doing his best to appear confident.

"We're not keeping up this charade," Mitchell stated. "You're going to explain to these people that you're not their king, or the heir of their king."

"Lord John has been the first person in over a millennium to successfully pull the sword from the stone. Once, five hundred years ago, foreigners came through the Astra Porta, claiming to be gods. Their eyes glowed and they had weapons we'd never seen before, but when they tried to pull the sword from the stone, they too died within hours," Lord Andras said. "We've been waiting for centuries for someone like Lord John."

"It's just technology, and John here has a genetic make-up that allows him to use it."

"Genetic make-up? I don't know what that is," Lord Andras said.

"Genes contain the information that makes us look as we do, black hair, tall, short, fair skin, dark skin," Jackson tried to explain.

"We look as we do because of our parents," Andras said, confused.

"Precisely," Mitchell nodded. "Genetic material gets passed down from fathers and mothers to their children."

"So, this genetic make-up you talk about, King Arthur must have had it too," Andras inquired.

"Yes," Jackson said.

Vala and John both groaned at the same time, glancing at each other in mutual understanding. This conversation wasn't going where Jackson and Mitchell wanted it to; they just hadn't realized it yet.

"Then, he is a descendant of King Arthur, or he wouldn't have this make-up." Andras regarded John with renewed interest. "We've been waiting for so long, my lord. We had almost stopped hoping that the heir would return, even though both King Arthur and Merlin promised that they would come back to awaken the Citadel."

"No, no, no, he isn't a descendant of King Arthur," Mitchell insisted.

Jackson raised a finger. "Actually, we have no way of proving that. He could be."

"Jackson, stop trying to help."

"Really, Cameron, relax," Vala soothed him. "The nice people of Afallach are bound to be much more agreeable to us rummaging in their Citadel if they think John is their King. Think of all the treasures we could take with us. As king, John is entitled to them all."

"I am entitled. What makes you think I'm going to cut you in on the profit?" John asked. He might like her, but business was business.

"Very funny, now tell the nice town people that you aren't their king," Mitchell ordered in a warning voice.

"Lord Andras, what are the other tests?" John asked instead. He smiled at Mitchell unrepentantly. He was already in trouble, so he might as well go all the way. Besides, taunting Mitchell was almost as much fun as taunting McKay.

"The next test is to bring back the scabbard of the sword. It was cast into the lake behind the Citadel by the evil witch Morgan le Fay. Her spirit still guards it. Everyone who has ventured into the lake has been turned into a statue. If you manage to bring back the scabbard without dying, I shall take you to the Citadel. Awaking it will be your last test. The Citadel shall once more shine, illuminating the evening sky with such glory that the stars will hide away in shame.

"Then, you will be given the crown, and all your subjects will pledge fealty to you. I shall be honored to be the first one, my lord, but first you have to bring back the scabbard."

"I guess running is no longer an option, is it?" John asked.

"My lord, you're the true king. I'm sure. The tests are meant to be passed by those with royal blood in their veins," Andras said.

"The scabbard is new," Jackson said. "In all our travels searching for Merlin's Weapon, it's never been mentioned. According to Arthurian legend it's probably some kind of shield technology, protecting the wearer from being wounded in battle."

"Mitchell?" John asked.

Cameron stared hard at John, as if trying to guess what was going on inside his head. "Fine, go for it. And try not to get killed."

"I'll do my best. Lord Andras, lead the way."

"So, John," Vala sidled up to John as they walked. "I think we should divide the loot, a quarter each. We're a team after all. It seems fair."

"Hold your horses, sunshine," Mitchell said from right behind them. "There'll be no stealing."

"Unless we find the Sangraal, then it's all right," John said, just to be annoying.

"If we find the Sangraal, we'll keep it for security reasons. After all, if we stop the Ori the nice people of Afallach will profit from it too."

"Whatever lets you sleep at night, Mitchell," John mumbled. Having a conscience had to suck.

They stopped talking after that. The people of the town trailed behind them, whispering with excitement. After about half an hour a castle appeared on the horizon. It was breathtakingly beautiful, like a small city in and of itself. John suddenly understood the term Citadel. Its towers and battlements rose steep into the sky; the central one seemed to reach the clouds. It made John ache with a longing he couldn't understand. He'd crisscrossed the world in his line of work. He'd seen the remains of old civilizations in Europe and Asia, castles and cities heavy with age and history, but they didn't compare to this one.

"Oh, this is most definitely Ancient," Jackson said. He hastened his pace until he was side by side with the steward. "Lord Andras, do you know who built the Citadel?"

"The legend says that when King Arthur and his knights first arrived in Afallach, the city didn't exist. It was all barren land, too arid and poor for farming. No one lived here. King Arthur turned to Merlin, then, and ordered him to make the land habitable so that he and his knights could rest from their journey. Merlin raised his arms and lightning fell from the sky. Rain started to pour, soaking the earth. Plants grew were none had been before; animals appeared out of no where. Then the earth itself bucked and twisted, taking the shape of a castle. And where nothing had been before, the Citadel arose.

"At nights, light brighter than sunlight itself came from the Citadel and illuminated the land, making the stars disappear. King Arthur and his knights stayed for ten winters. Farmers from all over the world came to Afallach to visit and never left, for no illness plagued this city and the crops never failed. After King Arthur's departure, the Citadel's lights never shone again. A magical barrier stopped those who wanted to breach it. But Afallach continued to grow outside the Citadel, for even though Merlin was gone his magic remained. The crops are better here than in any other place and in over a thousand years not once has illness plagued the city. The rain and the sun share the sky in equal measure, and the land is blessed. Excalibur has protected us during the absence of the King, killing within hours those who sought to harm us."

"Oh, Ancients have been here all right," Mitchell said.

"They must have left some kind of power source for these miracles to keep happening," John said with a frown. He checked his palm device. "I'm not getting any power readings, though. Odd. By their description the Citadel must be protected by some sort of shield technology. It might be interfering with the equipment."

"Lord Andras," Jackson asked, "have Priors of the Ori been here before?"

"We're visited by many foreigners, but I don't know who these priors might be."

"Anyone has come ordering you to worship the Book of Origin?" Mitchell asked.

"Not that I am aware," Andras said. "There's the lake." He pointed in the distance.

John couldn't see anything through the fog covering the land. As they approached, the fog lifted, turning into a light mist. On the horizon, distorted by the light, an island seemed to hover over the water, gleaming orange and red in the dim light.

"Does someone live on that island?" Mitchell asked

"The island isn't real. When the sun is high in the sky, it disappears. Only at dusk and dawn can it be seen, dancing on the horizon. It's said that Morgan le Fay put it there, to lure sailors to their death."

"A Fata Morgana," Jackson murmured.

"She had quite the sense of humor." John appreciated the irony.

"A very twisted one," Mitchell said.

"Well, it kept the treasure hidden so that we could come and claim it. I don't think we should be complaining," Vala noted.

"Vala, it'd be nice if, for once, you could think of something other than treasure. Why don't you try it out, just for kicks?"

She pretended to consider it. "Hmm, sorry, I can't come up with anything more important than liberating treasures from their hiding places. Any suggestions?"

"Math works for me," John said.

"Math?" She crinkled her nose.

"I know. Treasures are better." John's lips crooked into a smirk.

"Sheppard, don't encourage her, please."

Vala threw her arm over John's shoulder and whispered in his ear: "So, King John." She made the name sound like porn. "How do you feel about having a queen? All good kings need one, or so I've been told. I wouldn't mind volunteering. I have years of experience with such positions. Having a clever, forward-thinking and—not to forget—good looking woman at your side can only be an asset."

John snickered. He really, really liked her. "Sorry, but I'm not into girls. As I explained to Mitchell before accepting this job, I find men more… appealing," He waggled his eyebrows at her. "Didn't he tell the rest of the team? I've no intention of hiding that part of me."

"He didn't!" Vala protested, glowering at Mitchell.

"I possess something called discretion. Who John tells about his sexuality is his own business," Mitchell said.

"Weren't you worried that it'd screw up team dynamics?" John asked, curious. "The Air Force sure has issues with gay people serving."

"It's not as bad as it used to be, just as long as people don't go around telling," Mitchell said.

John's expression turned somber. "Sometimes someone else does the telling for you."

"I already told you that those rules don't apply to civilians. And besides, if I had to worry about my team reacting badly to something as simple as sexual orientation, I'd think twice about taking them off-world to meet aliens. Bigotry is a hindrance when working for the SGC."

"It should be always a hindrance," Jackson grumbled.

The silence that followed was broken by Vala's saucy voice. "So, John, do you happen to have a boy who's holding your interest right now? Can I watch?"

The brazenness of the question startled a laugh out of John. "Oh, if I'm ever forced to marry a woman, you'll be my first choice, all right. I'll even let you watch all you like, as long as you know that watching and touching aren't the same thing."

"Guys, please drop it," Mitchell said, his face flushed. "Some of us have to be in a professional, working relationship with you. Don't make it harder than it needs to be."

"You don't know what you're missing, Cameron," Vala said. "We'll continue this conversation later on." She gave John a secretive smile.

John's desire to laugh died away when they arrived at the lake. It was the most perfect and eerie thing John had ever encountered. A sinister three-dimensional image stretching as far as he could see. Boats, filled with frozen people, floated on the lake's surface, unnaturally still, held forever among the unmoving waves. A small child crouched on the shore, a pleased smile on his face, the tips of his fingers just inside the water. He'd been caught in the act of reaching for a seagull, which was poised with outstretched wings, about to take flight. The child's mother stood behind him, her face paralyzed with horror as her hands reached for her son, the hem of her dress soaked wet with the lake's water. Even the ripples of the water's surface were unnaturally still, as if the whole landscape had been frozen in time, a perfect picture for everyone to marvel at millennia down the road. It sent chills up John's spine.

"This is not good," Vala said warily next to him.

"Jackson, have you encountered anything like this before?" Mitchell asked.

"No, although some legends attribute a magical ability to freeze people to Morgan le Fay. I guess this would be what they meant by that," Jackson said.

John was still watching the lake, spell-bound by its sinister beauty. A perfect picture. The words kept fluttering around in John's mind. His hand tightened on Excalibur's hilt. Everything frozen. A picture. Holding the perfect moment forever.

"Time," John gasped, realization striking him like lightning. "She's holding time still. That's how she's doing it!" He placed Excalibur at his feet, and fumbled for his tablet computer, scanning the lake. "It's a time dilation field that extends across the water."

"How do we turn it off?" Mitchell asked.

John sent him a poisonous glare. "We don't. Whatever is powering this thing is on that island, and we can't access it from here."


"So, we can't—" A flicker of movement caught John's attention. He turned around. There, again, barely thirty feet away the water rippled on the shore, breaking through the eerie perfection of the lake. "Or maybe we can after all." John ventured forward carefully while keeping an eye on the readings. "Interesting."

"What's interesting?" Mitchell asked, trailing behind him.

"There seem to be some fluctuations in the distortion field." He showed the readings to Mitchell, who skipped over them for a second and faced him expectantly. John sighed. "Over there, see?" He pointed to the moving water. "The time dilation has holes in it."

"Convenient," Mitchell said. His eyes, like John's, followed the moving water across the lake's surface. It twisted and coiled like a brook, marking a two-foot-wide path.

"Dangerous," John said with an eager face. He wanted to go in there. I should probably take Excalibur with me. He hadn't finished the thought, when the sword jumped into his hand. Behind him, the surprised gasps of the townsfolk reminded him that they weren't alone. He smirked at Mitchell. "Now, this is convenient," he said, brandishing the sword.

"Careful with that thing; it doesn't like people without the ATA."

John studied the path in the water. "I'm going in," he said.

Mitchell watched Andras, who was keeping a respectful distance from John, but was still too close to Daniel and Vala. "It's probably for the best," he agreed. "Getting out of here while these people think you're their messiah ain't going to be pretty."

Mitchell's Southern drawl became more pronounced, sending pleasant shivers down John's spine. He had to force himself to look away. "We'll figure it out."

"Stay on the path, John. I really don't fancy explaining to McKay that I lost his favorite mathematician on our first mission together."

John snorted. "You're truly scared of McKay, aren't you?"

"The guy is brilliant⎯don't get me wrong⎯but he can be one ruthless bastard when he puts his mind to it. It's not fear, just healthy respect."

John's laughed out loud, but he didn't rile Mitchell further. He went to the edge of the lake, where the waves met the shore. He took off his boots and weapons, keeping only Excalibur with him, and stood there for a second, watching the ripples on the lake's surface with apprehension.

"Here goes nothing," he said to himself and stepped into the water, his heart beating staccato in his chest. His toes curled when the cold water touched them. John glanced back at Mitchell, who nodded at him. Still in the same dimensional time-space, then. He breathed out and took another step forward, following the path of moving water.

Minutes later the water already reached up to John's chest. The shore was just over a hundred feet away, but he could no longer see the island, which had been visible on the horizon before. "Houston, we have a problem," he muttered, "Think, John. It's a test, and they planned for someone to pass it. Someone with the ATA gene and Excalibur."

He tightened his hold on the sword and called for the scabbard to come to him. Nothing happened. "It was worth a try," he murmured to himself. The white mist of his breath rising in front of his face surprised him. Only then, did John realize how cold it had become. His legs were numb beneath the water. His nose burned as he inhaled the suddenly freezing air. Around him, a thin layer of ice was forming, surrounding him.

"Not good," John said, turning around, wanting to go back. Where the water had moved before, indicating the way, cold, hard ice covered everything. The light of the fading sun reflected off it. He used Excalibur to strike the ice, trying to break it. But the sword, which had been light as a feather before, felt heavy in his hands. John struck again and again, his hands numbing with the cold. Shards of ice chipped off where the sword fell, but no matter how hard John hit it, the ice kept forming again. He screamed for help, but no one could hear him.

John didn't know how long he fought. It seemed to last forever. He was cold and tired and wanted nothing more than to finally be allowed to rest if only for a moment, just enough to catch his breath. Excalibur slipped from his sluggish fingers and fell into the water. John closed his eyes for a second. He didn't even feel cold anymore, just so tired. The water swallowed him, John's weight dragging him further down, until only a small, jagged hole on the ice indicated where John had been before.

"Now is not the time to go to sleep, John Sheppard," a voice called to him.

John blinked groggily, shaking away the fogginess in his mind. He looked around, surprised to see that he was no longer below the lake, but in a green, warm field. The grass caressed the skin of his arms and the back of his neck. He tried to stand, but his unresponsive muscles failed him. A woman dressed in a white summer dress loomed over him. She seemed almost translucent, like a ghost—or a hologram, the scientific part of John's mind supplied.

"How do you know my name?" John asked. He was sure that holograms weren't supposed to know such things, especially if they were over a thousand years old.

Her smile was as inscrutable as Mona Lisa's. "I know many things," she told him.

"Good for you," John drawled. He'd only spent a day as a member of SG-1, and he was already starting to resent all-powerful alien races and their stupid riddles. "You brought me here, or something did, so I take it that you don't care much for the Prime Directive. Any chances you'll be willing to share some of your superior knowledge with a lowly human like me?"

She tilted her head as if she didn't quite understand what he had said. Hah, so much for being a know-it-all alien, John thought vindictively.

"I saved your life. You should be more grateful," she said with pursed lips.

"I'm grateful all right." John gave her a smarmy smile. "Now, what do you want?"

"It's not I who desire something, John Sheppard. It's you who came here, to Afallach, in search of the key."

"I came to Afallach because Mitchell proved to be a very annoying and persistent little Air Force colonel. Trust me; I had nothing to do with this. My plan was to stay at the SGC and do research."

She stared at John, the intensity of her gaze making him uncomfortable, as if he was the translucent one instead of the hologram. Holograms weren't supposed to act like that.

"I see," she said after a moment, and then remained quiet.

"What?" John bristled. "What do you see?"

"You still have a long journey ahead of you. It's too soon now to tell you the truth. You aren't ready."

"Ready for what?"

"When the time comes, you will know," she said and started to glow. It was as if her body was light itself. One thread of light—John didn't want to think of it as a tentacle—grazed the side of his face, warm and perfect. "Until we meet again, John Sheppard," she said and shot into the sky.

"Fuck! Now what?" He stood up and looked around. He was on an island, presumably the mysterious one they had seen from the main land. John could see nothing but water. The waves lapped lazily at the shore. No frozen time here—something at least, even if John had no clue about how to go back. Excalibur was nowhere to be seen.

He felt silly doing it, but it had worked so far. It might work again. He called the sword to him with all the concentration he could muster. A flicker of movement caught his eye. A female hand rose out of the water, covered in white brocade and gemstones. It held Excalibur in a firm grip. Wrapped around Excalibur, protecting the blade, the scabbard could be seen, as beautiful and blinding as Excalibur itself.

"This is like a very bad Hollywood film," John complained. "If word gets out, Rodney will never let me live it down." He stepped into the water, so taken by the impossibility of it all that he forgot to be afraid. The hand waited there. John closed his fingers around it, trying to claim back the sword. The skin was cold and smooth.

"The sword belongs to me, John Sheppard. What will you give me in exchange?" A female voice asked. He wasn't sure if it was the same woman as before, but it didn't seem so.

"As I see it, I was the one who pulled the sword out of the stone; it belongs to me," John said. "I don't pay for things that are already mine."

"It has always been my sword," the voice said, reminding John of the icy death that had almost befallen him.

"And yet, you want to give it to me," John said, realization dawning on him. Why would she have spared him otherwise?

"It's you who's undertaken the Quest for Caledwlch, not I," the voice said.

"I wasn't given much choice, but I'll give you one. Either you give me the sword for free, or you take it with you and wait another thousand years for someone worthy enough to make it this far without dying," he declared, calling her bluff.

The lake rippled with clear laughter, as if the water itself was amused and not the Lady. "You shall have the sword then, John Sheppard. First, though, you must promise to return it once your quest is finished."

"You've got to be kidding me. Do you really expect me to give up Excalibur?" The words startled John. He hadn't meant to say them aloud. He'd read the legend in his childhood enough times as to know what was expected of him. He had to promise to return the sword. He'd meant to do it too. He was good at lying; it was practically a job requirement. He tried again. "I'm a thief. I don't go around giving up valuable possessions once I've taken them from their rightful owners. Not that there's such a thing as a rightful owner. People have things and then they don't."

All right, he hadn't meant to say that either. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

"You lack truth of spirit, John Sheppard. Without it, Caledwlch cannot be entrusted to your care," the voice said, and the hand started to retreat into the water, taking the sword with it.

"I lack?—you didn't know that?" he asked, taken aback. "Come on, you're this all-powerful alien female. Can't you just retrieve it yourself after you think I'm done with it? There's no way I'll give it back of my own free will. I can't promise that; it'd be a lie and you know it."

The hand stopped. "Truth of spirit is always rewarded," the voice said, and the hand loosened its hold on Excalibur, letting John take it. "You shall carry Caledwlch for as long as you live, John Sheppard. Treat it well. When the time comes I will claim my price from you, and you will pay it, willing or not."

The arm retreated into the water.

"I didn't agree to that!" John shouted after her, trying uselessly to reach the hand before it disappeared, but where solid flesh had been before, only a ghostly image remained. John's own hand went through it.

He knew how the legend went. Whatever price she extracted, would be too high. He tried to throw the sword into the lake, but it flew back to his hand like a boomerang.

"Great! Now what?" he asked aloud. He couldn't even see where Mitchell and the others were. He didn't know how to get back to his team.

John sighed in defeat.

He studied the inscriptions on the scabbard. They were gibberish to him. Ancient, most likely. Daniel would know what they meant. If he ever saw Daniel again. It still surprised him how light the sword was. Even in its scabbard, it weighted less than John's wrist watch. It was disconcerting.

He traced the inscriptions with a careful finger. Beautiful gems outlined the words, drawing the attention to the letters. John had seen many precious stones in his life; he'd stolen some of them, too, but nothing came even close to the jewels encrusted on the strange metal. He caressed them with reverence.

The instant his finger touched the biggest emerald, the scabbard flared to life. Green light shot from the stone, enveloping John in a warm mantle. It startled him into dropping the sword once more, but like a faithful dog Caledwlch came back to him.

Whatever the light had done, it didn't appear to have harmed him. John studied his hand carefully, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. When he was sure that he was fine, he turned around and started to wade back to the island.

Water sprayed around him as he moved, but it never touched his skin. A greenish light flared protectively over him, keeping his skin dry. Barely believing his own eyes, John submerged a hand in the water, expecting its cold, slick caress. It never came. A more careful examination revealed that the rest of his body was protected too.

He studied the scabbard once more, remembering the legend. As long as Arthur had the scabbard he couldn't be hurt in battle; he didn't bleed; he was untouchable. John sank to his knees and dunked his face in the water. Whatever the green light was—some kind of shield—it was the best diving mask John had ever used. He could see perfectly beneath the water. He braced himself and, against every instinct in his body, breathed in. He expected the water to fill his lungs. It didn't. Scratch diving mask, John thought, this is the best scuba equipment in the history of forever.

He stood up, letting the water glide harmlessly over the shield, and laughed out loud. The implications of the legend were becoming clear to him. "Great warrior my ass! Arthur, my friend, you were a liar and a cheat. Your legend is a con-job of historical magnitude. Now that's the kind of legacy I could get behind."

With sure steps he moved further into the water, confident that he'd be able to complete the last test. The Citadel would awaken for him; John didn't doubt it. He swam to the mainland leisurely.

His shiny, new kingdom awaited him.

"Have either of you seen John?" Cam asked Daniel and Vala as soon as they arrived at the locker rooms.

"No, isn't he here yet?" Daniel asked, surprised.

For all that John didn't care much—or at all—about regulations, he had proven to be remarkably punctual in the two months they'd been working together.

"He's usually here even before you are," Vala said.

"Yeah, that's what has me worried," Cam said. "I thought maybe he'd go pick up the two of you, make sure you weren't late."

Daniel snorted. "Good luck with that," he murmured. "I saw him yesterday in the labs with McKay. They were screaming at each other. Actually, McKay was screaming while John slouched in a chair and smiled encouragingly at him."

"That's normal behavior for them." Cam didn't understand the strange friendship those two had going. "Well, the labs are on the way to the gateroom. We can ask McKay if he's seen John. He'll probably know where our wayward scientist is."

They heard Rodney's voice long before they made it to the labs. From the way he kept telling John that he was wrong, wrong, wrong Cam deduced that John was still in there. He breathed out in relief, the uneasy feeling in his gut abating. He steeled himself to tell Sheppard off for being late—not that John ever listened, but it was the spirit of the thing.

He wasn't prepared for the small crowd gathered in McKay's lab. Pretty much every scientist from the physics department was in the room. They stood close to the wall, giving John and Rodney a wide berth while staring at them admiringly. Cam elbowed his way through the crowd, wanting to see what McKay and John had gotten up to this time.

"Oh, oh, that could work, but the yield calculations are—" McKay said.

"Already done, here," John pointed at some long and complicated equations on the whiteboard. His fingers were smudged with black ink and his hair was a total mess—more so than usual.

Cam was sure that he hadn't slept the night before, which didn't bode well for their mission. John should have known better.

"That—Huh?—why set apart the two detonations?"

"We need to keep energy yield low, but for a long period of time. Otherwise the wormhole won't jump. If we set—"

"Of course, yes! That might work. Give me that! I need to go over the math." McKay snatched John's tablet PC from his hands.

"Oh, like you could find an error in my calculations if you spent a lifetime searching," John snarled, grabbing his computer back.

"You suck at theoretical physics and you know it, for all we know you used the wrong formula," McKay countered.

"Says the guy who forgets to change algebraic signs when switching sides on an equation."

"That only happened once!"

"Once is once too many," John sing-songed.

