The world was a blur as he whipped past buildings, high rise apartments and corporate structures alike. Wind tore at him, causing him to hunch a little lower and tighten his grip on the handlebars as he dodged around the cars clogging up the interstate. Spying his exit ahead, he revved the engine to cut across three lanes—nearly clipping a tiny blue Honda Fit in the process. A loud yip (which may have been a horn from the offended car) blared as he gunned the engine to gather up as much speed as possible while heading straight into the sharp curve on the freeway interchange.
John Sheppard had never considered himself a thrill seeker, but there were few things these days that could get his blood pumping quite as much as combining breakneck speed with precision control. Some might call it road rage; John just considered it a way to liven up his morning commute.
He merged onto the less crowded highway, easing back on his speed as he entered the last long stretch of his commute. Traffic continued to thin out around him as the road took him further from the city center, civilization thinning to a spattering of restaurants, gas stations, and the occasional house or trailer. He let himself get lost in the feeling of the engine rumbling between his legs as the wind blew into the open sleeves of his jacket. All the while the tall shape on the horizon grew until it dominated the landscape.
He had to slow to a stop at the guard gate to flash his ID badge. A flash of color in his peripheral vision had him glancing into one of his side mirrors to see the same bright blue Honda from earlier. The driver sat hunched over the steering wheel, angry scowl pointed in his direction. John lifted a hand in greeting, unable to contain a smirk as the gesture was returned with one less than friendly. Ah well, couldn't please 'em all.
He spurred the engine, leaving his fellow commuter to the guard as he began to navigate the VerTech parking lot. Another day, another dollar.
Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay had a growing list of things in his life that he detested, which included but was not limited to: his first name, grinds in his coffee, freaks on motorcycles, paperwork, commuting, and perky people from HR. It was just fitting that his first day working at Vertrauen Technologies Incorporated—VerTech for short—was an eclectic mix of all of those.
He dragged his tongue across his teeth, scraping another stray coffee grind from his taste buds. Whoever had made the pot of coffee in the HR wing needed serious lessons on how to pour things inside the filter. Surreptitiously he wiped his tongue with a napkin as he stared at what had to be the twentieth form asking for the exact same information he had scribbled out countless times already.
He was going to get carpal tunnel from all of this pointless scribbling. He wrote out his full name for the billionth time, really wishing he could somehow go back in time and convince his mother that he did not need to be branded with a first name that was "distinguished and traditional"; "normal and somewhere-in-the-realm-of-masculinity" would do just fine, thank you very much. It would have saved him the trouble of having to jump through the legal hoops to change it later in life. Or, at the very least, save him the trouble of filling it out umpteen million times on the "previously used name(s)" line on these stupid forms.
His hand started to cramp as he neared the end of the form. Determined to finish his task, no matter how stupid, he pushed past the pain. Rodney dotted his final "I" and crossed his last "T" before letting the pen fall to his lap with spectacular grace. He glared at the offensive object while he began to massage the abused muscles of his palm in earnest. The forerunner in cutting edge technology, yet they had not learned the concept of electronic forms.
Jenny, the sparkling administrative assistant who had grated on his nerves from the moment they met, poked her head back into his personal bubble. "How are we doing?"
"I think the forest of red woods that was slaughtered for the sake of direct deposit died in vain."
Jenny blinked once, twice, and then smiled, all dimples and white teeth. "Looks like you're all done here."
"I have two words for you: electronic filing. It'll rock your world."
She continued to lean into his personal space, and so what if he had extended it to a ten foot radius? He had the sneaking suspicion Jenny had a body odor problem, because there was no way someone who wore that much perfume wasn't hiding something. He covered his nostrils in a valiant attempt to keep from gagging as she collected the small mountain of paperwork that littered the coffee table in front of him.
"I bet you're ready to take your tour," she chittered happily as Chanel No. 1 tried to smother him.
"You have no idea," he replied nasally, not willing to sacrifice his sense of smell for the sake of social niceties.
"I'll let Barbara know," she continued, blissfully ignorant of his sarcasm. "We're all so happy to have you on our team!"
He found that particular line of logic strange, especially since she was trying to smother him with perfume. She took his strangled gasp for air as a happy gurgle and blinded him with another smile. Seriously, her teeth were freakishly white. He wouldn't be surprised if they glowed in the dark.
"Has anyone told you those glasses make you look distinguished?"
Rodney wondered if it was too early in his career at this company to file a sexual harassment charge. He clamped down on the urge to shove her away, and instead leaned back in his chair in an attempt to distance himself from the obnoxious woman. "All the time."
Once again, his sarcasm was lost on her.
"They're very stylish." Finally she had managed to gather the novel's worth of paperwork and started to retreat back into her den of Chanel and lipstick (and no, that was not misogynistic, she quite literally had a Ziploc bag full of flavored lip gloss at her desk. Why, he did not know, nor did he care to find out.)
He let out the breath he'd been holding as the air began to clear of her odious stench and waited with dread for the "Barbara" to make an appearance. He was starting to miss the Air Force with each passing moment he had to bite his tongue. He was even more out of place in these halls than he had been in that room full of scowling generals. He readjusted his glasses as he nervously checked the time on his cell phone. Just a little longer and he could probably escape to a nearby restaurant for his lunch break, as long as none of his new co-workers decided they needed to take him to lunch to "welcome him to the team".
Maybe if he could find a secluded table set far away from everyone else, he could pretend that this wasn't what his life had become, if only for sixty minutes.
He looked up to see a short, plump woman in a business suit addressing him. Thankfully she had the sense not to drench herself in perfume, or perhaps Rodney had already developed anosmia as a self-defense mechanism. Either way, he hoped that his smile didn't look as much like a grimace as it felt. "That's me."
"Ready to see what Vertrauen has to offer a great mind like yours?"
"It's what I'm here for," and that only felt like a small lie buried in a cushion of truth.
Rodney was fairly sure that if he looked up "opulence" in the dictionary, Vertrauen wouldn't be listed as the first reference—but perhaps the second. The design of the lobby itself must have cost a small fortune to build. Especially if he had his company history right (which he most certainly did, having memorized every bit of information front to back before accepting this job), the building had been remodeled and built out from an earlier structure about ten years ago. The lobby itself was a fusion of sculpted glass and metal, encapsulating a three story arboretum complete with sun roof. Sure, Rodney appreciated a nice work area as much as the next guy, but the lobby was just ridiculous. He'd been to four star hotels that couldn't top the thing.
The conspicuous consumption ran along most of the first floor and the areas connecting directly to the lobby, probably any area PR would want to photograph. The walls were a strange fusion of molded, translucent plastic and faux marbling, giving the whole place the feel of some bad science fiction movie from the seventies. Then again, Rodney placed a lot more emphasis on function over form, and none of his PhDs included interior design, so perhaps his opinion on that didn't matter much.
Thankfully, the tour didn't linger too long on the front area; just long enough to hammer in the point that Vertrauen had entirely too much money on its hands. Seeing as they had recently outpaced Lockheed-Martin and Boeing in the number of defense contracts, that wasn't much of a surprise. They were like the Wal-Mart of the defense industry with a hand in every single pot they could find, from aeronautics, to weapons research, to medical research. They always managed to be light years ahead of the competition, yet always somehow managed to undercut the rest of the competitions' bids.
One of Vertrauen's German founders, Heinrich Grüper had been an archaeologist by trade his whole life. In his later years he had taken a great deal of interest in furthering the science and study of aeronautics, but somewhere along the way corporate wigs had taken over. The company had actually struggled for a long while; it was only in the past decade had it surged to the forefront of the industry. A little curious to some, a little suspicious to others.
Rodney squirmed uncomfortably as Barbara led him past the small alcove set aside for one subset of accounting. So many people worked here, it was rather... intimidating when he thought about the implications. He schooled a smile to his face as she asked some other inane question.
"I'm sorry?" He prompted, really wishing she'd just stick to the whole tour guide aspect of her job.
"Are you not married, Dr. McKay?"
"Um, no." He followed her lead in dodging to the side as a harried administrative assistant cut through the halls. "Who can find the time these days?"
Five seconds later he caught sight of the sizable rock on her finger and backpedaled. "Er, I mean, my work with the Air Force—there really wasn't much room for socializing."
She smiled, but at least not a blinding one like Jemmy or Janie or whatever her name was. "Well, you never know. There are a lot of unattached people here."
Rodney wasn't sure why Vertrauen's human resources department was convinced that he wanted to talk about his love life and fashion sense. What business was it of theirs? Sure, they filed the W-4s, but honestly, making conversation with these people was worse than grading the abysmal undergraduate proofs he'd been subjected to while working on his Master's. It was like personal boundaries had no meaning. For all they knew he could have been a widower, tragically crushed by his wife's death to the point where he could never love again.
He wasn't, but that wasn't the point. The point was—oh, look there was the next baton holder in this relay race of a company tour.
This man Rodney knew by reputation and his research only. Dr. Brent Langham was Rodney's junior by at almost ten years, and had nearly disappeared from the academic circles several years ago after being hired on by VerTech; he surfaced about once a year to tout the virtues of the latest research that the company was willing to part with.
"Dr. McKay!" Langham greeted warmly and extending a hand. "So good to have you on the team!"
Doing his best to hide his reluctance, Rodney shook the proffered hand. "That's what I keep hearing."
"Well," Langham's grip was almost crushing, and his smile almost too wide, "it's about time you joined the private sector. I had become convinced we'd never lure you away from military research."
"Things change." Rodney's smile was tight as he tried to extract his hand from the death grip it was caught in. "Politics, budget cuts—"
"Yes, I heard about your falling out with the Air Force."
"Did you now?" Rodney shot him a look. "I thought that was private."
"We have our sources," Langham said airily. "You'll have to forgive me, but we were a little excited when we heard the news. As you're quite aware, we've been trying to hire you for years now."
"Yes, the annual Christmas basket was a little over-the-top."
"Vertrauen is the home of the best and brightest minds our world has to offer." Langham sounded like a commercial, and Rodney fought the urge to roll his eyes. "Isn't that right, Barbara?"
"Oh, yes. I'm sure you'll fit right in here, Dr. McKay."
"Joy," Rodney said unenthusiastically.
"Oh, look at the time. We need to continue your tour if you're ever going to meet everyone." Langham maneuvered Rodney from the safety of Barbara's presence and started him down the hall. "I'll take it from here, Barbara. Thanks for delivering him!"
Rodney gave her a half-hearted wave with his free hand, suddenly desperate for her prying and Jammy's smothering perfume. Langham finally released his hand, but Rodney was very obviously being guided further into the den. "Um, where are we going?"
"The rest of your tour, of course! Barbara doesn't have full clearance for the next part of the building. I assume you have your access badge with you?"
Rodney half-heartedly fished said item out of his pants pocket. "She mentioned it was only provisional?"
"We'll be visiting security soon enough to get your permanent badge. We deal with very sensitive research here, so we have to control the flow of information. But you understand all of that from your work with the military, don't you?"
"I think the novel length non-disclosure agreement made it pretty clear."
The opulent decoration had transitioned to a normal, bland corporate maze of hallways. Rodney peered over his shoulder as they passed by another set of doors. "Do you have to organize search parties for new hires?"
"Occasionally," Langham grinned, "but there should be a map in your welcome packet."
"Does it have GPS?" Rodney asked seriously. "Because I promise you, one day I'll leave for lunch and you won't see me for a week. Maybe you ought to post more signs?"
"You'll get the hang of it."
A double set of glass doors partitioned the end of the hallway a few feet from another intersection. A sign requesting proper clearance was prominently displayed on one of the doors. A quick swipe from Langham's badge allowed them access, and without any hesitation, they were off once again.
"This here is the entrance to the R&D wing of the building, where most of our breakthroughs are made."
"Is that so?"
Rodney eyed the hallway branching out in three directions skeptically; the right two wound off into the distance and bore a few small signs labeling the various departments beyond. The other one curiously led to a single, steel door that more resembled the entrance to a bank vault than something in the corporate world. A small sign declaring "authorized personnel only" was bolted above what appeared to be a biometric hand sensor.
"What is that?" Rodney asked, unable to contain his curiosity.
"Right now," Langham hesitated, "...right now, that's not on the tour."
"Now?" Rodney asked skeptically as they chose the middle fork, leaving the mysterious door behind.
"For the moment, we've already got a special project in mind that we'd like you to consult on." Langham idly indicated the sparse decorations that began to line the hallways depicting Vertrauen's rise in the aeronautical world. "Tell me, Doctor, what kind of work have you done with pulse detonation engines?"
Nine months into life as a civilian, and approaching his six month anniversary at VerTech, John still was unsettled.
His extended tour in Antarctica had chased away the lingering sunburn from Afghanistan, and managed to chill the heatstroke that had overtaken him when he had decided to go chase after Holland against orders.
Sixteen months on that chunk of ice and John had a "newfound appreciation" for the chain-of-command, but it came a little too late for someone in the higher echelons of the Air Force. As his long sojourn in the Antarctic Circle neared an end, it became fairly obvious that he was being ushered into early retirement. He had only a quiet party from a few people he had chosen to socialize with for extended lengths of time at McMurdo to mark the occasion.
That was the way his military career ended; not with a bang, but a whimper.
His severance package was nice enough, but it wasn't enough for him to make a living off of comfortably enough and to his great consternation, he had lost some part of himself out in those desert sands along with Holland, Mitch, and Dex—and the hole only seemed to widen as he stepped onto the Continental Forty-Eight without a rank in front of his name. He had been John Sheppard long before he had been Lieutenant, Captain, or Major, and he honestly couldn't put his finger on why he was having such a hard time going back to it.
The first month had been hell, watching the phone, almost wanting it to ring. He had put in for the reserves when he had "retired", although the chances of being called back into duty were slim. As things stretched into the fourth week, he stopped watching. The second month unfortunately wasn't any better, and that was when he had bought the Harley.
The Nightrod was a dangerous looking machine, but fit John in a way that the clunky car he had acquired after moving back to the States couldn't. There was some sort of temporary peace to be found on the long stretches of highway in the Southwest, but it was akin to putting your finger on a leak sprung in a dam. He had too much time to think when the highway rumbles faded away, and as much as he loved the bike, the absolute freedom that the open road offered wasn't enough to fill the gap.
Close to the eleven-week mark John had received a call out of the blue from a VerTech recruiter looking for a test pilot for their X-302 project. John still wasn't sure how they had found his number, but the interview process went by faster than anything he could have imagined, and he soon found himself with a decent-sized office and attached to a project that he honestly wasn't sure he would have access to had he still been in the Air Force.
That might have been part of the reason he was still perturbed nearly six months after the fact. The resources at VerTech were incredible, almost limitless from what John could tell. It had been years since he had been a test pilot for the Air Force, but the specs for this prototype seemed light years beyond the jets and stealth fighters that he had helped break in.
His computer chimed, indicating the arrival of a new message. He switched out from the proofs he had been staring at for the past hour to the inbox for the last minute meeting request. Smothering an annoyed huff, because he had already allocated part of that thirty minute period in his afternoon for glaring at the snack machine down the hall, he scanned the message.
More of the same corporate nonsense. It was yet another meeting to discuss the pulse detonation engine, and it also looked like they were getting a new egghead on the project. While it didn't ring any bells, John couldn't contain the snort of amusement as he read the full name of their latest team member:
Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay.
Two distinct personalities were conjured up in his mind. The first of which was some impossibly old academic who had somehow managed to wheedle his way into the corporate fast lane. The second was a little more appealing: an attractive petite blonde that had inherited her mother's maiden name for her middle name, and possibly a little wild streak to go with it. Sure, that was wishful thinking on his part, but a guy could dream.
John had wanted to get a little time examining the glider's prototype in the wind tunnel that afternoon, but that was probably going to be delayed because of the new guy. Or girl.
Maybe an it. He could be open-minded.
John noted the time, mentally adjusted his schedule for the day, and then physically moved himself away from the computer. The temptation to try and find the latest offering of "Strong Bad Email" on Homestar Runner was strong this close to the lunch hour, and he really needed to get some sort of work done.
His position here felt largely ceremonial, and some days John honestly wondered if there really was a need for a full-time trained test pilot on staff when they already had a whole team of flight test engineers. The pay was nice, but John liked to earn his way.
So he pulled out the latest schematics and printed out a copy of the proofs. Hopefully the flaw he had pointed out at last week's update meeting had been addressed. It had earned him a few dirty looks from some of the design team, but they weren't the ones climbing in the cockpit of the thing when it was all said and done. John preferred his air inlets working properly. An engine stalling at Mach speeds just wasn't a situation he liked to find himself in.
He pushed his motorcycle helmet further down the desk so he could lay out the schematics fully. It was a gorgeous machine, truly; all sleek lines and accented angles. Its basic design wasn't too radically different from the general shape of some of the jets John had first trained on, and the impressive wingspan jutted out a good ways from the cockpit, their folded edges giving the whole craft the look of a stealth fighter.
He was roused from his appreciation at the feat of engineering by a knock at the door. He looked up to see the lead egghead himself, Brent Langham, leaning into his doorway. "Sheppard."
"Langham," he returned the succinct greeting. "What brings you to my neck of the neighborhood? Decide to inject a little reality into your theoretical world?"
Langham looked like he wanted to ignore the bait, but his chest still puffed out a little at the jab. The error on the air inlets had been from one of his last minute changes. "You ever get tired of hearing your own jokes, Sheppard?"
"Nah, I'm a mile a minute," John drawled as he spun his chair to face the other man, leaning back ever so slightly. "What's up?"
Langham moved aside and another individual, middle-aged and probably a scientist if his nervous demeanor and the way he kept readjusting his glasses was anything to go by. He seemed vaguely familiar, although John couldn't quite place him. He knew he hadn't seen the man in the Research and Development wing of VerTech headquarters, that was for sure.
"I'm showing our latest hire, Dr. McKay, around."
"McKay?" John rose to his feet, trying to keep the curiosity from leaking out of his voice. Definitely not the petite blonde he had imagined. "Meredith McKay?"
"What?" The nervousness evaporated from the man as McKay speared Langham with a peevish look. "I thought I specifically told Jeremy in HR—"
"Jeremy?" Langham shook his head. "We don't have a Jeremy."
"Jerry? Jenny? Whatever. I was very specific—"
John couldn't help the beginnings of a smirk as McKay started to lay into Langham.
"I assure you we didn't mean anything by—"
"It's abhorrent that you can legally change your name and still have it haunt you from one place to the next because of a stupid line on a form that's supposed to be confidential—"
John was finding it harder to suppress the amusement bubbling up now. It was more than a little fun to see someone give Langham a little tit for tat. John pursed his lips together in a valiant effort to control his mirth, and decided that perhaps he should bring the conversation back to the original topic. "So, Dr. McKay is it?"
"—and furthermore... oh, who are you again?"
"This," Langham tried to cover his flummoxed state with a smarmy political smile, "is our test pilot for the project I was telling you about. Dr. McKay, meet John Sheppard."
John extended a hand, and he could see McKay hesitate before accepting it. The grip was clammy, as if he really didn't want to put much effort into the action. John watched as McKay's eyes flitted to the documents he had just been poring over.
"You keep up on the designs?"
"Like to make sure it's not going to blow when I fire up that engine."
"Sheppard's lack of faith aside—" Langham tried to butt in.
"Please," McKay snorted, pulling his hand free, "if I was him, and I had the technical know-how, I'd probably triple check every single calculation that ever went on paper."
John wasn't sure, but there was a chance he could have just been insulted somewhere in that. He flicked a glance at Langham, who was watching the proceedings with a mild interest.
"To this date, all pulse detonation engines have been test beds. One small enough to fit on this glider..." McKay trailed off as something behind John caught his eye. He leaned forward, gaze narrowing. "Is that a helmet?"
John tossed a look over his shoulder at the object on his desk. "Oh, yep."
Real genius at work here.
His eyes then flicked to the leather jacket draped across John's chair, then back to the helmet, and to the riding gloves discarded haphazardly a little ways away before his gaze narrowed dangerously. "Do you happen to drive a motorcycle?"
John gave him a look. "Which one of your PhDs led you to that conclusion?"
McKay flushed as his cheeks puffed out in what appeared to be genuine outrage. He pointed a shaky, angry finger at John. "You!"
"Me?" John pointed a finger at himself.
"You tried to kill me this morning!"
"What?" John dropped the finger, and knew he was staring at the other man like he had lost his mind. "I did not!"
"Yes, you did!"
"No, I didn't," John stressed. "I generally remember that kind of thing."
"You mean you don't even remember nearly taking off my front bumper?"
"Your front bumper—wait..."
"Coming back to you, is it?"
"Do you drive a Yaris?"
"No I—how many people did you cut off in traffic this morning?"
Langham's head bounced back and forth between each participant of the conversation as they volleyed barbs back at each other.
"Now I wouldn't say cut off—"
"Then what do you call that sudden move this morning? Did you just so happen to magically teleport into my lane?"
"I was going to miss my exit—"
"And had you decided that you could take the next one and u-turn like normal people, you might have missed me!"
"I did miss you!"
"By two inches!"
"Oh, c'mon, it was more than that." John widened his hands to indicate the distance. "It must have at least been a foot."
"So you do admit that you came alarmingly close to my vehicle!"
"Dr. McKay," Langham cut in nervously, "why don't we move on to meet some other members of your team?"
"Wait, I have to work with him?" McKay sputtered as he was not so quietly ushered out.
"Well, that is what we meant by liaison—"
"Oh, no no no, I'm bringing this up with HR!" McKay tossed a withering look at John over his shoulder. "You just better keep to yourself on the road, Sparky."
"Sparky?" John sputtered. "How the hell did I become Sparky?"
"Look in a mirror, bed head!"
With a parting wave and a quick shuffle from Langham, John was left to the solitude of his office, a sudden silence, and an irrational urge to preemptively file for a departmental transfer. What the hell, he was taking lunch early. He was going to need every iota of patience he could muster before the forced meet and greet with the good doctor that afternoon.
The final leg of the Tour de Vertrauen had Langham passing the Rodney-shaped baton off to security. He traded in his temporary badge from HR for a permanent employee ID, complete with a horrible picture taken of him right in the middle of asking a question.
He stared at his open-mouthed sneer and wondered if his face really looked that chubby or if the heat transfer to the badge just smeared his features. He handed it over to the overly buff individual behind the desk and let his gaze wander around the office. It was almost barren for the most part, except for a departmental photo of the unusually large security staff.
Even from across the room, Rodney could tell that most of the individuals in the picture were similar in size to his friend at the desk. Maybe they all worked out at the same gym.
He watched as the card was slid into a slot, and was barely able to see a screen turned from him with a long list of various security privileges. He could also make out an image of the finger and palm prints the machine had scanned from him. He was sure the retina scan had its own little tab somewhere. These guys gave a whole new definition to the word "thorough".
And there was something new Rodney could add to his list of things he detested: people who spoke using onomatopoeias.
The onomatopoeic individual stood in the open doorway. As Rodney was still sitting, the man's tall frame seemed to tower over him, and the smile that was offered revealed a row of shark-like teeth that made all of the hairs on Rodney's neck rise.
"Well, hello there. You must be the new hire." The voice was warm and practiced, but the sharp gaze seemed to cut right through the bluster and walls that Rodney tried to erect, and he found himself sitting straighter in his seat.
"Yes," Rodney said, far more confident than he felt under that unwavering stare. "Dr. Rodney McKay."
Like every other person in the office building, the man extended his hand, although this one was with a tight-lipped smile. Rodney stood and reluctantly accepted the gesture, having to bite back a yelp of surprise at the crushing grip.
"James Marrick, head of security. Pleased to meet you, Dr. McKay."
The grip tightened, and Rodney fought to smother his knee-jerk reaction to try and pull away as Marrick continued to try and stare him down. Steeling his quivering nerves, Rodney met the other man's gaze head on.
"That's quite a large security department." Rodney was going for casual, although he wasn't able to tamp out the nervous waver completely. "They're all very... strapping."
The dead eye stare made his skin crawl, and Marrick's tight smile was less than friendly. He was sizing Rodney up and not afraid to show it. When Rodney finally regained use of his hand, he idly tapped his watch as he tried to figure out a way to break the staring contest. Something told him he did not want Marrick to consider him a threat. McKay would put money on the man having a past that involved some sort of black ops. If not with the military, he had probably been a spook at some point in his life.
"I hear you and the Air Force had some recent... disagreements," Marrick remarked casually.
"You too? Was it on the eleven o'clock news or something?"
"No... but I make it my business to know who's in my building."
"That's very dedicated of you." Rodney swallowed dryly.
"Langham and his team are very excited for what you can do for us," Marrick continued, somehow managing to make the casual chit-chat sound far more menacing. "They seem to think your expertise will suit our—unique working conditions."
The fact that he had excluded himself from those lauding compliments did not go unnoticed, but Rodney wisely didn't comment on the fact. He did not need to rock any boats, especially on his first day here. "What makes them so unique?"
Marrick only twisted his lips up in a fake smile as a reply.
"Here's your card, Doctor." The brute behind the desk offered it, and Rodney accepted it meekly.
All the while, Marrick never took his eyes off of him. "I hope you enjoy your time with us, Dr. McKay."
"Oh, me too," Rodney said lightly. "Sounds like a fun place to work."
"Oh, it is." Marrick's eyes crinkled with his mirthless chuckle. "Say, it's about noon. You better hurry and take lunch so you can be on time for your meeting this afternoon."
That was Marrick's subtle way of telling Rodney that his every move on the company grounds was being watched. He returned the empty smile with one of his own, and took the vague dismissal as an invitation to quickly extricate himself from the room and flee to the safety of his car and the relative freedom of his lunch hour.
"Oh god," Rodney muttered as he sank into the deep cushion of the booth he'd managed to acquire. "Kill me now."
If this is what his first day was like, Rodney was just going to quit now. Screw everyone and their expectations; he could not keep up this charade of happy smiles and insincere platitudes. If one more person tried to shake his hand today, he'd... well, Rodney wasn't quite sure what he'd do, but it definitely wasn't going to be pretty.
Thankfully he had sixty minutes—okay, technically forty-one after the drive here and the time it'd taken to get the waitress to take his drink order—in which he could relax and be himself. Chanel Girl had suggested taking lunch on the premises since it took entirely too long to navigate out of the building let alone drive from the isolated property, but damn it, Rodney needed a break.
This was far worse than he'd ever imagined. Rodney had thought he was above begging, but he was about ready to get on his hands and knees in front of General Asshat (or was it Ashley?) and apologize for the crude remark about the general's parentage if he could just have his old lab back. Not that it would help or anything, since Aisley—Aarons—whatever—hadn't been directly responsible for orchestrating his exile to this godforsaken place. It also probably wouldn't help because the fallout with the general didn't have anything to do with disparaging remarks, but Rodney really didn't want to think about that right now.
He perused the menu without much gusto. He should have opted for that greasy diner down the street, where he was quite certain the closest they got to using lemon in their food was with the scent of their dish washing detergent. He paged through several entries of anaphylactic shock before deciding he could probably be safe if he went with the twice fried meat with gravy. Already he'd had to order a soda to be sure the waitress didn't do anything obtuse like drop a lemon in it when he wasn't looking.
If he managed to make it through the rest of his first day at Vertrauen, Rodney would either have to bring his lunch and risk socialization in the R&D department's kitchen, or just break in the staff here to his special dietary requirements. The second sounded more appealing, especially since he had no idea how far he could push his boundaries with his new "team", and as petty as it sounded, Rodney really needed to take out his pent up frustration on someone.
He was used to being a force of nature to be reckoned with, even with the sort of military egos that government contracts attracted. Despite the fact that Rodney had been born a Canadian citizen, he had practically been raised by the CIA, NSA, and other offices within the United States government. Brilliance was brilliance, and he'd hardly had to pay any tuition when he'd started university at age fifteen. Such prolonged exposure to the bureaucratic system had earned him a lot of favors over the years, most of which paid off with him having his choice of projects and assignments.
Had being the key word.
This most certainly was not his first choice. Rodney scowled at the menu, watching his precious lunchtime minutes tick down as the waitress dawdled at the table behind him. For crying out—he was on a schedule here. As much as he was not happy with his current position, it didn't mean he wanted to show his protest with an extended lunch hour on his first day.
Thankfully she took the snapping fingers to heart and appeared at his shoulder with only the hints of an annoyed glower. "Does your chef use lemon on this—dish?"
She peered at the item he pointed out on the menu. "Chicken fried steak? I don't think so."
"Well, make sure," Rodney grumbled and thrust the menu at her. "Like I told you with the soda, I'm deathly allergic to citrus, so the slightest hint—"
"I'll make sure," and somehow she miraculously didn't grind her teeth, although Rodney had a feeling that twitching eyebrow meant she wanted to. "Anything else?"
She withdrew, as he wasn't sure if it could be considered fleeing since she wasn't racing for the kitchen. Rodney melted back into the cushions of the booth and let his eyes drift shut. Less than forty minutes and he had to go back there. Oh, how did his life suck—
Sadly, Rodney was pretty sure he recognized that voice and reluctantly cracked an eye open. "Shempy?"
"Shempy—I thought we left off on Sparky."
"I've downgraded you to one of the Three Stooges."
"Is that a good downgrade or a bad downgrade?"
"Is that a—" Rodney spun in the booth to face the smirk of the stupid flyboy from the start of his day from hell. "What do you care?"
"I think we may have gotten off to a bad start," and Sharpie extended his hand again. No longer bound by the rules of Vertrauen niceties Rodney let the gesture hang, like he should have back in the man's office. "Make up?"
"I will not 'make up' with you, you, you—road-raging adrenaline junkie!"
"A man tries to run you over one time and you never forgive him?"
"Once is generally enough in my book!" Rodney huffed and pointedly turned back to glare at the ticking clock. Even his lunch hour wasn't sacred.
"Hey." A hand tapping his shoulder had him nearly jumping out of his skin.
"Don't!" Rodney twisted again, so he could spear Sherry with a burning gaze. "Don't do that!"
If possible, the smirk became more lopsided. "Sorry."
"What's your problem? Is attempted murder not enough for you? Do you need to compound it with stalking?"
"I'm an equal opportunity offender like that I guess."
"You guess... you guess... just who the hell are you?"
"You mean you already forgot?"
"No, I—don't you go trying to twist this around—stop grinning! It's not funny!" If anything that just made the grin wider, and Rodney felt heat rush to his cheeks. "Just mind your own business!"
"You were not! I was sitting here at my table, minding my own business when you saunter in and decide—"
"I got here first."
Rodney snorted an annoyed breath and narrowed his eyes. "So?"
"So I didn't saunter in, I was merely saying—"
"You know what? This conversation is over!" Rodney announced loudly and untwisted his body so he could cross his arms and glare ahead pointedly.
The clock continued to tick by, slow as molasses now, and Rodney decided that right now he really hated his life.
All right, so perhaps baiting McKay hadn't been exactly the best way to try and rebuild a working relationship with the man, but it's not like he had been much help what with his abrasive personality—and darn it, it was fun.
He had continued to pointedly ignore John for the duration of his meal. Whenever John had glanced over his shoulder, McKay was either shouting demands at the waitress or was hunched over his plate, muttering complaints about everything from the cut of meat to the speed in which the waitress delivered the check. There was a possibility he might be the most disagreeable personality John had come across yet, and that was saying something considering the rich, self-important types he had grown up around.
John drained the last of his Coke and left probably a more than generous tip, but he felt the waitress probably deserved it for managing to hold onto her patience with John's newest co-worker. Helmet tucked under his arm he made his way out of the restaurant, and was met by a blast of warm air upon leaving the air conditioned building. It may have been mid-September, but was still hot. Had it not been for his stint in Afghanistan, and especially his impromptu trek through the desert with Holland in a hundred and fifteen degree heat, John might have agreed with the rumblings about it being unbearably hot. It was, however, uncomfortably warm, so much so that John left his jacket back at the office as the sun climbed higher in the sky.
He probably should have looked for a job offer in a different area. The sprawling desert landscape, while very different from the Margow Desert, still had the tendency to dredge up memories without warning. This far from the city limits the desert overpowered the presence of human population, and John found himself slipping into those memories more often than he liked. He shoved his helmet on, perhaps more forcefully than necessary, and tried to focus back on the rest of the day.
As he started up the engine, the familiar roar and rumble brought a smile beneath the visor. There weren't too many things he could honestly say he loved, but even seven months down the road John still had not tired of the wild purr of the engine. He pulled out of the parking lot, quickly accelerating to a speed that whipped and stung at his bare arms, and the hints of a smile widened into a grin. It was as close to flying as he could get while still staying on the ground.
By the time he reached the VerTech parking lot, John felt a little more like himself, the ghosts chased back to that familiar corner of his mind. With a friendly wave to the guard, he headed towards his usual parking spot, a small distance from the building itself but shaded by one of the many trees that made up the elaborate landscaping to the main parking lot. He'd discovered the virtues of parking in shade one day after nearly burning himself on the hot leather of his seat being left out in the afternoon sun.
He had just started to pull into the spot when an angry yip and flash of bright blue in his peripheral vision forced him to slam on his brakes. He jerked forward as the bike screeched to a halt and a tiny blue Honda Fit whipped into the parking spot. Heart pounding from the near miss, John kicked the stand and killed the engine. He recognized the car from this morning, and even if he hadn't, the smug smile that emerged from the driver's side was unmistakable. He scrabbled at the straps securing his helmet, not wanting his rant to be muffled when he started to lay into the arrogant man.
It took a few moments to free himself from the helmet, which McKay used to calmly collect a few items from his passenger seat. By the time John had not so gently set the helmet on the seat, McKay had a bright blue VerTech welcome packet tucked into the crook of his arm and his chin lifted indignantly as John stormed into the other man's personal space.
"What the hell was that?"
"I think it's what you Americans call 'parking'."
"You nearly hit me!"
"Oh? Not so fun on the receiving end, is it?"
"That's not funny!" There was a hell of a difference between a near-miss on a motorcycle and a near miss in a car. Harley's tended to lack those handy safety features such as air bags. John snarled, taking a step in closer.
To his credit, McKay didn't shrink away... much. "I don't know. What is it they say about revenge being sweet?"
John felt his fist curl inward of its own accord and his shoulders knotting up with tension. This was ridiculous. "What the hell is your problem?"
"My problem?" McKay sputtered. "You started this!"
"Cutting you off in traffic does not equal trying to run me over!"
"You tried to run me over first!"
"I didn't see you there!"
"Well," McKay crossed his arms and tilted his chin up a little higher, "neither did I. All that black and chrome, you just practically blend into the desert background."
John's fingers flexed, nails digging into his palm, and a small voice in the back of his mind whispered that perhaps he ought to walk away, as he was very obviously being baited. He forced himself to uncurl the fist, but couldn't stop the spat, "You're an asshole, you know that?"
"Yeah, well from where I'm standing, I don't think you're in the position to start casting stones."
"You just stole my parking spot, McKay!"
"I don't see your name on it."
"It's understood!" John waved his hand at the other cars. "No one else parks here."
"Oops," McKay shrugged casually, "first day mistake. My bad."
With a jaunty wave, he withdrew, perhaps sensing his imminent beating. John didn't move to follow, but the peace he had found on his short ride had been thoroughly squashed into a simmering frustration. Some people, it seemed, were beyond hope. That was fine, he just hoped whatever kind of work he and McKay had to do together would be brief, and (for John's job security) purely e-mail based.
Apparently this was the first day that would never end. In fact, if Rodney actually believed in time vortexes, he'd definitely be living in one that was steadily shuffling backward. Because, oh look, everyone and their mother was trying to shake his hand again. He really should have thought about inventing some sort of disease that would make people hesitant to come near him. Something airborne, something uncomfortable.
Rodney tried to plaster his grimace/smile on as he took a seat next to Langham. He wanted to slip into a back corner and commiserate with himself in private. However the first part of this meeting was dedicated to welcoming him "to the team" which made him the center of attention. To make it worse, not only was the entire meeting room almost packed with every member attached to the X-302 Project, but that stupid test pilot had decided to take a seat front and center and was shooting Rodney that same smug, shit-eating grin.
"Dr. McKay will be reporting directly to me," Langham continued to drone on, "and will probably be floating among each of your teams as the need arises."
Barely audible, Rodney heard someone snort derisively. He followed it to the source, the nervous little Czech engineer who had wanted to shake his hand just about as much as Rodney had wanted it shaken. Thank god, at least they weren't all sycophants.
He tried to tune Langham out to the best of his ability. Blah, blah, blah, invaluable expertise (well duh), blah blah blah, unique experience and insight, blah blah blah, I'm a windbag who likes to hear myself speak, blah blah blah, now since we're all here let's talk about the latest modifications to the PDE engine—
Oh, wait, that might actually be interesting.
He dragged his focus back to the matter at hand, as the British man—Grady? Grodin?—piped up. "The changes you suggested last week would probably help out any flight in the mesosphere—but there's still the problem of the power source."
"Wait, wait," Rodney interrupted, earning a testy look from Langham, "you've already started building the prototype and you're making changes to one of your main engines?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see Sheltie leaning back further in his chair, looking like he was enjoying the proceedings more than Monday Night Football. In contrast, the rest of the people in the room sat up straighter in their chairs.
"Dr. McKay—" Langham sounded aggrieved.
"Just curious," Rodney said innocently. "First day and all, still catching up."
"Why don't you just sit back and listen for today?" Langham suggested with a tight smile. "I'll assign someone to help acquaint you with the designs and our progress."
"Thank you, Langham, but this isn't my first single-stage-to-orbit rodeo. I'll have you know that I was one of the lead consultants on Lockheed Martin's X-33—"
"Wasn't that project cancelled?" Pretty-Boy-Pilot interjected. "I think I recall hearing something about the fuel tank failing during one of the tests."
"Only because the designs were ahead of the technology at the time," McKay shot back, "and I don't see what that has to do with this."
"Just saying, if you're going to try to use your previous projects as an argument, you should probably use the successful ones."
"I would like to point out that: A) they were able to fix the problem after the project's cancellation; and B) Exactly how many space-faring vehicles have you designed in your time, Sheeple?"
"Gentlemen," Langham interrupted, "I think we should get this conversation back on topic."
Rodney wanted to argue, because how dare Shefford try to insinuate that Rodney didn't know what he was talking about. He had been working on these kinds of projects probably while Sheply had still been doing keg stands with the other frat boys.
"Sheppard, why don't you help catch Dr. McKay up on the project?"
"What?" They both asked, horrified.
"Yes," there was no denying the smug smile on Langham's face, "you spend every morning going over the designs, don't you, Sheppard? A second set of eyes probably wouldn't hurt."
"Now that that's settled," Langham ignored the interruption and turned back to the room, "you'll all be receiving some new design tweaks from the boys downstairs. And before you ask, Sheppard—yes, they've corrected the error with the inlets."
The pilot settled further into his seat with a frown, but didn't say anything. For his part, Rodney settled back and listened to Langham drone on, eyes roving over the memo he had been handed, detailing some of the changes on the pulse detonation engine. The size was too small, he noted to himself with a frown. There was no way they'd be able to carry enough fuel for it to work correctly.
There was something very strange about this project.
The minute hand on the clock in John's office was edging just past the fifty-nine mark when his cell phone gave off a sharp trill and buzz. He paused in packing up his desk as the phone rattled along the desk from the vibration function. He finished stuffing the stack of memos into his bag and reached across the desk to grab the phone, twisting the display around to see who was calling.
The person wasn't in his phone book, but he recognized the number's area code from an intimately familiar region of Virginia. He stilled completely, the vibration tickling his palm as the tiny device continued to chirp insistently. John knew he should answer the call, but he was already hearing a thousand disappointed conversations that had been rehashed every day of his youth. He wasn't sure if he wanted hear them aloud, or even if he would trust his voice to work.
Eventually the phone silenced and stilled, and he slowly set it on the desk. He didn't look at it once as he methodically finished closing up his office for the evening. It was the third time the number had popped up on his caller ID, and he was still just as confounded as the first time. The surprise was starting to wear off and be replaced by a morbid sense of curiosity—laced with an undercurrent of suspicion. John had been pretty certain that chapter of his life had been closed years ago, and he had no idea why either of them would want to reopen it. There had been no messages left in his voice mail on either of the previous calls. John took that to mean that the caller's desire to actually open the line of communication was still weak at best.
John slipped into his jacket and moved to grab his phone from the desk when it gave off its ethereal hum, announcing the presence of a new voice mail. He swallowed heavily, and with only a moment's hesitation shoved it into his bag before grabbing his helmet and practically fleeing from the sudden oppression of his office. He was taking the long way home tonight.
The atmosphere was smokier than Rodney liked, and the crowd noise way too loud, but he needed a drink after the-day-that-would-not-end. He generally disliked beer; it was too bitter, weaker than decent liquor, and one time Rodney had been convinced someone had actually served him someone's urine sample rather than the supposed alcoholic beverage. However he had to drive home, which was a ways away from this bar, so anything harder was out. He opted for a dark lager with the hopes that it might be palatable. As soon as the bartender set the tall glass in front of him, Rodney took a long drag from it, eager to chase away the desert heat and the tension knotting up his back.
"Rough first day?" The man next to him asked.
"You have no idea," Rodney said into his beer. It had a sharp bite, but it was cold and he could already feel the knots in his shoulders easing some. "It was like it would never end."
"Ah well, it should get better."
Rodney snorted. "Uh huh, sure. That's exactly what they say about your first day in hell."
"I'm sure it's not that bad—"
"What do you know?" Rodney gave his fellow bar patron a glare. "It's not like you have to work there."
"No," he agreed quietly. "I don't."
"It was one long boring day of endless paperwork and shaking of unsanitary hands that have been who knows where doing who knows what."
"So, nothing exciting happen?"
"Unless you count being molested by security or nearly being run over during my morning commute as exciting. Otherwise no."
"Whatever," Rodney mumbled and took a large gulp of his beer. "Why don't you just go away? I don't want to talk."
"Fine," the man bristled and shoved an object into McKay's hand.
Rodney accepted the neatly folded pair of glasses.
"You wouldn't want to lose these," he warned before slipping off the bar stool and melting into the crowd.
Rodney reluctantly returned the glasses to their unfamiliar perch on his nose. "I hate my life."
Bach filled the air in the cramped cabin of Rodney's Honda Fit. Part of Rodney had wanted to opt for a larger vehicle such as one of those new Chargers from Dodge, something that had a lot power under the hood and would turn heads in the parking lot. However, common sense had won out and he had gone for the practical, fuel efficient Fit.
Hunched over the wheel, he continued to weave through the morning traffic. After getting home from the bar the previous night, he had tried to immerse himself in all the literature he had received on the X-302, the predecessor to a barely mentioned X-301 that had been scrapped years ago for unspecified reasons. The glider was one of the many contracts that Vertrauen had with the Air Force, but it was the only one being constructed at the corporate headquarters—just one of the many peculiar things about it.
He scowled into his rearview mirror at the car blaring its horn at him. He was running late this morning as he had nearly forgotten the glasses and had to return to his apartment and climb all three flights to grab the stupid things. He returned his eyes to the road and cranked up the stereo system in an attempt to let the soothing sounds of Bach chase away the nervousness dogging him.
He spied his exit ahead and carefully merged into the lane as the overpass lifted and turned. Another glance to his rearview mirror revealed a lone figure on a motorcycle quickly gaining speed. Rodney narrowed his eyes.
He let his foot off the gas, the car's speed slowly decelerating as it climbed the exit ramp. When the motorcycle and its driver tried to cut around him, he slowly drifted over, effectively cutting him off. Even over the loud sounds of Bach he could hear the angry roar of the Harley's engine as it moved to cut around the other side. With an evil titter of laughter Rodney jerked his car in the opposite direction.
This continued until Shrimpy was carefully giving him a very rude gesture while still managing to keep two hands on the bike's handlebars.
When they merged onto the highway, the cycle gunned its motor and cut around the slow-moving Honda. Not one to be outdone, Rodney slammed his foot on the gas—
—and nothing happened. The engine gave a whine in protest and picked up its speed slightly as the black and chrome monster rapidly shrank with the horizon. Rodney wrinkled his nose in disgust. He should've gotten the Charger. Practicality was overrated.
John looked up as his "student" entered, all scowls and snarls.
"Good morning, Sunshine," he greeted happily and raised his coffee mug in salutation. "About time you showed up."
"Just so you know," McKay crossed his arms as he stood stiffly in the middle of John's office, "I don't like you."
"Really?" John took a cautious sip of the scalding liquid. "I thought you just tortured people on the freeway as a way of showing your affection."
The scowl melted into a smug expression. "That was just fun."
"Yes, well, glad you were able to extract your revenge," John said airily and set his mug down on his desk.
"You know, you're not an easy person to get along with."
"I'm not here to 'get along' with you, Slappy—"
"My name is Sheppard, John to my friends—which you're obviously not, so we'll just stick with last names, huh?"
The scowl reappeared. "Fine. Whatever."
"Fine," John shot back and moved to the work table on the far side of the office where he'd spread out all of the schematics on the X-302 that he had on hand. He had a printout of the latest changes in hand, but had yet to go over them. "So, what exactly do you want to know?"
McKay hovered in his spot near the door nervously as if he were afraid John might take his head off if he ventured in closer. Suppressing the urge to sigh, John beckoned McKay over to the table.
"Promise I won't bite."
"I know that," McKay snapped, but he stiffly shuffled to stand next to John and peer at the designs. "It's... not a bad design. Conceptually I mean."
"Yeah," John agreed and let his fingers drift over the thin draft lines. His favorite part of the X-302, even more than its sleek design, hands down, were the four different kinds of engines. There were two standard turbojet engines, two aerospike engines, one rocket motor—and the new one. He tapped the drawings where they had modified the design on the pulse-detonation engine. "This guy, he's interesting."
McKay adjusted his glasses and tapped the face of his watch as he peered over the drawings. "Tell me about it—there's no deflagration-to-detonation transition—exactly how do they plan on starting the detonation, much less sustain it so they can reach escape velocity?"
"Good point—this is one of the new changes." John quirked an eyebrow as he looked at the designs. "Lightens the load, but you're right, there's no mechanism for firing it up. How exactly is it supposed to be functional?"
"Magic?" McKay snorted, and John found his mouth quirking up into a half-smile. "And these last minute changes, it makes no sense. Is that how things usually operate around here?"
"Unfortunately," sighed John, his smile disappearing as he looked over the new engine. "It's driving Dr. Murphy up the wall."
"Murphy?" McKay frowned. "I don't think I met him."
"He's the head flight test engineer. On vacation for two weeks."
"This late in the project?"
"Yeah." John crossed his arms as he shifted the weight from one foot to the other, "he said you've got to take time when you find it. We're still at least six weeks from the first ground test on the engine."
"Huh," McKay hummed noncommittally. "The design on this engine is familiar."
"I was working on something like it back at—" Curiously, a dark shadow descended over the scientist's face and his jaw shut with a clack of teeth. "You know, this just figures."
"You were working on something like this?" John asked curiously. "Where?" The murderous look shot in his direction had him holding his hands up in surrender. "Okay, touchy subject, obviously."
"You have no idea," he muttered dangerously. "The literature said that the project has been in development for years."
"Yeah," John said, "it's an offshoot of another project they were working on a few years back. Not much to find on it, though."
"Vertrauen is notoriously tight-lipped on its designs and projects, even with the Air Force."
From the angry and tense set of his shoulders at the mention of the military, John had his suspicions that perhaps the Air Force was part of the sore subject. Apparently John wasn't the only one who had been burned. "They're pretty tight-lipped with everyone."
That earned a curious look. "Really?"
"There's a system that they're working on that's supposed to help out with the g-factor of the speeds they want this thing to reach."
"Good for you," the scientist pointed out, "seeing as how you'll probably lose consciousness if the specs on the speeds are anything to go by."
"I'd agree with you," John tapped the designs again, "but they don't see fit to share with Test Flight what that might be."
"Well that's stupid," McKay spat. "If you crash mid-flight they lose their precious project too."
"Good to know you care." John smirked.
"Oh, shut up," McKay groused. "How close are we to the first test flight?"
"Currently maiden flight isn't scheduled for three months."
"Right in time for Christmas," McKay remarked sarcastically. "Wonderful."
"It'll probably be next year. Murphy's not signing off on anything until they stop making changes."
"That's still an alarmingly short period of time."
"I know." John frowned at the drafting of the engine. "So, Dr. Killjoy, where would you like to start on this?"
McKay glowered at him, and seemed to unconsciously mirror John's stance as he crossed his arms in defiance. "The beginning usually works."
John checked the urge to sigh, and jerked his head toward the designs. "The beginning it is then."
The design on the engine had looked familiar to Rodney for a reason—it had been his. He was working on the engine on the project that had landed him in this stupid place to begin with. He didn't know for sure how Vertrauen had managed to get a hold of the design that had been under Air Force lock and key, but he had his suspicions. Everything else on the X-302, though, was different.
It galled Rodney to admit it (if only to himself), but Sheppard definitely knew his stuff. He was obviously an experienced test pilot as he carefully examined each aspect of the design and the implications of each system on what might happen in the air. The focus on details was especially was important for someone who would be putting his life in the hands of a department that clearly did not have its act together. Boeing certainly didn't make sudden, drastic alterations this late in the game.
