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The Law of Holes

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The Law of Holes

"Let me tell you about the law of holes: if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."
—Will Rogers

 

Part 1

John is taking out his bottles for recycling when someone appears out of thin air with a 'pop' and plummets onto his compost heap. The person—creature? Man?—just appears out of nothing and hits the fall leaves with a wet squelch, a loud yelp, and a flail of limbs.

"Ow! Ow! Eugh!"

For a second, John isn't sure what to do—who do you call when it's aliens? He knows how to evade SAMs or ground fire, but the Air Force sure hasn't prepared him for this shit. But the alien person is cursing up a blue streak and making a real mess of John's nice, round pile of leaves, so John walks on over there and helps it—him?—to his feet.

"Oh, my God. Thank God. I thought I was dead."

John's first thought is he didn't realize aliens wore JC Penny; his second thought is the alien's face is very pink from all that fussing and hollering, and he's kind of interesting-looking, if a little scrawny, and John is feeling more awake than he has in days.

"Nice landing," John says, his heart still racing.

"What? Oh, thank you, I suppose," the alien says, too busy looking at the gadget in his hand, some weird device that's blooping and binging. John takes a step back in case the gizmo is about to zing him with death rays, but instead, it gives out one last, sad little sproing and goes dark.

"Terrific. Super," the alien says, his mouth pulling down.

John finishes dumping his bottles into the recycling bin and then leans against a post. "So, thanks for flying in?"

"Oh, and I suppose you've never had an experiment go awry?" the alien says, now brushing uselessly at the mud clinging to his cargo pants.

Just then, the neighbor's cat pushes its way through the fence and trots over to start winding its way around the alien's ankles. The alien doesn't bat an eye, just continues, "Well, it wasn't so much an experiment as a desperate, last-ditch grab for freedom," as he stuffs the device in his pocket. "I don't suppose you have a high tech laboratory at your disposal?"

John blinks and tries again. "I'm John Sheppard," he says, putting out his hand.

"Ah, yes. Dr...Mac...McCoy." McCoy offers a leaf- and dirt-covered hand.

"McCoy. Right." John smothers a smile, his first in weeks, and shakes this "McCoy's" hand. "Nah, no lab. Just a compost pile." John waves. "I've got a pretty nice tool shed, though. So..." He scratches his head. "Any landing you walk away from, I guess?"

"What? Oh, that was nothing. You should see...well, nothing. You didn't see anything," McCoy says, and starts toward John's back door, the cat trailing behind. "I don't suppose you have any coffee?"

"Hey, now, wait just a second," John says, and starts after him.

:::

John watched a lot of science fiction as a kid, and he always thought his first encounter with an alien would involve a lot more yelling and laser guns and a lot less open-mouthed chewing. Also, what's with the horrible shirts?

"And then," the alien says, munching on his toast, "due to my verified scientific information the Powers That Be found too difficult to swallow, I was reassigned by an Air Force general to work with the Russians on an isolated project in Siberia, of all places. It's very cold there, you realize?"

John nods gamely.

"So, that's why I used the device to escape. And now I need a place to lie low until I figure things out," McCoy concludes. "You'll let me stay here for a few days?"

There's a scratching sound at the kitchen door, and McCoy jumps.

"It's just the neighbor's cat," John says. "He's taken a shine to you."

"Oh. Yes." The idea makes McCoy look shifty for some reason.

"Well, I can offer you breakfast, at least," John says. "We'll take it from there." He owes McCoy for the morning's entertainment, if nothing else.

The alien takes another noisy slurp from his coffee mug and continues to eat and talk at the same time. "Siberia is very cold and dismal and not at all a happy place. But the work was gratifying, and we were making tremendous progress on a new power source, when I was kidnapped by a disgraced colonel who was part of a rogue faction of the NID—the National Intelligence Department."

"Wow. That really sucks," John says. The alien frowns at him.

"He stuck me in a tiny, understaffed lab with a cache of, um, pilfered weapons and other technology, and expected me to produce—his words, of course—to his satisfaction, and woe betide me if I should fail."

Woe betide? John repeats soundlessly.

"I was under guard twenty-four-seven, and I'm almost certain the bounty of anything I came up with was being sold to, um, Chinese Intelligence or some entity even less trustworthy. The whole operation smacked of treason, not that I'm a citizen of your sorry nation."

"Oh, yeah? What, uh, nation would that be?" John leans forward.

"Can't you tell? I'm Canadian!"

"Ah." John sits back. "I had a feeling," he says. It sure explains a lot.

"Yes, indeed," McCoy says proudly, and here he takes yet another huge gulp of coffee, draining the mug, and then looks over and reaches for John's cup. John automatically blocks his hand. McCoy's eyebrows thunder downward, and John grins and gingerly pushes to his feet to fetch the carafe. He's made the mistake of sitting down too long, and his abdomen has stiffened up. A beer would help, but a) it's too early; and b) he's really not supposed to mix beer with this particular antibiotic. Not that he pays attention to that shit.

He grabs the fresh carafe of coffee and leans on the table to hold it over McCoy's cup.

"Thanks," McCoy says. "I just need a place to crash for a few days. I'm grateful—really I am."

"Well, if you're going to be sticking around and stealing my coffee, the least you can do is tell me your first name," John says.

"It's not very good coffee," McCoy says doubtfully, but John withholds the carafe until McCoy slumps.

"Rodney," he says. "Call me Rodney."

"Nice to meet you, Rodney," John says. "You were saying about treason?" He fills both their cups and waits.

"Well, that's classified, really," Rodney says stiffly.

"Like your real last name?" John sits down.

McCoy contemplates him through the steam of his coffee. "Hmm. As much, I suppose, as the reason you seem to be favoring your right side."

"Oh, that's easy," John says. "I got shot."

Rodney's face twitches.

"What, no questions?" John sips his coffee.

"You'll just quid pro quo me, and I'm afraid it really is classified."

"Have it your way, McCoy." John's burst of energy deserts him, and he pulls out the morning paper and starts in on the Sudoku puzzle. He can feel McCoy glaring across the table but pays no attention. Whether McCoy is an alien or an annoying, uninvited breakfast guest, John has lost interest. He's tired again. Maybe he'll take another nap. He's been sleeping a lot lately, ever since he went on medical leave. He's just waiting for the paperwork to go through to put him on terminal leave and drop the ax on his career.

When he looks up from his puzzle, he finds McCoy has stolen his dishtowel and laid out the pieces of his doohickey in front of himself. He's mumbling angrily and his blue eyes are bright with frustration as he fiddles with the broken pieces.

John shakes his head and gets up to put his empty coffee cup in the sink. McCoy seems harmless enough, but John detours to grab his firearm from his footlocker on the way to his bedroom.

He hears his pillow calling.

:::

John's hand is on his gun and he swings his feet to the floor before he even realizes he's awake. He remembers a second too late he can't do this—jump to his feet without going slow—but he's already standing up and hunched over his aching gut, his weapon hanging by his side. He listens and isn't sure what woke him until he hears it again, a low thumping and a curse that makes John poke his head out the door before stowing his weapon in the side table and heading to the kitchen.

McCoy looks up at him briefly. "Ah, Sheppard. Do you have any superglue?" Rodney's taken over the entire kitchen table, and apparently located John's toolbox because there are tools spread out all over the table as well, with three of John's shop rags acting as place mats. "I'm kidding, of course."

"Looks like you've been busy," John says, going to the counter and grabbing an apple to munch on. His catnap had turned into a siesta.

"This is a very nice hex set," Rodney says. "I think whoever made this device was using a eight-sided tool, if you can believe it, but these Torx can be used in a pinch."

"Only the best for my Harley. What does the broken part do, anyway?"

Rodney's expression turns crafty and his hands flutter over the pieces in front of him as if John's going to snatch them away. "It's way beyond your technical understanding. It involves bypassing an extremely advanced biometric system to interact with the underlying controller interface of the device."

John looks down at the mismatched pieces and then at Rodney. "Oh. You picked the lock."

Rodney's eyebrows crash together. "That's an extremely simplified way of putting it."

"But accurate." John grins. "So what does the main device do, anyway?"

"I shouldn't tell you that, but I suppose since I appeared in your backyard, it won't come as any surprise: it's a translocation device."

"Translocation." John stares. "Like 'beam me up Scotty'?"

"More like Close Encounters," McCoy says. "But without the sunburn. Anyway, I wouldn't recommend it. It's rudimentary at best; I had no way to select my intended destination, and I have no idea why I ended up here, of all places."

"Must be my magnetic personality," John says, pushing away from the counter to get a closer look at the gadget. "How did it break?"

"I landed on it," Rodney says crossly. "I have the bruises to show for it. Now, if you please, this is difficult enough with such limited tools and only two hands to work with."

"You need help?"

"What I need is more coffee. And some real food."

"You've already drunk half my week's supply, bucko," John warns him as he goes over to the coffee pot. "At this rate, we'll be out by tomorrow."

"Aren't there any coffee shops in these boondocks?"

John finishes filling the filter and switches on the machine. "There might be one or two cafés out here in the wilds of Oakland."

Rodney's eyes light up like it's Christmas morning. "Oh, is that where we are? I went to graduate school near here."

"Did you, McCoy?" John says pointedly, and Rodney looks down at his hands.

"Yes, well, possibly. Anyway, get over here and hold this while I screw on this part of the interface. It's not functioning yet so I can't control the main device, but I need to join them in order to start testing the continuity of the connections."

"Sir, yessir," John mutters, coming to sit counter-corner to Rodney and take the interface when Rodney hands it to him. The main device is a weird-looking thing—almost like a phaser from Star Trek, but with green-bluish metal, not black, and with a screen on top that looks like a liquid crystal display. The interface looks like parts made from Radio Shack.

"Hold them together right here," Rodney says, pointing to the edge of the screen. John reaches out to push the two together and—

—Something happens in John's head and—

—The device burps into life, sending a splash of Matrix-like characters drifting down the screen.

"Sweet Christmas," McCoy says, and stares at John with utter astonishment.

"Guess it wasn't as broke as you thought."

Slowly, Rodney points to his interface as if the device might bite him. "It was completely broken. You—it shouldn't have done that. The device shouldn't have responded. It's never responded to anything we've tried." The characters glow blue as they drift then solidify into a pattern John can almost, almost recognize. It's like a language he learned as a child then forgot. Except his first language was English, so that makes no sense.

John pulls away his hand and the phaser goes dark.

"Wait! No! No! Touch it again; I want to see."

John smirks and touches it again. The screen brightens and the characters settle, just as incomprehensible as before.

"What language is that? It looks a little bit like Cyrillic, but not really." John's Russian is crap but he can tell that much.

"I don't know—do I look like a linguist to you?" Rodney says shiftily. He can't lie worth a damn.

"Uh-huh. Well." John draws back his hand again. "Sure is interesting-looking, whatever it is."

"Wait. Keep your fingers right there."

"Now you sound like my ex-wife."

McCoy turns pink, his ears reddening. "Ha-ha, oh, ha."

Huh, John thinks, staring a little before training his eyes back on the device. This is the most interesting thing to happen to him in weeks; it's like someone started filming his life in color. He hopes Rodney decides to stick around a while.

John likes this feeling.

:::

Rodney stays. Rodney stays and drinks John's coffee and sleeps on John's couch and fiddles with the device, and John gets way too involved. But there's something compelling about McCoy, something about his quirky facial expressions and the way his hands dance so precisely as he talks. Also, he talks a lot of shit, and he's kind of abrasive, but right now, John needs someone to call him on his own bullshit and get him out of bed in the mornings. And sometimes the afternoons.

And John gives it right back.

They're out in the shed working on John's Harley for a change; Rodney has pushed John away from the leaky oil filter and is talking trash about does John really need 1200ccs? Really? John raises an eyebrow and tells him he enjoys the vibrations between his legs.

Rodney's expression is kind of priceless. John honks a laugh, and Rodney sniffs and starts replacing the filter gasket.

"Yes, laugh all you want. I'll be the one laughing when you leave your skin spread out all over the pavement like cheese gratings."

"Whoa. Kind of harsh there, McCoy. Anyway, I have a pretty nice set of leathers."

Again, Rodney's flush kind of betrays what he's thinking, but John keeps his grin to himself this time.

"Is that a barbecue grill I see?" Rodney says, having turned away to wipe his hands with a shop cloth.

"Yeah. Needs cleaning, though."

"Perfect. Scrape it down and make us some steaks for dinner."

John rolls his eyes. "You always get everything you demand? Or are you just this obnoxious on principle?"

"On principle, really," Rodney says airily. "If I don't constantly reinforce people's belief in my superiority, who else will do it for me?"

John thinks about that for a second then says, "I can see why they sent you to Siberia."

"What?" Rodney's mouth drops open.

"It's a fine line between being smart and being a smart ass, McCoy. One is useful and the other gets to be a pain."

Rodney frowns and drops his eyes. "To tell the truth, I gave it a great deal of thought while I was in Siberia—damned cold, and damned little to do up there. It's...vaguely possible I may have overcompensated a tiny bit and dug myself into a hole. But I wanted her to see how utterly brilliant I am."

"Her?" John leans a hip on his bike, and Rodney's eyes flicker over him. "Her who?"

"Carter. Major Samantha Carter. She's a scientist. Same field as me."

"I'm starting to get the picture." John crosses his arms.

"I really am a genius, you know." Rodney's mouth is fascinating, especially when he pouts. John kind of wants to see it pouting around his cock.