Mitchell was about to interrupt when a small scientist with fuzzy hair and round glasses stopped him. "Let them be, Colonel. It's very strange but that's how they encourage each other. They've been at it for hours; look at what they've achieved." He pointed at the whiteboards filled with equations.

Some kind of scientific discovery, then. Cam couldn't really make head or tails of all the numbers and letters splashed across the board. John and Rodney stopped shouting at each other and hunched over John's laptop together, conversing in excited whispers.

"That's all fine, doctor…?"

"Zelenka," the little guy said.

"That's all fine, Doctor Zelenka, but John has a scheduled mission in five minutes and he hasn't even geared up. Scientific discoveries can wait for after we're back," Cam said.

"No, no, you don't understand," Zelanka said in an agitated voice. "This is more important. They've just found a way to collapse the Ori Supergate. Possibly. You need to let them finish! The mission can wait."

"What!" Mitchell spun back to the boards, reading the equations with new-found interest. He still didn't understand them, but that wasn't relevant. "Why didn't someone say so before? This is the kind of information the general needs to know immediately!"

"We didn't know what they were doing," Zelenka said with a shrug. "They were already screaming at each other and fighting over the computer and the marker when we arrived, which isn't anything new. It took me a few moments to understand the equations. They skipped a lot of steps," he said sheepishly.

"Jackson!" Cam turned to Daniel, who was still hovering behind the scientists. "Go get O'Neill. It seems that John and McKay have come up with a way to shut down the Supergate. Maybe he can ask the Odyssey to beam Carter here; it looks as if we're going to need her."

Daniel's eyes widened. "The Supergate? On my way," he said, and hurried out of the lab.

Five minutes later the general arrived, followed by Sam and Daniel. "Everyone who's not doing anything useful, out!" O'Neill ordered.

The lab cleared as if by magic. All the scientists except for Doctor Zelenka and a tiny Japanese woman Cam didn't know left within seconds. John and McKay looked up from their computer with confused expressions.

John's hair seemed to be in more disarray than ever. A small frown formed between his brows. "What are you guys doing here?" he asked, bewildered.

"We had a mission starting five minutes ago," Vala said, stepping forward. "You're kind of late."

"Huh? Our next mission is tomorrow at 0900," John said, searching for a clock in the lab.

"It's tomorrow 0905," Cam said with indulgence. John seldom acted like the stereotypical geek, but every now and then he slipped up and showed his true colors. It amused Cameron to no end.

"Is it?" John's eyebrows furrowed and his cheeks flushed slightly. "I'm—I didn't realize so much time had passed. I'm sorry, Cam, General. I'll go gear up immediately."

"What?" McKay shouted, grabbing John's wrist before he could so much as stand up, and pulled him back. "You can't leave! We're on the verge of a breakthrough!"

"Rodney," John started to say in a placating voice.

"Stay put, Your Highness," General O'Neill interrupted him.

John sighed. "You could stop calling me 'Your Highness'."

"Are you or are you not the king of Afallach?" O'Neill said, tilting his head.

It was an old argument, and really, in Cam's opinion John should just give up and roll with it. The more he fought it, the more the general would keep using the nickname. It didn't help that the rest of the SGC was starting to follow his example.

John's shoulders slumped. "It's not like I meant for it to happen, and I did help turn it into a constitutional monarchy. You can't blame me for having the ATA gene."

O'Neill pursed his lips, pretending to think about it. "Maybe, but may I point out that in ten years of going through the gate, the only things the ATA gene ever gave me were splitting headaches, knowledge of a language I don't even remember, and, last but not least, a stay in a stasis pod, which I also don't remember. What did it give you? An awesome sword, a sweet shield that works against Ori, and it made you king of a whole planet, all in your first trip through the gate. What can I say, Your Highness? Some people have all the luck."

"You're never going to let me live it down, are you?"

Cam bit back a smile. A slight glance in Vala and Daniel's direction showed that they were doing the same.

"Oh yah, you betcha," O'Neill said, giving John a broad grin. "So, Your Highness, what's this I hear about collapsing the Supergate? Is it true? Because that'd take priority over any other mission."

McKay bristled. "Of course it's true! I'll have you know that I'm the most brilliant mind in this galaxy. It was just a matter of time until I found a way to shut down the Supergate."

John coughed twice, and glared at McKay.

"Well, John made one or two small contributions," McKay amended.

John coughed again.

McKay crossed his arms defiantly. "Fine, it might have taken me longer to come up with a solution without John here to check my math." He glanced at John and raised his chin. "Satisfied?"

"Very much so," John answered, his eyes gleaming with suppressed laughter.

"Not to mention that these calculations are based on a paper I wrote about the correlation between wormhole stability and black holes," Sam said, stepping forward. The smile on her lips was razor sharp.

"Sam!" McKay said with obvious delight, just noticing Carter's presence in the room. "When did you arrive? And before you start, your calculations were made for two Stargates of the same size. Finding a way for the energy channeled by a Supergate to jump into a normal Stargate was tricky. The energy output difference alone was a nightmare to work through."

"The original idea is still mine," Cam pointed out in a sweet tone of voice that usually preceded violence of some sort.

McKay, for all that he always pretended to be socially incompetent, noticed it. "Well, yes, of course, without your theory it would've taken us at least another two days to come up with a viable solution."

John tried to disguise his chuckles under a fake cough, rather unsuccessfully. Samantha took a step towards McKay, but O'Neill forestalled any further argument by placing a hand on her shoulder. "Kids, no fighting in class," he said. "Sam, can this work?"

Sam sighed as if it pained her to give McKay that much ammunition. "I think so. I'll need to go over their work in detail and check the energy yield calculations. The Supergate is dialing from another galaxy, though. A connection between two Stargates in the Milky Way will never generate a comparable yield."

"Yeah, we already factored that in," John said, pointing at one of the whiteboards to his left. "We can use the Odyssey to move one orbiting Stargate to a nearby galaxy and make the connection from there. The tricky part is finding a black hole in that other galaxy to power the gate afterwards."

"Another galaxy as the point of origin? That might work," Sam said absentmindedly, still studying the equations on the whiteboards.

"There's no might about it," John sputtered. "It'll work. I don't make math mistakes."

"It's all right, Doctor Lazy, I didn't mean to question your math skills. If you remember, I did try to hire you for the SGC years ago. You weren't interested. Too busy surfing in Hawaii, wasn't it?" Sam said with a cold smile that didn't reach her eyes.

"Samantha!" McKay sounded appalled. It was ironic for him to even acknowledge Sam's rudeness, when he himself had the social skills of a turnip.

"What?" Sam said. "That was his excuse; I didn't make it up."

Sam was always so well-mannered and mild that Cameron sometimes forgot that, when she put her mind to it, she could hold a grudge like no other.

"Please, Rodney, there's no need for you to defend me," John said with stilted politeness. "I'm perfectly aware of my reputation in academia. If you'll excuse me, Colonel Carter, I'm sure you and McKay can iron out the few missing points by yourselves. I'm going to get a change of clothes. I've been in these BDUs for over twenty hours. Rodney, let go of my hand."

"John," McKay said, his voice almost pleading. His grip on John's wrist didn't lessen.

"It's all right, Rodney. I'm just going to the bathroom. I'll swing by the cafeteria and grab some food afterwards. I'm starving."

"Yes, yes, me too, and I'm hypoglycemic. I might pass out from manly hunger if I don't eat soon," McKay said, visibly relaxing. "Bring me three of those turkey sandwiches while you're at it."

"Ask somebody else to be your errand boy, McKay," John snapped.

"I'm asking you," McKay said. He gave John a superior smirk. "Besides, you still owe me from our last chess game. I totally kicked your ass," he gloated.

John snorted. "Fine, whatever." He walked to the door.

"Your Highness," O'Neill called after him. "Why don't you make that sandwiches for everyone. I haven't had breakfast yet, either."

John glared at the general. For a moment Cam thought he'd tell O'Neill to find someone else to order around. Usually the general could handle Sheppard better than that. He somehow knew how to deal with—or around—John's disregard for authority with uncanny efficiency. Far better than Cam did at any rate. And boy, wasn't that unfair? John was a member of Cam's team after all.

The room was deadly quiet as everyone waited breathlessly for John's explosion—everyone except O'Neill, who didn't seem to notice how close Sheppard was to losing it.

John exhaled loudly and forced himself to relax. "Sure, General, your wish is my command."

O'Neill nodded at John with an absent expression and turned back to Carter and McKay. "All right, someone explain to me in little words what exactly we are going to be doing here."

McKay launched into an explanation immediately, and Cam braced himself for a long day. The guy might claim to be the most brilliant mind in the galaxy, but he didn't know what little words were. He shouldn't have bothered, though. Less than a minute later, O'Neill interrupted again.

"Mitchell," said the general, giving him a pointed look that Cam didn't know how to interpret. "Why don't you go after Sheppard and help him carry all that food. Get one of the SFs to help him while you're at it. Oh, and don't forget to bring something to drink, too. Nothing with citrus in it," he added before McKay could protest.

"Yes, sir," Cam said, a bit confused. Cam knew that the command was O'Neill code for something else, but he had no idea what for. Asking would probably be useless. O'Neill would pretend he didn't know what Cam was talking about. He was the best CO Cam had served under, but boy, was he an acquired taste.

John, it turned out, wasn't in the mess hall, or in his lab, or in any other place Cam thought to look for him. Half an hour later Cam was starting to fear the guy had just left and gone home. He ended up having to use his security clearance to see the surveillance tapes outside the corridors of McKay's lab to find him.

John was hiding—there was no other word for it—in one of the prison cells one level further up. He sat in the corner of the room, his knees bent, with his arms resting on top of them. He was lost in his thoughts. As places to hide went, it was the strangest Cam had ever seen. The corridor leading to the cell was empty. John had one thing right; no one would have looked for him in here.

Cameron stood outside the door for a moment, trying to remember exactly what had happened before John left. Whatever Sam had said to him had gouged John deeper than Cam had originally suspected. O'Neill must have noticed it. It was the only explanation for his cryptic order.

Cam slid silently into the cell, closing the door behind him. He walked to the wall and slid down next to John. He leaned his head on the wall, resting his elbows on his knees, mirroring John's position.

"Odd place to get sandwiches," he commented.

"I needed to clear my head a bit." John didn't look at Cam.

"Inside a prison cell?"

"It helps me put things in perspective," John replied.

"What things?"

"42," he said in a tired voice.

Cam frowned, lost by the non sequitur. "42," he repeated, puzzled.

John squinted, something like a smirk grazing his lips. "42, Cam, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything."


John laughed. "You seriously don't know, do you?"

"No, I don't," Cam said, piqued. He wasn't the math whiz here, and John knew it. It wasn't like him to rub it on Cam's face.

"Sorry, it's just… I hang out too much with McKay, he—"

And now Cam was just plain angry. "I'm sorry if I'm not as skilled in math and physics as our double PhD Rodney McKay, Sheppard."

"Hey, don't get all bent out of shape. It's not a math thing. It's a geek thing." John snickered. "I can't believe that you work with aliens, traveling to different planets every week and you haven't heard of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or seen at least the movie."

Cam shrugged. "I've heard of it, but I don't really like science fiction all that much."

John's snorted and then burst out laughing. "You so have the wrong job."

Cam laughed, too, unable to stay mad in the face of John's happiness. "Nah, I just don't have to read about it if I do it every day."

He waited for John's laughter to die down. "Feeling better?" Cam finally asked him.

"Some," John said, face sobering.

"Wanna tell me?" Cameron used the same soothing voice he reserved to get young airmen to talk after their first kill.

John stayed quiet. Cameron didn't press, waiting him out.

"It's nothing," John finally opened up. "I'm just angry at myself. It was stupid, getting caught up in the math like that, showing off. It's just that Rodney has a way to—argh—he makes me want to show him what I'm capable of. It's stupid and childish, and I should know better. I guess I should feel thankful to Carter for reminding me of who I really am. Working here, with you and McKay, I sometimes forget."

"John, there's nothing wrong with showing off. God knows that anyone with the brain power to shut McKay up should do it. His ego needs a reality check every now and then, or we'll need a whole new galaxy to accommodate it. I don't know what Sam's problem is, but I'll talk to her."

"There's no need," John said.

"Come on, you're good at math. You know that. I, for one, am thankful for it. If we manage to collapse the Supergate, we'd have at least a small chance of winning this war. That's a good thing you did." Cam frowned, not understanding where John was coming from.

"It wasn't just me, though. McKay was the brain behind the physics, and we used Carter's original idea to make wormholes jump," John pointed out. "I'm glad we found a way too, but… it didn't have to be me."

"John, without you it'd would've taken McKay longer to come up with a solution, and his math wouldn't have been as faultless. We both know that. I don't understand what's bothering you."

"The fact that it was me at all! I'm losing perspective, Mitchell. Between the math and SG-1 and the thrill of going out there and knowing that the whole planet is—and that I can—I'm getting too attached! And I shouldn't need Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter beaming in from fucking Antarctica to come and tell me that!" John yelled. He sighed and slumped back against the wall, rubbing his face with the palms of his hands, as if all the energy had been sucked out of him.

"It's an intense line of work, John. We save each others life on a daily basis. Getting attached is part of the package." Cam tried to sound soothing. Commitment phobia had a new meaning when it came to John. He'd figured that out after only three weeks working with the guy.

John glared at him. "I don't care if it's part of the package. I didn't sign for this, damn it. You know why they call me Doctor Lazy? Because I don't research; I don't take tenures; I barely go to conferences in my field. Doctor John Sheppard wastes his life surfing on beaches and having awesome sex with cabana boys. Ask anyone and they'll tell you all the ways in which I'm a failure to the world of math and academia. Ask my father and he'll tell you all the ways in which I'm a total failure. Period.

"I agreed to Rodney's request to join the SGC because it suited me at the time and I had nothing better to do. It was just a temporary contract. Rodney only bothered to ask me because after years of doing nothing I published one paper on the mathematics that underlies wormholes, and it caught his attention. But even that paper was a fake."

"A fake?" Cam asked. "I have a hard time imagining you plagiarizing mathematical proofs from others, John, not when you're so much better at it than they are."

"No, I don't steal math; you're right about that much," John agreed. "I don't need to. I just—I don't care about it, Cam. Math is my mistress; I go to her when I'm bored, when I have nothing better to do. I write proofs and forget about them. They languish in my drawers, discarded all around the world in different houses, collecting dust and being totally useless. I only bother to publish when it suits my own selfish needs. I don't care about science, not like the people here do. I'm not a mathematician, Cam. I'm a fake. This here, this isn't me, and sooner or later it's going to come out. I came here knowing that, and I didn't care. But now I do care, and I can't do anything to stop it."

"John, you're not a fake," Cam said, pulling John's resisting form closer.

"You don't know me, Cameron. If you did—"

"I know enough." Cam put his hand over John's mouth to stop the flood of words. He fought down the desire to jump up and beat the crap out of someone, preferably whoever had damaged John this much, but for now he contented himself with pulling John's too-stiff body into an awkward hug.

John relaxed bit by bit. Cam remained still, waiting for the tension to leave John's body. It never did completely, as if there was still some part of him he couldn't let go of, something he was holding back. Cam wished he could take the burden from his teammate.

"No, you don't, but that's for the best. I don't think you'd like me much if you knew the real me," John whispered after a moment, finally letting go of the tension and melting into Cam's embrace.

"You could give me a chance to prove you wrong," Cam said.

John chuckled mirthlessly. "That'd be like betting against the dealer, Cam. I don't take stupid chances, unless I'm in a position to work the odds, and right now I can't work them."

"That's just quitters' talk, and you know it," Cam teased him. "John, it'll be all right."

"No, it won't. Every time people say that, they lie."

"You're too jaded for a civilian, you know that?"

"I wasn't aware that the military had a monopoly on being jaded."

"True enough. Better now?" Cameron asked, moving back slightly in order to be able to judge John's expression.

"Sure," John said, breaking away from Mitchell's arms. He stood up, swatting the dust from his trousers. "Up and at 'em."

"That's the spirit," Mitchell said. "And John, don't question your place on SG-1 again. You belong on the team."

"Please, like you wouldn't trade me for Carter in heartbeat." John's expression dared Cam to say otherwise.

Cam took the time to think about it. He'd wanted Carter on his team from the beginning, but in the last months, ever since John had joined, he stopped thinking about getting her back. John was SG-1 as much as Cam and Vala were. He might not have been one of the original four, but he still was SG-1, and Cam wouldn't trade him. "No, I wouldn't. I'd love to have her back on the team, of course, but not if it meant I had to give you up. You're team now, John, and that's like family. They might piss you off every now and then, but they're still family."

"You obviously don't know my father," John said darkly.

"No, and yet you still call him father, despite whatever went on between the two of you," Cam pointed out. "You're SG-1, no matter what happens. That'll never change."

"We'll see," John said dejectedly.

Cam didn't reply. John just needed time to see for himself that SG-1 was a lifetime deal, but worth every minute. Sooner or later he'd come to terms with it. "Let's go get those sandwiches before O'Neill demotes me for insubordination, all right?"

"Oh please, you wouldn't know how to spell insubordination if your life depended on it," John said. "I bet you've never disobeyed a direct order in your life."

Cam shrugged. He hadn't. "It's called being in the military, John. You don't get to pick which orders to follow. You should try it."

"The military isn't too keen on homosexuals." John's lips twisted into a half smile that didn't reach his eyes.

"I wasn't referring to the military, but to the following orders part," Cameron said.

"Where's the fun in that?"

"Oh, I don't know. In the right context it could be very fun," Cam said, waggling his eyebrows.

John spun around, his jaw hanging. "Did you just—Oh god, Vala is rubbing off on you! Mitchell, I'm impressed!"

Cameron gave him his best momma's boy smile. "I've no idea what you're going on about," he said in an innocent tone.

"Oh no, you don't. I'm on to you now," John laughed, happy and carefree.

Cam's heart gave a jolt. A soft, pleased smile grazed his lips unbidden. John was SG-1, and it was Cam's duty as team leader to look after him.

When they brought the sandwiches to the physics lab with the help of some SFs, McKay fell upon them, causing as much damage as a swarm of locusts. While he ate, McKay fought with Sam about wormholes and black hole theory with the same passion other people reserved for discussing their major league baseball teams. John tried to stay out of it at first, but Rodney practically browbeat him into answering their questions and checking their math, insulting John's intelligence, his messy hair and his parentage.

Cameron didn't really know how McKay did it, but instead of running away in a huff, John just laughed out loud, insulted McKay back and let himself be dragged into his and Carter's screaming match about quantum physics.

Twenty minutes later the screaming stopped. All three of them hunched over John's laptop together, while John typed at the same killer speed at which he rode his bike. Little excited noises and the occasional, "Yes, that's it!" and "That might actually work!", "Shut up and let me type!", and McKay's "I'm a genius!" were the only sounds heard for a while.

Half an hour later, all three called General O'Neill with barely contained excitement.

"Sir," Carter said. "We have a viable way to shut down the Supergate."

"Finally!" O'Neill said.

Then it was just a mad race against time to get everything ready, while O'Neill met with the President and received authorization to deploy the nukes, take a functioning Stargate and the Odyssey to another galaxy in search of a black hole. Even Teal'c agreed to help them out. He remained in the Milky Way, supervising the Ori Supergate from his cloaked Ha'tak, ready to report to them the moment the wormhole jumped.

Sam, McKay and John spent the whole, long trip on the Odyssey fighting like little children. Cam started to rethink his wish of having Sam back on the team alongside John. The idea of having to deal with the two of them together for more than five minutes made his skin crawl.

Cam feared that with SG-1's usual luck during average, everyday missions, such a transcendental mission was a disaster waiting to happen. He didn't share his fears with anyone, but if the way Daniel kept twitching whenever someone so much as glanced at him was any indication, Cameron wasn't the only one expecting a whole fleet of Ori ships to materialize any moment.

To Cam's utter surprise the mission went off without a hitch. With John, Sam and McKay working—or arguing—together, they manage to render the Supergate inoperable in just two tries. It was the most anticlimactic mission he'd ever had, not that he was complaining. It was nice for things to go according to plan for a change.

"You know, after this the chances of SG-1 having another mission go off without a glitch just dropped into the realm of ten to the minus eleven," John said when Cam commented on it, because Sheppard was that much of an ass. "You should buy a lottery ticket as soon as we're back on Earth," he added with a crocked grin. "You'd have better odds of winning."

"I hate you!" Cam groaned, because for all that John was being an ass, he was probably right.

"You can have Sam check my math if you don't trust me," John goaded him further.

"Shut up now, Sheppard, or I'll exchange you for Kavanagh." It was an empty threat, and they both knew it.

John laughed out loud, and Cam smacked the back of his head with a bit more force than necessary. John yelped, giving Cam an aggravated look, reminiscent of an angry alley cat. "Ow, watch it," he complained.

"Behave," Cam warned, biting his lips to stop himself from laughing.

"I'm behaving," he said. "Ask Vala."

Cam groaned. "Oh, please, do I look like I was born yesterday?"

John circled him, eying him from head to toes. "Nope, not born yesterday at all," he said, licking his lips.

Cam snorted, hoping it disguised the way John's appraisal made his heart pound. He reminded himself that flirting was a game for John, just as it was for Vala. The two of them were so alike that at times Cameron wondered if they weren't somehow related. They got on like a house on fire. It was uncanny. Their penchant for mischief was even worse.

He still shuddered remembering the consequences of John introducing Vala to the Tau'ri tradition of prank wars. It had made for two very interesting first weeks aboard the Odyssey. At some point Sam had threatened to beam them into space. In the end Colonel Caldwell had had to intervene himself, to Cam's utter chagrin. It wasn't as if Cameron needed further proof that all members of SG-1 regarded Cam's orders as interesting suggestions they only needed to obey when it suited them. The drawbacks of having only civilians on his team, no matter how skilled—they were all like ill-behaved puppies. No matter how much mayhem and destruction they caused, Cam wouldn't give them up in the hope that given enough time, they'd grow out of it. Maybe.

"Well done, kids," O'Neill said, the moment they were beamed back to the gateroom at the SGC. "This needs a celebration! I'm calling a team night."

"Yay!" Vala said, jumping up and down. "Team night at John's!"

"Your Highness, is that all right?" O'Neill asked. On anybody else the tone would've been mocking, but by the general's standards it bordered almost on apologetic.

"Sure," John said, waving a hand in dismissal.

Ever since Vala had seen John's condo, she'd browbeaten everyone into moving team night to his place on a permanent basis. Cam didn't mind. John's kitchen was bigger than Cam's apartment, and his stove would make a professional chef cry with envy. And yet, before Cam put a foot in John's apartment, it had never been used. John hadn't even had known where to turn it on, preferring to order take-out or eat in restaurants. Cam commandeered the kitchen the moment he realized that John would never use it. It had become, after the SGC, Cam's favorite place to spend time on when on Earth. John didn't mind indulging him, especially since he reaped the benefits of Cam's cooking sprees.

Team night was one of Cam's favorite ways to pass an evening, even if General O'Neill tagged along with Daniel more often than not, making it impossible for Cameron to truly relax. O'Neill was very laid back as generals went, but he still outranked Cameron. Subconsciously, Cam was all too aware of it.

Team night with all of SG-1 (past and present) plus Doctor McKay was a nightmare. John's luxurious penthouse, while usually the perfect place to host such evenings, didn't seem big enough to hide from yet another McKay-Carter-Shepard death match. The fact that Sheppard defended McKay with more intensity than was probably necessary didn't help either, especially when five beers into the night, Cameron finally admitted to himself that he was jealous. Those were the kind of revelations one shouldn't have with a two star general sitting not five feet away, even if O'Neill had Jackson's feet on his lap and didn't even seem to notice it.