He ducked inside the air-conditioned interior of the take-out place near his apartment, once again wishing he had some sort of culinary talent. He could construct nuclear devices, understood some of the most complex forms of physics known to man—but somehow baking something more complicated than a frozen pizza eluded him.
He made his way through the tiny lobby and was almost hungry enough to push his way past the person in front of him, when he realized that the black leather jacket and messy mop of hair was familiar.
Sheppard thanked the lady behind the counter as he accepted the large brown bag of food. He turned, spotted Rodney, and froze. "McKay."
"Fancy running into you here."
"'Fancy' is not the word I had in mind."
Sheppard shifted the food from one hand to the other, and gave a long look to the rest of the restaurant. "Picking up Chinese food?"
"No, they do my laundry." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm picking up food!"
Sheppard frowned and gestured helplessly. "Please tell me this doesn't mean we have to, you know, eat together—"
"Oh, god no. Just keep walking."
Sheppard nodded and quickly made his way out as if he were afraid Rodney was going to change his mind and suddenly want to split some Kung Pao chicken. He watched as the pilot disappeared out of the door before walking up the counter, idly wondering if Sheppard's presence indicated that he lived somewhere nearby. Hopefully not, it was bad enough to have to spend an hour each morning with the man going over the designs. Running into him outside of work anymore would just be awkward.
The Geek Squad was updating the simulator today, and as it was nearing three in the afternoon, it was time for John to resume his daily battle with the vending machine in the R&D wing. Without any work to distract himself with as he wound through the maze of corridors, John's mind drifted to the voicemail he had finally listened to last night after picking up dinner. He figured his random encounter with McKay had probably addled his brain because John really hadn't had any intention of listening to the message. It had been short, brief, and while curt, it had not been as condescending as John had expected.
He should have known it would have been Dave calling and not his father. The Sheppard men were cut from the same cloth: stubborn, righteous when they were convinced they were in the right, and unwilling to listen to reason. In John's case, it had cost him his military career. In Patrick Sheppard's case, it had cost him any hope of a normal relationship with his estranged son.
What was the killer was that even though John was nearing forty and hadn't touched a dime of his father's money since joining the Air Force, he found himself wishing that things could be different. The rift between them seemed too wide to bridge anymore. So many things said in the brashness of youth that John wanted to take back, but now too many years had passed. However, the angry words exchanged over his mother's casket would forever be burned in his memory, and he wasn't sure either side could completely forgive the other party.
John and his father came from two separate worlds, and they always would.
John watched as his irascible co-worker pounded an angry fist against the vending machine. Apparently he and McKay were allies in one thing. "Problems?"
That earned him a brief scowl. Despite his depressing musings, John felt a smirk starting to form. If anything could distract John from his problems, it would be watching McKay puff out his cheeks like a demented chipmunk.
"You know, McKay, if you were in need of some cash, all you had to do was ask. There's no need to try to shake down the poor machine for quarters."
"Shake! That's perfect!" McKay gripped the machine on the sides and gave it a good rattling. "Damn it! Give it up!"
"I really hope that's not your standard pick up line."
He got another glare for that.
"Although if it is, it might explain why you're always so crabby. All work and no play makes Meredith a dull—"
"Don't you have something better to do?"
"Nope. It's break time."
"Well, break elsewhere. This machine is occupied."
John scrunched his face up in mock disgust. "Oh, c'mon, McKay. That's nasty."
"What?" He paused in his molestation of the evil vending machine to give John a sideways look, before his expression narrowed in contempt. "Okay, that's just juvenile."
"That's my middle name."
"I don't doubt it!"
"Why don't you just let the machine go? I'm sure it won't press charges."
"Nope. It's a free country."
"You know, this just makes sense. The perfecting ending to this stupid day!"
"What's got your panties in a twist now?"
"Aside from the fact that this piece of crap is denying me my Twinkies and you're standing there heckling me like a bad standup comedian?"
"I just finished talking with Langham about the engine!"
"Oh, and how did that go?"
"How do you think it went?" Rodney snarled and punctuated his anger with another pound of his fist to the glass separating him from his Twinkies. "Vague and entirely unhelpful!"
"Par the course here."
"Of course it took forever to track him down."
"He's a busy man."
"Where the hell he goes off to sometimes I wonder. However, when I finally managed to get a hold of him, I ask him how he expects his precious wonderful engine to run without fuel—"
"I see you're using the tried and true vinegar method of catching flies."
"—and he has the gall to tell me to 'be patient'."
"Not your strong point?"
"Shut up," McKay snarled and gave the machine a good kick. This seemed to backfire as he yelped loudly and grabbed the appendage and began hopping around in a circle.
John just watched him, not even bothering to hide his amusement now. "So that was it?"
"Why am I even talking to you?" McKay squeaked as he nearly toppled over from his off-kilter balance.
"Because Evil Vending Machine is not a good conversationalist."
"Point," he admitted grudgingly. "That hurt."
"I'm sure you got it as good as it got you."
"It still has my Twinkies!"
"I wouldn't give them up if you kicked me either."
"Something tells me you give 'it' up pretty easily."
John winced. He walked into that one. "Okay, point to you."
McKay finally found his balance by leaning against his current nemesis and started to massage his foot through his shoe, an action that didn't seem to be helping the pain much if the continued grimaces were anything to go by. "Well, after I kindly informed him that he was never going to make orbit if he didn't stop pussyfooting around and give us, and by us I do mean me, something to work with—"
"What are you, the peanut gallery?" Rodney sneered. "He finally broke and admitted that the boys 'downstairs', wherever the hell that mythical place is, are apparently experimenting on some new fuel source."
"What?" John snapped. "Why the hell haven't they told anyone?"
"They're probably still trying to find some way to brand their name on it before introducing it to the untrustworthy public known as their highly paid employees."
"This doesn't sound good."
"Another unknown for you to test with your life. Yeah, I wouldn't exactly be thrilled if I were in your place."
"I'm not." John pursed his lips. He had a feeling Murphy hadn't been informed of this, as it most certainly would have come up in their last meeting. "This thing is never going to get off the ground if they keep this up."
"This is the most insane project I've ever worked on," McKay ranted. "There's trying to keep a secret, but this is ridiculous. I mean, I'm supposed to be a brain child on this, but I know just as much as you."
"Maybe they're just afraid you might tell someone."
McKay's arms flailed a little as he lost his balance against the machine, and John felt a brief, sudden urge to reach out and steady him. However, he came to his senses at the last moment and the wild-eyed scientist caught himself on the corner of the vending machine, apparently forgetting that he had hurt his foot as he set all of his weight down on it without incident.
"It was just a joke," John insisted. Seriously, McKay needed to calm down. As frustrating as it was, their employer would eventually let everyone in on the fuel thing. VerTech had too much money invested in the X-302 to let it sit on the ground.
"Who would I tell?" McKay cried. "My cat?"
"You have a cat?"
"No, I had to leave it behind when I left Nevada because my stupid complex doesn't accept pets."
"Yeah, my place is bad about that too. I kind of wanted a dog."
"Figures you'd be a dog person," McKay muttered and pushed himself away from the vending machine angrily. "I miss that cat too. It's nice to have someone to come home to."
"Why didn't you just bring it then?" John asked bewildered.
"Because part of VerTech's tantalizing little package was finding me housing." Huh. That sounded a little familiar. "Although I specifically requested a first story apartment so I wouldn't have to hike up three floors after a long hard day of number crunching!"
"I got a first story," John smirked triumphantly and rocked back on his heels.
McKay's nostrils flared as he seemed to remember that he in fact did not like John at all. "So to sum up, crappy day, topped off by the fact that this stupid machine ate my dollar, and I'm this close to having a hypoglycemic attack and I had to borrow the dollar from the smelly Czech guy because I don't carry cash on me—"
John eyed the machine as the rant continued.
"—and all I wanted was some freaking Twinkies before my blood sugar crashes and my brain melts out of my ears!"
John bypassed the ranting man and aimed one well-placed kick to the side of the vending machine. It shuddered briefly and dropped the hostage Twinkies. He grabbed the snack cakes and tossed them to the still muttering scientist. "Here you go."
"And furthermore—wait, what?"
John popped a few quarters in and tapped out the code for a bag of Skittles. Like with the Twinkies it almost started to release his prize, but clutched onto it at the very last moment.
"How did you—?"
John repeated the maneuver, shaking free his Skittles. He grabbed them and tore open the pack, grinning brightly. "Practice."
McKay sputtered, and John slowly ambled back towards his office. As he popped a handful of candy in his mouth, he couldn't quite remember what he had been mulling over on the way to the machine. There was the mysterious new fuel to keep John's mind busy, as well as the hysterical image of McKay sputtering like a fish out of water.
Rodney had somehow managed to make it to day four, and decided to finally brave the horrors known as the staff kitchen. He had brought a meal in a can as he wasn't sure if he was ready to trust the community refrigerator. Humming to himself impatiently, he stood in front of one of the microwaves as it ticked down the seconds to mealtime.
"Ach, that stuff is horrible for you."
Rodney slid a glance to his left to find the source of the voice was some strange, funhouse Scottish mirror twin of Sheppard, complete with his own dark mop of wildly erratic hair. Rodney's lip twitched in annoyance and he turned his attention back to the microwave.
"Full of enough preservatives the mortician won't have much work to do when you keel over from the clogged arteries," he continued in his thick Scottish brogue, as if Rodney might actually care about his opinion.
He slid his empty can of artery clogging beef stewed goodness a little closer without breaking his gaze with the microwave. "Nobody asked you."
"Are you new around here?"
Rodney pursed his lips together and continued to watch the seconds tick down.
"I only ask, because I know most of the people who eat down here—"
"Yes," Rodney ground out as the microwave chirped as the timer reached zero, "it's my first week. Now if you'll please? I need to work on my first heart attack if you don't mind."
He grabbed the superheated bowl, but snatched his fingers back as the bowl nearly burned the skin off his fingers. Rodney sucked on the abused flesh and glared petulantly at his lunch.
"Oven mitts," the nosy individual imparted as he passed over a thick piece of cloth, "they generally help."
Rodney gave him a measuring look as he accepted the oven mitt. The man returned the look with one that wasn't completely unkind, and grabbed his own lunch without disaster. Rodney pursed his lips as he carefully pulled the bowl out of the microwave. He slid another glance to the side. "Thanks."
He got a nod in return. "Pleasure chatting with you, lad."
Rodney shook his head and carefully balanced his overheated stew and looked for a place where he might blend in with the wall. Next time he'd bring some work with him, that way people might take the silent cue to leave him alone.
The light tingling of a bell signaled John's entrance into the dry cleaners. He had brought his dress blues in earlier this week when he'd found them by accident hanging in the far corner of his closet. Their dusty state sent a strange pang through him. In an attempt to forestall the gnawing in the pit of his stomach, he had brought them in. He had no occasion to wear them anymore, but to see them neglected—
"What are you doing here?"
John snapped out his reverie at the angry question, not even realizing the storefront had another occupant. He blew out a quick breath as an indignant scowl was directed at him in full force. "Hi, McKay."
"This is so unfair—it's the weekend. The least you can do is let me have two days without having to stare at that frizzled excuse for a haircut."
"It's a pleasure, as always."
"Don't lie!" McKay snapped and crossed his arms, as if he were considering trying to block John from reaching the counter. "Now, what are you doing here?"
"I'm picking up my dry cleaning, McKay, what do you think I'm doing?"
"No, no, I mean here. What are you doing here? This is my dry cleaner!"
"They're allowed to have more than one customer. It's generally how businesses stay open."
"But it's my dry cleaner."
"Didn't your mother ever teach you to share?"
"No! I mean she tried, but that's not the point—"
"There's a point?"
"The point... the point is I shouldn't have to share with you!"
"Are you afraid that he might wash our clothes together and you'll get Sheppard cooties?"
McKay's cheeks puffed out in anger and he pointed a finger at John. "Stop following me!"
"I'm not following you!"
"First you take my Chinese restaurant, now my dry cleaner! Next thing you know you're going to take my grocery store!"
"Oh, see that's the problem. I was under the impression that all of these were public places. I wasn't aware that you raised a flag and claimed them in the almighty name of McKay."
Someone cleared their throat, and both looked up to see the owner of the store holding up a huge bundle of clothes. "Here's the first half, Dr. McKay."
McKay glanced at John, and after a moment dropped his hand and stalked over to grab the pile of clothing, nearly staggering under the weight. Something akin to sympathy reared its head, and John took a step forward to help.
A quick glare shot in his direction stopped him cold. "Don't."
That's right, John had almost forgotten who he was dealing with. He held up his hand in a placating gesture, and McKay snorted and tried to balance his metric ton of laundry.
"What? Did you bring your entire wardrobe?" There was a flash of embarrassment that crossed McKay's face, and John pursed his lips. "You did?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but the idiots I bought my washer and dryer from lost the order, so I've had to resort to drastic measures until they deliver it next week."
"Just ordered... how long did you say you've been in Tucson?"
"I didn't." McKay roughly shoved past him, losing a shirt in the process as the pile swayed dangerously. "Now move. I have to take these to my car."
John grabbed the errant shirt and opened the door for McKay. The bewildered look he got in return didn't do anything to lessen the awkward atmosphere.
"Why would you—?"
John rolled his eyes. "It's a door, McKay. I'm just being nice."
"Good question." John stepped to the side as the other man and his mountain of clothes shuffled out the doorway. "Don't forget your shirt."
The small, immature part of his mind had wanted to drape it over McKay's head. He ignored it, and instead gently placed it on top of the pile. The wide-eyed befuddled look remained in place even as John shut the door. He shook it off and gave his ticket to the man behind the counter.
The jingling chime signaled McKay's return, and he felt more than saw the other man's presence at his side. "Thanks."
"It was nothing." John stared straight ahead.
"Right." There was an awkward shuffling and McKay withdrew to a safe distance. John didn't break his stare, and politely thanked the owner and paid his bill when his uniform was brought out.
He carefully folded the bag over his shoulder and started his way back out, catching McKay's incredulous stare. "What now?"
"That's an Air Force uniform."
"Very astute of you to notice."
"But you work for VerTech. How can you—"
"I'm retired now," John ground out.
"Oh," McKay's voice dropped to a quiet, almost empathetic note as if he somehow understood the meaning behind the extra emphasis on 'retire'. Which was stupid because there was no way he could possibly know or understand the conflicted betrayed-yet-longing feeling that snuck up on John whenever he looked at the uniform.
He started to move out when a hesitant question reached his ears. "How long has it been?"
"Nine months now."
"Yes," he answered tersely.
"I'm sorry," McKay said, and sounded like he really meant it. Apparently there was another layer underneath the prickly exterior that he liked to show to the world. There was definitely more to him than first glance. "Do you miss it?"
The question was soft, uncertain, and almost sounded like he was asking himself the same thing. A wave of he-didn't-know-what rushed over John, and he wasn't sure why, but he found himself answering just as softly. "Every day."
Rodney was deeply engrossed in trying to apply Newton's law of universal gravitation to the X-302's specs when something jostled the paper in his hand. He shot a dark look at the source of the disturbance, the Scottish busybody from the previous week.
"Do you mind?" he asked peevishly.
"Not at all." The Scot flashed him a warm smile. "Nice day isn't it?"
The Scot didn't seem to take the subtle hint and began to lay out his meal on the tiny section of the table not taken up by Rodney's research and notes. "My name is Carson Beckett. I don't think I mentioned that last time, did I?"
"No," Rodney said sourly, "you didn't."
"Well, that was rude of me. My mind must have been elsewhere."
"Back in Scotland with the rest of the flock?" Rodney shot back.
Beckett's lips twitched into a small smile. "Maybe a little."
"Carson," he corrected patiently.
"Carson, whatever. What exactly do you think you're doing?"
"Eating lunch." Beckett wiggled his Tupperware container full of leftovers. "The elderly lass across the hall makes too much at night. Says she hasn't gotten the hang of cooking for one. Not that my cooking's bad, but I'm not one to turn down a home-cooked meal. If you ask me—"
"No, I didn't ask you to come over here and sit and start talking about lonely old ladies who are trying to seduce you with their leftovers—"
"Laverne is a sweet lady, old enough to be my mother. That's highly inappropriate."
"So is inviting yourself to eat lunch with someone who is clearly busy."
"You looked a little lonely."
"This is your second week here and you haven't said a word to anyone."
"I say plenty, and all of it very important and relevant to work."
"There's more to life than work, Doctor..."
He trailed off, clearly expecting Rodney to fill in the blank. Rodney did not feel inclined to oblige him. "Look, I'm not here to make friends, Beckett, so why don't you save the pity act for someone else? I think Minnows from Accounting needs some cheering up."
Beckett just bobbed his eyebrows in a fashion that was disturbingly similar to Sheppard when he seemed to think he had some brilliant dim-witty response to whatever cutting remark Rodney had just made. Great, just what he needed. Two of them.
"I'm going back to work now," Rodney announced, then pointedly began to page through his notes for the specific kinetic energy on the X-302.
To his great dismay, Beckett remained seated, and idly began to chat about the projects in the biology wing of R&D, his mother's foot fungus problems, and other inane subjects. By the time Rodney had finished his frozen dinner, he was ready to welcome Sheppard's snippy comments or Zelenka's incoherent flailing in Czech.
He gave Beckett a brief, irritated glance and quickly gathered his notes. "I'm leaving now."
"See you tomorrow, Doctor."
"No, you won't!"
That was it. Rodney was going back to the restaurant. Maybe they'd accidentally drop a lemon in his tea and put him out of his misery.
The restaurant wasn't necessarily a bad idea, but Rodney had to be careful what he took out of the office, so it was mostly theorems and formulas that were incomprehensible to the layman. The waitress from his first week took one look at him, perfectly executed an about-face, and was not seen for the duration of his meal. Some people couldn't take a little honest criticism, seriously. He'd only suggested that it would be faster for her to go ahead and strangle him rather than letting that foul yellow fruit touch his plate as a garnish.
Whatever. If she couldn't handle his sparkling personality, then it was her loss. Of course, it sucked that he was going to have to break in a new server and give him or her the whole citrus lecture again. Not that it had sunk in too deep with the first girl, but still—
He scrubbed a hand across his face as the variables blurred together, which made the image resemble a preschooler's doodle rather than a gamma function. He peeked through his fingers at the blurry image, wondering if his niece would be old enough to be doodling nonsense.
Not that he had ever met her but his mind had been drifting to Jeannie a lot lately, stuck in his apartment at night, unable to speak his mind or vent his thoughts without fear of someone listening in. Not that he ranted aloud too much before moving to Tucson, just the occasional tirade to his very attentive feline companion when one of the idiots at Area 51 made a mistake of galactic proportions. He was starting to feel like he was trapped in his own mind. That concept had never scared him before this place, but he wasn't sure how much more he could take.
He couldn't talk freely in case someone was listening. He could have typed it out, but a discreet scan had found a keylogger on his company assigned laptop, so that obviously was being monitored. He even had suspicions about his own personal laptop even though it had never been out of his sight. Even if it hadn't been tampered with, he was acutely aware that Vertrauen had furnished and supplied him his apartment. It was very likely the phone was tapped, and he would not be one bit surprised if Marrick had assigned one of his cronies to watch Rodney's internet usage.
Rodney didn't want to use the term "lonely", but he actually missed some of the interactions he'd had with people at Area 51. These days it was just him and his computer, maybe him and a random patron in a restaurant, or maybe those joyous occasions when he ran into Sheppard without warning—
"We really have to stop meeting like this."
Rodney let his pencil drop as he groaned aloud. "Admit it. You take candid pictures of me with your cell phone and paste them all over your bedroom wall."
"Nah," Sheppard slid into the booth across from Rodney, because that's what stalkers did, "just a tiny little shrine in my kitchen."
"Please tell me you're joking," Rodney squeaked.
"I'm joking." Sheppard rolled his eyes. "You need to learn to lighten up."
"Well, I would, but I have reason to be concerned when I see you more than any other person on the face of this planet—"
"We work together."
"I work with a lot of other people but I don't run into them at the Post Office!"
"I was picking up some Commemorative Panels for my stamp collection."
"You're a dirty liar," Rodney accused, "who is changing the subject."
"McKay, I'm not stalking you."
"You showed up here!"
"There are like three restaurants within driving distance from the office, one of which is a McDonald's with questionable sanitation practices. Chances are it's going to happen eventually."
"Eventually! Not constantly!"
"Has anyone told you that you're a little paranoid?" Sheppard asked.
"You could have easily gotten your own table. It's not that crowded here right now. Why do you insist on bugging me?"
"Because it's fun."
"I despise you."
"The feeling is mutual."
"Why are you trying to eat lunch with me then?"
"Because I'm bored."
"That's not an excuse!"
"Because it pisses you off."
"That was weak." Sheppard reached out and grabbed one of the notebooks that Rodney had laid out on the table. "Whatcha working on?"
"Hey, hey, that's sensitive material!"
"McKay, we're working on the same project. We compare notes every morning."
Sheppard peered at the notebook, hummed noncommittally, and turned it almost completely sideways as if it would suddenly make sense to his beer bonging frat brother brain. "Interesting."
"You have no idea what is says, do you?" Rodney snapped and snatched it back. "You better not have smudged the equations."
Sheppard was like a two-year-old, though, and simply picked up the next item within grabbing distance. He held them up to the light, as if trying to illuminate some great mystery about the pair of glasses. "So I notice you weren't using these just now."
Rodney's stomach lurched and he tried to think of some excuse to cover his flub. His mind was blank, which was stupid because he was genius. He should be able to think of a convincing lie instead of sitting there dumbly, eyes widening in panic—
"Hey, sorry." Sheppard carefully set the glasses down on Rodney's side of the table, a baffling amount of sympathy present in the soft statement. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"What?" Rodney squeaked.
"You're no spring chicken, McKay. Bad eyesight is just part of getting older, especially with how much you have to stare at a computer screen."
"Um, yeah," Rodney fumbled and quickly put the unnecessary accessory on, "the eye strain is getting bad these days."
"You should probably get out more. Go see a game or something instead of sitting naked on your couch watching reruns of Doctor Who and eating Cheetos."
"Okay, first off, how the hell do you know that?"
Sheppard blanched. "Oh god, I was just making that up."
"Your imagination is scarily accurate, and for the record, I was wearing boxers."
"Bypassing that because, no—" Sheppard didn't bother to hide the tiny shudder. "I'm just saying maybe it wouldn't hurt to go see a movie or something, stop being such a hermit."
"What do you care?"
"I don't," he said it lazily, but his gaze had sharpened a little at the question, "it was just a general suggestion."
"Well, it's not like I know anyone here."
"Other than me."
"What? Are you suggesting we actually willingly hang out with each other?"
"No. I was just saying..." he trailed off, clearly unable to figure out where he had been trying to go with the comment.
Sheppard stared back.
After about thirty seconds, Rodney finally squirmed. "This just got awkward."
"Yeah, I think I'm going to grab a spot at the bar."
"By the way," Sheppard tapped the equation that had been throwing Rodney off all morning, "you inverted these two variables. Might be why you're having trouble finding the constant."
Rodney looked at him, and then studied the indicated section. Doing a quick calculation, he realized that the pretty boy was right. He glanced back up, not bothering to hide his astonished gape.
"Got a BS in Math while I was at Stanford." Sheppard grinned and gave Rodney a two-fingered wave. "Really helped me understand the functions of all those pretty buttons when I started test piloting billion dollar planes."
Sheppard finished retreating as fast as he could without it being considered an all-out-flee, and Rodney practically deflated with a relieved sigh. What the hell had just happened?
By the end of his second week, Rodney had started to form a routine of sorts. He would somehow, inexplicably, chance across Sheppard at some point during their morning commute. They would proceed to try and cut off each other, pulling into lanes on top of one another, and generally being a menace on the road until Sheppard grew tired of the vehicular heckling and gunned his engine, leaving Rodney in his dust.
In response, Rodney would steal his parking spot whenever the pilot left for lunch, regardless of whether McKay himself left the company grounds or not. He had given up on being able to have a lunch without interruption. If he went out to eat there was a fifty percent chance he'd run into Sheppard. If he ate lunch in the kitchen there was a hundred percent chance that Beckett would plop his sheep loving self at the same table (although he occasionally brought extra leftovers. And Rodney had to admit, Laverne could cook.)
He was now working with the Czech—Zelenka—and the rest of his department as they crunched numbers and went over the new modifications to the plane's many systems in excruciating detail. He hadn't gotten to spend any time with the new engine, but he was hoping he would make his way there soon. Whenever he asked Langham about it, he was just directed to another part of the project.
After lunch, when the incompetence of Zelenka's batch of trained monkeys was about to use up the last of his patience, Rodney retreated to the vending machines for solace and caffeine. After a battle of wills, he would emerge victorious and somehow manage to hold on to his sanity for the following two hours.
Then he would return home. After running into Sheppard at the grocery store (he had so called that), Rodney decided to start ordering in as these random encounters were starting to get borderline ridiculous. His life was one endless cycle of traffic-Sheppard-traffic-work-traffic-home.
In short: it was dull as hell.
Rodney stared at the laminated menu as he eyed the daily special skeptically, his feet barely touching the ground from the tall diner stool. What the hell was a pig-in-a-poke? Deciding to not tempt fate, he ordered some pancakes and bacon and sipped at his mug of coffee.
"Is it paranoia when you're pretty sure someone's out to get you?" He twisted the mug in his hand as he took another cautious sip. "Can't even talk to myself out loud at home since I don't know if someone's listening or not."
There was a somewhat sympathetic grunt from the diner next to him.
"Nothing spectacular has happened yet. The closest I've seen on the new thing is the constantly changing designs. I'm getting the run around, and quite frankly, playing the corporate politics game is about to steal my last grain of patience."
Getting no reply, Rodney took another long sip of his coffee. "In fact, the most interesting thing that's happened to me is that I'm apparently being stalked by a bored test pilot. It's starting to get a little scary, quite frankly. I swear he shows up everywhere—"
A weight dropped into the stool next to him, an elbow lightly jostling his as it jockeyed for position on the counter. He let out a loud groan. "Speak of the devil."
"Talking to yourself again, McKay?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but no."
"Hrm," Sheppard hummed softly as he perused the menu. "What should I get? Pancakes or the tilapia?"
"I want you to know this is starting to get to the point of disturbing, Sheppard."
"Okay, French toast it is then."
"I'm filing a restraining order!"
"Maybe you're the one following me. Ever thought about that?"
"You got here after me!"
"So you're preemptively staking out my favorite haunts? Maybe I should be the one to get a restraining order."
The diner next to Rodney let out an amused snort.
"Oh, who are you laughing at?" He shot a glare at the quietly chuckling patron. He muttered to himself as he stared ahead resolutely. "Seriously, how does this keep happening?"
"Once I figure it out," Sheppard said, nose still buried in the menu, "I'll be sure to change it."
"You could've sat on the other side of the diner."
"And miss an opportunity to see your impression of angry goldfish? Never."
Rodney felt heat rush to his cheeks and he narrowed his eyes at the individual next to him.
"See, there it goes."
"You are despicable."
"I'll have the French toast," Sheppard said to the cook and set the menu down. "And I'm not doing this on purpose."
"Yeah, well there are worse things in life," Sheppard commented lightly.
"Oh, I know," Rodney took another sip of his coffee, unable to disguise the unease in his voice as his mind drifted back to the thoughts he'd been having before Sheppard's arrival. "Trust me, I know."
He was too busy staring ahead to notice the startled, concerned look his statement elicited from his co-worker, or the contemplative narrow-eyed look from the diner sitting on the other side of him.
"I'm looking at the most interesting specimen today."
Beckett was nattering on, like usual, as Rodney paged through one of his science journals in search of a reference for the sudden project Langham had saddled him with this morning. He reached out with his fork blindly for the small plate of leftovers that had been prepared. The fact that the plate was suddenly moved into range by his tablemate didn't register with Rodney, and he just hummed softly, indicating for Beckett to continue.
"It's just a tissue sample, but I think the specimen is from some new species in the Amazon. Certainly not from any animal I've seen before."
"Huh," Rodney grunted noncommittally.
"It seems to have regenerative properties, similar to that of salamander, but with a much faster speed."
"Oh, yes. A special project from someone downstairs, they said they don't have a live specimen at the moment, but they're hopeful they might be able to acquire one in the near future."
"From 'downstairs'?" Rodney stopped perusing his reference and looked up with a frown. "I thought they were just some offshoot of the X-302 Project."
"No," Beckett commented lightly, although Rodney could hear a trace of tension creep into the other man's tone, "I think they have a representative for each team in R&D."
Rodney took a bite of Laverne's macaroni and cheese, chewing it as he considered the information. "Have you ever been down there?"
"What?" Beckett asked. "No."
"Me neither. Actually, I'm not sure where they are in the building, just the non sequitur of 'downstairs'."
"I think it's in the basement," Sheppard said as he dropped into a seat next to Rodney.
Sheppard quirked an eyebrow, waiting for him to finally catch up.
"You don't eat lunch here!"
"Brought the brown bag special today." He proudly pulled out a hastily put together peanut butter sandwich.
"You always go out!" Rodney insisted.
"And someone always steals my spot. It's gotten a little annoying," Sheppard commented lightly.
"Is that the only reason?" Rodney asked suspiciously.
There was a moment where Sheppard looked distinctly uncomfortable, before he chose to notice the third occupant of the table in a none-too-subtle change of subject. "Oh, hey, I don't think we've met."
"Rodney, aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" Beckett asked.
"He's not my friend," Rodney spat.
This only seemed to amuse both Sheppard and Beckett and they shared a grin together. Dear god, they really were alike. Stalker must attract stalker, one of those immutable laws of physics. Rodney buried his nose back into his journal while his stalkers made with the genial introductions, doing his best to tune out the conversation.
"So, Doc, how did our illustrious employer manage to lure you away from the hospital? Sounds like you were pretty happy there."
Ah, Beckett must have been telling Sheppard his life story. He very firmly turned the page and sought out another bite of macaroni with his fork. When it came back with empty air, Rodney realized that Beckett's attention was focused on the current conversation. He stole a glare at the two chattering cohorts as he was forced to scoop a bite of his pilfered leftovers without assistance.
"Oh, I was," Beckett munched on his lunch, "but the kind of research I can do here has the potential to change the whole medical world. Why, they think they might even be close to an experimental therapy to treating cancer without chemotherapy or surgery."
"You know, some people are trying to work here," Rodney pointed out sourly, waving his journal at his tablemates to accentuate his point.
Without even sparing him a glance, Sheppard snatched the journal out of his hand and tossed it to the far end of the table. "So, do you think the Steelers have a chance at making it to the Superbowl this year?"
Rodney made a grab for the journal, but Sheppard just slid it further out of his reach.
"Not a chance," Beckett replied, his lips quirking up into a smile.
"I hate you both," he muttered petulantly as he devoured the rest of Laverne's macaroni and cheese.
Sheppard just flashed a boyish grin before launching into a long, boring monologue about the stats of all of his favorite teams this year.
"Hey," John greeted as McKay dragged himself in, sipping on a large travel mug of coffee.
For his early morning enthusiasm, John earned the glare of the night owl. Four weeks in, and still John's first urge on seeing McKay was to dunk the man's head in the nearest well. Since those weren't too abundant in this day and age and also since John had come out on top in their encounter this morning on the road, he was in the mood to be generous and opted to just verbally poke his rival.
"Hello," McKay finally responded glumly. "What time is it?"
"You've got a watch," John pointed out.
"Oh, right." McKay brought it to bear, squinting at the numbers as if they made no sense. "Why, I ask, why does the sun have to rise at such a god awful hour?"
"To make your face shine like it is right now."
"I am so not in the mood for you this morning," McKay mumbled.
"Oh?" John spun in his chair, leaning back and lifting up his feet to give off the perfect image of an overgrown class clown. Like every other time he pulled the maneuver, McKay's eye began to twitch, ever so slightly. "Late night?"
"Stop that, you're making me nauseous."
"So it was a late night," John crowed, but set his feet on the ground, effectively halting his spin. "So did my little Poindexter find himself a fair maiden—I'm guessing of the blow-up variety—and sweep her off her feet for a night of romance and magnetohydrodynamics?"
"One, I am not 'your little Poindexter'," McKay spat, "two, I can get a real woman if I wanted to. Three, you threw that word in just to sound cool! And four, it just so happened that I was up late—"
McKay ignored John's triumphant cry.
"—trying to work out the equations on Langham's stupid little mystery project."
John's eyebrows shot up. "Mystery project?"
"Do you have today's changes?" McKay grumbled and pulled out the extra desk chair that had been acquired after the fourth day in a row that the scientist had stolen John's. "I've got my suspicions."
"Yeah, hold on." John grabbed the new schematics, and without bothering to rise up, rolled his chair to the opposite end of the room where the work table sat and laid them out. "What kind of suspicions?"
McKay rose and pulled his chair over, as if engaging in a little goofing off might shake loose the stick that had taken up permanent residence in his ass. He sat down primly and indicated the new circuitry lining the cockpit that had appeared last week, but now had added detail. "There."
John frowned as he peered closer at the new, unfamiliar system. He had been too busy going over some of the controls for the simulator to look at the changes this morning. Now that he was looking at it, it definitely had his attention. He had never seen anything like that in any of the many aircrafts he had flown or studied over the years. "What the hell is that?"
McKay pulled out a spiral notebook, of which a good portion had been filled with scribbled equations and stuffed with various computer printouts. He leafed through the pages, eyes scanning each line until he found the one he was looking for. "Oh, yeah, that matches up perfectly."
John leaned over to peer at the equations. They looked to contain several elements from both aero- and astrodynamics, with several hastily sketched variations on escape velocity and several sidelined equations on what looked like possibly some calculations on g-force in varying forms. Just looking at the symbols and numbers littering the page didn't give him enough reference to figure it out on his own.
"Don't keep me in suspense."
"I should for the 'little Poindexter' crack," McKay muttered, and readjusted the glasses that had slipped down his nose.
He looked hesitant. "I don't know."
"If it's what I think it is, you're probably going to squeal like a little girl."
That got his interest. "Oh, really?"
"Yes," McKay sounded put out, but John thought he caught a hint of enthusiasm creeping into the other man's voice, "that is, if it's part of an inertial dampening system."
"Inertial—" John's eyes flicked to the designs, "that's not possible."
"According to my math," McKay tapped the notebook filled with equations, "it is."
"You're not kidding me?" A grin was threatening to break the surface, and it took all his self-restraint to keep it tamped down. "Inertial dampeners?"
"Yes." McKay waved his hand with a resigned sigh. "You can have your little flyboy geek out now."
"That is—that's so cool."
He sprang out of his seat as he grabbed the notebook from McKay's hand and started comparing the equations with several of the liner notes on the new system. The thought of travelling mach five, or higher, and barely feeling it was both unsettling and exciting as hell.
"It's what they've been working on to try and alleviate the problem of high gs during flight."
"This is like science fiction," John continued. "I didn't think anyone was even close to figuring this sort of thing out."
"They weren't," McKay commented lightly. "Amazing progress they've made, isn't it?"
"It's not amazing, McKay," John peered closer at the designs, "it's out of this world!"
"Yeah," McKay's tone was quiet, almost disturbed, "it is."
John's finger stilled in its exploration of the designs, and he furrowed his brow at the unusually taciturn scientist. McKay looked deadly serious, and not just a little perturbed. "You don't sound too excited."
"Oh, I'm ecstatic," McKay shot back, deadpan. "This is my happy face."
Before John could comment on the unnecessary sarcasm, a voice cut through the tense atmosphere.
McKay's entire frame tensed up at the innocuous greeting, and a tingling of warning worked its way up John's spine. He slowly shifted his gaze from the disturbed scientist to the man in the doorway. He hadn't even heard Marrick's arrival, but that was not unusual. The man moved through the halls silently, every step of his stride predetermined and deliberate. From his years spent in Black Ops, John had gotten pretty good at identifying Spooks. He had his suspicions Marrick had been CIA before VerTech had gotten its hands on him.
These days he was definitely a company man. John's first two months at VerTech had been one long test as Marrick dogged his every step, as if trying to determine if John was trying to threaten the company's interests. The intense scrutiny had not earned the man any points with John, and to this day he still tensed up whenever Merrick slithered into the same vicinity.
"Why hello there, Marrick," John greeted cheerily. "What brings you to our neck of the woods?"
"You seem to be in a good mood this morning," the security officer remarked lightly.
"Major scientific breakthrough, a cool new toy to play with up in the sky," John returned, "what's not to be happy about?"
"Yes, the research team downstairs was very excited to finally crack the inertial dampening system. They've been working on that one for years."
"Really?" McKay asked from his seat. "Why is it that I've never seen any of their research in the academic circles?"
"We can't be giving away our trade secrets, Doctor."
Marrick spared a tight smile for the physicist, and the uneasy tingling in John's spine gave way to a shock of warning. Unconsciously he shifted his weight as he eyed Marrick closely, hand tightly gripping the notebook of equations.
"I guess that's true." To John's ears it seemed like McKay wanted to say something else, but was holding himself back. That was so contrary to everything he knew about the man. "First one to the finish line, right?"
"Something like that."
John was a man who trusted his instincts, no matter how much trouble they got him in. Right now with the cold, calculating way Marrick was eyeing the scientist, John felt the distant, almost forgotten protective streak to defend the civilians flare up. He wasn't sure if he liked McKay all that much; however he liked the cold intent behind Marrick's gaze even less.
"So," John said, casually ambling to the center of the room, placing himself between McKay and the man at the door, "why was it you said you were here again?"
"Dr. Langham wanted to know if McKay had finished with those equations." Marrick's eyes tracked John's slow movements. "He sent me here to get them."
"These guys?" John held up the notebook before McKay could say anything. It was curious as to why Langham would send Marrick to grab a notebook. Not exactly a breach of security that should require his paranoid attention; if Langham had sent him at all.
Marrick gazed at him, nonplussed. "If those are the equations."
"Yep," John strolled over to the doorway and handed over the notebook without fanfare. "Here you go."
"Thanks, Sheppard," Marrick said dryly.
"Always glad to help," he returned smarmily.
Marrick gave him a long, narrow-eyed look before silently slipping back into the hallway. When he disappeared around the corner, John felt himself relax minutely but the tension didn't dissipate completely. When he turned around, McKay was staring at him incredulously. John just raised his eyebrows in question.
"What the hell was that?" Instead of exploding with the question, McKay's voice was quiet. Astonished.
"I don't know," he answered honestly, because he really couldn't explain what it was that had made him react the way he did. He owed McKay nothing, especially not a confrontation with security. "Guess he just rubs me the wrong way."
"You're not the only one," McKay muttered, eyes trailing to the doorway. "There's something very..."
"Creepy?" John offered.
"Thank you, yes, creepy about him."
"Well, hopefully he got what he wanted."
There was a brief flicker of fear in McKay's eyes which had that same fierce protectiveness surging to the forefront. McKay was scared of Marrick despite his earlier bravado. John pursed his lips, because it wasn't his concern, and deliberately focused back on the designs. "So, any other new insights on our monstrosity here?"
McKay peered at the designs closely, absently fingering his watch. "Not really. I think we can pick up on the inertial dampeners another time."
"Got a date?"
"Just more work," McKay groused, "it keeps piling on."
John knew the feeling. They were fast approaching their first ground test, and these new systems had to be reworked into the testing plan, and probably push back the test flight again. "It never stops."
"Sleep when you're dead, right?" McKay tried to sound nonchalant as he gathered his things, but the tired cliché didn't sound so funny at the moment.
"I think I'll work in some time for sleep." John dragged his chair back over to his desk before plopping in it gracelessly. He watched as the scientist started to make his way out. "McKay?"
He stopped at the doorway. "What?"
John had no idea what he was wanting to say, and couldn't think of a good reason for stopping him. Even if the encounter with Marrick had rang a few warning bells, it seemed silly to for John to tell McKay to be careful in the halls of the place they worked. "Never mind."
McKay left silently, a complete turnaround from his usual boisterous, annoyed, rant-filled exits. John turned his attention back to the computer in an attempt to focus on work. Fifteen minutes later, he was still staring blankly at the screen and unable to shake the ominous prickling that had taken up residence at the base of his spine.
The sky was ablaze as the bright orange desert sun desperately clutched at the horizon, trying to hold off night for a few more minutes. Dusk was already starting to descend, and with it a cool breeze to break the heat of the day. September had quietly slinked off into the distance, and October began to usher in a somewhat milder climate. Living out in the middle of nowhere while working at the Groom Lake facility had already accustomed Rodney to the desert heat. He was used to the unbearably long summers and high electric bills from running the air conditioning full blast.
He sat out outside, admiring the expansive view his third story balcony offered him. It was his first night to venture out here, as it had been entirely too hot and arid to even think about spending more than the time it took to transfer from building to car to building. He was also trying to break his addiction to that show about the people stranded on a deserted island. It was interesting, but they tended to keep dragging things out, and he was getting sick of being held hostage by his television because the writers were unable to end an episode without a cliffhanger of some sort.
An angry roar grabbed his attention, and he watched in morbid fascination as a black and chrome monster pulled into one of the parking spots adjacent to his building. The machine growled as the engine idled, looking both menacing and almost beautiful in its own way. Actually, if he squinted a little, shading his eyes against the setting sun, Rodney thought that the motorcycle looked a little familiar—
It looked a lot familiar.
The rider killed the engine and leapt off the seat in a boyishly exuberant fashion. Like some horrible Hollywood cliché, he removed his helmet and ran a hand through his hair to raise the wild spikes that had been mussed by the head gear.
"You have got to be kidding me!"
He hadn't meant to shout it, but honestly, he was internalizing a lot these days so something was bound to slip. The rider stilled momentarily before managing to track down the source of the outburst, peering intently before he dropped the hand smoothing his hair.
Even if it was difficult to make out the rider's face from the distance, the grin in Sheppard's voice was as unmistakable as the sarcastic, amicable wave. "Well, howdy, neighbor!"
"No, no, no, no, no!" Rodney wailed. "This isn't even remotely funny!"
"Mind if I borrow a cup of sugar?" Sheppard yelled.
"Oh god, what more can go wrong with this stupid assignment?" he muttered to himself.
"We can like fight over who has the better lawn," the pilot continued to yell, apparently lacking any social inhibitions when it came to torturing his co-worker.
Rodney groaned and let his head fall dramatically to the railing where it smacked painfully.
"And steal each other's newspaper!"
"Just kill me now!" Rodney cried out to the world, but it wasn't listening.
"Oh, hey! This means we can carpool!"
Rodney flung open the door, interrupting his intruder mid-knock. He crossed his arms as he glared at the interloper standing in his doorway, holding up a six-pack of beer with a friendly expression. "Apparently I forgot to get you a housewarming gift."
"We're not doing this," Rodney announced and promptly slammed the door.
His cell phone trilled, and Rodney didn't recognize the number, just the Tucson area code. Probably someone from work, he mused annoyed, and snapped it open impatiently. "What?"
"That was rude," Sheppard said primly.
"How did you get my number?!"
"It's on your contact information in Outlook at work. Don't feel too special; I've got the whole Geek Squad in here in case I need to get a hold of one of you as you guys are flitting around the building."
"That's it! I'm moving!"
"But we haven't even commiserated over the fact that the elevator is always stuck on another floor when you need it," Sheppard whined.
"This complex doesn't have any elevators. And even if it did, you live on the first floor!"
"I knew I was forgetting something."
"What is wrong with you? We don't even like each other!"
"What can I say? I'm bored."
"That excuse is wearing thin," Rodney ground out.
"C'mon, McKay, just one beer. We can finally call a truce."
"Do you not speak proper English? We are not buddies. We do not drink beer and hang out at each other's apartments and bond over who can belch the loudest while watching women's mud wrestling on the television!"
"Who the hell were you hanging out with before you moved here?"
"I'm hanging up now."
"I'll just call back."
"Why won't you leave me alone?"
"C'mon McKay, it's not so bad. I brought the good beer."
"Not even a tiny sip?"
"You don't know what you're missing."
"Right now, I'm missing sleep!"
"It's seven forty-three. The sun set like ten minutes ago."
"You're just doing this to piss me off, aren't you?"
"Don't you have something better to do with your evenings than harass me? I mean what the hell, are you lonely or something?
The sudden cold quality of the other man's tone shouldn't have any bearing on the temperature in Rodney's apartment, but he felt a shiver run down his spine all the same. He swallowed, suddenly wishing for the genial asshole that had just been harassing him, because the line had gone silent.
Trying to wrap his tongue around an apology wasn't working, especially since he had no idea what he had said that would have pissed off Sheppard. Of course, he really shouldn't care what the man thought anyway.
"The silence is really unnerving," he finally managed, "because things just got awkward again."
"You think?" The ice had left the other man's tone, but there was still more than just a small hint of tension. "You're impossible, you know that?"
"I'm impossible?" Rodney asked incredulously. "You're the one with the beer on my doorstep!"
"I'm trying to bury a hatchet."
"Because... look, it's just ridiculous for us to keep up this back and forth. We work together, so it would make things easier if—"
In a fit of sudden panic, Rodney hit the "end call" button. The last thing he needed right now was lonely test pilots trying to befriend him—or bury the hatchet or whatever the hell the term was. And he wasn't disappointed at all when the phone didn't ring again.
He really wasn't.
John plopped himself down at the table the next day at lunch, sending a disgruntled look at the man buried within a pile of notes. Whoever Rodney McKay was, he seemed bound and determined to keep people at arm's length. John had only intended to needle him a little with the beer last night. The attempt at making an actual friendly overture had been purely a moment of temporary insanity.
McKay remained oblivious to him, absorbed in his world of science, and Carson was currently sorting through a buffet's worth of leftovers. Laverne's cooking definitely could beat any of John's attempts any day of the week, and Carson made for good conversation.
"You look like you have something on your mind, lad," the Scot said, not looking up from his task.
"Not much, just discovered something interesting last night."
"It turns out, I'm not stalking McKay."
"I didn't realize you were," Carson remarked as he divvied up a small portion for the scientist, who was pointedly ignoring the rest of the table as he pored over a mountain of reference material.
"Me neither," John shrugged, "but sadly, it seems that we just live together."
"We do not!" McKay snapped. "You just so happen to reside in an apartment building that may coexist in the same complex as mine."
John smirked, his barb having gained the desired effect of pulling the physicist into the conversation. "It explains why we keep running into each other."
"You do?" Carson asked as if he were only half paying attention.
"Oh, he didn't mention that to you?" John asked sarcastically. "I thought he might since he likes to bring it up with random strangers at meals."
"I was talking to myself," McKay bristled, eyes still focused firmly on his research.
"I thought you said that you weren't."
"I—" McKay sputtered, sending a few papers flying into the air with the sudden flurry of movement, "no one invited you here!"
"Well, no one invited him either!"
"You're positively anti-social some days."
"My job is not to socialize with you people," he insisted harshly.
"C'mon, McKay," John grabbed one of the pieces of paper floating lazily in the air from McKay's startled commotion, "first you slam the door in my face last night—"
"Rodney," Carson sounded scandalized.
"Then you hang up on me."
"Ach, that's not very professional."
"It was after hours!" McKay hissed and snatched the paper from John's hand. "I do not have to be professional and courteous when I'm off the clock."
"You're nice to me," Carson pointed out.
"You feed me!"
Carson paused in laying out his lunch leftovers, as if he just realized that was what he'd been doing for the past few weeks. "That's because those freeze dried meals will kill you before you reach fifty."
"There are more dangerous things in my life than artificial preservatives!" McKay stuffed the rest of his papers together as he angrily pushed himself away from the table.
"Hypertension?" John ventured.
"Leave me alone!" McKay snarled as he grabbed his stuff.
"I don't know what you two's problem is, but no means no!"
"No to what?" John asked innocently.
"No to... no to..." The scientist gestured at the empty air as he struggled to find the words. "No to—agh!"
John quirked an eyebrow, which only infuriated the gesturing man more, who gave off another cry of annoyance before he stalked off. That... had not been the intended plan. John had only wanted to needle him a little for the night before, not drive him away. "Where are you going?"
"My office!" The response produced more arm flailing. "Where I can at least can get some work done without people constantly nattering in my ear!"
John watched him go, finally turning to Carson. "What the hell was that about?"
"I don't know." Carson shook his head, watching the retreating form with a troubled expression. "He has to be the most stressed individual I have ever met."
"You're telling me." Like the incident with Marrick, John couldn't help but feel like there was more to it than McKay let on. Since it wasn't his problem, he shouldn't have been bothered by it.
But he was; and he had no idea why.
Rodney settled back into his train of thought only to have the phone at his desk break through it with its shrill ring. He answered it, probably snappier than the occasion warranted, only to have Langham request his presence in one of the labs. He left the meatloaf that Laverne had prepared for "Carson's nice work friends" on his desk as he reluctantly dragged himself away from his meal. Apparently working lunches were a thing of the past, he thought miserably as he strode into the lab. Langham was hunched over a workstation with one of R&D's chemists.
"McKay, good of you to make it! I hope I wasn't interrupting anything."
"Nothing that couldn't wait," Rodney tried to not to sound as put-out as he felt. "Now what was it that you wanted to show me?"
Langham seemed to pick up on his disgruntled mood and just chuckled softly. A spike of annoyance lanced through him but Rodney shoved it down, adjusting his glasses for a better view as his supervisor moved aside to let him take a look at what was laid out on the workstation.