"I'm sure you are," John says. "But why rub it in? Just make shit happen and they'll figure it out on their own." It's a lesson John learned early and learned well. "Come on," he says. "I'll clean the grill for you. You deserve a steak for fixing my bike." QED, John doesn't bother saying. Rodney's smart enough to figure it out.

Rodney looks surprised and pleased, and John feels vindicated. He goes and grabs the grill and drags it out of the shed, pushing it past the two cats that seem to be waiting at the doorway.

"Weird," John says under his breath. He scrapes down the grate and sets out the bag of mesquite before heading back inside where Rodney is.

He realizes later his gut hardly bothered him at all. It's turning out to be a pretty good day.

:::

"This isn't going to work," Rodney says after the nth try repairing the device, and he hurls the screwdriver, hitting John in the forearm. "I need food now," he says, looking up brightly.

"Don't look at me," John says, clutching his arm. "Wounded man here." It's his favorite screwdriver, too, his Snap-on Phillips #2. He carefully places it back in the set.

"But you promised me steak, and I can't leave," Rodney says in a whiney tone. "Who knows if the evil colonel is looking for me?"

"Didn't you say you teleported in from Russia with that thing?"

"Yes...?"

"So, how could he possibly find you here?"

Rodney's eyes dart around as if invisible squirrels are after him. "It's possible. Anything is possible."

"Oh, yeah?" John is about to pursue it further when his landline rings. There's only one person who calls him these days, old Lyle "Dash" Holland, and John's tempted to let it go to the machine, but he doesn't want McCoy listening in.

"Sheppard, here."

"Yo, Shep. How's it hanging?"

"Getting by, Dash. Getting by. How's Dash Air doing?"

"Doing great. Could use another pilot, though. Someone with the funds to help build up our fleet..."

"You just want me to sell my Mustang..." God, he loves that ride.

"Better flying in a jet than flying on the ground, though, huh?"

"Yeah, I know. I know. But I've got to get myself in trim first before I worry about future plans." John lowers his voice. "Got to get through PT, you know. But I did like you suggested and got my commercial pilot certificate. Piece of cake."

"Hey! That's great news, Shep. One step at a time, all right?"

"All right, Dash." Sometimes talking to Holland clean wears John out. Dash has so much enthusiasm and John has near to none. John doesn't get how Dash has recovered so well from losing a kidney when John is still fighting his way back from a lousy gunshot wound. "Listen, I've got someone here, but I'll talk to you soon, all right?"

"Oh, yeah?" Dash sounds intrigued on John's behalf, which is the last thing John wants at this point.

"Later," John says firmly.

"Okay, okay," Dash says, chuckling. "Later, you fucker. Over and out."

John hangs up and turns to find Rodney decidedly not looking at him, but there's curiosity there, too. Shaking his head, John heads back to his bedroom to clean up before going to the market. He shaves and takes a quick shower, but has to go slow afterward applying the scar treatment gel his PT prescribed, rubbing it in and working the thicker scars back and forth and gritting his teeth when the skin doesn't want to move freely. He's in a foul mood when he's finally dressed. His hair is still wet, and he runs his fingers through it trying to get it into some kind of order.

When John comes out, McCoy looks up from his fiddling and stares at him for a moment, his mouth dropping open a little. It puts some spring in John's step as he goes for his wallet and keys.

"I'm heading out," John says. "Don't burn the place down; it's a rental."

"Get more coffee," McCoy says. "And half-and-half. And—"

"I'm buying food, McCoy," John says.

"Get some pudding then. Tapioca," Rodney says. "It's my favorite."

"I'll keep that in mind," John says, rolling his eyes.

When John opens the front door, there are three cats napping on his porch. One of them, black as pitch with yellow eyes, springs up and tries to dart inside before John closes the door behind him.

The cat thing is getting out of control.

At the grocery, John picks up a bunch of staple items, and settles on two flank steaks, a big bag of spinach, and a fresh baguette for dinner. He's not a great cook, but he can do enough just to get by, because between him and Nancy, it turned out if he didn't want to die of food poisoning, he'd better learn the basics. So he can at least grill Rodney some meat and steam veggies with a little sauce. Just for the hell of it, he throws a four pack of tapioca pudding into the basket.

He stows the groceries in the back of his rusty pickup and then heads over to the gourmet coffee shop to grab a couple pounds of coffee. Then he adds another pound on the order to be safe.

The whole thing is running up a tab that's making him a little nervous, what with him living on his compensation and not knowing what he's going to do with his life, but what the hell. McCoy will be out of his hair soon enough.

Something about the thought makes John miss a step as he rounds the side of the truck and climbs in. Maybe it's just been nice having someone to keep him from bouncing around inside his own skull all day.

Maybe it's something more.

:::

When John pulls into the driveway, there are at least five cats littering the path up to his porch, where the original three lie in wait for John to open the front door.

"I don't know what you guys are up to," John says, "but the steak is for us. Go on home." He manages to ease the door open just enough to sneak in, his size twelve boots keeping the determined black cat from getting by him.

Inside, John finds McCoy napping on the couch. He's got the pieces of his device back together and has it clutched to his chest like a teddy bear. John isn't sure if it's cute or really creepy. He's leaning toward creepy.

John drops his keys from up high, smiling grimly when Rodney jumps at the noise.

"What? What! Oh my God," Rodney says, one of his hands going to his pocket, interestingly enough. John wonders if he has a weapon there.

"Just keeping you on your toes," John says. "Don't you have a criminal mastermind after you?"

"That's no reason to give me a myocardial infarction," Rodney says.

"Sure it is," John says cheerfully. "Now come to the kitchen and help me put this stuff away."

McCoy grumbles but does as John asks. They work efficiently in the close quarters. John puts the steaks in a marinade while pointing out where the various groceries go, and Rodney exclaims happily over all the coffee but tells him he should alphabetize his spices for easier access. Considering John has three spices and two of them are salt and pepper, he gives it a pass.

"What else are you making for dinner, anyway? I saw spinach. I hate spinach," Rodney says.

"Maybe no one's ever made it right for you."

"How do you plan to make it, then?"

"I know a good peanut sauce—"

"If you want me dead, go right ahead." Rodney crosses his arms. "I am deathly, deathly allergic to peanuts. If you even wave one under my nose, I'll be a corpse. And don't talk to me about that poisonous paste they call peanut butter."

John raises his hands. "All right! All right, already. How about a lemon dressing? You okay with that?"

"Fine. But you can't make me eat it if it's slimy. And spinach is always slimy."

"We'll see about that." John washes his hands and starts a pot of water boiling. "I saw you finished up your interface."

"It's not," Rodney says. "Finished, that is. I need some electrolytic capacitors and a brand new circuit board. And some lead-free rosin core solder wire. I prefer Kester brand. I made a list for you."

"Whatever you say." John rolls his eyes and shakes the spinach into the colander. But then he has to stop and put the bag down when a cramp bites his side, hard. Apparently, he's overdone it today. He has to grab the side of the sink when it gets worse—it's the scar tissue that's the problem. It doesn't allow free range of motion, so his injured side will cramp up at times like the world's worst runner's stitch. No big deal. It will get better eventually, he tells himself; only, right now pain is his whole world.

"Are you all right?" Rodney asks him.

"Fine," John says, gasping out the short syllable. Then soon enough it's true, and he releases his grip on the counter. The easing of the pain is accompanied by a little bit of a rush—the monster has let him go this time. "How do you like your steak?"

"Rare. Bloody," Rodney says, still sounding worried, but John heads outside to start up the grill.

It's a perfect evening in Northern California, but then few aren't. It's one of the reasons John took Holland's advice and settled down out here after his release. Since Dash had been in the same boat a year earlier, John thought it would be cool hanging with someone who understood. Of course, Dash didn't earn a black mark on his way out, but no one could ever say John Sheppard doesn't know how to go out in style.

"You're doing that all wrong," McCoy says behind him. "You should soak the mesquite in water first."

"Oh, for crying out—fine. Have at it, McCoy," John says, standing back from the grill.

"It's too late now. We don't have an hour; I'm starving." Rodney moves around him and shoves a few chunks of charcoal mesquite on top of the electric starter and then meticulously layers the fresh chips on top. "There. Now plug it in."

Bemused, John does as he's told. The whole thing goes up nicely, one layer starting the other until the mesquite is burning prettily. "All right," John says to Rodney. "Thanks."

"Nothing to it," Rodney says, smiling smugly.

"Yeah," John says. The smile looks good on him. Seems like Rodney is finally starting to get over his ordeal with the Russians and the traitorous colonel. Anyway, he seems happier and less strung out today.

John unplugs the starter then drops the grate over the coals. "We'll let that burn down while I get the rest ready," he says, and heads back inside. He takes his time getting the spinach right, running back and forth to put the steaks on and then check on them. He throws some French bread in the oven, too. When he comes back out with all the fixings, Rodney is sitting at the picnic table and is staring into the glowing mesquite, seemingly mesmerized. There are four cats sleeping at his feet and one on his lap.

"What the heck? What's with all the cats, McCoy?"

"I...like them?" McCoy pets the one on his lap, a defensive frown on his face.

"Uh-huh." The sizzle of the meat grilling makes John realize he's suddenly starving—hungrier than he's been in a long time—and it distracts him from the cat thing. John drops the bowl of spinach on the picnic table in front of Rodney so he can test the steaks. They're perfect—nice and bloody.

"What's that smile for?" Rodney says. He's commandeered a clean plate and is sitting with it held up in his hands like Oliver Twist. John's grin broadens and he dumps a steak right from the grill onto Rodney's plate, and the other onto his own.

"Do I need a reason?"

"I guess not," Rodney says doubtfully.

"Hey: let that rest a while before you attack."

"No potatoes?"

"Not this time. They'd take too long. Have some bread."

"Butter?"

"All right." John gets the butter dish and some more utensils while he's at it. He serves Rodney some spinach because it looks like he's about to dig in without taking some.

"Thanks," Rodney says dryly.

"Just try it. If you hate it, I'll eat yours."

"Now you sound like my mother."

"Well, I'm not your wife," John says, smirking. Rodney smiles back, or half-smiles—only one side of his mouth curls up. The other side of his mouth is stubborn, and if that doesn't seem typical of what John has learned of the guy so far, John will eat the whole bowl of spinach himself.

Rodney seems to like it fine, though. He's digging right in, and moans happily over the steak, which John thinks came out perfect—it's nice and warm but still bloody inside, the juices running, and the mesquite flavor is toasty on his tongue. He closes his eyes and savors it, but then something goes wrong in his head, the burned taste just enough to combine with the smoke to get into his nose and brain, and he opens his eyes hastily and focuses on McCoy and the happy expression on his face. John doesn't quite float out of his body, but it's a close thing.

"Well, you win, I guess. I mean, I wouldn't exactly choose it over apple pie, but it isn't slimy; I'll grant you that," Rodney says, waving a forkful of spinach at him.

"Good," John says, and has to clear his throat before saying, "Told ya. It's all in the prep. Cut it fine with a little lemon. "

"Mmm-hmm." Rodney looks suspicious. "You were going to tell me how you got shot."

"I was?" John finishes swallowing hastily. "I made you dinner; how is that part of the deal?"

"Look." Rodney puts down his fork and gives John a sincere, wide-eyed stare, his eyes guileless puddles of blue. John is not falling for it at all, until Rodney says, "I've had an absolutely crappy couple of weeks—kidnapped, held for ransom of my skills, kept on short rations—it positively sucked, no two ways about it." The way Rodney rounds the "O" on "about" near kills John, but he tries to hold firm. Then Rodney says, "Did you bring me pudding?" And John is a goner.

"Yeah," John says, sighing. "Coming right up." He goes inside to get the pudding, not at all sure when this happened—when in the past few days he went from distrusting the alien that materialized in his backyard to fetching him pudding.

And don't forget the flirting, John, he thinks to himself. Terrific. Rodney will be gone soon enough, so why should John tell him anything? Why trust him?

John drops two tapioca pudding cups on the table and offers Rodney one of the spoons. Rodney takes it with an artless smile and peels off the foil from his cup so he can dig in. The cat on the bench beside him lets out a curious sound and tries to nudge in under his elbow.

"So," Rodney says stickily. "You were telling me how you got shot."

John toys with the end of his steak, cutting away the fat to get some last bites. "I'm pretty sure I wasn't," he says.

Rodney lets out a huge sigh. "There's a reason I'm asking, all right? All I know is you're on vacation after being shot. I assume it's not drug-related, since I haven't seen any sign of paraphernalia—"

"What—?"

"So, what are you, a cop? A fed?"

"Neither," John says, a little surprised when Rodney nods as if satisfied.

"So, you're military; just as I thought."

John glares at him.

"What? I've seen you sleeping with your M9—"

"Spying on me, McCoy?"

"Of course not," McCoy says nervously. "I'm a little sensitive right now about people around me having the ability to do me bodily harm. I don't think that's unreasonable, Sheppard."

John slouches in his chair and crosses his arms. "I'm a major in the Air Force. Except I'm on my way out." Saying it out loud hurts like the bullet to his gut. "That's how I got shot. Not a very interesting story."

"Somehow I doubt that," McCoy says.

John grabs Rodney's other pudding, ignoring the bleat of protest, and opens it up. He takes a spoonful—it's tastier than he expected, but the lumps of tapioca are weird.

"I went against orders to rescue some Rangers and a couple other special ops guys caught at a crash site. A lot of their gear had burned up—their communications ceased soon after they made contact, so they were presumed dead. My team and I didn't believe it, so we picked a gunner, a medic, and I went as the pilot, and we got in there and pulled three survivors out. Only as we were taking off, I caught a stray bullet. End of story."