The mounting tension of the last weeks only eased after the Stargate shut down behind SG-1, leaving Cam and his team once more alone in their quest for Merlin's Weapon, light-years away from the SGC, Sam and McKay. Cam watched the clear, blue sky and shifted his P90 into an easier hold, relieved and excited to be on the other side of the gate again.

"Okay, everyone. We have a weapon to find and Priors' asses to kick. Let's get moving," he said.

In hindsight, he should have been less excited and more wary. As John had pointed out, the odds of them having another smooth mission so soon after their last stunning success were almost zero.

The information they'd been given about Merlin's Weapon had been a set up. They were ambushed on their way to the village. By Cam's count at least fifteen men had been waiting for them, armed with staff weapons and zats. Daniel and Vala had been knocked unconscious by zat fire during the first surprise attack.

John and Cameron had barely managed to make it to cover. A staff weapon blast had hit Cam in his right leg. Had it not been for John coming to his aid and returning fire like a berserker, they wouldn't have made it.

"John, go! Stay hidden until they leave, then go back to the SGC and let them know we've been captured! I'll cover you," Cam said in between bursts of gunfire. It was the only chance they had. Crouched behind some scrawny trees that barely offered any protection, with Cameron's leg shot to hell and Vala and Daniel unconscious behind enemy lines, their chances of making it out of this one together were impossible. Their next check-in was due in four hours. Unless John managed to somehow make it through the gate before then, help would come too late.

"I'm not leaving you behind," John said with clenched teeth, raking his P90 across the clearing. His mowed down several attackers, and Cam was glad to see that John was one of those rare people who did better under fire than on the shooting range. During practice John's aim wasn't precisely bad, but it wasn't that great either.

"That's an order, Sheppard!" Cam said, putting as much force into the words as he could manage. The wound in his leg throbbed mercilessly, bleeding too fast. Cam's head swam. He knew he couldn't hold out for much longer.

"I don't have to follow your orders!" John said and shot again, ducking for cover. The blast of a staff weapon impacted against the tree he was hiding behind, shattering a section of the trunk. Wood splinters flew in every direction, and the smoke temporary blinded them.

Cam cursed. "Sheppard! You'll follow this order, civilian or not, or you're off the fucking team, you hear me?" Cameron roared. Combat situations weren't the time or place to question authority, and though Cam was used to Vala, John and Daniel doing whatever they wanted during missions, they always obeyed him when it came to actual combat. Cam didn't know what John's fucking problem was, but it needed to stop then and there. "I'll cover you, and you'd better run, or it will be me who's shooting at you. Are we clear?"

"Crystal!" John snapped, but Cameron could hear the defiance from miles away. Damn it!

"Now!" Cam ordered, stepping away from behind his cover to fire at their enemies. His vision swayed as a flare of pain shot up his injured leg. He bit his lip and held down the trigger, not really caring if he hit his targets or not. He just needed to keep shooting, give John enough time to make his escape. When the clip of his P90 emptied, he slumped back behind the tree, letting the trunk take his weight. The gun fell from his weak fingers. He glanced at his side and was relieved to see that John had obeyed him after all. That was the last thing he remembered before his world blacked out.

He woke again to the cold shock of freezing water drenching him. His hands were shackled high above his head, forcing his arms to support his weight, while his ankles were bound to the floor, keeping him immobilized.

It took Cam a moment to sort through the conflicting sensations; the icy water burned and chilled him to the bone at once. His arms and legs were numb, except for the throbbing pain in his right thigh. The ringing in his ears muted the sound of the water dripping from his clothes and falling to the floor. He opened his eyes and blinked a couple of times, unable to see anything. Fear gripped him. He shook his head and took a calming breath; he wasn't blind. They were just playing tricks with his mind.

He heard steps approaching in the darkness and tensed. Cameron shifted, trying to ease the pain in his leg. It was almost impossible.

"The famous SG-1," a deep voice said, next to his ear. Hot breath caressed the side of Cam's face. He jerked in surprise. "I must confess that I'm disappointed. I would've thought you'd be harder to capture. I had hoped for more resistance."

"What can I say?" Cam said. "We save our special SG-1 superpowers for worthy enemies. What with the Goa'uld, the Replicators and the Ori, we don't have time to waste with minor nuisances."

The brutal backhand on his jaw slammed Cam's head against the wall, and his teeth clacked together. Cam's mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood. He coughed and spat. "Ouch," he said. "I'd say you hit like a girl, but Vala would probably be offended. Now that's someone who knows how to pack a punch."

This time he was prepared for the slap that followed. It left his head reeling, and he had to fight the urge to throw up. Being a smart-ass obviously paid off. He hoped that John had been able to make it. This guy was just warming up; he hadn't even asked a question yet. It didn't bode well for Cam.

"Didn't your momma ever tell you that it's polite to introduce yourself first, before you start hitting on a boy?"

Two more brutal blows followed, and this time Cam couldn't bite down the groan of pain that escaped him. He panted, trying to get his bearings back. The dizziness increased. The pain in his leg lost its edge, just like the world around him. Fuck, no good, though maybe passing out again wasn't such a bad idea. Another slap like the last would probably do it.

"You know, as first dates go, this one sucks."

Fingers caressed his exposed throat, slowly closing around it, not too tight, but enough to make the threat clear. "I'm going to enjoy breaking you. It'll make up for how boring your capture was." The grip on Cam's throat tightened, cutting off his air. He jerked and twisted, trying to dislodge the hand choking him. His lungs burned, uselessly attempting to draw in oxygen. His struggles weakened. Cam didn't notice when his vision failed and the darkness around him wormed its way inside.

He still couldn't see anything when he woke up again, but at least the pain in his face and leg was gone. Nothing hurt. Quite the contrary, Cam felt more alive than ever. He wanted to move and fight and kill. A crack of light appeared before his eyes and widened, revealing the ceiling of what had to be a Goa'uld mother ship, if the golden metal decorations were any indication. Cameron sat up, momentarily disoriented.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Colonel Mitchell," a voice said behind him.

Cam twisted around. Three men had zats pointed at his face, a silent warning not to try anything stupid. Two feet behind them another man stood, clad in leather pants and a leather jacket. The Lucian Alliance, then.

What seemed like a big meeting table had been pushed to one side of the room, leaving the center free. A chain with manacles hung from the ceiling. Cam swallowed and tried to steel himself for what he knew would soon come. Nine more men sat in comfortable chairs near the walls of the room. He recognized two of them as Netan's seconds. It confirmed his initial assumption: the Lucian Alliance had been the one behind the ambush.

"As welcome parties go, this isn't much of one," Cameron said, trying to disguise his rising apprehension with flippancy.

"Too bad that you think so," the man standing behind the guards said. Cam recognized the voice and swallowed. A memory of the man's hands closing around his throat flashed through him. "Maybe after you see our other two guests of honor you'll change your mind." He nodded at one of the guards, who lowered his zat and left the room.

Minutes later the door opened and four guards dragged the unconscious bodies of Vala and Daniel with them. They tied them to two chairs at the farther end of the room.

The man turned back to Cam. "Why don't you be so kind and step out of the sarcophagus so that my men can chain you to ceiling," he said. "You're welcome to resist, but it won't do your two friends any good. I'm not sure if they'll survive another zat shot so soon after the last." His cold gaze raked over Cameron's body, and his lips twisted into a sneer.

Cam knew his chances of escape with Vala and Daniel tied and two men pointing zats at him were slim to none. There wasn't any point in fighting yet. He climbed out of the sarcophagus and went to the center of the room, followed closely by two guards. He lifted his hands and one of them stepped forward and shackled his wrists. Cameron tested the strength of the restrains. There wasn't any give.

"Introductions are in order," the man said, padding closer to Cameron. "My name is Kefflin." His mouth curled into a cruel smirk. "Ah, I see the name rings some bells." He traced the sharp edge of his knife over Cam's face. It took a second for Cam to feel the searing pain. A slow trickle of blood ran down his chin. "It took me a while to convince my fellow seconds that it wasn't me who was behind Netan's betrayal. Some of them died in the process. You not only killed one of my best friends and allies, but also forced me to reveal myself to others, something I had avoided for decades." He lowered his voice. "You'll pay for that," he whispered into Cam's ear.

Behind them Daniel gasped awake, followed minutes later by Vala. The sound caught Kefflin's attention. He stepped back and addressed them.

"Ah, our two guests arise. How very nice of you to join us!" He cleaned the edge of his knife on Cam's uniform. "I had a very interesting conversation with our dear friend Ventrell. In between screams he confessed that it was you who'd convinced him to kill Netan, leaving the Lucian Alliance without a leader in the hopes that we'd kill each other trying to fill the power vacuum." His smile broadened. "A very clever move; I must confess that I was impressed by the ingenuity of SG-1. However, the game is over.

"I found a way to determine who should become the new leader of the Alliance without having to snuff out the competition. After some convincing my fellow seconds saw the advantages too. Want to know what we decided?"

"Not particularly," Cam said. "But I'm sure you'll tell us anyway. You strike me as one of those guys who like to hear themselves talk."

Some of the Alliance seconds snorted, and Kefflin backhanded him. Cam ignored the flare-up of pain in his jaw and counted it as a victory.

Kefflin fisted his hand in Cam's hair and yanked his head back at painful angle. "You'll learn respect before the hour is over. Mark my words."

"Cut the crap and get to the point, Kefflin," one of the men sitting on the chairs said. "We aren't getting any younger. We want our turn too."

"Fine," Kefflin growled with rage. "I'm looking forward to the next part anyway. This all you need to know, Mitchell. Since it was you who organized Netan's death, we've decided that it should be you who picks our leader. Each of us gets one hour to impress upon you why we should become the next ruler of the Lucian Alliance." He showed Mitchell his knife. "The moment you pick one of us, the pain ends. Do take your time choosing and do it wisely," he added with a vicious smirk. "After all, the first act of the new Alliance leader will be to kill Vala Mal Doran and Daniel Jackson—an example for all those under the delusion that stealing from the Alliance goes unpunished. And you'll be here to witness it."

Vala gasped, twisting in her bonds, She tried to cajole Kefflin into letting them go, but he ordered one of the guards to gag her.

Then, he raised his knife in front of Cam's face and smiled at him.

Cameron thought he knew about pain. It had been his most faithful companion during the two years he'd spent recovering from the F302 crash in Antarctica. He'd learned to live with it, sleep with it, have it curtail his movements and his thoughts, take over his life. There had been times when all Cameron could think about was the pain consuming him.

Kefflin showed him that he didn't know pain at all. He screamed until he lost his voice. The smell of blood filled his nostrils, pervasive and clogging. He spat blood and teeth, curses and threats. He thought about giving in, choosing Kefflin as the leader, anything to make the pain stop. Then he'd see the stoic and angry set of Daniel's lips, Vala's swollen, blotched and tear-streaked face; he'd listen to her muffled cries and pleas and knew that he couldn't do it. He was glad that they had brought them into the room to witness his torture. Though Cam would have liked to spare them the pain of seeing him like this, he didn't think he could've resisted the temptation to make it stop without them there, a constant reminder of why he needed to hold on until their rescue came.

A bell chimed in the distance, the sound barely registering through the brutal pain engulfing him. "Time is over, Kefflin," someone said. The knife slashed through his throat, and Cam was almost thankful when the blackness took him. At least now it was over.

The second time he woke up in the darkness of the sarcophagus, he knew what was going on. It didn't change anything. The guards were still waiting for him outside of it. He refused to go to the manacles, unwilling to participate in his own torture like that. He fought when they came to get him, mindless of the consequences for Vala and Daniel. Fury filled his veins, pumping through his body; he wanted to kill them all. They had to stun him. When Cameron regained consciousness, he was already shackled to the chains in the ceiling. In front of him stood Vosh, another of the Alliance seconds, a long whip in his hand.

It started again. This time Cam didn't think about Vala or Daniel, or even about the rescue that might or might not come. He snarled and screamed, twisting in his bonds, seething. The whip crashed against his skin over and over, fueling the rage consuming him. He didn't remember dying.

He lost track of time, his whole existence a cycle of pain and fury and hatred, followed by death again and again. Cameron forgot why he was fighting; he only knew that it was important to not give in, no matter how much he wanted to.

He jerked in his bonds, the sudden, loud sound of gunfire startling him. The second of the Alliance, torturing Cam with a Goa'uld ribbon device, dropped to his knees in front of Cameron and fell over. Blood gushed from the back of his skull where a single bullet had ended his life. Gunfire swept through room; some of the bullets ricocheted on the walls and hit Cam. The pain barely registered. It was over almost immediately. The members of the Alliance, taken by surprise, were killed within minutes.

Cam sagged in his chains, his vision swimming. Careful hands freed him, supporting most of his weight when his knees refused to cooperate. He fought the hands, rage and fury still clogging his mind, but he knew it wouldn't be enough. He was too weak and too tired. Someone called to him from a distance in a frantic voice, but he couldn't make out the words. Hands pressed him down and rendered his attempts at escape useless. He stopped fighting and let oblivion wash over him once more.

The darkness of the sarcophagus was starting to become familiar, as well as the sensation of being too alive, too charged with rage and anger with no place for it to go. It felt surprisingly good, even if the price was too high. Angry, loud voices pierced the silence inside the sarcophagus. Apparently not everything was chocolate and roses with the aspiring leaders of the Alliance. Cameron didn't move, hoping that maybe this time he'd be able to take the guards by surprise.

It took Cam a few seconds to realize that he was hearing the voices of his team and not of the Alliance members.

"Jackson, he was fucking dying," John said in a clipped tone. "Of course I had to put him in the sarcophagus again."

"He's been in it six times today, and this makes it seven! Do you have an idea what that thing does to you?" Daniel bit out. Cam couldn't tell if his voice was filled with anger or worry.

Cameron controlled the rage still roiling inside him. Foggy memories of bullets and careful hands came to him. He stood up, bracing himself for the worst in case it was all a trick. The sarcophagus opened and Daniel, John and Vala turned to him. Vala squeaked and launched herself at him, hugging him with something akin to desperation.

"Cameron! Oh, Cameron, I'm so sorry, so sorry!" she sobbed against his neck. "Are you all right? Does anything still hurt?"

"I'm fine," Cam said. "More than, even." It was the truth. He disentangled himself from her and pushed her away, hopping out of the sarcophagus and stretching his legs. The shreds of what had been his uniform clung to his skin where the blood had dried. He reeked of fear and piss and blood. He didn't think he'd ever be able to rid himself of the stench. And yet he felt better than he ever had in his life. He turned to John and smiled. "Good to see you. Where are the other men?"

"What other men?" John asked.

"The rescue party," Cameron clarified.

"Yeah, about that." John shifted on his feet, giving Cam a tentative, apologetic smile. "I'm the rescue party."

"Excuse me?"

"After you lost consciousness the first thing they did was cut out your subcutaneous transmitter. Then they took all of you up to this ship with transportation rings. The SGC would never have found you. So I hitch a ride without them noticing and came to the rescue myself," John explained.

"I ordered you to leave the planet and call for reinforcements, John," Cam said, furious. John recoiled, hurt. Cold, hard satisfaction washed through Cam. How dare John disobey him?

"Cam, don't be stupid. If I had left—"

"I don't want to hear it, John," Cam snarled, taking a step forward and looming over him. "When I give an order I expect it to be followed. What the hell were you thinking?"

"Obviously, I wasn't thinking. Otherwise I would have left and let them kill you. Had I know this was the thanks I would get, I'd have done it, too," John snapped.

"Enough, both of you," Jackson stepped in. "We need to get back to the SGC. If you keep up this racket the remaining guards will come to investigate before we've managed to secure the ship."

"The ship is secured," John said, still glaring at Cameron. "There are no more guards."

Jackson raised an eyebrow. "Not bad. All right, then. Vala, you know how to pilot this ship. Take John with you and set course for the alpha site. Cameron, you stay with me."

"I'm not taking orders from you!" Cam yelled, balling his fist. "I'm the fucking team leader here!"

"Yes, and you've been inside a sarcophagus more times than I care to count. You're in no condition to give orders," Jackson said. "I'd rather not zat you after what you've been through, but I won't hesitate for a second, if you leave me no other choice. Vala, John, what are the two of you still doing here? Leave!"

They did. Cameron turned to Daniel to protest, but the other man pointed the zat at him. "Behave. Let's find something else for you to wear. You can't go back to the mountain looking like that."

Cameron swallowed his anger and stayed quiet. His clothes were in tatters, bloodied and sweaty. He wouldn't mind changing out of them. He still resented that Daniel had been the one to suggest it. "Whatever," he grumbled, but followed Daniel nonetheless, glad to leave the room.

When they returned to the SGC, the gateroom was filled with SFs. General O'Neill hovered in front of them.

"Anyone hurt?" O'Neill asked with something like worry.

"No," Cameron snapped at the same time that John answered: "Yes, Cameron."

"Shut the fuck up, Sheppard," Cam said, the rage that had been simmering within for hours suddenly boiling over. "No one asked your opinion. I've had it with your insubordination! I told you that if you disobeyed again I'd pull you from the team!"

"My so-called disobedience saved your damned life!" John shouted, fists clenched and face red with anger.

"You could've got all of us killed as well!" Cam took a threatening step towards John. "If you'd been captured, the SGC would've never known where to look for us!" Why couldn't John see that?

"If I'd run back to the SGC while they took you away to God knows where, then no one would've been able to find you! Or by the time we did, you would've all been dead! It was too high a risk."

"The decision wasn't yours to make, damn it!" Cam bellowed. The blood in his head pounded. He wanted nothing more than to punch John in the face, beat him until he saw that he'd been wrong. "I gave you an order!"

"It was a stupid order!"

"Enough," O'Neill said in a flat, even tone that had Cam jerking to attention by instinct. "Does someone want to explain what the hell is going on here?"

Cam and John both started to talk at the same time.

"Not you two," O'Neill interrupted them with a warning finger. "Daniel?"

"The explanation can wait another half hour, Jack," Daniel said. "Cameron should go to the infirmary. Doctor Lam needs to check him for the residual effects of sarcophagus healing."

Cam turned to Daniel, taken aback by the betrayal. "I'm perfectly fine, more than fine. I feel fucking great!"

"Mitchell, you've been tortured to death and brought back to life with a sarcophagus seven times in five hours. Trust me, you're far from perfectly fine, no matter what you think," Daniel said, his voice the epitome of reason. Cameron wanted to punch him, too.

The general stiffened as if slapped. He studied Cameron with an odd expression that Cam couldn't quite decipher.

"I'm fine," Cameron said between clenched teeth.

"Right," Daniel said with a raised eyebrow, stretching the word. He looked pointedly at Cam's clenched fists. "So, you don't want to beat up everyone in the gate room?"

Cameron's eyes skipped to John and he glared. "Not everyone," he murmured.

"All of you! Infirmary! Now!" General O'Neill said.

"What? Why? I'm fine," Vala protested.

"I don't want to hear it," O'Neill said. "Infirmary, now!"

"Jack, you're overreacting," Daniel complained. Still, he took a hold of Cam's arm and guided him in the right direction, effectively forestalling any further protests. A couple of SFs followed them.

The escort set Cam's teeth on edge. He wasn't compromised. He didn't need some stupid airmen following him as if he were a criminal. He turned around, to tell them off, but Daniel's grip on his arm strengthened.

"Let it be, Cameron," he said, jerking Cam forward. Hearing his name from Daniel's lips had a sobering effect on Cam. Jackson almost never called him by his given name.

"Maybe I'm not as alright as I thought," he reluctantly admitted. Having SFs follow them was just a precaution; it shouldn't bother him. Cam knew this. The fact that every muscle in his body twitched with suppressed anger showed him that—maybe, just maybe—Jackson was right to suspect he had been compromised. "Regardless, John is doing KP for the rest of his life."

Daniel snorted. "I remember Jack trying that on me once. It didn't work so well. Besides, he did save all our asses. You'd better let it be."

"He saved our asses because he's a lucky bastard," Cam glowered, furious again. "Next time he might not be so lucky. I've no intension of encouraging his disobedience."

Daniel shrugged. "Wait until Doctor Lam gives you the all-clear, before you make any decisions you might regret."

"I warned him about what would happen if he disobeyed me. I'm not going to go back on that," Cam said.

Doctor Lam's verdict didn't leave room for arguments: accelerated heart rate and high blood pressure, over-the-top testosterone levels, too much adrenaline and noradrenaline as well as too high endorphins and norepinephrine levels. In her words, Cameron was a ticking time-bomb wanting to go off.

The fact that Cam actually screamed at her when she ordered him to take two days off killed any doubts the general might have had about Cam's state of mind. The doctor gave him a sedative under the general's supervision. The drugs made him loopy, and Cam forgot where he was. All of the sudden, the blackness threatening to overtake him became too much to bear. He didn't want to lose consciousness, terrified to wake up inside the sarcophagus with Kefflin smiling down at him with those cold, empty eyes, knowing that it was all about to begin again.

He fought against the hands holding him down. Someone was giving orders, but Cam couldn't understand what they were. He fought harder, trying to break free, escape the torture that would follow. A different voice rose through the wash of noise inside his head.

"Vala and Daniel are safe. I'm safe. You can stop fighting now," the voice said. Cam recognized it as John's. The tension left his body and he slumped against the floor, the fight draining out of him. The rest of SG-1 was safe. He didn't care what they did to him as long as the others were alright. He let the hands lift him up and move him around; he let death take him. Maybe this time would be the last.

The rapid, staccato rhythm of typing roused Cam from his sleep. His eyes fluttered open. The bright lights in the infirmary blinded him. His muscles tensed in anticipation of the pain to come, making him aware of the restrains around his writs. He struggled against them, almost hyperventilating.

"Cam. Cameron. Mitchell! It's all right. You're safe. We're safe," John's voice said.

Cameron turned to him. John's face hovered over Cam's bed. Cameron's senses refocused on the now, leaving the memories of the spaceship behind. The pervasive smell of disinfectant washed over him, familiar and unforgettable.

"What's going on?" Cam asked in a rough, dry voice. His throat hurt.

"Sorry about the restraints. You kept fighting to break free. The drugs screwed with your head big time," John said. "Are you feeling more like yourself?"

"I guess so," Cam said, testing the strength of the restraints around his wrists and ankles.

"Any particular desire to scream at me or hit me?" John asked.

"My throat hurts too much for the former; and my hands are tied, so you probably don't have to worry about the latter either," Cam deadpanned.

"Not very reassuring," John said. "Should I call the doctor?"

"I'm still angry at you," Cam said, relaxing into the bed. "Let me finish," Cam interjected the moment John opened his mouth to protest. "I'm glad you did it. I don't think we'd have made it out of there alive if you hadn't. Nonetheless, it was a risk you shouldn't have taken. It could've backfired just as well."

"But it didn't," John said mulishly.

"This time, but next time it might. I need to trust that you'll do what I ask of you when we're under fire. If I have to start second-guessing every order because I don't know if you're going to obey it or not, I'm going to get us all killed. We need to trust each other, John, even when it sucks. It's called being a team."

John looked away. "I'm not really someone you can trust. I—Cam, damn it—I couldn't leave you behind, turn my tail and run while you were being shot at. I couldn't leave you behind," he repeated in a tired and resigned tone. He laughed mirthlessly. "I wish I could have. It'd make things easier. I—" He pressed his lips. "Never mind. It's for the best. I'll call the doctor and let her know you're awake."

"John," Cam called after him, but John didn't listen. He closed his laptop with a loud snap and left.

Cameron searched for John after leaving the infirmary, but couldn't find him. He went to his office, determined to postpone his post-mission briefing with O'Neill. Kefflin's cruel laugh echoed in his ears, and he stumbled. Fear shot through him, leaving him gasping for breath. It took him a moment to remember where he was. It was over, none of it was real.