"I thought that after all of your help getting the inertial dampening systems operational, you might be able to offer us some help with our latest challenge."
Curiosity smothered the annoyance, and Rodney watched as the chemist presented a small sample of a dull gray quartz-like material. Its edges were rough, and specks of rock and dirt clung to several of the crevices. He reached out and picked up one of the pieces, holding it up to eye level. It didn't look like anything spectacular.
"And what is this supposed to be?" he asked.
"The power source for the pulse detonation engine, or at least we're hoping it will be," Langham said casually, but he was watching Rodney closely.
"This?" Rodney asked, setting the sample back down. "It's a rock."
"It's metal actually." Langham picked up the discarded sample and held it up. "We call it naquadah."
Rodney blinked. "What?"
"It's a new material we discovered in one of our recent... forays into the wild."
Beckett's mysterious specimen came to mind, something from the "Amazon", or another vague unspecified location somewhere on the planet. He wondered if this material came from the same region, because he had never heard the name Langham had used. "Why haven't I heard anything about it?"
"That's because we discovered it, Dr. McKay."
"And you want to use something that you just discovered in an already experimental aircraft? Before anyone's had a chance to study it properly?"
"We've known about it for years," Langham insisted harshly.
"And you've just been sitting on that?" Rodney knew he had to toe a line here, but it wasn't his job to pretend like none of this bothered him. Hell, it would be more suspicious if he wasn't acting like this. "Why not let the world know about this?"
"Because we can't afford to let our competition get ahead."
"You're holding back science."
"No, Doctor, we're forging the path," Langham pointed his nose in the air, "we're just setting the pace at which we do it."
That whole outlook was not only preposterous, but unethical. Unfortunately, if Rodney didn't reel in his real opinions, he wouldn't keep getting answers. He'd done well by not protesting too much with the damn inertial dampeners, he needed to do the same here. He nervously tapped at one of the buttons on the side of his watch as he stared at the rock, gathering his composure. "I'm afraid I don't see what's so special about this particular piece of rock."
"This is just some of the raw ore we've found," Langham gave Rodney a look, but his tone was still defensive. "Once refined it's able to act as a superconductor, able to focus an enormous amount of energy."
"Really?" Rodney leaned in to take a closer look at the rock, reminding himself to watch his tone. "Even enough to break orbit?"
"Far more than that, Doctor." Langham set the rock back on the table. "Enough energy that we could build ships capable of intersolar travel within a matter of years."
"Intersolar travel? We're still trying to accomplish single-stage-to-orbit. Don't you think you're jumping the gun a little?"
Langham's smile was smarmy, eyes lighting up greedily. "Not one bit."
Rodney couldn't afford another flip out, especially with Langham handing out answers like candy. However with the current technology, intersolar travel was probably barely within Rodney's lifetime. This was more than just a simple step to the future; it was a giant frigging leap. His reaction to that bit of news would probably determine how much more Langham was willing to share.
"I'll believe it when I see it," which was a lie, but that's who he was here. He might as well pander to it. "If you've known about this rock for so long, why have you introduced it as fuel for your jet into the project so late? At Boeing they would—"
"We're not Boeing, Dr. McKay," Langham interrupted him. "I know we do things differently here, but I was hoping that you might learn to be a team player."
Crap. He needed to fix this.
"I'm trying," Rodney insisted, "believe me, I'm trying."
That seemed to do the trick, because Langham admitted reluctantly, "We've only had a small amount of naquadah that we have been working with downstairs." Downstairs, downstairs, downstairs. Rodney was really starting to hate that word. "It's not an easy material to acquire. It's quite rare."
"And unknown," Rodney remarked and crossed his arms. "How do we know it's safe to put in the engine?"
"We're hoping that you might be able to help us out with that."
"I can't help you people if you don't trust me enough to even show me what I'm supposed to be working with."
"Trust has to be earned," Langham's voice dripped with disdain, "and we're slow to trust."
"I've gotten that impression," Rodney said carefully.
"You're going to work with Dr. Kavanagh here for the next few weeks." Langham indicated the pony-tailed, bespectacled chemist who was meticulously packing up the naquadah sample. "Hopefully together you two can come to a solution in time for the first ground test."
"That's in less than three weeks!"
"Then I hope you'll focus your time on that." Langham pinned him with a stare. "I think you should also cut back your update meetings with Sheppard and Murphy to once a week. You don't need to bog them down with all of the tiny details until you're closer to implementation."
Or tell them what he knew without Langham's permission. He was being let into the loop here, and he needed to play his cards right. "Of course."
"Good. I'll take care of notifying Zelenka that he and his team will need to do without your assistance." Langham escorted him to the edge of the lab. "And don't worry about informing Flight Test, we'll take care of that."
"Thank you," Rodney replied mechanically as they reached the door and started to go their separate ways.
"Oh, and Dr. McKay?"
"Let's hope you keep up the good work."
Rodney nodded, and quickly made his way back to his office. He kept his head ducked low, and almost didn't notice the other person in the hallway until they almost collided.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"That's quite all right, Doctor," Marrick's smooth voice cut in.
Rodney froze involuntarily. "Oh, hello, Marrick."
"Did Langham introduce you to the naquadah?"
"Yes," Rodney swallowed, "it's very interesting."
"Only interesting?" Marrick quirked an eyebrow. On Sheppard, the action was infuriating, usually because it was mocking something Rodney had just said. On Marrick it was almost menacing and caused his heart to start beating in double-time.
"And exciting," Rodney added quickly. "Very exciting and new."
"That it is," the other man agreed leaning in close. "Langham has high hopes for you."
Rodney involuntarily took a step backward to try and maintain his personal space. "I don't know about that..."
"Neither do I." Marrick matched Rodney step for step, hovering just inside his personal space. "Your past association with the Air Force concerns me."
"You're developing this plane for the Air Force," Rodney stammered as he continued to backpedal. "I don't understand why it's a concern, especially since I don't talk to them anymore."
"No," Rodney insisted harder, feeling some conviction set in, "I don't. Not after the way they treated me."
"And what way was that?"
Rodney had been backed into the wall at this point, and he had his arms crossed in front of his chest as Marrick hovered just inches away. "I don't have to put up with this."
"It's just a question."
"A very personal and invasive question that has nothing to do with the security of this building."
"I told you, I have the company's interests in mind."
"And why would the company be concerned about my severed ties to the Air Force? Their biggest customer I might add!"
A shadow crossed Marrick's face, and Rodney tensed. That had probably been the wrong thing to say. Rodney was completely cut off from the rest of the world in this building. If the company decided he was a threat, chances were he'd never make it out alive—and no one would know until he missed his next check-in. He was completely and hopelessly alone.
"Is there a problem here?"
Sheppard stood a few feet away, arms hanging loosely at his side, one hand unconsciously reaching for a sidearm that was not there. Marrick's hard stare tracked from Rodney to the interloper, but he did not move or shift from his position trapping Rodney against the wall.
"Problem?" Marrick pinned Rodney with a cold stare. "Do we have a problem, Dr. McKay?"
"No," Rodney said quietly, "no problem at all."
Sheppard looked unconvinced, one hand flexing into a fist at his side, eyes narrowing at Marrick. "Then why don't you let him breathe a little?"
"Sure," Marrick said amiably and pushed away from the wall and Rodney couldn't stop the relieved sigh from escaping. It only earned him another long look. "You'll keep what I said in mind, won't you, Doctor?"
Rodney sucked in a sharp breath, unable to school his reaction completely, and he could see Sheppard's shoulders tensing up at the continued confrontation. He took a step backward, hoping to put a little distance between them before Marrick decided he wanted to renew their "close" acquaintance.
"Hrm?" Marrick prompted.
"You know," Sheppard butt in, drawing Marrick's attention, "it always made my knuckles itch back in grade school when the bullies picked on the kids with glasses."
"Sounds like a personal problem to me," Marrick sneered. "Sort of like minding your own business?"
"From what I overheard it sounds like that might be a problem for you as well," Sheppard shot back coolly.
Marrick and Sheppard continued their standoff, fingers twitching toward invisible sidearms and brows narrowing in contempt.
"It's not nice to eavesdrop, Sheppard."
"Not very nice to pin people against the wall either."
They circled each other like two dogs sizing up each other for a fight, snarling and snapping at the air, just waiting for the other to make the first move. Metaphorically, Sheppard blinked first as he took up the position Marrick had vacated, directly positioning himself between Rodney and the other man.
"So," Sheppard drawled, "guess we'll see you around. Right, Marrick?"
Marrick pursed his lips. "Yes, you will."
It was almost like Sheppard was trying to... trying to... defend him against the perceived threat.
Rodney's chest tightened when the thought struck him, a harsh twisting like someone was tightening a vice around his ribcage. He watched with wide eyes as Sheppard smirked sarcastically, causing Marrick's face to pinch in annoyance.
"You most certainly will," he promised before executing an about face and stalking off down the hall.
Sheppard waited until the other man was out of sight before turning to face Rodney. "You all right?"
Rodney blinked. "What—why would you do that?"
"It didn't look like you were enjoying the conversation," Sheppard stated as he tossed a dark look over his shoulder, "and I've never cared for bullies much."
"But why—what are you doing here?"
"Carson thought I might have driven you off—he told me to apologize."
"And you just do what he says?"
"He wouldn't share any more of Laverne's leftovers if I didn't," Sheppard said lightly, but his eyes betrayed a concern that made absolutely no sense. "You're a little pale. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I don't understand," Rodney shook his head, wrapping his arms around his chest, "what do you care?"
The question seemed to take Sheppard aback, and he fumbled for a few seconds. "I don't know."
"You just—you could have just made an enemy out of that guy. You should have walked on. There was no need—"
"No! I don't get you, you just... you shouldn't care."
"I don't..." Sheppard started, but stopped himself before Rodney could tell if the next word was going to be "care", "know", or something else entirely. Instead he laid a hand on Rodney's shoulder and offered a tentative smile. "C'mon, let's blow off the rest of the day. You look like you really need a drink."
It was tempting; too tempting actually. He could easily lose himself for several hours in a bottomless glass of beer and not have to think about naquadah, or phone tapping, or even pretending to be someone he wasn't—although he'd still be pretending, wouldn't he? Up until a few minutes ago, Rodney had been convinced that he and Sheppard shared a mutual dislike for one another. You just don't step into the fire for someone you can't stand.
Rodney had grown used to people using him for his brain, trying to curry favor with him so he might do something for them in return. Duty, science, work—these things he understood. Friendship for the sake of friendship? He wasn't sure that existed. Yet here was John Sheppard, stepping in between him and the corporate bullies, trying to reach out, offering to buy him a beer, and—and they didn't like each other, and they weren't friends, and this made no sense.
"Go away," Rodney pulled away. "I've got work to do."
"Just leave me alone," he muttered and made a quick retreat towards his office, wondering if Sheppard would try and follow him.
The bottle Rodney raised to his lips did not taste like anything he would consider beer, but it had alcohol and that's all that counted. His companion sitting next to him either didn't notice, or decided not to comment on the fact that his hand was shaking.
"I don't think it'll be a secret for too much longer," Rodney murmured softly, his voice barely carrying past the rest of the bar noise, "since whenever they show me something it shows up on your radar a few days later."
"The inertial dampeners were definitely interesting."
"That's one word for it—seeing as how that technology had only been theoretical up until a month ago. Hell, it's still theoretical to the world until they see fit to share it with anyone other than the Air Force." Rodney glared petulantly at the bar. "Should I mention how interesting it is that my own hypothetical equations were some of the basis for the actual equations? Kind of like the engine is a lot like the one I was working on at Nellis?"
"It's why they wanted you."
"I really don't like this."
"I'm sorry," the other man said softly before changing the subject. "The specs we were shown were a little different from yours."
"Dumbed down according to our girl."
"Well, she would know. It should be her in there."
"They'd never approach her, you know that."
"What's the new stuff?"
"Something else they've supposedly been sitting on for years, just like they were supposedly working on the inertial dampeners before I ever published any of my theories on it."
"It's a new fuel source," Rodney mumbled into his beer, "something called naquadah."
"Never heard of it."
"Me neither," Rodney took a long swig, grimacing at the bitter taste. "From all the stuff Kavanagh has shown me so far, I'm not..."
"I'm not sure it's from this planet, as insane as that sounds."
"It's able to interact with neutrinos."
"Is that bad?"
"Oh, it's good, it's very good. It means that as a superconductor it can store and convert several different forms of energy, and without using up much of the element at all. In fact, the amount we're using in the new engine is miniscule."
"Do you have a sample?"
"Are you kidding? I barely get to touch the stuff! They're so tight fisted on their supply I'd have had more luck trying to smuggle intel across the Berlin Wall during the Cold War."
The other man's lips twitched into a smile. "Not a bad reference."
"I'm so glad I can amuse you as I put my life on the line!"
"Keep it down."
"Look, there's no way I can get my hands on it. I'm being watched too closely, at least in the building."
"Just see if you can get some tests run and get us some images of the results. We'll probably get a look at some later when they give us the latest update. Just don't attract attention to yourself, whatever you do."
"Oh, a little late for that," Rodney announced bitterly.
"What do you mean?" The other man tensed up. "Do they—"
"No. We wouldn't be having this conversation if they did because I'd be dead. You know that."
"That's not a funny thing to say."
"It wasn't a joke," Rodney angrily took another chug of his beer. "I told you, they're watching me like a hawk. Marrick practically interrogated me the other day."
"What did you tell him?"
"Nothing. It didn't get very far." Rodney stared ahead blankly. "Sheppard showed up and put a stop to it."
"Sheppard." The man tested the name, as if it were almost familiar. "Is he the guy from the diner?"
"Yes, my neighbor slash stalker. One and the same."
"That wouldn't be John Sheppard, would it?"
"Yes, it would," Rodney slid a look at him. "Why?"
"Thought I remembered seeing his name on the project's list," the other man muttered. "He was a pilot for the Air Force, a damn good one too."
"Obviously not good enough if he was let go."
"If it's the same Sheppard I'm thinking of, there wasn't much left of his career to save." His drinking companion took a cautious sip of his own beer. "He went against orders to get a man behind enemy lines. It wound up eventually costing him his commission."
"I was under the impression that officers couldn't be brought up on a dishonorable discharge."
"I believe the polite term is 'usher out'." The other man paused. "I'm still surprised Vertrauen hired him on. I don't see them trusting his type. You know—loyal, military."
"You're telling me. Marrick just about had kittens because of my ties to the Air Force."
"That's the important thing here, not Sheppard. You need to keep your head low."
"You don't think I know that?" Rodney kept his voice low, but the conviction behind the statement fierce. "I don't want to end up fished out of the reservoir like Dr. Peterson."
That earned him a sympathetic look. "We're doing our best to keep you safe."
"And doing a pretty crappy job of that if I die because there's no way to get a hold of you if something goes wrong."
"You have my number memorized, don't you?"
"Use that if you think you're in trouble. We'll get you out."
"McKay, we're not going to let anything happen to you."
"You say that now, but you won't be there the next time Marrick decides to start putting on the pressure."
"Just hang in there a little longer."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Yeah, I didn't think so."
John watched his cell phone light up as it indicated an incoming call, same number flashing on the caller ID. It trilled once, phone jittering in his hand as it vibrated with the ring.
He wasn't sure how it had happened, or even when it had happened, but apparently somewhere along the way in the past few weeks he may have grown something akin to fondness for McKay. Calling him a friend was probably too strong of a word, especially as it seemed that the scientist was determined to keep him at arm's length. John had almost thought that they had almost found some sort of common ground, but that last confrontation with Marrick had made things worse rather than better.
The now-weekly update meetings on the progress of the engine were no longer solo affairs, but involved both Murphy and Langham. McKay was short, brief, and to-the-point to all of their questions on the viability of this new fuel source. The only emotion he had been able to discern from McKay was a small flicker of relief when Murphy announced he was pushing back the ground test another week until they got some concrete numbers to work with.
A second trill echoed through the silent office but John just held the phone in his hand, making no move to answer.
John had even accidentally run into the other man at the grocery store, but McKay had walked by without an outraged sputter, an accusation of stalking, or even a snide comment on the way John was "feeling up" the cantaloupes he was considering buying. Even more surprising than the silent treatment was the pang of disappointment John felt as McKay walked on by like he hadn't even seen him.
A third ring echoed through the office, one more and the call would be routed to voicemail. Halfway through the fourth ring John snapped the phone open and held it up to his ear. It took several seconds before he trusted his voice enough to speak.
"Hey." Involuntarily his fingers clutched the phone tighter as the voice on the other end greeted him. "No, I'm not too busy to talk."
"That's a change," the deep voice of his brother rumbled across the line, not quite friendly but not as angry as it had been the last time he had heard it three years ago. "It's good to hear your voice, John."
"Yeah, Dave, it's been a while." He closed his eyes as the hard knot in his stomach twisted a little, but thankfully his voice remained steady. "Sorry I kept missing your calls. It's been a little busy around here."
He wished he could suddenly hang up, knowing he was not ready for this, but he was trapped into finishing the conversation now.
Maybe it was for the best. He had to stop running from this confrontation at some point before it was too late to fix things with his family. It felt wrong, deep down in his gut because he knew they hadn't changed. However he had to try—before he wound up completely alone.
"So... how's Dad?"
"There you are!"
Rodney looked up, glasses slipping down from their precarious perch on his nose as he peered at the person bursting into his office, shoulders tense and ready for battle with—a tin-foil wrapped square?
"Don't you 'Carson' me," the Scot shot him a stern look. "Is this where you've been hiding?"
"Hiding?" Rodney pushed the glasses back to their proper resting place and dropped the physics journal he'd been perusing to the desk. "I'm not hiding."
"Of course you are." Carson crossed his arms. "Why I can't figure out. You have got to be positively one of the most baffling people I've ever met in my life."
"Is this going to take long? I've got a lot of work to make sure the new engine doesn't, you know, blow up in two weeks when we have our first test."
Carson looked around the office, gaze focusing on the opened can of beef stew that Rodney had grabbed that morning in a rush. "And you're eating this rubbish again."
"I don't have time to cook a hearty meal! I'm too busy trying to—"
"Kill yourself with overworking and exhaustion, yes I can see that!"
"I've done a good job of staying alive for thirty-six years without your unsolicited medical advice. I think I'll manage a little while longer."
Carson bristled, raising his tin-wrapped square to bear as if that might fend off the sarcasm. "I don't know what happened between you and John, but don't you think shutting yourself in your office is a little extreme?"
"What?" Rodney frowned. "I'm not—"
"Not that I can get him to say anything on the matter other than 'he's not trying to run me over anymore', which for some reason I can't understand is a bad thing."
"So suddenly safe driving is something to be ashamed of?"
"I don't know!" Carson roared. "The only thing I know for certain is that you both are sulking like a couple of schoolyard children over something I'm not sure either of you understands."
"What does it matter to you?"
"I don't like to see my friends hurting, especially over something that's so bloody stupid."
"Yes, Rodney, you're my friend; both of you are. I don't know why that's such a difficult concept to grasp since you obviously can understand far more complex things in the universe." The Scot let out a ragged sigh, and dropped the square on the desk. "Laverne made extra banana bread the other day. I figured you might need something fresher than the Twinkies from the vending machine to sustain you during your quest into the scientific wilderness."
Rodney's mouth worked silently. For once, he was unable to come up with a coherent, snide reply.
"And get some sleep, lad." Carson gave him a long, concerned look. "You look horrible."
Rodney swallowed heavily as the Scot quietly made his way out. He stared at the wrapped snack bread as if it might suddenly come alive and bite him. Tentatively, he reached out and pulled the foil aside enough to pinch off a small piece. It was buttery and full of flavor. He quickly rewrapped it, shoving it into his bag before he dove back into his work. He didn't have time for these distractions. He was on a deadline.
The first ground test for the new engine pulled in all of the important people working on the X-302 project, crowding the control room beyond its normal capacity. John jockeyed for elbow room as he tried to make his way closer to the window overlooking the hangar below. The engine itself was actually fairly small, almost dwarfed by the size of the hangar. Eyeing the dimensions, John was fairly certain that they could probably fit the X-302 in there when it was fully constructed, massive wingspan included. Scaffolding had been set up to lift the engine off the ground. The tail end of the engine was aimed toward a tunnel to cool the exhaust and muffle the noise that would be produced when the engine was fired up. It would also catch what little emissions and by-products would be burned off—according to McKay, this "naquadah" was a fairly clean source of energy.
A murmur of excitement threaded through the room, helping dampen the nervous twittering that had started up in his stomach. It still felt too early to be ground testing this engine. They had barely finished analyzing the results from the simulations.
"It's... something, isn't it?"
John glanced up to see McKay had taken up a spot next to him.
"It most certainly is." John returned his attention to the hangar where they were making the final preparations. "You don't seem nearly as excited as everyone else."
"Neither do you."
"Call me crazy, but I just can't trust something that's been thrust on us at the last minute—no offense intended toward the work you've been putting in on it."
"None taken," Rodney muttered, barely audible over the animated hum of conversation. "They've been pushing this too fast."
"The fact that you think that doesn't exactly inspire confidence."
"And lying to you when I thought otherwise would?"
"No." John studied the scientist out of the corner of his eye. "Has Marrick been giving you any more trouble?"
McKay squirmed as he uncrossed his arms and tucked them behind his back. Apparently that wasn't a comfortable position because he recrossed them a few seconds later. "No, he's left me alone."
"You sure about that?" John let his gaze wander around the room, mentally cataloguing each face, until he found one particularly cold stare boring into the scientist's back. "Because right now he's hovering in the doorway giving you the dead eye stare."
A nerve in McKay's jaw twitched, but he didn't look over his shoulder in the direction indicated. "Okay, he's been doing that."
John pursed his lips, but didn't say anything else on the matter. It had been made abundantly clear from the past few weeks of the cold shoulder treatment that the situation with Marrick was none of his business. The fact that McKay had decided to strike up conversation was hopefully a sign that things could go back to normal between them—although their version of normal was probably still pretty odd for everyone else.
"If this all goes well I'm thinking of heading out and grabbing a beer later," John said carefully.
"Good for you."
"I'm just saying you're welcome to tag along if you want."
McKay remained silent, Adam's apple bobbing up and down as if he had trouble swallowing the idea of spending time outside of his darkened office or apartment.
"Look, it's just an invitation—nothing to get worked up over."
"I'll think about it," he returned after letting the statement linger for a moment. "I've..."
"Got a lot of work, yeah I know." The bewildered, almost injured look John got nearly made him break his stare with the window, but he kept his eyes forward in hopes that the awkward moment would just pass. It almost seemed as if McKay didn't understand how to accept kindness when it was offered, which would explain a lot about him come to think of it. "Don't worry about it."
"Sure." McKay nodded, but looked ready to bolt.
"Of course that won't be happening if this fails spectacularly," John put in unnecessarily.
"It'll do just fine, thank you very much," McKay snapped. "I've spent the past week triple checking all of the parameters!"
"Man, I thought Carson told you to get some sleep—"
"I did sleep, last night actually, like a baby and—how did you know about that?"
"He cornered me in my office last week—gave me an earful about having to eat all of Laverne's leftovers by himself. It slipped out somewhere between 'immature in-fighting' and 'stop spinning in that chair'."
"See, it annoys other people too."
"That's why I do it," John grinned. "Oh, but did you notice the vein?"
"The one on his forehead that pops out whenever he hits mid-stride in one of his doctorly rants? Yeah. It looked ready to burst when he brought by some casserole on Monday."
"Wait, he actually brought you leftovers?" If he were more prone to be jealous of such things, John might have almost sounded wounded. Luckily he was a bigger man than that. "I've had to pack peanut butter and jelly for almost three weeks now. Liar said he wasn't sharing until we 'made up'."
"Maybe he feeds me because I'm working." He gave John a smug look. "Unlike some people."
"When? In between Skittles runs?"
"I wouldn't be talking if I were you, Twinkie King—"
A loud clang from below drew McKay's attention, and he looked like he was ready to snap out something at the workers below. The fact that the glass separating the control room from the hangar would have muffled any complaint probably had more with forestalling any rant than political savvy. At least, John's eyes darted to the figure still hovering at the back of the room; he hoped it was that and not the pressure of certain people's presence. Marrick's intense scrutiny of the scientist was ridiculous...
...but that wasn't supposed to be John's concern.
The final safety check was executed, and the hangar cleared of personnel. The sound inside would probably be close to deafening. From what John had heard, detonations on these engines were far louder than the standard ignitions on a normal turbojet engine.
"Showtime," John announced.
McKay was less than thrilled. "It's all a show here."
"Yeah, I noticed the big brass Langham's been chatting up. Friend of yours?"
"Colonel Frank Simmons," McKay ground his teeth together, "and not a chance."
"That bad, huh?"
"Oh, he's fine, if you're a fan of Langham's type."
"Kiss ass?" John asked casually.
"He makes Langham's brown nose look clean."
"Guess I'm glad he was never my CO then," John commented.
Langham made some parting remarks to Simmons before pushing through the crowd to take a place next to the main console. "Looks like we're all here. This test firing is the start of a major scientific breakthrough and I'm glad that you could be here for this momentous occasion. I know that you all still have a lot of work to do on this project, so we'll try not to take up too much of yours or the Colonel's time."
Simmons smiled tightly at the room at the acknowledgement, but did not chime in on the well wishes. John glanced around for Marrick, but he must have melted into the crowd. McKay nudged him in the arm, and John tuned back in time to hear the tail end of Langham's speech.
"So, without further ado, will Dr. Grodin do the honors?"
The Brit looked less than enthused, but dialed up the controls. The tunnel came to life with an audible hum as it created a vacuum in front of the firing end of the engine.
"Dialing it up twelve pulses per minute," Grodin announced.
An explosive thrum signaled the first flare from the tail end, the blast vibrating the metal of the tunnel to a hum. The thrum was followed by another and another in precise succession, the tunnel's hum echoing throughout the control room.
John couldn't contain the tiny grin or the "cool" that escaped him. McKay shot him a look of restrained excitement, letting him know that he wasn't alone in his impression.
"Take it up higher," Langham announced over the noise.
Grodin nodded, and began slowly dialing up the frequency until the thrum morphed into a rapid-fire series of pulses, sounding more like a giant-sized machine gun than a jet engine. Bright blue fire blazed out of the back of the engine, and John had to avert his eyes.
"Okay, make that hot," John corrected. "Very hot."
"A little higher," Langham said again, "up to three hundred."
"What?" Rodney snapped, almost drowned out by the engine noise.
Langham ignored him, and Grodin looked between the two scientists uncertainly.
"Do it," Langham insisted.
Grodin looked very reluctant but slowly reached for the controls and cranked them up. The rat-a-tat of the firing increased, pauses between detonations steadily decreasing to the point where the pulses began to form one long, deafening explosive thrum.
McKay's eyes widened. "That shouldn't be possible."
"Why?" John asked.
"I set safety protocols..." McKay trailed off, a dark cloud settling over his features. John had been used to irritation, but the outrage took him aback so much that McKay was halfway across the room, shoving people aside before John had even realized he was moving. He followed in the scientist's wake, pretty sure he wasn't going to like the reasoning behind the angrily twitching brow.
"What the hell did you do?" McKay practically exploded, and John reached out and tugged him back before the scientist could get himself fired by physically assaulting his supervisor. A small semi-circle cleared as people began to edge away from the astrophysicist on the war path.
"I made a few tweaks last night. I thought we needed to let Colonel Simmons here know what the engine is capable of—"
"We have no idea about the stability of the naquadah for sustained detonations! The fact that it amplifies the energy output so much makes it dangerous—"
"Or it makes you overly cautious," Langham shot back. "There's a lot of money invested in this project. The viability of naquadah as a fuel source could be one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of our time."
"Did you buy your PhD off the internet? There are steps that have to be maintained, even in your screwy 'no one needs to know' environment, to ensure that—"
"Doctors?" Grodin cut in nervously.
"What?" They both snapped.
"I think we have a problem—it seems the firing rate is increasing on its own."
A hum, almost barely audible over the sound of the engine firing, was starting to build. John glanced at McKay nervously. "What is that sound?"
"Oh no," it was almost a whisper, barely perceptible over the growing noise. The wide eyes and tiny pupils did nothing to ease the sudden hammering in John's chest.
"What do you mean 'oh no'?" he demanded more than asked.
"Turn it off!" McKay burst into motion, shoving past Langham as he dove for the control console where Grodin was stationed.
"Of course." Nervousness punctuated the British scientist's movements. Those movements began to grow more rapid and frantic as he switched from display to display. "Something's wrong."
"Wrong?" Langham cut in.
"The controls aren't responding."
"Move!" McKay practically shoved Grodin aside as he attacked the console with sudden fervor. A hush had extended over the room, only the ominous hum steadily increasing in volume and the frenzied clack of McKay's fingers assaulting the keyboard filling what would have been silence.
"McKay?" John ventured nervously, as the sweat beading on the scientist's brow was not exactly a comforting sign.
"This is so not good."
"How not good?"
"So very not good it's actually very, very bad!" McKay pushed away from the console, spinning back toward Langham and John wondered if he would have to hold him back a second time. "The remote program has frozen!"
Langham shook his head, eyes wide in panic. "But how could that happen?"
"I don't know, maybe when someone disabled important safety protocols he could have accidentally deleted a vital line of code that would have detected this sort of problem and prevented it!"
"It should have worked fine," Langham insisted.
"It didn't," McKay roared. "I warned you this might happen!"
"What might happen?" John cut in, because he had known McKay for almost two months now, and he had never seen this sort of reaction from the man.
"A catastrophic overload is what!" Rodney flung a finger at the engine burning brightly below.
"That sounds kind of bad."
"Oh, it is."
"How bad are we talking here?" To John's ears, the hum may have been approaching a whine, which was never a good thing as far as engines were concerned.
"Seeing as how the damn naquadah seems to enhance any sort of energy output—which in this case seems to be building toward an explosion—I'd say pretty damn bad!" McKay wrung his hands as he looked back toward the window to the hangar. "We're going to need to override it from down there, perform a manual shut down."
"All right," John announced, "Grodin, give me your earpiece."
The British scientist complied, looking puzzled.
"What do you think you're doing?" McKay's hands stilled, turning red as he squeezed them tightly.
"Shutting it down." John wiggled the ear piece around until it fit.
"That 'we' was in the formal sense, I didn't actually mean you and me—"
McKay's mouth worked silently before he finally sputtered. "You don't know how."
"That's why you're going to talk me through it."
"What? No, you can't possibly—"
"If it overloads, McKay, how big will the explosion be?" His jaw snapped shut, and John didn't hear the barely muttered reply. "What was that?"
"I said it'll take out the entire hangar—probably the whole R&D wing if it triggers a secondary explosion!"
"Then it's getting shut down. Now talk me through it."
"Fine!" Rodney snapped, snagging an earpiece out of one of the other attendant's ears. "You are insane, I hope you know."
"Everyone needs to get out of here," John aimed the order at Langham, "and start evacuating the rest of the building!"
Langham cut in, "Sheppard, you can't just—"
John didn't have time for this, and directed the angry shout to the whole room. "Now!"
"You heard the man!" McKay snapped. "All of you out unless you want to be incinerated!"
The entire room moved like a panicked herd of cattle, fearful murmurs and pounding of feet able to counter the angry hum of the engine for volume. John watched as McKay physically shoved the slower moving people toward the door. If he wasn't able to shut it down... his stomach did a strange, unfamiliar lurch at the thought and he shook his head at the scientist. "McKay, maybe you should—"
"I'm the only one who's cross-trained on all parts of that engine and the naquadah, so as much as I hate to say it, it probably should be me going down there."
"We're seriously going to have this argument right now?"
"I'm doing it," John snapped. "I just don't think you should—"
"I'm staying! We're running out of time, so sitting around here and debating that point, not so good of an idea, okay?"
"Fine." Even though the strange twisting in his gut continued, John's mind was already sliding under a thin veneer of calm as the familiar instincts and military training kicked in. He pressed his lips into a thin line as he and McKay regarded each other.
"I just want you to know," McKay pointed out sourly, "this is the reason we don't make fun of magnetohydronamics."
"This has nothing to do with magnetohydrodynamics."
"You're right, it has everything to do with people changing things without listening to their highly-paid consultants!" McKay tossed a withering glare over his shoulder at Langham. "I just thought I'd throw that in there for posterity."
"Well, I'm sorry, but certain death tends to make me nervous—forgive me for trying to lighten the mood!"
"Just tell me what I need to do."
The irritability made it easier for John to break away, and with a burst of movement he headed toward the door at the side of the room that led down to the hangar. He took the stairs two at a time, already thinking ahead and seeking out the protective gear that hung outside the door leading to the hangar. He grabbed a pair of ear muffs, welding goggles, and a pair of gloves. Before donning his safety apparel he triggered his radio.
"McKay, can you hear me?"
"Yes," the voice over the earpiece was tinny and strained, but he could hear it, "but I can barely understand you."
"It's going to just get louder," John said as he grabbed the door leading to the hangar.
"I'll manage," came the droll response.
"McKay, if this works, I'm buying you a drink after this is over—no arguments."
"Good, because if it doesn't, I'm coming back and haunting your loud ass."
"Just get in there!"
"Pushy," John couldn't help but smirk, even though his heart was racing as he flung the door open.
The tint on the goggles helped dim the bright flare of the flame and the angry hum was muted by the muffs. Neither of these did anything to protect him from the heat that was building up in the room, despite the tunnel greedily sucking up the tail end of the engine's brightly burning flame.
"There's an access panel on the side of the engine," McKay instructed. "It should be fairly obvious when you get up there."
"Right," John muttered, dashing across the room and trying to ignore the way the heat was stifling the air in the room or that the ground under his feet was starting to vibrate. He reached for the railing on the steps up the scaffolding, managing to feel the heat even through the thick gloves. "Damn."
"It's getting a little warm in here."
"Then you'll be happy to know that being vaporized in the ensuing blast will be downright scorching!"
"I get it, I'm moving!" he shouted into the earpiece.
He pounded up the steps and started searching along the side for the access panel that was indicated. He grew more and more frustrated as sweat started to bead and slip down the side of his face. As much as he had studied the designs on the plane and the engine, it was entirely different trying to find one component sight unseen without any reference materials.
"McKay," he ground out.
"You and I have very different ideas of what 'obvious' is!"
"You just passed it."
"What?" He turned his head to see a figure at the window. "Oh, right."
"Why are you looking at me? Move it!"
He felt around on the engine, lightly running his gloved fingers across the metal.
"Yes, that's the one. There should be a release—"
John's found it, and the panel quickly came off, revealing a mass of wires and circuitry that was going to be difficult to navigate with the gloves. He liked not being burned, though, so he'd manage. "I'm in."
"All right, now listen to me, all you have to do is—wait, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
John stilled his hands, but the final question hadn't been directed at him. He looked up in time to see a series of metal sheets start to slam down in place around the hangar, and the hammering in his chest increased two-fold. "McKay..."
"Get away from there!"
Rodney grabbed Langham and forcefully pulled him away from the console. It was too late, as the last of the blast doors in the hangar slammed over the window and cut Rodney off from his view of Sheppard and the engine, and effectively trapping the man inside. A new, unfamiliar sick feeling had settled in Rodney's gut, and he tried to dislodge it by giving his supervisor an angry shake. "Why the hell did you do that?"
Langham pulled away, looking just as irate. "To contain the blast, of course!"
"You just trapped him in there!" Rodney roared. "If he can't shut down—"
"Then he'll be dead anyway," Marrick's tone as cold as the ball of ice in Rodney's stomach. "Just like we'll all be if we stay in this room."
"He's right," Langham insisted, "we should go."
"No!" Rodney stared at them with wide-eyes. There was no way this was happening. "We can't just leave him there!"
"You said yourself that the engine was building toward an overload," Langham accused.
"It's not there yet!" Sheppard was trapped in there, and if Rodney let them drag him out of the room then the pilot would die for sure. Rodney didn't know why that was almost as terrifying as his own death, but it was. He dashed back to the computer where he'd pulled up all of the schematics he could on the engine. "Sheppard, are you still there?"
"Yes," the voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the engine, "but it's getting a little hot in here since someone shut all the windows."
"It wasn't me I swear," Rodney insisted, not knowing why it mattered that Sheppard believe that, "but I don't have time to override the controls to get them back up."
"Did I mention that it was warm? Because I was understating things to be nice. It's getting pretty damn hot in here right now and it's not cooling off any."
"I know, just bear with me here. Now that you're into the panel you can't just start pulling wires—that could just make things worse."
"Worse? I'm sealed in a hangar with an engine turned bomb, how could it get any worse?"
"Tempt the universe! Go ahead!"
"McKay," Rodney missed the next part from the roar, but he thought Sheppard mentioned the flame from the back of the engine, "I'm starting to get a tan!"
"Well then stop arguing and listen to me," he snapped back. "Sarcasm isn't going to help right now!"
"Fine!" At least Rodney thought he might have said "fine", it was almost too garbled by the background noise.
Aware of the clock rapidly counting down, he referred back to the schematics. "Now it's just a series of switches you need to pull."
There was another noise, which could have been an acknowledgement, and Rodney began to walk through the sequence, trying to enunciate clearly since he wouldn't be able to tell if one of his instructions had been missed. He was acutely aware of the two presences still hovering over his shoulder, despite their insistence on leaving a minute ago. Maybe they realized the unlikelihood of being able to clear the blast radius in time.
He ignored them and continued reciting the shutdown process, hoping that Sheppard was still with him. Rodney read out the final instruction, unsure if the pounding in his ears was due to the angry overload of the engine or the sound of his own heart hammering out a beat in double-time. "C'mon Sheppard..."
An indeterminate, long stretch of time passed as Rodney clutched the console desperately, hoping for some sort of sound other than the one that would signal his and Sheppard's demise. It had to have been an eternity—but finally, he thought he heard the whine abate and the hum start to die down.
"Sheppard?" he asked tentatively.
"I'm here." The breathless reply was almost lost in the background noise of the hangar, but it was there and was alive. "Looks like it worked."
"Are you all right?"
"A little crispy on the edges, but yeah, I'm still in one piece." The ring of laughter was clear over the comm system. "I tell you though, I'm ready for that beer."
Rodney couldn't help but let a grin break through the relief washing over him. "I think I am too."
"I'll just sort of melt into a puddle until you figure out how to open the doors."
"Sure." Rodney searched around the panel until he found the release mechanism. A shudder ran through the building, before the first of the blast shields began to raise back into their proper resting spot.
His hands were practically shaking in the wake of the adrenaline rush that had overcome him. He stared at his quivering fingertips in fascination. Rodney did not consider himself a brave person, despite the gravity of the situation he was caught in. This place had to be getting to him—what had happened to his once oh-so-reliable survival instincts? He did not volunteer to stay behind on suicide missions.
"It seems we owe you a debt of gratitude," Marrick intoned from behind; the smooth tones crawling up his spine like a giant spider.
"You owe it to Sheppard," Rodney ground out, surprised at the unwavering quality of his voice despite the fact that his fingers were still dancing in front of his eyes. "You know, the man you almost killed?"
"I may have acted in haste," Langham reluctantly admitted, igniting a flash of anger in Rodney.
"May have? May have?" He spun around, poking a finger in his supervisor's chest. This whole thing struck too close to home for him to be able to reign things in this time around. "Your reckless disregard for safety could have not just blown up your precious engine and the hangar along with it, but you could have killed almost everyone in this part of the building!"
"It was a mistake—"
"It wasn't a mistake, you moron, it was completely idiotic! I don't just make up these numbers arbitrarily, and you can't disregard them just because you want to make a flashier show for your buddies in the military."
"According to Downstairs it shouldn't have been a problem."
"I don't care what the magical little gnomes 'downstairs' have to say. You can't rush proper science no matter what miraculous breakthrough they come up with five minutes from now!"
"You can't speak to me like that!"
"Oh, yeah? Watch me!"
John had only been half joking about the tan. His entire face felt like he had just come in from a long day at the beach, with all of the tenderness to the touch of a sunburn without any of the fun that went with it. He removed the ear muffs and goggles before carefully stripping off the gloves. The heat had taken a lot out of him, and it took most of his energy to drag himself back up the stairs. He probably should visit the first-aid station before he grabbed his much needed and hard-earned beer.
Thankfully there were no contact burns, but it had gotten pretty hot in the hangar-turned-furnace. Raised voices from within the control room quickly chased away thoughts of discomfort.
"I don't know what you people think you're hiding, and at this point a large part of me doesn't really care," Hurricane McKay was in full force, quickly building toward a Category Five Rant, "but I've had it up to here with being fed piece-meal information when you decide it's all right to trust the people building this machine—"
"That's quite enough, Dr. McKay," Marrick's cold voice cut in, and John flung the door open to see the head of security elbowing between Rodney and Langham. John wrinkled his nose, the still tender flesh protesting the action, as he tried to squash the sudden surge of anger rushing to the forefront.
"And if you ever pull a stunt like this again, I promise you that you're going to need to find a new genius to jerk around." Instead of announcing his presence, John quietly stalked across the room so he could pull McKay away from the other man.
"Sheppard," Marrick flicked a glance at him, "nice save back there."
"Just doing what was necessary," John shot back, "although I had help."
"Yes, you two make quite the team."
"Looks that way." John met Marrick's stare dead on.
McKay finally slipped out of his rage long enough to slide a glance to the hand still resting on his shoulder. When he let it drift to John himself, the scientist nearly did a double take. "What the hell happened to you?"
"I told you it was hot."
"You didn't say it was broiling!" He pulled his shoulder out from under John's restraining hand as he stepped back towards Marrick. "You! Call an EMT!"
He and Langham shared an uneasy glance, but it was Marrick who answered. "I don't think that's necessary."
"Can you see him? Of course it's necessary!"
"I'll be fine," John squirmed uncomfortably.
"What if you have heat stroke?"
"Of course, we have the facilities here," Marrick cut in. "There's no need for him to wait. There's a first aid station just outside of the R&D wing."
"We'll go there," John said and that seemed to mollify Rodney. For two seconds before his righteous anger boiled back to the surface. John reached out and snagged his shoulder once more before Rodney could fly off the handle again. The shoulder was bunched with tension and John gave it a brief tug. "How about that beer, huh?"
"I don't think I'm done quite yet," McKay bristled, crossing his arms as he tried to incinerate Langham with a glare.
"Let's go, McKay," John insisted, "before you get yourself fired."
"That would solve so many of my problems right now I'd almost welcome it at this point!"
"And leave me here with them?" John asked quietly.
His mouth snapped shut and Rodney just glared fiercely at Langham, shoulders still quaking with rage. Marrick was eyeing McKay with a renewed interest that made John's skin crawl, and he wanted to get out of here as fast as possible.
"I bet if we ask real nice Carson will even tag along, that way we can have a whole Lunch Bunch reunion."
That should have elicited a sarcastic reply about lame group names (which John had intended to follow up with 'The Terrific Trio'), but it seemed that McKay had actually been provoked beyond the point of snarling back. Without another word, he stalked off toward the exit, apparently expecting John to follow. He sent Marrick a final warning glance, because that intense scrutiny could not mean anything good, before he slipped into the hallway after the incensed scientist. He almost had to jog to catch up, because McKay's angry stride hadn't slowed to wait for John. He was almost out of hearing range when a snatch of conversation drifting from the room caught his ear.
"So, what do you think now?" He thought he heard Langham say.
"Let me make a few calls," came the reply.
Not knowing what to make of that, John quickened his pace in order to catch up with McKay. The sooner they got to a bar, the better.
A little too late, John realized that inviting Carson along on he and McKay's round of celebration beers might have not been the best idea. He took one look at John's heat flushed face at the first aid station and almost had a conniption fit on the spot. It seemed he was also not too fond of the idea that John had acquired his new battle scars (okay, battle flushed skin) shutting down, in essence, a bomb.
He proceeded to muscle the staff doctor aside and took over the examination himself. Thankfully, he had arrived after the portion of the exam where the doctor had checked John's body for burns. It had taken an entire IV bag of fluids and a few glasses of water before John was even allowed to leave. Apparently in a past life, Carson Beckett may have played the role of his mother in addition to his doctor.
He had been allowed to order the first round of beer, but the fish eye stare the Scot kept pinning him with let John know exactly how much he approved of the idea of John choosing alcohol over electrolytes.
"You're daft, you know that?" Carson prompted.
"That's the third time in the last five minutes you've told me that," John sipped on his beer casually.
"I'm hoping it might sink in soon."
"Not likely," McKay put in. "Anything that works through osmosis has to go through the hair first."
"I wasn't the only one staying behind," John pointed out.
Carson flicked an equally perturbed glance in McKay's direction. "Yes, you're both daft."
"I was simply acting as technical support."
The thought of McKay in a crowded call center, having to take calls on all of the stupidity brought on by "the common man" trying to interact with computers, was more than a little amusing.
"What are you grinning about?" McKay shot him a suspicious look.
"Nothing," John drained the rest of his beer and set the glass on the table noisily. "Nothing at all. What do you say to another round?"
"Ah ah," Carson intercepted his attempt to wave down one of the waitresses. "One's enough."
"I've granted you your one," the Scot leveled him with a look, "but you sweated away a lot of water in there—"
"Yes he did," McKay wrinkled his nose. "That shower didn't do much to help."
"I smell fine," John protested, "and I feel perfectly hydrated."
"You shouldn't dehydrate yourself again," Carson warned, "and I know that by the time you go to sleep you'll probably want something a little stronger to take off the edge from that burn."
"I've had worse," John pointed out, pulling his hand back to his empty beer glass. This earned him an even sterner look, and he sighed and held up his hands, the picture of submission. "Fine. Fine."
Carson nodded his approval at what appeared like winning the argument. Little did he know that John had a plan. "Rodney, I'll trust you to keep him to his promise while I make a quick pit stop."
"What am I? His keeper?"
"Yes," Carson said blandly, and slipped out of the booth they had commandeered.
John waited until Buzzkill Beckett had made a retreat to the bathroom and slipped out of the booth, dragging a protesting McKay up to the bar. "What are you doing?"
"Quick, let's order something stronger before he gets back."
"So he can watch you drink it? Nice thinking, Top Gun."
John had never said that he had a good plan. "Tequila it is then."
John motioned for the bartender to pour two shots. "My treat."
"You bought the beer—"
"Just go with it—it'll be fun."
The two squat shot glasses were set in front on the bar. John shelled out a few bills, and grabbed the glass closest to him. The murky light brown liquid quivered with the sudden movement, but a quick twist of the wrist kept John from spilling any. He held it out in front of him.
McKay just stared at him blankly.
"This is the part where you grab your shot and we toast to the fact that we weren't incinerated."
"I thought we already toasted to that with the beers." McKay's wide-eyed confusion almost drew a sigh from John.
"Okay, okay," he muttered and, as if it were going to burn him, grasped the tiny glass between his thumb and forefinger. His eyes stayed glued to the glass as he carefully raised it up to eye level. "So, uh, I guess to not being dead?"
John nodded and moved his glass to lightly clink against McKay's, since he didn't seem too inclined to move his too far lest he spill its contents on the floor. "To not leaving anyone behind."
"You left the comm on. I heard the exchange between you and Langham."
"Oh," McKay flushed, eyes widening, "I was just—"
"And I appreciate it."
McKay's mouth worked silently, and John had to throw back his shot to hide the grin trying to bubble to the surface. The tequila made his cheeks pucker, successfully disguising his mirth. Looked like he was right earlier; McKay really didn't know how to respond to interaction that wasn't tinted with some sort of anger or annoyance. It was certainly going to make things interesting.
That was all right, John enjoyed a challenge.
He wiped his hand across his lips to clear away the lingering droplets of tequila and indicated the shot glass with his head as if to say 'go on'. McKay downed the shot in one gulp, and wound up sputtering and coughing.
"Christ, that burns!"
John's chest bobbed with the quiet huff of laughter that escaped. "Like it?"
"In that case, Bartender, one more round for me and my friend here." John pulled out a few more bills from his wallet and laid them on the bar.
"Did you not hear me?"
"I'm selectively deaf."
"Why does that not surprise me?"
"What?" he asked innocently.
"I said why does that not—oh, very funny."
"I thought so." He flashed McKay a grin.
"You also think it's a good idea to run toward exploding objects, so I'm not sure your opinion counts."
"It hadn't exploded yet."
"The fact that you have to tack the 'yet' on the end of that sentence is exactly my point."
"Yes, the point is," McKay spared a glance for the fresh set of shots placed on the bar, "smart people run the other way."
"You didn't run either," John pointed out.
"I claim temporary insanity."
"To temporary insanity, then."
John was in the middle of reaching for his shot when an angry Scottish brogue reached his ears. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
"Bust-ed," McKay stage whispered.
"Quick, dispose of the evidence."
"Hurry, he's almost here!"
"They're not my shots."
"You're my wingman, you can't let me down."
"How the hell did I become the Goose to your Maverick?"
"Pretend they're yours!"
"I'm not getting in the middle of this—"
He gave McKay his best impression of a kicked puppy.
"That's not going to work."
John widened his eyes, bunching up his eyebrows up to express how deeply the refusal to help wounded him.
"I... oh fine!"