"Huh."

John eats his pudding in silence while Rodney stares at him and rubs his chin.

"What?" John asks finally.

"I'm wondering: is your injury so severe you're being forced out?"

John clenches his teeth. "Nope. I'm supposed to recover."

"So, you buckaroos went in and saved three lives, representing millions of dollars of military training, especially since those men were special ops. And yet here you are, miles away from the nearest military base and quality care. It seems like you've been abandoned."

The pang in John's stomach spread to his chest. "Let's just say it doesn't pay to make a full bird look like he made the wrong call. Especially when he's on Operation One Star."

"Come again?"

"He was bucking for brigadier general," John explains. "And boy, was he pissed." But they'd gotten those boys home. That's what matters. "The old buzzard wanted to have me up on court martial, but it wouldn't look good with me being wounded saving those guys. He settled for pushing me out on terminal leave. So, here we are, McCoy."

"McKay," Rodney says, blurting the word out almost explosively.

"What?"

"Me. Dr. Rodney McKay." He looks almost apoplectic with embarrassment.

John shakes his head. "That's your real name? McKay?"

"Yes?" Rodney rubs his hands together.

"Well, thanks for trusting me," John says. He can't help smiling a little.

"Yes, yes. I recognize my alias wouldn't fool many people, but I was under a lot of stress."

"I know you were. Kidnapping and espionage, and traitors within the Air Force."

"Actually, he's been court martialed himself, and his little group, the NID, is in bad odor," Rodney says. "I don't know how he escaped, but he's already on the lam. This little operation of his was totally not...blessed? What's that word you people use?"

"Sanctioned?"

"That's the one." Rodney reaches down and pulls a cat into his arms. "Do you have any friends in the branch you think you can ask about this colonel? Or about...me?"

John scratches his cheek. "Why can't you just call your bosses?"

"Because I disappeared from my assignment in Russia, which was supposed to be punitive in some way, even though they might deny it and say, 'Oh, we needed your acumen in nuclear physics, Dr. McKay.' Meanwhile sending me to the second coldest place on the planet!"

"So you want me to find out if there's any buzz about this colonel—what's his name?"

"Frank Simmons," McKay says. "He's a real dick."

"He sounds like it." Anyone who'd abduct scientists to make them do shit is pretty much a grade-A asshole in John's book. Assuming Rodney's story is true. It's starting to sound like it might be, even if something is still off. "But you think someone on the inside helped him."

Rodney nods, eyes wide. John goes back to eating his pudding, thinking about whom to call. Koon, probably, or Snuffy Cole. Yeah, Cole is a good schmoe and would figure he owes John. And Snuffy usually has his nose in everybody's business.

"Just how persuasive did Simmons get?" John asks, not looking up. "Did he...hurt you?"

"No, he only...he threatened us. Both of us," Rodney says, sounding ashamed.

"There were two of you?"

"Yes, I know. I should have said. There was one other—a short fellow with glasses. I don't remember his name." Rodney's voice is shaking a little. "And Simmons threatened to kill us and find replacements if we didn’t deliver."

"Fuck. You don't remember the other scientist's name?"

"It might've been Able? Or Lee? I don't know," Rodney says angrily. "I'm terrible with names."

"All right. All right." John steers clear. "Listen: we need to make you a go-bag."

"A what?"

"A kit—stuff you need to hit the road in the hurry. If this Simmons is still after you like you say, we should put together some essential stuff so you're ready to go if you need to."

Rodney seems to calm down a little at hearing there's a plan, which is what John was after. He can't believe Rodney has waited this long to tell him all this. Not that a go-bag will help if there are too many guns. John hasn't shot anyone since rescuing Holland and hopes he won't have to again, but he clears the table and goes to his bedroom to check his firearm. He's got fifteen rounds in the magazine, and a spare magazine in the bedside drawer that, on a whim, he tucks into the back pocket of his jeans. The gun is clean and in tip-top repair—right after he was released, he'd had some bad dreams that had him doing some maintenance on his personal weapon.

John leaves it on top of the side table and stuffs the box of ammo into a duffle bag along with a handful of shorts and T-shirts, an extra pair of jeans, and his spare dopp kit. Then he grabs his cell phone, checks the time, and flips it open. It should be about 9:30 a.m. in Bagram right about now.

Cole is the fourth contact down in the phone book. John texts him and goes back to packing. His phone rings about fifteen minutes later.

"Morning, Snuffy," John says. "That was fast. Phone service is getting better, huh?"

"Shep, you old son," Cole says, sounding delighted to hear from him, which surprises John a little. "Damn, man. Took you long enough. I thought you'd disowned us."

"Me? Nah. Just getting my bearings," John says. "Working on my bike, doing my PT."

"Uh-huh," Cole says doubtfully.

"You keeping your head down?"

"Always, always. You know me."

"Yeah, I do. So don't be lying. How's the weather in the desert?"

"Chilly this week. Looking at some rain."

"Sorry to hear it, buddy."

"You calling to chat about the weather, Shep? 'Cause that ain't like you."

"You got me." John rubs his hand over the back of his neck. "This is going to sound weird..."

"Surprise me."

"...But I know you've always got your ear to ground. You still in touch with Koon? Because maybe he can help on this, too. I'm looking for news about a guy, Air Force, a colonel who went off the rails and stole some tech, maybe even kidnapped a couple of scientists. He escaped custody last year. I need to know what the word is on him, name of Frank Simmons, and the scientists, Rodney McKay, and Able or Lee."

"Huh." Heavy static crackles over the line for a moment. "Seems I recall a colonel named Simmons, worked at the Pentagon and was involved with that top secret deep space telemetry project no one can get the skinny on. Got himself court martialed for murder, I think, and treason."

"Murder!" John's stomach goes cold. "And did he escape?"

"Don't know about that. I'll find out if you like."

"I would. Thanks, Snuffy."

"You don't have to thank me, you know that, Shep."

"C'mon, man. You would've done the same for me."

"I would. I would. Doesn't change the fact you were the one who took the fall for us."

"Yeah, well. That's the pleasures of rank for you."

They both laugh.

"Talk to you soon."

"You be safe, Snuff."

"Always."

John closes the phone and tosses it on the desk, and then goes back to the nightstand where his M9 is waiting. He's thinking: treason. Kidnapping. And now John can add murder to Simmons' list of possible crimes. John doesn't like where this is heading. He isn't up to much with his abdominal muscles about as weak as paper. And suddenly it matters a lot. He's worried about McKay.

He's not sleepy anymore, though.

John picks up the gun and checks the safety before tucking it into his pants, where it makes an uncomfortable lump. Then he opens the sliding door and pokes his head out. "Hey, Rodney. Can you come in here a sec?"

Rodney comes over, accompanied by a passel of cats.

"Not them," John says, bemused. "Just you."

For some reason, the cats seem to obey Rodney when he holds out his palm and slips inside. John slides the glass door closed behind him and then watches the cats eeling restlessly past each other before he turns to Rodney.

"You're going to have to explain that at some point," John says.

Rodney shrugs.

"I just got off the phone with a buddy of mine," John says, and he lets his voice develop an edge. "I'll make us some coffee while you explain to me why Simmons is up on murder charges."

"Oh, that."

"Yes, that," John says, turning toward the coffeemaker.

"It's somewhat complicated," Rodney says.

"I'm a pretty smart guy," John says. "I think I can handle complicated."

Rodney heaves a heavy sigh and says, "It involved...Simmons wanting access to a very special piece of technology and needing someone who had a particular...skillset. He tried to kill a Colonel O'Neill who was set on apprehending this someone before Simmons could get to him."

John stares. "Colonel Jack O'Neill?" The guy was a goddamned hero from Desert Storm. Who the hell would be stupid enough to mess with him, especially some useless desk jockey from the Pentagon? "I knew the guy who medevaced O'Neill after they got him out of that POW hellhole. He said O'Neill was cracking jokes about going as a skeleton for Halloween."

"He is a tough guy, yes," Rodney says, not sounding too impressed.

"And you work with him?"

"And the Major Carter I mentioned, on occasion. At NORAD," Rodney says, looking down. "I don't think either of them is very fond of me right now."

"Well, O'Neill still wouldn't let some asshole kidnap you. Especially the guy that tried to kill him," John says, he thinks pretty reasonably, but Rodney is shaking his head.

"I'd still rather know what the temperature is before I walk through the front gate."

"Hey," John says. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you, all right?" He's not sure where the impulse to say that came from, but the grateful look Rodney shoots him in response hits John right in smack in the guts. That's not smart, but fuck if John cares. Some people have to grab onto the tail of whatever luck comes their way; it feels like Rodney is that glimmer of the good stuff that's been missing from John's life, even if all he'll be doing is playing bodyguard for a homeless scientist.

Christ, maybe it's just that he needs someone to need him again.

"Come on; it's getting late. Time to hit the rack."

"Oh, that sounds appealing," Rodney says, but lets John shove him toward the living room and the couch there. "Great: I get the saggy couch again? What am I, your cousin from Boucherville?"

"More like outer space," John says. "Lie down, and I'll get your blanket."

"I swear to God, this thing has no springs at all. Did you get it off a street corner somewhere?"

"Try Goodwill."

"Augh! I can already feel the bed bugs consuming my flesh."

John finds the Hudson blanket on a chair and drops it on Rodney's squirming form. "Kidding. I'm kidding," John says. "I got it in the divorce."

"Oh, thank God." Rodney wraps himself up like a burrito and rolls onto his back to stare up at John. "Is that her? The picture on the table?"

John pauses in the act of picking up some empty bottles from the floor. "Yeah."

"She was a knockout."

"She still is." John always gets stuck right here. He loved Nancy—still does—but she left him for greener pastures. Whenever he sees her, it's always a quick stab in the heart followed by dull regret. Lately, he's been carrying all his failures around like a lead weight, and he doesn't want to be hurting over her anymore. This feels like his chance to change that, if he can get up the guts to do it.

"She's moved on," John says at last. "But I'm still looking." That's all he says, but he's looking right at Rodney when he says it.

Rodney appears momentarily dumbstruck, but then he smiles.

"Get some sleep," John says gruffly.

"Yes. Yes! Yes, all right. Good night."

"G'nite."

:::

John is half-asleep and almost dreaming. The chopper is slow to get off the ground, and he's yanking on the collective but it's jammed; the blades are slow to respond, and he knows They are coming. He doesn't know who They are, but they're going to take his passengers away and kill them. There's a whining sound—the blades are stuck, trying to change angles but they can't—and then John jumps awake and the whine is the snarl of a really pissed off cat.

A man curses, and John hears him stumbling, and then suddenly everything is crisp and clear. John rolls out of bed and has his hand on his M9 and is shoving his feet in his boots at the same time; he yanks on the laces to get them tight enough to move, and then he's tucking the firearm into his pants and is pulling a shirt on. His abdomen yells in protest, but the pain is dim and far away. The only thing that matters is moving, and moving fast, to the living room.

"Rodney," John says softly, poking him awake, one hand hovering over Rodney's mouth just in case. But Rodney startles silently, his eyes wide open in the dawn light, and meets John's cautionary look with a nod.

"Get your go-bag," John says with barely a breath. He can hear the creak of footsteps on the porch now, and John slings his own bag over his shoulder and pulls his weapon. Nudging Rodney in front of him, they start toward the back door. They make it as far as the kitchen when the front door bursts open behind them.

John turns and takes a shot at the man in front with the submachine gun, a tall guy with dark hair, and gets him in the shoulder. The man looks utterly surprised, the whites of his eyes rolling silver in the shadows as he goes down, and John gets a quick shot off at the shorter guy behind him, who fires wildly back before ducking out of sight.

That's their cue to cut and run. Rodney tries to jump ahead but John stops him, locking the thick, oaken kitchen door behind them and then taking them toward the back door. There's a flash of something blue and electric as he opens the door a crack and he slams it shut again just in time.

"What the fuck was that?" John says.

"You don't want to know," Rodney responds. "It's a stun device. Suffice to say it's good to avoid it, if at all possible."

"You mean like a phaser? Can I block it? Does it go through metal?"

Rodney tilts his head. "I believe metal would conduct it."

Which is how John ends up holding up a skillet with a rubber glove and slamming it, still glowing with electricity, against the head of the woman shooting at him from point-blank with a snake-like gun. Then John and Rodney go running down the stairs and jump into John's Ford Mustang Cobra.

"This car is a cheap excuse for a penis replacement," Rodney says as they tear down the street.

"And it goes zero to sixty in five seconds," John says. "Which—tell me you are grateful for right about now."

"I'm grateful," Rodney says, looking over his shoulder at the black SUV they're leaving in the dust. "Believe me, I am grateful."

"And that's why I love this car," John says. As soon as he's sure they're clear, he pulls out his cell phone and calls Dash, number one on his speed dial.

"Hey, Dash," John says. "So, I'm in a fix."

"When are you not, my brother," Dash says. "What do you need?"

John winces. "Well, I need to borrow a plane."

There's a moment of dead silence, and then Dash says, "Funny, man. I could swear you just asked to borrow one of my babies."

"I did, Dash."

"You're serious. You really are serious."

"As a heart attack, buddy. I have a friend; he's in big trouble, and I need to get him out of town in a hurry. Look, you can have the Mustang as collateral."

"Oh. Now I get it." Dash suddenly sounds amused.

"Dash..."

"He's a friend-friend, like that little lady we got out of Pyongyang? That kind of friend?"

"Not like that. C'mon." John looks over at Rodney, who has taken out his device and is fiddling with it anxiously.