His office seemed foreign when he entered it, as if it'd been months since the last time he'd been there, instead of two days. He rubbed his temples, and walked in. Come on, Mitchell. Get a fucking grip! he told himself. He powered up his computer and started checking through the papers lying on his desk while it booted. He picked through the new military personnel applications, setting them aside. A resignation letter lay hidden among the transfer requests. Cam glanced over it, confused by the fact that it obviously came from a civilian. Then he saw the name in the signature: John Sheppard.

Cam read through it two times, his mind refusing to wrap itself around the concept. The door to his office banged open, and McKay barged in, saving Cam from re-reading the letter once more.

He brandished a piece of paper in Cam's face with more rage than usual. "What did you do?" McKay seethed. "No, don't tell me! I don't want to know! Whatever it was you did, go and fix it. I don't care if you have to get down on your knees and apologize! If you ever want to have running water, functioning computers and a room temperature suitable for human life again, you will apologize until he comes back! And don't think I'm beyond extending my revenge past the mountain. If I have to waste my valuable time breaking in another scientist to my satisfaction, my wrath will follow you everywhere! I know where you live!"

For once, Cameron didn't need to ask what McKay was going on about. He knew. "Look, this has taken me as much by surprise as it has you."

"Don't play innocent with me, Colonel! I'm the most intelligent man in the galaxy; you can't fool me. Everyone heard how you kicked John off of SG-1. You were very loud about it," McKay said, still waving John's resignation letter in front of Cam. "I was actually looking forward to having more of John in the labs. And don't think I haven't noticed how in the last months he's started to spend more and more time offworld with SG-1 rather than working with me. John is my employee! It was me who brought him into the program and you stole him shamelessly, and now you've gone and forced him to leave the SGC. I won't have this! You'll do whatever needs to be done and bring him back or else—"

"McKay!" Cameron interrupted the tirade. He'd had enough death threats in the past few days to last him a lifetime. He didn't need McKay adding to them. "I didn't kick him off the team."

"Everyone heard you!"

"Everyone also knew that I was compromised at the time. John certainly did," Cam reasoned without too much conviction. His head started to hurt. He didn't feel up to dealing with this. Damn it! John had to have known that Cam hadn't meant it. Well, he had meant it, but not—not like this. Real.

"This says otherwise!" McKay threw John's letter at Cam's face. It fluttered harmlessly onto his desk. "Fix it!" He turned around and stomped out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

A quick check showed that John had left the mountain ten minutes after leaving the infirmary. Barely enough time to drop the letter and gather his things. He'd known that he was leaving when he'd talked to Cam. Cameron tried to recall their conversation, seeking clues that something was amiss, but he couldn't find any. John had been angry, and so had Cam, but he'd thought it normal under the circumstances. It didn't explain this.

He had an airman drop him in front of John's house. Cameron rang the doorbell and waited. Two minutes later Sheppard opened the door. The weariness in his eyes was at odds with the stubborn set of his lips.

"Care to explain what this means?" Cam said, pushing his way inside, past Sheppard, and handing John his resignation letter back.

"I believe it's rather self-explanatory," John said, letting the paper fall. He closed the door and turned to face Cam.

"Explain it to me anyway," Cameron said with a wan smile.

"What's there to explain?" John crossed his arms. "You said you wanted me off the team. I'm off the team."

"Jesus, John, I was under the influence of some serious alien drugs at the time, known for inducing anger and screwing with reasoning power. Give me a fucking break!" And yeah, maybe the sarcophagus effects hadn't left his systems completely yet. The anger still simmered in him.

"You weren't under the influence," John said in a low voice.

"It might not seem so, but sarcophagus healing counts as one of the most mind-altering, addictive—"

"There weren't any sarcophagi at the ambush site. You were rather clear about the consequences of disobedience then. I disobeyed." John balled his hands into fists and turned aside. "It's for the best. You said it yourself. You need to trust team members. It's important. I'm not who you want. I've never been good with orders. I'm not going to start now."

Cam snorted. "It hasn't been a problem in the last months. All right, you don't listen to anything I say under normal circumstances, but Daniel or Vala don't, either. I've come to terms with that. However, you never had a problem following orders during combat situations. It wasn't as if PX7-992 was the first time we've been under fire. What was different?"

John tensed even further, a mulish expression on his face. Then he sighed and his shoulders slumped. He was done fighting, it seemed. "I—you've no idea how very much I would've liked to follow your order on that fucking planet. It'd have made everything easier. I couldn't. I thought about leaving you and Daniel and Vala there, at their mercy, after they'd cut out your transmitters.

"I thought about it. It should've been easy to wait for them to leave, safe. I would have told O'Neill to send a search party; then I would've spent my time in the lab, pissing off Rodney, waiting for them to find you. Or not. It should have been easy." John rubbed his face and raked his fingers through his hair. "I couldn't do it! It was never a choice. Do you know how hard that was to realize?"

"I know," Cam said, gently, as if talking to a wild animal about to take flight. It wasn't too far from the truth, with John still poised next to door, every muscle in his body ready to jump, as if there was nothing more he'd like to do than run away and never come back.

Cam's weary sigh turned into a low, mirthless chuckle. "I don't believe in reinforcing negative behavior, but it obviously needs saying. You did well. If you hadn't disobeyed, we'd probably have died there."

"You did die," John said in a low, hurt voice.

"Ah well," Cam said with fake cheerfulness. "It doesn't count if it's not permanent. This is SG-1, after all. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Besides, it'd do Daniel some good not to be the only one who's died and come back."

"It isn't funny," John snarled. "Fifty seven! Did you read my report? I murdered fifty-seven people on that mission, not counting those who died at the ambush. I shot the first one because I needed his clothes to disguise myself and board the ship. A perfect shot between the eyes. It didn't stop there. I took his zat with me, but I didn't use it to stun the guards inside the ship, no. Too high a risk that they'd wake up again and sound the alarm. So I zatted them a second time, and a third. Why waste time hiding bodies when you can just as easily disintegrate them with one more shot? Nothing remained! Not a single molecule to show what I've done. And then I went and did it forty two more times.

"I'd never killed anyone in my life before," John said, distraught. "It was actually something I've always been proud of. I didn't need to kill to get my fucking job done, because I was that good at it. One day was all it took to destroy that delusion. Want to know the best part, the really fucked-up part? I don't regret it. Any of it.

"When I went into that room and saw what they were doing to you, I wished they were all alive so that I could kill them again. Killing the seconds of the Lucian Alliance was one of the most satisfying things I've done in my life. It felt good. What does that say about me, Cam?"

Cameron went to John and pulled him into a hug. John tensed at first. He moved his arms around, as if he didn't know what to do with them, torn between relaxing into Cameron and pushing him back. Cam ignored the awkwardness, waiting John out.

"You did what you had to do," Cam said.

John gave a small broken sob and sagged into Cam's arms. "Did I? I should've left you there. Wasn't that your order? I couldn't, though. I'm a selfish man, Mitchell. I don't go around rescuing puppies and kittens and being a productive member of society. All my life I've been fine with that, and now you come along and I find myself wanting to—I'm actually thankful that you kicked me off the team. I don't think I would've been strong enough to leave of my own."

"I didn't kick you off the team, John," Cam said, taking hold of John's chin. He lifted John's head until he could look him in the eyes. "Do you want me to apologize? Because if that's what it takes, I'll do it," Cam said, his heart beating madly. John's face was lost and hurt and angry. Cam would've given anything to erase that expression. Knowing that he'd been the one responsible for putting it there hurt more than Kefflin's knife had. "I'm so—"

"No, don't," John said, placing the fingers of his right hand over Cam's lips.

Cam swallowed. His nostrils flared, the smell of John skin so near played havoc with his senses. He could practically feel his control slipping. He closed his eyes in a desperate attempt to gather enough strength to step back.

"Oh," John said, half wonder, half understanding.

Cam opened his eyes, terrified of John's reaction. He let his arms fall, giving the other man space to retreat if he so wished it.

John didn't move back. "You could have said something," he said instead, his voice rough.

"I can't tell, John," Cam mumbled against the fingers of John's hand, his mouth dry from nervousness.

"I guess you can't, at that," John said. He took his hand off Cam's lips and moved closer. John's ragged breath was warm and wet against Cam's skin. "I did mention to you that I was a selfish person, didn't I?"

"Yes," Cam said, swallowing, the temptation to conquer the half-inch still separating them unbearable.

"I'm going to kiss you now," John whispered. "Tell me not to do it, Cam."

Cam moaned low in his throat. "Can't."

John's lips grazed his own. Cam stood still, frozen, waiting for John's next move.

"I'm not right for someone like you. You'll regret this later. Tell me to leave, Cam, please."

"No," Cam said. "Never."

"I'm so not good at being noble," John said and kissed him.

John kissed like he fought, as if his life depended on it, no quarter given or taken. Brutal, fast, desperate. He plundered Cam's mouth, stealing his breath away. Cam's head reeled and the only thing he could do was hold onto John and kiss back with the same desperation. The unending hunger, which had built up inside him silently over the last months, came ablaze. All Cam could do was to open his mouth wider and allow John inside him.

They stumbled against the wall, a tangled mess of limbs and hands and bodies. Cam yanked up the hem of John's t-shirt, needing to touch skin. He felt alive and whole. The ever-present sense memory of Kefflin's knife and Voth's whip faded away under John's urgent touch, as if John's brusque, rough fingers had the power to obliterate the past. Cam gasped and panted, his voice high-pitch with need, unrecognizable to his own ears. "John," and "please," and "now," and "more." He begged and demanded, John's moans of pleasure edging him on, until the only thing left was the all-consuming need burning in his blood.

He came in John's hand, his cock jerking over and over within John's grip. His own hand was frantic around John. He wanted to see the other man come, tear down the barriers between them, stamp out John's excuses and his lies to himself, leave John bare and satiated, make him Cam's.

John's lips sought Cam's. Cameron speeded the rhythm of his hand. John moaned loudly, his body freezing for an instant before it lurched forward, his come wetting Cam's hand, smearing the sleeves of his shirt. He slumped against Cameron, knees weak, panting for breath.

They needed two more tries before they could make it to John's bed. They fell asleep, exhausted, limbs entangled with each other, skin on skin. The nightmares Cam had feared didn't come. He woke up to an empty bed, his mind groggy and fuzzy with sleep. He turned around, trying to see what had woken him. John's part of the bed was cold to the touch. Cam stood up and went in search of him.

He found John in the living room, bent over a piece of paper, writing. Two bags lay on the floor next to him. Cameron took a step forward and stopped, heart pounding in his chest, fearing the worst.

John heard him. He spun around, his eyes widening in surprise. His shoulders slumped. "I was going to leave a note," he said.

"Telling me what?" Cam asked with apprehension.

John looked away. "I'm leaving."

"I apologized already. What else do you want? I thought that—"

"What? That just because we had sex everything would be all right." At least this time John had the decency to face him. "Sex doesn't change anything, Cameron. It just complicates things more. You have your career to worry about, and I'm too involved already. It's better if I leave before it gets worse."

"Don't use my career as an excuse to leave, John," Cam said. "If you want to leave it's because of you. Don't fucking blame it on me."

"Damn it, Cam! Do you really want to spend your life watching over your shoulder, trying to guess who will rat you out and who won't? I'm not worth that."

"You don't get to decide what you're worth for me. It's a risk—a minimal risk—I'm willing to take," Cam said. He sighed. "I don't want you to leave, John, but it's more than that. You're an asset to the program. If working with me—if you don't want to be on SG-1 anymore I'll accept that, but don't leave the SGC. I thought Rodney was your friend."

"He is. It's not about him, or you. It's about me. If I stay, I don't think I'll ever be able to leave," John said in a quiet tone.

"Would that be so bad?"

"Sooner or later, you'll kn—I can't. My contract expires in a month anyway," John pointed out.

"Extend it," Cam said.

"Cameron, it's not that easy."

"Tell me why?" Cam asked.

"Because… I don't want to become any more attached," John said.

Cam laughed. "You think that leaving is going to save you from that? Do you believe that if you put enough distance between us you'll stop worrying about Jackson or McKay, about Vala or me? It doesn't work like that."

"I can always try," John said, recalcitrant.

"Stay," Cam pleaded.

"I can't," John said but his eyes told a different story.

"Please." Cam wasn't beyond begging.

John exhaled loudly. The tension left his body, to be replaced with weary resignation. It took great effort for Cam not to shout with joy.

"I'll regret this," John said. "You win. But when it bites both of us in the ass, I reserve the right to say I told you so."

"Sure," Cam said with a broad smile. "As long as when it goes right, I get the same privilege."

"Whatever," John said. Then he stood up and moved in Cameron's direction. "Make me forget that this is a mistake," he demanded.

A wicked, hungry smile twisted Cam's lips. "My pleasure."

The next days passed by like in a dream. O'Neill gave SG-1 a week of forced leave. They somehow managed to convince the general that they didn't need to see a shrink. It wasn't quite the truth, but no one, especially not O'Neill, expected SG-1 to be anything but a bit insane. It was almost an unofficial requisite. Cameron suspected that Daniel had played a big role in convincing O'Neill to let them off the hook. He'd mumbled something about Jack owing him, but Cam didn't listen. He'd learned from experience that it was best to stay clear of O'Neill and Jackson's relationship.

Cameron entreated John to use his leave to accompany Cam to his parents' house. Cameron was afraid that, if left to his own devices, John would take his luggage and disappear. He'd seen the look on John's face more than once when the other man didn't notice Cam watching. It was a mix between lost and longing, as if something was still calling to him outside the SGC and he couldn't quite decide whether to follow the call or to stay.

He tried to distract John, went running with him, took him to the firing range and called McKay to give him yet more math problems to solve. If they were home, he kissed John to distraction until they ended up in bed, panting and sweaty, all thoughts of leaving or being any place other than there, then—together—forgotten.

Despite John's initial reluctance to accompany him, he thawed during the visit. It helped that Cam brought Vala with him. She seemed to know how to put John at ease, at times better than Cam himself did. John found it hilarious that Cam's parents thought Cameron and Vala were an item. Instead of helping Cam dissuade both of them from the notion, he carried on with the charade, taking Vala's side and helping draw Cam's parents further into the lie. Between the two of them, they had Cam's whole family believing that Cam was just too shy to admit to his relationship. Cameron complained and whined. He told John his behavior wasn't that of a proper boyfriend. John just laughed at him, went to his knees in front of Cameron and showed him what a proper boyfriend he could be.

John's distraught expression dissipated during the holidays, and Cam's fear that he'd leave without warning abated. Cameron counted the visit to his parents as a win, despite the fact that his momma nagged him to marry Vala, so that she could have an excuse to organize a wedding. John and Vala, the traitors, roared with laughter when Cam made the mistake of telling them.

Things went back to normal: missions searching for Merlin's Weapon, planets going Ori or being wiped out because they refused to, Adria becoming more powerful with every passing day. It was like tilting at windmills.

Cameron finished typing his last mission report, yet another dead-end in their search for Merlin's Weapon. He saved it, composed a short e-mail to the general and, after a short hesitation, shrugged and hit send. There was no point in delaying the inevitable. His stomach rumbled, reminded him that he hadn't had any breakfast that morning and it was already past lunch time.

Daniel and General O'Neill were sitting at their usual table, both with their backs to the wall and facing the door. Cam picked up a tray, choosing random dishes without really paying attention to them, and went over to join them.

"God afternoon, sir. Daniel," he nodded in their direction, placing his tray on the table and taking a seat.

"Afternoon," O'Neill and Jackson chorused.

"Everything all right?" O'Neill asked, waving his fork around. "No urge to kill His Highness for disobedience?"

Cam flushed; an unbidden image of John splayed open before him, begging for more, popped into his mind. "No, nope," he gasped, wanting the earth to swallow him. He wasn't ready to think of John while sharing a table with a fucking general of the Air Force. "Well, no more than usual," he amended, trying desperately to sound normal and aware that he was failing.

"Relax, Colonel. It happens to the best of us," O'Neill said. "I've lost count of how many times I wanted to kill Daniel. Of course, then he died on me a couple of times, and the desire to kill him lost its novelty." He took a bite from his chicken and hummed, pleased.

"Well, it's not like there weren't times when I didn't have the urge to kill you, too," Daniel deadpanned.

Cam focused on his tray, feigning interest in his food, suddenly uncomfortable with the open intimacy between the general and Jackson.

"And speaking of the devil," O'Neill said, "here comes the king. And McKay."

Cam turned around, unable to stop his sappy grin. Yeah, he was truly screwed, but at least he knew it.

"Hi," John said, sitting next to Cam with perfect ease.

"Hi," Cam grumbled back, his heart beating faster.

McKay sat, too. He glanced at Cam, nodded in acknowledgement and started to shovel food in his mouth at breath-taking speed.

"I've been thinking," John said.

"No, no, no," McKay protested, his mouth still full. "I didn't even bring paper with me. You're forbidden to think while we're eating."

"Not about math or science, Rodney. Relax." John rolled his eyes.

"Excuse me." McKay forced himself to swallow and lifted his chin in annoyance. "You said you'd been thinking. If it doesn't involve science, you can hardly call it thinking."

"Very funny," John said in a put-out tone that didn't disguise his amusement. "Anyway, I've been pondering how the Lucian Alliance got hold of us."

Cam tensed, the memory of pain flashing through his mind. It had been a month, but the memories still caught him unawares more often than not. "And?" he asked in a clipped voice.

"We've become too predictable," John said.

"Meaning?" O'Neill asked.

"Everyone and their mother in the galaxy know that we're after Merlin's Weapon. We've visited over twenty different planets in the last months in search of it."

"And? So? Therefore?"

"We're approaching this whole quest thing the wrong way," John said, and took a bite of his blue jell-o. He twirled his spoon in the air. "If even backwards, wanna-be pirates know that we want to find Merlin's Weapon, then we're being too obvious about it. That's not the way you go about things when you want to steal them… or borrow them," he added as an afterthought, glancing at Cam. "Bulldozing our way in through the main, most well-protected entrance is just going to end up with the police knocking at our door, or in this case the Lucian Alliance, or worse yet, the Ancients. We need to search for the hidden and forgotten back door, instead. The last place people would think to protect, the weakness in the system."

Mitchell shook his head. John was very odd at times. "What weakness should we be looking for, then?"

"Morgan le Fay," John said.

"You lost me," O'Neill said. "What does she have to do with anything?"

"Of course!" Daniel said with dawning comprehension. "We know that it was she who hid Merlin's work, using her powers to stop people from finding it."

"And? So? Therefore?" The general repeated, sounding peeved.

"Oh, that makes sense," McKay said. "Obviously being around my superior intelligence is having a positive effect on you. Clever."

John chortled. "Keep that up and the mountain won't be big enough to house your ego."

Cam still hadn't caught up. "Can someone please explain for the less gifted among us how that helps us to find Merlin's Weapon?"

Daniel sighed. "She knew people would search for Merlin's Weapon, but she had no reason to hide her whereabouts. Why would anyone look for her? If anything, those trying to find the weapon would want to avoid her. If we find the planets Morgan le Fay lived on or visited, we might find some clues as to where she hid Merlin's work."

"How do we even find out which planets she's been to?" O'Neill asked.

"I have some manuscripts with references to her, and there's also… Oh, I'll be right back!" Daniel stood up and practically ran from the mess hall, leaving his unfinished food tray on the table.

"Great," O'Neill sighed. "We won't be seeing him for a while. That's Daniel speak for 'I'm moving into my office; bother me and die.' Last time it happened, he spent a month in his lab."

Twenty minutes later, Daniel ran back to the mess hall, burning with excitement. "I've got an address!"

"Huh, that was fast," O'Neill said, giving the remains of his food a forlorn look. "Well, so much for lunch. Mission briefing in fifteen minutes, children."

As planets went, Aetna was one of the most boring ones John had ever been to, just another village with green fields, tall pine trees and faraway mountains. The energy readings were nothing outside the norm for a pre-industrial society. The inhabitants had never heard of Morgan le Fay, but they'd never heard from the Goa'uld or the Ori, either. According to Jackson, that was a clear signal that the planet was protected somehow, even if its folk didn't know about it.

It was the most boring place John had ever been to. After five minutes spent talking to the old lady in charge of the village archive, they all decided to return to the SGC. They weren't going to find anything here. It was just another dead-end.

"I don't know how these people can live like this," Vala yawned. "This is the most boring place I've ever been to in my whole life."

"My thoughts exactly," Cameron said.

"Oh, I wasn't the only one thinking that, then. I thought I'd die of boredom," John yawned, too. "If I had to spend a day here, I'd end up stealing everyone's cutlery just to have something to do."

Vala snickered. "I'd help out."

"That's not right," Daniel said, stopping in his tracks.

Oops, John thought. Probably shouldn't have said that aloud.

"Come on, Daniel," Vala whined. "Don't be such a bore. It's bad enough that you brought us to this planet to begin with."

"Huh?" Daniel furrowed his brow in confusion. He stared at Vala for a moment, and then his expression cleared. "Oh, no, I wasn't talking about stealing the cutlery. That's all right." He waved a hand in dismissal.

"Daniel!" Cam snapped, while Vala and John sniggered.

"Well, not all right, obviously, but it isn't relevant either," Daniel explained. "Doesn't it strike you as odd that each and every one of us thought the same thing about this planet?"

"What do you mean?" Cam asked.

"'Boring' all of us had the same thought. When was the last time we had a boring mission? Dangerous, frustrating, long, stupid, useless, all of those things, yes. But boring? In ten years of going through the gate, it's never happened. It's not right."

"Daniel, they aren't boring just to spite you," Cameron reasoned.

"That's not what I mean. Someone is playing tricks with our minds," Daniel clarified.

"Someone is brainwashing us?" John frowned. "Actually, that doesn't sound too farfetched," he said. The archive had been filled with interesting pieces of art, and he hadn't even thought to steal them. Not that he would've done anything with the rest of SG-1 there, but such thoughts usually popped up uninvited regardless.

"So," Vala said. "Similar to the protection on Vagonbray, except that instead of falling sleep, people just get bored and leave."

"Sounds like Morgan le Fay," Cameron said. He clasped his hands in excitement. "Well, valiant explorers. Let's head back! Up and at 'em!"

"Jesus, Cameron, do you even listen to yourself?" John groaned.

Mitchell gave him an unrepentant grin and turned around. They walked back to the village in silence. The old lady didn't seem surprised to see them return. Then again, John doubted that she'd ever feel anything other than boredom in her life. Daniel somehow convinced her to let them into the archive, and they started to rummage the contents of the library in search for references to Castiana and Sahal.

Fifteen minutes in John could no longer take it. "If something doesn't happen in the next ten seconds, I'm going to start shooting things just to stay awake," John complained. "This is the dullest job I've ever had and that's counting the one time I had to—Never mind." He'd almost given himself away with that one. "I need to get out of here."

Cameron checked his watch with a yawn. "Maybe it'd better if we take turns. All right, go outside, clear your head and come back. If one of us tries to leave because we're bored, don't let us."

"I'll probably join you instead," John grumbled.

Once outside, he let the fresh breeze wash over him. He still wanted to leave, but the desire wasn't as overwhelming as before. He checked the energy readings for the fiftieth time, trying to find some kind of anomaly, but everything was tediously normal.

"This isn't a place for young folk like you and your friends," the old lady from the archive said, sitting down next to John. "We haven't had any young visitors in years. Mostly, old folk come from far over the mountains to settle down here until they die. It's a quiet town. Nothing ever happens."

"Tell me about it," John muttered to himself.

"I thought you would've left by now."

"Trust me, there's nothing I'd like more than to leave." John rubbed his temples, head throbbing lightly in not-quite pain. It was an odd sensation he couldn't identify.

"Then why don't you?" The old lady asked. Even her voice had a dull, monotonous tone that could've put John to sleep if he let it.