Shooting John a dirty look, McKay grabbed a hold of both shot glasses, holding them up as Carson strode up to them, glancing between both guilty parties suspiciously.
"I thought you agreed to watch him."
"I agreed to no such thing," McKay corrected, and catching John's continued puppy dog stare, "but these are mine."
"You don't strike me as the blue agave type, Rodney."
"I'll have you know that I am a true connoisseur of tequila."
"Is that why you ordered two shots?"
"I, uh," he flicked a nervous glance at John, "am having an extra one on his behalf?"
Carson crossed his arms. "You want to sound a little surer of that?"
"Oh, I'm certain. See, Sheppard, this is what you're missing out on." And McKay tossed the shot back like a pro. It would have made John's heart swell with pride—if the scientist hadn't dissolved into another fit of coughing.
"A connoisseur, huh?" Carson did not seem convinced.
"Plebian," McKay croaked, eyes watering from either the tequila or the coughing fit. "You know nothing of tequila."
John rubbed his chin, trying to disguise the smile creeping out behind his splayed fingers.
"Then explain it to me."
McKay managed to catch his breath, wiping the water that had gathered at the corners of his eyes. "A true aficionado knows that if you don't choke, it's not a pure blue agave but a substandard agave blend."
"You're full of crap."
McKay shot John a withering glare, not looking one bit fooled by the hand trying to hide his widening grin. "I am not."
"You've still got one shot left in your hand."
"You distracted me with having to explain the finer details of this... fine... alcoholic... beverage."
McKay blanched, and John had to turn away before he collapsed into a fit of unmanly giggles on the spot.
"Perfection such as this cannot be rushed."
"You're awful," Carson pointed the statement to John, whose shoulders were shaking with silent laughter. "How long are you going to make him keep this up?"
"He's not making me do anything," McKay continued, indignation rising. "I'm telling the absolute truth, and you calling me a liar is just hurtful."
Oh, God... if only John had this on tape...
"Rodney, you can't lie worth a crap."
"That's where you're wrong," McKay bristled, actual anger creeping into his tone.
John curiously peeked over his shoulder as the scientist gripped the shot glass tighter between two fingers, glaring fiercely at Beckett. With a stubborn tilt of his chin, he tossed the shot back like it was water. He choked slightly at the taste, but otherwise remained stone-faced. John flicked a look at Carson, who was caught somewhere between being perplexed and concerned at the sudden turnaround.
"Bartender," McKay said firmly, "another round, on my tab."
"Oh no, I'm going to prove to you my status as the king of tequila even if it takes all the Jose Cuervo in this bar!"
"You know Don Julio is a better brand, right?" John whispered.
"Shut up," McKay hissed, "and you owe me!"
"What was that?" Carson asked suspiciously.
"Nothing," they chimed in unison.
He looked less than convinced.
"C'mon, Carson," John tried, "it's been a long day."
"Which should be topped off by bed rest after everything you two went through; not alcoholic shenanigans."
"Only a little bit of shenanigans." John indicated the tiny number with his thumb and forefinger.
Carson gave him a long look and John just shrugged. With an aggrieved sigh, the Scot moved back toward their abandoned booth. The next set of shots was laid out on the bar, and McKay picked one up tentatively.
"Thanks for that." John indicated the retreating back.
"Is that why you almost gave it away by laughing?"
"C'mon, you have to admit that it was a little funny."
"No I don't," McKay muttered, "you could have just told him to stuff his unsolicited medical advice. It's what I do."
"It wasn't exactly unsolicited." John shrugged. "Besides, the Angry Beckett Vein can be scary when it's pointed in your direction."
"Coward," McKay muttered, sniffing the tequila experimentally, recoiling slightly at the odor. "This is disgusting."
"That's because you're drinking the cheap stuff."
"You ordered the cheap stuff to start with."
"I'm on a budget," John lied. "I think you can drop the act, though. He doesn't seem fooled."
"Oh no, I'm playing this one out," McKay muttered and without any warning tossed back the next shot. He winced, but did not sputter this time. "Damn, it still burns."
"You know you've had too much if it doesn't," John pointed out, reaching for the extra one, only to have his hand slapped away. "Hey..."
"Sorry, doctor's orders. Dehydration and all."
"You do know that you have to drive home still, right?"
"Yes," McKay said peevishly, "but I'll worry about that later."
John sighed and held up his hands. "All right... I'm heading back to the table before the vein pops out."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be right behind you."
John nodded and slipped away from the bar, worrying his lip between his teeth. He slid into a spot next to Carson, ordering a water to placate the Scot the next time the waitress came around. It was a little while before McKay rejoined them, sporting a freshly refilled shot glass in each hand. John eyed them carefully, fairly certain that neither were the one McKay had been nursing when John had left the bar.
McKay kicked John in the shin in order to get the pilot to move over and make room on the circular booth. John rolled his eyes and waved to Carson to slide over as well. It would have been a lot easier on all of them if Rodney had just seated himself on the other side but it seemed nothing was ever easy with him involved.
"Having fun?" John asked dryly.
"Oh," McKay set his shots down on the table carefully before gracelessly plopping into the booth, "a blast."
"Good," he intoned.
"No, it's great!" McKay raised one of his shots to the table in general. "To our illustrious employer and their 'ask all you want, but we still won't tell' policies that are probably going to kill us all."
"Cheery toast." Carson massaged his temples with two fingers.
Without waiting for anyone to clink their glasses with him, McKay downed the shot. He barely grimaced this time, fingers already edging toward the next glass.
"Going a little fast, aren't you, Tequila King?" John asked.
"Not fast enough if you ask me."
"Exactly which round are you on now?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
"That's usually the point of someone asking a question," John shot back.
"Why don't I go grab you a glass of water, Rodney?" Carson cut in. "You must be thirsty."
"Parched. More tequila."
"We'll start with water." Carson pushed himself up with a sigh and gave John a look. "Try to do a better job of playing babysitter than he did."
McKay sputtered, "I told you that was my shot—"
"Rodney, if you're a connoisseur of fine tequila then I'm the queen of England."
"There you go, not believing me again... your majesty."
"I'll be right back," Carson stressed.
"Good plan," John agreed. As the doctor slipped into the crowd, John watched as Rodney reached for the remaining shot of tequila. "Oh, whoa, why don't we slow down there a little bit?"
"Things are already going too slow as it is."
"You've had at least six shots of tequila in the past hour. I wouldn't exactly call that 'slow'."
"I'm not talking about the tequila," McKay muttered, fingers hovering a few inches from the glass.
"Then what are you talking about?"
McKay pursed his lips, glaring at the tequila. "Never mind."
"C'mon, McKay, clamming up isn't going to suddenly make 'it' go faster, or slower, or whatever it is bothering you better."
"What do you care?"
John scrubbed a face across his forehead, wincing slightly at the tender flesh. He didn't quite look like a lobster anymore, but it was probably going to sting for a few days. "I don't know—just try me, okay?"
McKay's gaze dropped from the tequila to the table, one hand absently fondling his watch. John thought that he was going to remain that way, until he finally softly admitted, "I hate it here."
John snorted out the surprised breath, unsure of what to do with the admission now that it had been said. It wasn't a stretch of imagination that McKay was unhappy with his situation, he ranted about it on almost a daily basis. It was just... John didn't do the feelings thing. His recent revelation also revealed that his co-worker had about the same level of aptitude for it.
"You should've said so," John went for oblivious, in case McKay suddenly wanted an out of the confession. "We don't need to stay at this bar—especially since the bartender seems a little too free flowing with the booze."
"No, I mean, I hate it here, working at Vertrauen."
"Well, as you so eloquently pointed out before our alcoholic adventures began; someone has to keep them from blowing up themselves and anyone hapless enough to be reeled into this poor excuse for a project."
"As much as I like not being blown up by Langham's newest idea for 'efficiency', you can't stay just because of that."
"You make it sound so easy."
"No," McKay growled, "it's not."
"Because I've got nowhere else to go." McKay got a faraway look in his eye that John suspected had nothing to do with the massive quantities of alcohol he had just consumed. Nancy had accused him of getting a similar look when he was about to tell her he was leaving for his latest classified assignment. "They've already reassigned my lab at Nellis. Even if I apologized to General Asshat—"
John couldn't stop the sputter of laughter that elicited. "General Asshat?"
"Maybe it was Ashley, Aisley... I don't remember."
"What'd you do?" John redirected the conversation back on track.
"I may have said something unsavory about the man's parentage."
"Is that it?"
"And his grandparentage."
"And that got you on their bad side?"
"It didn't help! He also just so happened to be one of the people in charge of funding after the latest propulsion system backfired on us—literally."
"Okay, I know that the brass can be jerks at times... but is that all there is to it?"
"No," McKay waved his hand, "there was..."
"Sorry," McKay bit out suddenly, "but it's classified."
John frowned. "Classified?"
On the receiving end of the glib answer, John was starting to understand why Nancy would get so pissed whenever he responded to her questions like that. He had to shove down the rising annoyance, because honestly this was none of his business. He was sorry he had asked because a dark cloud had descended across the scientist's face. Whatever the hell "it" was, it wasn't pleasant to think about.
"Look, sorry. Forget I asked."
The shadow evaporated as confusion settled in, and McKay finally dragged his gaze away from the table to peer at him. "About what?"
John blinked. "About... are you even following the conversation?"
"I'm going to ask again, how many shots have you had?"
"That's also need-to-know."
"McKay," he warned.
The scientist's face lit up in a bright grin. "You know, that's the same exact look Asshat got when... wait, his name isn't Asshat."
John began to rub his temples in earnest, ignoring the stinging it elicited from his skin. He had only intended to get a friendly drink. As much as it pained him to admit it, John was a little fond of the acerbic guy, for whatever reason he hadn't figured out. Getting McKay plastered wasn't really part of the plan.
"Asshat... Aisley... Ashley... Acey ... what the hell is his name?" McKay frowned.
John was starting to wonder if he really should start thinking these plans through a little more.
"I'm not very good with names..."
Seriously, rethink them.
"That's okay, because names aren't people... people are people!"
"You're cut off."
"...I'm not very good with people either, come to think of it. That's why I'm expendable."
"Expendable?" It was a familiar sentiment among soldiers at times, but John had never met anyone whose job didn't involve "protecting and serving" who really believed that.
"Well, not expendable expendable, because I've still got my brain. My big brain."
If Carson had any of those "stronger than beer" pain pills, John might not be so opposed to one or two of them right now, because this was making no sense.
"I like my brain," McKay defended to himself.
"I think you may have fried it a little with the tequila."
"I certainly hope not!" The thought of fried brain seemed to frighten him a little. "Losing it would be a devastating loss to science. It'll probably set us all back decades... centuries even!"
"Good to know you don't take yourself too seriously."
"Oh, I take myself seriously. Deadly seriously... wait, that's not right..."
John let out a ragged sigh.
"Dead seriously... no, that's not it either. Seriously deadly... what am I trying to say?"
"I wish I knew."
"Me too... hey, what time is it?"
"You've got a watch on your wrist—or are you drunk to the point where you can't read it?"
"I'm not drunk," McKay declared boldly, putting a hand on the table and rising shakily. He quickly dropped back down. "Okay, maybe a little."
"They say the first step to recovery is admitting it."
"But I don't want to recover. This is much preferable!"
"To what?" John rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
"Ah ah, classified."
"Okay, that's seriously getting annoying."
"Carson's getting you water." At least John hoped he was, and that the Scot hadn't used the opportunity to slip out the back door. John lightly rested a hand over his eyes and leaned into the stiff leather of the booth. Maybe if he just stayed really still, McKay would forget there had been a conversation and John could pretend he hadn't started the whole awkward non-linear mess. Next time he wanted to thank McKay, he'd just cut the guy off in traffic or some gesture that was not overtly friendly.
A light clink to his left forced him to draw the hand away from his face to see that the remaining shot of tequila had just been taken.
And John completely failed at this whole babysitting thing.
"Did he just take that last shot?" Carson's brogue cut through the din of noise surrounding their table.
"Yes." John let the hand drop back over his eyes. "It turns out he's a belligerent drunk."
"You're a belligerent drunk."
"See?" John said blandly as Carson set the tall glass in front of the hopelessly inebriated physicist.
McKay frowned at the glass in front of him. "That's not tequila."
"That's right, genius. It's water."
"I wanted tequila," McKay pouted.
"And I already told you, you're cut off."
"Maverick would never cut off Goose."
"What?" John shook his head.
"I'm your wingman."
John squirmed, because he hadn't meant it in that way, but it was a little true. He wouldn't have been able to shut down the engine without McKay's help. Stupid Top Gun references...
"What is he blathering on about?" Carson's saintly patience was sounding strained.
"Nothing," John put in quickly. "Hey, McKay, why don't you give me your keys?"
"My keys?" He fished around in his pocket, fumbling for a bit until he managed to pull out a few jingling pieces of metal that got caught on the edge of his pocket. "You mean these?"
"Yes," John said patiently. "Need help?"
Rodney blinked owlishly at the trapped keys. "No?"
Without waiting for the drunken scientist to figure it out, John reached out and snapped up the keys. At least that was one problem solved.
"Those are mine."
"I'm borrowing them."
"Oh," McKay paused, "why?"
"I think maybe we ought to get him home," Carson suggested.
"Great minds, Doc, great minds." John sighed and tapped McKay's loafer-clad feet with his own slightly heat-singed tennis shoes. "C'mon, 'Goose', let's get this show on the road."
McKay moved to comply, gripping the table tightly as he wiggled his way off the leather booth with a loud squelch. "Where are we going?"
"Is there more tequila there?"
"I really hope not." John pinched the bridge of his nose, the action eliciting a sharp unpleasant tug on the tender skin.
Apparently the wince did not go unnoticed by Carson. "Are you sure you don't want anything for the night?"
"I've got plenty of Tylenol back at home." John shrugged, shifting uncomfortably as Carson's brows scrunched up in concern. "If it's worse tomorrow I'll let you know."
"Aye, you better."
McKay started to wander away and like an ingrained habit, John reached out and snagged the sleeve of his shirt, halting his progress toward what John assumed could only be the bar. He furrowed a brow at the hand clamped to McKay's sleeve, but quickly shook off the strange familiarity of the action.
"What about your bike?"
"I'll pick it up in the morning. No need to make two trips since we're going to the same place."
Carson nodded, and John used his fistful of shirtsleeve to wrangle the scientist in the direction of the exit.
"Are you sure—?"
"I've got it, Carson," John called over his shoulder, having to tighten his grip as McKay started veering toward the bar. "We're heading that way."
"Yes," John ground out as he managed to get them out the door into the cooling night air.
The sun had just set, night quickly seeping away what remained of the desert heat in the middle of November. John scanned the parking lot, finally spotting the tiny blue Honda Fit parked far away from the other vehicles, as if coming into proximity of another car might ding the paint.
"A little paranoid, aren't you, McKay?"
"Always," McKay proudly stated, taking a bold step off the curb.
His drunken coordination did not anticipate the parking stop waiting for him below, and John had to use his other hand to grab another handhold on the man to keep him from taking a spill. This resulted with an armful of grinning McKay. John rolled his eyes up to the sky, silently begging for patience.
"Whoa, that was close."
"Yes, those curbs are tricky."
"They are... but you showed it."
"Yes, I did."
"You're so cool."
"Car. Now." John continued to wrangle the other man toward the vehicle, hoping to cut off any more drunken rambling.
"Hey, how do you get your hair to do that poofy thing?"
"Car," John insisted firmly.
"Oh, look! A quarter!"
Rodney was not drunk.
Maybe a little tipsy, but not drunk like Sheppard kept saying.
It was perfectly normal for him to spend a car ride in his own passenger seat trying to remember the words to the Macarena, after all it was his car, and he could make up whatever rules he wanted. It was also within the realm of ordinary for Rodney to not remember exactly which building in the apartment complex was his. After all, they all looked the same, and obviously Sheppard knew the way because he corrected Rodney's course as he started to head towards the community pool.
The stairs had been a little tricky. Rodney didn't remember the steps being so high, and he had wound up using the railing like a mountaineer's rope, scaling the stories with caution and care. The peanut gallery behind him had not needed to chime in false encouragement and try to speed the process up by taking his elbow. He was perfectly capable of climbing his own stairs, and did not need to be walked to his door like a teenage girl coming home from her first date.
"You nearly walked into the pool, and you know Carson would have my head if I let you drown because you developed an independent streak all of the sudden."
And the sarcasm in that response was more than called for.
"Just keep going. You've got like four steps left."
"We're not taking a rest break, it's a whole four shuffles to your door."
"Move it, McKay. Some of us plan on going to work in the morning."
Well, Rodney wasn't planning on skipping. He had too much work. Too many questions still unanswered.
"Look, there we are, top of the steps. Was that so hard?"
It kind of was, but Rodney wasn't going to tell him that. He shuffled toward the door, hand dipping into his pants pocket, fingers feeling only the soft cloth lining his slacks instead of smooth metal. He used the other hand, digging into the opposite pocket to continue his search, but it too came up empty.
"That's odd," he mumbled, shoving both of his hands in his back pockets, fingertips groping for the missing items.
"What are you doing?" Sheppard sighed.
"I think I lost my keys."
"You mean these?" Sheppard held up the ring dangling with assorted keys. "The ones I've had since we left the bar?"
"Gimme those." Rodney held out his hand expectantly.
"You're awful pushy."
"I need to open the door—need keys to open the door."
"It'll take me like two seconds—"
"Whatever," Sheppard muttered and forked over the desired objects. "Just hurry up, I really do want to grab a few hours of sleep before tomorrow."
"Go then." Rodney shuffled through the various keys until he found the shiny shaped piece of nickel that would let him into his humble abode. "I don't need you here for this."
"You tried to perform the Macarena in a moving vehicle."
"So?" Rodney asked testily as he unsuccessfully tried to jam the key into the lock. For some reason it wouldn't fit. Which was odd because it worked this morning... "What's wrong with this thing?"
"That's your car key."
"I knew that." He held the key ring back and began to shuffle through his choices again.
"Need a little help?"
"I am a grown man, and I can open my own door without ashishtance."
A muffled trill filled the night air, and Rodney paused in his searching to try and identify the noise.
"It's my phone," Sheppard muttered, digging into the pocket of his jeans. "Who the hell would be calling at this hour though..."
He finally managed to free the phone and peered at the caller ID, face darkening with a conflicted frown, almost as if Sheppard was both hopeful and suspicious at the same time. Or maybe Rodney was (a little) drunk and projecting his own feelings. For the life of him, Rodney still hadn't figured out why Sheppard was putting out such an effort tonight. The only possibility he could come up with was perhaps gratitude for helping with the engine/suicide run, or he wanted to make sure Rodney stuck around so the engine wouldn't blow up when it was time for Sheppard to climb into the cockpit.
There was a tiny (drunk) part of him that sort of hoped there was no ulterior motive, lack of logic be damned.
"I have to take this." Sheppard certainly did not seem overjoyed by the prospect. "Don't let me stop you."
Rodney shrugged and continued to flick through the different keys. It would be easier to figure out which one was correct if he didn't have to keep trying to stare through the stupid glasses. He plucked them off his face and his focus improved considerably.
"What? I can't hear you." Sheppard shouted into the phone, pressing a finger into his ear as if that might improve the sound quality of the call. "Hold on, let me see if I can get a little better reception."
Sheppard turned to look at Rodney. "I'll be right back."
Sheppard shook his head, and made his way down the stairs toward the uncovered landing between floors. Halfway down the stairs he called over his shoulder, "Let me know if you ever remember how to work your keys."
Rodney found it was extremely difficult to simultaneously try to work the confounded keys and flick Sheppard off, but he gave it his best shot. Finally, though, finally he found the correct one and it slid into the lock on his second attempt. Holding onto the door, he tried to turn the lock, but the knob was already twisting under his hand. Which was really odd because Rodney had always been a little paranoid about locking his door each morning.
He pushed the door open, the entire place awash in darkness except for the light streaming past the blinds that covered the balcony's sliding glass door. He nearly tripped on something he had apparently left out that morning, and he barely caught himself on the wall. He was also going to need to start picking up after himself. Leaving doors unlocked and things strewn about the door—not exactly the safest of practices.
His night vision wasn't the best, so the prospect of tripping through his mess to reach the bedroom wasn't appealing and—wait, light switch.
Rodney groped along the wall, hand finally meeting the switch. He flipped it on, momentarily blinded by the sudden brightness. His eyes adjusted to the light and he was greeted with chaos.
All of his research papers were strewn about the place. The chairs to the table in his dining room were tipped over in someone's haste to tear the rest of the place apart. Almost nothing was left untouched, from the pillared candles VerTech's interior decorators had set up on the bar separating his kitchen from his living room to his collection of DVDs that had been crammed into one of the now-off-kilter bookcases in his living room. There were even several large gouges in his couch, stuffing spilling out as if someone had been looking for something hidden within the cushions.
He blinked, gaze drifting down to the object he had tripped over. It was the lamp shade, partially crumpled from where his foot had crunched it. The base lay on its side on his end table, clear on the opposite side of the room. Rodney gently pushed the lamp shade aside with his foot and ventured further in, heart hammering in his ears.
He had to move carefully, as he slipped on one of the loose pieces of paper on the floor and nearly lost his footing in the process. "What the hell?"
His bedroom door was wide open, and a flicker of movement caught his eye. He started moving forward, until he realized the shadow moving in the darkness was actually a silhouette of a person. Seeing as Rodney lived alone, shadowy figures rummaging around his bedroom probably wasn't a good sign. Neither was the fact that aforementioned shadowy figure was now trapped as there was only one exit out of this place.
An exit that Rodney was currently blocking.
Rodney was drunk, mental reflexes slowed by the alcohol, but he wasn't stupid. As soon as he figured out what was happening he was backpedaling, trying to get out of the way as the figure emerged from the bedroom. At first, his alcohol addled mind identified the figure as a ninja, covered head-to-toe in black. Of course, Tucson, Arizona was not notorious for its ninja attacks. The American Southwest was not exactly a hotspot of Japanese culture, and aside from that, he was wearing a ski-mask, which was not exactly the appropriate garb, and—and this was not the time to be thinking about this because the ninja/bad guy/intruder was still moving, straight toward Rodney in fact.
His feet couldn't move fast enough, the black robed figure bearing down on him. There was something tucked underneath the man's arm, and with a fast oncoming sobriety due to the spike of adrenaline Rodney was able to recognize that it was his personal laptop. "What do you think you're doing with that?"
Not exactly the brightest thing to say to the man in a ski-mask, but that was Rodney's laptop. He had years of research, papers, and theorems on the hard drive. He had backups in storage, but not of his most recent stuff. Someone was about to steal his thoughts and that was unacceptable.
Rodney made a grab for the laptop, but forgot about the papers on the floor. His foot slid out from under him. He supposed it was his saving grace as he avoided the elbow that probably would have smashed his face against the wall. He slid along the floor, wildly groping for something to stop his fall. His fingers grabbed a hold of the closest thing, which also happened to be the arm of his attacker.
Dark, angry eyes narrowed behind the mask, but unfortunately Rodney's alcohol-dulled reflexes prevented him from being able to avoid the next blow. A blossom of pain to the back of his head was accompanied by an explosion of stars behind his eyes. The world descended into such a dizzying mix of color and pain that it was actually a relief when darkness rolled up to greet him.
In retrospect, John really should have let the call go to voicemail. Just like growing up, Dave cut through all the conversational niceties and went to the heart of the matter. A matter John was trying very hard to avoid until the last possible moment. It was one thing to start talking to his brother again, but this... this was too soon.
"No," he said into the phone again, firmly, "no way."
"John, you said you were ready to put the past behind you."
"I didn't mean at this very second," John shot back. "Look, I want to try to... to... I don't know, I don't think this thing with Dad is fixable—"
"Look, just because you and I are talking doesn't mean that he's even ready for it."
"It was his idea."
"Do you think I really want to be caught in the middle between you two again? It's bad enough I'm forced to play middle man—"
"Then let him make his own damn invitations," John spat. "And that is exactly why the answer is no to Thanksgiving."
"You're being childish."
"I'm not being childish, it's way too soon—for both of us—to spend a forced holiday together."
"He wants this."
"I'll believe that when he has the guts to pick up the phone himself and do his own dirty work."
"And exactly how many times have you called him."
John stilled, because damn it, that sort of twisted logic almost made sense. Almost, because they were still dealing with Patrick Sheppard, and to say that things between he and John were strained was putting it lightly. Angry, ugly accusations echoed in the back of John's mind as his mother's still face stared up at him.
"I'm not calling that son of a bitch and you know that," John growled. "If he wants to talk, fine. If he calls, I'll pick up the phone and hear him out, but I'm not flying all the way to Virginia so I can walk into an ambush."
"He's changed, John..."
Light suddenly streamed from above, and John glanced up to see that McKay had apparently gotten the door open. Finally.
"I'll believe that when pigs fly," he returned, leaning against the railing as he watched the open doorway. It remained wide and open, practically welcoming anyone walking by to stroll on in. John frowned. McKay was a little too paranoid to do something like that. Maybe he was drunk enough to the point where he let down his guard.
"I know it's next week, but surely even the slave drivers at Vertrauen Technologies gives their prestigious test pilots Thanksgiving Day off."
What almost sounded like a shout came from the apartment and a familiar prickliness made the hairs on the nape of John's neck rise. "Dave, I think I need to let you go."
"We're not done yet—"
"I already told you," he ground into the phone, "right now is not the best time for this conversation."
"Then when is?"
"Not now. Look, something's going on—"
"Something's always going on, John. Apparently whether you're in the military or not."
"Damn it, I don't have time for this," he snapped into the phone. "I will call you back tomorrow—"
There was a loud yelp, followed by what was unmistakably a crash. Without another word to his brother John ended the call and pushed away from the balcony. Maybe McKay had just slipped on something while trying out his new version of the Macarena, but that wary tingly feeling at the base of his spine dismissed the glib explanation. "McKay, what the hell is going on up—"
A dark figure burst through the doorway, the light spilling out behind him obscuring any recognizable features in shadow. The broad, muscled shoulders and a frame that rivaled John for height dispelled any notions about the man being McKay. The tingling in his spine gave way to a cold dread that settled in the pit of his stomach.
He started for the steps, intending to stop the figure before he got too far away, but he was already moving, trying to bypass John. A quick flash of silver tucked under his arm let John know that his intentions in the scientist's apartment had been anything but pure.
And if John knew anything about geeks, it was that you didn't touch their computers. McKay was going to be pissed. "Oh, no you don't!"
He grabbed a hold of the retreating figure with a two-fisted grip, applying all his force to the move. The figure stumbled backward and John loosened one of his hands to grab at the mask hiding the man's face. It was the wrong thing to do.
His opponent twisted his massive upper body, so that he could use the arm not busy holding onto the laptop to lash out toward John. Sheppard's ears rang as an elbow drove into his cheek, but he pushed the pain away and groped until he managed to grab a fistful of the intruder's shirt.
"That's not yours," John hissed through clenched teeth. "Now give it back."
The only response John got was that same free elbow trying to drive back into his stomach. It landed hard, air whooshing out of the pilot's lungs, but he held onto his grip even as he staggered backward, dragging his attacker with him.
John had almost caught his breath, ready to shift his tactics, when he realized that he wasn't so much as dragging the other man but actually letting himself be pushed into a worse position as the man drove his body weight into the action.
John's lower back met the railing of the stairway landing hard, the metal biting into his back as if it were a second opponent. There was definitely going to be a bruise there in the morning. The distant clatter and crack of something hitting the pavement below told John that his cell phone had become the first casualty in this fight. It looked like Dave was going to have to wait to finish chewing him out.
Face grim with determination, John tried to dig his heels into the cement of the landing and with all of his strength shifted his death single-handed death grip to a hard two-handed shove as he tried to free himself from the trapped position. "Get off."
A low, harsh chuckle met his demand, and John redoubled his efforts. His attacker shifted, movements limited by the laptop he held in a death grip. However the movements he did use were calculated, forceful, and had the mark of a trained killer. It was the type of thing John picked up on instantly because it was a very military style of fighting, not that of an ordinary thief.
And like that he shifted tactics, because there was something very wrong with this situation.
He snarled, giving no quarter as he twisted and used his hands to brace himself against the railing as he lashed out with his lower body. One leg moved to entwine around his opponent's, anchoring them together as John used his other knee to drive an angry thrust into the unprotected stomach.
The laptop clattered to the ground as the black-swathed figure doubled over. However he now had the use of his other arm, and was already using it as a fist rocketed into John's ribs. He was unable to contain the groan, but his mind was filing the pain away to be dealt with later as he freed his hands and shoved back. They grappled, twisting and turning until they had switched positions and John had pinned his opponent against the railing.
He didn't bother checking the grim, satisfied smile as he leaned forward, thrusting an elbow under the other man's chin.
"Who the hell sent you?"
Dark glittering eyes that had been narrowed in concentration and fury widened momentarily in surprise at the question. He might not be a braniac like McKay, but John wasn't stupid. A man with fighting skills as honed as this was likely acting on someone else's orders, but why the hell someone would break into McKay's place was beyond him.
The pressure against the other man's windpipe increased two-fold as a curtain of fury descended over John. "I asked you a question!"
Once again, his only answer was a deep throated chuckle, somewhat strained by the pressure on the dark figure's throat. And thinking of McKay reminded John that he had heard a painful yelp before his opponent had appeared in the doorway. It had better have just been a yelp of surprise. John's quick glance over his shoulder was his first mistake, as it gave his opponent an opportunity to break the hold on his throat. Two meaty hands dug into John's shoulders, and once again they were grappling, dancing on the tiny landing as each fought for the upper hand.
John's movements were punctuated with adrenaline and anger, which led him to his second mistake—letting the influx of rage control his moves instead of channeling it into the blows. He swung hard, and the other man grabbed his fist, twisting John's arm behind his back. The angle gave the man all the leverage needed to drive John back to the railing, this time the metal marking his stomach as the brute shoved all his force into John's trapped arm. The abused muscles protested, and he grit his teeth to keep from crying out.
His modicum of control snapped back into place then, and John relaxed every muscle in his body. This seemed to confuse his attacker because the grip on his shoulder loosened. Wasting no time, John rocked back, using his skull as a battering ram, feeling it connect solidly with the other man's chin.
He twisted around in time to see the eyes behind the ski mask narrow dangerously and a massive shoulder drive right toward him. The force caught him in the chest, hard enough that when his back met the railing, instead of stopping him, he tipped over.
Freefalling was a lot like flying, except there was absolutely no control over his descent, as he was completely at the mercy of gravity. It was a wild tumble, with John's hands flailing desperately, trying to grab a hold on something other than air. If the engines stalled on him while in the cockpit, John at least had things that he could do while he plummeted toward the ground. He felt strangely naked in the uncontrolled descent; he had no instruments to help him, no stick to pull up on, and no parachute to deploy.
He jerked to a stop as one of his hands managed to grab a firm hold of one of the thin bars lining the railing. The motion almost wrenched his shoulder out of its socket, and he didn't bother biting back the cry this time. He groped wildly with his other hand until he managed to get it on another bar, providing a more solid anchor to his position. His hands were already slick with sweat, and he could feel his grip loosening even as he strained to pull himself up.
Through the bar's railings, John could only watch as the masked figure scooped up the laptop. He was barely spared a glance as the thief checked his pilfered item for damage before sprinting down the stairs. It was just as well, as John had more pressing things to worry about at the moment.
He tried to heave himself up again, his muscles quaking with the effort to try and fight the effect of gravity on his body mass, wrenched shoulder sparking with pain. He managed to hook an arm around one of the bars, metal digging into the crook of his elbow as his weight tried to drag him back down.
"McKay!" He shouted, because the damn door was still open so surely he would be able to hear. "Some help would be greatly appreciated!"
John managed to hook the other elbow around another railing, relieving his aching hands of the pressure, although the new angle did little to ease the angry twitching in his shoulder. With the exception of John's labored breaths and the distant sound of traffic a few streets away, the night was silent.
"McKay!" He called again, this time a little more desperate as his feet dangled in the air helplessly, metal biting into the arms gripping the railing.
Only the ragged breaths he drew met his request, and a new fear that had nothing to do with a two-and-half story fall worked its way up from his gut. The scientist was not a quiet person, and even drunk should have already offered his opinion on the whole laptop theft situation about fifteen times already. He didn't know the meaning of 'shut up'.
There was still no answer, and John's struggles began anew. He was fueled by a purpose beyond himself now. Heaving all of his strength, he gripped the railing with his forearms, and levered his knees up until they met the underside of the landing. His abs flexed and groaned with the effort, but the new position allowed him to shift his death grip to a better position for climbing.
Very carefully, his entire body almost shaking with the effort, he managed to pull his torso higher to a position where he could lever one of his knees to the narrow space between bars. The other knee soon followed, and he shakily pulled himself over the rest of the way and collapsed into a heap onto the safety inside of the railing.
And it was still quiet, aside from his heaving, ragged gasps for air, but the silence was a bad thing in this case. He heaved himself up and lunged forward, making it about two steps worth before collapsing into the railing, still trying to regain his equilibrium. His shoulder was not happy with the spill, but he couldn't take the time to catch his breath because that angry tingling in his spine told him something was really wrong.
Tamping all of the pain and breathlessness to the back of his mind, he climbed up the stairs as fast as his abused muscles would allow. Bursting through the open doorway, at first the only thing he could see was the mess. The intruder had been thorough, and practically ripped the entire apartment to shreds. John's eyes tracked from upended chairs and overturned lamps, and when he finally saw the prone form he had to force himself to breathe.
In his haste, John nearly slipped on the novel's worth of paper that was strewn about the floor. He dropped to the other man's side, two fingers automatically searching for a pulse. The steady throb that met his touch was almost as relieving as having solid ground under his feet. He continued to lightly probe for injuries and when his hands found a large lump on the back of the scientist's head, it elicited a groan. Immediately, John's hands stilled.
"Looks like you're still in there." And if the response was laced with more relief than sarcasm, no one said anything.
The scientist's eyes fluttered, revealing a dazed expression as he began to regain consciousness.
"That's it, Rodney, wake up."
When the scientist had a hard time figuring out where to focus, John snapped his fingers in the air. "Hey, hey, look at me."
"Yeah, it's me."
The confused look wasn't evaporating, and the queasy feeling in John's gut returned. "Do you remember anything?"
"Ninja," he slurred, "attack."
"Nin—no, there was no ninja. Just a thug dressed in black."
"Oh," Rodney's eyes began to droop, as if he were having a hard time staying awake, "that's nice."
"Hey, no, none of that." John lightly jostled the other man, also jostling his shoulder in the process. His request of "stay with me" was a little more filled with pain than John would have liked.
"Damn it, Rodney, no. Stay awake!"
"Because you've had enough alcohol to kill a small animal and possibly a concussion on top of that. I'm thinking that's not a good thing."
"Yeah," he agreed tiredly, "probably so."
With his good arm John reached into his pocket for his phone, only to remember that it had met its demise on the pavement during the struggle. He cast a desperate look around the ruined apartment, finally spotting a phone with its receiver knocked off the hook, beeping its protest in a loud monotone. "Do me a favor."
"I'm going to call the police—"
That seemed to disturb the injured man more than the fact that he was injured, and John laid the hand from his good arm on Rodney's shoulder to keep him from trying to sit up. "And the EMTs."
This from the hypochondriac? No, that bastard could not have scrambled Rodney's brain that much. "Just stay awake for me, okay? I'll make it as quick as I can."
"Only when I need to be." He summoned what he hoped was a cocky grin. "Why don't you recite the periodic table or something to stay awake?"
"C'mon, McKay, I need to make that call."
"Fine, you do that," Rodney's eyes started to drift shut again, "I think I'm just gonna... sleep..."
It was too late as he was already out again, and none of John's shoulder jostling or light taps to the face would rouse him. The only thing the movements earned John was an injured shoulder pulsing a steady, angry beat in time with his heart. The steady rise and fall of Rodney's chest was only a small comfort against the rising tide of concern threatening to overtake John as he found the phone and began to dial for help.
The world was spinning, languidly shifting in and out of focus as something bobbed in and out of his field of vision. Everything was a low, hushed murmur as voices conversed about something incoherently but in a very grim manner. He tried to bat at the thing hovering in his face, but someone just seized his hand and gently pushed it back down.
The murmur started to gain coherence and he caught the tail end of one of the voices talking, "...looks like he's coming around."
Rodney thought he heard a relieved "Finally!" from somewhere to his right, but his vision swam again and he had to close his eyes as a wave of nausea threatened to overcome him. A vaguely familiar voice spoke to him soothingly. The wave passed, and he cautiously tried opening his eyes again.
"That's it. Dr. McKay, look at me."
He focused on the, ah, it had been a face, bobbing in his field of vision again. The soft feminine features were not altogether the most unpleasant thing to wake up to, and the concerned brown eyes peered at him closely. "Pupils aren't dilated, that's a good sign."
Rodney tried to sit up, but his stomach lurched and he dropped back to the soft cushion with a groan...
He was dimly aware that the murmur of conversation had quieted as he identified that he was currently lying stretched out on his couch. Or what had once been his couch, he amended as he eyed a large rip near his head.
As he came closer to consciousness, he was able to recognize the next voice as Sheppard's. "How is he?"
"Terrible," Rodney groaned.
"There's no bleeding," the woman remarked, "and there doesn't seem to be any neck injuries. Dr. McKay, do you know where you are?"
"My apartment," he muttered, glancing around to see that Sheppard was hovering near the doorway with another individual in what appeared to be a police officer's uniform. His focus narrowed on Sheppard. "And you called the police?"
"Good one, Einstein," the relieved tone belied the sharp words. "Nice of you to join us."
"Did he get away?" Rodney couldn't help but let his eyes linger on the torn up state of his apartment.
"Oh yeah," Sheppard seemed to follow the line of logic, though. "Not for lack of trying, though."
Rodney frowned, unsure of what that meant, or why Sheppard's movements seemed so stiff as he and the officer walked over. Or for that matter, but it could have been from the hazy vision, why it appeared like the pilot was wearing a sling.
"Dr. McKay, I'm Detective Lorne," the dark-haired officer introduced himself with a stern look flicked in Sheppard's direction. "I'll be working your case."
He blinked, not sure if he was seeing things correctly, and then blinked again. "Detective Lorne?"
"Yeah," Lorne flicked open a notebook, not quite meeting Rodney's eye, "we came as soon as we got the call."
He bristled and carefully pushed himself up, much to the consternation of the woman attending to him. He glanced at her, the nametag on her EMT uniform identifying her as "Frasier". He wasn't able to contain the derisive snort.
"You don't think this is a little overkill?"
"Overkill?" Sheppard pinned him with a look. "Someone attacked you."
"Well, uh," Rodney squirmed, "there is that."
"He also broke into your apartment," Lorne picked up the narrative, "stole a laptop from what Mr. Sheppard tells us—"
Oh, god, his laptop... he'd almost forgotten. He fingered his pocket and pulled out the glasses that had somehow managed to survive the scuffle fully intact. Small favors. Lorne kept droning on, ticking off various offenses as if that were going to make this whole business that much more official. The blissful ignorance of unconsciousness was sounding more and more tempting as time passed.
"Can't we just do this later?" he finally asked, tiredly. "My head is killing me."
"We have just a few questions," Lorne said, ignoring the stern glare Frasier was giving him and turned to face Sheppard. "You can go if you'd like. If we think of anything else, we have your number."
"I'm good," Sheppard responded.
"I'd really like to speak to Dr. McKay alone, if you don't mind—"
"If you don't mind," Sheppard shot back, "I think I'll stay."
"Someone just tried to take off my friend's head." Sheppard stiffly sat on the armrest of the couch, gingerly moving his free arm to cross against the one held in what was a sling. It was an absurd image, but Sheppard appeared to be settling in for a long vigil. "I don't take kindly to that sort of thing. I'm also still a little ticked about the whole being tossed off the stairwell thing—"
"You what?" Rodney snapped with enough force to send his head spinning again.
How the hell had Sheppard gotten tossed off a balcony, and what the hell was with the sling? Trying to figure out why only caused his head to spin more. Be it due to concussion or alcohol, Rodney didn't care because he didn't plan on having either again after tonight. He was also a little confused about the "friend" thing, because he wasn't sure a few one-sided rounds of tequila shooters necessarily a friendship make.
"Is this true, he a friend of yours?" Lorne asked, giving Rodney a measuring, almost disapproving look.
"He's drunk, he doesn't know what he's saying," Rodney muttered, trying to bat away Frasier's insistent hands and the cold something-or-another she tried to press to his forehead.
"I had one beer, McKay," refuted Sheppard with a roll of his eyes. "And if your attempt at Vehicular Macarena wasn't enough to sober up a person, I think my adventures over the stairway railing sure did."
"I didn't figure you'd take too kindly to someone helping himself to your things."
Dear god, Sheppard had nearly been killed trying to save Rodney's damn laptop. A bout of nausea overtook him, and he had no idea if it was due to the hangover, the possible concussion, or something else entirely.
"I think I'm hung over, because this isn't making any sense," he grumbled miserably. He couldn't think about this right now, he really couldn't. "Can I get some water or something before we start this interrogation?"
Frasier managed to produce a bottle of water, and Rodney sipped at it tepidly. Lorne seemed disgruntled at Sheppard's insistence on staying, but there really wasn't anything Rodney could do about that. He kept his answers as quick and concise as he could, which was handy, since most of the experience was still a blur in his mind. And maybe if he just finished this as fast as he could then Sheppard would let go of whatever sense of obligation he was clinging to and go home before he fell off the couch.
"I guess that's it." Lorne flipped shut the book he had brought with him. "We'll give you a call if we find anything."
"Oh, I'm sure you will." Rodney took another sip. "Now, if you all don't mind leaving, I want to sleep until next week."
"I'm not sure I'm too comfortable leaving you here alone," Frasier paused in packing her things. "You have a concussion—"
"You said it was mild," he protested.
"—and how do you know that this guy won't come back?" Some of her professionalism slipped, and he could see real concern shining in her eyes as she looked from him to Lorne.
"I'll be fine," Rodney insisted, "ninjas rarely return to the scene of the crime."
"Which might work if you were attacked by a ninja." Sheppard looked like he was ready to collapse on the spot, but there was an undercurrent of worry to the sarcasm. Rodney found that baffling, but maybe it was the alcohol or head injury making him hear things that weren't there. "I don't think staying here is a good idea."
"Then it's a good thing I didn't ask for your opinion."
"I don't like it."
"What are you? My mother?"
"No, that would be Carson."
"Rodney, you're lucky he didn't have a gun."
"Well, I don't think he'll come back with one just to prove a point!"
"I think he may be right," Lorne cut in.
"Who asked you?" Rodney spat. "Look, all I want is to lie down on my very expensive prescription mattress and sleep for the next twenty-four hours."
His head hurt, the world wouldn't stop spinning, and someone had tried to toss John Sheppard off a balcony because he'd been trying to make sure Rodney had gotten home without killing himself in an alcohol related accident. It was bad enough that he had been dragged into this, but there was no reason for Sheppard to be put in harm's way, horribly mistaken notions of friendship or not.
"What would a little caution hurt?" Lorne asked, putting extra emphasis on the 'caution'. "For tonight at least."
Rodney wanted to sputter in indignation, but that took more energy than he could muster at the moment. He tiredly glanced between the twin stern expressions on Lorne and Sheppard's faces, hating the fact that they were probably right. "I doubt I can find a decent hotel at this hour—"
And that's when Rodney heard probably the most ludicrous thing of the whole night.
"You can stay with me," Sheppard said.
John's apartment was bigger than Rodney's, although it seemed about the same size with the amount of furniture and personal possessions crammed into the space. McKay's apartment hardly had any sort of personal touch and seemed to only contain whatever pieces of furniture the corporate housing had deigned appropriate for the space. John had pulled out most of what he had in storage, and filled as much space as he could in an attempt to make his new home as non-military as possible. His golf gear was neatly tucked into a corner, almost forgotten after the hectic past few weeks.
It was the surfboard that John had mounted on the wall that had captured Rodney's attention. "Exactly how many waves were you planning on surfing in the desert?"
John was too tired to offer up any cracks about catching a few dunes, and instead headed for the linen closet located outside the half-bath. With one hand he sorted through the mismatched linens, feeling every bruise mutter in protest as he shifted restlessly. Frasier's pain pills had thankfully dulled the worst of it, but there were still a few muted protests from his shoulder. Eventually John found the set of twin-sized sheets and an extra blanket, and tucked them under his good arm. As he turned around, McKay was looking at him with a queer expression.
"I'm not taking your bed," he insisted, although he looked a little pained at the thought.
"I'm not offering it."
"Well, that's kind of rude. I mean, you were the one who insisted that we have this little sleep-over, denying me my actual bed—"
John handed over the linens without preamble, hoping to stop the onslaught of words.
No such luck.
"—with a mattress I have a prescription for, mind you. The least you could do is offer."
"Rodney," he said tiredly.
"Just looking at your couch throws my back out for a solid week—"
John pointed to the door at the far end of the apartment, and the action gained the desired effect as the ramble died off. "I have a guest bedroom."
"...oh." Rodney shifted uncomfortably. "Well, uh, good. Just so we're clear."
"Crystal," John muttered, ushering him toward the spare room.
"Why are you doing this?" Rodney asked suddenly.
"This." Rodney gestured helplessly. "You didn't need to do any of it. Especially after getting tossed over a balcony because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I really don't understand."
John was still having a hard time figuring out exactly how the prickly scientist had gotten under his skin, so there was no way he would be able to explain it to someone else. He eyed the doorframe leading to the spare bedroom that he had co-opted for a study, wondering if he needed to answer at all.
"I mean, I'm not sure when we stopped hating each other—"
Funny, John didn't either.
"Because... are we even friends?"
"Yes," he answered without hesitation. That was a little funny, because he should have needed a few seconds to at least think about it.
Rodney blinked, confusion and exhaustion warring on his features. "How did that happen?"
"I don't know," John replied tiredly, hoping that McKay might take the hint and wrap things up so they could both get some semblance of rest.
"I mean, I'm not exactly winning any prizes for my social skills, as much as that pains me to admit. But really—"
"Go to sleep."
"Right," Rodney returned quickly as he shuffled awkwardly into the room. John had already started back toward the master bedroom when a hesitant question caught him by surprise. "Did you just call me 'Rodney'?"
He paused. "Yeah."
"When did you start doing that?"
John didn't know the answer to that either. Maybe he was just exhausted, but knowing why didn't seem that important. It just was, and that was fine by him.
Rodney awoke in a strange bed, with an angry gnome pounding away in his head and the worst cotton mouth in history. He blinked, bleary-eyed, and trying to regain his bearings. The room was crowded, stuffed with bookshelves, a computer desk, and a few posters and pieces of art that had yet to be mounted on any wall. The lumpy twin bed he lay on was crammed into the far corner of the room, as if it were an afterthought to the haphazard decorating scheme. An out-of-place end table served as a nightstand, and someone had been thoughtful enough to leave a fresh bottle of water sitting on top of it.
After ensuring that the safety seal hadn't been broken and that indeed it was a new bottle, Rodney cracked it open. He gulped down several swallows until the worst of his thirst had been quenched. The angry pounding began to recede to a dull ache that was centered in the back of his head. Fingers slowly explored his scalp, and he winced when he discovered the large goose egg.
Hazy images of struggling with a figure in black and a worried face hovering in his field of vision filled his mind, and he quickly dispelled them because they were just making the headache worse. Instead he eyed the bookshelves, stuffed full with a colorful assortment of comics, graphic novels, cheap paperbacks, textbooks on subjects ranging from aeronautics and military history to advanced math, with a few Garfield collections tossed in between. It was like staring in a funhouse mirror of his own bookshelf; the tastes ran along similar veins, but there were odd twists that kept the images from being identical.
Bottle of water in hand, he staggered out of the house of mirrors into the rest of the apartment. He gave a long look to the surfboard mounted to the wall like some sort of trophy as he made his way into the living room.
Taking care to not upset his shaky equilibrium, Rodney turned until he found Sheppard sprawled out on the couch, hair slightly damp from a shower (but still standing tall and proud like a good soldier) and—bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he furiously tapped at the buttons on a video game controller. Dear god, Sheppard was a morning person. That just figured.
"How you feeling?" He pressed a button on the controller before looking away from the television screen and eyeing Rodney carefully.
"Awful," Rodney grumbled and took another tentative sip of his water. "I feel like I got hit by a Mack truck."
"From the size of the guy, I'd say that's not much of an exaggeration."
Rodney hovered where he stopped, unsure if he was allowed to take a seat or if he should just keep standing. He didn't know if Sheppard's goodwill would last much longer, and Rodney should probably take his exit before the welcome was worn out. It was probably safe for him to go back to his own apartment. Lorne and his people would have had enough time to do a thorough sweep, he thought as he swayed a little. Although there wasn't much he could do there but sleep some more or start to clean up the mess that had been left—and he really wasn't in the mood to clean right now.
"Sit down before you fall down." Sheppard rolled his eyes and indicated an easy chair next to the couch.
Gratefully, Rodney collapsed into it, trying to ignore the way Sheppard kept watching him like he was expecting Rodney to crack. "What?"
"Nothing," he muttered, pressing a button on the controller and resumed his gaming. "I called both of us sick in to work, hope you don't mind."