"It's all right, Shep."

"Hey, I'd tell you. He's...we're just...well, maybe it is like that, just a little," John admits. "He really is in trouble, though. I need to get him out of here fast. Can you run pre-flight for me? Write up a flight plan for Hayward to Colorado Springs? Maybe throw in a couple of others as fake-outs?"

"Is that where you're headed? The Rockies? That's a hell of a way. You'd have to stop for a refuel."

"I know. But he needs to go to the Mountain. NORAD."

"Jesus, Shep. What the hell've you gotten yourself into?"

"I wish I knew, buddy. I wish to hell I knew."

"Well, you know I got your back, man. Always."

"Thanks, buddy. I mean it."

After John hangs up with Dash, it's time to deal with Rodney, who's looking decidedly green around the gills.

"Okay, so, here's the deal. These guys weren't fucking around, Rodney."

"I do realize that."

"They were using the live ammo to drive us toward the lady with the stun gun. I clipped that one guy, but who knows how many others they've got ready to come after us? They seem to want you alive; me, not so much."

"I know that, too."

John spares him a quick glance. "What do you have that they want so badly? And how the hell did they track you down?"

"It's possible the answer to both those questions is the same thing," Rodney says. "When I ran, I took some tech with me to prove what Simmons was up to. I couldn't very well approach O'Neill with some story about being abducted without solid proof."

"I see. So you took something, and it's important enough that Simmons equipped it with a tracking device?"

"Not a device. The material it's made of is distinctive enough to track."

John frowns. "It's not something...nuclear?"

"Oh, God, no. No, nothing like that. And it would probably be the other scientist doing the tracking." Rodney slumps beside him. "I didn't mean to leave him behind."

"All right. So we don't really have a choice—we need to get you to Colorado Springs with that thing."

"And you think you can fly me there in your friend's little plane." Rodney sounds skeptical and hopeful at the same time.

"I think you should let me drive for a while," John says. "And maybe while we're on the plane we can have a little chat."

There's still way too much Rodney isn't telling him.

:::

"Him? Really?" Dash wrinkles his nose. "Why is he wearing two shirts?"

"It's his thing," John says, shrugging. "Anyway, he's smart. And weird."

"Well, then he's definitely your type," Dash says. "Remember when Nari took apart our microwave and put it back together again? She made it work twenty percent faster."

"All I remember is we couldn’t make a decent bag of popcorn after that." John looks over at Rodney, who's examining the strut of the wing skeptically. "Popcorn isn't supposed to be extra-crispy."

"You're such a stick-in-the-mud."

"You got the pre-flight all checked off?"

"She's all ready for you," Dash says. "You better not put a single scratch on her, Shep."

"Hey, you know me. I was born to fly."

"It's not your flying I'm worried about. It's the landing part."

"Screw you," John says, hooking Holland around the neck. "You'd think I didn't haul your pitiful ass out of the desert."

"After you crashed!"

"After I got shot down! And after you crashed yourself, loser."

"Gentleman," Rodney says, interrupting the noogie John is administering to Dash's noggin. They both straighten, and John ruffles Dash's hair one last time, getting a punch in the arm for the trouble.

"Sorry," John says to Rodney. "Old argument."

"I can see," Rodney says, something strange in his voice. "We really should go if we want to avoid our catastrophic imminent demise."

"Cheerful," Dash says, raising his eyebrows.

"He has a way," John says. "He captures the essence of the situation."

Dash nods with a maniacal grin on his face. John can tell he's about an inch from laughing outright at John for being so hung up, which would be bad—Rodney would for sure think Holland was laughing at him.

"Come on," John says hastily, tugging on Rodney's arm. "Time to go. Thanks for everything, Dash. I owe you big time."

"You sure do," Dash agrees. "I expect major payback. Tokens of gratitude can include anything from Cuban cigars to a well-aged whiskey."

"We'll keep that in mind," John says as he pushes Rodney toward the cockpit. They both climb inside, where their bags are already stowed, and strap in. Dash wasn't lying: most of the checklist is already done, so all John has left are the live checks on the runway. He starts her up and puts on his headphones. When he talks to the tower, they've already got a slot for him lined up, so he starts her rolling toward the runway.

"Put your headphones on," he yells to Rodney, who is looking a little queasy. "This is going to be a piece of cake," John adds. "Remember: little planes are better than big planes. They want to stay in the air, I swear." He does his final pre-flights, testing the engine and the flaps.

McKay nods but doesn’t look away from the runway. John waits until he puts on his headphones then says, "We'll be in Ely in about three and a half hours."

"Is it okay to talk?"

"Yeah. Don't worry; the tower can't hear you." John turns the curve and stops at the top of the runway. There are only two at this airport, and he can see a clear path ahead, so he checks in with the tower. "Hayward tower, Dash one-five-five-seven-six ready for takeoff IFR, runway two."

"Dash one-three-five, winds one zero at twelve, cleared for takeoff." And then after a moment, the tower comes back with, "Cleared for takeoff runway two, Dash one-five-five-seven-six."

John pushes the throttle. This is always, always his favorite part. And despite the way he can see McKay clutching at his armrest, as soon as they leave the ground and the little plane breaks free from the bonds of Earth, John feels about twenty pounds lighter.

"We're going to die, we're going to die," Rodney chants in his ear.

"Not today." John checks in with the tower a final time and then winks at Rodney. "Hey, we're good. Ease up on the grip of death, there."

"Yes. Fine. We're fine." Rodney stares out the window. They're still climbing, so there's little enough to see, just clear blue sky. It's a beautiful view. The only thing John regrets is the scratchy surface of the plastic windshield that mars the scene a little.

Someday he'll get that jet. Someday.

John circles them around to the right heading and levels them at cruising altitude. It's going to be a fairly long flight, but up here, at least, they are untouchable. He says as much to Rodney, hoping to calm him down.

"Hey, you're safe," John says again. "Seriously, don't you feel it? This lil' gal wants to be up here. She's practically a glider."

Rodney wipes the sweat from his forehead. "Right, of course."

John turns his attention back to the field of view and his instruments. They've got approximately four hundred miles to travel at an average of a hundred knots, which should mean about three and a half hours flight time. Plenty of opportunity to get the whole story out of McKay once he's settled down a little. John figures the gunfire and the car chase probably hasn't helped his nerves any.

"Hey, you said you're a physicist, right?"

"Yes. Well, I primarily focus on wormhole physics, but the nuclear physics involved in the power project wasn't a stretch. I did a year under Luis Alvarez at Berkeley." Rodney's squeezing his hands together.

"Sounds interesting." John leans out the mix a little. The change in engine pitch makes Rodney turn toward him. "It's all good," John says, soothingly. "Tell me about Berkeley."

"I know what you're trying to do, you know," Rodney says. "It's not going to work."

"Oh, yeah?"

"If this plane doesn't kill me, Simmons will find me and take care of it."

"And how about that," John says. "It seems Simmons figured out a way to track you."

Rodney nods miserably, curling in on himself in his seat. "Dr. Lee must be helping him."

"You remembered his name?"

"Bill Lee. Of course I remember his name. I left him behind with that bastard."

"Hey. There wasn't anything you could do." John elbows open his side window to allow a little fresh air into the cabin.

"Wasn't there?" Rodney says viciously. "I don't recall seeing you there, Sheppard."

"So tell me how it was."

Out of the corner of his eye, John can see Rodney picking at the seam of his borrowed jeans. They're a little tight in the thighs, but John isn't complaining about that at all.

Rodney clears his throat, the sound harsh and metallic over the radio. "Lee and I were supposed to escape together. I'd completed my work on the interface, and we were just waiting for the guard, this NID schmuck that looks like he never graduated kindergarten, to go on his smoke break. He'd just left, and Lee and I were combining the translocation device and the interface—I was having difficulty, and he was helping me join them together, when the guard, Smith, came back in. Maybe he forgot his cigarettes or his lighter or something, I don't know. All I know is Lee and I both panicked and tried to hide the unit under the desk at the same time, except what must have happened was he activated the interface and I was the one holding the translocater. So I teleported; he didn't."

"You mean it was an accident."

"It was my fault. If I'd only been faster getting the device together—I was nervous. I never work well under pressure, and he was yammering useless directions in my ear. It simply took me too long to get the components together—"

"It was an accident, McKay. Not your fault."

"I left him behind."

"And boy, believe me when I tell you, I know how bad that feels. But it isn't your fault."

"It sure feels like it is. And if I try to go to Colonel O'Neill and tell him I abandoned Dr. Lee to Simmons' tender mercies, he'll flay my skin off. He already thinks I'm a jerk. This will settle it for him."

"Ah." Finally.

"What? 'Ah' what?" Rodney says petulantly, and John smiles a little.

"That's why you've been hanging around my house this whole time trying to fix the device instead of calling in." John shakes his head. Rodney probably thought he could go back in and rescue Lee himself. "I'm telling you, Rodney, O'Neill isn't going to let anything happen to you. You're one of his. And anyway, it wasn't your fault Lee missed the escape. It's damned lucky you got out at all. Now we all go back in and get Lee. That's the way it's done."

Rodney has turned toward him, a grateful expression on his face. John looks away and taps his gas gauge to cover, because that look is going to kill him fast.

"Try to take a nap," John says. "You look like you could use it."

"Gee, thanks." Rodney does look exhausted, though, and he leans his head against the window a few minutes later and starts to snore into the mic. John grins and shuts off Rodney's line, and the drone of the engine carries them toward the rising sun.

:::

Part 2

 

John lets Rodney sleep all through the approach into Ely. The crosswind is a little frisky and it's been a while since John flew such a light plane. The resulting fight to keep her steady on approach is a plain good time in John's book, but he imagines Rodney wouldn't find it so.

Finally, John flips Rodney's headset back on after he gets final clearance to land. Rodney stirs awake and clearly is very interested in the landing process as they touch down.

"Well, that was both more terrifying and less dangerous than I'd anticipated," he says as John taxis them toward the fueling station.

"Thanks. Usually a pilot gets a little applause, but I'll take what I can get."

"No, no. I'm sure it was a very nice landing."

John bites his lip. "So, we need to get in and out as quickly as we can; I told Dash to file a couple of flight plans for us just in case, but if your Dr. Lee is tracking us, I don't know what good that would do."

"You think Simmons could find us here?" Rodney cranes his head around trying to see in all directions at once.

"I doubt it, but better to be quick." At the station, John cuts the throttle and turns off the prop, but keeps the master switch and beacon on. They're only going to get tanked up and go up again.

"I have to take a piss," Rodney says.

"We've got time for that," John says. "It will take a few to tank up."

Before John gets out, he checks the safety on his M9 and then slips it into his belt. Then John climbs out and goes over to the pump. He flips on the meter and drags out the big nozzle and, slinging it over his shoulder, tightens his stomach muscles and climbs up onto the left strut to set it in the tank. He's surprised to find it's not too much of a strain. Maybe all this moving around he's been doing has helped break down the scar tissue. To his right, he can see Rodney trudging to the restroom—it's more like a freestanding storage shed with a port-a-potty on the side. The control tower building is in the distance and probably has much nicer facilities, but it's a much longer walk.

Rodney disappears into the green port-o-potty, and John grimaces imagining the smell.

The left tank is just about full when John hears a screech of tires and turns to his left. A giant black SUV has just peeled out of a far-off hangar onto the asphalt expanse of the tarmac and is heading in John's direction.

For a split second, John freezes up completely. He's thinking about trying to take off and getting shot. He's thinking about jammed up controllers and blood-soaked pants and pain like he's never felt before.

Then he's hopping down off the strut and running hell bent for the port-o-potty.

"Rodney! Damn it, Simmons' guys are here! Get out of there!"

Rodney pops out like a gopher sticking its head out of a hole. "Oh, God, really?"

John wastes no time grabbing his arm and dragging him around to the front of the storage shed. The knob turns under John's hand and he drags Rodney inside and then jams the door closed with the handle of a mop. It won't stay closed for very long, but then John has a plan. It's a stupid plan, but then most of his plans are pretty stupid.

The shed has some ventilation holes, and John tries to see what's up. Rodney pushes him aside to take his own look.

"It's him," Rodney says, sounding horrified. "He came himself this time."

"Simmons? He's here?"

"Yes. The lizard in the suit."

John looks out. Simmons is a tall, dark-haired guy leaning on a silver-tipped cane. He's wearing a nice suit, all right. Putz.

"Oh, Rodney... Are you in there?" Simmons holds up what looks like a Nintendo DS. "Why, lookee here: yes, you are. I have this fancy gadget Dr. Lee made for me."

"Jerk," Rodney mutters. "Asshole."

"The way I see it, Dr. McKay, you have the choice of possibly getting yourself and your pet Air Force major shot up beyond all recovery, or you can belay this ridiculous farce and come out of there." Simmons sounds almost amused. John hates his slimy voice on principle. "You know I'd prefer you alive so you can work the Goa'uld device for me, but either way I'm getting it back. I don't care what happens to you or Sheppard."

"What the hell is he talking about?" John whispers to Rodney. "What's a ghoul? And how the hell does he know about me?"

"He's ex-NID! They know everything! And it's not a ghoul—nothing. It's nothing. Well, it's complicated."

"Right. See, I knew you were hiding something." Infuriating bastard. "Is it a weapon?"

"No, it's not! So shut up and figure out how we're going to get out of this."

"I think I already have," John says, grabbing Rodney's backpack and yanking it open. "This one is the translocator, right?"