"We're searching for some information," he said. "Jackson thinks it might be in the archives."

"What information? Maybe I can be of help."

"I doubt it," John replied.

"You could ask anyway," the lady insisted.

John studied her again. Her eyes had the same vacant, empty expression that everyone in the village seemed to share. Why the hell not? At least he'd get rid of her. "We're searching for the modern names of two planets known in old English as Castiana and Sahal."

"Ah," the lady said, "Taoth Vaclarush and Valoscor."

John startled, taken aback. He grabbed her wrist in a death grip. "Who are you?"

"I already told you. I'm the keeper of the archive," the lady said in the same monotone voice. The expression of her face was as empty and bored as before, as if being grabbed and yanked forward was an everyday occurrence that didn't surprise her.

"You picked the wrong team member, lady. If you wanted to con someone into believing your harmless-and-helpful-old-lady act, you should've chosen Cam. He's the most gullible among us," John said, digging his fingers into the soft, papery skin of her arm.

A flash of light blinded him for a moment, and the woman's flesh slipped from between his fingers like water. When John looked up, the old lady was gone. In her place stood the same woman he'd encountered on the island of Afallach on his fateful first mission.

"Morgan le Fay," John said, knowing with certainty that he was right.

She nodded in acknowledgement. "You've changed since the last time we met, John Sheppard. You're almost ready."

"For what?"

"It will become clear in time," she said enigmatically. Powerful ascended being or not, John wanted to slap that New Agey expression off her face.

"What do you want from me? Why tell me the names of the planets, after you've gone to so much trouble to keep them hidden?" John asked. It didn't make sense.

"I was ordered by others to destroy Moros' work—you know him by the name of Merlin—because it interfered with the lower planes of existence. Back then I agreed with their assessment. It was too dangerous." She looked into the distance as if seeing something that John couldn't. "However, I believe now that Moros was right. The Ori are a threat to us all, which needs to be contained."

"Why not fight them yourself? It'd be more effective than making us to do your dirty work."

She regarded John with an odd expression, a small smile hovering at the corners of her mouth. "We can't interfere. It goes against everything we are. Besides, isn't that what you do? Other people's dirty work, for a certain price?"

"Maybe, but you haven't paid me anything," John pointed out.

"Haven't I? I just told you the two names you sought: Taoth Vaclarush and Valoscor. Isn't that what your current client is paying you to find out?" She raised an eyebrow.

"How do you—"

"I know many things, John Sheppard. You have your information. Take it and leave," she said. "I cannot help you more than I already have." Her body became translucent as she spoke. She started to glow until all that remained of her was a white, bright form of pure energy.

"At least tell me the gate addresses of those worlds!" John said, reaching for her.

Tendrils of light extended from her body and enclosed John in a warm caress. He and she became one. He didn't know where she ended and he began. For a short, glorious moment he knew all that she did: the impossible burden of knowing past, present and future and being unable to interfere. He was trapped with her in a beautiful landscape made up of time and space; it spread out across eternity. He was insignificant and omnipotent, dead and alive, forgotten and remembered, powerful and powerless, creator and destroyer, friend and foe. Infinite.

She disentangled herself from him, taking with her the unbearable burden of her knowledge and leaving behind just two gate addresses, their symbols burned forever into John's memory like his own name: Castiana and Sahal. He closed his eyes, imagining their place in the universe, and they came to life in his mind's eye, hovering in the black vacuum of space.

John staggered, letting the wall behind him support his weight. He tried to gather his scattered thoughts, center himself, remember who he was. Doctor John Sheppard, Raven, always a thief, on occasion a mathematician. More than just an insignificant entity in the vastness of the universe.

He took a tentative step on unsteady legs, propping himself up with a hand on the wall. Slowly, he made his way back towards the archive, the fresh air on his face easing some of his dizziness.

"We can go back now," John said, entering the room.

"Oh, yes please," Vala said, a desperate expression on her face. "Anything to get out of here."

"Come on guys, I know it's boring, but I have a hunch that we're on the right track here," Daniel said with more enthusiasm than should've been possible. Archaeologists were weird.

"Taoth Vaclarush and Valoscor," John said. "I even have the gate addresses."

"Excuse me?" Daniel said, raising his head from behind a stack of books to study John.

"The planets we were searching for: Castiana and Sahal, those are their current names," John explained.

"How do you know that?" Cameron asked.

John shrugged. "It turns out that the old lady in charge of the archive wasn't just old; she was Ancient." He chortled at his own pun. "Great, now that I think about it, I believe I just had sex with someone older than the human race. That totally counts as statutory rape, and she didn't even ask for permission first." His laughter had an edge of hysteria to it that John couldn't seem to control.

"You had sex with an Ancient," Cameron said very slowly, and yes, John could suddenly see where that'd be a problem for him.

"Well, it wasn't sex-sex. Just, a glowy exchange of energy-sex, or whatever," he hurried to add. "For a moment it was as if we were so far into each other's minds that we were the same individual. I know. I know it sounds like sex, but technically it wasn't. I mean—"

"Sheppard, we don't care. Now, go back to the part when you merged with an Ancient," Daniel said.

"What about it?"

"Do you even know which Ancient? And why would she help you?"

"Well, that much is obvious," Vala said. "She wanted into John's pants. Not that I blame her. I mean, who doesn't?"

"Very funny," John said.

"I'm not joking," Vala said with a wicked smile. "Even ascended beings come down from their high plane of existence in order to get a shot at you. That should tell you something. It does me. Are you sure I couldn't convince you to—"

"Vala, drop it. John, do you know the name of the Ancient?" Cam asked in a dark tone. If John didn't know better, he'd think Cam was jealous.

"Morgan le Fay," John said, bracing himself for the onslaught.

He wasn't disappointed. "What!" Daniel and Cameron said at the same time, sharing the same dumbfounded expression.

"Is she still here?"

"No," John said with a certainty he didn't feel. A vague memory, like an old, long-forgotten childhood story hovered in the back of his mind, but the more John tried to concentrate on it the further away it slipped. She was everywhere and nowhere. If she wanted to be, she could be here, too.

"All right," Cameron said. "That's it. We're going back to the SGC now. You need to have Doctor Lam check you out ASAP. You can debrief us after the doctor's given you the all-clear."

The debriefing with O'Neill was shorter than John had feared: They didn't know if they could trust Morgan le Fay, but they couldn't afford not to try, either. It was a long shot, but it was the only one they had.

Cameron took John home, ignoring his protests that he was fine. The doctor had cleared him for work, but Mitchell wouldn't have any of it. Once inside John's apartment, he lead John to the bedroom, slowly peeling the clothes off John's body, kissing every inch of revealed skin and tracing careful fingers over it, as if John were a precious, fragile thing about to break.

The tenderness spooked John. He kissed back with desperation, biting at Cam's lips and neck. His fingernails grazed over Cam's back as he humped Cam's thigh. He wanted Cameron to fight back. Their relationship was about need and desire and sex, hurried and hungry and hot.

The gentleness of Cam's slow kisses terrified him. This thing between them could never be about love. Neither John nor Raven could afford it.

It was as if Cameron could see through him. He didn't let himself be rushed, answering John's aggression with more tenderness. He captured John's hands between his, pushing them back into the mattress, making John lie still and take his caresses and soft kisses, his love, leaving him with no place to retreat.

Cameron kissed the resistance out of him, staking his claim on John's heart with the same thoroughness with which he'd already conquered John's body, until John didn't remember that he'd ever wanted anything else but the slow, rocking motion of Cam's body over his. All John could taste, and feel, and see was Cameron. The universe, which under Morgan's embrace had seemed infinite and overwhelming, reduced itself to just that moment in time with Cameron pushing into him, over and over.

"It's all right, John. I've got you," Cameron said.

John teetered on the edge of release, not wanting it to end. "Let go," Cam ordered, and John obeyed. His orgasm washed over him, intense and devastating, leaving him weak-limbed and trembling, Cam the only constant left.

They stayed in each other's arms for a while, John resting his head on Cam's shoulder, his mind a whirlwind of thoughts. He fought back the part of him demanding he leave the SGC once and for all, before it was too late. It already was too late. It had been too late the moment John killed his way clear to save Cam, Vala and Daniel. He should have left then, his work at the SGC long done. He had already retrieved the information his client had paid for. He'd just needed to wait four more weeks for his contract to run out, and then refuse to extend it.

Doctor Sheppard's reputation as a lazy surfer-boy with a failed record of past employment and enough money to buy an island would have been the only alibi he needed. It was the reason why he'd chosen his real name to infiltrate the SGC. It was the perfect identity to steal the information and leave without anyone the wiser.

He hadn't counted on Rodney. What had started as a game of one-upmanship for Raven while he rescued the doctor continued once John joined the SGC. Working under the irascible man proved too much a temptation for John to withstand. He enjoyed riling Rodney, seeing him splutter and curse with indignation. Rodney's sharp and brutal tongue tore through any pretence at politeness and courtesy and gave no quarter. His blunt sincerity was so refreshing, so different from the way John had been brought up, that he could no more stay away from Rodney than a moth from a flame.

John ended up pushing his math skills to the limit while working with Rodney, fighting with him over theories, movies and physics. He soaked up Rodney's vast knowledge and gave back as much as he could, much more than he'd ever planned to. It was a risk, opening himself up like that, calling so much attention to himself. John had tried to fight it, but Rodney had battered his defenses, steamrolling his way over John's barriers with the same ease with which he unlocked the secrets of the universe.

John hadn't counted on SG-1 either, or on Cam. He turned and kissed his way up Cam's shoulder, wanting to quiet the thoughts in his head. He'd already chosen. He would stay until they found him out. Sooner or later John would slip and they'd know the truth about who he was. It was bound to happen. The only way Raven wouldn't be found was for John to be gone long before the theft was discovered. Yet there he was, almost three months later, with no plans of ever leaving.

John Sheppard was doomed. He didn't mind, though. Over the years it had become just another fake identity in a sea of them. John had never really liked the spoilt ass anyway. When the truth came out he'd leave for good and kill John Sheppard off. Until then, he was going to enjoy every second of the crazy recklessness possessing him. He didn't remember the last time he'd been so irresponsible, and he'd forgotten how fun it could be.

"We should take Rodney with us," John said to Cam much, much later. "Chances are that we'll find the weapon on our next missions. No one knows more than Rodney about Ancient technology."

"I was thinking of asking Sam," Cameron said.

John cringed, his muscles tensing. "Ah, well, she knows her Ancient weapons, too, I suppose."

"You really don't like her, do you," Cam said.

John pulled away from him and rolled onto his back. "I don't mind her," he said in a neutral tone.

"She's one of my closest friends." Cam turned on his side and propped his head up with one arm, studying John carefully.

"Fine, you can bring her alone. I said I don't mind."

"Right, very sincere. What's your problem with her?" Cam asked, raising an eyebrow.

John didn't answer at first, gazing into nothing. She didn't think John was good enough for SG-1. It was written all over her face when she talked to him. John agreed with her; he just didn't like the reminder. "I don't have a problem with her."

Cam rolled on top of him and kissed him, chasing away all thoughts of Carter from John's mind. "I'll ask McKay to tag along," Cameron said.

It took John a moment to understand what he was talking about. "You can't kiss me like that and then expect me to think about work. It's not fair."

Cam grinned, unrepentant. "I can't guarantee that he'll say yes."

"Please," John snorted. "Of course he'll say yes; you just need to know how to sell it to him. If you make it sound as if you think that Kavanagh and Carter are both more competent than him while working in the field, he'll go, if only to prove you wrong."

A loud laugh escaped Cam. "You're a very evil and manipulative man. Remind me not to get in your way."

"I like you in my way," John husked, pulling Cam closer.

Preparations for the missions to Sahal and Castiana took over everything. O'Neill approved Cam's request for Rodney to temporarily join the team on the condition that McKay passed the physical requirements as well as the weapons qualifications needed to go offworld. John suspected it was O'Neill's last attempt to keep Rodney away. John didn't worry about it. He took the day off to go with Rodney to the physicals and weapons tests, confident that he'd find the perfect blend of taunts and praise needed to pull Rodney through it. He was right.

It was all for nothing, though; Castiana and Sahal turned out to be a dead-end. It enraged John. Why would Morgan le Fay tell him the addresses if Merlin's Weapon wasn't there? He tried to remember their encounter, unsure if he'd missed some clue, but nothing came to mind.

In the end it was Vala who figured it out. It came to her in a dream, which John suspected was probably Morgan le Fay's way of helping them further. Merlin's Weapon was hidden on a planet whose gate address was an anagram of the gate symbols from the planets mentioned in Merlin's instructions: Sahal, Catiana, Vagonbray and Camelot.

They embarked on what they hoped was the final quest with a sense of elation. If it worked they'd finally have a weapon powerful enough to stop the Ori.

Predictably enough, yet another medieval village waited for them on the other side of the gate. However, contrary to other villages they've visited, everyone knew where the Sangraal was. They just didn't know how to survive getting there.

Oric, the village's librarian, showed them the documents that described the quest, but refused to show them the map to its hiding place. The old mand suspected that they would try to take it by force as a visitor before them had. Cam asked Oric some questions about the visitor, wanting to know who else was interested in Merlin's Weapon. The description fitted Ba'al's. John's heart skipped a beat as a sense of foreboding washed over him.

The good luck accompanying them stopped there. Fifteen minutes later the Priors and their soldiers came through the gate, claiming the village for the Ori and burning any books and scrolls which didn't follow Origin. SG-1 barely managed to escape alive.

Oric joined them on their journey, claiming that the he wanted to help them find the weapon which would destroy the Priors and free his village. John didn't believe him. Since his last encounter with Morgan le Fay he'd stopped trusting harmless-looking librarians. It was too obvious a disguise for Ancients wanting to screw you. His skin prickled whenever Oric came too close to him. He didn't tell the others. Oric was the only one who knew the way to Merlin's Weapon, and John wasn't beyond playing along until he showed his true colors. He made sure to keep an eye on Oric at all times, the zat pressed firmly in his hand.

The first test on the quest for the Sangraal reeked of Morgan le Fay. They encountered another time distortion field, which had paralyzed everyone who tried to cross the forest to find Merlin's Weapon. She'd upped the ante some: there was no moving water to show them the way through the time field. It was Rodney who came up with the idea to throw stones around, in order to see which ones were caught in the time field and which ones rolled harmlessly, indicating the way.

It worked like a charm, and Rodney bragged non-stop about his brilliant solution until Cameron threatened him with lemon juice if he didn't shut up. John bit down a smile and engaged Rodney in yet another game of prime-not-prime to keep him entertained.

"Sure," Rodney said, narrowing his eyes slightly, as if suspicious of John's intensions. "15,485,867."

John laughed. Sometimes Rodney was way too predictable. "Prime." And on they went. Vala joined them after a moment, giving John a pointed look that left no mistake as to her intentions. John obliged her, moving his fingers in an oh-so-casual way to indicate which numbers were prime and which weren't. McKay's obvious bafflement at her ability to always guess the right answer was too amusing by far, especially after both Cam and Daniel caught on with what was going on. They were used to seeing John and Vala in action and knew better than to interfere when the two of them were in a playful mood.

They found Ba'al sitting in a clearing. Next to him lay an old, wooden trunk. He tried to warn them not to come closer, but they didn't listen, thinking it was a trick. The moment they moved forward the second trap set by Morgan le Fay activated.

The trunk had been bait for those curious enough—or greedy enough, as Cameron pointed out to Ba'al—to lift its lid in order to check the contents. The lid activated a force field that stopped people next to the trunk from leaving. Ba'al had been trapped within the field for three days. John winced in sympathy. He didn't think he would've fared better. Who the hell expected someone to find an abandoned trunk in the woods and walk by without opening it first? It was an unfair test, in John's expert opinion.

John checked out Ba'al from the corner of his eye, curiosity winning out over discretion. He'd heard a lot about the Goa'uld during his months at the SGC, especially from Rodney, who couldn't abide him.

"How did you find this planet?" Rodney asked from behind Cameron. He seemed scared and pissed off in equal measures, not a promising combination for Ba'al's prolonged wellbeing. Rodney could be very creative when he felt cornered.

Ba'al's mouth twisted into smirk. "Doctor McKay, what a pleasure to see you again. So free, too. I was saddened to hear that you spurned my hospitality; you left without even saying goodbye. Not very polite."

"I'm not a polite person," Rodney bristled, but he didn't leave the security of Cam's presence.

"Answer the doctor's question." Cameron lifted his P90 until its nuzzle pointed at Ba'al.

"What can I say? I used one of the best things ever invented by Tau'ri: the black market. The amount of useful information that can be purchases on your planet for the right amount of money is staggering."

The muscles of John's back knotted. His heart started to beat madly. His hand gripped the zat tighter, the knuckles white with tension. The desire to shoot the Goa'uld thrice in quick succession was overwhelming. He controlled himself; it'd be difficult to explain to the rest of his team. Besides, Ba'al didn't know who Raven was. No one did. John had made damned sure of that.

John wasn't used to having the consequences of his actions rubbed in his face like this. Until SG-1 he'd made a point of being long gone before consequences became an issue.

Knowing that, without him, Ba'al wouldn't have been able to find the planet was sobering. Something akin to regret coursed through him for the first time in his life. He didn't like it.

"We have a mole at the SGC," Cam said with contempt. It felt like a slap to John's face.

"Not just one, many. This time they couldn't provide me with the information I required: the names of the planets mentioned by Merlin in the Sangraal quest. I went to the trouble of hiring a professional. I have to thank Doctor McKay for the recommendation." Ba'al bowed his head mockingly. "After all, if someone is good enough to break through my security system to rescue Doctor McKay, then he must be good enough to break through yours. Interpol was ever so helpful in pointing me in the right direction; I was starting to despair I'd ever be able to find who was behind the attack. I so love your Tau'ri organizations."

"Raven," Cameron said, understanding dawning on him.

John recoiled. Fear flashed through him, true fear: not the rush that made his nerves tingle with excitement and left him craving for more. Dread clouded his thoughts, leaving him shaking and clammy. He swallowed and shook his head, trying to get a grip on himself. Cameron didn't seem to have made the connection. His face was twisted in an angry scowl but he hadn't turned to John once, his attention focused on Ba'al.

"Indeed," Ba'al said, not bothered by the murderous glare Cam was giving him. "It was a large investment, but it did pay off. It saved me having to infiltrate the SGC myself to obtain the information. Dear Raven not only gave me the names of the planets, but also a copy of the SGC address database. He couldn't tell me the addresses for Castiana and Sahal, but that was because you didn't have them either. With only two of the addresses needed to complete the puzzle, it took me longer to determine the planet's location. I still made it before you did. Too bad that I was trapped here, or else Merlin's Weapon would be already mine."

"Yeah, and if my grandmother had wheels she'd be a wagon," Cam deadpanned, but lowered his weapon, the tension leaving his shoulders. John relaxed, too.

"I fail to understand that reference," Ba'al said. "Why would your grandmother have wheels?"

"Yeah, why?" Vala asked.

Cameron sighed. "Why do I even bother?"

It was Daniel who figured out what they needed to do to escape the force field. Ba'al's greed had activated it, so their charity should be the key to turning it off. They all threw a possession into the chest.

Rodney refused to give up his self-made sunscreen, protesting that his skin was too delicate, but Cameron ignored him and placed the tube in the trunk. John took off one of his wristbands, enjoying the way Cameron stared at the bared skin, his expression hungry, before the colonel tore his eyes away and stalked to Ba'al, forcing him to give up his knife. After each of them had put something in the trunk, Daniel closed the lid. The force field flickered blue for a second and disappeared, setting them free.

Ba'al claimed to know the answer to the final test: the name of the guardian, the one word that would stop the dragon protecting Merlin's Weapon from attacking. John, who could spot a sham from miles away, knew that Ba'al was bluffing, but no one listened to his vehement protests. He couldn't offer his only real argument, 'It takes one to know one,' would give away too much.

He stomped ahead, leaving Cam to his delusions of cleverness. He sidled up to Rodney, but McKay wasn't in a talking mood either.

"Not now, John, there's something—I'm trying to figure something out," he said, a small frown marring his face. John knew better than to get in Rodney's way when he was concentrating like that. He enjoyed bugging Rodney, but he wasn't suicidal.

They made it to the cave where Merlin's Weapon was supposed to be hidden, according to Oric's instructions. John's well-honed sense of paranoia turned out to have been almost right: trusting harmless librarians on medieval planets was a big no-no. Oric turned out to be no harmless librarian after all, but Adria, the leader of the Priors and the Ori messiah in the Milky Way. John had been wrong in his assumption that Oric was Morgan le Fay, but Cameron and Daniel managed to see through Adria before she could harm any of them, forcing her to abandon her disguise.

"Oh! It was you who put that dream inside Vala's head, telling her the answer to the puzzle," McKay said with outrage.

"Yes," she admitted. "You were taking too long to figure it out. I needed to secure the device, and Morgan le Fay had put safeguards in place to stop those like me from finding it." A superior sneer twisted her beautiful face. "Only those possessing truth of spirit will be able to find Merlin's Weapon," she mocked.

An echo of recognition flitted across John's mind. Truth of spirit. He glanced at Cam. The colonel's face, usually open and friendly, was hard and unforgiving as he listened to Adria. John wondered what he'd be like when—if—he found out John's true identity.

"Who better than a former Ascended?" She sneered at Daniel. "With your help, I'll secure the device for the Ori."

"Hate to disappoint," Cameron said and fired, startling John.

The bullets ricocheted off a force field protecting Adria, and McKay screamed. "Stop firing, you idiot! You're going to get us all killed."

"You've seen a demonstration of my powers. You know what I'm capable of," Adria said, the smile never leaving her lips. "So I'm offering you a choice: either we work together to secure the device, or I'll start killing off members of your team… starting with him." She turned to Rodney and lifted a hand.

Rodney recoiled. "We work together," he said hastily, ducking behind John. "Mitchell, tell her that we can work together. No need to become violent."

"Fine, we work together," Cameron said. "For now."

The rest of the tests proved manageable—not easy, but manageable. Between them all they succeeded in answering the puzzles left by Morgan le Fay. Even the dragon—John couldn't still work his mind around the fact that dragons were fucking real—didn't stop them. John felt vindicated when it turned out that Ba'al didn't know the word to protect them from the dragon's attack. It was Daniel, once more, who managed to figure it out, shouting Morgan le Fay's name in Ancient at the beast: she was the guardian of the treasure. The dragon disappeared in a flash of light, leaving their way to the Sangraal free.

The moment Daniel's hand closed over the red stone, the world around them faded, and they were transported to a different place—all except for Adria. John smiled. Now that was security! He feared that he might start to like Morgan le Fay after all.

The room into which they were transferred didn't hold Merlin's Weapon, but it held Merlin himself, which John supposed worked just as well. He'd been frozen inside a stasis pod, but Daniel managed to free him.

Merlin was old and weak. He lost consciousness as soon as the stasis pod opened. They carried him to a cot and let him rest. Daniel and Vala watched over him, while John and Rodney explored the room. Cameron was left babysitting Ba'al, making sure he didn't try anything funny.

"This must be Merlin's lab," Rodney said, studying the machines and Ancient trinkets lying around with excitement. "Oh! A repository of knowledge!" Rodney practically bounced with glee, hurrying to an odd looking Ancient device imbedded into a column at the center of the room.

"Stay away from that!" Cam ordered in an urgent voice. "Especially you," he said, pointing his forefinger at John. "I have no desire to see anyone else lose their mind because of that thing."

"I don't even have the ATA gene," Rodney protested. "Besides, my brain is much more capable than O'Neill's. I could probably handle the knowledge. In any case, I wasn't going to put my head in there. I just wanted to see if there was a way to download its contents to a computer."