Vertrauen was not something Rodney wanted to think about this early in the day. He settled into the seat further, draining the last of the water as he tried to focus his attention anywhere but at the other occupant of the room. "Langham'll love that."
"Yeah, I really don't care what he thinks."
"Somehow, I got that impression."
"You know what they say about first impressions."
"Like how my first impression of you was nearly on my front bumper?"
"Not exactly," Sheppard snorted softly, mouth lifting up into a wry half-smile as he shook his head.
His eyes were still riveted to the woman leaping around rocks and chasms on the television screen. Rodney tried watching the game, but the shifting 3D perspective on the screen sent his head spinning, so Rodney just focused his attention on the carpet instead. The sling had been discarded at some point in the night, but Sheppard held his arm in a way that made it obvious that it was bothering him.
"Your arm hurt?" he asked quietly.
"Just the shoulder. Frasier gave me something for it last night. It might be wearing off." Sheppard didn't seem too concerned about it, which made no sense. "You up for eating anything yet?"
Rodney shifted, knowing that it was an innocent question, but it seemed like more than that. It wasn't that he didn't know how to accept a friendly gesture, but there was always a price to pay eventually. Nobody did anything for free. Hell, Rodney was only working at Vertrauen because of the circumstances that had arisen after the fallout with Ashley... Aisley... whatever.
He fiddled with the bottle in his hands, wanting to say something intelligent and scathing, but he just couldn't work up the energy. He was tired, he was hungry, his head hurt like nobody's business, and he really didn't understand what Sheppard was expecting to get out of all of this. It had to be something, because no one in their right mind would be okay with nearly getting killed because of their irritating co-worker.
"Hey," the voice was soft, "it's okay if you're not."
Something in the kind, soothing tone made him snap. "All right, that's it."
"We are not doing this."
"Rodney, I don't—"
"I thank you for the bed and for the rescue, but seriously, I don't know what you think you can get out of this."
"Yes, get. I mean, sure, I've got a nice amount of cash tucked away if you're trying to buddy up for that. But you don't really look like you're wonting for much except maybe an interior decorator or something. Maybe you're afraid that the resident safety expert will up and leave—"
"—and you'll be left with the trained monkeys who keep changing security protocols willy nilly, probably right up into the middle of maiden flight if Langham has his way."
"Well, don't worry about that because I've got reasons to stay beyond keeping your somewhat suicidal streak in check, not that they're any of your damn business—"
"Damn it, Rodney, stop for five seconds—I don't expect anything, okay? It doesn't work like that."
"What doesn't work like that?"
The half-smile was a little strained, as if Sheppard had a hard time spitting out anything other than a sarcastic, glib response. "This friend... thing."
And that made no sense because they couldn't be friends. There was no big singular event he could pick out where they suddenly saw past their differences and recognized each other for who they were. That only happened in crappy Hallmark movies, and Rodney's life was far too unhappy to be trapped in one of those. The empty water bottle crumpled in his hand, and he realized belatedly that he must have been squeezing it during his running monologue.
"Just... stop worrying about it so much, okay?"
"But why?" Everything in life had a quantifiable variable, and if he could just grasp onto some small reason maybe he'd be able to somehow find a way to explain this to that eternally questioning part of his brain. "I think there are a lot of people who are nicer to you. Why be friends with me?"
"I don't know." Sheppard shrugged one shoulder, grimacing with the movement. He returned his attention to the television screen, but seeing as how his fingers weren't tapping any of the buttons, Rodney had his doubts if he was actually playing the game. "Look, you should probably eat something before Carson gets here. He's probably going to have a fit as it is. No need to give him any more ammunition."
"I have to go pick up my bike from the bar. He's using his lunch break to take me since I really didn't think you were up for driving."
Since the world hadn't quite figured out how to settle into one even plane, that was probably sound reasoning. He needed to say something intelligent, or at least something more intelligent than asking pointless questions. The gnome in his head was starting to pound a more aggressive rhythm, which was making it hard to concentrate.
"Maybe you ought to get some more sleep." The suggestion was quiet but firm. "You don't look so good."
"Concussions suck," he muttered in agreement, letting his head fall back to the soft cushion of the chair. "Don't mind me, I'm just gonna... lay here."
His mind started to drift, curtain of blissful sleep starting to drop, but something tugged him back to the world of the waking. He cracked open an eye to see that Sheppard was still playing his video game. He was hurting like hell, but that really didn't give him cause to be ungrateful, even if it was what was comfortable and he couldn't quite wrap his head around the implications of what all these grand gestures meant. "Um..."
The fingers on the controller paused momentarily.
"Don't mention it." The gaming resumed and Rodney stared for a few moments longer before letting his eyes drift back shut. "It's probably going to take a few days to sort things out upstairs. It's not a bother, y'know, if you need a place to stay..."
It was a struggle, but he managed to open his eyes into slits. Sheppard was still staring intently at the television, posture rigid as if he were waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop. Rodney took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"It's probably safer than risking what passes for clean in those hotel rooms," he muttered in reply, catching a brief, quicksilver smile before his eyes drifted shut again. He had to be getting soft, so he added, "But only marginally so."
"Only the four star treatment for my guests."
"Quiet. I'm trying to sleep here."
"Funny." The grin in Sheppard's voice probably wasn't a good thing. "That's what everyone says after a night in my bed."
Rodney couldn't suppress the agonized groan. The concussion must have been wreaking havoc on his once sharp mind, because he totally should have seen that one coming.
John really needed to stop underestimating the wrath of Carson Beckett (especially when his health was involved). The Beckett vein was already starting to bulge as John shifted his helmet under his good arm and valiantly tried to school the pain from his features as he jostled the now overextended muscles. His miraculous save the night before had pulled a rotator cuff, and a full night's rest and the pain pills Frasier had given him had led John to overestimate the use he could get out of the arm.
"You shouldn't be driving that death trap with a pulled shoulder. You could have torn it!"
"It's just sore," John protested. "No further harm done."
"I'll be the judge of that," Carson snatched the helmet as well as the keys to John's apartment. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I really needed to get my bike" didn't seem as plausible an excuse now as it had when John had begged a ride off of Carson that morning. He ducked his head, wondering that maybe if Rodney was awake and grouchy he might be able to shift the healer instincts in that direction.
"Oh, no," the Scot maneuvered himself in front of the door, "I want to know how this happened."
"Well, you know when I said I was fighting with the guy who clocked Rodney?"
"I may have left out the part where he threw me off the second story."
"You what?" Carson exploded. "That is not a little detail! How the hell did you survive? Do you have a pair of wings I don't know about?"
"Almost did," John grinned, but it quickly melted away as the Beckett Vein started bulging in full force, "er, if I hadn't caught myself that is."
"Jesus," Carson practically wilted against the wall. "You two are going to make me old early."
"It's not like I asked for flying lessons."
"But you did walk into a hangar with an overloading engine."
"I didn't have a choice—"
"You always have a choice, John," Carson snapped. "You have a choice whether or not to risk your life."
It had been quite a while since he'd been on the receiving end of this lecture. In fact, the last time he had heard it, had been when Mitch—
The thought of his dead friend and the Afghan sands where he'd died dried up any protest John had. Carson seemed to notice the shift in his demeanor and stepped forward, face smoothing out into concern so deep it was almost smothering. John turned away quickly, not caring that the jerky movement upset his tender shoulder.
"Let's see if Rodney's up."
"I don't want to talk about it," he ground out.
"Will you ever?" The question wasn't exactly an accusation, but it didn't hold a lot of hope.
"No," he answered tersely. "It's my business."
"Fine," Carson said brusquely, "let's get inside and make sure your fool self hasn't made that shoulder worse."
The change of subject should have made the tension drain out of him. The sound of helicopter rotors in his mind should have silenced, but if anything the noise only grew louder.
He looked at Carson, wishing that they could just go inside already. "What?"
"Whatever it is won't go away by burying it."
"Talking doesn't help."
"No one said you needed to talk," Carson didn't look at him as he unlocked the door to the apartment. "Just... find a way to keep it from haunting you."
"I'm not haunted."
"Then why are you as pale as a ghost?"
He shoved the Scot aside, intent on escape. Rodney was still passed out on the chair where they'd left him, so the conversation quieted in deference to the slumbering scientist. As Carson tended to his shoulder, John couldn't help but let his gaze drift to the frayed black band on his wrist. It was fairly innocuous, held no sort of connotation to the random observer. Some days John hardly noticed it, he had grown so accustomed to it being there.
On days when the murmurs of ghosts grew into loud whispers, it transported John back into the searing Afghan heat where the weight of a dying friend slung across his shoulders steadily grew heavier, where he stared at two empty coffins being shipped back stateside, and the burning chill of the Antarctic wind refused to chase it all away. With Rodney's quiet snores and Carson's soft admonishments filling his ears, the past seemed both simultaneously close and almost tantalizingly out of reach.
Sunday found the local diner almost jam-packed, with several small groups trying to recover from a hard Saturday night or families trying to catch a quick meal before rushing off to church. The bar was too packed, so Rodney was forced to grab a booth in the far corner just as it was deserted by a loud group of patrons before the busboy had even finished cleaning it. He eyed the puddle of syrup distastefully, as well as the "rag" the busboy used to wipe down the table.
He busied himself with pretending to look at the menu until he heard the squeak of someone settling into the leather in the seat across from him. He waited an extra few seconds before lowering the menu to glare at the new arrival. "You're late."
"You took a booth," a dark brow was arched in response. "I needed to make sure you weren't being watched."
"Well, Detective, I'm sure they would have just assumed that you were checking up on your charge."
"I don't give a damn," he murmured quietly, "I'm sick of this."
"How's your head?"
"It still hurts. And thank you for bringing that up by the way," Rodney sneered, lowering his voice for the next part. "I hope you know that impersonating a police officer is against the law, Major."
That earned him a frown. "We heard the call on the phone—"
"You tapped my phone?" He was expecting that sort of thing from Marrick's people, but not his own.
"We had to make sure you were all right."
"Your concern is oh so touching," he slapped the menu down, "and would have been a lot more handy say, oh, when someone was trying to crack open my skull."
"That was unexpected—"
"A lot of this assignment is unexpected," Rodney snarled, "especially the fact that my protection, and I use that word loosely, is useless."
"No names," he whispered harshly.
"You used my name, it's only fair!"
"You're getting loud."
"It's the concussion talking," Rodney shot back. "You know, the one I got from the thug in my apartment stealing my personal laptop and tearing the place apart?"
"And planting things."
Rodney grew quiet, glancing around suspiciously as if he didn't believe that his handler had truly secured their meeting place before sitting down. "So there is a bug?"
"If there wasn't before, there definitely is now. Siler found one in each room, even one out on the balcony."
"Oh god," Rodney moaned as he ran a hand through his hair, unable to hide the fear starting to grip him, "this is just... I can't live like this. How much longer do I have to keep up this stupid charade?"
"Hopefully not much longer. I think the break-in is a good sign."
"Of brain damage?"
Lorne's expression softened. "Does Frasier need to take another look at you?"
"No," Rodney spat, "I think I'm good. Between her and my own personal Scottish mother hen, I think I have all the medical help necessary."
"Are you sure?"
"I wouldn't have to be sure if you were doing your job."
"I am not cut out for this sort of thing. I'm a terrible liar. It's why I never win at poker, my eye twitches, gives away everything."
"You've done well so far. I don't think they suspect anything."
"Oh really? Is that why that Neanderthal excuse for chief of security won't stop watching me like some bird of prey?"
"They're hiding something."
"What led you to that conclusion? The inexplicable purchase of an entire power grid? The miraculous scientific advancements they've made over the past few years? The strange new elements they just so happened to discover in some unspecified location of the planet? The mysterious informant who told us so before he was killed by 'the mob'?"
"Which is suspicious, yes—"
"But not proof," Rodney stated firmly, because he knew where the conversation was heading. "Still no proof despite the millions of pictures I've gotten."
"Speaking of pictures..."
Rodney pulled the glasses off his face and practically tossed them across the table for inspection. "You can see for yourself, our ninja didn't hurt your precious little camera."
Lorne picked up the glasses, eyeing them critically. "If he did it would take us a while to get you another pair. It was hard enough to source these without tipping off anyone."
Grumbling, Rodney removed his watch and exchanged it for the glasses, placing them back on his face before any of the other restaurant patrons might get curious. Lorne poked and prodded at the watch, before finally popping out the tiny memory card hidden underneath the digital display. "Looks like it's okay."
"Glad you approve."
Lorne heaved a deep sigh. "Can you try to cut back the sarcasm a little bit? It's not like any of us wanted to put you in this position."
"Really? Because that's not how it looked when I was dragged in front of that kangaroo court of generals looking for a scapegoat."
"That was for show."
"It would have been nice to let me know that beforehand!"
"Look, General Hammond said he needed to be sure. We still don't know where the leak is—"
"That's not my problem!"
"It is if whoever Vertrauen has on their payroll tips them off that the contractor they've been courting for years, who they've finally gotten, is actually a spy from the Air Force."
"Spy is such a nasty word."
"Exactly what do you call what you're doing?"
"Corporate espionage—it sounds much less cloak and dagger, and far less likely to get me killed."
"It's the exact same thing."
"That's not helping."
"And what would help?"
"Not having to go back there tomorrow," Rodney muttered, thankful that the place was busy so the noise could hide his growing agitation. "Which from the look on your face, obviously is not an option."
"No, it's not," Lorne shifted the oversized laminated menu in front of his face as a passerby's stare seemed to linger too long. "And you should think about limiting the time you spend with Sheppard."
"Excuse me?" A hard lump started to form in the pit of Rodney's stomach that he was hoping was due to hunger.
"Let's just say that hanging out with him isn't going to help your chances of getting in their good graces."
"What exactly do you mean by that?"
"His military connections alone make him persona non grata as far as they're concerned," Lorne explained, his quiet voice muffled by the menu. "You're not in there to make friends, McKay."
"I know that," Rodney snapped, pretending to peruse his own menu with a practiced noninterest, "and we're not friends."
"Really? Because he certainly seemed to think so."
He stiffened, because the conversation the other morning was still fresh in his mind, even if the bruises from the encounter that brought it on were starting to fade. He stared at the daily special, some sort of heart attack on a platter. "Look, I don't see what this has to do with anything."
"He invited you to stay at his apartment." It was not a question but a statement of fact.
That was none of Lorne's damn business. Rodney bristled, slamming the menu down on the table at the implication. "You're not seriously suggesting what I think you are!"
"Look, you don't have to be romantically involved with someone to have personal feelings compromise your judgment."
"Even if we were friends or more or whatever you're trying to imply, my judgment is not now, has never been, nor ever will be compromised—especially by something as pedestrian as personal feelings."
"I'm a professional."
"Not at this."
"Then maybe next time you guys should hire James Bond to do your dirty work!"
"We would have, but it turned out he was a fictional character."
"Oh... shut up!" He snapped the menu back up to hide his growing agitation. "Did you have anything useful to add to my repertoire of knowledge on this snafu of an assignment or is it just wild accusations this morning?"
"Just be careful. They're keeping an even closer eye on you."
"Oh goodie, because it was only ridiculously smothering before."
Lorne remained silent for several long moments, letting the conversation lapse to Rodney's absent minded finger tapping on the tabletop. He had just started to beat out the opening chords to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony when Lorne seemed to come to the conclusion that he indeed had nothing more to add on the subject. "I'll check in later this week, just to be sure."
"I'm getting a little tired of pancakes."
"I'll figure out something." Lorne set the menu down suddenly and slid out the booth quickly. He paused on Rodney's side of the booth, trying to hide his features in a fake cough. "Just shake your shadow."
Lorne melted into the crowd of a departing group of hung-over partiers before the question was even finished. The answer seemed to appear out of nowhere and was standing at his shoulder, approach as silent as aforementioned shadow. "Hey, Rodney."
He couldn't help but jump a little in surprise, and futilely swatted at the figure's good shoulder with his menu. "Don't do that!"
Sheppard just grinned and slid into the seat opposite him, looking entirely too awake and alert for this hour on a weekend. "Sorry."
"This is seriously getting annoying."
"You'd think after sleeping in my bed you'd be a little more welcoming to my presence."
"...stop bringing that up!"
"C'mon, you know you liked it."
"Do you take some sort of perverse pleasure in making my face turn red?"
"I hate you."
"That's what they all say."
"Seriously, are we joined at the hip or something?" Rodney protested. "Can't I go one place without you showing up?"
Sheppard shrugged one shoulder, the other held stiffly against his chest. Apparently the sling Beckett had insisted on had disappeared between the apartment and here. "I was hungry."
"Get your own damn diner!"
"I was coming here before you ever showed up."
"I'm trying to stake some independence here. We've been stuck together all weekend," he grumbled. "Partly because you hid my car keys."
"Carson said no driving—honestly I'm not sure how you found them this morning."
"Hang what Carson says—and I'm crafty like that!"
"You want me to tell him that? And are we carrying on two conversations at once?"
"Do it and I'll tell him you took your bike here and you've ditched the sling again. And yes we are."
"Snitch—this is getting confusing, let's stop."
"Takes one to know one—and fine."
"That was strange."
"Stranger things have happened."
Sheppard offering Rodney a place to stay, fighting off an attacker, getting hurt and nearly killed in the process were some of the slightly odd things about this weekend. Him extending a hand in friendship after all of that still made no sense, no matter how much Rodney tried to figure it out. His eyes were riveted to the menu, Lorne's words ringing in his ears. Maybe it would be easier if he somehow nipped this friend thing in the bud. It was confusing as hell and he certainly had enough on his mind without another added burden. The only person at risk in this stupid assignment was supposed to be Rodney.
Unfortunately, at some point during their extended, completely manly and platonic sleepover it appeared that he and Sheppard had mind melded, because the pilot sighed heavily and shifted his elbows on the table as he squirmed in the bench seat. "It's a little late for take backs, Rodney."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Please, it's written on your face." Sheppard rolled his eyes as he brought his menu to bear, ready to fend off anything resembling an exchange of those human emotions that his Vulcan kind detested so much. "Get over yourself."
"Hey! You can't just sit yourself down at my table—"
"Are you going to kick me out?"
Rodney squirmed, because he should... but damn it, he didn't want to. Heat flared to his cheeks as he wondered if this was what Lorne was referring to. Surely one breakfast table incident wasn't an indicator of lack of control. Instead of pondering it further, Rodney snapped his fingers at one of the waitresses passing by. "Hello, some service here?"
"Look, I'll leave if it's really that big of a deal."
"It's not a big deal it's just..."
He trailed off as his summons finally managed to bring one of the harried waitresses over. The tense silence was broken by their terse orders. Probably sensing the atmosphere, their waitress slipped away quickly without any attempt at making chit-chat.
"Just what?" Sheppard prompted.
"Nothing," Rodney muttered, "forget it."
"Fine," Rodney agreed, but neither of them had a menu to hide behind any longer, and that only seemed to increase the awkward atmosphere. Rodney fidgeted in his seat, leather squeaking as he struggled to find a comfortable position. The silence was too much, and he found he had to break it somehow. "I really suck at this."
"You could have fooled me."
"Oh, like you're a prize debater yourself, Sheppard!"
Sheppard blinked, looking stonewalled all of the sudden. "I have a first name."
"And it wouldn't offend me if you decided you wanted to use it."
Rodney shook his head, unable to follow the leap in logic. They hadn't been discussing names, they had been discussing... actually, he wasn't sure what it had been about. That was the problem with talking around a subject. It made it hard to figure out what the original track had been when the conversation suddenly derailed.
My name is Sheppard, John to my friends—which you're obviously not, so we'll just stick with last names, huh?
Damn that eidetic memory, giving him reference at the least opportune moment. He swallowed the sudden dryness, really wishing for a menu to hide behind. He couldn't return the gesture, because his very limited experience on the subject had taught him that things like friendship were based on trust.
"I can't." He wished he sounded less stricken when he whispered the words, or didn't feel quite so lost.
He had learned a long time ago that trust wasn't something he could afford to hand out to anyone. Rodney hadn't wanted an assignment where he had to spy on a dangerous company, and he certainly didn't want a buddy to worry about on top of himself. He knew how he had wound up with the first, but for the second he had no clue.
Sheppard was probably reading too much into the past few days, that was all—especially considering the fact that Rodney was lying to every person who worked at Vertrauen, including John...
...damn it. Sheppard.
McKay didn't exactly withdraw into his shell, but he definitely had been reserved in comparison to his normally boisterous self.
Unsure of what had prompted it, John decided to try and give him some space. Well, as much space as he could give a guy who he was carpooling with. It had taken a few days to sort out things to where Rodney could return to his apartment, and while John was fond of the guy, he was also ready to have his space back. Unfortunately, there was the whole carpool thing.
Something that was most certainly not John's idea, more of an insistence on Carson's part (and then the doctor that Carson had dragged him to when John decided to try Rodney's "just ignore his sheepherding excuse for medical advice" spiel). Personally, John didn't see anything wrong with continuing to ride his bike, but the whole medical community seemed to think that his shoulder needed time to heal. The first morning in the cramped car had been just about as awkward as the first time he and Rodney had run into each other outside of work, with John having almost to sit on his hands to keep from changing the radio from the classical station to classic rock.
Thankfully, someone cut Rodney off during the afternoon commute, which prompted both a rant of epic proportions and John's wistful reflection on how if he had his bike he totally could have returned the favor. That seemed to break some of the ice, and Bach and Beethoven had been turned down to a soft background hum as conversation filled the cramped cabin.
Not that John really considered a one-sided rant about how Kavanagh had gotten his degree out of a cereal box conversation, but it was an improvement over the silence.
It was nearing a month since the break-in, and John had obtained his freedom. In celebration, he had spent the night before polishing his clubs so that he could hit the green this weekend and continue to firmly ignore the rapidly filling inbox on his voicemail. Dave seemed to have a hard time accepting "no" for an answer. If the thought of Thanksgiving with his family had been intimidating, the prospect of Christmas was terrifying.
No, John planned on taking baby steps.
Besides, he had other plans; his first and foremost being to drag the hermit out of his cave for some fresh air. John tried to appear nonchalant as he leaned against the doorframe to the small office.
"I can hear you plotting from here," Rodney spoke without looking up from his computer screen, "but you can forget it, whatever it is."
"Whatever what is?" John asked, bobbing his eyebrows in an expression of pure innocence.
"Whatever has you grinning like an escapee from the local mental institution."
"It's just a small thing. You busy this weekend?"
"Yes," Rodney snapped, making several annoyed clicks of the mouse, refusing to drag his gaze away from the computer screen. "In fact, I'm busy right now, so just go away."
"Can't? Or won't?"
"Both." John shifted his position on the doorframe. "You've been hiding out in here again."
"Oh, I have not!" That elicited the desired reaction as Rodney slammed his hand on the desk and finally looked up in annoyance. "I've been very busy, as I told both you and the Mother Hen countless times. I've got deadlines, granted all ridiculous and overly ambitious, but deadlines nonetheless."
"It's been a week since you last graced us with your presence—lunch or otherwise."
"And?" Rodney removed the glasses as he kneaded his forehead with one hand. "I can't get any work done with you two chattering about who won the latest game of whatever the hell sport you two watch."
"Football, basketball, hockey, take your pick."
"Curling—that's not a sport."
"It is too, but whatever, I'm tired and overworked, and I simply don't have the energy to try and be nice and make sure your ungrateful hide doesn't blow up from that stupid engine during maiden flight."
"C'mon," John tilted his head towards the hallway.
"It's break time."
"I don't have time for br... hey, hey, what do you think you're doing?"
John had crossed the expanse of the room and taken a firm hold of the back of the scientist's chair. "The Twinkie King has been ignoring his subjects."
"Carson told me to cut back—"
"And now you're listening to his 'unsolicited medical advice'?"
"Well, no, but—stop that!"'
"You're taking a break, even if I have to roll you and this chair down to the vending machines myself."
"First off, that's called kidnapping, which is usually the next stage after stalking, so congratulations on taking that next big step—"
"I thought we moved past that whole stalking thing."
"And secondly, what the hell do you care if I take a break?" John jerked the chair to a stop, sending the scientist sprawling to the floor with an indignant squawk. Rodney fumbled on the floor, finally managing to push himself to a sitting position and pinning the pilot with a glare hot enough to melt lead. "You suck."
"Let's go." John offered a hand to help him to his feet, which after a few moments' hesitation was accepted, and hauled the scientist to his feet.
"I could file charges you know," Rodney grumbled, grabbing the glasses on the desk as an afterthought before they ambled out into the hallway. "I bruise like a peach."
"Drama queen," John shot back.
"Am not," came the whine.
"Are too," John shook his head. "And are you sure you're busy this weekend?"
"I've got a spare set of clubs, was wondering if you wanted to hit the green with me."
"Are you speaking some sort of foreign language? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Golf? You play golf?"
John couldn't help but chuckle at the incredulous look slid his way. "Why is that surprising?"
"Because, golf is played by like, preppy rich boys. Not... not..."
He just quirked an eyebrow.
"Well, it doesn't really seem to fit the maverick pilot profile."
"Guess I've still got a few surprises up my sleeve, eh, 'Goose'?"
"You know, Goose died in that movie."
A sudden high-pitched shriek drowned out John's reply. Rodney's hands immediately flew to his ears as the sound droned on, and the lighting in the hallway flickered for a moment, before the entire hallway was plunged into darkness.
"What the hell?" John muttered, words inaudible over the wailing shriek and the sound of his heart hammering in his chest. He groped into the darkness, trying to find Rodney.
"Watch where you're putting those!" McKay snapped.
"I can't see you."
"Obviously!" His hand was slapped away. "What I wouldn't give for a flashlight right now."
John's eyes had just started to adjust to the dimness when emergency lighting kicked in, illuminating the hallway in a wash of slowly pulsing red. It gave the once familiar hallway an eerie look, almost like they were trapped on the set of a horror movie. The angry shriek had also died down to a pulsing warning tone, and a prickling of dread ran up John's spine.
"Did someone pull the fire alarm?" Rodney worried aloud and pressed in closer to John, despite his insistence on people minding their hands.
"No." There had been at least one fire drill since John started working at VerTech, but it had been fairly routine and normal. This was anything but. "This is definitely not a drill."
"Then what the hell is it?"
Over the alarm, John could hear something else, the cacophony muted by distance and walls. It set his teeth on edge and, not bothering to mind the distance warning, he grabbed Rodney by the elbow. "Let's get back to your office."
He got no argument for that idea, and they turned and headed back the way they came. As they reached the spot where the doorway to Rodney's office had been, they only encountered a metal sheet, similar to the blast shields in the hangars.
"Seriously, what in the hell?" Rodney wailed, beating a fist against the metal obstruction. "This is so not normal!"
The angry keen of the alarm wasn't able to completely drown out that same cacophony, closer now so that John was able to pick out the sounds of painful grunts of flesh hitting flesh and an angry pounding of feet on the floor. The uncomfortable prickling was quickly rising to an eerie familiar alarm—not too dissimilar to how he felt right before his chopper crashed into the sands of the Margow Desert. Without even thinking it through, he shoved Rodney behind him.
"What are you doing?"
"Stay behind me."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
John didn't answer him; he didn't have time to as an imposing figure in white scrubs burst into the hallway. Whoever it was, he was huge, weighing at least two hundred pounds and towering at more than a good six feet—and was headed right toward them. John tried to press against the wall, maybe give the guy room to barrel on by.
It didn't exactly pan out, because the man just dove toward them. John barely had time to shove Rodney out of the way with a shout to leave before he was pinned by a wall of muscle with crushing force. His head met the wall with a crash and he saw stars for a moment, before it cleared to an angry ebony face snarling in his vision.
"Kree shak shel nok!"
John tried to shove at the other man and ease up on the pressure pinning him against the wall, but the guy seemed to be made of pure muscle and it was all John could do to keep from being crushed by the angry man. Dark eyes glittered with hatred, and John suddenly found an elbow against his windpipe as more unfamiliar, angry words were cursed at him.
He gasped for breath, eyes landing on the strange gold tattoo adorning his attacker's forehead. John's lack of an answer only seemed to infuriate the man more, and his vision swam as the pressure on his throat increased. Dots danced in his vision, he was moments from passing out when suddenly the pressure was released and John crumpled to the floor.
Air flooded his lungs and John lay on the floor, gasping like a dying fish. He was dimly aware of the hulking figure staggering away, but it was only the alarmed cry that pulled him from his stupor. Still gulping precious breaths, John shoved himself up on his hands, trying to locate the source of shout.
McKay had managed to wrap his arms around the tattooed man's neck, probably in an attempt to pry him off of John. Unfortunately this had trapped him into the action as the angry individual had turned his rage onto the scientist. They danced around in a circle, the man trying to shake loose the terrified, but firmly clinging Rodney.
John staggered to his feet at the same moment that Rodney lost his grip and was flung into the wall opposite him. He slid down, dazed and unable to defend himself from the figure towering above him. John rushed forward, barely catching the arm that was meant to take out the downed man.
"Back... off, baldy," John's snarl was more of a croak, his throat sore from abuse.
"Mak tal shree," the man growled back.
"Same... to you!"
They grappled together, the pure strength rippling through his attacker's muscles managing to overpower John and push him back. He dug in his heels as adrenaline pumped through his system. John didn't know who the hell this guy thought he was, but he had chosen the wrong guy to pick a fight with.
A low, agonized moan signaled Rodney's return to the world of the living, and stole John's attention for a few moments. A fist slammed into his solar plexus, and for the second time in a five minute span John found himself back on the floor gasping for air. He dazedly stared up at the hulking figure looming over him. During the fight, the scrub top had ridden up, and John was treated to a grotesque view of a criss-cross of deep looking scars across the man's midriff.
"There he is!"
"Shel kek nem ron!" the man roared as no less than three muscle-bound security men piled on top of him.
John barely had time to scooch out of the way before the giant fell, cursing and swearing in his strange foreign tongue the entire way. John watched as one of the members of the security detail jabbed a large syringe into the man's neck, probably a sedative of some sort, if the slowly drooping lids were any indicator.
"Noc'ri'ton," the man uttered as he was manhandled to his feet, still weakly trying to fend off the men restraining him.
"What the... hell is... going on here?" John gasped out. His lungs were still trying to refill with air, chest heaving and aching with each breath.
"Nothing for you to be concerned with," growled the leader of the three men. He was just close enough for John to read the name "Devlin" on the clipped ID badge.
"Th' hell... it is," John massaged his throat, wishing he sounded a little more threatening and a lot less like Kermit the Frog. "Just what sort of... operation are you... running here?"
Devlin was unable to answer as the tattooed man seemed to find a new reserve of strength and started his struggles anew. It took all three men to restrain and start to manhandle him down the hall.
"Who... is he?" John called out breathlessly, fully intending on chasing them down just as soon as he found his feet.
The angry sucker punch to his chest made it difficult for John to regather himself, as the movement brought an uncomfortable tugging at the rapidly forming bruise. He had almost made it to his knees when a deep, throaty chuckle reached his ears, stopping him cold.
It may have been a month, but John hadn't forgotten the mirthless laugh of the person who had tossed him over the stairway railing. He froze, watching as the still chuckling Devlin and the other men disappeared around the corner, a cold ball of dread forming in his stomach. He had to have just imagined that, because there was no way...
"Oh, god, what hit me?" Rodney moaned pitifully.
Train of thought interrupted, John slid a glance over to see Rodney trying to pick up himself from the boneless heap he had become upon impact with the wall. He eyed the scientist closely, too harried, bruised, and exhausted from the fight to be able to offer much in the way of comfort. "You all right?"
"No, I am not all right, I just..." He trailed off, rubbing his head. "Who the hell was that?"
"Dunno," John mumbled in reply, every muscle shouting in protest as he tried to crawl to his feet. In addition to his new bruises and aches, his recently healed shoulder twinged, and John was unable to hide a grimace. Crazy guy better not have screwed up John's shoulder again. Once was enough.
McKay had ceased rubbing his head, to John's relief. The last thing he needed was for the man to get his valuable brain scrambled trying to save John. He blinked suddenly, not having realized that was what had happened until just now. A tight band constricted around his chest, although John wasn't sure if it was related to the last blow he had taken. In an effort to distract himself, he reached across the ground and picked up a pair of shattered spectacles.
"Casualty of war," he croaked, handing them over, watching as McKay's face paled several shades.
"Oh shit," he muttered, surging forward to scoop up the bits of glass before John could put a hand out to help. "Shit, shit, shit."
"I think it's a loss," John muttered.
"This is bad, this is very, very bad," he continued to murmur. "What the hell was I thinking?"
"I'd like to know that too," John tried to catch his eye, "because I thought I told you to get out of here."
Rodney paused in mourning his glasses, his entire frame freezing for a second, as if he had just been reminded of something unpleasant. "I... I don't know."
It seemed like there was a bad habit forming between them of leaping into the fray to try and save each other when things went to hell. John wasn't sure how he felt about that, so instead of pondering it further he stumbled to his feet, painfully dragging Rodney up with him. The angry red pulse of the light faded to black, before the hallway was lit back into its familiar brightness and the alarm died off in a sudden lurch. One by one each of the metal blast doors slid back out of sight, as if they hadn't been there to begin with.
John really wished he could say the same about doubts now plaguing his mind.
"Who the hell are we working for?" he asked quietly.
He hadn't really been expecting an answer, and definitely not the ominous reply that he got.
"I don't think you really want to know."
Rodney was packing his desk and still mourning the loss of his glasses, as well as the fact that he would have to tell Lorne to find him a new pair, when the light rap came at the doorframe to his office. Sheppard froze at the sound, entire body going tense before the irritating greeting was even spoken.
If he wasn't sure that the man wouldn't take some sort of perverse pleasure out of it, Rodney would tell Marrick exactly how creepy the stupid greeting was. As it was, he just tried to squash the rising frustration and uncomfortable flip-flops his stomach began to perform.
"What do you want?" he snapped irritably.
"I wanted to see how you were holding up."
Sheppard's shoulders bunched up, as if he were preparing for another fight. Rodney's stomach did another strange lurch, and he forced himself to ignore it and pin Marrick with an unblinking stare. "Fine. Thanks for asking. Go away now."
"From what I heard, both of you had a run-in with our guest."
"Guest?" Sheppard spat, voice still hoarse but apparently unable to stay silent any longer. "Do you usually treat your guests like that?"
"He's part of a trial study being run by the boys in medical Downstairs," Marrick answered smoothly.
"What kind of trial would that be?" Sheppard continued, and Rodney had to restrain himself from stomping on the other man's foot. These questions were dangerous territory.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think you have clearance for that information." Marrick narrowed his eyes, before flicking his probing gaze to Rodney. "I trust that no permanent damage was done."
"We'll survive," Rodney said sourly.
"That's good news." Marrick's smile revealed a row of shark-like teeth. "Your expertise on the X-302 project is invaluable."
"Yes, I keep getting told that," Rodney muttered and resumed packing his things.
"Y'know, it took three of your guys to get a handle on your 'trial subject'." Sheppard didn't seem inclined to drop the line of questioning, much to Rodney's chagrin. "And honestly, I can't say that he looked altogether too willing to go along with them."
"As I said, the details of the trial don't concern you." Marrick's tone hardened.
"They do when I'm nearly choked to death by your 'subject'."
"He was given the wrong dose of medication. It made him a bit wild and apparently unpredictable. A very regrettable incident, I assure you."
"Regrettable for whom? You or him?"
Rodney shot Sheppard a look, hoping to indicate that he needed to shut the hell up before he attracted any more undue attention. Unfortunately, subtlety was not one of Rodney's strong suits and Sheppard blithely ignored him.
"And while we're not talking about it, what the hell were those blast doors that—"
The angry line of questioning ended in a surprised cry, and Sheppard swiveled around to pin Rodney with a wild look. He stomped his foot on Sheppard's toes again even as he smiled tightly at Marrick. "The concern is touching, really, but we're fine."
"Now, if you'll excuse us," he continued to speak over Sheppard, "we were on our way out."
"Were we?" Sheppard asked, annoyance tinging his tone.
"Well, yes," Rodney spoke as if he were in a discussion with a couple of five-year-olds, "you said you were going to take me home since I need my glasses for driving."
It was a bold-faced lie, but the intensity in Marrick's gaze seemed to lighten ever so slightly. "I noticed you weren't wearing them."
"They didn't survive the fight with your 'subject'," Sheppard explained impatiently, but had apparently taken the not-so-subtle hint and didn't push it any further.
"The company will be glad to pay for the replacements," Marrick said lightly, and Rodney felt his gut lurch again.
"Um, thank you, but I think I can handle the cost on my own," Rodney fumbled.
"If you're sure—"
"You got everything you need?" Sheppard asked, cutting off Marrick.
"Yeah, I think so." He made a show of slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder and settling it into place.
"Good, we shouldn't keep traffic waiting. You know how those evening commuters get if they can't cut us off."
Sheppard led the way, physically shouldering past Marrick and pinning the security officer with a fierce look as Rodney slipped past. They both bristled, hackles rising. It was Rodney's light hand on Sheppard's sleeve that pulled the pilot out of his pissing contest. He held his hand out impatiently and Rodney handed over the keys.
"So, you want to tell me why we just lied to Marrick?" Sheppard muttered as they made their way down the hall.
"It wasn't a lie," Rodney protested, but was unable to look the other man directly in the eye, "I really do need the glasses for driving."
Sheppard gave him a long, disbelieving look. "I never offered to drive you. That was a lie."
"You would have."
"So sure about that?"
He wasn't, actually, and the scrutiny Rodney found himself under made him squirm. "Yeah."
Sheppard didn't call him on the second lie, just spun the key ring around on his finger as they passed through the door leading to the main area of the building. "Then do you mind telling me why you decided to flatten my toes?"
"My foot slipped?"
"You were pissing him off."
"That was the point."
"Look, I really don't think you want to get on his bad side—at least any more than you already are."
"I'm not scared of him," Sheppard muttered and pinned Rodney with a look, "and you shouldn't be either."
"You have no idea who you're dealing with."
"And exactly who would that be, huh, McKay?"
Rodney realized that he had probably said too much, especially in the hallways of this place. His mouth shut with an audible click and he focused on putting one foot in front of the other, his pace quickening with the lengthening strides. Sheppard kept up, hovering uncomfortably close.
"You can't run away, I've got your car keys."
"I'm not running."
"You're avoiding the question."
"You ask too many of those."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Sheppard grabbed him by the arm, yanking both of them to a stop. "I don't know what's going on here, but it's something screwy that's for sure."
The pictures of a bloated body fished out of the city's reservoir danced in Rodney's mind, but instead of Peterson's face, this time it was Sheppard's unseeing eyes. Rodney swallowed dryly, because he shouldn't have that good of an imagination.
Something in his expression must have given away his thoughts, because Sheppard's angry rasp dropped to a concerned note. "What?"
"Nothing... sorry." Rodney shook his head, hoping to dispel the imaginary pictures and the worried frown on the other man's face. "Can we just please go to the car? It's been a long day."
"It has," Sheppard agreed cautiously, and they lapsed into silence as they finished winding their way through the building and out to the parking lot. It had been enough time for Rodney to think that the argument had been forgotten. That hope was dashed by the intense look he was pinned with as soon as they got into the cramped cabin of the Honda. "Rodney, is there something going on that I should know about?"
"No." He studied his reflection in the side mirror, knowing that he couldn't pull off a direct lie, especially with Sheppard looking ragged but ready to take on the world. "I'm just tired."
Rodney could feel the unbelieving stare boring into the back of his head, but he couldn't bring himself to meet the gaze. He wasn't lying about being tired because he was, and sore, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down on his bed and sleep for a week. There was a reason he had never taken up boxing or any physical contact sport.
"All right," the rasp in Sheppard's voice made Rodney wince, and part of him wanted to snatch the keys back and insist that he drive despite the lie he had just told.
"How's your throat?" He finally broke his staring contest with the mirror and looked over to see Sheppard tightly gripping the wheel.
Rodney nodded mutely, wanted to say something else but didn't know what. Sheppard seemed to be in a similar straight, and they sat silently in the cabin for several long, tense moments. Finally, Sheppard cranked the engine and jammed the car into reverse harder than strictly necessary.
The tense atmosphere followed them from the parking lot all the way to the city limits. The angry silence did nothing to alleviate the nerve-racking thoughts plaguing Rodney, just added to them. They kept circling, going from one point to the next; from the strange incident that afternoon, to his next meeting with Lorne, and the way the stiff-backed individual sitting in the driver's seat refused to even look at him. He tried to knead out the tension bunching up behind his temples, earning a side glance from the driver's seat.
"Yeah," Rodney muttered, continuing to massage his temples.
"Look," a ragged sigh escaped Sheppard, "I just... sorry, okay?"
"Sorry? About what?"
"Back there," he said tersely, as if hoping those two words would be enough explanation.
Unfortunately the dull throb behind Rodney's temples prevented him from using his secret, invisible Sheppard-emote decoder ring, so the short explanation did nothing for him. If anything, it just made it worse because it was one more thing to have to think about. Lorne had been right, damn it, things were getting complicated. He never had cared what anyone had thought before, and actually having to try with Sheppard and Carson added one more unnecessary stressor in his life.
"Fine," Rodney muttered, because he just didn't have the energy for this right now.
Sheppard's stern expression melted into something akin to concern. "No, it's not fine. There's no reason for you to let Marrick push you around—"
"Look, you're not my big brother, all right? I don't need you to fight my battles for me."
The concerned expression hardened then, and Sheppard's fingers dug into the steering wheel. "That's not what this is about."
"Then what? I really don't have the brain power to try and figure out your half-cryptic statements on my own right now, as much as that pains me to admit."
"Damn it, Rodney it's about..." Sheppard thumped the steering wheel in frustration, having trouble forming the words. "I can't do this!"
The pounding behind his temples increased to an almost hammering as Sheppard's voice spiked in anger. Deep felt, heart-to-hearts were not best conducted while trapped on a freeway with hundreds of other commuters clogging up the road. They were also best conducted by people who were able to string together a few sentences without the need to crack a joke to try and lighten the mood.
"Do what?" he finally whispered past the angry pounding in his head.
Sheppard's anger bled away at the quiet, resigned tone and he just shook his head furiously, painful rasp unable to completely hide the demon that had been unleashed. "I can't just keep playing ignorant anymore."
"You've been playing?"
The joke didn't break the tension, if anything it just increased it as Sheppard swiftly cut into another lane, too impatient to wait for the slow crawl to pick up its pace. "They're hiding something."
"I know," he replied softly.
"And you are too."
He should have denied it, told him how preposterous it was, but Rodney was tired of lying, and he was tired of pretending that everything was okay when it wasn't. He was tired of being alone and stuck in his head, unable to talk to anyone but a tight-lipped Air Force Major for five minutes a week. He was tired of tensing up every time he walked into his apartment, wondering if some other important piece of his personal life would be taken from him—or if perhaps someone would be waiting for him. If he came clean right then, at least he wouldn't be alone anymore. That would solve so many of his problems.
...and add to Sheppard's.
This wasn't Sheppard's fight, and if Rodney allowed him to get dragged into it he had a feeling it would only get the pilot killed. Stealth and subtlety had not exactly been his strong suit up to this point.
As much as Rodney hated being alone, he couldn't do that to one of the only two people to treat him decently in a good long while. So he neither confirmed nor denied Sheppard's accusation, and simply held his pounding head in his hands, wishing that the world might swallow him up.
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" Sheppard asked quietly, sounding more resigned at this point than frustrated.
Rodney didn't trust his voice to not give him away and just weakly shook his head. He wasn't in trouble.
He was in hell—and it didn't look like he was getting out anytime soon.
John didn't get to go golfing.
He lived in the middle of the desert, and the one weekend in months that John was both free and able to hit the green, the sky decided to open up and leave the grounds muddy and unusable. It was probably just as well, he thought as he took a seat at the table set in the back of the bar. His encounter with VerTech's mystery patient had left him with more than a few bruises. It would've wreaked havoc on his average trying to compensate for the soreness.
"You look overjoyed to be here," Carson noted as he took a seat next to John. "Something wrong?"
"No." He had to resist rolling his shoulders to try and relieve the tension that had crept up since the fight. "Just the lousy weather, I guess."
Carson pursed his lips, tossing a look to the window where it was still lightly showering. "Not exactly great weather for your vehicle of choice."
"I got a ride," John hitched his thumb towards the entrance. "Paranoid Peter is trying to find the parking spot furthest from the door."
"Rodney hates sports. How'd you manage to convince him to come along?"
"Guilt." John sat back, lacing his hands behind his head as he watched the Cardinals take the field up on the big screen behind the bar.
"Guilt?" Carson grimaced. "Please don't tell me you two are at it again."
John tried to school his face, really hoping he wasn't that transparent. Yes, he was still annoyed that Rodney was holding back on him. John didn't like being lied to, but he also wasn't going to force the issue. If Rodney needed his help, all he had to do was ask, otherwise John would mind his own business.
Like the man said, John wasn't his big brother.
"Oh, god, you are," Carson moaned, and too late John realized he hadn't been schooling his expression well enough. "You're worse than a pair of grade schoolers!"
"We're not fighting," John insisted quickly as the third member of their trio ducked into the bar, looking wet, disgruntled, and put out. "You can ask him yourself."
"No way, I'm staying out of this." Carson shot him a look. "I'm here to watch the game, not mediate petty squabbles between two grown men."
It wasn't petty, but John didn't say that aloud. Instead he simply made room for the irritated scientist as he took his seat.
"I want both of you to know that every one of us has a perfectly functioning television at home," Rodney groused as he ran a hand through his short cut, knocking several stray droplets out of his hair and onto John who brushed them back onto their original owner. Rodney shot the pilot an annoyed glower. "What exactly is the point of having to drive here?"
John bit back on the automatic response of "to make you whine and cry", especially since Carson was giving him a measuring look. So instead he stretched out, purposefully thrusting an elbow into McKay's personal space. It was none-too-gently shoved out of the way.
"It's not as fun to watch it alone." Carson looked like he was barely checking the urge to roll his eyes. "Although, I reserve the right to retract that statement at any point tonight."
"What is he on about?" Rodney grumbled, finally managing to get comfortable.
"Nothing," John insisted. "Oh, look, the game's on."
The none-too-subtle hint was taken, and the attention shifted to the game rather than the dark cloud hovering over the table.
McKay didn't exactly get into the spirit of the evening, but he didn't offer as much scathing commentary on the game as John had expected. He, however, did not refrain from offering his enlightened opinion on the pitcher of brew they had chosen for the night.
"This stuff is disgusting."
John confiscated his mug. "Good thing you're designated driver tonight."
"Need to put those new glasses to the test."
"They're just temporary. I have a very rare prescription that's very hard to track down."
"Exactly where did you order the things from? Timbuktu?"
"None of your business," Rodney snapped.
"It doesn't matter anyway because it's your turn to do all the driving."
"Exactly who was sitting in the driver's seat during your medically enforced carpool? Oh, wait... that's right, it was me."
"That's because your choice of music would put me into a coma before we even got out of the apartment complex."
"It's not my fault you have the listening tastes of an—"
"Oh, for crying out loud!" Carson snapped. "Enough! Both of you!"
They both fell silent as the third member of their trio pinned them with an irate stare. The angry doctor vein hadn't made an appearance yet, but John was sure that it might pop out soon if he was provoked much further.
"I don't know what it is this time, but I don't care."
"I have no idea—" Rodney started, but stopped upon having the glare directed at him. "Okay, maybe I do."
"Is it too much to ask you two to act your age, even if you're squabbling about who knows what?" Carson took a large swig of his beer. "My flight is out Monday morning, and I'd prefer to have an enjoyable evening with my friends rather than playing referee."
"I'm heading back home for Christmas." Carson's tone suggested his world-class patience was severely tested. "You might remember that if your nose wasn't always buried in a notebook or some scientific journal."
Rodney's jaw flapped silently, as if he were unable to come up with a coherent reply. John might have felt sorry for him, but it was true. Trying to get McKay to pay attention during a conversation he wasn't interested in was like pulling teeth: painful and best conducted under anesthesia.
"It's the end of December already?" Rodney looked amazed. "How did that happen?"
"It generally comes after November," John muttered into his beer.
"Thank you, Mr. Calendar, I would have never figured that out on my own."
"Any plans?" Carson interrupted quickly, shooting John a warning look.
He sat back with a huff, trying to hide his annoyance behind his mug of beer. It wasn't like John was trying to be an ass; it just sort of came out naturally, especially when McKay was acting like one himself. He watched with half-interest as a cycle of almost undecipherable emotions flickered across the scientist's face. Something told John that Scrooge had planned on working late into Christmas Eve.
"I'm too busy to have any sort of 'plans'—"
A buzzing in his pocket saved John from having to hear the tired old monologue about sacrificing anything resembling a personal life in the name of science for the umpteenth time. Grateful for the reprieve, he snapped his phone open without even checking the caller id. "Sheppard."
"John?" The voice sounded older, more haggard and tired than John remembered, but the deep boom that had echoed through the halls of his childhood home was unmistakable.
The years fell away and suddenly John was a teenager again, feeling vulnerable and exposed like he had been caught sneaking out again. "Dad?"