"Yes, but—" Rodney gets hold of the device and tries to grab it back. "You're right. But you have no idea how it works."

"Well, neither did you when you were futzing with it but you came out all right." John lets Rodney hold the grip so he can touch the screen until it lights up again. "I mean, the only thing you were thinking was you had to get home, right?"

Rodney opens his mouth to respond and then disappears.

"Well, fuck," John says. The device went right with him—of course, it did. John sits back on his heels and then yells, "Bad news, Simmons. McKay is gone."

"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"

"He's not here anymore. He's gone bye-bye."

There's a moment of silence, and then Simmons lets out an inarticulate sound of rage. That right there gives John some satisfaction, which he holds onto tightly when, a few minutes later, Simmons and friends rev up the SUV and use it to smash into John's storage shed.

He wakes up wearing handcuffs and bruises on top of his bruises and with a single thought: Dash is seriously going to kill him for abandoning his baby in Ely, Nevada.

:::

Jack is very carefully explaining to Carter why he really needs a miniature staff weapon when Rodney McKay appears out of thin air and crashes to the floor behind her desk.

"Huh," Jack says. "That's a surprise." Carter just frowns at him and moves to help McKay to his feet.

"Nice trick," Jack adds, leaning over to see. He's got his hand on the phone, though, ready to call in an SF or two just in case.

"Ow, ow, ow," McKay says as he rises. "I don't understand why it doesn't simply calibrate for ground level. Oh, hello, there, Major Carter."

"Dr. McKay," she says stiffly. She looks over at Jack, and Jack mouths, Alien? Clone?

She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Jack's used to it.

McKay turns around and sees Jack, and then groans, "Oh, God. Okay, okay, I don't know why it had to bring me to you, but of course it's you. Colonel O'Neill, we have to talk."

"What is that thing?" Jack says, pretty reasonably, he thinks, since McKay is pointing what looks like a phaser straight at him.

"This? Oh, this. It's a translocation device."

"Like in Star Trek?"

"Why? Why do you Air Force people always—never mind. The point is, it's not a weapon, and we don't have much time. Simmons has both Dr. Lee and Major Sheppard now—"

"Simmons?" Jack sees red. "Frank Simmons?" Suddenly he's around the desk and holding McKay by the shirt. "You'd better start talking, McKay."

"Yes, yes. Isn't that what I'm already—" He throws a helpless glance toward Carter and then begins talking fast. "Frank Simmons kidnaped me. Lee and I tried to escape using the translocation device but it only took me—to Major Sheppard. Simmons tracked me down because I took his Goa'uld palm device with me as proof. When Simmons found me, Sheppard used the translocation device to send me away again. To you. Now Simmons has Sheppard, too. I assume. If he hasn't killed him, too. But he wouldn't. He's a valuable hostage. Oh, God—"

Jack gives him a little shake to shut him up. McKay's distress seems real enough. Jack pats him down and finds the Goa'uld palm device in his pocket. "You know how to use this?"

"I was learning how to, yes. Oh! Simmons was injured when his goons broke him out of Peterson. That's why he kidnaped me—he knew I used to be implanted with Bastet and could use the device to heal him."

"I knew Rivera winged him," Jack says with satisfaction. He turns to Carter. "Looks like we're going on a field trip, Carter. We have some people to rescue and a traitor to catch. Wanna come?"

"I'll bring the ammo, sir."

Jack claps his hands together. "Then I'll fire up the jet."

McKay says, "I'm coming, too."

Jack looks at him. McKay's jaw is set with pure determination, and his eyes are bloodshot and underlined with exhaustion. Jack knows the look. Hell, he invented the look.

"Yeah, you can come," Jack says and adds, "but you have to bring the snacks."

:::

John naps for a while. He's always been a nap while you can kind of guy, even when the circumstances aren't the greatest. A couple of hours pass and then Simmons has John dragged out into a big, open hangar. The kindergartner, Smith, isn't very nice about it, and John's ribcage creaks a little as he's shoved down next to a short, pale, balding man.

John assumes this is the famous Dr. Lee, confirmed when he says, quietly, "I'm sorry. He made me help find you. Simmons still has access and we looked up your record, found out about Captain Holland." Lee shrugs. "It was simply a matter of hacking Hayward Executive Airport's flight records. There was no way I could pretend it was beneath my skill level."

"I get it. It's not your fault," John says, and takes a look around. Parked next to them in the open hangar is the kind of aircraft John would want for Dash Air, a shiny new Gulfstream V. John's pretty sure this is how Simmons managed to beat them out here to Ely. They probably had the place staked out and were waiting for John to land and start fueling up. Next to the Gulfstream is Dash's Cessna 172, John's relieved to see.

"I've decided to take a different approach," Simmons says, coming over and propping his cane on the table to lean over John. "This chasing after McKay is bad for the knees. I'm going to make him come to me."

Well, that doesn't sound good at all. If it weren't for babyface Smith and the lady behind them with the submachine gun, John would consider doing something about it, but his hands are cuffed and the only thing he's got to work with is spit and the tableful of alien tchotchkes Lee's obviously been working on. Most of them are of the same green-blue metal of the translocation device. And the weird thing is, John could swear some of them are trying to talk to him.

"First, of course, I have to know where he is," Simmons continues. "You wouldn't happen to be willing to part with that information, would you, Major?"

John grins, making sure to show all his teeth. Not that John knows where the hell he sent Rodney off to. He hopes it's somewhere sunny. With cheap drinks.

"I thought not, somehow," Simmons says. A phone rings, and Simmons says, "Hold that thought." He turns his back and starts talking into his cell phone.

"Take your time, I'll be here," John says, and focuses on the promising chunky green jewel on the table to Lee's left. It's saying comforting things to him; it's whispering, "safety" and "security" and "shelter." John says to Dr. Lee, as quietly as he can, "Grab that green jewel and hold it next to me."

Lee looks at him like the wheel is spinning but the hamster fell off; still, he does as John asks and surreptitiously passes the gem-like thing over. He's looking nervous as hell as he does it—espionage is not this guy's strong suit—but it doesn't matter because a quick glance over his shoulder tells John that Smith and his gal with the MP5A3 submachine gun are more interested in the conversation Simmons seems to be having with the money guy on the phone.

John reaches out and touches the gem, thinking, Take care of this guy. He's not exactly sure what's supposed to happen; what does surprises him. A green glow momentarily flashes all around Lee, and John's fingertips sting where he's touching the jewel.

He tries to tap Lee's hand again but the glow stops him just as babyface yells behind them, "Hey!"

Lee looks at John in wonder and then turns forward again.

"What?" John responds to Smith. "We're just experimenting here."

"Sir, I think you'd better come see this," Smith says to Simmons. Then, to John, "Listen, you, stop what you're doing."

Now that John gets how it works, he's frantically querying the other objects to try to find a weapon, any weapon, but they're coming back with health monitor and lifesigns detector and, uselessly, thermometer until, finally, something with possibilities: personal hovercraft. John lunges forward and grabs it just as something collides with the back of his head.

It's only a glancing blow, though—he was already on the move, and he continues to shove himself over the table, the hovercraft module in hand and his ribs burning with agony.

Simmons turns around and starts toward him. "Oh, no you don't," he says. "Not again. I simply won't allow it."

John smiles fiercely and snaps the device onto his wrist like it's begging him to. Immediately, it starts to hum and pulls his arm up in the air like Superman, the cuffs parting with a ding when a flowing field creeps down his arm and begins to draw the rest of him up after it. When it covers his head, it speaks to him, like it's saying, "Hi! Let's go!" John thinks back, Oh, hell yeah.

"No! Smith, help me," Simmons says, and grabs John by the waist as he starts to lift off the ground.

"Fuck. Let me go," John says, punching at Simmons' arms. Unfortunately, the fucker has a really strong grip, and John is more interested in getting the hell away from Smith's MP7 than anything else at this moment. Having Simmons on his back might actually be a good thing if he'll cover his six.

John is now fifteen feet high and climbing, the body of the Gulfstream under his toes as he turns toward the hangar door. He sees Lee, his shield glowing green as GI Jane tries to grab him and her arms slip off like sliding on soap. Lee starts toward the door after John and Simmons.

Simmons is grunting now, clutching John tighter than ever with both arms and legs, as John has broken out of the hangar and is well over safe altitude above the deck. If Simmons were to let go now, it wouldn't be smart. On the other hand, John doesn't know exactly how to steer or land this thing, and Simmons seems to be interfering with the field that distributes the lift evenly—his arm feels like it's being torn out of his socket by their dual weights, and his ribs are now a crushing agony—the guy is clutching onto him like a goddamn monkey despite John's efforts to shake him off. But the field encasing John's head seems to be protecting him from the wind, at least. John will just get to minimum safe distance from the assholes with the guns and then dump Simmons on the police.

"I'm taking you to the cops," John tells Simmons when he finally figures out how to aim the thing. It's really just point and go.

"I'd advise you to set us both back down in the hangar, Major Sheppard," Simmons yells, "or I will shoot you in the leg."

John looks down and sees it's no bluff—Simmons has somehow managed to extract a small handgun from somewhere and is pointing it at John's left leg.

"You kill me and we both die," John says. With that, he focuses on climbing higher—higher and fast—because he would bet dollars to donuts that Simmons has never been at high altitude, while John is an old hand.

"Then I'll keep maiming you until you wish you were dead," Simmons yells.

John ignores him and flies higher. The air is getting thinner, but the field surrounding his head seems to be helping; he queries the device and it pings back happily that it can provide an oxygen-rich breathing mixture. John says thanks and wishes he could pet the hovercraft module. He is never, ever giving it up, ever.

"Major, are you listening to me?" Simmons slurs.

"Yeah, I'm listening," John yells back. "You were demonstrating yet again what a selfish asshole you are. Traitor to your nation, abductor of helpless scientists, attempted murderer, and now you want to avoid prosecution. Tell you what—no deal."

John only knows he's been shot by the fact he loses control of the hover module—suddenly they are in a flat spin and he feels nothing but pain. Somehow, Simmons stays glued to him.

"Motherfucker!" John yells, steeling himself to shake Simmons off, somehow, anyhow, and then there's a mad rush of sound, and a turbulent wind flips them both upside down and sideways, followed by a booming suction of air. Simmons screeches and loses his grip; John watches as he falls toward the ground, a speck growing into a tinier dot against the landscape.

The small jet with Air Force markings that nearly killed John calmly makes its approach to Ely Airport as if nothing had happened. John grabs the hole in his leg and follows the jet down to the runway. He'll call the cops from the tower, he thinks, a little muzzy. There will be an inquiry. Probably Bonnie and Clyde will have rabbited, but Lee will be okay. Assuming the forcefield held. Poor Lee. Poor Rodney, wherever he ended up—possibly in a Florida swamp or the Alaskan tundra. Who knows?

It's possible John has lost some blood at this point. His flying could be called shaky at best—he's describing lazy loops as he descends toward the tarmac. Below, the jet has already landed and a bunch of people in BDUs and tactical gear are deploying from the cabin. John would be alarmed but one of them, improbably enough, looks an awful lot like—

"Rodney!" John says, and tells the hover module to come down and hover, damn it, only that's not what happens. What happens is a lot less elegant than that, and not even George Jetson on a good day, so John comes down to a running, tumbling, rolling sprawl at Rodney's feet like an Olympic gymnast who got hit with brick.

And he'd really wanted to show Rodney how cool the hovercraft was, too. Maybe next time.

"Sheppard? John?" Rodney yells incredulously. "Oh, my God, are you all right?"

"Yup." John retracts the field and tries to sit up, but every single muscle and bone in his body chooses that moment to complain loudly about how very pissed it is at this sort of treatment. "Way to go, John," he says.

A pretty medic rushes over to him and starts doing uncomfortable things to his leg while a gorgeous blonde woman stands over him with a M4A1. Rodney comes over and starts begging her not to shoot him.

"He's with us," Rodney says.

"I kinda figured," the blonde says, and nods at John. "Nice trick without a parachute."

"Yeah, but I really have to work on the landing," John says while more people gather around curiously. "Rodney, Simmons shot me and fell about fifty thousand feet and got pancaked—"

"You got shot?" Rodney interrupts. "Shut up and let Fraiser treat you."

"Also, his guys still have Lee but I put a forcefield on him to protect him." John looks around at the group and suddenly realizes the silver fox with the narrow frown is a colonel. "O'NEILL," his nametag says. "Holy shit," John says and tries again to get up. "Sorry, sir. Um, situation is still critical. Dr. Lee is in a hangar at the south end of the airport. However, he's wearing a protective device—"

"You already killed Simmons?" O'Neill says, frowning. "I was really looking forward to doing that."

"Actually, sir, a jet killed him," John says. "I think it was yours."

O'Neill brightens right up and bounces on his toes. "Well, that's something, at least." He gathers everyone with a look. "C'mon, folks. Let's go get Dr. Lee." He pauses and nods at Rodney. "You coming, Dr. McKay?"

"Yes, of course," Rodney says, still staring at John with worried eyes.

"I'm coming too," John says, and Rodney points his finger at him.

"Oh, no, you're not. You're staying right here with Dr. Fraiser, who's going to keep you from dying inconveniently before I can come back here and punch you in the mouth for being such an idiot."

"Me?" John blinks, trying to look innocent.

"You sent me away! Why didn't you come with me?"

"You act like I knew what I was doing!"

"People, people," O'Neill says. "Less arguing, more rescuing."

"Right," Rodney says.