"It grabs people who come too close. Stay clear of it! Both of you," Mitchell repeated in his no-nonsense voice. "Better yet, McKay, come with me. We're going outside to see if we can figure out where we are."

"What! Take John with you. This is a real Ancient lab! You don't really think I'm going to leave it behind?" Rodney yelled, outrage.

"No, and that's why you're coming with me. I don't trust your judgment around Ancient devices," Cameron said.

"Oh please, I handle Ancient devices every day. It's my job! I know what I'm doing. It's what you brought me here for," Rodney complained, squaring his shoulders.

"I need you to figure out where we are and how we can get out of here. Seeing as it was Ancient technology that brought us here, it also falls into your realm of expertise." Mitchell pointed his weapon at Ba'al, indicating he should walk in front of them. "Doctor, follow me."

"Go," John said, forestalling further protests from Rodney. "I'll keep watch for anything unusual, and let you know."

"Don't touch anything!" Rodney warned him.

John raised his hands in surrender. He waited for them to leave before turning to explore some more. Merlin chose that moment to wake up. Daniel and Vala talked to him, explaining who they were and how much time had passed since Merlin's capture. John let them do the talking. He didn't trust Ancients. They had a way of seeing through all his carefully-placed lies as if John were transparent. Better to avoid them all together.

At some point Merlin stood up with Daniel's help and staggered to the repository device, activating it. Two handles shot from the wall and Merlin grabbed hold of them, placing his head into the device's opening. Complicated equations shined in the air, illuminating the room with their golden light. Models of molecules and atoms danced around Merlin, merging with each other, changing, creating new elements. John watched in fascination, trying to make heads or tails of it, but their complexity was too high.

"Houston, we have a problem," Cameron said, entering the room, followed by Rodney and Ba'al.

"What problem?" John asked, tearing his attention away from Merlin's work.

"We weren't transported to another room, but to another planet. The Stargate's DHD is broken, and we can't dial out," Rodney explained. "We're trapped in a desert, off the gate network, and without any chances of getting back to the SGC. Sooner or later we're going to starve to death."

"Don't be so pessimistic, Rodney. We can probably fix it if we work together," John said and gave Rodney a smug smile. "Technology likes me."

Rodney opened his mouth to launch into yet another tirade and stopped mid-rant. He gasped, starting at John in shock. "It's you! That's what's been bugging me all day long. It's you!" He lurched forward, pointing an accusing finger in John's direction.

John frowned, confused.

"The math skills, the games, the ease with which you moved through the forest," Rodney said. "I kept thinking that it reminded me of someone else, and now I know. Raven. You're Raven! Only you could've had the opportunity and the skill to hack our database and copy it without triggering any alarms. It was you who gave Ba'al the information!"

John recoiled. Of all the people who could have figured out his secret, he'd never even guessed that McKay would be the one to do it.

"Rodney, I don't know what you're talking about." John's tongued tripped over words of denial. It was a blatant lie, and they all knew it.

Cameron grimaced, his mouth twisted by bitterness and anger. He raised his weapon and pointed it at John. "You," he spat. "It's been you all along! You've been playing me—us—this whole time, working for Ba'al."

"I haven't," John denied, edging back slowly. A wall stopped his retreat. His glanced sideways at the entrance, but Cam and Rodney were in his way. It wasn't as if he had any place to run to, anyway. The planet was disconnected from the Gate network, and even if he managed to escape, he wouldn't survive in the desert for long.

"Well, well, well, the famous Raven," Ba'al said, stepping forward, interest piqued. "I'm very please to finally make your acquaintance; you've proven so elusive in the past."

"Shut the fuck up," John snapped at the Goa'uld.

"Is it you, isn't it? Have the guts to tell me the fucking truth for once," Cameron said in a clipped, low voice. His eyes bored into John's. Hurt and betrayal radiated off him in waves.

John's shoulders slumped. He'd known it would come to this. He couldn't have kept up the charade forever. He'd just hoped for more time. "Yes, it's me," he confessed at last.

"What? No masks this time, no contacts, no fake accents?" Cam asked mockingly.

"I don't know, Mitchell, you tell me. It's not as if you haven't had the opportunity to check me real close up," he said, anger dictating his words. He regretted it almost immediately, noticing the way in which Cameron recoiled as if slapped, the memories of their nights and days together taking on new meaning. John wanted to reassure him, to tell him that their time together had been the only real thing in this whole mess, but it wouldn't serve any purpose. Cam would believe what he would. There was nothing John could do to stop him.

"You lying bastard!"

"Is this the moment where I get to say, 'I told you so'? You were forewarned, Mitchell. I distinctly remember telling that you'd regret it. You should've let me go when I asked."

"And leave you to roam the planet, stealing valuable things from innocent, unsuspecting people?" Cameron asked furiously. "I don't think so. I won't stop until you're behind bars. I told you that the first time we met, and it still holds true."

"Now, Cam," Vala interfered, stepping forward. "There's no need to be so hasty. I'm sure John meant well. Not all of us can be as wholesome and honest as you. Everyone strays from the narrow path every now and then. Isn't that so, Daniel?"

Merlin stepped back from the device at that moment, staggering on unsteady feet. Daniel hurried to his side and helped him to his cot, whatever words he'd meant to say forgotten. Daniel talked to Merlin in a low voice. John listened to them with half an ear, his attention centered on Cam and the weapon pointed at him. He didn't need to hear the whole conversation to know that Merlin was saying good-bye.

"One last task before I can rest," Merlin said, struggling upright and shuffling to the repository. He put his face inside and the device lit up again, only this time no equations or molecules danced in the air. Minutes later the repository let him go, and Merlin felt to the floor unconscious.

Daniel and Vala ran to him. John's own attempts to help were cut short by Cam's angry voice. "Don't even think about it."

"For crying out loud, Cameron! Get a fucking grip! What do you think I'm going to do? Steal Merlin's thousand-year-old underwear?" he bit out, exasperated. "I just want to help."

"You've helped enough," Cam said.

"He's dead," Daniel said in a small voice, as if he couldn't quite believe it.

"Great! All of this for nothing!" Rodney whined. "We're stuck in this death trap, no weapon to speak of, the Orici after us, a Goa'uld and two thieves for company, and we can't even dial out. This is all your fault!" He turned an accusing finger on Cam. "I was perfectly fine working in my labs, but no, you had to come and convince me to go off world with you. What the hell was I thinking?"

"Guys, let's concentrate on the important things," John ventured. "I can work with Rodney to repair the DHD. Ba'al could help, too. He helped Carter muck with the gate network in the fight against Anubis, remember?"

"Keep your suggestions to yourself," Cam lashed out, his voice cold as ice.

"Oh come on! You were willing to work with Ba'al and Adria during the quest, because you thought they could prove useful, but you won't give me the same benefit? At least I don't murder people for pleasure," John pointed out, peeved. What the hell? Cameron was just being irrational.

"He's right," Vala said. "If he wanted to kill us he'd have done so long ago."

"I don't trust him!"

"Yeah, and you trust Ba'al so much," John mocked.

"Leave me out of your pitiful human quarrels, please," Ba'al said, lips twitching into a sneer.

"For all I know, the two of you are still working together," Cam pointed out, not without reason. "I'm not going to risk putting you in the same room. Vala, you go with McKay and Ba'al. They can work together trying to fix the gate. If Ba'al tries anything, shoot him."

"The thought wouldn't even cross my mind," Ba'al said.

"Why do I have to babysit Ba'al?" Vala complained.

"Because I trust you to shoot him. I don't trust you to shoot Sheppard," Cam said.

"And you think you can?" John asked, hurt despite himself.

"Right now, I'm barely restraining myself from shooting you. Believe me, it'd be damn easy. Just give me a reason."

And that was why one should never have sex with marks. They always took it so personally. John should've learned that lesson during the Nancy fiasco.

"So what do you want me to do?" John asked after Rodney, Vala and Ba'al had left the room.

"Stay there and don't move," Cam said.


"Don't talk either," Cam said.

A flash of light illuminated the room and the world faded for the blink of an eye.

"Merlin's body is gone," Daniel said, alarmed.

John's checked the room; they were still in Merlin's lab. Daniel was right, though. Merlin's body was no longer there.

"What the hell?" Cam activated his radio. "McKay, what's going on?"

"We seem to have been transported to yet another planet," Rodney's voice came through the radio, interrupted by static. "The DHD has been tampered with. It's been programmed to randomly choose planets from a specific database and dial out. We're working on deactivating it. Correction, I'm working; Ba'al is just being useless."

Ba'al's muffled protests could be heard in the background.

"Tell him what to do, and if he doesn't comply, have Vala shoot him," Cam said. "Contact me when you've made some progress."

"You sure are trigger happy today," John murmured.

"I told you to shut up," Cam growled.

"I don't understand," Daniel said. John turned to him, but Daniel was talking to himself, studying the place where Merlin's body had been. "He said he had one more task to finish before he could rest."

"Yeah, to build the weapon," John said and raised his hands in a placating gesture, looking back at Cameron. "Sorry, shutting up now."

"He knew he didn't have enough time," Daniel said, approaching the repository device with too keen an interest.

John's skin prickled and his gut twisted in warning. He glanced at Cameron to see if the colonel had noticed too, but Mitchell was still glowering at him. John turned around to check on Daniel and knew with sudden certainty what the archeologist was about to do. "No, don't!" John screamed in warning and lurched forward, shoving Daniel out of the way before he could actually do something as stupid as to download the whole database of Ancient knowledge into his head.

A shot reverberated through the room, startling John. His shoulder throbbed with blinding pain and he staggered, surprised that Cameron had been able to shoot him after all. His hand went automatically to his shoulder and it came back red and slick with blood. He stared at Cameron in disbelief. The other man stepped forward and John recoiled.

"John, be careful," Mitchell called out, but it was too late. The handles of the repository device extended and grabbed John's head, closing around his nape. He tried to step back, but they held him in place. A bright light engulfed John and his head exploded in a kaleidoscope of color and pain. John struggled, his fingers trying uselessly to pry the handles open, the pain in his shoulder forgotten. It was ten times worse than sharing Morgan le Fay's mind had been. The universe extended before him, infinite. He was in Atlantis and on Earth, he saw civilizations rise and die, planets come and go. Eons compressed down into seconds, too much information for John to absorb. He ignored the new voice in his head urging him to let it happen lest he make it worse. It was intrusive and pervasive, a violation of John's most inner sanctuary. He fought it as hard as he could, but it didn't change anything.

"I'm sorry," Merlin's voice said in his mind. "I didn't mean for the information to go to you. Your mind wasn't ready."

"Fuck you too," John thought back at it, furious. Clear laughter resonated in his head, young and carefree. It was the last thing John heard before the information overload became too much for him to handle. He fainted.

He woke up to a pounding headache. Galahad and Percival stood next him, looking worried. He wondered where Arthur was; he usually was present on the rare occasions that Merlin needed him. Something wasn't right with the picture, though. A second set of names popped into his mind: Daniel and Cam. Yes, he remembered now.

John and Merlin chuckled, amused at the similarities. "You do resemble Galahad," John said to Daniel.

"Did it work, then?" Daniel/Galahad asked. "Do you have Merlin's memories?"

"Yes," John said, examining the room through Merlin's eyes. "We've spent so much time here, studying, searching for a way to stop the Ori, hiding from the others."

"We?" Cameron asked with a frown.

"Merlin and I," John explained. "So many lifetimes. Atlantis, Earth… We have to convince O'Neill to let us go there, Cameron," John said and this time it was all John. "She is so beautiful."

"Who?" Cam asked. He didn't seem angry any more, just worried.

"Atlantis. We left her behind. She is so very alone. We should've taken her with us, but the risk of them following us was too high."


John shook his head, eons worth of memories clouding his mind, clamoring for attention. It was hard to sort through them all. "We don't have much time left," he said, and tried to stand, but his knees gave out, refusing to support his weight. Both Cam and Daniel hurried to him, steadying him and arresting his fall.

John could sense the Orici coming closer, a hot, red presence marring the lines of the universe. A perversion. She shouldn't have been allowed anymore than Merlin himself should have: human bodies with the knowledge and the power of ascended beings. He'd always known that it was wrong, but he'd never cared. He still didn't. John laughed. Of course he didn't care. Rules existed to be broken.

He extended his mind further, seeking the others. They watched him with absent interest, as they always did. It was the only thing they still knew how to do: watch. They wouldn't interfere. It was for the best. They wouldn't help but they wouldn't be a hindrance either. They'd given up on him long ago. Merlin did as he pleased. It sounds familiar, John thought, thinking of his own family, disapproving but thankfully distant.

Merlin walked to the repository. It would take them hours to finish. They needed to start now, before the Orici found them.

"What do you think you're doing?" Cameron said, grabbing his arm and yanking him back.

Pain shouted through his shoulder and John screamed, cradling his arm.

"Sorry," Cameron said. "I forgot. Sit down, you're about to fall on your face. Let me see." He moved John's hand away carefully, studying the improvised bandage they had put on him while he was unconscious. Blood was starting to soak through the white fabric.

"You shot me," John said, remembering.

"You startled me, launching yourself at Daniel like that. I didn't see what Daniel was about to do. I'm sorry," Mitchell said. He even sounded apologetic.

"It's all right. I've got it," John said. The pain disturbed his concentration. He waved his good arm and the bandage disappeared into thin air, exposing the wound. John tilted his head and studied it. He needed to take care of that before he could build the weapon. He couldn't let the pain distract him.

It was so very easy. John had done it millions of times before. He concentrated on his arm and the bullet slid out effortlessly. It hovered in the air for an instant, before it fell to the floor. He accelerated the clotting process in his arm. Millions of platelets formed within seconds; the wound healed immediately. Only the unblemished skin of John's arm remained.

John shook his head, trying to dispel the dizziness. "That's not good, right? I shouldn't be able to heal myself like that," he said, still confused.

Cameron and Daniel studied him with worry.

"Jack got healing powers when he had a repository downloaded into his head," Daniel said after a moment hesitation. "Are you sure you only have Merlin's memories?"

"I think so," John said. Inside him Merlin reassured him. "He thinks it'll be all right."


"Merlin," John answered Cameron.

"We can't waste any more time," Merlin said within John's mind. "The Orici will arrive soon. We should finish the weapon before then."

John staggered to the repository, ignoring Cameron's protests, but stopped short of it. "No," he said aloud, his own thoughts battling for attention over Merlin's. "Not here."

"What are you talking about?" Daniel asked with a frown.

"He wants me to build the weapon here, but it doesn't make any sense. That's not how it's done," John tried to explained.

"How what's done?" Cameron asked.

"Stealing, of course," John said, trying to make Merlin see reason. "You just don't stay at the place of the theft and wait for the police to come and get you. You take what you came for and leave. Only after you're in a safe place, a place where nobody would know to look for you, do you take the time to rejoice in the spoils. Never before then."

"I was perfectly happy without that insight into your mind," Cameron pointed out, but he didn't sound as angry as before. Maybe he was coming to terms with John's identity.

"I doubt the police will come for us here, Sheppard," Daniel pointed out.

"No, but the Orici will. She's getting closer as we speak. We have to leave this place before she arrives. We need to take the repository to a safe location," John said. "The weapon can wait until then."

"I see," Merlin said in John's mind. "Clever. You remind me of Arthur, always the strategist."

John strode out of the cave. Cameron and Daniel followed him.

"Any progress?" Cameron asked McKay.

"Not much. I might have been able to get more done, if he'd helped me instead of wasting my time with his useless, good-for-nothing ideas." Rodney glared at Ba'al. "Are you going to let John help after all?" he asked Cam.

"We know how to fix the dialing device," John said, approaching the obelisk in front of the DHD.

"We?" Vala asked at the same time Rodney shouted in glee, "Hah! I totally knew it. The obelisk was the answer."

"John's got Merlin's consciousness inside his head," Daniel explained.

"Ah, interesting," Ba'al said, approaching John. Cam raised his weapon and pointed it at the Goa'uld. Ba'al ignored it. "We've done good business in the past, you and I. I'm willing to pay you twice as much, say fifty million dollars, if you tell me how to build that weapon," Ba'al offered.

John smiled at him, tilting his head slightly. He raised his hand and the zat in Vala's hand flew to him. He shot Ba'al with it, twice. "Not interested." He dropped the zat and stepped over Ba'al's dead body.

"You killed him," Rodney squeaked, recoiling in fear.

"We couldn't risk him knowing where we are going to take the weapon. Besides, it's not as if he's an endangered species. There are enough of him hanging around."

Vala snickered. "Where he's right, he's right."

John and Merlin set to work, ignoring Rodney's avid questions. It was easy, so easy. John knew the technology in and out, had helped create some of its more complex protocols. Morgan le Fay was clever, but she'd been his student, and John hadn't taught her all he knew. "We'll need some C4," he said once he was done. Cam's pack of C4 loosened itself from Mitchell's jacket and flew toward John's outstretched hand.

"Hang on there, sunshine," Cam said, cross. "Last time I checked, C4 wasn't needed to fix Ancient technology."

"Huh? The C4 is for blowing up the crystals inside the DHD and the obelisk," John explained, placing one of the charges inside the obelisk and setting a timer.

"Are you insane? You can't just blow it up," Rodney said in alarm.

John sighed. It was tiresome, having to explain himself to lesser beings. It'd been so much easier to have them believe he was a mighty wizard whose power they shouldn't question. "The Orici will arrive soon. The only way to stop her from learning our next destination is to destroy the crystals where the information is stored. The C4 is not strong enough to destroy the gate, but it'll make sure that she can't follow us, or determine our next stop. With any luck she'll be stuck on this planet for a couple of days until her followers bring their ships to rescue her. With the crystals destroyed, the Stargate won't activate."

"All right, that sounds reasonable. Go ahead," Cameron said.

John felt inclined to point out that he didn't need Cameron's permission, but there was no point in starting a confrontation, even if he'd win. He set the second charge inside the dialing device and stood up, raising his hand over the DHD. The symbols of their destination lit up all at the same time. The gate activated, and the obelisk with it, transporting them together with Merlin's lab into the Citadel of Afallach.

"Where are we?" Daniel asked, staring in amazement at the Ancient structures and devices that filled the gateroom.

"My kingdom," John said. The words had seemed silly and pretentious before, but now they came naturally. It was his city. He'd created it for Arthur, using all the technology and the knowledge he had possessed. John was Arthur's heir; it was written in his genetic make-up. The strengths of John's ATA gene stood out, beckoning Merlin to make himself at home. "It's not your home, though," the part of John that could still differentiate between the two of them objected.

"I know," Merlin said. "It would've been easier if you had not taken Jackson's place. He was once an Ascended, but he isn't an Alteran. Being inside you makes it easier in some ways and more difficult in others.

"I'm not an Alteran," John told Merlin, but he knew Merlin's answer before the man gave it. "You could have been."

"This doesn't look like Afallach," Mitchell said, capturing their attention. "Unless you have other kingdoms you've yet to tell us about, just like you have other sources of income."

"It's Afallach. We're inside the Citadel. This room is shielded and cloaked. That's why you couldn't find it before. Only those who already know of its existence can access it," Merlin said.

"Another one of your secrets," Cameron accused him.

"Yes," John said. They had many secrets, Merlin and he. "John didn't know of this place before," Merlin clarified, admonishing John silently for provoking Cameron. "We have work to do," they said together, approaching the repository device before the others could stop them.

John always thought of himself as a thief, math being just a hobby he followed in his spare time, but working together with Merlin to create the Sangraal taught him different.

"It's so beautiful, Rodney," he told McKay much later, head pounding like a hammer, knees weak and unable to sustain him. They'd barely finished the second stage of the weapon and he felt as if his brain had been flayed apart, but it didn't matter, not one bit.

"What is?" Rodney asked in a low, worried voice. He helped John to the cot in the room and forced him to lie down with gentle hands.

It struck John as odd. Rodney was never careful with others. "The math behind it, Rodney," John elaborated. "I've never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I wish I could show it to you."

"So do I. Do you need something? Anything?" Rodney asked, tracing careful fingers through John's hair, a soft caress that felt like a blessing.

"Just water," John said, bracing himself for the next step. They needed to finish soon. He could feel Merlin's thoughts slipping from his mind, fading further with each new stage they managed to finish. "You can't just leave once we're done," John pleaded with him. "You have to see this through." Merlin's quiet acquiescence wasn't too reassuring.

John was fading, too. In his effort to keep Merlin with him, his own memories grew fainter. "Galahad, you must tell Arthur not to lose hope. We'll meet again."

"Yes, of course," Cameron said in an odd voice. "Rest some more, John."

"No, we're almost done. Then we'll rest."

"No," Galahad said and his fingers dug into Merlin's arms with desperation. "You have to fight this, John. Don't let him take you with him."

"It's all right, Cam," John said, Cameron's desperation awakening some of his memories. He wanted to kiss Cameron, but knew that he couldn't. "I've done something to make you angry, haven't I? I don't remember what, but I'm still sorry," he said and had to laugh. "My father would be very angry, if he knew I was apologizing. Sheppards never do, but I wanted you to know that I'm sorry."

"No," Cam said, "don't." He rose and punched the closest wall, cursing.

John winced in sympathy. He wanted to go to Cam, but Merlin stopped him. Later then. One more stage and they'd be done. John went to the repository instead and lost himself in the math. The last piece of the Sangraal appeared, a beautiful red crystal, the color of blood. The handles of the repository retreated and John fell to his knees. Cam, Vala and Rodney were at his side immediately, while Daniel took the last piece with reverence and placed it on top of the weapon. It clicked into place, and the whole device lit up.

"No!" Merlin shouted and the red stone flew into John's hand. "Not yet. We have to be in the Ori galaxy first."

"That makes sense," Daniel said.

"Eh, I don't want to put a damper on anyone's plans, but how do we get there?" Vala asked.

"We need to use the Supergate," Merlin said.

"You're out of your mind!" Rodney shouted. "Do you have any idea how difficult it was to block the Supergate from dialing the Ori galaxy? And now you want to reconnect it? That'd be like giving the Ori an engraved invitation to destroy the Milky Way. How stupid can you be?"

"He's right," Cameron said.

"I'm always right, thank you very much," Rodney said, affronted.

"I agree. It's not a good plan," John said.

"I thought it was your plan," Vala said with a frown.

"Hmm, no, Merlin's. I'd go for the less obvious route. Back doors are a thief's best friend," John said. "If we shut down the Supergate the Ori will notice. Better if they don't know what's going on until it's too late."

"Yeah, sure, but how do we do that?" Daniel asked, studying John carefully.

"I don't know yet," John said. "Do you know the coordinates to the Ori galaxy?" he asked Merlin silently.

"Yes," Merlin answered him.

"How long would it take us to get there using a ship with hyperdrive?"

"Four months," Merlin said. "That's too long," John agreed.

"Guys, you lost us," Cameron pointed out.

"Huh? Oh, right, sorry. That's how long it'd take to get to the Ori galaxy using the Odyssey," John explained. "It's still better than shutting down the Supergate, though."

"Wait, wait!" McKay said, staring at John with a speculative expression. "You have Merlin inside your head!"

"Yes," Merlin and John said at once.

"You can build us a ZPM, or at least tell us where to find one," McKay said, jumping up with barely-contained excitement. "What?" he said when they all turned to him. "O'Neill built himself one to access the Asgard galaxy the first time his head was filled with the Ancient repository, and he doesn't have half the intelligence John does."

Daniel chortled.

"Oh please, it's the truth. I'm just stating facts," Rodney said and went on. "The point is that with a ZPM we could use any Stargate to access the Ori galaxy. We only need a gate address. We take Merlin's Weapon with us to the other side, activate it, and kaboom, no more Ori."

"We'll need two ZPMs," John said, going over the plan with Merlin. "Otherwise we won't be able to come back."