Carson and Rodney had fallen silent, both of them eyeing John closer than he would have liked. Not even bothering to wait for Rodney to get out of the way, John started to slide out of the booth. The scientist seemed to give deference to the subdued mood, and let him try to seek some privacy.
"What are you... is something wrong?"
"Your brother tells me you won't visit unless I called... so I'm calling."
Later, John would come to the realization that he would have to give his old man some credit. His timing was impeccable, ambushing John into a conversation that probably would have taken several more months to happen naturally. He wasn't even sure what was said, just that a few minutes later he took his seat back at the table, both looking and feeling shell-shocked.
"What's wrong?" The concern in Rodney's eyes and the sudden switch from his irritated demeanor might have surprised John if he hadn't just been bushwhacked via cell phone.
"I'm, uh, going home for Christmas it seems."
"Home? Isn't this your home?" Rodney asked peevishly.
John didn't know actually where that mythical place was. He hadn't thought it was back in Virginia with a life he had abandoned long ago. Of course, he had left that life for a career that never really gave him a chance to settle anywhere permanently. And now he didn't even have that career. He'd been a vagabond for almost his entire adult life by a choice that didn't even matter anymore.
Rodney was looking at him expectantly, and John opted to take a large swig of beer before correcting his previous answer. "My family's home, I mean."
"You have a family? Ow!" The scientist rubbed his shin and shot a venomous look across the table at Carson. "What the hell was that for?"
"You have the sensitivity of a tree stump," the Scot returned, before turning to John. "So, you're going to visit your folks?"
"Yeah." Although for the life of him, John couldn't figure out how the hell that had happened. He had been trained to be able to withstand torture, but a short conversation with his father had been able to break his resolve faster than Rodney could put his foot in his mouth.
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"I don't know?" John tried not to grimace. That hadn't meant to come out as a question.
"How the hell can you not know?" Rodney didn't seem very sympathetic to the shocked state any longer. If John gave it more than a few seconds' thought, he probably preferred it that way.
"Lot of history there," was the explanation John decided to settle with, and to his relief, was accepted by his two companions. "Guess you're on your own here for the holidays, Scrooge."
"Honestly, I expected better out of you than a Charles Dickens insult. Where's the creativity? Furthermore, as I was explaining to Scotty here before you took your phone call, I don't do holidays."
"They just do you?"
"What? No—wait a second..."
There was no better way of trying to regain his mental equilibrium than by throwing McKay for a loop. As Rodney was still trying to decipher the meaning of John's comeback (there was none, take that, genius), John chose to refill his mug. He needed a lot more beer if he was going to have a chance at keeping introspection at arm's distance for the rest of the night.
Rodney continued to sputter, trying to regain the upper hand in the conversation as John sipped on his beer, trying desperately not to think about family, drifting, and the definition of home.
With the exception of the sick day called in on his behalf, Rodney hadn't taken any time off since he started at Vertrauen. It wasn't that he was saving up his vacation time for something spectacular, mostly because he didn't plan on working at this place any longer than necessary. Still, if he was going to use some of his personal time to take Sheppard to the airport for his impromptu Christmas visit, the least the man could do was not disappear into thin air when it was time to leave.
Grumbling to himself, Rodney slinked out of the pilot's office, eyes unconsciously drifting up to the nearly hidden recess where the blast door was stowed. The gray metal almost seamlessly blended in with the rest of the doorframe. He still hadn't figured out why they had these in the R&D wing, and Rodney was still waiting on his replacement glasses from Lorne before he could take any pictures.
No proof of anything still, just another weird assorted fact to file away. It was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the full picture for reference, and every now and then someone might hand you a corner piece from a completely different puzzle—just to screw with you.
Of course, this wasn't finding him Sheppard, so he dragged himself down the hall, muttering curses and searching his pocket for his cell phone. After this, he was done granting favors. No more rides to the bar because it was raining, no more grabbing extra muffins from Starbucks since he was going there anyway, and definitely no more airport shuttle service.
He finally managed to free his phone by the time he reached the doorway separating R&D from the rest of the building. Cursing his phone, his sticky pockets, and chronically lazy pretty boy pilots, Rodney dialed up his wayward passenger.
He didn't wait for a standard greeting, as soon as the line connected he was off. "Where the hell are you? You have to be at the airport in thirty minutes!"
"First off, hi."
"Secondly, like I said before, I don't need to be there three hours before hand," Sheppard explained patiently.
"I'm not driving all the way back there to pick you up after you miss your flight because you can't grasp the concept of timeliness!"
"Third, turn around."
"What?" Rodney spun around to see Sheppard waving at him, what looked like a ratty gym bag slung over his shoulder. Instead of jumping out of his skin, Rodney ended the call with a savage push of his thumb to the end button. "Okay, are you invisible or something? How did you do that?"
"And where the hell were you? I checked everywhere."
"We were supposed to meet in your office."
"That's what you said." Sheppard adjusted the bag on his shoulder, and craned his neck as something caught his eye. "You ever wonder about that thing?"
"What thing?" Rodney grumbled, trying to stow away his cell phone.
Sheppard strode past him instead of answering; taking a right turn instead of heading straight through the doors that would lead to the parking lot and the Honda-made chariot waiting to take him to the tarmac. Still struggling to wrangle the phone into his stupid, malformed pockets, Rodney could only waddle after him.
"What are you doing?"
Sheppard casually shifted the bag on his shoulder as he eyed the ridiculously large and imposing door. "You know, I walk by this thing every morning."
"And I've worked here almost nine months and I've never seen anyone walk through it."
"Maybe that's because it's locked up tighter than Fort Knox." Rodney eyed the languidly blinking green light on the hand scan panel, its slow pulsing light eerily highlighting the "Authorized Personnel Only" sign above it.
"Why is that?"
"Nine months here, and you decide to ask that right now? When you have a plane to catch?"
"My flight is in four hours."
"And lines are long this time of year!" Rodney hummed nervously. "And you're rounding up! It's only three-and-half when you think about the traffic and that I haven't eaten lunch—"
"Ever since last week, it's just caught my eye that much more." Sheppard was ignoring him. For a door. Granted, a very mysterious and strangely alluring door with colorful lights and biometric sensors and locks, but a door nonetheless. One that was not capable of taking his ungrateful hide to the airport.
"That's because you hit your head during the fight. Now, can we go?"
"What do you think is past it?"
"I don't know," Rodney stressed, "but we're now down to three hours and forty-three minutes."
"Maybe it leads to stairs."
"What? Seriously, why do you care?"
"Because that guy came from this direction," Sheppard shrugged the bag off his shoulder as he approached the door like a starving man sizing up his first meal in days, "and Marrick did say he was part of whatever they've got going on 'Downstairs'."
"Three hours and forty-two minutes; and I really don't think you should be doing that."
"Relax. I'm just looking."
"And making us late!"
"We have plenty of time," Sheppard shrugged and leaned in close to eye the hand sensor. "Too bad it's not a regular lock, otherwise I could pick it."
"Excuse me, Dick Tracy, but did you not notice the sign? The one that says you're not authorized to even be contemplating contents behind that door?"
Rodney could not believe him. Could seriously not believe that he was pushing this, right now of all times, when they had places to be. Oh, and when the walls were listening, but Rodney couldn't mention that part aloud because playing ignorant was the only way he was ever going to get out of this mess. Of course, it was easier to feign ignorance when certain people weren't trying to stir up trouble with their not-so-innocent questions.
"Where's your sense of adventure, McKay?"
"Running to the airport, because it knows that the airlines don't believe in 'leave no man behind'."
"We'll get going in a second. I just want a closer look."
Seeing as how the pilot was actually running a hand up and down the door, Rodney had no earthly clue how much closer Sheppard could get and not physically merge with the door. The hairs on the back of Rodney's neck pricked, and he looked over his shoulder with the distinct feeling of being watched. The hallway was empty, though.
"Look," he snapped, "I didn't take the afternoon off so you could fondle a stupid door."
"Aren't you curious?"
"No! I don't like to get curious about things that people have under such tight guard. It only leads to frustration, and by the way? Time stamp: three hours and thirty-nine minutes."
"What's your problem?" Sheppard shoved away from the door and tossed Rodney a disgruntled look. "Please tell me this isn't about Marrick."
"No, this is about not upsetting the apple cart." As there was more than a hint of truth in that, Rodney felt confident in meeting Sheppard's gaze head on. "Can we please just go?"
Rodney's skin was practically crawling with the sensation of being watched, and he couldn't help but lick his lips nervously as he tried not to shift nervously. With an aggrieved sigh Sheppard scooped up his bag.
"Fine, let's go."
"Thank you," he muttered, altogether too grateful to slip out of the tiny hallway and back into the normal corridors.
Neither men had noticed the camera that was hidden behind a plate of glass in the ceiling above the door, or that it tracked their movements until they were out of line of sight.
"So how is it?"
"It's... weird," John admitted after a long pause.
There was a light cover of snow on the grounds, ice and frozen blades of grass crunching underfoot as he ambled out toward the pond. He looked out across the water that was covered with a thin sheet of ice. The man-made body of water was just big enough and just deep enough that it took a real good freeze to make it safe and stable enough for a grown man to venture out onto the surface—of course it could support the weight of a young boy just fine.
"It's really weird," John amended, watching the way the tiny twinkling bands of Christmas lights bounced off the pond's icy surface. It was all perfectly coordinated and impeccably decorated, like it had been since as long as he could remember. Not a single bow out of place, or a strand of tinsel tucked wrong—the picture of the perfect Christmas.
The very best that money could buy.
"Is that a good weird or a bad weird?" Carson's voice over the phone's earpiece sounded distant and tinny. John wasn't sure if it was from the overseas connection, or the reception on the large sprawl of land known as the Sheppard homestead. "You didn't exactly look overjoyed after that phone call."
"It was just the shock," John said lightly, earning what may have been a disbelieving snort over the other end of the line. He added, a little more reluctantly, "It's been pretty tame so far."
It had been awkward and uncomfortable trying to figure out how to talk to two people he had essentially cut out of his life, but they had made the overtures and reached out, so John was trying to try.
"It's a little far for me to mount a rescue mission."
"I'll be fine," John insisted. "There are plenty of socialites here tonight to distract them. Christmas Eve with all the wealthy politicians and bureaucrats—just like old times."
"There's the Christmas spirit," the Scot remarked sardonically.
"That's Rodney's special brand of holiday cheer, it's catching."
"Lord, I knew you should have caught a cab."
"Ah, he wasn't that bad." John kicked at an errant pile of snow, disrupting the pretty composed picture before him. "There were only four bah humbugs between the office and the airport."
"You're kidding me."
"Maybe a little." Despite himself, John cracked a grin. "Seriously, Carson, I'm fine. This isn't anything new for me."
Carson believed that about as much as he believed in Rodney's royal tequila status. "If you insist... I probably should wrap this up. We've got a full house here tonight."
"The whole Beckett clan's there, huh?"
"Aye." John could hear the smile in the warmth of Carson's voice, and couldn't help but reflect that with one of his own as he stared off into the twinkling icy pond. "Been a while since Mum's had all of us under the same roof."
"Sounds like you've got a lot of catching up to do. Don't let me keep you."
"Sure thing. Oh, John, do me a favor?"
"If you're going to play hermit out in the cold much longer, consider putting on a thicker jacket," Carson clucked, and John shook his head ruefully. "I can hear your teeth chattering all the way over here."
"If you catch your death and it's your own fault."
"I've just acclimatized to the desert is all." John trapped the phone against his shoulder and shoved his hands deep into his pockets as the winter chill started to numb the tips of his fingers. "I'll take it under consideration though."
"And knock off the mother cracks," Carson added.
"Only if you do me a favor."
"And what's that?"
"Give the Grinch a call tomorrow and see if you can't rouse him from his Cave of Scrooge."
"Mixing your Dickens and Dr. Seuss metaphors? You must really be out of sorts there."
"Hey," John protested lightly, "this isn't about me."
"If you insist."
"I'll play Ghost of Christmas Present if you take Christmas Past."
"I'll call him, but only if you stop assigning us literary roles. It's unsettling."
John shrugged his free shoulder, his small smile unseen by the other member of the conversation. "Night, Carson."
"Merry Christmas, John."
It should have been easy to return the well wishing, but flubbed too long and the click on the line let him know the call had been disconnected. John fished a hand out of the safe warmth of his pocket to stow his phone, and let his gaze wander back over the shoreline. The snowfall was just deep enough to discourage John from rooting through the icy flakes to find a rock to skip across that perfect restrained sheen of the pond and send a million tiny cracks through the deceptively simple picture it presented.
"I thought I'd find you out here."
John didn't jump at the sound of the voice, just waited for his father to join him at his side, dressed for the weather in a long coat and gloves gripping a glass filled with a mixture of water and overpriced Scotch. The years since John had last seen the man hadn't been kind; there were more lines and wrinkles than a man of sixty-seven should have.
"Am I that predictable?" John asked lightly.
"A little," his father replied, taking a small sip of Scotch water. "You never were big on mingling."
"Small talk's not my thing."
"Never has been."
Breath fogged the air in front of them, and the ice in his father's glass clinked together as he absently rattled the cup. Not that any ice was necessary to keep the drink cold out in this weather, which made John wonder if this actually wasn't one of Patrick Sheppard's carefully thought out plans. Maybe the old man had a little wild streak to him after all; and here John had thought he had gotten all of that from his mother.
He pulled away from the pond's edge, slowly ambling back up the path toward the party still going strong back inside the house. His father kept pace with him, seeming content to let John lead the conversation for once. It was so bizarre, he was starting to wonder if the real Patrick Sheppard had been kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a more patient, less controlling model.
John could have commented on the decorations, the extensive and exclusive guest list, or the quality of hor d'oeuvres being served—but that superficial chit-chat was only one of the many things about this world that had started John on his drifting path over twenty years before. His mind was blank on safe conversation topics and so he remained silent, wondering if it had always been this difficult.
Maybe sensing that John wasn't sure where to start, his father continued. "So, how is work?"
"Good," John answered, thankful for the prompt and something to work with. "Although it feels like I've been stuck in a simulator for over a month."
"Test piloting, right?"
John nodded. "We're getting close. We'll probably have our maiden flight early January if everyone signs off on it."
"Sounds like you're enjoying your work then."
"I'm still flying." And somehow, that wasn't enough. Almost a year to the date, and John still felt like he was missing something vital. Something that even working on the coolest plane on the planet for nine months straight wasn't able to fill. "It pays the bills."
"You're not happy then?" His father sounded so disappointed that John risked a glance over to see that the older man was deep in thought.
"I'm..." John thought about lying and saying 'content', but he couldn't pull it off. "I'm okay."
"Okay wasn't what I was hoping for."
"Hoping for?" John frowned, a tingling of suspicion coloring his tone. He had never known his father to be that concerned about John's personal happiness. Which may have sounded a little harsh, but so had been the last exchange between the two of them so many years ago. "Exactly what were you hoping for?"
"That you might be a little grateful, that it might help you transition back into the real world."
"Whoa, whoa." John's shoes stomped the life out of several unsuspecting snowflakes as he came to an abrupt halt. "What are you talking about?"
His father took a large swig of his whiskey, staring stonily back at the frozen pond. "When I heard about your reluctant 'retirement' through my contacts—"
"Wait, you've been having people watch me? My career?"
"You're my son," an undercurrent of possession warred with parental righteousness in his tone, "and so that makes it my business."
"I really don't follow that logic."
"Maybe you would if you and Nancy had had any children."
"Oh, I'm not listening to this, not again." John surged forward, but his father grabbed his arm as if he were still the gangly teenager pushing at boundaries. Years of military training made his first instinct to break the hold and possibly the hand along with it, but he squashed it down and instead just stared at the hand. "Let go."
"Damn it, John, I'm trying here."
"From where I'm standing," he said carefully while pulling his arm free, "the only thing you're trying is to be the same man who tried to have my enlistment papers shredded."
"Obviously that was a mistake."
The angry retort John had planned on following up with died on his lips as the words registered. He simply stared, hoping his astonishment was hidden under a glower of suspicion. "A mistake?"
"I'm allowed to make them."
John shook his head. Definitely an alien abduction, because this was not the way his father had approached life while John was growing up. "I'm finding that hard to believe."
"Believe what you will, you always do."
John jammed his hands further into his pockets, trying to warm up his frozen fingers as the surreal conversation continued.
"I thought I was doing you a favor."
Something ugly and angry started coiling in John's gut but he firmly clamped it down, schooling his features as the politician formerly known as his father appeared. The other shoe was about to drop, so why keep it waiting? "And what kind of favor would that be?"
"To keep you flying, since it seems to be the only thing you care about—but maybe do it someplace safe instead of rushing headlong into gunfire again."
Seeing as how John still had the ugly yellow traces of the bruise on his chest courtesy of VerTech's mystery guest, the "safe" part of that statement was definitely in question.
"I really hope I'm not hearing what I think I'm hearing," he retorted, as the hands inside his pockets clenched into fists.
"Vertrauen is practically leasing an entire power plant from us. We had leverage, so I called in a favor."
Like flipping a switch, all the little oddities added up. The call out of nowhere, the cushy salary, why John never had any real heavy lifting in the test flight department, why Langham probably put up with his attitude without any real reprimand, and why Dave had started playing messenger boy in the first place.
"A favor," John spat, whirling around to face the man who, twenty years later, still hadn't gotten the clue that John's life was his own. "You and your damn favors."
"You have a job; a damn good one."
"And what do I have to give you for it?"
"Nothing, John," his father insisted, frustration mounting, "absolutely nothing."
"It's never nothing with you."
"You're almost forty—I'd hoped you would have learned to show a little gratitude by now."
"Gratitude?" John seethed. It always started out this way, an innocent favor or gift, followed by an equally innocuous request within a few days. Gratitude beget obligation, obligation became duty. John had never been one to shirk his duties, and his father knew that.
"That job is the best you're going to get—"
"I think you should have the car brought around."
"And where are you going to go?"
"Home." The concept was still hazy and off in the distance. So much so that John still wasn't sure what it was exactly, but he could tell what it wasn't.
"This is your home."
"No. It's not."
It was far too early in the morning—or maybe afternoon, Rodney noted unable to make out the time on the clock on his nightstand in his bleary half-wakened state—for someone to be causing such a racket. Wearily he dragged himself out of bed and staggered through the minefield of laundry in his bedroom as he made his way toward the front door.
"Oh, for... I'm coming!" he grumbled as he stumbled over to the door.
It usually took at least fifteen seconds to unlock the various latches and deadbolts Rodney had installed without the complex's approval after the unfortunate ninja incident. His brain was still muddled with sleep, so it was taking longer for him to work that dad-blasted chain that he had installed as an afterthought. Not that the paranoid number of locks would do him any good if someone was waiting for him when he got home, but it gave him a little piece of mind if not necessarily his security deposit back.
After an epic struggle, the chain had been dispensed, Rodney turned the last deadbolt, and whoever the hell it was still hadn't tired of rapping out "Shave and a Haircut" in rapid staccato. So sleep addled, it didn't even occur to Rodney to use the peephole to make sure he wasn't about to be greeted by the Christmas Day Slaughterer. He simply flung the door open, ready to take the uninvited solicitor and show them a little McKay brand of Christmas spirit. Those plans were dashed as he was blinded by unnaturally white teeth flashing an impish grin.
Rodney's finger, pointed and ready to start giving a lecture to end all lectures remained poised in the air as he tried to reconcile the improbable image of a travel-rumpled John Sheppard on his doorstep with a plastic "thank you" bag from some corner store in one hand and another smaller, more colorful bag in the other. He held them up like some conquering hero, and all Rodney could do was blink in utter confusion.
"You're not in Virginia?"
"But your flight back isn't for another two days."
"That was the original plan, yeah."
"But you can't be here."
"No... you don't have a ride, and you're supposed to be on the other side of the country, and... and why are you here?"
"Change of plans." Sheppard shoved the colorful bag into Rodney's hands.
He accepted it, still utterly befuddled. "I don't understand."
"Open it." Sheppard quirked an eyebrow, clearly expecting Rodney to investigate the contents.
Starting to wonder if he was perhaps having some waking dream, Rodney gingerly reached into the bag as if expecting something to leap out and try to eat him. His fingers brushed against something small, plastic, and odd-shaped. Furrowing his brow, Rodney pulled it free and held the item up for inspection.
"You got me a keychain?"
"It's a monkey!" Sheppard grinned. "I thought he looked like you."
"It's a keychain—from the," Rodney crumpled the bag, peering at the logo emblazoned on the side, "DFW International Gift Shop? What the hell were you doing in Dallas?"
"Layover. Do you know how hard it is to get a direct flight to Tucson on Christmas Eve?"
"You've been flying since last night?"
"Well, not me personally—"
"I still don't understand..."
Sheppard seemed to think that non sequitur was an invitation, and shouldered his way in, holding his convenience store bag high. "I also brought food."
"Food... you're not answering the question!"
"You like spam?"
"You mean 'Stuff Posing As Meat'? No, and stop avoiding—"
"Too bad, that's the only thing they had left that wasn't expired. You know that no one's open on Christmas Day?"
"This makes no sense."
"Christmas spam rarely does."
"Why are you doing this?"
Sheppard simply shrugged and pulled out a few more boxes from his plastic bag. "Macaroni and cheese, food of the gods."
"Are you physically incapable of answering the question? Is that what this is?"
"Rodney," Sheppard paused, an unreadable expression settling on his face, "I just..."
The shadowy expression remained as he stared at the blue box of cheap pasta, and a strange, uncomfortable fluttering took up residence in Rodney's stomach. Damn it... that shuttered expression was just unnatural on a laid-back kind of guy, and Rodney shouldn't care about that at all.
Still, he snapped out a disgruntled, "Macaroni and cheese? Seriously?"
The shadows retreated and Rodney was treated with a genuine smile. It wasn't boyish, impish, sardonic or any of the not quite sincere expressions that he was usually treated with. He dropped his eyes to the keychain currently hanging off his finger and the cartoonish monkey that was covering his eyes, one third of the "do no evil" trio.
"This thing looks nothing like me."
"Sure it does. Of course you've got a little less hair on the top—"
"Excuse me, but if we're going to start calling out hair atrocities..." An angry trill came from the bedroom, and Rodney sighed heavily. "What now?"
"Do you have any pots and pans?"
"Um, I don't know. Just look around." Rodney called and once again braved through the explosion of laundry in order to reach the phone on his nightstand and snapped it open. "What?"
"Well, Merry Christmas to you too."
"Carson?" Rodney belatedly grabbed the glasses on his bedside. Putting them on still wasn't an ingrained action yet, but he was almost beginning to get used to the weight on the bridge of his nose. This pair was just a simple set of clear lenses to keep up appearances. To say that Lorne had been displeased with having to find another pair to replace the broken ones was putting it lightly. "Why are you calling? Isn't it like ungodly expensive?"
"Thought I'd make sure you hadn't drowned in that mountain of research in your apartment."
"Since I'm talking to you on the phone, obviously that's a no." A loud clatter and crash had him tripping his way back out of the bedroom, poking his head out of the doorway to try and peer into the kitchen. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"It's just a phone call—"
"Do you have company?"
"Try not to sound so surprised," Rodney grumbled. "I can have company over if I want to."
"Found a pot!" Sheppard called.
"I have a pot?"
"Well, it's a pot now."
That did not sound encouraging. "Sheppard, you better not burn down my kitchen!"
"Wait," Carson interrupted, "John's there?"
"Do you know any other Sheppards?"
"What's he doing there?"
"I don't know," Rodney insisted, pitching his voice lower so it wouldn't carry across the small apartment. "He just showed up on my doorstep a few minutes ago with a monkey and Christmas spam and boxes of macaroni with questionable expiration dates and who knows what he has in that ratty gym bag—"
"He brought a monkey?"
"Well, it was a keychain of a monkey. It's actually kind of ugly and a little frightening, but he insists there's some sort of resemblance. Honestly, I don't see it and—Sheppard, what are you doing with that?"
"Maybe I should let you go."
"Yes, because I'm about to be burned out of house and home because—no, that's not a chafing dish!"
"Do I want to know?"
"No," Rodney said quickly, "er, I've got to save my apartment, bye!"
A small kitchen fire, two blackened pans, and three boiled over pots later, John had managed to produce a Christmas feast that would make Jimmy Stewart and his wonderful life proud. Since the kitchen table was dominated by a mountain of notes and drowning in old takeout boxes, they sat on the balcony, overlooking the city and the desert beyond.
Decked out in a light windbreaker, eating spam off of a Dixie plate, and nursing a lukewarm beer wasn't John's picture of a perfect Christmas, but then again, he'd never been big on the holidays himself.
"Nice view," John remarked before taking a quick swig of the strange Canadian brew that Rodney kept stocked in his fridge. "Why don't you come out here more often?"
"Too windy," Rodney returned, spearing a bite of macaroni on his plastic fork. "It would be a shame to suddenly discover unifying string theory only for the proof to flutter away in the evening breeze."
"Ah, you'd catch it in time."
"Yes, because I'm the daredevil type."
"I don't know," John paused before taking another swig of beer, "you're handy in a fight when you want to be."
"I thought we weren't going to bring that up again," Rodney grumbled and stuffed the large bite of macaroni in his mouth.
"Sorry," John shrugged. It had just been one of the many things that had been running through his mind during his long hours at the various airports around the country. The little monkey keychain was currently looped around the neck of Rodney's beer. At first glance it looked terrified behind the covered eyes, but the grim set of the mouth indicating there was more to it than just fear... the unhappy grimace really did look a lot like Rodney.
Rodney screwed up his expression in disgust, unconsciously mirroring the monkey. "This pasta tastes funny."
"That might be because the box said it expired two months ago."
The mouthful of food was spit back onto Rodney's plate, and he began wiping his tongue in earnest with one of the leftover Burger King paper napkins. John managed to hide his snicker behind the pretense of taking another bite out of the pan-fried spam.
Tongue finally clear of the offensive pasta and cheese sauce, Rodney pinned him with an incredulous expression. "Why—why—why would you do that to me?"
"I wouldn't," this time there was no hiding his amusement, "but you're really easy."
"It's fun here on the dark side."
"Glad that you could get a laugh at my expense, Darth Sheppard."
"Got to get my kicks somewhere," John said lightly, but his gaze drifted to the horizon, where he could just barely make out the tip of the VerTech tower. "You really can see everything from here."
"It's not that great of a view." Rodney poked a fork at another clump of macaroni uncertainly. "You were just kidding me about the expiration, weren't you?"
"Yes, Rodney." John didn't exactly roll his eyes, but the exasperation in his tone wasn't completely forced. "I'm eating it too. Why would I give myself food poisoning?"
"I don't know, you get off on weird kicks like that."
"When have I ever poisoned myself for fun?"
"Well, not poison yourself, but you do seem to look for trouble..." He trailed off, eyes widening and glancing around as if he were expecting some phantom to appear out of nowhere and join their conversation.
There was paranoia, and then there was just being weird. John was thinking to chalk this up to the latter. "How do I look for trouble?"
"Nothing," Rodney insisted quickly, shoving the clump of pasta in his mouth in an attempt to muffle his words. "Forget I said anything."
"You know, it's not very polite to throw out accusations without backing them up with proof."
McKay almost swallowed the clump whole, the bright shade of red his face turned almost made John think he was going to have to perform the Heimlich maneuver. However he managed to get the food down, and chased it with a generous swig of beer. His voice was quiet, although it was unclear if that was due to the near choking incident or the fact that he couldn't meet John in the eye. "I'm sorry, just... forget it. Please?"
Rodney and the word "please" generally didn't go together. The request sounded sincere to John's ears, even if McKay wouldn't look at him. In fact, the entire slumped posture reminded John of that afternoon in the car after the fight. He frowned, trying to hide his scrutiny behind another long sip of beer.
He had two choices: push the issue or let sleeping dogs lie.
Maybe Rodney was a little right—because as far as John was concerned he had been far too lax about sleeping dogs as of late. "I don't go looking for trouble."
"Oh, not forgetting this," Rodney muttered disappointedly.
"No, I'm not." John set his beer down on the concrete balcony landing with a clink, eyes seeking out the distant speck that was the VerTech tower. "There's just too many things that aren't adding up."
"You really, really don't want to talk about this right now." Again the voice was barely a whisper, almost pleading John to stop.
"I think I do." John twisted to where he could pin the scientist with a look. "What I don't understand is why you've suddenly stopped asking questions."
Rodney's face was firmly turned away from him, as if the imaginary point in the distance he was staring at was more worthy of his attention at the moment. The rigid stance of his shoulders clearly indicated Rodney wished this conversation wasn't happening. "Questions? What kind of questions?"
"Like why everything is done just a little bit different on this project. Where all of these miraculous technological advancements are coming from? Who the hell was that guy who tried to choke the life out of us? And why did it look like he was there against his will?"
The shoulders hunched higher, but otherwise Rodney remained still and quiet.
"If you're not going to help me figure it out, I'll do it myself."
The vehemence and force behind the order took John aback, and he was caught under the most intense gaze he had seen Rodney use on anyone, including when he had been laying into Langham after the PDE's failed test firing.
"You are not going to do a damn thing," Rodney ground out, "except fly that stupid plane like you're paid to do."
John was a stubborn man, he was quite aware of this. Whenever someone tried to tell him what to do with his life, it was like rubbing a cat the wrong way. His hackles rose, and his feet would plant firmly in the proverbial ground to hold his stance. He was ready to do that just now, feeling a familiar grinding clench to his jaw. Rodney must have been cut from the same cloth, because his jaw was set in the same manner, blue eyes blazing with a protective fury that John had never seen in the scientist.
"Just drop it."
The "for your own sake" remained unspoken, but John could clearly read it in the angry nerve twitching in Rodney's jaw. Despite every nerve ending screaming at him, John let the fight drain out of him. There were more important things than winning an argument and from the looks of things right now, John wasn't sure if winning this one would cost him a friendship.
He almost wished he could read what was behind the emotional storm raging in the other man's eyes because there was a lot more behind the firm order than John just minding his own business. Unfortunately, he wasn't a mind reader, so he couldn't tell what it was.
"Fine." The conviction in his voice didn't seem to convince Rodney, so he tried for a softer, "Consider it dropped."
Vertrauen had a private airfield located on the far side of the company grounds, safely away from the sparkling tower so there was no fear of collision. The X-302 sat on the tarmac as Sheppard ran through his pre-flight checks. Rodney could only watch from the window overlooking the airstrip and listen to the chatter between flight control and the pilot. Even from the distance, the glider made an impression. Its presence was almost overpowering, the massive wingspan making the man inside the cockpit look like a kid trying to drive his parents' Buick. On paper, the sharp angles looked sleek and cool, but up close Rodney could swear the glider actually looked predatory.
He propped his chin on one hand as he continued to watch, letting the conversation between Sheppard and ground control wash over him. He was twitchy from the four cups of coffee he had chugged this morning, trying to shake off the fatigue from his sleepless night. By six in the morning, he had grown tired of waiting and went to the office where he could triple-check everything on the engine and the programming to make sure Langham hadn't tried to pull another stunt like he did with the PDE's first test firing.
There was nothing more Rodney could do but stand here and watch through the window. He wished he could blame the churning in his gut on the vending machine lunch he had barely choked down, but it probably had more to do with the millions of morbid thoughts dancing through his mind. Of all the different ways that damn pulse detonation engine could backfire, of how the delicate programming on the inertial dampeners could add pressure to the cockpit rather than relieve it, of the wind shear and its effect on the glider so high up off the ground, or just any of the tiny little things that could cause a normal plane to careen out of control.
Yes, Rodney was paranoid, and he had every reason to be—but usually his paranoia was restricted to things that could go wrong with him personally. This paralyzing grip of uncertainty and helplessness centered around someone else was so very strange and new and very, very wrong.
"She's a beauty."
To his credit, Rodney didn't jump when Langham joined him at the window, and he didn't give into the temptation to grill the man on what he had been doing so close to the station with an uplink to the plane. As he said, paranoid, but with good reason.
"You want me to tell Sheppard that you just called him a girl?"
Langham sputtered for a moment before thumping the glass ineffectually. "I was talking about the X-302."
"Oh. Right." Rodney's faux confusion didn't seem to convince Langham, and remembering his real purpose for being here, he forced himself to bite his tongue on any follow-up sarcasm. "I honestly can't believe you pulled it off."
"You signed off on everything."
"That doesn't mean I'm not amazed by the speed in which you implemented everything." It was unnatural, if the term could be applied to something as nature defying as humans taking flight. "It's... very impressive."
"And there's a lot more that we're hoping to accomplish after this project proves itself."
"Can't wait." He tried to muster up enthusiasm, but really couldn't pull it off.
Rodney was to the point where he had just about given up on getting anything but the second-hand information that they were willing to feed him. This entire thing was a waste of time—Rodney would never get the evidence that the Air Force would need to prove that Vertrauen simply wasn't so brilliant that they couldn't pull all of these solutions out of their proverbial ass, and it was equally unlikely that Hammond's people would ever find out who had set him up to take the fall in front of Aisley.
"Let's see how this project pans out." Langham gave Rodney a brief, assessing look. "You've certainly proved yourself a worthy asset to the company."
That sounded... vaguely hopeful.
"I'm just doing my job." Humility was not a standard Rodney McKay trait, but it was easier to project than patience for answers that could never come.
"It sounds like they're ready," Langham announced at the same time the X-302 began to start down the tarmac.
All Rodney could see of Sheppard was his outline, as he was decked from head to foot in flightwear that was closer to an astronaut's getup than a traditional pilot's. Then again, the flight plan would take him—er, the X-302—up to just skim the atmosphere. Theoretically they could break orbit with the fourth engine, but with the whole military contingent frowning at the back of the room, including good old Simmons, caution seemed to be exercised at this point.
That, or Murphy had finally put his foot down, which was good, because someone aside from Rodney needed to be concerned about the welfare of the pilot inside of the expensive plane. A blue flame from the turbojets flared from the tail end of the X-302 as it picked up speed, and soon it was lifting off the ground, taking it and Sheppard away from the safety of the tarmac.
If speeding down the open road on his Nightrod was liberating, then actually taking flight was pure unadulterated freedom.
There was nothing like the feeling of his stomach dropping the same time that he escaped the clutches of gravity and took to the air. The tarmac, the control center, and the hangar beyond it disappeared as he climbed higher and higher, until the only thing that he could have seen, if he weren't flying in the opposite direction, would be the glittering tower that housed the offices of all the corporate bigwigs.
His mind was sharp, focused on the task and the displays before him as he increased his altitude. Most of his attention was on the actual act of flying, of trying to adjust to the reality of what he had only controlled in a simulator. He could hear ground control speaking in his ear, and he moved through the various maneuvers requested.
The X-302 responded beautifully, and he cut through the sky like a king. Everything seemed to be performing perfectly thus far, and the next system to test was the inertial dampeners. Following the voices in his ear, John yanked up on the yoke, gravity pulling at him like a jealous lover.
The increased g-factor also increased the chance of g-induced loss of consciousness, one of a pilot's worst fears. John hadn't actually experienced g-LOC personally, but he had gotten close on one of the first fighters he had been testing when he had taken a turn almost too tight for his body to handle.
Between 2g and 3g like John was at right now, his limbs grew twice as heavy and it was a feat of strength to keep his head erect and stay focused on the controls, but it was as the turn accelerated him into 4g when things had started to turn hairy. All of his blood began to pool in his legs, making them feel heavy, full; and he was sure that the white specks he had seen were due to the lack of blood reaching his brain. It was when the color faded from his vision and suddenly narrowed into a dark tunnel that John had known he was in trouble.
He hadn't actually lost consciousness, but his body had become so unresponsive it was close to the same thing. The loss of control had been almost as paralyzing as the actual experience.
"You can switch on the inertial dampening system whenever you're ready, Sheppard."
Steadying his flight path, he used one hand to flip the necessary switches to activate the system. The effect wasn't sudden, more of a gradual decrease in cabin pressure until John no longer felt like he had even left the ground. Only the slight, almost distant rumbling of the jet engine reaching his ears seemed to indicate that he was even in the air.
"Okay, that's definitely new," he muttered into his mask.
"New? New as in good or new as in very bad and we need to bring you down right now?" Ah, there was Rodney. John thought he had been far too quiet up to this point.
"New as in different," he clarified, still trying to adjust to the sensation of steadily climbing altitude without the oppressive effects of gravity. In future models, there was talk of making the whole thing automated, but John was thankful for the control this time around.
They continued to follow through the flight plan, and so far everything was performing as promised. Handling was smooth, almost too smooth as the inertial dampeners negated most of the force effects that John relied on to tell him when he was turning and where. It was almost like he was sitting in the simulator, where the slight lurch in his stomach was caused by the seat tilting ever so slightly. He was deep into a turn, yet there was no centrifugal force trying to pull him against his seat and melt his spine.
"Sheppard, you're overcompensating, back off a bit."
John slowly eased off the yoke. The displays indicated that he had been pulling 6g, but it had felt more like applying the brakes on a slow-moving car. "Okay, this is really weird."
"Yes, I'm sure all your blood not being pushed to your extremities and your brain actually getting oxygen for a change is very disconcerting."
"You always know how to lighten the mood, Rodney."
"I'm just saying this should be an improvement—"
"How is everything looking from down there?" he interrupted before Rodney could get started on a tirade. This entire thing was very new, and the last thing he could afford was a distraction because McKay needed to get in the last word.
"Good," came the terse reply.
"We'd like to move into testing the next set of engines," Murphy's reedy voice came across the headset. "Do you think you can compensate adequately?"
"Let me try that last maneuver one more time." A quiver of excitement ran through him, but John had to squash it down and focus on the displays. "Just to make sure."
The term "shakedown" was an absolutely horrid one that conjured all sorts of thoughts of parts not fully riveted down so that they all came apart suddenly at the least opportune moment. Rodney decided that after this whole maiden flight was done, he would track down whoever had been responsible for coining the term and shake them down and see how much they liked it.
He stood next to the computer terminal, arms crossed tightly against his chest as if he were standing sentry over the uplink to the plane. Langham had entered politician mode, and was trying to curry favor with Colonel Simmons and the rest of the brass. He barely caught the eye of the heavy-set Texan general, and quickly averted his gaze back to the display.
Having Hammond so close by was almost nice. Almost. The general seemed to like Rodney about as far as he could throw him, but the man had been the only one to look behind the crazy allegations of Rodney trying to sabotage his own experiments. Of course, he had probably also heard about the unfortunate loss of Rodney's expensive spy glasses, and the irritated glower he occasionally shot in the scientist's direction was probably not pasted on for effect. Rodney was trying to make up for it by sneaking in whatever information he could get past the keyloggers and desktop sniffers. The paltry amount of mostly useless information that could fit on the USB drive wouldn't be enough, but he was trying.
Without warning, every hair on the back of Rodney's neck began to rise as a cold shiver ran up his spine. Maybe he was getting better at this whole spy—damn it—corporate espionage thing, because he didn't need to turn around to know that Marrick had made an appearance and was now giving Rodney the stink eye.
It should have been freeing to know that Marrick couldn't do a damn thing in such a crowded room, especially not with Hammond watching... but he just felt trapped. There was no way he was abandoning his self-assigned post at the computer terminal, because with how Sheppard had been talking on his bugged balcony, and in all likelihood was still eyeing that confounded door, Rodney didn't put it past these bastards to try something. There was an emergency remote flight on the X-302's onboard computer that might be able to land the plane if absolutely necessary—and with the speeds and altitude Sheppard was currently flying, the human body was very fragile.
Rodney adjusted his stance, ready to stand there for the long haul.
A surreptitious glance over his shoulder revealed Marrick pulling Langham aside for a private conversation. Hammond didn't seem to think anything of this, eyes glued to the displays indicating Sheppard's progress. If only Rodney had been equipped with a bionic ear, he could listen in on whatever the two were discussing. But then that same spine-tingling dread crawled up his back, and Rodney realized that he didn't need any superpowers to deduce the subject of their conversation.
His breath caught in his throat and he was so focused on trying to appear absorbed in the proceedings of the flight, that he actually missed all the indications of them shifting to the last phase of the test.
"Firing up pulse detonation engine now," Sheppard's voice came across the comm loud and clear, confidence threaded with a barely restrained boyish excitement.
Rodney might have smiled if he hadn't been digging painful craters into his palms with his nails. He had been over everything at least three, probably four—okay, in all honesty, at least five—times. Six if he was counting that final check of the software and specs in the control room itself.
He had to remind himself to breathe as he watched the power levels stay within the optimal range. The rate of detonations on the working model of the engine far exceeded that of the first test firing, and while Rodney had written every safety protocol known to man (and invented perhaps a few more), it was hard to trust his own work when a hard stare was boring into his back.
God... he was so in over his head.
As high off the ground as John was, speed almost seemed relative. Looking out the canopy didn't really provide much in the way of a frame of reference, as the ground was so far below it just lazily stretched on by. According to the instruments, right now he was approaching mach three and pulling about 9gs. With the inertial dampeners engaged, all of the physical cues had been dulled so it almost felt like taking a leisurely stroll through the park.
The power it was cranking out was astounding, making the plane seem as though it were skimming through the atmosphere like a duck on the surface of a pond, and he hadn't even begun to start pushing the engine. At forty-nine thousand feet and climbing fast, the X-302 was putting every plane John had ever flown, and probably even those he'd only heard of, to shame.
The distinctive thrum of the engine followed him higher into the stratosphere. Eighty thousand feet off the ground, and he could see everywhere. Through the cloud cover, John could catch snatches of the Pacific coastline, his mind filling in the blanks that would normally be labeled on a map.
The barely breathed "wow" didn't reach his ears, but obviously it had reached the control room, because Rodney had somehow snatched a communication line again. "What, what is it?"
"This is just..." Cool didn't begin to cover it. Awesome was too pedestrian. Amazing wasn't adequate.
From the tension in his friend's voice, John wasn't sure if he'd truly appreciate the sight beneath him—at least not without a few rounds of Jose Cuervo. If John didn't need to keep his attention on the controls, he would have gaped in wonder with every fiber of his being. It probably didn't touch the view astronauts got from orbit, but John wasn't complaining.
It figured. Here Rodney was on the ground trying to make sure no one sabotaged the bane of his existence so Sheppard didn't die in a fiery crash, and the pilot was whispering in wonder like a little kid. Yes, yes, he was travelling at an altitude and speed that almost no humans could touch, but could Sheppard perhaps try to restrain the childlike wonder so that Rodney didn't feel like a heel every single time he tried to bring focus back to the very important test going on?
On the bright side, Rodney was fairly sure that Langham and Marrick's focus had shifted away from him. He had never really understood what people meant when they talked about people walking across their grave, but he found the description particularly apt. The cold sweat that had beaded at the nape of his neck had dried due to the control room's recirculated air, and the phantom spidery legs stopped crawling along his spine. Rodney could only assume that meant he was no longer being studied closely.
The control room was stifling, so many bodies crowded together, that he really wished he could just slip outside and wait for Sheppard to land. However, Rodney had appointed himself with one job. That lone task was to make sure that damned glider remained untampered with so it could land without incident, and he was determined to see it through.
There were deep gouges in his palm from where the nubs of his fingernails had dug, and he'd been forced to change positions before he broke the skin and drew blood. He should have been able to hear his heart hammering in his ears, felt the blood pumping through his veins, because there were few times he had been quite this terrified. None of the typical flight or fight responses were rearing their heads. Instead he just felt sick.
He wasn't sure how long he stared ahead blankly when he should have been taking mental notes on the glider's performance, but at some point Sheppard was asking for clearance to land. Rodney's legs nearly gave out from under him; the console he'd been protecting was now being used to keep him upright.
However, Rodney was paranoid, and he didn't leave his self-assigned post until the glider had safely taxied back to its original position and its pilot was detaching himself from the various safety equipment tethering him to the cockpit. Excited calls were ringing through the room and talks of the entire X-302 team invading the nearest watering hole echoed around Rodney's ears.
He almost managed to escape in the crush of excitement sweeping over the room, but Langham snagged his arm just before he could reach the door that would lead Rodney out to the tarmac.
"Dr. McKay, a word."
Rodney's pasted on smile hardly wavered as he turned to face his supervisor. "Yes?"
"I know I said this before, but I wanted to reiterate how much help your expertise and insight has been in getting us to this point."
This was the moment that Rodney knew he had been working there too long. In a little more than three months a compliment that usually would have had him thrusting his chest out and preening like a proud peacock now made him instantly suspicious and wary. "I was just... doing my job."
"And an impressive one at that." Langham's smooth, smarmy voice almost made Rodney's tightly wound nerves come undone. "Your references weren't lying."
Rodney had a reference sheet a mile long, each ream of paper full of glowing commendations on his work ethic and his brilliance—but he had never provided them to Vertrauen. The fake smile remained in place as he nodded. "Well, that's good."
"Don't be late tomorrow morning."
"What?" Rodney blinked at the lack of a segue.
"Too much 'celebratory' beer might make it hard for you to wake up."
After Rodney's last foray into heavy drinking, that sounded about as fun as ramming his head into a brick wall. Oh wait, that's exactly how that night had ended. "I'll be on time."
"Good." Langham's smile was tight now, almost anxious. "There's something I'd like to show you."
Before Rodney could ask exactly what that was, he was practically tackled by an overly exuberant John Sheppard, whose spirits had not yet left the high altitudes that the X-302 had reached.
John wasn't what people would consider a man of many words, but trying to describe the exhilaration of flying the X-302 to the sourpuss next to him might have taken a novel's worth of explanation. "It was just... just..."
Rodney was still sipping on the large glass of water he had ordered at the beginning of the celebration, occasionally glancing at the time on his cell phone.
"Are you even listening to me?"
"What?" The glasses had slipped down almost to the tip of Rodney's nose, and he barely flicked a glance in John's direction.
"I was just saying that's when I smote the dragon Trogdor and rescued the prissy Princess Meredith from her tower of sarcasm."
"I knew you could do it."
"Then I had to turn down her marriage proposal because it turned out she was actually a man and that's not legal in Arizona, and wow, you're really not listening."
"Fascinating," was the noncommittal hum.
"I could probably go and say something sacrilegious to Canadians like Celine Dion is overrated, and you'd just agree with me."
"You know it."
"Pi is exactly three!"
"...what?" The cell phone smacked resoundly against the table. "I thought you said you had a bachelor's degree in math!"
"I do," John couldn't resist smirking, "but welcome to the conversation."
Rodney sputtered, and John snatched the cell phone out of his hand before he could get absorbed in its fascinating display of the time of the evening. "Do you have a hot date tonight or something?"
"No." Rodney tried to snatch the phone away, but John held it just out of his reach. "I'm just expecting an important call."
"None of your damn business!" Rodney stretched as far as he could in the booth without actually standing, and nearly toppled over as he lost his balance. He glared at John, annoyance simmering under the surface. "Give me my phone."
"Fine." John tossed the phone at him without much consideration for aim, and it smacked the scientist in the chest. "If you're going to be such a killjoy maybe I'll go join the engineering department in their jello shots."
"Real men don't take jello shots!"
"Whatever helps you sleep at night, Rodney." John rolled his eyes and pushed away from the booth. It was stupid for John to remain in the dark corner waiting for McKay to shake off his funk and join the rest of the world in a little bit of hard-earned revelry. If he couldn't, then John would go join the rest of the happy people at the bar.
It had been a long time since John had such a natural high, and he wasn't ready for Rodney Buzzkill to dampen the mood. Even if the fact that Rodney wouldn't loosen up and join in the festivities...
...wasn't John's business.
"I'll have a lemon shooter on your behalf."
"Oh, ha ha."
John gave him a tight smile before elbowing his way up to the bar. The tight smile remained in place as Zelenka slapped a hand on his shoulder and offered to buy him some unpronounceable drink that could have been native to his home country. At least he hoped it was a drink, because the actual translation was as lost on John as Zelenka's weakening grasp of the English language.
He allowed the first drink, and politeness forced John to down the burning shot. As the rest of the engineers lined up to share their drink of choice with John, he realized that he had proceeded into dangerous territory without his trusty wingman to pawn the drinks off on.
He twisted in his spot at the bar, intending to wave Rodney over to join the rest of the party, but there was only an empty table where he had left the physicist. John quickly scanned the bar, but couldn't see the tell-tale grimace among the patrons. The bawdy atmosphere drowned out most conversation, so perhaps McKay had received his mysterious phone call and had taken it outside in order to hear it.
"I don't like this," Lorne said as he pulled out a wrapped package from underneath his light jacket. "There are too many of your co-workers here."
"Well, I have to keep up appearances," Rodney snapped, holding out a hand expectantly. "If I didn't come to this stupid little celebration someone might wonder."
Lorne didn't look convinced. "Yes, you're the raging socialite."
"Shut up," he growled, snapping his fingers impatiently. "Now hand it over."
"You think you can avoid crushing this pair in any bar fights?"
"I'll do my best!"
Reluctantly, Lorne handed over the package. "You have no idea how hard it was to find you another set."
Impatiently Rodney tore away the packaging to reveal a new pair of the specially made glasses. He held them up to eye level, and after several moments snapped off the temporary glasses so he could actually see unhindered. "I assume they work the same?"
"Just pair it up with your watch. Should be the same passkey as last time."
"The battery life on these things are horrible, just so you know." Rodney wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Bluetooth is an energy hog of a technology."