They all troop off to rescue Lee and leave John with his aches and pains and the nice medic lady, who turns out to be a doctor and not so nice after all. She tells him he's dehydrated and has a low grade infection and has lost too much blood, and makes him get on the jet where an SF takes off his broken cuffs, and Fraiser puts him on an IV with something in it that makes John's head swim.

He doesn't get to see any action or hear anything and kind of falls asleep. When he wakes up, it's with a single, nagging thought.

"I have to call Dash," he says.

Dr. Fraiser comes over and takes his pulse for the umpteenth time. "What was that?"

"My best friend. I borrowed his plane and got kidnaped. For all he knows, I'm dead and his plane is lost. I have to call him."

"Okay. Keep your pants on. You can borrow my phone, all right?"

"Thanks, ma'am," John says, going for charming and falling way short. He knows he's broadcasting his anxiety. But, hell, Dash put it all out on the line for him and his plane is sitting over in a hangar with a bunch of thieves and murderers.

Unfortunately, Dash doesn't answer his damned phone.

"Dash! Buddy," John says into Holland's voicemail. "I'm not dead. We got hung up in Nevada. It's kind of top secret, but we're still at Ely, and your plane is here, and we're okay. I'll call you as soon as I know what's next, all right? Okay. Sorry, and thanks for everything, bucko. I know I owe you." John hangs up. "Jesus. Jesus Christ," he says, rubbing his hand over his face. His IV is trapped and tugs at his skin, and he frees it from under his knee.

"Everything all right?" Fraiser asks cautiously.

"Oh, I just have my buddy's livelihood sitting in a hangar over there, and with me being shot I won't be able to fly it back to Hayward like I planned. Not for a while, anyway. So I suck. Also, who knows if those assholes didn't damage it moving it to the hangar when they were trying to get it out of sight?"

"I'm sure the SGC will reimburse your friend for any damages," Fraiser says soothingly.

"What's the SGC?"

Fraiser looks startled, like someone has just stabbed a bunny right in front of her.

"Um. That's classified," she says.

"I'm getting that a lot. It's starting to seem like this top-secret deep space telemetry slash nuclear fusion slash cutting edge energy source project is really just some catchall for 'weird fucking shit we don’t want you to know about.' But you all work out of NORAD?"

"Actually, I'll answer that," O'Neill says, stepping into the cabin and putting his M4A1 off to the side. "If you'll sign a non-disclosure agreement first. Can't learn a thing if you don't."

"I'm game," John says quickly. O'Neill has to be kidding. John would sign away his mother for another shot at the hover module, which Fraiser had stripped from his arm and taken away before treating his leg. There's only one thing holding him back. "Did you find my buddy's Cessna?"

"Yeah. We brought back your bags, too. Ely will hold the plane here for us until you can get it flown back. No problem."

Or John will buy a new damned plane for Dash, if it comes to that.

Beyond O'Neill, Rodney and then Dr. Lee enter the plane, followed by the pale, blonde woman and the sandy-haired guy with glasses. Finally, a very tall, buff guy with satiny brown skin fills the doorway. He has a golden tattoo on his forehead and is loaded for bear, hand-carrying a very pretty M60E3 machine gun. Whoever these people are, they come well equipped.

Dr. Lee walks up to John and stands next to his seat. "I have to thank you, Major. Whatever you did, it did the trick."

"Yup," O'Neill says, coming over. "It was quite a sight. We caught both Smith and Jones, and I have some people holding them for transport back to Peterson in Simmons' Gulfstream. Bill, here, was fighting them off pretty good until they got him in a corner, but they didn't lay a hand on him."

Lee pipes up, "I was invulnerable! It was like having an Illidari Runeshield. They couldn't touch me. In fact, I can't even touch me, which I don't have to tell you is pretty weird. I hope you can undo it, Major." He holds up his hand and shows how the jewel appears to stick to it like glue.

"Pretty sure I can," John says. He'd already queried if it was possible, but now he asks the jewel again, this time telling it, Bill is safe. You can let him go now.

The jewel drops from Bill's hand into John's lap.

"Remarkable," Fraiser says.

"How did you...?" Rodney looks awestruck.

John picks up the jewel. "Simmons had a bunch of these doodads on the table. They did all sorts of different stuff."

O'Neill is frowning. "The table was empty when we got there."

"Then Smith or Jones stowed them somewhere while I was taking Simmons for a ride. Did you find, uh, Simmons' body?"

"Yeah." O'Neill pokes the jewel with one finger. "He's in the cargo hold. I'll send someone after the knickknacks; thanks for the tip, Sheppard."

"Yeah."

O'Neill straightens and looks John in the eye. "It's a short flight back to the Mountain. Let's all have our little chat once we get back. " He disappears into the cockpit.

John stares at Rodney, who's looking glum. It's all suddenly a little too much for John. He slips the jewel in his pocket and tilts his chair back.

"I'm sorry," Rodney says, as the other folks settle into their seats. Lee seems to realize he's in the way and moves toward the back, leaving the seat beside John free. Rodney takes it immediately.

"For what?" The cabin of the jet is spacious enough that, now that the engines have started up, they have the appearance of privacy, but the curious looks the blonde woman and the sandy-haired guy are giving them belies that.

"Are you kidding? Should I start a list?" Rodney says, sounding exhausted. "Let's start with the fact I got you shot."

"Yeah, getting shot sucks," John agrees. It really does, and he closes his eyes again thinking about months of physio, and doing stretches, and his body not doing what he wants it to do. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck," he chants. "Thanks for reminding me how fucked I am."

"Maybe...maybe not," Rodney says.

"I'm pretty sure," John says, angry that Rodney would make light of it.

"No, what I mean is, I—there might be a way I can help you heal faster," Rodney says, the words so rushed they tumble over each other.

"Come again?"

"There's a device."

"Oh, another device. Well, hand it over and I'll give it a shot."

Rodney sighs. "This one you won't be able to use, John. This is one only I can work."

"And why's that?"

"There's...it's complicated."

John's opinion must be reflected in his expression, because Rodney suddenly says, "Okay, okay! Look, it's like this. Way, way back, years ago now, it's vaguely possible—you did say you'd sign that NDA didn't you?—it's minutely possible I was very temporarily possessed by a creature called a Goa'uld."

"Right, the ghoul."

"No," Rodney says, sighing. "A Go-AH-uld. An alien."

"An alien."

Rodney blinks at him.

"From outer space."

Rodney rolls his eyes and nods.

John points. "I knew it! I knew you weren't just Canadian!"

The gold tattoo guy turns his head and stares. The blonde woman laughs.

"So that's where all these weird devices are coming from. You've been mixing it up with the kids from the wrong side of the solar system."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney says. "There's only a tiny, almost inconsequential remnant remaining in my bloodstream."

John crosses his arms. "And there's the weird thing with the cats."

"Well, admittedly, there's that, too. Anyway, do you want me to help you or not?"

John thinks about it. Rodney is part alien. Freaking weird. But freaking cool, too. He always did have a thing for Spock.

"Sure. How do we do it?"

"Well, I go over and beg Carter to lend me back the Goa'uld healing device..."

"Carter? You mean the blonde is Major Carter, the scientist you were all gaga over?" John looks over at her. He can totally see it. She's brilliant, beautiful, Air Force, and carries an M4A1. What's not to love? "I get it," he says. "But you sure were playing with fire."

"Yes, I know," Rodney sighs. "Wait right here."

"Oh, no. I'm coming with you," John says. No way is he letting Rodney possibly screw this up. "Just remember: when you're in a hole, stop digging."

"What a quaint aphorism," Rodney says, but he looks thoughtful.

John follows slowly at a limp, ignoring Dr. Fraiser's frown at the IV bag he's clutching in one hand.

Rodney is speaking to Carter, who's looking at Rodney with an eyebrow raised.

"...Really all my fault he's injured in the first place. He's suffered two cracked ribs as well as deep hematomas and, of course, the gunshot wound on his leg. All because I unthinkingly and selfishly involved him in a rescue operation that, once again, was my responsibility—"

"Enough. Enough, McKay," Carter says, her eyes darting between Rodney's face and John's, which he knows must reflect his rising dismay at the way Rodney is presenting the whole thing.

"I got myself involved," John says firmly. "It was my decision. And what happened with Lee wasn't Rodney's fault either. He's being an idiot."

"Yes, I can see that," Carter says.

"What?" Rodney grumbles.

"Lee already explained what happened with the translocator. It really wasn't your fault, McKay. He also has a theory on why it works for Sheppard," Carter says. "Lee saw Jack playing with the hover device, and now he wants to do some DNA testing on Sheppard and O'Neill."

"I don't...what?" Now Rodney just looks bamboozled. "You mean you don't...?"

"Hey, the hovercraft is mine," John says, "I stole it fair and square." He elbows Rodney, trying to snap him out of whatever has him gaping like a dope.

Rodney blinks at John then says to Carter, "May I please borrow the healing device for a few minutes, Major?"

The formality of the request must strike her particularly, because she nods and goes to her gear bag and comes back with a small round gold and red gadget—it looks more like outsized costume jewelry than anything else.

"Good luck," she says, looking at them both.

"Okay, so that's it?" John says, shuffling painfully back to his seat to sit down. "That's the thing you had in your pocket all this time?"

"Yes. Now lie back."

"You realize I thought you were carrying a weapon."

"Well, I wasn't," Rodney says, then, "Oh, my God. You almost shot me. That gun you kept toting around—"

"I didn't, though, did I? 'Cause I'm a real nice guy."

Rodney smiles at him, suddenly, brilliantly, and John's heart stops. Just up and quits on him.

"Yes, you are," Rodney says. "That's why I'm going to do this. So hold still." There's something commanding in McKay's voice, so John does as he asks and settles all the way back in his seat. Rodney holds up his hand with the gewgaw strapped to it and stares at him, his eyes focused and hard.

John smiles, suddenly nervous. "Should I close my eyes and think of—"

The jewel in Rodney's palm starts glowing like a sun. Heat crawls over John's ribs, and his eyes start to droop as he feels a pinch and a tug and then more warmth. Everything is warm, from his thigh, which somehow doesn't ache anymore, to his belly, where all those torn, just healed muscles have been protesting the rough treatment all day. Everything is peachy.

"What the hell did you do?" John says when he opens his eyes, his voice slow and drugged. It feels like some time has passed. He looks down and sees that Rodney has pulled off all his bandages on his leg, and where there used to be an ugly gunshot wound with some battlefield stitching, now there's just unblemished skin and some bloodstains.

"I fixed you," Rodney says, waggling the device.

"Holy shit. You did. You really did," John says as he tries to sit up and succeeds, smoothly, easily, for the first time in forever. He's fixed. He turns easily, left and right, and his skin and muscles slide smoothly and easily. John yanks up his shirt and looks at his belly—all his scars have faded to a faint suggestion of pink against his tanned skin. "Sweet Christ."

Rodney snickers and pats his arm.

John's mind immediately goes to all the sex he can now have with Rodney. Really complicated, difficult sex—he's thinking Olympic freestyle, here—now that he's apparently all healed up again.

"I can't believe you did it."

"Of course I did. I said I would, didn't I?" Rodney rocks back and forth looking unbearably smug.

"Thanks," John says. He desperately wants to kiss Rodney right about now, even if he is an alien. Rodney is staring hard at him—at his mouth, really, so John is pretty sure he feels the same way. "Is this permanent?"

Rodney rolls his eyes. "Yes," he drawls.

John's mind is spinning with the possibilities. "Could you like...replace a kidney with that thing?" The whine of the flaps tells him he lost some time while Rodney was healing him. They're getting close to descent. "You know Dash lost a kidney—it's why he had to leave the Air Force. And we owe him, Rodney."

Rodney's face twists. "We can't. He's not read into the program."

"Well, what would it take to read him in?"

Just then, O'Neill's voice lazes over the intercom telling them all to strap in. "If you're seated next to a child, or someone who acts like a child—I'm talking about you, Daniel—please ensure their seats are in an upright position and their seatbelts are fastened."

John's question is lost in the hustle of deplaning at Peterson, the wait as they unload cargo and Simmons' body, and then the intense security checks John has to go through at all the various checkpoints. The blast doors at the entryway to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex must be four feet thick, and John goggles at them for a few moments.

At each stop, Carter or O'Neill has to vouch for him, and John has to produce his military ID and get fingerprinted and acquire a new, laminated card to attach to his shirt. Rodney just sighs and rolls his eyes a lot, obviously impatient with all the rigmarole. All John can think is: NORAD. Holy fuckballs.

Weirdly enough, they don't confiscate the jewel gadget he's still carrying until after they've gone down about eleven levels in the secure facility at the complex. Then they have to pass yet another checkpoint, and some SF pats John down again and makes him empty his pockets into a tray once again.

O'Neill picks up the jewel and a funny expression crosses his face. "I think we'll be borrowing this for a little while."

"Hey, you already took my hovercraft," John complains lightheartedly. The hover module lit up all pretty for O'Neill, but John's pretty sure the jewel won't work for anyone else, and by the look on O'Neill's face, he knows it, too.

The SF gives John another ID tag, this one with a logo at the bottom that reads, "SGC." The initials ring a bell. This is it, John realizes. He's not sure what he's expecting when the elevator door opens, but it's not for a general to meet them with a glower on his face.

"Report, Colonel," he says.

"Simmons is toast, sir," O'Neill says, and the general nods, looking satisfied.

"Well, come on," he says. "I want the whole story."

"You're not the only one," O'Neill says, and he urges John and Dr. Lee out of the elevator and after the general down a long, concrete corridor. John gets to stepping, because when a major general asks for a sitrep you don't jimmy jack around.