"Hey, the more the merrier. These are ZPMs we're talking about!"

"Can you do it?" Cameron asked.

John studied the repository, recoiling from the idea of having to use it again. It was too dangerous. He didn't know if he'd be able to separate himself from Merlin afterwards. "Yes," Merlin assured him. "I've programmed your body to revert to its original form once I'm gone. Even my memories will fade away."

"I'll do it," Merlin said. "Then I will rest."

Daniel and Cam had to help him to the repository. John's body refused to cooperate. It took him four more sessions in the device before they had their first ZPM. It was just a small version with enough power to dial another galaxy once. The second ZPM took longer to build. Merlin and John kept making mistakes and passing out. John's nose started to bleed, and his eyes turned bloodshot. His fingers trembled continuously, and he couldn't hold on to the repository without help from the others.

John dreamed of Atlantis and its distant shores. He had loved sitting on its tallest pier, watching the sun set on the horizon. Faraway voices called to him, but John ignored them.

"He's killing himself," Vala said with a broken sob.

"I know," Cameron answered.

"We can't let him go on. He's not going to make it," Rodney protested in a tight voice.

"We have no choice," Cameron said. "It's his decision. We have to let him finish."

"How can you say that? He's your friend, too," Vala said.

"Yes, he is. And I'm going to honor our friendship by letting him do what he thinks is right."

"I'm ready now," John said, opening his eyes. "This is the last time. Then we'll leave."

"I've connected the first ZPM to the gate. It should be good to go," Rodney said in a strangled voice.

"Good, good, almost over now," John said. "Help me to the repository, Percival."

Cameron propped up John, carrying most of his weight. They shuffled slowly towards the device.

"He loves you, you know," Merlin told Cameron. "Once I'm gone, he's going to run. Don't let him get away."

"If he wants to run, I won't be able to stop him," Cameron said.

"He stayed because of you," Merlin reminded Cam. Then John turned away and allowed the repository to claim him.

"It's done now," Merlin said at last, stepping back from the device. With trembling fingers he wrote down the eight symbols to a gate address in the Ori galaxy on a piece of paper. "It's up to you now. I've done my part," he said, and faded away from John's mind, taking all his power and knowledge with him. John screamed, the gaping hole Merlin left behind too much for him to bear. His knees buckled and he clutched his head. Losing consciousness felt like a mercy.

He woke up to the familiar smell of the infirmary. He blinked a few times, his mind groggy. He tried to sit up, but both his hands were cuffed to the bed. He glanced around and found Cameron sitting next to him, a guarded expression on his face.

"Is this really necessary?" he asked, rattling the handcuffs against the railings of his bed.

"The IOA insisted. They don't trust you, Raven," Cameron said.

"Ah, that's how you're going to play it, then," John said, and turned away. Screw them all. "Did you at least manage to activate Merlin's Weapon and kill the Ori? Or is that another piece of information a lowly, untrustworthy thief like me shouldn't get hold of lest I sell it on the black market to the highest bidder?"

"I don't know. Do you intend to sell that information on the black market?" Cameron asked.

"Fuck you, too, Mitchell," John spat. "I want my lawyer."

Cameron snorted. "You see, the problem with working on classified programs is that you don't get to choose your own lawyer. I'm sure that the IOA will be more than happy to appoint you one, though."

"Whatever." John closed his eyes, ignoring Cameron. It wasn't as if he hadn't known this would happen. It didn't matter; he had contingency plans.

It still stung.

"McKay and I made it through the gate to the Ori galaxy and activated the device. Then we came back using the second ZPM. We still have Adria and the Priors to deal with, but the Ori are out of the game forever," Mitchell said. "I'll let General O'Neill know that you're awake."

Doctor Lam showed up the moment Cameron left. She proclaimed him healthy enough to go see the general. Two SFs came to pick him up and escort him to O'Neill's office. They freed his hands and helped him stand.

They made him walk in front of them through the corridors, trailing close behind. John had to bite back a laugh. The SGC really had no clue about what he was capable of. It was almost too easy. He waited until they were in one of the least frequented corridors and pretended to trip, clutching his side and moaning in pain. One of the airmen came closer to check on him. John slammed his head back into the man's face and spun around, sweeping his legs out from under him with a kick. John ducked and rolled, rose and kicked the other guard in the nuts in one swift motion. He bashed the airman's head against his knee when the man doubled over. It was over before it began. John heaved their unconscious bodies into a corner and ran.

John had known that sooner or later the SGC would find out who he was. He'd hidden small, inconspicuous backpacks filled with alternate identification, means of disguise and extra clothes on every floor of the SGC that he had access to. The complex was huge, and the number of closets and rooms no one bothered to use was impressive. Setting up those caches had been a risk worth taking.

He'd barely made it to the nearest one when the klaxons began to roar. He pushed aside some cartons, retrieved his backpack hurriedly and activated the jamming device for his subcutaneous transmitter. It was just a temporary solution. He'd have to wait until he was out of the base to cut the transmitter out. He changed his appearance quickly: a blond wig with long hair, glasses, a skirt and a blouse. As disguises went it wouldn't hold up under close scrutiny, but he was counting on people not checking women leaving the base so carefully. After all, John was a guy. He pocketed his fake ID and security clearance. It'd taken him months to hack into the SGC system and set them up without triggering any alarms, but the results were brilliant.

He hastened away from the storage room, not quite running, but moving fast enough for a scared scientist who didn't know why the klaxons were ringing. John made it out of the complex without further problems. He stole a car from the parking lot and drove away, passing the check point without incidents. John dumped the car as soon as he made it into the city and stole a second one, which he used to drive to the safe house he kept in downtown. Once there, he took the time to cut out the transmitter and put on a better disguise, one good enough to pass muster at the airport. James Beisner looked back at him from the mirror, a boring businessman on his fourth trip to Europe.

Over the following weeks John continued traveling, changing IDs and countries frequently. He woke up in the evenings drenched in sweat. He had nightmares about the Priors destroying Earth. He watched the sky through his bedroom window almost compulsively, wondering when—or if—the first ships would arrive.

John Sheppard's life was well and truly over. He wondered what his father and his brother would say when Interpol came to question them. He tried to tell himself he didn't care; he hadn't talked to them in almost twenty years.

Raven's inboxes were filled with offers for new gigs, but he couldn't find the energy to bother. He finished his latest Tolstoy book and started reading War and Peace. He flew back to the States despite his better judgment. He was like a moth drawn to a flame, knowing he'd die burning if he got too close but unable to resist.

It was Ba'al who pulled him back into the fold without even meaning to.

Farrow-Marshall launched a hostile take-over of yet another company, one that John knew held contracts with the SGC. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. After all, John still had an account to settle with the snake. If it hadn't been for Ba'al telling SG-1 that Raven had managed to infiltrate the SGC, Rodney would never have made the connection.

He infiltrated the company Farrow-Marshall was after and worked his way up the hierarchy once the merger took place. John didn't know exactly what he was searching for. He just wanted something to make Ba'al pay for screwing up John's life. It was petty revenge, and he knew it, but it would taste sweet nonetheless. He'd forgotten the last time he took on a job for the sheer pleasure of it, and not just because of the money.

He stumbled over the information he was seeking almost by mistake. He couldn't quite believe it. It seemed too good to be true. A careful check proved that he had hit the jackpot. Each and every one of Ba'al's clones was tagged with a subcutaneous locator beacon that couldn't be removed. A neat way for the original Ba'al to make sure that his clones didn't run amok through the galaxy, screwing up his plans. Once John gave Stargate Command the signal code, picking them up one by one would be the easiest job ever. It was like killing two birds with one stone: his revenge on Ba'al and his apology to the SGC in one single, perfect move.

He carefully erased all traces of his presence within Ba'al's security system, quit his job at Farrow-Marshall under the pretense that he'd been offered more money somewhere else, and disappeared.

He toyed with the data stick for days, not sure what way would be best to hand it over to the SGC. He didn't think he could face Cameron or Rodney, not if he wanted to be able to run away again. Vala would've been his first choice, but she lived on base and John doubted that he'd be able to escape so easily a second time.

In the end he chose O'Neill. John had been to his house enough times during weekend barbecues to know its weaknesses. He waited until three o'clock in the morning to make his move.

The house was dark. John cradled the zat he'd stolen from Ba'al. He jumped over the fence with ease and padded through the backyard on silent feet. Picking the lock on the back door was easier than breathing. He deactivated the alarm and let himself in. He was careful to skip the loose step on the stairs, knowing that its creaking would wake O'Neill up.

Despite his caution, O'Neill was waiting for him, hidden behind the door, when John entered the bedroom. Only John's honed reflexes allowed him to sidestep the attack. He twisted and fired his zat, stunning the general before O'Neill could attack again. A noise at his back had John jumping to the side. He spun around and fired again. A second figure fell to the floor.

John turned on the lights, his heart beating madly. He tried to calm his ragged breathing. With the zat still in his hand he approached carefully to the two unconscious bodies. To John's utter surprise, the second person turned out to be Daniel. He snickered, still not believing his eyes. It certainly explained a lot about those two. He tied the general and Jackson to two separate chairs and waited for the effects of the zat to pass.

O'Neill was the first one to come to his senses, his head snapping up almost immediately as he tested the strength of the bonds holding him.

"It's all right, general," John told him. "I just came to give you some information. Then I'll leave."

"Who are you?" O'Neill asked.

John frowned, forgetting for a moment that he was wearing a disguise. "Right, it's me, John Sheppard. Sorry about the red hair and the beard." He gestured to his face. "They're kind of permanent. For the time being."

"Sheppard," O'Neill said, momentarily taken aback. "Interpol wasn't kidding about your ability to transform yourself. Neat superpower." He relaxed marginally, leaned back in his chair and stopped struggling.

"John," Daniel said and opened his eyes. He'd obviously been listening. "What's the meaning of this?"

"Yeah, sorry about that," John cringed. "I couldn't risk you calling Interpol on me before I was done. As I was telling the general, I just came to give you some information I stole from Farrow-Marshall." He dropped the USB stick on the bed. "It'll help you get rid of Ba'al's clones once and for all. I owed you after what I did." He gave them an apologetic smile. "I also put in some details about SGC's security, with comments about its weak spots. It wouldn't be good if someone were to break in and steal things from you again. Fate of the planet at stake and whatnot." He waved a hand dismissively. "In any case, you don't need to worry about me. I'm retiring. Raven and John Sheppard, both. I'll call Cam as soon as I'm safely away and let him know you're tied up."

"Sheppard, don't leave!" O'Neill ordered.

John stopped in his track as if yanked by a leash, taken aback by the note of command in the man's voice. The general seldom bothered to use that tone.

"As I was going to tell you the day of your spectacular escape from the Mountain, the SGC is interested in keeping you on its payroll, despite your colorful past. That offer still stands."

"Excuse me?" John said, raising one eyebrow.

"I want you to work for the SGC. Call it a security measure. Better to have you working for us than out there doing God knows what," O'Neill said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

"You want to offer me a job?"

"Yeah sure, you betcha," the general said with a crazy grin.

"I don't know if Daniel and Cameron told you this, but I infiltrated the SGC, stole sensitive information from its database and then handed it over to Ba'al. They did tell you that, right?" He stared helplessly at Daniel, trying to understand what was going on.

"Oh, yes, we told him everything," Daniel said, smiling in a way that wasn't reassuring in the least.

"Just checking." John felt at a loss.

"I don't care what you did before, and neither does the SGC or the President," O'Neill said, shifting in his chair. John had the impression that his hands would probably be flapping dismissively if they hadn't been tied behind his back. "Well, the President might care, but I can talk him out of it. He's given up trying to resist my brilliant ideas."

"Is this some kind of joke?" John asked, watching at O'Neill with growing disbelief. "I'm a professional thief," he repeated slowly. Somehow that part wasn't getting through to the general.

"Yes, yes, I got that. Vala was a thief, too, and she's been a wonderful addition to the team. I had my doubts at first, but she turned out all right. I'm willing to give you the same opportunity." O'Neill beamed. "So, how about this? You're retiring anyway. I'm offering you a new job. You'll go with SG-1 to other planets, extract useful information or artifacts from those planets and bring them back to the SGC. It's pretty much your area of expertise. You'll have to pay taxes, though. The SGC doesn't do phantom accounts in the Caiman Islands, sadly. The President frowns upon that.

"Oh, yes, and we'll also have to talk about your salary. I don't care how good you are, five million a month is way too much. You get kudos for conning Ba'al into paying you that, though, the sucker."

John couldn't stop gaping at O'Neill. He closed his mouth and swallowed, trying to gather his wits. "You are actually serious, aren't you?"

"Didn't I just say I was serious?" O'Neill asked Daniel.

"Yes, Jack, you did." Daniel sighed with a long-suffering expression.

"You can work as a mathematician and be SG-1's scientific member," O'Neill said, enticing John. "A win-win for everyone. SG-1 hasn't been able to keep a scientist for more than five days since you left. I'm getting tired of signing the paperwork every time they request a new team member. Moreover, we'll be getting a mathematician who doesn't annoy McKay, something I'd given up hope of ever doing. A day without McKay barging into my office uninvited to let me know in excruciating details why everyone is too stupid to live is a good day. You are interested in the job, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course," John said, still dumbfounded. "That's not the point. Come on, I've been stealing things for the last twenty-odd years. My crimes were committed on Earth. Yes, sure, Vala is a thief, but she doesn't have a record here. As far as official authorities go she doesn't even exist," John tried to reason, still feeling lost. He shouldn't be the one trying to convince O'Neill that he wasn't to be trusted. The facts spoke for themselves. The whole conversation had stopped making sense some time ago. He just didn't know when. "Interpol has a whole team dedicated exclusively to capturing me. You can't just sweep that away as if it were nothing."

"Of course I can," O'Neill said. "Daniel, tell him about Teal'c."

"He's met Teal'c before, Jack. I don't need to tell him about Teal'c," Daniel said. Then he turned to face John. "Can we continue this conversation after you untie us? My hands are getting kind of numb."

"Sorry about that," John winced, "but no."

"Fine." Daniel's eyes narrowed, belying his carefully neutral tone. "I'll get back at you for this when you're least expecting it. Wait until you've been captured by unfriendly natives again, and it's up to me to rescue you."

"Well, if not like that's going to happen, since I'm not working for the SGC."

Daniel sighed. "Here we go again," he muttered.

"Why not?" O'Neill asked.

"Because. I. Have. A. Criminal. Record. I don't care what you say. Things like that matter to the government. You're a general, for crying out loud! Things like that should matter to you," John said, exasperated. It was like talking to a wall.

"Daniel, you lied to me." O'Neill said in a wounded tone. "You said he knew about Teal'c." He focused on John, his face turning serious. "Look, Your Highness, Teal'c was Apophis' First Prime for over one hundred years. Now, I realize that, when you joined the SGC, the Ori were the new black, and Goa'uld were very last year with one notorious exception. However, there's something you need to understand. Being Apophis' First Prime meant that Teal'c spent over a hundred years enslaving and killing million of innocent people on bunches of planets without so much as breaking a sweat.

"For decades it was all he was, all he knew how to be. Trust me, Sheppard, one hundred years slaughtering innocents trump twenty years of petty burglary any day. Yet I still convinced General Hammond to put Teal'c on my team. I've never wanted a better man at my back. So, you see, your pitiful criminal record means nothing to me.

"These are the things I care about: Are you going to sell classified information that might or might not be relevant to Earth's safety to the highest bidder again?"

"No," John said, swallowing the lump forming in his throat.

"Good. Are you going to run away if someone offers you a better-paying job?" O'Neill went on, implacable.

"No, sir."

"Good. Are you going to steal things again?"

"I—No—I don't know," John said. He sighed in defeat. He'd known it was too good to be true.

"Hmm, not really the answer I was going for," O'Neill said. "Okay, why do you think you are going to keep stealing things? It's not the money. If you cared about that you'd have stayed with your father instead of breaking ties with him. We learned all sorts of things while trying to find you," O'Neill explained when he saw John's surprised expression. "So, anyway, you don't care about the money. That's just the easiest way to track how good you are at your job. Am I right?"

John nodded, feeling exposed. It scared him how transparent he was to O'Neill. Not even Cameron could read him so well.

"So, it's not the money. Give me something to work with here, Sheppard. Why can't you stop stealing? I thought you were going into retirement."

"I was going to stop taking jobs. I probably would've stolen things anyway, mostly for the adrenaline," John confessed.

"A junkie, hmm, I probably knew that." O'Neill tilted his head, studying him. John fought the urge to shift. "It's not that, though. You'll get your adrenaline fix working for SG-1, and you know it. So, what is it?"

John blushed. "I—it helps me deal with shit, okay," he said in a rush. "I get nervous and next thing I know, I've already breached security at a museum or a bank somewhere in order to steal. It's second nature by now. I come into a room, any room, and the first thing I notice is what I need to do to break in and out. I stole a Picasso during my last leave because Cam's Mom scared the shit out of me. I didn't even mean to. I put it back afterwards," he added as an afterthought.

Daniel snorted, and John gave him a resentful look.

The general's lips twitched. Well good for them; let them laugh at John. He didn't mind. At all. Much. All right, he minded. They could sue him for all he cared.

"I can work with that," O'Neill mumbled to himself. "You say that the USB stick also contains information about how to improve SGC's security against espionage and theft, right?"

"Yes," John said tentatively.

"Fine, this is what we're going to do. I'm going to put some classified information in different secured locations at the SGC and at Area 51, maybe even the White House. I'll even tell you roughly where and what they are. That's how your usual employers operate, right?" O'Neill asked.

John nodded.

"Excellent! So, you get nervous, or bored, or don't know what to do with your leave time, you have my explicit permission to steal that information and bring it back to me. It won't even go on your record, no investigation, nothing. It stays between us."

"Where's the catch?" John asked, mistrustful.

"You'll tell me exactly how you got in, and how we can stop others from doing the same thing in the future. No cheating: you don't get to leave backdoors open for next time. You want to steal from the same place again; you have to start from scratch. Think you can work with that?"

John crinkled his nose in disgust. "You want to turn me into a white hat?" He liked O'Neill. The man was brilliant. "Oh, well, sooner or later it happens to the best of us. Yes, hell yes. I can totally work with that."

"So, do you want to work for the SGC under those conditions?" the general asked.

"Yah sure, you betcha," John said mirroring O'Neill's accent.

"Great! So, you wouldn't mind untying us now, would you?" O'Neill asked, lips stretching into an amused smirk.

This was it: truth time. Either O'Neill came through with his promises or he'd just played John beautifully. John had never backed away from risk. He wasn't going to start now.

"Sure," John said and approached him.

"Don't bother. I got it covered," O'Neill said, bringing his hands in front of him and rubbing his sore wrists. John took a step back, ready to bolt. "Oh, none of that now. I've been a good little general and kept my hands behind my back for the last fifteen minutes all by myself so that you wouldn't panic and run. So, please do me the favor and don't panic and run. Remember, one of the conditions of your employment was not to run. You agreed to it. Daniel, he agreed not to run, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did." Daniel rolled his eyes. "Now that both of you are done with the job interview, could someone please untie me. I'm starting to get cranky here."

"You do it," O'Neill said, waving a hand in John's direction.

John moved behind Daniel's chair and untied his hands swiftly.

"About time," Daniel muttered, rubbing his wrists.

"Let me," John said, taking Daniel's hands between his and gently kneading the sore muscles.

Daniel made soft, pleased noises and relaxed bit by bit. He stood up and pulled his hands from John's grasp. "Thanks," he said, and then sucker-punched him.

The blow took John unawares. By the time the pain in his jaw registered, he was already lying on the floor, not sure how he got there.

"Daniel!" he heard O'Neill's voice from far away.

John groaned, in too much pain to manage something like actual words.

"What?" Daniel said. "He totally had it coming."

"I can't take you anywhere. And to think you used to be such a nerdy pacifist."

"Well, dying a couple of times will do that to you. You okay down there, John?" Daniel asked, squatting down next to John.

"My jaw hurts," John complained. "Did you have to hit me so hard?" He wasn't whining. Not one bit.

"I warned you, you wouldn't see it coming," Daniel said, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand with satisfaction. "Tie me up against my will again and team member or not, I will end you. Are we clear on that?"

"Crystal," John said, moving his jaw carefully from one side to the other. Nothing felt broken, but his face hurt like a bitch. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

Daniel stood and offered him a hand. John hesitated for a second before taking it. Daniel pulled him up off the floor. "Keep Vala off my back, and I'll consider calling it even. Some day. In a decade or so. Provided you survive that long."

"Very reassuring, Daniel," John said. By Daniel's standards that was almost warm.

"Yeah, Daniel, don't undo all of my hard work and scare the kid off," O'Neill said. He turned to John. "This is how it's going to go. We're going to the SGC now. When we get there, I'm going to put you in a holding cell until we clear your criminal record with all pertinent authorities. I'll even make sure that you get one of the nice holding cells. You're going to stay put until Mitchell comes to get you. You won't make a break for it, run away, or otherwise do anything that might make my life more difficult than it already is."

"Yeah, okay. If it takes longer than a week to clear everything up, though, I might start to panic. You're forewarned," John said.

"Your Highness, I don't do deadlines," O'Neill shot back, but John felt reassured all the same.

O'Neill drove them back to the mountain. Daniel rode shotgun, while John sat in the backseat, feeling more and more like a prisoner the closer the SGC came. He didn't try to check the lock on the doors, partially because it would give away how freaked out he was, partially because he wasn't sure what his reaction would be if the doors refused to open.

Whenever John looked up, he encountered the general's eyes, checking on him through the rear view mirror, as if O'Neill could read every thought that crossed John's mind. He knew it wasn't possible. His poker face was as good as always, but John couldn't help feeling transparent and clumsy all the same.

When they pulled into the SGC parking lot, O'Neill opened the car door for him, steadying him when John's feet threaten to give out. The fresh night air did nothing to quell John's rising nausea.

"It's too late to back out now," O'Neill told him in a low voice. "You already agreed, Sheppard. I'm going to make you go through it, even if I have to cuff you myself and drag you inside in chains. Don't make this harder on you than it has to be." The general's fingers dug into John's upper arm, holding him with a barely concealed promise of violence. "It's going to be all right. Trust me."

"I'm trying," John said between clenched teeth. He wouldn't make it past the guards anyway, not without a contingency plan of some sort. He probably wouldn't make it past O'Neill, for that matter. "This is as close as I've ever come to handing myself in. It goes against every instinct in my body. If I didn't trust you, I would've jumped from the car on the way here."

"Child locks were on," O'Neill said.

John chuckled, amused despite himself. "I kinda guessed."

"It'll be all right. Trust me," O'Neill said again, as if willing John to believe in him by sheer force of will.

"I—yes," John said, knowing that right now he had no other choice. If O'Neill betrayed him—he didn't want to think about what that would mean. He'd cross that bridge later.

The general didn't take his hand off John's arm during the whole way down into the mountain. He escorted John personally into the guest room cum holding cell on level fifteenth, one of those reserved for Goa'uld who came to negotiate. The irony wasn't lost on John. They were what John would've expected from Goa'uld rooms: posh, comfortable, and under enough surveillance to put a high-security vault in a Swiss bank to shame.

John wasn't getting out of here any time soon.

"General O'Neill," John called as the man made to leave. "Can I get a book or something to pass the time?"

O'Neill turned to him, studying him with that not-quite-amusement-but-close-enough expression that always left John wondering if O'Neill had just gotten one over on him and John hadn't noticed. "Hmm, it's probably for the best if we keep that brain of yours busy. What do you want to read?"

"War and Peace," he said.

"Nah, too depressing." O'Neill waved a hand. "I'll have McKay bring you some math problems for you to have a crack at. I'm sure he'll find something interesting enough to occupy even you." He closed the door behind him, not giving John time to protest. "I want four SFs guarding this door at all times. If he gets out of here, you're all going to end up in Antarctica for the rest of your very short careers. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," the airmen chorused.