"Then maybe you and your new employers can invent a pair of spy glasses that won't be so inconvenient."
"I'm just saying that I'm the only person on Earth who has to recharge his seeing eye glasses every night," Rodney grumbled and slipped the new pair into his shirt pocket.
Lorne turned to the side and ducked into the shadow of the bar as someone walked by. After a few moments he turned to look back at Rodney. "Is there anything else?"
"Hammond was at the test today, so he can give you any pertinent info on that."
"That's not what I was talking about."
"Well, then what? The only thing that might be of interest is whatever they're showing me tomorrow."
"Any idea what?"
He gave Lorne a look. "Please. That requires them to not be vague and entirely unhelpful."
"It could be something."
"Yeah right," Rodney snorted derisively. "It's probably just another stupid last minute addition they're going to want to add to the X-302."
"It's still something," Lorne insisted.
"Whatever," Rodney muttered, "I'll get your pictures to you on Saturday. Fat lot of good they'll do you."
"We could reschedule for tomorrow night."
"I can't. I'm busy."
"You?" Lorne eyed him skeptically. "I find that hard to believe."
"I can have plans!"
Rodney looked away momentarily.
"And Beckett," Rodney tacked on. "It's just a hockey game. They're a little obsessed with sports bars. I'm thinking of staging an intervention."
"I don't like it."
"What? Is hockey too Canadian for your American sensibilities?"
"No, I mean I don't like delaying." Like always, Lorne didn't seem to want to waste time for lame jokes or idle chitchat. "The less time you have those pictures the better."
"You mean the less time you have to risk not getting them," Rodney snapped.
"Well, there wouldn't be a risk if you'd just follow protocol."
"I am following protocol: I'm chumming up with all the little sycophants here."
"We were scheduled to meet elsewhere."
"Well, change of plans! Roll with the punches, Major!"
Lorne shot him a glare for the slip-up, but Rodney could hardly care. "It's a good thing Hammond was listening when you were making your party plans, otherwise I wouldn't have known what was wrong when you didn't show up."
"It's not my fault you're hard to contact," Rodney sniped back. "After all, you're the one who insists no cell phones, no names, no anything that might make communication, oh, you know, possible!"
"Damn it," Lorne's voice remained quiet, but was laced with frustration and barely checked anger, "we've been over this a thousand times. They can intercept just about any message."
"Then don't blame me if things are difficult."
"Maybe it would be easier if you were more careful."
"Please, I'm Mr. Careful."
"Yes, that's why I had to risk exposure to get you a replacement camera for the one you broke."
"That was not my fault!" Rodney seethed. "I'm not some grunt trained for combat situations. I'm a scientific genius."
"Your genius seems to be taking a leave of absence lately."
"Yes, well, that tends to happen when I'm put in a situation where I'm in over my head!"
Lorne shushed him. "Are you trying to make a scene?"
"Maybe!" They both glared at each other, Rodney's nostrils flaring like a bull getting ready to charge and Lorne's gaze narrowing dangerously. Finally, Rodney relented, puffing his cheeks out in one angry huff, crossing his arms and looking away. "I want another deal."
"Like the one you're doing for my sister."
"Do you have another relative stashed away that you just suddenly remembered needed protecting?"
"No, I just... it's for Sheppard."
"Look, he's talking too much. I caught him nosing around that stupid vault door of theirs the other day, and he's not listening to me when I tell him to back off."
"And? And? And he's going to get himself killed!"
"That's not our problem."
"The hell it isn't!"
"Sheppard wasn't part of the deal—how can we even be sure he's not on their side?"
The thought of John Sheppard as a double agent made Rodney snort. "Oh, come on. He's practically a Boy Scout."
"Look, I'll be able to concentrate a lot better on what needs to be done if I don't need to worry about him getting fitted with a pair of cement shoes."
"I can't do it."
"Well, why not? You guys have someone watching out for Jeannie!"
"Your sister doesn't work for Vertrauen, and she's also not causing trouble."
"You have to—"
"No, we don't."
"He's one of you people!"
"What does that change? Come on—"
"McKay, I'm not going to tell you again. I already warned you about your judgment being compromised."
"There's way too much riding on this for you to risk exposure. Sheppard's not your concern."
"He's my friend!" It was supposed to guilt Lorne into agreeing to the protection but once said aloud, the truth behind the vehement statement smacked Rodney right between the eyes. He couldn't think about that now, maybe later he'd bang his head into a wall for letting this happen. Right now he needed Lorne to see just how imperative it was for him to agree. Rodney took a step in closer. "And he's also the only person who's actually done anything resembling protection since I took this stupid assignment—"
Lorne matched Rodney step-for-step, and soon they were inches away, both seething. "I am keeping you safe—cleaning up the messes you keep leaving behind because of your friend butting in."
"Leave him out of this!"
"You brought him into this whole conversation!" Lorne punctuated the statement by poking Rodney in the chest, hard.
"That hurt," Rodney growled, poking Lorne back.
Lorne grabbed the jabbing hand with a little more force than necessary. "Knock it off—"
"Hey!" Speak of the devil. Rodney had to give it to Sheppard, the man had perfect timing. "Let him go."
Lorne quickly dropped Rodney's wrist and gave him an angry glower as he slipped away. Rodney barely made out the muttered confirmation of their Saturday meeting before he melted into the shadows. Rubbing his wrist, Rodney tried to ignore the way Sheppard was hovering at his side.
"What the hell was that about?"
"Nothing," he muttered.
"Yeah, because it totally didn't look like you were about to be shaken down."
"Leave it alone, Sheppard," Rodney muttered dangerously. "I'm not in the mood."
"What's going on with you?"
"Me? Why aren't you taking belly shots or whatever inside?"
"You've been gone for almost half an hour."
"Why should you care? You're not my keeper!"
"I'm guessing that was the call you were waiting for," Sheppard said darkly. "Who was he?"
"You don't need to know."
"Is it money?"
"Excuse me?" Rodney tried to feign innocence.
"The trouble you're in—and don't try to tell me that you're not, because I can tell when you're lying." Damn lousy poker skills. If Rodney could manage to bluff, then maybe Sheppard would just back off. As it was, his friend's face just clouded over in a mix of concern and anger. "I can't help you if you don't talk to me."
"Then you can't help me."
"Damn it, Rodney—"
"I know it's a difficult concept for you to grasp," Rodney snapped, "but there are some things you're better off not knowing."
"And what about you?"
The naked concern was so smothering he had to turn away and start back for the bar, and felt more than saw Sheppard jogging to catch up with him. He wrenched away his shoulder when a hand was laid on it. "Leave me alone."
"No," he growled, "just do me a favor and for once in your life, mind your own damn business!"
The hand withdrew, and Rodney tried to ignore the almost wounded look he was fixed with. If he tried to apologize, he would lose the last shreds of his tattered self-composure. He was on his own and it had to stay that way.
He refused to let anyone get killed for trying to help him.
Morning came too early. Doused in the shadows of his office, Rodney nursed his second cup of coffee and wondered when Langham would make an appearance, all the while cursing a conscience that was trying its damndest to make him feel guilty for shutting Sheppard out. For his own good.
He'd probably be over it by that night, short attention span and all that. Rodney tipped his mug back up and proceeded to take a large gulp of the scalding liquid. He was in the middle of swallowing when the rap at his doorframe came.
It had been a toss-up between Rodney doing a spit take or swallowing his insanely large and entirely too hot swig of caffeinated brew. He wound up swallowing in one painful gulp, sending himself into a sputtering coughing fit as something went down the wrong pipe. Marrick just stood in the doorway to his office looking nonplussed, probably not caring one way or another if Rodney was in need of any Heimlich maneuvers.
When Rodney finally managed to regain some measure of calm, he gasped out. "What?"
"Langham sent me to get you."
Eyes watering from nearly choking to death, Rodney just rubbed his throat and stared at the security officer and hoped that he was telegraphing his confusion clearly. Or perhaps just the image of a scientist too frazzled to function before ten o'clock in the morning. Either way, Marrick simply remained in the doorway, staring impassively at him.
"Come again?" he finally managed.
"Dr. Langham got sidetracked. He asked me to give you the tour."
"Tour? Of what?"
Marrick's face gave away nothing as he motioned towards the hallway. "Let's go."
A knot of dread worked its way through him, but Rodney pushed himself up from his desk, leaving the remainder of his coffee cooling on his desk as he struggled to keep up with the rapid pace the security officer was setting. It was hard not to show his confusion as they made their way through the maze of hallways, toward the entrance to the R&D wing.
Marrick pulled him around the corner leading to the door that Sheppard was so fascinated with. Rodney tried not to shy away from the touch, but a shiver ran through him nonetheless. The angry cloud of suspicion had left Marrick's expression, but the cool aloofness remained. Rodney supposed that should be a good thing, but he had his doubts.
Marrick stepped up to the door, barely flicking a glance at the man he was escorting. "Are you ready?"
"Your new assignment," Marrick said, laying his hand on the biometric sensor. A green light flashed under his palm, and the status indicator lit up in blue briefly.
A hiss indicated the lock was releasing, allowing Marrick to pull open the door with ease. Resisting the urge to lick suddenly dry lips, Rodney's hesitation was brief as he was beckoned beyond the door. He cautiously stepped forward, watching everything with wide eyes. This corridor was much of the same, a long hallway that led to another set of double doors. Marrick didn't feel the need to fill the walk with idle chit-chat, and so Rodney just listened to the sickening pounding of his own heart in his ears as they made their way down the hall.
"How many of these are there?"
Marrick ignored the question, and bent down until he was eye-level with the panel set into the wall. Another light, this one dimmer, shone out as it made its scan. Well, that explained the retinal scan from his first day.
"Where are we going?"
"Downstairs," Marrick said simply.
The doors slid open to reveal a small, simple elevator. Perhaps Rodney was trapped in a dream where he suddenly was allowed access to all of the answers that he needed, because it didn't feel like reality as he stepped into the elevator.
"I don't understand," Rodney said softly. "Why are you showing me this?"
"Langham has been pushing to move you on to bigger projects for a while now, but we had to be sure first."
"Sure of what?"
"Your willingness to protect company interests," Marrick intoned smoothly as he pulled out what looked like a small tape recorder and pressed the play button.
Rodney swallowed as Sheppard's distant and tinny recorded voice played on the small speakers. "Aren't you curious?"
Marrick quirked a brow as Rodney's eyes widened and he had to remind himself to breathe. He could only shake his head and repeat softly. "I don't understand."
The conversation continued to play, as well as the one from Christmas Day. He had known he was probably being listened to, but faced with the evidence he wasn't sure what his reaction was supposed to be. Perhaps those who didn't suspect they were being monitored would be flustered or outraged, not quiet and wide-eyed.
"Just drop it!" His own voice echoed from the device, berating Sheppard for his continued interest in getting himself killed.
He swallowed heavily, and looked at Marrick with wide eyes. "I still don't understand..."
"You passed the test," Marrick returned tightly. "I suppose I should welcome you to the team."
Marrick just remained mute and the rest of the elevator ride was filled with silence, and a mounting sense of dread.
The daze followed Rodney off of the elevator and into the corridors that were a stripped down, more utilitarian version of the R&D wing. The hallways had the same twisting quality of their upstairs counterparts, and a small part of his mind wondered if the layout was an exact replica. Marrick wasn't much of a tour guide, and was content to let the uncomfortable silence fill their walk through the almost barren hallways.
They passed various open doorways where Rodney could spy people intently focused on whatever they were working on at their lab stations. He tried to squash any sense of rising curiosity, but it must have shown on his face.
"This is where we conduct our most sensitive research."
"I gathered it was something like that," Rodney managed to force a little bit of annoyance in his voice for posterity's sake. "I just haven't figured out what 'that' is exactly."
"Soon enough, Doctor."
Marrick stopped in front of a sizeable doorway with another biometric sensor. He palmed the sensor, and the doors swooshed open to reveal a large room littered with debris. Unable to resist his rising curiosity, he followed Marrick in with only a hint of hesitancy. His eyes tracked over the contents of the room, what looked like electrical and mechanical components to a machine of some sort were scattered about the floor. In the far corner of the room sat the skeleton of what could have once been a plane. "What is that?"
"Doesn't it look familiar?"
Rodney frowned, clasping his arms behind his back so he could work the trigger on his watch as he took a closer look. The massive, curved wingspan, and the general dimensions of the remainder of the ship did seem familiar... actually...
They were almost identical to the X-302.
"Is that a... prototype?"
"No," Marrick said flatly. "It's a predecessor."
"Predecessor?" Rodney flicked his gaze back to Marrick, unsure of what to make of the flat expression on the other man's face. "It looks just like the X-302."
"It should, since it's what we modeled it after."
"How can that be possible? I didn't think anyone had managed to achieve this kind of engineering—"
"They haven't," Marrick cut him shortly. "We've been doing a little reverse engineering."
"Well, if you're doing that, then someone had to make the damn thing!"
"Someone did," there was another tight, humorless smile, "just not who you think."
"You're not making any sense."
"Let's continue the tour," and without another word Marrick had left the room, leaving Rodney to scurry after him before he could get any more pictures.
"I'm really confused," Rodney said, forced to dodge to the side as a pair of harried scientists cut by. He flicked them a look, knowing he had seen them at some point during his tour of the scientific circuit. "What's going on here?"
"Are you not enjoying the tour?"
"You suck at tours," Rodney snapped out before he could stop himself. He quickly looked away before Marrick could give him another one of those cold, appraising stares. "Look, I don't see why you're showing me this if you're just going to keep giving me the double-speak routine."
"All will be explained soon enough."
Rodney was able to contain the snort of derision, but just barely. They lapsed into silence again as they navigated through the hallways, which grew more and more congested with traffic. He had to hover uncomfortably close to Marrick as they picked up their speed and dodged incoming travelers. They were a curious mix of scientists Rodney had occasionally seen around the building intermixed with several beefy individuals who must have been part of Marrick's security force.
They all gave Rodney a curious glance but didn't attempt idle conversation or greetings. He had just about lost himself in the twisted maze when they reached another elevator with the same retina scanner as before. Rodney's skin was starting to crawl with the sensation of something being wrong, when an almost familiar bellow belted out a string of unfamiliar words.
"Go'tak! Kel kek!"
With a morbid sense of fascination, Rodney twisted where he stood and was barely able to catch a glimpse of the same dark-skinned individual who had attacked him and Sheppard. The man was still dressed in white scrubs, strapped down to a gurney manned by two security type officers.
"What the hell?" he breathed.
"Ah," Marrick said, "our guest."
"He doesn't look like a guest."
"Guest is the polite term." Rodney untwisted to see that Marrick had summoned the elevator and was waiting somewhat impatiently for the scientist to join him. "I'm afraid his stay here is... less than voluntary."
His gut twisted as Sheppard's objections raised in the back of his mind. It took all of Rodney's willpower to force a shaky smile and step on the elevator with Marrick, who was watching him intently.
He knew he was supposed to question that, but he was having a hard time finding a way to phrase it correctly without raising Marrick's suspicions. "Is there a reason why?"
"Because he's not human."
"He's an alien." Perhaps Rodney was dreaming, because he could have just sworn that Marrick had just implied... "They call themselves Jaffa."
The only Jaffa Rodney had ever heard of was an orange flavored British snack cake that was particularly harmful to a man with citrus allergies. Not exactly a fear inducing name for an alien species—well, except for the citrus part.
"They're basically human incubators for another alien race," Marrick explained simply, as if he were talking about the weather outside. "We really don't know much about them since our 'guest' is the first live specimen that we've managed to acquire."
Using the phrase "specimen" to describe another human being—because there was no outward indication or markers of the man being extraterrestrial—made Rodney's skin crawl in a completely different way than it had been. The elevator continued to descend, and it was an effort to keep his true feelings on the matter buried underneath a mildly curious tone. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow. By alien you mean..."
"Not from this planet."
"That's not possible."
"Oh, it is. In fact, the ship I showed you is built by that same alien race I mentioned."
"Let's pretend for a second that there is such thing as aliens. How exactly are you kidnapping them and their ships? Did they land here?"
"You're about to find out."
This elevator ride led to another corridor with a similar door to the one leading into this madhouse. Marrick continued to lead the way, playing human key with his handprint on the biometric sensors. He gave Rodney a measuring look before reaching for the door.
"There's no turning back from this point."
Rodney doubted there was much turning back after talk of aliens from other planets, which sounded like a load of rubbish to his ears, but he had come this far. He might as well see it through. "I'm ready."
The door was pushed open to reveal... another hallway.
Really. Just another plain, claustrophobic hall leading to another T-intersection. He smothered a sigh of frustration and followed Marrick's lead, tucking his hands in his pocket to keep from fiddling with his watch. Whatever Vertrauen was hiding, they seemed pretty adamant about making it difficult to find. Rodney had his doubts about being able to navigate his way back down here again without help.
As they reached the T-intersection, they were joined by harried-looking Langham.
"Just in time," he said by way of greeting, wiping a hand across his sweaty brow. "They're about to dial out."
"Did you find the problem?"
"Weaver thinks it was just a fluke in the dialing program," Langham explained and flicked a glance at Rodney. "Dr. McKay, glad you could join us."
"It's been... interesting," he managed to reply.
"I had hoped to conduct the tour myself, but we had a little issue arise with our software. You know how it is." At Rodney's blank look, he continued. "You don't know?"
"I thought I would leave the difficult explanations for you." Marrick gave Langham a measuring look. "You wanted him."
The look was returned with an equally miffed expression. "He's trustworthy. You agreed to that."
"I did." Marrick's nose wrinkled in distaste. "But I have more important things to do than to play escort."
"Fine, fine," Langham cut in, "I'll take over from here."
"Good," Marrick said tersely, giving Rodney a brief, dark look. "I have to brief the outgoing team."
"They're waiting for you in the briefing room," Langham explained, perhaps unnecessarily because Marrick just rolled his eyes.
"They're scheduled to leave within the hour. Will that be all right with you?"
"A live demonstration works best for these kinds of things," Langham said airily. "Dr. McKay, if you'll follow me. As I was telling you yesterday... I have something I would like to show you."
The ring was so massive it took up almost the entire room, and the detailed workings on the stone-like metal were fascinating. He could see no seams on the object, even as he was allowed to run his hands along the massive totem. It was solid, and absolutely beautiful from an aesthetics standpoint. The structure actually had two rings from what he could tell. There was the outer one, adorned with decorative etchings and nine large, red, and evenly spaced chevrons. The inner ring looked like it might spin, and had a variety of strange symbols embossed in the surface. He could see no manufactured lines anywhere on it, and with its massive size...
He looked up to the ceiling way above, barely making out a seam to a large bay of doors. They had probably gotten it in that way. Rodney would have to consult the building's diagrams to see what took up the space on the floors above. He had his suspicions the official blue prints were doctored to hide the underground maze and this room. Either way, from the light layer of dust on one of the chevrons, it didn't appear like it had been lowered in here recently.
"It's magnificent, isn't it?"
Rodney glanced over his shoulder at Langham, who had been holding back and letting Rodney gaze at the massive artifact in wonder. "What is it?"
"According to the translation we managed to get from an archaeologist a few years ago... it's called a Stargate."
Rodney tucked his hands back into his pockets as he turned away from the ring. He'd managed to get several close shots so far. He wasn't sure what Lorne and his people would do with them, but Rodney had them now. Now he just needed an explanation to go along with them. "A star... gate? What the heck is that?"
"Just what it sounds like."
"A bad marketing gimmick?"
"No." Langham frowned. Apparently he had woken up without a sense of humor that morning. "It's a portal to the stars."
"Right," Rodney snorted unbelievingly.
"It's true," Langham retorted proudly before resuming his usual nasally superior tone. "We use it to make runs to other planets, where we try to find things that might turn a profit."
"What kind of 'things'?"
"Anything really; medicines, knowledge, but mostly technology that we can bring back and reverse engineer."
"Like the X-302?"
"Forgive me," Rodney didn't sound contrite as he fixed Langham with a look, "but how does a giant metal ring enable you to travel to other planets?"
"It creates a stable wormhole—"
"It creates a wormhole?" Rodney snorted. "That's impossible. Not only are they theoretical, but the power requirements to bend space-time would be astronomical—"
"It's very expensive to do, I can assure you of that." Langham motioned Rodney toward the exit that led to the control room that overlooked the current one. "The Gate is made of pure naquadah, so that eases the power requirements some, but we still have to feed it electricity to establish a connection."
"Naquadah?" Rodney spun around to look at the object. "I thought you said that element is rare, why would you use it to build—"
"We didn't build it," Langham explained. "It was found in an archaeological dig back in 1927 in Giza, by one of our founders in fact."
"Heinrich Grüper," Rodney muttered, remembering the name from the Vertrauen literature.
"Yes, that's him. There was some sort of falling out with his partner, and Grüper wound up with it in his private collection. Since he had no children, his entire estate was willed to the company, and that's when we discovered it. It took us years to figure out its true function—we probably would have never gotten it working without the translation of the Giza ruins given to us by that misguided archaeologist."
"Misguided archaeologist?" Rodney did his best impression of Sheppard, arching a brow in interest.
"He had a crazy theory that the Great Pyramids were built as landing platforms for aliens."
"Ah yes, he sounds like a real winner."
"The thing is, Dr. McKay... he was right."
"Oh, come on!" Rodney snorted. "There are no such things as aliens, or wormholes for that matter. I mean, yes, they're a valid theory in general relativity but you can't create one in reality. And even if you could, to travel through a wormhole with our current level of technology would be akin to trying to travel through a tree shredder."
"I agree," Langham said patiently, "but we didn't build it."
"No, you just uncovered it in the 1920s. I don't know about you but when I think of flappers and prohibition, I think of renowned feats in astrophysics. How far we've regressed in these eighty years."
Langham sighed. "Your skepticism isn't unexpected."
"It's a lot to swallow on your word alone."
"I know," out came the political smile that Rodney had really not been missing at all this morning, "and that's why I've arranged a demonstration."
The control room for the "Stargate" was a series of computer stations with more buttons than Rodney had seen in his entire lifetime. It was manned by several people whose entire attention was focused on the team of four, overly buff security men assembling in the room below.
Rodney stood with his arms crossed, on the surface appearing put out, but he had shifted his arms to where he could naturally tap at the camera's trigger on his watch. Langham excitedly rocked on his feet on one side of Rodney, and Marrick loomed moodily on the other. The technicians at the consoles didn't seem bothered by the loud keen emanating from the speakers above them or the flashing red lights. It was just another day as far as they were concerned.
The "Stargate" was moving smoothly, each chevron glowing a bright red as it locked into place with each symbol. As the sixth one locked in place, with a needless announcement of said fact, Langham glanced over at him. "You should take a closer look."
"Closer? I can see perfectly fine from here."
Grumbling, Rodney allowed himself to be escorted closer to the large window, finding a comfortable spot just as the technician shouted out that the seventh chevron had been locked. Over the keen, Rodney heard a strange, mechanical whir. Eyes riveted to the ring below and still rhythmically tapping the trigger button, he watched in fascination as a brief surge of electricity crackled across the ring. Before he could comment, blue energy shimmered at the edges of the inner ring before joining together to form one giant water-like wave. He took a step back involuntarily as it rushed outward from the center before collapsing back on itself, leaving a completely vertical blue pool of energy shimmering in its wake.
His breath caught in his throat and he took that same step forward, forgetting about taking pictures as he reached out toward the glass as if he could touch the energy. It continued to shimmer enticingly, beckoning Rodney to come forward and see if he could feel the energy fluctuations in the event horizon.
"Now do you believe?" Langham asked smugly.
Rodney just stared in awe as the four men, heedless of the fact that they were walking into a giant pool of electricity, made the short trek up the small metal ramp that stood in front of the Stargate and disappeared through the portal. He dimly heard radio confirmation of their safe arrival on "the other side", wherever the hell it was. He continued to watch, enthralled and terrified by the spectacle before him.
"Shut it down," Marrick said lightly. "No need to waste energy. I think Langham has proven his point."
The shimmering blue light winked out of existence as if it had never been there to begin with, leaving only the giant monolith standing in the room below him. Rodney knew that he hadn't ingested any citrus in the past few minutes, but he was still finding it hard to breathe as he stared at what could only be a harbinger of things to come.
It felt like reality was practically crumbling down around him as his world suddenly became much smaller, and the universe grew vastly in size. If travel to other worlds was possible, that meant that there could in fact be life beyond Earth. If Marrick and Langham were to be believed, then not only was that true, but they were actively stirring the intergalactic plot by scavenging other worlds and kidnapping their populaces. It would only be a matter of time before the "Jaffa" upstairs was missed—and someone came looking for him.
And Rodney had a feeling that would be a very bad thing.
John wasn't quite over the brush off he'd received the night before, but he was trying to push it to the back of his mind. McKay was making it very clear that he didn't want any help, even though every fiber of John's being told him that the scientist was neck deep in some kind of trouble. He just had no idea what.
It was hard to remain on the sidelines. John didn't... get attached to people often, yet somehow Rodney's brash demeanor had slipped past his defenses. He wasn't sure what bothered him the most; the fact that had happened without John realizing, Rodney being in trouble but refusing help, or John having to ignore his instincts in order to "mind his own business".
However, he hadn't left things well the night before so he needed to make sure that Rodney showed up for their outing that night. If Carson got wind of another disagreement, John would be back on peanut butter sandwiches for sure. Damn Laverne and her culinary talents made for effective bargaining tools. As John approached the scientist's office, he braced himself for a tongue lashing and an onslaught of sarcasm.
He didn't expect to find Rodney hunched over his desk staring off into space and white as a sheet. John's concern ratcheted up several notches as he watched his friend do everything but shake as he held his glasses in front of him as if he were transfixed by them.
"Rodney?" he asked softly. "You okay?"
The other man didn't jump, but the startled way he dropped the glasses to the desk did nothing to assure John of his friend's mental well-being. "Sheppard... what are you doing here?"
"Just came to remind you about the game." John tapped his watch. "It's just about quitting time."
"Oh, I," he looked away, busily stuffing items into his bag. "I can't come."
"Why not?" John pursed his lips, not liking the frantic movements. "Look, about last night, I'm sorry. I just—"
"It has nothing to do with you, I just... something has come up. Something really big. "
There was a brief, almost terrified glance in his direction, before Rodney finished shoving the contents of his desk into his bag. "It's really not a good time."
John took a chance and ventured into the office, resting his hip against the desk in what appeared to be a casual slouch. Rodney barely spared him look before seeming to realize he was trying to pack his entire office. John could only quirk a brow in question as the items from the bag were carefully removed and placed back on the desk's surface. "You really don't look good."
"I'm fine!" Rodney snapped.
"You don't look it."
"Well, I am!" Sweat was beading at Rodney's brow as he tried to rearrange his desk to its original position and simultaneously avoid meeting John's gaze.
"Look, whatever it is—"
"Don't you listen?" Rodney snapped. "I'm not in the mood—"
Every muscle in John's body knotted up at the greeting and from the close distance, he could see Rodney practically tremble and grasp the desk for support. Schooling his features, John turned to see Marrick poking his head through the doorway.
"Dr. McKay," Marrick barely flicked a glance in John's direction, "I just wanted to apologize for my brusqueness earlier this morning."
"That's fine," Rodney smiled shakily, but his voice didn't waver with the uncertainty that he had been projecting before Marrick's arrival. "There was a lot going on."
"Yes," the tight, controlled glance in John's direction made the hairs on the back of his neck rise, "but since we'll be working together, I wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings."
"None at all."
John's stomach dropped as he watched the silent interplay between them. The tight, almost twitch to Rodney's eye told John that he wasn't pleased with the situation, but also that the statement had been accurate. Rodney was going to be working with Marrick? It was none of his business, John knew that, he'd been told it many a time.
"Are you leaving?" Marrick asked lightly, but John could see a hint of suspicion in the sharp gaze.
Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney didn't exactly freeze, but the way his fingers dug into the desk harder told John that the question had caught him off guard. Quickly processing Marrick's arrival with Rodney's shift in demeanor, John decided that wanted or not, he would offer a little help.
"We had plans," John said lightly. "Going to catch the game tonight."
"Really?" Marrick raised an eyebrow in interest, shooting the look at Rodney. "Is that so?"
"Yes," Rodney said quickly, "hockey it's a, uh..."
"Canadian thing," John interjected before McKay fumbled completely. "It seems that our little Poindexter is missing the motherland a little. Thought I'd try to cheer him up with his national pastime."
He could feel the scathing glare pointed in his direction for the "little Poindexter" comment and John couldn't hide his smirk. Riling Rodney would never get old. Unfortunately, Marrick was still hovering so John shot his friend a pointed look. "You ready to leave?"
"Yes," he snapped and grabbed his bag, knocking a few items from his desk to the floor in the process. "Sorry, Marrick, but we'll need to pick this up on Monday."
"Of course," came the smooth reply.
John, perhaps not so subtly, positioned himself to where he stood between Marrick and the scientist as he moved out of the small office. He did his best to ignore the stare tracking their movements down the hall, and tried to keep up a casual conversation about the merits of football over hockey for appearances sake. Rodney really didn't participate in the conversation but the thankful, relieved look he graced John with was worth the extra effort.
He was still unsettled because while the nervousness had faded away, John could tell there was something still really wrong.
Back in McKay's office, Marrick picked up one of the fallen items from the desk, turning it over in his hands curiously. The lenses on the glasses caught the overhead fluorescent lighting and glinted dangerously.
The bar was crowded, loud, and it was difficult to hear the announcement of the game over the other conversations taking place. This didn't seem to bother either Beckett or Sheppard, who were adding their own commentary to the Coyotes' hockey game on one screen, intermixed with a few curious remarks about the way the Phoenix Suns passed the basketball on another screen across the bar. God, Rodney hated sports bars.
The din in the room was complicating the headache that was building, and as much as Rodney really needed something stronger than the water he was sipping right now, he had serious doubts he'd be able to keep anything down with the nervous way his stomach kept twisting. The meeting tomorrow morning was a long ways off.
He should be happy, because come tomorrow this would all be over. No more lying, no more pretending, and no more putting up with Marrick's hostile stares. At least... he hoped so.
It was another matter entirely whether or not Lorne would believe the explanation behind the images Rodney had gotten of the Stargate. A sudden, crippling fear gripped him. What if they decided to wait and gather more evidence?
His hand shook as he lifted the glass of water to his lips, and a few droplets sloshed over the side before he could steady the glass with his other hand. There was no way Rodney could go back to that place on Monday and just smile and pretend that he was all right with everything they were hiding.
He sat the glass back on the table, trying to contain the shiver that ran through him. He was in deep... this was way too big for him to sit on it, even for hours. Not only did Vertrauen have a freaking alien in their basement (so they claimed), but they also had a device capable of interstellar travel. There was no telling what might follow one of those exploratory teams back from other planets.
"Hey," an elbow lightly jostled his on the table, and Rodney looked up to see Sheppard staring at him, "you all right?"
Carson was also watching him intently, and Rodney had to swallow heavily under the twin concerned gazes. Protocol for this situation dictated that Rodney wait for the meet, give Lorne the pictures and the information in the morning, and in the meantime carry on like nothing was wrong. He needed to act natural and not rouse anyone's suspicions.
"I, uh..." Rodney wiped a hand across his forehead, almost fascinated when it came away with moisture. It was way too cold in the room for him to be sweating.
"Rodney, are you not feeling well?" Carson's brow scrunched up in concern. "You're as pale as a ghost."
"I..." His gaze swiveled between the two sets of eyes staring at him with naked concern, and a tight band wrapped itself around his chest, making it difficult to breathe. "I'll be fine."
They didn't believe him, but that wasn't his concern. He wouldn't make it to the morning at this rate. He needed to just calm down, everything would be fine.
"Look, go on home if you're not up for this," Carson said patiently. "You don't seem to be enjoying it anyway."
The band loosened and Rodney was able to breathe. They weren't going to press it. He could just get his bearings and everything would be fine. Just fine. He scrubbed a hand across his eyes and froze.
"Rodney?" Sheppard's voice raised in concern. "What's wrong?"
It was like being caught in slow motion, as his fingers explored his nose and eyes, feeling for the glasses that weren't there. His breath caught in his throat, and this time he couldn't contain his panic. "Oh shit."
"Rodney?" This time it was Carson.
"Oh god," he breathed, suddenly bursting into action, shoving his hand into every pocket he could find, each time coming up empty. "Oh god, this can't be happening!"
"What's the matter?" There was no hiding the concern in Sheppard's eyes, or the way it was tracking each of his frantic movements carefully.
"I left my glasses at work!"
"Wait," Sheppard pinned him with a look, "I thought you said you couldn't drive without those."
Sheppard recoiled from the angry tone as if physically struck. "Why would you lie about that?"
"It doesn't matter," Rodney snapped. "I have to get out of here!"
He slid out of the booth, barely dodging the hand grabbing at his sleeve. "Don't touch me!"
He needed to gather his wits, try and figure out the best course of action. Unsure if he wanted to brave his apartment, Rodney made a strategic retreat toward the bathroom to regain his composure. This was so bad, so very, very bad. He should have been paying more attention, shouldn't have let himself get flustered by Marrick in his office. Should have made damn sure he had the stupid glasses. God...
He practically burst into the bathroom, earning a look from the only patron in there. Perhaps he was a little wild-eyed, because the other man quickly slipped out, leaving Rodney alone.
"Okay, okay," he chanted to himself, "maybe it's not so bad... maybe no one will have noticed."
It was a Friday, after all, there would be no one coming in over the weekend, and Rodney had left right at five. The only people who would have cause to go into his office were the cleaning crews, and they wouldn't think anything of a pair of glasses being left behind. He might not be screwed.
He could still wait and go to the scheduled meeting with Lorne. He'd apologize to Sheppard and Carson for his freak out and just pretend that everything was okay. He could return to his bugged apartment and wait out the night without having to alarm anyone.
But if someone else happened to pick up the glasses...
The door to the bathroom squeaked, announcing the presence of another person and he nearly leaped out of his skin.
"Rodney, are you in here?"
He spun, heart leaping to his throat, but it was just Carson. He let out a stuttered sigh of relief. "Don't do that!"
"Sneak up on me!"
"You're as twitchy as a mouse hanging from the claws of a hawk, so I don't think it'll take much to startle you right now."
"Did you want something?" Rodney snapped.
"I'm making sure you're all right, you ungrateful git," Carson returned with equal vehemence. "That was quite a performance back there."
"Oh, I wasn't acting!"
"No, I think you're doing a stand up job of giving yourself a stroke all without having to pretend," Carson cut in. "What is going on with you?"
"You don't want to know."
"I don't ask for posterity's sake, Rodney."
"No, seriously, you don't want to know!" He waved a hand in the air frantically. "I mean, I don't want to know. I really, really don't want to know!"
"What in blazes are you on about?"
"I can't tell you!" Rodney snapped. "Just trust me. You don't want to get involved with this."
"Involved with what?"
"I need to stop talking," he muttered to himself and reached for the door.
He needed to get to a pay phone and call Lorne before he gave everything away. There was a reason it was not standard practice to hire scientific geniuses to be super secret spies. There was way too much at stake, especially when something this big was discovered.
"Rodney, where are you going?"
"I've got to get out of here," he said simply and charged out of the door and back into the bar. The pay phones were just outside the front doors. He could make it to them, make his call, and then hide until Lorne could come find him. And possibly kill him for mucking things up at the last minute. That would be okay, because he would only be theoretically dead with Lorne, rather than actual dead with Vertrauen.
He made it all of two steps into the main bar area before the sight of several muscle-bound men shoving their way through the crowds stopped him cold. They were dressed from head-to-toe in black, and, he realized with a sickening lurch in his stomach, wearing windbreakers with the VerTech logo emblazoned on the sleeve.
"Oh shit," he breathed, backpedaling back into the bathroom, taking Carson with him as a casualty of being in the way. "Oh god."
"Oh god, oh god, oh god." Rodney had to grab the wall for support, because his legs were having a hard time keeping him upright at the moment. "They know... they know."
"Breathe, lad, breathe." Carson was at his shoulder, trying to support his weight. "It'll be okay."
"No, it won't!" he cried, pointing at the door. "They're here and they know!"
"Oh god," he muttered again into the brick wall. "I can't believe this."
"I'm having a hard time myself," Carson said impatiently.
"I'm going to die," he muttered, unable to stop the words from overflowing now, "I'm seriously going to die."
"What?" Carson snapped. "What the hell are you yammering about?"
"I'm in trouble, Carson," Rodney's voice was small and quiet, "really big trouble."
The transition from the Scot's normal soft concern to alarm was instantaneous. "What's going on?"
"Oh, the usual," his voice was shaky, "conspiracy, aliens, corporate hit men. Nothing too over-the-top."
"I don't understand."
"There is a group of men out there," Rodney swallowed, "from VerTech."
"And that's bad?"
"Oh, that's very bad."
"Why is that?"
"Because..." Rodney popped his watch up to bear and pressed the mechanism that released the flash card inside. "I have pictures of their big secret, and I'm pretty sure that they really don't want the government finding out about it."
"Don't pretend!" Rodney barked. "We all know there was something screwy going on there!"
Carson's brow twitched, but he didn't respond to the accusation directly. "Why would you take pictures?"
"Because," he explained patiently as he removed the flash card, "that's my job."
Rodney took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Carson, can I trust you?"
"Of course you can trust me, what kind of daft question is that?"
"Good, because I don't have any choice right now." Rodney shoved the flash card into the other man's hand. "Take this, and be sure they don't see you with me."
"I don't understand." Carson accepted the flash card hesitantly, staring at it in his open palm as if it might suddenly take life and leap free of its own accord. "What is this?"
"Photographic evidence of what Vertrauen is hiding in their basement. I need you to hold it for me while I try to slip out without being seen."
"Why can't you take it with you?"
"Because the Air Force has to see what's on that disk, no matter what." They'd never manage to get another plant in, and unfortunately the Stargate made things a lot bigger than just Rodney's survival. Those idiots were playing with fire every time they stepped through the Stargate. "If they catch me, it's better that I don't have that on me."
"I really don't like the sound of this."
"I don't like being in the middle of it."
"So you're pulling me in as well?"
He let his eyes shut, because no, he couldn't ask Carson to do that. Not even bothering to open his eyes, Rodney held his hand out for the disk. "You're right... sorry."
"What are you doing?"
"I'll be okay... I'll get out somehow."
"Just call the police."
Rodney snorted. "You don't understand the magnitude of the situation—if they don't already own someone on the force, they won't hesitate to kill anyone who gets in their way."
They had gone to great lengths to keep their very profitable secret under wraps, and Rodney highly doubted they weren't going to let a few men in uniforms get in the way.
"Well, so is creating a stable wormhole, but apparently it's possible!"
"I have no idea what you're saying."
"Just give me the disk, Carson. I don't have time to argue about this."
"I thought you wanted me to hold onto it."
"I shouldn't have asked you to do that—this isn't something you should get involved with."
"No." Carson's hand tightened around the disk and he shoved it into his pocket. "You asked for my help. I'm not going to abandon you to the wolves."
"If they find that you have it—"
"They won't be looking for me. Will they?"
"No," Rodney looked away, worrying his lip between his teeth. "Just me... and the pictures."
"And if they catch you?" Rodney caught Carson's gaze, and apparently didn't need to say anything because Carson sucked in a quick breath. "Are you sure?"
"They've done it before, and I'm pretty sure I've pissed them off worse than the other guy."
Carson nodded, face clouding over in a barely restrained fear. "What do I do with this?"
"If I can give them the slip, I'll give you a call on your home phone—not your company cell—around nine p.m., and we can arrange a meet."
"And if you don't call?" Carson asked roughly.
Rodney looked away, studying the cracks and chinks in the brick wall of the bathroom. "Then you need to contact Major Lorne, and tell him what I've told you."
"He'll know what to do," Rodney muttered. "Do you have a pen?"
"Yes," Carson said flatly, producing one from his pocket. "You haven't really told me much."
"Trust me, the less you know, the better." Rodney took the proffered pen and swiftly moved over to the paper towel dispenser. He yanked one out savagely and scribbled the contact number he had been forced to memorize so many months ago. He held it out to Carson, unable to look directly into the frightened gaze directed at him. "I'm sorry."
"Get out of here," Carson said brusquely. "I'll give you a few minutes head start."
"Right," he nodded, reaching for the door and stopping. "Thank you."
"Just don't get yourself killed."
"I'll try," he offered Carson a shaky smile, and then he was out the door.
The good thing about a rowdy, noisy crowd was that Rodney could slip in between the groups of people as he made his way toward the exit. He nervously scanned the room, trying to pick out the locations of the different men. He wasn't sure how they had managed to find him, but that would have to wait until he could get to a more secure location.
He spotted one and ducked away quickly, barely dodging around another person and knocking over a round of drinks. He could do this, he could totally do this. Fingering his car keys in his pocket, he continued to wind his way toward the exit. Another quick glance up and he met Sheppard's sharp gaze, who was watching him intently. From the distance he could see the wheels turning in the other man's mind, and he was starting to rise from his seat. God damn it... it was bad enough that Carson had been dragged into this.
Rodney practically sprinted to the exit, hoping that he could make it to his car without anyone else spotting him. A thrill shot down his spine as he reached the doorway and, without another glance behind him, yanked the door open and rushed out into the parking lot.
He had done it; he was going to make it. He fished his keys out of his pocket, trying to appear casual as he began power walking to the far side where he had parked his car. New rule, when on stupid spy assignments, always park close to the entrance to ensure a quick getaway...
Correction: never take stupid spy assignments. Apparently they did not end well.
Hindsight was a glorious thing, Rodney realized the moment he walked straight into a barrel-chested individual decked out in black. In hindsight, Rodney decided as he looked up into the wicked face grinning down at him, he should have never listened to Lorne and Hammond in the first place and just taken a job at some Podunk community college.
There were no trained killers on the campus of community colleges.
Rodney backed up quickly, the large, hulking individual slowly matching his pace. He swallowed heavily as his back met with another muscular chest. Rodney's nerve failed him as a beefy hand gripped the back of his neck and another fisted into his shirt. As he struggled futilely in the strong grip, he realized that he didn't want to do this anymore, and he really wanted to wake up now because the wild hammering in his chest could only be from a nightmare.
"Stop squirming," the harsh voice growled into his ear, "or I'll have to make you stop."
"Or maybe you'll do the smart thing," another voice cut in, "and let him go."
John had the element of surprise on his side and as soon as the bulky man holding Rodney turned, John lashed out with a fist that caught the goon on the cheek. As the man's head snapped back from the blow, John followed it up with a sharp kick behind the knees, sending him and his captive sprawling on the pavement.
John had seen the four burly men follow Rodney from the bar, and had realized with a sick feeling that his instincts had been right all along. McKay was in trouble—John dodged the blow from the second guy, and from the close view he was able to clearly make out the VerTech logo emblazoned on the man's sleeve. Oh, there was trouble all right—it had just come from a different source than John expected.
One was down, this second guy wouldn't last for long, but the third and fourth were circling around from behind the van. Four-on-one was not odds John was willing to risk, especially if he had to keep an eye on Rodney. Pushing those thoughts away, John concentrated on escape. He jammed his elbow into the throat of his attacker, eliciting a strangled cry of pain. Not waiting to admire his handiwork and risk the others catching up, John hauled McKay up by the collar of his shirt and propelled him out into the back section of the lot where the scientist had parked his car.
"What the hell, McKay?" he snapped as he tugged his charge toward the bright blue Honda. "Seriously, what the hell?"
"I'm sorry," he babbled, "I can explain—"
"Escape first, explanations later."
He shoved Rodney toward the driver's side, glancing back to see the two men trying to pick themselves up. "Hurry it up."
"I'm trying, I'm trying just—oh crap."
"What?" John snapped his gaze back to see Rodney fingering the flat front tire. A quick glance to its three mates revealed that they all had been slashed. "Okay, that's bad."
"Really? Because I thought it was a sign of all the good things to come!"
These guys meant business—and they definitely didn't want Rodney to leave without a serious chat. John caught the flash of a gun, and he realized with a sudden clarity that whatever conversation they intended on having with the scientist would probably end with Rodney in a pine box.
And that would happen over John's dead body.
"Come on." He didn't wait for Rodney to follow, just grabbed him by the arm and yanked him further down the lot to where the Harley sat, gleaming under the streetlamps. "We'll take my bike."
"What? Oh no!" The arm twisted in John's grip, and he had to add another hand to the mix to physically haul the scientist the last few feet toward the bike. "There's no way you can get me on that death trap!"
The death trap part could have been true, because there was no time to don any riding equipment and John had left his only helmet back in the bar. It was going to be a rough ride, but it was better to not mention these things to an already panicking McKay.
"Fine." John climbed onto the bike and revved the engine. "Would you rather take a ride with them?"
Rodney looked over his shoulder to see the four men bearing down on their position, one raising his gun to bear. McKay gave a short yelp as he practically leapt onto John's back in his attempt to climb onto the motorcycle. "Just get us the hell out of here!"
"You better hold on," John warned as he kicked away the stand, "because this is going to get rough."
The pitiful whimper was almost drowned out by the roar as John hit the gas and the bike lurched away from its stationary position. Over the growl of the engine, John could hear the pop of gunfire around him. He grit his teeth together and wound his way through the crowded parking lot, dodging around cars and pedestrians alike as he raced toward the exit and to the street beyond.
He gunned the engine, flying through a yellow light moments before it turned red. A quick glance to his mirrors showed a dark colored sedan roaring after him, plowing through the intersection without any regard for the red light and oncoming traffic.
The damn thing was one of the newer Chryslers. It figured VerTech would equip their hit men with a luxury powerhouse vehicle. John would have no trouble outrunning a normal sedan, but that thing had a lot of power under its hood. This was not good.
"You really must have pissed them off," John shouted, but his words were lost in the wind.
He ducked around a car, feeling the arms tightening around his chest as the cycle slightly dipped with the movement. This wasn't going to work, John realized as he had to dodge around another vehicle and saw the sedan matching his brazen moves. There were too many vehicles and way too many intersections.
He saw the light ahead flick from green to yellow and put on an extra burst of speed, before banking into a left turn. There was a short shout of alarm from his passenger as they almost touched the ground during the turn, but they were soon vertical again. The death grip around John's chest did not relax.
If there was time, or no bitter chill wind whipping the words away, he might have tried to offer some sort of comfort. As it was, he needed almost every ounce of his concentration so they wouldn't wind up plastered on the road side. The Chrysler squealed around the corner, and John focused on the entrance ramp to I-19 ahead.
They roared up the ramp, and John pushed the engine to the max as the sedan tried to match his speed. The extra speed made the cold winter wind bite at his unprotected face and eyes, and his bare hands gripped the handlebars tighter as the chill burned his fingertips. He dodged around the slower moving vehicles on the freeway, but despite his best efforts he was unable to shake his pursuers.
Something on the ground spat up next to him and over the wind and the roar of traffic and his own engine, John could hear another angry roar of a gun going off.
His cursed "shit" was lost to the road noise, and John cut over three lanes as he spied an exit ahead. The bike faithfully responded to his jerky movements, and he managed to avoid getting crushed between two vehicles trying to merge lanes. Behind him, the Chrysler tried to match his movements with considerably less success.
Heedless to their suffering, he roared off the exit ramp, taking the next u-turn at the fastest speed possible. John didn't feel so guilty about the terrified scream that managed to echo in his ear before it was torn away by the speed and wind.
He tore past the next entrance ramp and he felt the grip around his rib cage tighten. There might have been some sort of question to what John was planning, but seeing as how conversation was pretty much out during the ride, he ignored it. The Chrysler roared around the turn, and John focused his attention back on what he was about to do.
Steeling his nerves, he continued to roar up to the exit ramp and jammed on the brakes in order to execute a tight turn. There was a terrified screech accompanied by Rodney trying to squeeze the life out of him.
"What are you—?" John managed to hear a snatch of the nervous babbling in his ear as they slowed in the turn. "Oh, no..."
"Let's see them match this," John announced as he revved the engine, and they raced up the exit ramp.
Rodney's girly scream was (almost) lost to the road.
John filtered that out, as well as the uncomfortable pressure of another body clinging tightly to him like a second skin, and focused on dodging around the incoming headlights. Horns blared and tires screeched, but he continued on. It was more stupid than daring, but maybe, just maybe...
...it wasn't going to work.
Another glance to his mirrors revealed that the Chrysler was still tailing them, but was having more difficulty navigating around the oncoming traffic. He cursed aloud, but was unable to slam his hands in frustration because he had to dodge around an eighteen wheeler bearing straight toward him.
He snarled into the wind, cursing the traffic and the men still doggedly pursing them. They weren't going to give up on their own—
—so John would have to help guide them to that decision.
He pushed the engine to the max, gaining an extra burst of speed, and wildly dodged through the oncoming cars and blaring horns like a man gone mad. Rodney's face buried into his back, and he could feel more than hear the muffled scream of terror. Gritting his teeth, he managed to get a little more distance in before he slammed on the brakes, sending them into a skidding halt.
The horns were still blaring, but John was temporarily out of the road as they had managed to stop on the shoulder and the skid had faced them in the correct direction. The trembling hands clutching at him stilled as Rodney pulled his head up. "Oh god, is it over?"