The base looks like every other military installation John has ever been in; the look and feel is more 50s-era nuclear bunker than modern space-age installation. At least, that's what John thinks until they take him up some stairs and he gets a gander at the giant round metal sculpture they've got installed in the back of what looks like a launch pad.

"What the hell?" John says, but O'Neill drags him away from the window and pushes him into a chair at the conference table.

"Keep your ass right there." He disappears into an office with the general, John assumes to give him the run-down.

Major Carter looks amused. "You get used to him."

"He's all right," John says. "He knows how to throw a party, anyway." John is thinking about the jet full of armed back up, and how they rescued Rodney from wherever they did so fast. "Thanks for coming to back me up," he says to her and the big man, Teal'c.

"It was my pleasure. Your planet is a very attractive one."

John blinks and takes a second look. Except for the gold seal on his head and the supernaturally cool vibe the guy's got going, there's nothing particularly alien about him.

But that makes two aliens on John's radar in the past week. Pretty neat.

"Coffee?" The sandy-haired guy, Daniel Jackson, offers John a cup of coffee, and John lunges for it, wondering if this guy is an alien, too. They also have bottles of water on the table, and John grabs one of those as well. Simmons' thugs hadn't fed him or given him any water, just dragged him off to the bathroom once on the way to the hangar.

"Man, am I glad you guys showed up," he says. "And just at the right time, too."

"Really?" Jackson asks.

"Ah-ah-ah," O'Neill says, coming back in. "Start at the beginning."

"Well, really the story starts with me," Rodney says.

"Actually, I was the one Simmons kidnaped first," Lee says.

"This isn’t a contest!" O'Neill says. "You!" He points at Lee. "Start us off."

Lee starts telling them about Simmons' men carjacking his Ford Focus at a gas station on his way to work at Area 51. Bingo, John thinks, wondering if the whole Roswell story is true, too.

"I'm going to miss that little beauty," Lee sniffs. He's a little long-winded telling the whole thing, and John sort of zones out until he gets to the part of the story in which Rodney is shoved into the room where Lee has been trying unsuccessfully to get some of the stolen technology to function.

"With Dr. McKay's help, I managed to activate a miniature tanning device, so we knew it might be possible to make the translocator we found work. Dr. McKay said he could interface with the underlying API and make it take us back to the SGC—"

Rodney jumps in, obviously frustrated with Lee's long-winded story. "I only managed to break the top level protocol; unfortunately, the routine seemed dead set on responding by 'phoning home,' if I understand my Ancient correctly."

"Do you have the device here?" Jackson asks curiously. "I could translate."

"It's in my bag," Rodney says, starting to reach for it.

"Let's not get side-tracked," O'Neill says. "So you told the device to phone home?"

"Well, we waited until the guard left on his smoke break, of course. Then when he came back unexpectedly, this idiot panicked and sent me off without him."

"It wasn't me," Lee protests. "You jostled me and my damned finger slipped. Anyway, Simmons was pretty pissed Rodney'd gotten away, and made me write up a tracking program based on the naquadah-based Goa'uld device Rodney ran off with. It was either that or lose an eyeball, and I need both my eyeballs."

"Don't sweat it, Doc," O'Neill says. He turns to Rodney. "So, you ended up in California? You already told me this part. Blah-blah, compost pile, Sheppard borrows a plane and tries to fly you back to the SGC, only Simmons catches up with you both in Nevada. Then Sheppard activates the device again and you landed in our laps."

"In a word." Rodney shares a quick glance with John.

"Wait, so you appeared here?" John thought Rodney had contacted the colonel and gotten them to rendezvous. "On base?"

"Right in Major Carter's office," O'Neill says. "He really stuck the landing, too. I give him an eight out of ten."

John bites his lip. "It's a good thing Simmons didn't know. He thought McKay was on the run without resources. I thought so, too, to tell the truth. That's why I didn't wait around."

"So, you...?"

John shrugs. This seems like a weird way to report, but O'Neill appears okay with it. "Simmons wanted to know where Rodney had gone to and was threatening to get physical about it. I didn't have a weapon or a means of defense, so I started talking to the tchotchkes."

"See? This is where it gets all hinky again," O'Neill says. "What tchotchkes?"

"Excuse me, sir," Carter says. "I believe Major Sheppard is referring to the cache of Ancient devices Major Sato reported finding on the Gulfstream V."

"I guess," John says. "Some of them were pretty useless, but the jewel one is a personal forcefield. I told it to shield Lee and then I took the hovercraft module for a joy ride."

"Now that explains the pancake we found on the tarmac." O'Neill stares at him, his brown eyes almost unreadable. But John thinks there's a glimmer of humor cooking back there.

"Yeah...Simmons wasn't happy about another possible jailbreak. He grabbed onto me. I used him to shield me from the machine guns his pals were waving and headed for the open. Simmons was yelling at me to land; he had a gun. I thought: no way am I going back without a fight. I tried to go atmospheric. So Simmons shot me."

The big guy, Teal'c, makes a noise that sounds almost exactly like the rumble of John's first V8 engine.

John says to him, "I was trying to shake him off when you guys jetted by on approach and took care of it for me. The turbulence threw us every which way and Simmons got tossed into the black." John finishes his report with a nod to O'Neill. "Thanks for the assist."

O'Neill is grinning outright now, and Carter is covering her mouth. Teal'c nods like a man satisfied with the world.

"You mean our jet killed him?" Rodney says, incredulity raising his voice. He also sounds a mite delighted.

"Yup."

"If that don't beat all," O'Neill says. "We done good. So, I guess that's where we came in."

"Yes, sir," John says. "Perfect entrance."

Jackson snorts.

"Well, we'll just get this all written up for General Hammond," O'Neill says, leaning back and running his hands over his face before he gets to his feet. "Good job not getting dead, people!"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Major Carter says, and John echoes her. Rodney is looking at him with a questioning look.

"Um, Colonel?" John says. "About my friend's plane..."

"Oh, yeah. You're not going anywhere just yet, Major. For one thing, Lee was right—we have to get you to the infirmary for a DNA test. For another, you haven't signed that NDA yet. You're not getting out of here without signing in blood."

"But my friend—"

"Chill out, Sheppard. Carter looked up the plane registry and filled me in. A Cessna 172, N-15576, registered to one Holland, Lyle D., Captain, USAF, retired. We'll take care of it. We take care of our own, you know."

"Yeah, I..." John swallows, his throat too dry for words. This time, he reads sympathy in the brown eyes and has to look away.

"All right, people," O'Neill says. "You know what to do, now do it. Daniel? Help me type this up, would you? We have to justify the gas for this little romp." O'Neill heads toward the stairs.

"I would think the jet Major Sato flew back would be pretty good justification in and of itself," Jackson says as he follows O'Neill.

"We can't just confiscate it! Can we? Huh."

John meets Rodney's eyes and says, "Take me to the infirmary?"

"Yes, of course," Rodney says, looking guilty for some reason. They go down the stairs in tandem, John marveling at how easy it is to walk without stiffness, without hitching in a breath as he steps downward or trying to tighten up against the pain. He hadn't even realized how much he was compensating or how constantly he was bracing himself until now when he no longer has to.

Whatever Rodney is feeling guilty about, he gets a pass, as far as John is concerned.

"What's the problem?" John says, after Teal'c and Carter wave themselves off and go their own ways. Lee sticks Rodney's side, though; apparently, he's determined to see John's blood. Creepy.

"Problem? There's no problem," Rodney says. "I've only sucked you into a top secret program they won't ever release you from and which will probably spell an unnatural and painful end to your existence, especially if Sam Carter doesn't update the gate protocols as I have repeatedly recommended to her in email." Rodney mutters all of this in one breath and then clutches John's arm in a clawed grip. "I'm so sorry. I should have walked right out the moment after I landed in your compost heap."

"Nah. Think of all the fun we would’ve missed," John says, and rests his hand on top of Rodney's. Rodney's anxious gaze softens, and he smiles a little, lopsided and twitchy and endearing as anything. John is now so desperate to kiss him he's willing to find a bathroom stall, a janitor's closet, an oversized shoe box, anything.

"The infirmary is this way," Lee breaks in helpfully.

"Thanks," John growls and tugs on Rodney's arm to get him moving.

The infirmary is like any other—gurneys and overworked medical staff moving between impatient patients. Doctor Fraiser is there and makes them all sit against the wall and wait their turn, so Lee starts questioning Rodney about the translocation device and how he'd used it to escape. John kind of wishes he had a Sudoku puzzle to keep him occupied, but then he feels something pressing against his leg. He realizes Rodney's got his hand there shoved between them. It probably looks totally innocent to a passerby, but to John it feels like electricity whenever Rodney's hand moves.

Goddamned tease.

Lee finally gets called in, leaving John and Rodney alone.

"What happens after this?" John asks him.

"Oh. Um, there are civilian and guest quarters on Level 15. Dr. Jackson has already set us up with quarters there."

John's face heats as he imagines the two of them. And at least one bed.

"Major Sheppard? You're up," Dr. Fraiser says, waving a folder at him. "Dr. McKay, you're with Dr. Biro."

John follows Dr. Fraiser and sits down on a gurney to undergo the usual—she pokes at him with this and listens to that, and then she wants some blood. He sticks out his arm and gives it up.

"What's Lee after, anyway?" John says.

"Hmm?" Fraiser swaps out the tubes and briefly looks up. "He seems to think there will be some similar DNA markers between you and Colonel O'Neill."

"You mean, like we might be related?"

"Not really. I'm speaking of a shared gene or sequence of genes; for example, two people can share the ability to taste the chemical PTC without being related except, of course, very, very distantly." She pops the vial then holds a gauze pad against his arm and pulls the needle. "Put pressure here, please."

John sticks his finger on top and bends his arm. He can see Rodney hovering through the curtain and grins to himself. After a moment, she plops a Band-Aid on top of the gauze and he rolls down his sleeve.

"Am I good?"

"It appears so, Major. I have your medical records here." She opens up the folder and John looks on in surprise. The SGC doesn't miss any tricks. "Rodney's work with the healing device not only repaired the damage to your ribs and the bullet wound, but it also healed the hypertrophic scar tissue that resulted from your previous surgery." Fraiser closes the folder and smiles. "I'm happy to tell you there's nothing preventing you from returning to active service."

John swallows dryly. "Terrific. Thanks."

"I believe General Hammond will want to have a word with you tomorrow. For now, get some rest." She pats his arm and leaves. The curtain parts a moment later and Rodney hustles in.

"Well? Can we get out of here?" Rodney is rubbing his left arm and frowning fiercely. "Biro, that hellspawn, almost took my arm off with her blood pressure cuff. I need some food. We can stop by the mess on our way to our quarters."

John hops off the gurney. "I'm with you," he says, and follows Rodney out. He has to step lively to keep up with McKay, who seems like a man with a plan. Into the elevator, out and down the corridor to the mess, then grabbing trays stacked with plates of beef stroganoff and green beans with lemon meringue pie for dessert before heading toward the door. The sergeant behind the counter tries to stop them from taking trays out of the mess, but Rodney gives him a glare so fierce John practically gets singed by the blowback, and then they're free and clear and walking back toward the elevator.

"Hey," John says while they wait for the doors to open. "I didn't get a chance to thank you for saving my life."

Rodney's eyebrows crawl halfway up his forehead. "Me? I didn't do—"

"Yeah, you. You convinced everyone to gear up and come after me, right?" John thinks Rodney will never know how much that means to him. To be out there on the line, alone, and have them show up just when he needed them... "You came for me."

"Well, I suppose I..." Rodney lifts his chin. "In fact—yes, I did."

"So, thanks. I couldn't shake Simmons off." They get into the elevator and Rodney pushes the button for the fifteenth floor. John continues, "We were playing this game of chicken. Would he shoot me again and risk killing me? But I was pretty sure if the hovercraft lost its mental connection, it would land automatically."

"Interesting—that's how I'd design it, myself," Rodney says. "With a built-in safety protocol."

"We should get it back from O'Neill and see if it's true."

They share a look of agreement, and then Rodney nudges John out of the elevator. "Just down the hall to the right. Suite 1502. It's like a dorm—two connected rooms in a suite."

John pushes the door open and then stops inside the doorway to give it a whistle of mock appreciation. "You didn’t tell me we were staying at the Ho-Jo's." He's glad to see his go-bag is sitting on the floor by the closet.

Rodney chuckles and brushes past him to dump his own bag and put his tray on the desk. "My food is getting cold."

John is suddenly famished and joins Rodney, pulling up a chair on his right. "God, I'm hungry."

Rodney doesn't even bother to respond; he's already chowing down. The two of them eat for a while in frenzied silence except for the clash of their silverware, and then John starts to slow down and look around. He kicks back and takes a sip of his water. It seems like a good time to give Dash a call, so he goes over to his go-bag and pulls out his phone.

"Hey, buddy," John says, but that's as far as he gets before Dash is railing at him.

"You motherfucker! You asshole! You disappear off the map for two days and I think you're dead or crashed—what the hell is wrong with you, man?"

"I'm sorry, Dash. Sincerely." John bows his head. "Look, I got nabbed, okay? But I'm fine, and—"

"What the hell? Where are you? I'm coming to get you."

"No! Buddy, it's fine. I'm fine, your plane's fine, it's all copacetic. You'll have your baby back soon and we'll have a couple of beers." John looks over at Rodney, who's still munching his noodles and, apparently, pretending not to listen. John lowers his voice. "Hey, remember Nari? Well, I think I'm in."