"Good. Walter, find me a map of the complex. I want two airmen located at every air vent grille that can be traced back to this room." O'Neill's words were loud enough for John to hear. John was sure that was the objective of holding the impromptu meeting outside John's door. O'Neill wanted him to know that trying to escape would be useless or, at least, more difficult than it had been before.

John sighed and flung himself down on the bed. He closed his eyes and counted prime numbers in his head, trying uselessly to stop himself from imagining worst case scenarios.

He was still on three-digit primes when the door burst open and Vala barged in. He felt kind of sorry for the airmen guarding his door. This probably wasn't going to be an easy assignment.

"John," Vala beamed at him, bouncing on his bed. "I'm very cross with you! I can't believe you pulled a scam like that without telling me. I thought we were friends." She pouted. "Tell me, how much money did you make? How much is my cut?"

"Zero. You didn't do anything," he said with a smile. Vala's enthusiasm was contagious. It abated some of John's fears. It was nice to know that at least one member of his team wouldn't turn on him after knowing the truth. Her presence filled John's heart with hope. If Cam and Daniel had managed to accept Vala despite her past, they might extend the same courtesy to John once he'd proven that his intentions were good this time around.

"I didn't do anything?" Vala spluttered. "That's so untrue! I taught you everything I knew about the Goa'uld and about Ba'al. You must confess that without me, stealing the information from Ba'al and making it out of his clutches alive and unnoticed would have been much more difficult. Besides, we're teammates. It's natural to share the spoils. I want twenty-five percent of the take."

"Forget it! I could've found out everything I needed to know about the Goa'uld from Daniel just as well," he said.

"He wouldn't have been as charming and nice about it as I was," Vala pouted. "Do you really want to be on my bad side? Daniel is already angry with you and Cam doesn't even want you on the team." Her smile took on a sexy, predatory edge. "I could help you with that. I'm sure with the proper motivation Mitchell could be persuaded."

John groaned. "Thanks, but not thanks. I'd appreciate it if you leave Mitchell out of this."

"Oh, I understand." She lowered her voice. "You want to do the persuading all by yourself." She wriggled her eyebrows at him. "You're a very selfish man, John Sheppard. Fifteen per cent and you let me watch while you and Mitchell 'discuss' your position on the team."

"Vala!" John hissed, eying the cameras in the corners of the room warily. "Could you please shut up! I'll give you five percent of the cut, but only if you drop the subject altogether. Seriously, it's not as if you even have a bank account. How am I going to transfer the money?"

"Ten per cent and you'll create an account for me, of course. Is that what you need to obtain one of those lovely plastic cards the Tau'ri use for shopping?"

"Four per cent is my last offer. If you keep trying to get more, your share will only go down further."

"You drive a hard bargain." She sighed. "Fine, four per cent it is and a bank account with one of those plastic money cards."

"Okay, I'll get you your account. Fuck, if Mitchell wasn't going to kill me before, he'll kill me the moment he finds out I'm arming you with a credit card and setting you loose on Earth."

Vala chuckled. She pulled John closer and draped her arms around him in a half hug. John stiffened, not knowing how to react.

"He'll come around," she whispered in his ear. "I know his kind. They have this compulsion to redeem people like you and me. He won't be able help it."

"I don't know if I can be redeemed," John confessed, relaxing slightly.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "That'll only make you more enticing. Besides, Mitchell doesn't give up that easily." She straightened and stood. "I'm going to leave now. Try to get some sleep. Or I could stay and help you relax," she said, lowering her voice into a seductive whisper.

"You lack certain body parts I find necessary in order to—you know. Nothing personal," John said.

"Oh, there are ways around that." She flexed her fingers and licked her lips suggestively.

It startled a laugh out of John. "Thanks, but I'd rather not."

"Spoil sport."

"Did O'Neill say anything about—"

"He called a meeting in which he explained more or less what was going on," Vala said, sitting back and sprawling on John's bed as if it was hers. "Immediately after, McKay and Mitchell started a fight about who got to see you first. I sneaked out and came here before they noticed. O'Neill also mentioned something about talking to your President and some person called Interpull or Interpoll."

"Interpol; it's not a person," John clarified. "It stands for International Criminal Police Organization, like the police but for the whole planet."

"Like the IOA?" Vala wrinkled her nose.

"Kind of, but with more weapons and more jails. They've been after me for years. O'Neill thinks he can get them to drop the charges, but I have my doubts," John said. His expression turned pensive. He focused on Vala, assessing her. "If O'Neill can't pull it off, will you—"

"O'Neill will pull it off," Vala interrupted before he could finish. Her eyes shifted briefly to the surveillance cameras and then back to John. "If anyone can, it's him." She moved closer to John and kissed his cheek. "The rest goes without saying," she whispered against John's skin. Her warm breath tickled John's cheek. "I'd expect the same from you if the situations were reversed."

"Thank you," he murmured, turning his face as if to kiss her cheek, too, hiding the movement of his lips from the camera. "For that alone I'll raise your cut to ten per cent."

She laughed and stood again, raising her voice to a normal level. "I'd better go. McKay and Mitchell will be here any minute. Good luck!" She knocked on the door and waited for the SFs to open it. She winked at him before leaving.

John smiled at the closed door, feeling less terrified now that he knew he had at least one ally in the SGC if things went to hell. Vala understood where John was coming from.

McKay arrived next, an unreadable expression on his face. "Is it true?"

"What?" John asked.

"That you've come back to work for the SGC," Rodney clarified.

"If O'Neill manages to convince the President and Interpol, then yes," John said, doubt coloring his voice.

"Well, that's good," Rodney said. "Hmm, I'll have to tell Kusanagi to leave her project to you. You'll make faster progress. She can assist Zelenka with the shield extension and then I can go back to working on—"

"Rodney, it's not a sure thing," John pointed out. "I don't think Interpol and the President will be that easy to sway."

Rodney snorted. "Please, this is O'Neill we're talking about. They'll agree to his demands without realizing that they're doing it. By the time they understand what they've done, it'll be far too late. I'll get everything ready for your return. Here, you can start working on this," he shoved some papers into John's hands. "I've made some progress on the ZPM research during your absence. You can check the math; all of your wannabe-substitutes were horrible at it. I'm glad you're back." His cheeks flushed in embarrassment and then he turned around and hurried to the door.

"Rodney, wait!" John called after him.

"Yes?" Rodney prompted with impatience, pausing at the door.

"Don't you mind my past at all?"

Rodney shrugged. "I've spent two months trying to get the labs to function without you. It was hell. I didn't realize how much of the actual administrative nonsense you took off my hands. All the scientists hate me. I made two people quit. Usually, I wouldn't mind, but they were marginally less stupid than the rest. Do you have an idea how difficult it is to find that these days?

"Really, I'm just glad you're back. I don't care if you steal the Mona Lisa and have mafia babies in your free time as long as you're here to deal with the day-to-day chaos in the labs, and I have enough time to do my research without having to worry about paperwork and meetings and all those other tedious little things."

John smiled. "I can do that."

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, waving his hands. "And don't think you'll have enough time for stealing. Now that I know you weren't working at full capacity, I intend to double your workload. You can obviously manage it, unlike those wimps you left me with, who cower in fear at the mere mention of more responsibility."

"Sure," John said. It was best not to point out to McKay that stealing was John's proven method of dealing with stress. Giving him more to do would only increase John's urge to indulge in it.

The door opened and Cameron came in. He nodded at Rodney, who glanced back at John with something like pity, excused himself and left.

Cameron closed the door behind him and leaned against it, watching John with an inscrutable expression. The silence stretched, filling the space between them with its heaviness. John stared at his feet, unable to meet Cam's eyes, not wanting to face the contempt he knew he'd find there.

"I told you you'd regret it," John said finally, when the silence became too much.

Cam snorted. "Don't make me deck you, Sheppard. The general wouldn't approve."

John glanced at Cam. "Daniel already beat you to that. O'Neill wasn't pleased."

Cameron's lips tightened in anger. "Let me see," he said, coming closer to John and examining his face with careful fingers. "Red hair?"

"I was going for different, not for pretty," John said.

Cameron opened his mouth as if to comment on that, and then thought better of it. "Why did you come back, then?" he asked instead.

"O'Neill talked me into it," John said. "I'm still trying to figure out how. One minute I was on my way to retirement, the next I was letting him drive me to jail without a fight." He shook his head.

Cam's lips twitched a little. "That's General O'Neill for you," he said. All traces of amusement left his face, and he continued: "That's not what I meant, though. The moment you went to the general's house it was over anyway. What I want to know is, why did you decide to go there to begin with?"

John shrugged. "I—there were things at stake, important things. I stumbled on some information about Ba'al that was essential for planetary security. I have no more desire to see Earth enslaved by Ba'al or the Ori than you do."

"You could have sent an encrypted file to McKay with the information without confronting the general. You probably could've dropped off the information at any of our houses while we were off-world." Cam scrutinized John's face as if he wanted to crawl into his mind and read every thought coursing through it. "Why go there in the first place?"

John opened his mouth to respond and closed it again, realizing that he didn't know the answer. Cam was right; there were a thousand less dangerous ways in which John could've informed the SGC about Ba'al's plan without having to come to Colorado Springs. None of them had ever occurred to him. It was the kind of amateur mistake he hadn't made in over a decade.

"I don't know," John said, not bothering to hide how much the answer spooked him. He watched Cam with a frown, confusion written all across his face.

Cam smiled at him almost condescendingly. "You didn't pick the easy way there, did you?"

John stiffened and scowled at Cam. "Don't make this into something it isn't, Mitchell. It might not have been one of my more brilliant ideas, but I didn't go there hoping that the general would take me under his wing and ask me to join the SGC again. I wasn't trying to come back." He didn't want any misunderstandings between them. If Cam was going to take him back onto SG-1, it'd have to be without pretenses. No more lies.

"I know. Maybe that's what's bothering me. You didn't want to come back, and yet here you are, expecting to be taken back all the same."

John's eyes skipped to the door, its grey metallic color suddenly fascinating. "I don't expect anything. I understand that—it's fine if you don't want me on the team any longer. If O'Neill manages by some miracle to clear my record, and I end up here instead of in a maximum security prison, I'll make sure to stay out of your way."

"Ah, the easy way after all," Cam said in a quiet voice.

John's gaze snapped back to Cam. "I'm not doing it for myself. I'm doing it for you and the team," he hissed through clenched teeth.

"I bet that excuse comes handy in your profession. I didn't ask you to stay away from the team, did I?" Cam's voice was low and calm, but it cut through John's heart like a knife. Yelling would have been easier to deal with.

"You can't possibly want me on the team after all I did," John pointed out unsteadily. He clutched the fabric of his trousers to stop the trembling in his fingers, fighting the desperate urge to beg Cam for a second chance.

"It wouldn't be wise, no," Cam said. "Even after the evidence of what you've done became clear, I still didn't want to believe it. Seeing Merlin inside you… killing you one minute at a time… you have no idea what that did to me. I don't trust my ability to make rational decisions when it comes to you, John. I want nothing more than to believe you've changed, but I can't trust myself enough to make that call."

"Good, because I haven't changed," John said, standing up. He moved away, wanting more distance between Cameron and himself. "I'm not going to. I'm a thief; I'll always be a thief. I'm not sure I know how to stop being one."

Hurt flashed across Cam's face before he schooled his expression back to indifference. "The general said that you'd agreed to work for the SGC."

"I agreed to work for the SGC, not to stop stealing. General O'Neill didn't seem to mind." John shrugged. "You don't mind Vala." That hurt more than anything else.

"Vala's never given critical information about the SGC to Ba'al," Cam retorted.

"She's also never provided you with the address for Ba'al's cloning facility or with the subspace transmission code for locating Ba'al's clones across the galaxy. Go away, Mitchell. I'm not going to explain myself to you."

"John—"Cameron began, stepping closer.

"I don't want to hear it. Get out!" John interrupted before Cam could continue.

"You don't get to be the angry one, Sheppard," Cameron said.

"I don't need your permission to feel anger, Colonel. Privilege of being a civilian and free to do and feel whatever I want for whomever I want. I can even tell you about it," John said, twisting the words on purpose.

Mitchell stiffened. "Interpol is coming tomorrow to interrogate you. Sleep tight." He left the room without giving John a second glance.

John paced back and forth, trying to calm his wrecked nerves, ignoring his desire to bolt. He tried working on the problems McKay had brought him, but the numbers danced before his eyes without making any sense. With a frustrated sigh, he pushed the papers off the table and went to bed, hoping to catch some sleep. He tossed and turned, unable to convince his reluctant mind to settle down and rest. He checked the clock on the nightstand, compulsively calculating how many hours of sleep he'd get if he managed to drop off right then. By the time one of the airmen came to wake him up, he was still making subtractions in his head.

John crawled out of bed. His limbs were heavy, as if filled with lead. Exhaustion clouded his mind and slowed him down. He splashed cold water on his face and straightened his wrinkled clothes as best he could. He'd have killed for some coffee, but didn't dare ask for it.

Four airmen escorted him to the interrogation room, keeping their zat guns trained on him the whole time. This time they weren't going to underestimate him. They cuffed him to the table in the room and left, closing the door, a standard tactic aimed to scare him. It bothered John that it worked.

He exhaled deliberately, concentrating on staying calm. He'd been in scarier situations off-world; this couldn't be harder than watching his team get captured by the Lucian Alliance. Interpol was bound by the Geneva Convention. It irked that he'd allowed himself to be cornered like this. He should've disappeared while he still had the chance, instead of letting O'Neill screw him up.

Next time he'd know better.

Minutes passed and no one came in. They were probably trying to make him nervous—more nervous than he already was. John would be damned if he let them. They must be observing his reactions from behind the one-way mirror. He yawned deliberately and leaned back in his chair, forcing his body to go boneless. It was tricky to appear relaxed with the handcuffs still on, but if anyone knew how to sprawl, it was John.

Seventy-eight seconds later the door opened, and two serious-looking Interpol agents stepped in. John counted it as a victory. "Ah, Agent Brown, it's so nice to finally make your acquaintance. You do know I'm gay, right? After the amount of time you've spent chasing me, I'd hate having to be the one to break it to you. We're just not meant to be."

"You think you're funny, Mr. Sheppard?"

"That's Doctor Sheppard to you, and now that you ask, yes, I kind of do." John gave her an unrepentant smile. What the hell, if he was going to go down, he was going down swinging. He wasn't going to let some Interpol agent get the better of him.

They did, though. On three occasions John launched himself at Brown, wanting nothing more than to scratch her eyes out. It was a good thing that they hadn't bothered taking off his handcuffs or he'd be in more trouble than he already was. Eventually he became so enraged that Excalibur materialized in his hands. It scared the hell out of both agents. O'Neill and Daniel appeared minutes later, defusing the situation. The agents agreed to grant John the bathroom break he'd asked for three hours ago.

They kept at him for twelve more hours after that. John snapped in the end. He demanded a lawyer and flat out refused to answer any more question until O'Neill came back into the room.

The general convinced both agents to wait outside while he spoke with John. He took off John's handcuffs and talked him into allowing Interpol a third round. His arguments made sense, even if thirty minutes later John couldn't for the life of him remember them. By the time the Interpol agents allowed him to leave, John felt as if he'd been torn to pieces, no part of him intact.

He didn't think he'd ever be whole again.

Two SFs escorted him to O'Neill's office. John let them take him silently. He was burned out. He had no energy left to fight with. He'd agree to whatever fate O'Neill dictated for him, just as long as they let him alone to lick his wounds.

Cameron, Daniel and Vala were waiting for him in the room together with the general. The sense of deja vu was creepy. Another mission debriefing, this time with the topic "How To Ensnare a Thief With Clever Words and Make Him Pay For All His Crimes 101". John bet that O'Neill had multiple doctorates in the subject. They were probably all laughing at John's naivety.

"Take a seat, Your Highness," O'Neill said.

It was the first time he'd called John that since John had run. His heart twisting, John sat down and avoided O'Neill's gaze. He bit back the sudden, irrational urge to break down. He was exhausted.

"I've talked to the President and the IOA. They've both agreed that you will serve Earth better working for the SGC than locked away in some high-security prison." O'Neill leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together behind his head. He seemed rather pleased with himself. "Interpol is still trying to deal with their new security clearance. They're having some trouble coping with the existence of aliens. Not Agent Brown, though; that woman is tough as nails. Maybe she'll be interested in a change of career. In any case, they've agreed to clear your record, but there're some strings attached, of course."

"Of course," John repeated in a dead voice.

"You already know mine: No running away, no selling classified information, no stealing without my permission." The general leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and looking straight at John.

John shrugged wearily. "I already agreed to that."

"I know. There are new conditions, though. You have to undergo a psych evaluation once a year to clear you for duty. It'll be conducted by the IOA." O'Neill waited for John to say something.

John nodded silently. At this point he'd agree to almost anything if it meant he could stay. He glanced at Cameron, but the colonel's face was a mask of military blankness. It gave nothing away.

"The President wants you to teach courses for CIA agents. We'll discuss the contents at a later point. You've managed to break into and out of some of the most secure places in the world without leaving any traces of your presence. You can probably imagine where he's going with that."

John tensed. The idea bothered him more than the mandatory psych evaluation had. In the end, he just nodded. If that was what it took, he'd do it.

"The next one is Interpol's condition for clearing your criminal record. They want you to work as consultant for them, advise on some of their cases, see if you notice any kind of patterns or clues that will help them capture other criminals. Obviously they are ardent believers in "it takes a thief to catch a thief". They aren't getting their hands on you and they know it. They're trying to make the best of that. The President already agreed; you won't be able to get out of it completely, but your work at the SGC has priority."

"What else?" John asked when O'Neill didn't continue.

"Nothing," O'Neill said, "those are all the conditions."

"All right," John said after a moment. His mind was clouded by lack of sleep and he felt as stupid as Rodney sometimes accused him of being. "If that's what it takes to stay, I'm in." Losing everything he'd found here, for real this time, would be a far worse punishment.

"Neat!" O'Neill beamed. "Well, Colonel Mitchell, SG-1 has its scientist back."

"Sir, with all due respect, I don't think that that's such a wise decision," Cameron said.

The words hurt more than Daniel's sucker-punch hand. He'd know that Cam wouldn't want him on the team, but hearing him telling the general made it real in a way it hadn't been before.

"Cameron!" Vala cried in outrage.

O'Neill gave Cam a cold smile that didn't reach his eyes. "It's a good thing I'm not asking your opinion then, Colonel."

John lowered his head, hiding the smirk that threatened to break through. Served Cameron right, he thought, unable to push down the small, vindictive voice inside him. Having O'Neill on his side made up for his shitty day. John would never, ever again complain when the guy called him Your Highness. The general owned the right to call John whatever he fucking pleased.

Cam stiffened even further. "Yes, sir. I apologize, sir."

"Good," O'Neill said. "Any further protests regarding my decision to have Sheppard back on the team?"

John took pity on the colonel. He didn't want to—if Cameron didn't want him, then John wasn't going to force himself onto the team, or have the General browbeat Cam into it.

"General O'Neill, if Colonel Mitchell doesn't think that having me on his team is—-"

"Sheppard," O'Neill said, fixing John with the same cold smile he'd given Cameron moments before. "It was a rhetorical question."

"Still, sir, I don't—"

"Doctor Sheppard," O'Neill ground out, and damn, John could count on the fingers of one hand how many times the general had bothered to use his title, ever, and he'd still have fingers left. It didn't bode well. "I truly don't care. You're not in a position to express any wishes. Take what you're given, smile prettily and say, 'Thank you, General'. Is that clear enough for you?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, General," John added just to be spiteful.

O'Neill snorted. "Clever boy. Any further questions?" he asked in a tone that clearly indicated there had better be none.

"No, sir," Cameron bit out.

"Nah," Daniel said. "I'll be in my office if you need me, Jack. I've found some strange references to a weapon of truth; it might be useful in our fight against the Priors. It's an obscure source, though. I need to cross-check it."

O'Neill waved a hand in dismissal and Daniel gathered his things and left. "I'm going to help him," Vala said, hurrying after Daniel.

"Colonel Mitchell, you're dismissed. Sheppard, stay put," O'Neill said, and waited for Cameron to close the door before turning back to John. "Well, I kept my word. You're once again a member of the SGC and of SG-1, with no criminal record to speak of. I hope you appreciate the effort it took."

"Don't." John raised a hand to stop O'Neill from continuing.

"Don't what?"

"Don't ask me not to disappoint you." John's nerves were brittle and frayed. He didn't think he could handle O'Neill's threats on top of everything else, not without taking the next exit and disappearing forever. He didn't want to take the next exit and disappear.

O'Neill's face smoothed out into a pleased smile. "Oh, don't worry, I wasn't going to do anything of the sort. Actually, I'm counting on you to disappoint me."

"Then why bother at all?" John asked. The lack of sleep was taking its toll on him. The last twenty-four hours weighted on him like a hundred years. He wanted to curl in on himself, go to sleep and never wake up.

"Why indeed? I had nothing better to do with my evening." O'Neill shrugged. "And I enjoy talking with the President, convincing him to agree to my insane plots.

"Look, Your Highness," O'Neill went on, "the President is convinced that you just want to gather more intelligence on the SGC and sell it to the Chinese, of all people. Apparently they'd be willing to pay the most, in case you wanted to know.

"Interpol thinks that within a month you'll dismantle the Stargate and carry it out of here one piece at a time. The IOA goes further; they believe that you'll rebuild it somewhere else and use it to establish your own intergalactic pirate base.

"Mitchell thinks you'll ditch him at the first opportunity to become king of yet another planet. McKay is afraid you're going to hack into his systems, again, even though I explained to him that you're supposed to and have my explicit permission to do so. Daniel is probably hoping for another chance to deck you. Vala wants to have your babies, and seeing how her last child turned out, I'd be scared of her the most."

"And you? What do you think?" John asked, feeling as if he was about to break into a million pieces.

"Me?" O'Neill startled, as if surprised that his opinion might matter at all. "I think they're all right. Bringing you here was a waste of time, and you're going to betray us all. I'm totally, absolutely, positively convinced that you won't disappoint those expectations." His smile dared John to say otherwise.

John balled his hands into fists, anger boiling in his veins, erasing his exhaustion. How dare the man? They could all go to hell. John didn't need to do what any of them wanted. He was his own person. He'd been living by himself for over two decades. He didn't need them. He didn't have to comply with any of their—oh.

"Reverse psychology," he said with admiration. "Never had anyone try that on me before."

"Is it working?" O'Neill asked, curious.

"Right now I have the urge to punch you in the face and then go out there and prove you wrong, so… maybe."

"I haven't slept in over twenty-four hours and neither have you," O'Neill said. "Let's skip the punch and go directly to the part were you disappoint me terribly. If you still have an unbearable urge to punch me in the face in a week's time, tell Walter to arrange a sparring session in the gym. I'm sure there's a thing or two I could teach you that will come in handy when taking over alien kingdoms and establishing your intergalactic pirate network."

"What makes you think that I won't be the one teaching you a thing or two?" John asked for the sake of being contrary. O'Neill could probably wipe the floor with him.

"Those are fighting words, Your Highness. I'll tell Walter to make an appointment, myself," O'Neill said. "Now go to your quarters. I don't want to see you in any place other than your bed for the next eighteen hours, barring an apocalypse. You're about to fall on your face."

"Thank you," John said with a snort. He stopped at the door. His hand hovered, indecisive, over the knob. He drew a long breath and gathered his courage. "General," he said, his voice barely above a whisper, "I'm very good at disappointing people."

He hoped that O'Neill understood it for the promise it was.


The End