Dash laughs in his ear. "What—you had to get kidnaped to get in?" But his relief is clear, and John grins.

"Talk to you soon."

"Over and out. Bastard."

John hangs up and takes his seat next to Rodney, who seems to be staring at one of the paintings on the wall.

"I don't get that one," John says, pointing. "Is it a starfish or an orchid?"

"Looks more like the bastard offspring of Cthulhu," Rodney says darkly.

"Then you're definitely getting this room," John says. "I'll take the other one."

"Oh," Rodney says, his voice small.

"What?"

"I just...I thought perhaps... Nothing," Rodney says quickly. "Forget it."

"Oh. Oh." John bites his lip. "I mean, yeah. You know. Sure. Except I toss around a lot in my sleep." His face feels hot. Actually, his neck is hot, too.

"What, you think you'll give me a black eye?"

"Jeez. No, nothing like that. I mean...jeez." John rubs his neck. Rodney smirks at him, and John shakes his head. He walked right into that one. But it's worth it, because Rodney looks positively delighted with himself, and with John, too, and when Rodney puts his hand on John's thigh and gives it a squeeze, John is a goner. His entire body sends every bit of sensation down to his left thigh. Rodney's hand is warm and strong and way too close to his dick, is the thing.

John hooks one hand around the back of Rodney's neck and says, "You have this coming," before putting his mouth on Rodney's. Rodney makes a soft, groaning sound right against John's lips, and his tongue glides into John's mouth, thrusting softly. It sends a thrill right down John's breastbone and down into his cock. Now John makes a sound and plants his hand on Rodney's shoulder to pull him closer, but it's not close enough. John wants skin, he wants contact, he wants everything he hasn't allowed himself to have in too long because he didn't deserve it or it hurt too much.

"You with me?" he asks, and Rodney nods, his eyes wide and a little lost-looking.

Then he blinks and says, "That is an unbearably stupid question," and John laughs, his uncertainty broken under the weight of Rodney's sarcasm. He hauls Rodney up, delighting in his working stomach muscles once again, and gets him to the bed. After shucking his own T-shirt and jeans in a hurry, John goes after Rodney's.

Rodney immediately starts bitching and moaning about his delicate limbs—"Watch it, Sheppard! Elbows don't bend that way!"—but all John can think about is getting to see what's under those shirts. Turns out Rodney is pale and kind of skinny but has nice definition in his arms; he has raspberry pink nipples that John latches onto and gives a tweak, making Rodney gasp and squirm; his ribs are sensitive, too, and along his flanks, and he quivers when John dips his tongue into his bellybutton. There's no sign of alien tentacles or anything. John looks pretty close. He uses his teeth.

"Oh, my God, you're trying to kill me. Our whole relationship has been an elaborate ruse and this is your end game," Rodney says.

John chuckles and gently scrapes his teeth along the edge of Rodney's ribcage. He really, really wants to blow him but doesn't want to stop for a serious chat right now, so he tugs Rodney's pants off, giving a brief, disbelieving glance to the Daleks adorning Rodney's boxers before tossing them aside and crawling back to look at him.

Rodney stares up, his face flushed so his cheekbones stand out. It's a good look. John licks his lips and bends over to nip Rodney's lower lip before settling between his legs with a gasp as their cocks meet. Oh, this is the very best thing, grinding down against his warm body while Rodney shoves up, and feeling Rodney's greedy hands on his ass, grabbing and squeezing.

"I've wanted you ever since I landed in your stinking garbage," Rodney confesses, "and you smiled that lazy-assed California smile at me as if I hadn't just done the absolutely impossible."

"Not from California," John gasps and shoves his cock against Rodney's in a warm, thick tease. He can feel Rodney getting wet for him, from him, and John licks his palm and reaches down and gathers them both up, squeezes the head of his cock against Rodney's and watches his eyes roll back, his lashes fluttering on his cheeks.

"And then you threatened to put on black leather pants," Rodney goes on, and how is he still talking? John has no idea. He wants to roll Rodney onto his stomach and shove his cock right between those perfect cheeks Rodney's been hiding under his cargo pants.

"Cargo pants," John growls and squeezes their cocks in his grip. "Fucking cargo pants. Hiding that ass." He rocks his hips so his balls roll against Rodney's while he keeps working his hand, wet now from both of them, wet and slick as he palms them both and strokes up and down. Rodney whimpers at him, and John's thinking about how it will be fucking Rodney, the sounds he'll make. Then John squeezes them on the upstroke and Rodney's fingers dig into John's ass and now he's thinking about the first time Rodney fucks him, how tight he'll be after so many years, how he'll just take Rodney's cock anyway. God, it'll be so sweet. And then afterward they'll fall asleep and John won't even care what a pain it is getting dried spunk out of his chest hair.

That's when John knows this is it. He's head over heels gaga for this guy, this alien, this little green man from Alpha Centauri. John groans and comes his balls out.

"Don't stop," Rodney says, slapping him on the ass. "I'm almost there."

John laughs weakly and starts jerking Rodney off again, his hand slick with his own come.

"Yes, that's it, that's it," Rodney says, "a little faster," and, "God, I can't wait to fuck you. Kiss me," he says.

John leans over and kisses him sloppy, fucking Rodney's cock with his fist until Rodney comes, curling around him when he does, holding Rodney through it like a sap. Either Rodney doesn't notice or he likes it; either way, he doesn't complain, which John is coming to realize is a rare thing.

Rodney clears his throat and looks down at where he's covered with both their spunk. "Well, gosh—thank you for being you," Rodney says, and John honks with laughter.

"Oh, my God," Rodney says, "that laugh is lethal."

"You definitely went to Berkeley," he says when he catches his breath.

"Among other fine institutions," Rodney responds.

It's the opening John's been waiting for, so he casually says, "How'd you end up working for these guys, then?"

"Well, I am brilliant, of course. And this is where to go to study wormhole physics considering they are actually creating wormholes on a daily basis, not that they know what they're doing."

"Wormholes."

"Yes. I wrote my second PhD thesis on the practical process of establishing Lorentzian wormholes. That's what that big round thing is for, you know—going through wormholes to other planets."

John rolls over and stares at him. "Say what, now?"

Rodney lifts his hand in the air and makes a ring. His fingers walk toward it. "The wormhole is established within the ring of naquadah, a mineral so profoundly dense its atomic number is almost off the chart. Of course, it's not even on the periodic table to begin with." He chuckles to himself and John shakes his head. Yutz. "The wormhole connects to another ring on the other planet, and you walk through it and your body is transmitted almost instantaneously as discrete packets of information. It's quite exciting, really."

"And you've done this?" John asks incredulously. No little green men. No, apparently humans are the little green men, just bopping off to other planets. Holy moly.

"Ah, I've done it once. I went to update the gate protocols on P1X-789. Where, of course, I was snaked by the Goa'uld, Bastet, and ran wild for a few months before SG-1 retrieved me and had the symbiote removed."

"Uh." John runs one finger over the curve of Rodney's shoulder, making him turn his head. "You look pretty human to me."

"What? Of course I am—oh, my God. You were looking for alien body parts?" Rodney sits up and pulls the sheet to cover his chest. "Do you have a tentacle fetish?"

"Oh, come on!" John crosses his arms and then says sullenly, "No harm in looking."

"You do! Huh. Well, sorry to say after they extracted Bastet, the only thing left was a little naquadah in my blood."

"And the cat thing," John says. "Don't forget that."

"And the cat thing," Rodney sighs. He turns over and throws an arm over John's waist. "Sorry."

"That's okay. You're smarter than Spock, anyway."

"Suck-up. You know where your next blow-job is coming from."

"God, I hope so," John says, his eyes slipping closed. "Hey, you sure you want to sleep here? I told you: I get nightmares."

"You're not the only one. The other night I dreamed I accidentally blew up the White House and your FBI was after me."

"Wow, that sucks." John pulls the sheet a little higher and tucks it around them before flipping off the bedside lamp

"It gets worse—I was on the lam with Teal'c and we were in a MINI Cooper." Rodney lets out a long breath. "Apparently, it was a sign, because he accepted my apology on the plane ride down."

"That's great." John feels himself start to drift. Rodney's arm tightens around him before going loose.

Then it's lights out.

:::

They're having breakfast in the mess when an airman shows up next to John and tells him General Hammond wants to see him in his office. John gives Rodney a quick look and then rises and follows the shiny-faced kid out.

John's kind of wishing right around now he'd thrown more than T-shirts and jeans into his go-bag. Appearing in front of a general out of uniform is making his teeth itch.

"Major Sheppard reporting, sir," John says.

"At ease, Major," Hammond says. O'Neill is there, too, lounging in a chair in front of Hammond. "Colonel O'Neill and I were just having a chat about you." He taps a file straight and sets it down on his desk. "You're above the zone, son."

"I know, sir."

"Seems to me that second rescue op you went on borked your last shot at a promotion," O'Neill chips in, stating the obvious.

"Seems so, sir," John says, gritting his teeth.

"Colonel O'Neill is of the opinion, considering your actions the last few days and the fact you rescued two scientists critical to the mission, not to mention attempted to detain a traitor to the United States, that it would be a loss to the program if you left the Air Force."

John stares at the general and tries not to betray his shock.

"I tend to agree with him," Hammond says blithely. "So, I guess we'll have to promote you."

"That's what I'm talking about," O'Neill says. "I love this man—don't you love this man?" he asks John.

John nods numbly.

Just then, Rodney bursts into the room. "You're putting him on a gate team, aren't you? You can't do that. Have you completely lost what passes for your tiny—"

"Jesus, McKay. Don't you knock?"

"Dr. McKay," Hammond starts, but Rodney won't be stopped and blabbers over the general.

"—minds? He's just recovering from being shot—twice, no less, and you idiots—"

John grabs Rodney by the shoulders and stares him down.

"Hey, McKay. Stop. Stop digging."

"But—"

John squeezes once, and Rodney drops his chin.

"Fine. Just remember, the last time I was in the field I got snaked by a Goa'uld," Rodney mutters.

"Yeah, but how often does something like that happen?" John asks, pretty reasonably, he thinks.

O'Neill is suspiciously silent.

"Look, I just don't want anything to happen to you, all right?" Rodney says.

Over Rodney's shoulder, John can see O'Neill raising his eyebrows. John is about to step on Rodney's foot, because seriously, superior officers right here in the room, but O'Neill says, "You're a good friend, McKay. But his teammates will keep an eye on him. Unless you want to re-join the gate team roster? 'Cause you could do good work out there."

Rodney looks intrigued.

"All right. Out of my office, gentlemen. Major Sheppard, I'm glad to have you on board," Hammond says, and waves them out.

John can't wait to call Dash and give him the news.

Crap, Holland.

Following O'Neill out, John waits until they're in the conference room and then says, "Colonel, do you have any slots open for another pilot? He's a nav specialist and a linguist to boot."

"You wouldn't be talking about Captain Holland, now would you?" O'Neill says, stopping and turning. "Look, Sheppard. I get it—everyone who finds out about the program wants to bring in their buddy, but if we let everyone do that we'd expand, what? Exponentially. That's the word, right?" he asks Rodney, putting on a stupid look, but John can tell it's just a diversion. O'Neill is already moving on. And he's right—even if everyone only told his or her best buddy, it would be all over.

But leaving Holland behind feels like a betrayal.

Holland does love Dash Air, though.

"What about his plane? I told him I'd take care of it."

"Oh, that," O'Neill says. "Well, I figured you'd be a little busy in the next couple of weeks, so I hope you don’t mind: I put a couple of airmen in Simmons' Gulfstream V. They're flying down to Ely to pick up the Cessna, and then they're going to fly up to Hayward and make a gift of her."

John stares.

"What?" O'Neil says, tilting his head and smirking. "We wouldn't be able to explain where it came from in the budget, and what's the Air Force going to do with a Gulfstream V, anyway? It's a toy plane. A jet for weekenders."

It's a gorgeous piece of tech, is what it is, and John is completely speechless. Holland is going to be over the moon.

"Thanks," John says, his voice creaking. "Thanks a lot, Colonel."

"Aw, what? Shut up." O'Neill points a finger. "And, seriously: I don't want to hear anything about it from either of you. It didn't happen."

With that, he lopes away, leaving John standing there, Rodney by his side.

"I suppose he isn't such a jerk after all," Rodney says.

"He really isn't," John says, relieved Dash is going to be fine—hell, Dash was already fine, already happy with his new life. John is the one who was stuck, but now it finally sinks in: the Air Force is keeping him. He has a new mission, and it's with people who have his back.

He taps Rodney lightly on the cheek. "Come on. I never finished breakfast." They jog down the stairs and head down the corridor to the elevators.

"Brunch it is. Back in our quarters?" Rodney asks. "I think I owe you for stopping me from getting my ass sent back to Siberia."

"Aw. We wouldn't want that."

"No?"

"Parkas," John explains as he pushes the button for the elevator. "They hang a little too low in the back."

"There's a compliment in there somewhere," Rodney muses, a sly grin lighting his face. "I'm pretty sure of it."

"Keep thinking on it," John says, his heart busting open. "Looks like I'm sticking around for a while."

"Then I suppose I'd better as well," Rodney says. "Someone has to keep you out of trouble."

"Right. I forget: who got kidnaped first?"

"Hmm." Rodney doesn't rise to the bait. "I think I'll go apartment hunting tomorrow."

"Need a roommate?" John nudges Rodney into the elevator.

"Maybe. How do you feel about cats?"

 

 

...................................
December 10, 2015
San Francisco, CA


The Door at Cheyenne