"No," John replied tersely. "Just hold on, and try to mirror my movements so you don't knock us off balance."
"What are you going to do?" he asked shakily.
"We're going to play a game of chicken."
"We're going to—what? Oh, no, no, no! You're insane! You're freaking insane! When the objects of differing masses meet with great force, it's the tiny motorcycle that gets squished into street pizza!"
"Hang on," John readjusted his grip on the handlebars and glared at the oncoming headlights. "Here they come."
"We need a better idea than suicide!"
"Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full."
"You are not seriously quoting Top Gun at me right now!"
"Yeehaw," John smirked as he revved the engine, "Jester's dead!"
"No, no, Sheppard, this is not a good idea."
"Sorry, Goose, but it's time to buzz the tower."
Rodney's sputter of outraged protest was lost as John applied the gas and the bike shot forward. John didn't have time to appreciate that Rodney immediately complied with his instructions; he just focused on aiming the bike toward the hood of the oncoming sedan. Time seemed to slow; the rush of the wind in his ears settled into a soft stir, the angry blare of the car dodging around the battling vehicles became one long angry noise, and John had enough time to see the driver's eyes narrow before he slammed on the sedan's gas pedal.
Time resumed its normal pace, and John offered the driver a brief, satisfied smirk as he suddenly let off the gas. The sedan hurtled toward them, and mere milliseconds before they were to collide, dodged to the side. As Rodney was practically hugging John from behind, there was no resistance to the move. The bike dipped precariously close to the ground, almost close enough to graze at John's elbow. As the sedan plowed on by, John tilted back the other direction, barely managing to drag the bike upright.
One final glance to his mirror showed John what he had expected. The sedan had attempted to turn with the same radius, but the sudden move had sent them into a spin, and crashing into the barrier. With a grim smile, John gunned the engine and proceeded to get lost within the thronging traffic.
When they were safely out of the city limits, John decided that he was going to get some answers. He had definitely earned them.
The only light this far from the city limits was the brightly shining full moon overhead and the flickering bulbs from the rickety roadside station. They pulled to a stop next to the ancient-looking fuel pump. Despite the long drive and the comparatively calm ride, Rodney was still tightly wrapped around Sheppard.
"You can let go now," Sheppard said sourly. "We've come to a complete and full stop."
"We have?" Rodney cracked open an eye. "Why does it feel like we're still moving?"
"Because you're shaking."
"Oh," Rodney swallowed. "I'm not very good with motorcycles."
"I think I'm going to be sick," he muttered and quickly scrambled off the leather seat with an uncontrolled lurch.
"Don't get it on the leather," Sheppard said dryly.
Rodney ignored him and stumbled away from the cover of the rickety steel overhang and concrete landing onto the packed sandy ground that lined the remote highway. He shivered as a desert wind picked up and wormed its way through his measly thin jacket. Rodney vaguely remembered the forecast saying it would dip into the forties, and as he watched his breath fog in the air, he decided it had been accurate for once.
His stomach continued to roil from the rollercoaster of a motorcycle ride he had been subjected to, and wrapped his arms around himself in an effort to try and contain both warmth and his queasiness. Sheppard had insisted on taking the long way out of town, probably to try and throw the scent off of their trail. A brief check to his cell phone for time confirmed that Rodney had missed the promised call time to Carson. If the twenty missed calls on the log were any indicator, the Scot wasn't taking that too well.
God, Carson... a new nauseous feeling settled in the pit of his stomach, and Rodney knew it had nothing to do with Sheppard's fun house ride. It was bad enough that Sheppard had felt the need to force his way into this, but Rodney had willingly involved Carson. Of course, seeing as how Rodney probably would have never made it out of the parking lot without outside help, maybe it hadn't been an all together bad decision.
At least Lorne would get his freaking evidence. That was what was important after all, right?
He felt a presence join him at his side and was still too shaken from the ride to meet Sheppard's gaze head on. Rodney cleared his throat, trying to will his body to stop shivering long enough so that he could appear calm and cool for this conversation. The rigid set to the other man's shoulders told Rodney that answers were expected.
"Feeling better now?"
"No," Rodney admitted quietly, but in the silence of the night the words were as loud as the engine on Sheppard's bike. "I can't believe you did that."
"Well, taking your car was out."
"No," Rodney shook his head adamantly, "you just... dove in there without thought. There was no reason for you to get involved in this."
"They were going to kill you." There was a hard edge to Sheppard's voice, and Rodney could see him unconsciously mirror the same stance as he crossed his arms and stared off into the sands beyond. "That's reason enough."
"I just don't understand," Rodney continued quietly, "you shouldn't—"
"I swear to god, Rodney, if the next word out of your mouth is 'care' I'm going to punch you."
He swallowed heavily, and looked off into another direction, admiring how the sands almost appeared blue in the moonlight. It took him a moment before he finally clarified. "You shouldn't, though."
He tensed as Sheppard swung his body in his direction, waiting for a blow that didn't actually come. There was real anger brewing in the hazel eyes and Rodney flinched as a finger jabbed him in the chest. "That's bullshit."
"You shouldn't care," Rodney said again, with more conviction, "because I've been lying to you from the moment we met!"
"Really?" The single word was imbued with so much sarcasm it almost wasn't fair. "Have you now?"
"Yes, I have!" He twisted so he didn't have to see the storm raging in his friend's eyes. "I don't make friends, I'm not a social person—"
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Everything!" Rodney shouted. "Those things are based on emotional entanglements, and I'm a man who relies on logic!"
"So, what, you're a Vulcan now?"
"No, I," he spun away frustrated, "it was supposed to be a simple job. No complications as long as I kept my head low and didn't rouse any suspicions."
"And what would you be doing that would rouse suspicions?" Sheppard asked. "Something that might be a reason for Marrick sending a hit squad after you?"
"Maybe," he admitted quietly. At the stern look he clarified. "Okay, yes, definitely."
"I made the mistake of listening to the Air Force."
"I thought you didn't talk to them anymore."
"Another lie," he said flatly, "when you consider the fact that I'm their plant in Vertrauen's organization."
That seemed to take Sheppard off-guard, and the angry stance faltered as he tried to process the information. "You're a what?"
"I'm a spy," he spat. "I was sent to go in and find out what the hell they've been hiding for the past few years. The Chief-of-Staff thought it might be something big—and he was right."
Sheppard just shook his head again, still having trouble assimilating the first revelation. "You're a... spy?"
"Why is that so hard to believe?"
"Because," Sheppard waved a hand obliquely, "you're you. You're not..."
"James Bond?" Rodney supplied.
"No offense, but no."
"None taken," Rodney muttered and directed his glare out to the sands. "James Bond wouldn't have left part of his high tech camera in enemy territory for the bad guy to find."
"Your glasses?" Sheppard asked, frowning as he tried to connect the dots.
"Yes," Rodney replied tersely.
"They looked like real glasses—not those dorky things on the internet."
"That was the point," Rodney scrubbed a hand across his face. "I was just supposed to get pictures of anything suspicious and no one would know any better. Just some simple information gathering—and if they weren't hiding anything there would be no real harm since a lot of their contracts are directly with the Air Force."
"Why would you even agree to do that?"
"Because I'm expendable," he admitted quietly. "There would be no one to miss me if something did happen."
"Bullshit," Sheppard spat. "No one is expendable."
"So am I! I've lost a hell of a lot because other people believed that. Now, what was the real reason?"
"Because I didn't have a choice!"
"You always have a choice," Sheppard insisted, echoing words told to him only a few months ago. "You could have not done it."
"No, you don't understand," Rodney shot back, "I was going to lose everything. My lab, my credibility within the scientific community, my entire life's work would be called into question, refuted—my life was over. This was my only chance to get it back."
"How the hell does espionage factor into your life in academia?"
"A few years back, the Air Force received a tip from an astrophysicist named Peterson," Rodney explained tersely. "He claimed that Vertrauen was hiding something big, but he wouldn't talk unless he got protection and immunity."
"Immunity from what?"
Rodney pursed his lips. "Doesn't matter, because Peterson was dredged up from the bottom of the reservoir a few days later—the police report attributed it to organized crime."
"And how does this relate to you?"
"Because I was very close to completing an important experiment—a larger, non-naqudah powered version of the X-302's PDE in fact—when it overloaded and nearly incinerated a small chunk of Area 51."
"Four people died—and the investigation revealed that someone had tampered with the safety protocols. Protocols that General Aisley and I had a very public argument about the week before."
Sheppard's expression tightened. "I'm seeing where this is heading."
"And I was accused of sabotaging my own work just to prove myself right. You'll probably be shocked to know that I had a reputation of a man with an oversized ego who hated being wrong."
"You were set up."
"Yes," he ground out, "by someone within the Air Force, since only they and handful of scientists had access to that particular lab. General Hammond was the only one who seemed to believe me. Probably because he had begun to suspect that Vertrauen was bankrolling a few informants at Area 51, and..."
"And Vertrauen recruiters had been trying to knock down my doors for years. I was the most likely candidate to get in undetected and figure out what was going on. Especially if it appeared like I had cut all ties with the military."
"Shit," Sheppard breathed. "Then you're not kidding me?"
"It would be a hell of a rotten joke." Rodney toed the sand at his feet, musing on the difference between its coarse quality and the grains back in Nevada at Area 51. "Lorne is going to kill me."
"Lorne? The detective?"
"He was just playing dress up that night. He's a Major in the Air Force... he's also my handler."
"My contact, you know, my protection."
"Well, he's done a pretty crappy job of that so far!"
"Hey," Rodney snapped, "lay off! Marrick has about every line of communication tapped. It's not easy for Lorne to keep track of what's going on."
"You're a civilian," Sheppard ground out, "it's his job to keep you safe."
"Oh, look who's getting all holier-than-thou," Rodney mocked. "I can take care of myself."
"Really?" Sheppard shot back. "Is that why I had to play X-Games on the freeway with those bastards?"
"You didn't have to do that!"
"Yes, I did!" Sheppard savagely kicked at the sand with one boot. "I couldn't let them—damn it. It was not an option!"
"You getting caught up in this mess wasn't on my list of options either."
"Someone has to have your back," Sheppard ground out, "and if your actual backup isn't going to do it, then I will."
The hard determination seemed to let the wind of defiance out of Rodney's sails, and he was left floundering to his point. "It's bad enough Carson's involved, I can't let you—"
"You brought Carson into this?" Sheppard roared, and this time Rodney was sure the pilot was going to deck him. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"I was thinking I was about to get killed and that those pictures were too important to get buried!"
"More important than your friend's safety?"
"I tried to take them back! Look, I don't want him to get hurt, but I was running out of options."
"I can't believe this... I thought I knew you."
And that hurt worse than Sheppard actually taking a swing at him. He closed his eyes, trying to fight down the rising nausea. "You can go. You might be able to slip their notice, lay low for a while."
"You think I'm just going to leave you?"
"Well why not?" he asked. "I tried to tell you before, you don't want to be my friend. I certainly wouldn't stick around if the roles were reversed."
"Yes, you would," there was a hard edge to Sheppard's voice. "You're my wingman, remember?"
"I don't understand..."
"It's too late to turn back now." The determined set of Sheppard's jaw told Rodney there was more than one meaning behind that statement.
"Yeah," he admitted softly, because it was true. "Way too late."
There was no doubt in his mind that Sheppard was now on Vertrauen's most wanted list as well. Meaning... they were in this together, whether Rodney liked it or not. There was no point in keeping any more secrets—especially since he didn't really want to. He turned away from the tense set of shoulders and studied the expansive desert beyond.
"So," he said quietly, "I got to see what was behind that door you were so fascinated by."
Sheppard sucked in a quick breath. "Really?"
"Oh yeah," Rodney said, "and you were right."
"It went 'Downstairs'."
Rodney shook his head. "You're going to think I'm crazy."
It took a little longer than five minutes, talking in hushed tones as they made their way back to the station, but Rodney managed to boil it down to a very concise nutshell. Sheppard's amused disbelief over aliens and giant matter transporting rings faded into a grim determination as it became apparent that Rodney wasn't joking.
"We need to get you to your contact," he said gruffly as they entered the tiny corner store.
"It's a long drive from here to Davis-Monathan AFB."
"Well," Sheppard paid the cashier for the gas with several crisp bills, "I just filled up my gas tank, and I get forty-two miles a gallon on the highway. I think we'll make it."
"You're just bragging," Rodney muttered. "That's just not fair. I compromise any sort of an engine or power for good gas mileage, and here you get both on your fancy ride."
"Them's the breaks," Sheppard grinned.
"Whatever," Rodney grumbled as he pushed open the door and was met with another tendril of desert wind winding its way around him.
He ambled toward the waiting bike, ready to get on the road and end this nightmare. Unfortunately fate had other plans in the form of a darkened and seemingly abandoned beat-up Chrysler sedan sitting a ways away on the road. There was no way they could have found them so fast. Rodney had nothing they could track him by—
—except his lovely, GPS-enabled cell phone. Rodney swallowed dryly as his eyes tracked the darkened station. "Sheppard?"
"I see it," he growled. "Although I don't see them."
"Me neither, do you think they're—"
His question was cut off as a burning sensation raced up and down his spine. As if he were observing himself from a distance, he could see blue electricity tingling along his skin. He heard a startled shout of his name and a Sheppard's surprised cry of pain before the world went black completely.
Rodney was swimming through a haze of cotton and trying to grasp onto a single thought was akin to trying to hold onto a wet bar of soap. He felt weary, like he had been running cross-country nonstop for the past several hours, which was rather silly since Rodney did not exercise. Country...
Some of the haze cleared and Rodney pushed away the cotton as he was able to remember a vivid sprawling desert scene. He wasn't particularly a fan of the countryside, but for some reason it had been important. Very important—
Something hard banged against his forehead, dragging him further from the cottony fields of nothingness and back into the realm of consciousness. Something tugged at his hands when he tried to use them to bat away the intruding object, so he was forced to crack open his eyes. He was met with the vision of a blurry face hovering just in his field of view.
"Knock knock." The blurry figure rapped against his skull again, and Rodney's vision suddenly focused with startling clarity on Marrick's shark-toothed smile. "Nice of you to join us, Dr. McKay."
"Oh no," he groaned, listing to the side as whoever had been holding him upright let go. "I'm dreaming, please..."
"Afraid not," a groggy voice moaned next to him.
Rodney glanced to his left, nearly toppling over as his equilibrium swayed with the movement. Sheppard was looking about as good as Rodney felt, his gaze tightening as he tried to school the lingering grogginess from his face. His hair, somehow, managed to be even more askew than normal, sticking up at every angle as he stared ahead resolutely. His biceps bulged as he futilely tried to work at the bonds securing his hands behind his back.
Rodney tried working his, and realized he was similarly bound.
"You'll have to forgive the inhospitality," Marrick said dryly, "but we had to be sure Sheppard wasn't going to try and pull another daring rescue attempt."
"Bad habit," Sheppard shrugged, nearly tipping himself over in the process.
Rodney didn't roll his eyes, because he was sure that the motion might set off his own precarious equilibrium, and instead scanned the room. It wasn't exactly lush, but it was a lot nicer than Rodney's own office. For one it had carpet, and considering that he was in a forced kneel on the ground, his knees thanked the interior decorator for that decision.
Monitors lined two of the four walls, each flickering an image of a different part of the Vertrauen building. A large window occupied the far wall, letting moonlight spill in and illuminate the single laptop sitting on the large desk. One of the thugs from bar had circled around to join Marrick at his side, but he wasn't sure where the other three were. Maybe they were licking their wounds, if they had the same colorful assortment of bruises this guy was nursing. Despite himself, Rodney couldn't help but let a small smile slip through.
Sheppard seemed to catch his gaze, and he summoned a grim smirk for Rodney's benefit. Marrick narrowed his gaze at the silent byplay and, using his foot, gave Sheppard hard nudge in the shoulder that sent the pilot toppling over in an ungraceful heap.
"Hey," Rodney protested, "haven't you heard about not kicking a man when he's down?"
"Shut it, McKay," Sheppard snapped out, his gruff tone a counterpoint to the brief moment of camaraderie they had just shared.
"Interesting," Marrick muttered and ambled over to the desk, spinning the laptop around to face the doorway rather than the window. "I really hate to waste time, though, Dr. McKay. It took far too long for you two to regain consciousness as it is."
"Ah, yes, we missed that part on our tour this morning." The words were friendly, but the tone was laced with a heavy amount of scorn. Marrick picked up another object on the desk, and held it up to the light, admiring it. "A zat'ni'katel."
"That's quite a mouthful," Sheppard muttered from his spot on the floor.
"True," Marrick said, casually walking the expanse of the office again, "it's much easier to say zat."
"What is it?" Rodney snapped impatiently.
Marrick held it out for inspection, and Rodney studied the strange metal shape. It almost resembled a snake readying to strike, and appeared to be cast in the same color that the Stargate had been.
"It's alien," he said suddenly.
"Very good, Doctor," Marrick adjusted the snake-like object in his grip. "An alien weapon in fact. Very small, but very powerful as you no doubt can tell."
"You shot us with that thing?" Sheppard sounded aghast that something that resembled a toy had taken his macho image down a notch.
"The first shot just renders you unconscious," Marrick explained as if he were talking to Rodney's first undergrad class, "and considering it's practically silent, it's very handy in subduing pesky scientists and their bodyguards."
"He's not my bodyguard," Rodney protested.
"Really? So he just pulled you out of danger out of the goodness of his heart? Please, Dr. McKay, I've read your file—petty, arrogant, bad with people?" Sheppard made an angry noise from the ground as he unsuccessfully tried to push himself up. Rodney's gaze tracked back to Marrick as he began pacing restlessly. "But as I said, I hate to waste time and this conversation is getting off track."
"I don't think it was ever on the track to begin with," Sheppard shot back.
Marrick flicked him a brief, annoyed glance before focusing back on Rodney. He reached into his pants pocket and withdrew another small item, balancing it in one hand while he still gripped the zat in the other.
"Very interesting prescription you have on your glasses, Dr. McKay," Marrick said lightly. "You really shouldn't leave them lying around for just anyone to find."
Rodney closed his eyes as a wave of disgust and self-pity washed over him.
"It took me a long time with the scanners downstairs to find why they were giving off an EM field." Marrick's hand gripped the glasses tightly, the metal frame bending inward at the pressure. "There aren't many people who have access to this type of technology. So I'm wondering, are you here with the NSA, CIA, or—" He pinned Rodney with a cold look. "The Air Force?"
"I don't know what you're—"
It was amazing how fast Marrick could move. Before Rodney could even finish his sentence he had crossed the distance in a few quick strides and sent Rodney sprawling with a backhanded slap to the face. He gazed up at the ceiling, momentarily stunned.
"You lay another hand on him and you'll need more than just these ropes to keep me back, Marrick," Sheppard snarled, conviction dripping from his icy tone.
"Big words, Sheppard," Marrick mocked as he grabbed a fistful of Rodney's jacket and hauled him back to a sitting position. "I've got my hand on him. What are you going to do?"
The spinning stopped, and Rodney could see Sheppard seething silently from his position. He tried to shake his head, a silent communication for the pilot to back off. The gesture was very much appreciated, but there was absolutely nothing he could do but get himself killed faster.
"That's what I thought," Marrick muttered and twisted the jacket in his fisted grip. "Now don't lie to me, Doctor, because my patience is running thin."
Rodney just glared at him, since there wasn't much he was able to do in his position.
"I want to know where the pictures are." Marrick brandished the glasses/camera. "You obviously had them with you, and it's fairly important I destroy those before your friends in the military get a look at them."
Summoning his inner-Sheppard, Rodney ignored his wildly pounding heart in favor of offering a grim, satisfied smirk. "Screw you."
Marrick's face twisted with barely restrained fury, and he stowed the glasses away in favor of hauling Rodney to his feet. "I don't have time for your bravado games. Where are the files, Dr. McKay?"
"And what will telling you accomplish?" Rodney narrowed his gaze. "I've got a funny feeling that I'm not going to be walking out of this room—unless it's in a pair of cement shoes."
He was given a long appraising look, before being tossed into the waiting arms of Marrick's stooge. The man's meaty fingers dug into his shoulders, effectively restraining him.
"Fair enough." Marrick used his free hand to find the zat once again, and raised it to bear on Sheppard.
"What are you doing?" Rodney asked frantically.
"You seem particularly attached to this washout here."
Sheppard lifted his upper lip into an intimation of a sneer.
"And he certainly seems concerned for your welfare. Tell me, does it run both ways?"
Rodney watched with widening eyes as a bolt of blue electricity left the zat with a soft zap. "No!"
The bolt arced across Sheppard's entire body, sending the pilot into what looked like a painful convulsion. The blue light continued to arc for a moment, before it finally dissipated. With barely even a groan, Sheppard puddled limply on the floor.
"Why the hell did you do that?" Rodney demanded.
"The first shot just stuns," Marrick reminded coldly. "The second kills on contact."
The raised gun didn't waver from its aim on the prone figure, and Rodney felt himself battling a rising sense of nausea. Sheppard wasn't supposed to be here, wasn't supposed to be involved—and he was about to get himself killed. Although not from curiosity like Rodney had feared but from his steadfast, infuriating sense of loyalty.
"It's interesting, but the third shot completely disintegrates the body. Had to learn that lesson the hard way," Marrick said conversationally. "It would be like he never even existed—not altogether different than his current life, don't you think?" Rodney stared at the slow rise and fall of Sheppard's chest, almost transfixed by the action. "Now tell me, Doctor... is your friend's life—his existence—a worthy enough accomplishment for giving up the mere location of a few pictures?"
The world that had seemed so small that morning narrowed down to a single moment, in which Marrick's finger inched towards the trigger, getting ready to pull it and deliver the fatal shot.
"Stop!" he snapped. "Just stop!"
"Will you tell me what I need to know?"
"Yes," Rodney babbled, "of course I will, just put that damn thing down!"
"Good," Marrick smiled, dropping the arm holding the zat.
Of course, the pictures were currently with Carson—possibly with Lorne and Hammond by now. Rodney's mind reeled, trying to think of a solution, anything to stall for more time. What he was waiting for, he really didn't know, but staving off death, holding off Sheppard's disintegration, seemed like a worthy enough cause. "I'll need to show you on the laptop."
"They're digitized and electronically uploaded to a private server via the cellular connection in my watch. That way if something happens to me, they still get their pictures."
It was a bold-faced lie, and Marrick eyed him suspiciously for a moment. Rodney met the gaze head on, reminding himself to breathe evenly and to only think of the elements within the periodic table. It must have worked, because Marrick gave a tight nod before Rodney felt the ropes around his wrist loosen.
He rubbed the chaffed skin as he was led over to the laptop. He needed to make this good, whatever it was. His eyes traced over the familiar worn lettering on the keys, and the simple Batman insignia set as the desktop's wallpaper.
"This is my laptop."
"Of course it is," Marrick said simply, "I had Devlin grab it when he was bugging your apartment."
"Why would you take it?"
"I think you know why," Marrick gave him a hard look, "although we couldn't find anything other than an absurd number of pictures of blonde women."
"I like blondes," he defended weakly.
"Doctor," Marrick insisted, "the pictures. Now."
"Right." He grabbed the laptop, booting up an explorer window. A brief glance to Marrick showed that he was watching his every move very carefully. Without hesitation, he began typing a long line of numbers in the address field. Better to hide his duplicity with the IP address, and it would give him more time to try and figure out the next step.
The personal storage server at the Area 51 FTP site popped up. Of course Rodney's original login information wouldn't work, seeing as how it appeared he had been fired for the benefit of this stupid ruse. However, he had been able to memorize Dr. Lee's login info one day when the man had let his fascination with Armageddon slip.
"There," he displayed the contents of the folder to Marrick as if he had done some monumental task, "no one's accessed them yet."
"Good," he shoved McKay aside as he called up the first picture file. "What the hell is this?"
Rodney looked at a picture that Lee had accidentally taken of his hand with his first camera phone. God, he remembered being shown every single one of those things. He had no idea why Lee would upload it to a server to keep. The man really needed to clean out his archives.
"I never claimed to be a good photographer," Rodney defended hotly. "You try playing point and click without a decent viewfinder."
Marrick muttered to himself, and continued to page through the photos. Rodney discreetly began to back away. As far as plans went, this one was about to run its course. Who knew what sort of pictures Lee kept on hand. Rodney needed to get over to Sheppard without attracting the attention of Marrick or his thug, who was currently studying the monitors. If he could get them out into the hallway beyond that door, they might have something resembling a chance.
"These aren't the right pictures," Marrick said coldly, and Rodney froze in his strategic retreat. "And this is... some sort of animation."
Another click of the mouse, and a gravelly, angry tone blasted from the tiny laptop. Crap. Leave it to Bill Lee to save his favorite flash videos to FTP storage.
"Burninating the countryside!" the computer growled. Leave it to Dr. Bill fricking Lee to save the frigging Trogdor song to thwart Rodney's cunning escape plan.
"Shit," Rodney muttered, and dove for where Sheppard lay on the ground. "We gotta go!"
John awoke to the sound of an angry guitar and shouting, which briefly made him wonder if he had woken up at one of the keggers he had been dragged to back in college. Rodney's frantic voice and the feeling of someone trying to loosen the knots around his wrist seemed to contradict that though.
"Sheppard, this is no time to lie around," Rodney rambled on. "I really need you to wake up, because I'm simply not strong enough to carry—"
The sentence ended with a lurch, and John snapped his eyes open in time to see the swimming image of Rodney being yanked back by his hair as Marrick jammed the snake-like gun into his neck. "That's it, McKay!"
John tried to move forward to intervene, but his muscles were still a quivering mess, and he could hardly summon enough strength to struggle upright. A soft, angry rage started to build in him as Marrick continued to manhandle his friend.
"I'm tired of this. No more compassion," Marrick seethed as he gave the hair caught in his hand another yank and aimed the zat straight at John. "Sheppard dies!"
Beyond the struggle, the laptop continued to sing about "burninating" peasants and the countryside. John had to have been dreaming, because it was far too surreal to be listening to "Trogdor" as someone pointed an alien gun at him. He still wasn't sure what was going on, but the surreal moment was broken as Rodney tried to grab at the zat, and Marrick yanked the short hairs again, eliciting a painful grunt.
Every fiber in John's body screamed for him to rush the bastard in front of him, but everything was still swaying, and that alien gun was far too close to McKay for Marrick to not turn it on the scientist. So he waited, watching as Marrick took aim again and pulled the trigger.
—and nothing happened.
"What the hell?" He muttered, and tried again. Still, there was no response. John let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding as Marrick shook the unresponsive gun in his hand. "These things don't have bullets—they can't jam!"
"But they can run out power," Rodney gloated. "When's the last time you recharged it?"
Marrick sneered, and tossed the scientist away savagely. His head collided with the desk with a thump and a muted yelp. Another surge of anger boiled up in John as Rodney didn't immediately rise.
"Then we'll need to do this the old fashioned way. It looks like I'll have to start carrying weapons again so I have them on hand when I need them. Devlin, give me your knife."
"Boss, there's something you need to see—"
"Devlin, give me the knife."
"But what?" he roared and turned to see the monitor that Devlin was studying. From the distance John couldn't make out more than a series of dark figures working their way through what looked like an arboretum. "Is that for the lobby?"
"It looks like they came in from the skylight."
John didn't know who the "they" was, but from the way Marrick's cool composure seemed to break and allow a glimmer of fear to seep through—John held hope that it might be someone on his and Rodney's side.
"We need to finish this, right now," Marrick snapped. "Devlin, give me the knife, gunfire would attract too much attention. We need to dispose of Sheppard. He's outlived his usefulness."
"Whatever you say," the bulky man replied as he stalked across the room, drawing his blade with a wicked snick and handing it over to his boss.
"Now join the others in securing the area—they cannot make it downstairs. Is that clear?"
If Devlin was the same guy that John thought he was, then he definitely owed him for the balcony thing. Unfortunately it didn't appear like he was going to get any chance, as the goon was already slipping out the door.
"My usefulness?" John asked.
"I needed some sort of leverage with McKay," Marrick wrinkled his nose distastefully. "You seemed to be a decent option."
With how close that knife was, John didn't dare to flick a glance to see why Rodney was so quiet. Marrick quirked a brow in challenge as he passed the knife from one hand to the other. John narrowed his gaze, trying to work his still numbed fingers over the knots that Rodney had started to loosen. He wasn't going down without a hell of a fight. Marrick's grip tightened on the knife and John tensed his shoulders, preparing for the strike.
He barely fell back as Marrick tried for a straight slice to the jugular and rolled out of the way, the world seeming to roll with him as he still was woozy from the zat blast. John jerked himself to a stop moments before a boot stomped on the section of floor where his head had almost been.
This was insane, he couldn't put up a proper fight if he was stuck on the ground, wriggling like a worm on a hook. John used his hands to painfully push himself to a sitting position in order to crab crawl far enough away so he could regain his fighting stance.
However, Marrick was right on top of him and John had to kick his legs up to trap the downward strike that was intending to catch him on the floor. Ankles were not nearly as effective as fingers in maintaining a grip on someone's weapon, and it would only take a few seconds for Marrick to regain the upper hand. Gritting his teeth together, John twisted his entire body, effectively pulling the arm away and knocking Marrick off of his stride.
Unfortunately, his opponent not only had brute strength on his side, but a better position. A quick flip of the wrist and John could feel a burning fire race along his calf. He was unable to choke back on the agonized scream that escaped him—and was blinded by the pain long enough for his opponent to knock his feet away and try for another downward strike.
He expected another angry blossom of pain as the knife made its final blow, but it never came.
He blinked past the pain and burning to see that Rodney had halted the strike by grabbing Marrick's wrist with both of his hands. John let out a relieved breath and if he'd had the wherewithal he would have thanked McKay for the timely intervention. As it was, Rodney's body quaked with the effort it took to try and muscle the knife's path away from John.
A quick, sinister grin from Marrick made John's stomach flip and before he could do anything, Marrick twisted his wrist and jammed the knife straight into the scientist. The sickened gasp was quiet, shocked, and utterly un-McKay-like. John watched in horror as Rodney looked down to the knife handle sticking out of his shoulder.
"That hurt," Rodney squeaked softly and fell back on his arms.
Blood pounded in John's ears as Marrick leaned over the downed scientist and reached for the knife. He grasped the handle and pulled the blade out with an angry twist, extracting an agonized cry with the action. The simmering anger boiled over in full as John stared at the blood dripping off of the knife and onto the carpet below.
He saw flames and the charred human remains from a chopper's wreckage. He saw the snow and ice slowly disappear as he left Antarctica and the military for good. He saw a still chest under his hand in the desert sands, never to rise again. He saw wide expanses of road stretching before him offering nothing but solitude. Beyond all of that he saw a pool of blood widening on the floor below Rodney's shaking form.
John saw red.
The world disappeared in a haze of blood and violence as he launched himself at Marrick, letting go of anything resembling rational thought and just letting the rage dictate his actions. He must have slipped through the knots around his wrist because he had control of his hands and he was using them to express himself on a very primal level. Every blow from his fist represented a name that had slipped out of his grasp.
Mitch. Dex. Holland.
Even if John had to pummel the bastard into oblivion, he wasn't going to let Marrick add Rodney's name to that list. He wasn't losing anything—anyone—else.
A violent blow to his temple snapped John out of his haze and he landed on his back with a sprawl as everything grayed out at the edges of his vision. Through the dots dancing in his field of view he could see Marrick towering over him, the bloody knife back in his grasp. He sneered at John, refocusing his gaze to the spot on the ground where Rodney lay, clutching his shoulder in agony, red seeping out between his fingers.
Still acting on pure instinct alone, John rolled over, placing himself in the line of fire. His injured leg quivered painfully with the weight being placed on it, and John couldn't stop from panting heavily. Still, he met Marrick's gaze steadily, daring him to try and get past John with an angry sneer of his lip.
"A man like him," Marrick spat, "doesn't deserve this kind of loyalty."
"What the hell would you know about loyalty?" John scowled. "Or him?"
"I know that the military wouldn't send in an untrained civilian to do their surveillance if they couldn't afford to lose him."
John's leg throbbed with his pounding heart as Rodney's reasoning for taking the undercover assignment echoed in his brain. No one would miss McKay, because he was a pain in the ass. No one would care, because for some stupid and insane reason Rodney really believed that...
"He is not expendable," John growled. Not now, not ever.
Marrick dove forward, knife arcing towards John with a vicious swing. He dodged back, the landing sending shudders of pain up his sliced calf. There was no time to pay it any heed, because Marrick was following up with another swing. John caught the incoming wrist in a two-handed grip, twisting brutally until the other man loosened his grip on the knife and it dropped to the carpet.
Unfortunately for John, Marrick still had one free hand, and the pilot saw stars as it boxed against his ears. He staggered back, fire racing up his calf with each uncoordinated step, and barely had time to raise an arm to block the next blow. They continued to grapple, exchanging blows and jabs, oblivious to the office environment.
They finally slammed into the desk, Marrick's back taking the brunt of the blow as John levered his weight down on his opponent. He snarled past the throbbing ache in his calf as a pitiful moan reminded him that there was deep red staining the carpet. The twisted, bloodied smile the cry summoned brought back the angry rushing in John's ears.
The next instant Marrick was flying over the desk. John's leg began to tremble with the effort to stay upright after the action, hindering his attempt to stalk over and continue handing out Marrick's well-deserved beating. His opponent was already rising, using the desk drawers to pull himself upright. The scrape of one of the drawers opening was John's only warning before a glock was leveled at him.
John dropped to the floor at the same time the door burst open. The jarring way he met the floor sent an angry jolt of pain up his calf, and he barely registered the sound of a single shot of gunfire from the doorway. Marrick jerked and spun away. John twisted on the floor, catching sight of a smoking P-90 barrel wielded by a stony-faced Lorne.
The red tint faded from John's vision, and he painfully dragged himself over to Rodney's side. McKay didn't actually look at him, just grimaced as another spasm of pain rolled through him. "What—?"
It took a little more effort, but John was able drag himself to a sitting position. Gingerly he pulled Rodney's bloody hand aside so he could inspect the wound. "Cavalry's here."
"Oh, thank god," Rodney breathed, voice shaking with barely checked pain. "I didn't think—"
"Yeah," John interrupted as he tried to slip out of his jacket, "me too."
"You're stripping?" Rodney choked out.
"Don't remind me." Rodney swallowed, clenching his eyes shut as he rode through another spasm of pain. "John?"
A shock rolled through him at hearing his first name, but he squashed it down as he tried to staunch the flow of blood with his jacket. Leather wasn't much for clotting blood, but it was all he had. "Yeah, I'm here."
"What you said to Marrick—"
"Totally true," John said quietly, "and let us never speak of it again."
A shaky smile graced Rodney's features and even if McKay couldn't see it with his eyes closed, John returned it with one of his own. A shadow fell over them and he tensed, unconsciously covering Rodney with his body. He twisted in his position, craning his neck around to see that the shadow belonged to Lorne.
"We've secured the room." Lorne said, but was staring at Rodney with a conflicted, almost haunted expression. "The rest of the team is sweeping the building."
"That's nice," John returned, "although it doesn't stop McKay from getting blood all over my leather jacket."
"The docs are waiting outside." The "sir" was not spoken, but John could have sworn he heard it all the same. "We can't bring them into a combat situation."
"Funny," John said flatly, "because I've got someone bleeding under me who might fit that same description."
Rodney groaned in protest, but was quickly losing his coherency. Relenting, John focused on what was more important at the moment.
"We'll discuss this later, Major." John's hard tone conflicted with the gentle way he slid a hand under Rodney and started to lever him up. "Right now we need to take care of your charge."
Lorne's gaze flickered with anger at the accusation, but John didn't care. There were some things that you never did as a soldier, and endangering civilians was at the top of John's list of no-no's. Rodney McKay was not goddamn expendable, and every single person involved in this botched assignment was going to have that point hammered in their skull, including McKay. For possibly the first time since his 'retirement' John felt it was a good thing he no longer had his commission, because he was about to give the brass a lecture that would leave their ears ringing for weeks.
Apparently there were some perks to early retirement.
It may have only been a few hours, but when Rodney finally managed to fight off the lethargy from Dr. Frasier's magical drug cocktail, it had felt like a week had passed. Either way, while it was all still very hazy, he could clearly recognize the familiar trappings of a military infirmary. Probably somewhere on Davis-Monathan, if Frasier's quiet presence on the far side of the room was any indicator.
A distant ache in his shoulder reminded him that he had come out on the wrong end of a knife fight, and he couldn't suppress the groan that escaped him.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," a voice called from a few feet over.
Rodney lolled his head to the side to see John reading a golfing magazine on a nearby cot. He was sprawled across the hard infirmary bed as if he were lounging on a pile of feathers, stretching out the one leg swathed in bandages and flicking the pages with his lightly wrapped hands. "Sheppard?"
"Back to last names are we?"
"What?" Rodney frowned. "I don't understand—"
"S'all right." John set the magazine down. "You've been out of it for a while. Frasier gave you some strong stuff."
"I'll say." Rodney rubbed at his eyes, which felt gritty and grimy from too much sleep. "How long has it been?"
"Well, it's early afternoon now. You missed Jell-o and—something I couldn't identify."
The thought of food really wasn't that appealing. "I'll pass."
"Yeah, we'll see what Carson says about that."
"Carson? Carson's here?"
"Of course he is." John gave him a long look. "You sent him to fetch the cavalry. Remember?"
"Oh." Rodney dropped his gaze to where he was nervously fingering the sheets. "I kind of had other things on my mind."
"Yeah," John's voice dropped to a whisper as he flicked his gaze back to the magazine. "How you feeling?"
"I should be asking you that." Rodney replied, his own sight settling on a nice neutral empty cot on the far side of the room.
"I didn't get stabbed." There was a baffling amount of recrimination in that statement.
"You got shot... zat'ni'kateled... whatever. More than once."
"Just tingles a little, that's all. Nothing painful and agonizing like having a knife buried in your shoulder."
"It will heal—and how did you hurt your hands?"
"Perhaps I bloodied my knuckles a little—because someone stabbed you with a knife!"
"Well, what about your leg?"
"What about it?"
"Do you just wear bandages for fun?" Rodney shot back.
"Hey," John protested, "the mummy look is all the rage."
"Uh huh, and it has nothing to do with your own little knife wound."
"Again, deep stab wound that miraculously didn't sever any arteries."
"I had one injury, yes, I get your point!"
"No, you don't—"
"For the love of god," Carson's thick brogue cut in as the Scot strode into the infirmary, "please tell me that you are not seriously arguing about who is hurt worse."
"He is!" They both chimed, pointing at each other. "Am not!"
"Lord," Carson muttered as he rubbed his temples, "what did I ever do to deserve you two?"
"You should know better than to feed the wild animals, Carson," Rodney harrumphed. "They always come back for seconds."
"Aye, I'll keep that in mind in the future," he retorted before striding over to Rodney's cot and swatting him on the side of the head.
"Ow!" He rubbed the stinging spot. "What the hell was that for?"
"For not calling—I think you took ten years off my life, you git."
"I was busy trying to outwit my pursuers—"
"Actually," John piped up, "that was me. You mostly just screamed like a little girl."
"You drove into oncoming traffic!"
"What?" Carson's eyes slid over to John, narrowing dangerously.
"It was for a good cause," he protested.
"I thought..." An unnaturally disturbed look settled on Carson's features and he glared darkly at the floor for a moment. "I have never been so glad to be wrong in my life."
Rodney flicked a glance in John's direction, but he had a similar dark expression. "What?"
"You lost quite a bit of blood," Carson said clinically. "It wasn't pretty."
"Unless you're Anne Rice I don't think blood is ever pretty to anyone."
"No, it's not," Carson agreed and crossed his arms as he looked sternly from Rodney, then to John. "Janet's been kind enough to keep me apprised of your conditions."
"Has she now?" John asked lightly.
"She also tells me that someone keeps trying to walk on his injured leg before the wound has had proper time to heal."
"Lies," John insisted.
"Mm hmm." Carson didn't sound so convinced. "Something about making daring infirmary escapes to harass the senior officers on base."
"You've been what?" Rodney snapped.
"Semantics." John waved a hand. "I was just attempting casual conversation about their information gathering policies."
"Sheppard," Rodney warned, "I have to work with these people—"
"They shouldn't have put you in there, McKay," he shot back hotly. "You aren't trained for that kind of thing."
"Excuse me, but I think I did remarkably well considering the circumstances."
"You were in over your head."
"In hindsight, yes, that's obvious!" His shoulder twinged with the sudden movement and he couldn't suppress a grimace. "Painfully obvious."
John's righteous outrage simmered to a glowering concern. A light rap at the door announced the arrival of someone else into the conversation and Rodney unconsciously tensed, waiting for the onomatopoeia to follow.
"I hope I'm not interrupting," Lorne stood ramrod straight in the doorway, dressed in his base uniform and looking all the part of the good soldier, "but I thought Dr. McKay might want an update now that's he's awake."
"Might as well," Rodney said sourly and tried to push himself into a sitting position. Carson's hand on his uninjured shoulder stopped him, before carefully helping him prop up.
"Thanks," he said softly.
John was giving Lorne the stink eye, and his crossed arms were a clear indicator that he was not receptive to the major's presence. Rodney rolled his eyes and shifted so that he could face Lorne easier.
"So, I'm guessing you got the pictures."
"Yes," Lorne said, "although they didn't make much sense without an explanation."
"Sorry about that."
"Eh," Lorne shrugged noncommittally, "Carter was able to piece together a rough idea of what it meant. We were already en route by that time."
"Without evidence?" Rodney was baffled.
"I told you I'd get you out." Lorne met his gaze evenly. "I don't go back on my word."
Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see John give a small nod. Whether it was out of approval or recrimination, Rodney couldn't tell, and he didn't feel like asking. He swallowed, the action reminding him he hadn't had anything to drink in several hours. Water could wait, though. "What about the..."
He trailed off, looking at both Carson and John, before back at Lorne questioningly.
"It's fine. Dr. Beckett's already signed his NDA, and Sheppard's will be coming in as soon as Hammond's ears stop ringing."
"Sheppard," Rodney hissed.
"Hey," the pilot held his hands up in defense, "he introduced himself to me."
"Do you just take pride in pissing off people in power?" Rodney asked testily.
"I do when they've got it coming."
Lorne shook his head minutely. "Thankfully it's a weekend, so we've been able to secure the building for the time being. Carter's working on cracking their network security so we can get at the ring... thing."
"Stargate," Rodney corrected. "It's called a Stargate."
"Ah, good to know." Lorne nodded succinctly. "Sheppard briefed us on what he knew, but you'll need to meet with Major Carter and fill in the gaps."
"Of course," Rodney returned tightly. He was so looking forward to that—especially considering Sam's, uh, uniquely qualified opinion of him. She'd probably crack the code and navigate through the abandoned corridors without any help from him and—wait...
"Um," Rodney blinked, "there's something you should probably know."
"And that is?"
"They have an alien in their basement."
"A what now?" Carson asked.
"Well, they claim he's an alien, but he looks like a normal enough guy to me."
"I'm guessing you're talking about our mutual friend from the lockdown incident," John quipped.
"The one and the same."
"Yes, yes, you were right. Very screwy. I already told you this."
"I like hearing it," John said smugly.
"We'll look into it," Lorne assured him and looked up at Frasier's approach.
"Major, I hope you're not bothering my patients."
"We're fine," Rodney groused. "No more drugs—I need to be able to think."
"I'll be the judge of that," she gave him a warm smile and turned back to Lorne. "Five minutes, and no more. They both need their rest."
"Well, I don't know about Rodney, but I'm feeling just dandy—"
"I've got backup now, John, so I wouldn't try me if I were you." Frasier and Carson exchanged a knowing look. Oh goody, while he was asleep the medical world had acquired its own set of Wonder Twins.
"Yes ma'am," he agreed simply, but when her back was turned he mouthed at Carson. "Traitor."
"I saw that," she said without breaking her stride in checking Rodney's vitals.
She was sneaky, Rodney had to give her that. So sneaky in fact, that he hardly noticed when something was inserted into his IV line, or that the conversation started to fade and his eyes began to droop from a sudden lethargy.
He awoke back in the dead of night. Sheppard was still propped up on the cot, although he had managed to somehow acquire a Nintendo-Gameboy-thing during Rodney's forced slumber.
"She drugged me," Rodney accused to the room in general, "again."
"Appears that way, yeah."
"I was behaving myself," Rodney defended. "If anyone should be drugged to the gills it should be you."
"I am behaving." John wiggled his Gameboy as he mashed the buttons furiously. "You were out before Lorne finished telling us what happened to Marrick."
"Oh?" Rodney's throat was still dry, which really sucked because there didn't seem to be any nurses around he could beg a cup of water from. And there was no way he was going to risk the combined doctorly wrath of Beckett and Frasier and ask John to get up on his bum leg.
"Well, I know you'll be pleased to hear he's going to make it." There was a flicker of an angry shadow that crossed John's face as he shut the Gameboy, but it was gone so quickly Rodney could have just imagined it. "He and the rest of the goon squad are being held for the moment."
"It also sounds like they're going to try and round up everyone who worked downstairs."
"Aliens," John reminded.
"Well, yes, I guess that might be an issue of national security."
"And your General Asshat—"
"Aisley," Rodney corrected without thinking.
"I'm going to stick with Asshat," John said darkly, "since according to Lorne he was the one who set you up for that thing in your lab."
"Yes," John ground out. "Lorne didn't say much after he realized you were out of it, but it seems the guy skipped the country right about the time we had our fun little motorcycle ride."
"I don't understand."
"He was the inside guy—on Vertrauen's payroll."
"But why me?"
"Apparently they were pretty desperate to pull you into their grasp." There was a hard quality to John's tone. "They're still out there, you know. They had a lot of money and a lot of power—that's not just going to go away because their cool toy got taken away."
"I didn't think about that."
"And you've really pissed them off," John continued. "You're probably at the top of their hit list. You're lucky you've got Hammond on your side."
"You've changed your tune," Rodney said softly.
"Not really," John muttered and flicked his Gameboy back open, "but I'm getting a clearer picture of what happened. They still shouldn't have sent you in there without someone watching your back. A pre-arranged meeting once a week doesn't cut it in my book."
"I wasn't alone."
Rodney squirmed uncomfortably, finding that same far point on the wall to stare at. "There was, you know... you."
John cleared his throat, and without hesitation resumed his button mashing. The whole male bonding thing never seemed to work out too well, but sometimes talking around something wasn't enough. Sometimes, Rodney just wanted to actually say what he was thinking.
"I'm hungry." Well, that wasn't what he had meant to say. Small steps, he decided.
The fingers stilled momentarily, and it took several beats for John to answer. "You missed dinner. Still unidentifiable, but with blue Jell-o this time."
"Oh," Rodney said softly, "I like blue."
"Huh," and the gaming resumed.
"You're not really playing that game are you?"
"Yes, I am."
"I don't hear any sound effects."
"I have the volume turned down."
"Sheppard." That didn't work, because Super Mario Whatever was more fascinating at the moment. Maybe it was the drugs loosening his inhibitions or something, but he decided to keep pushing. "John?"
The button mashing stilled.
"Are we..." He sucked in a deep breath, not sure if he'd like the answer he was going to get. "We're good, aren't we?"
"Of course." The exasperation in the tone convinced Rodney more than the actual words. "Why are you bringing this up?"
"I'm fine, Rodney," John insisted, gaze settling somewhere at a far point in the infirmary. "It was about time I was moving on anyway."
"Moving, wait—you're leaving?"
"Yeah, I'm kind of out of a job." John tried to sound nonchalant about it, but Rodney could hear... something underneath the light tone. "You know, seeing as how I'm pretty sure the company isn't really going to exist for much longer. Might as well cut my losses."
"God... I'm sorry."
"That's all right," John shrugged. "I was totally planning on quitting after the whole zatting incident. Hostile working environment and all, you know?"
Everyone was going to be out of a job. John, Carson, Grodin, the smelly Czech guy, perfume HR girl and poor, depressed Minnows in accounting... and maybe it wasn't Rodney's fault, but he certainly had played a key role. Not that he thought a private, money-grubbing corporation needed control of something as powerful as that Stargate, but still. If the whole company went down, a lot of people would be suddenly unemployed. It would affect the American economy, especially if there was some snafu with the 401K's like...
"Oh god, it's like Enron... with Stargates."
"Does that make it Gateron?"
"I think the Doc needs to dial your happy juice back a bit," John stated carefully.
"Probably so," Rodney muttered, holding his face in his hands. "It's nice being numb, though."
"I bet," John indicated his IV-less arm. "Just pills for me."
"An IV would keep you leashed."
"Nothing could do that."
That... was true.
"I didn't even think about you..."
"Don't worry about me," John responded tightly. "It wasn't going to last forever anyway."
Rodney could only nod. This whole thing had never meant to be permanent—he hadn't wanted it to be. He just hadn't realized that he might be losing something in the process of getting his life back.
"You'll get back your lab now, won't you?"
Rodney picked at the thread lining the stiff infirmary sheets. "Yeah, probably so."
"Then it's happy endings all around, right?" As nice and comforting as the words were meant to sound, Rodney wasn't so sure they were completely true.
"Right," he agreed softly, the gears slowly starting to turn in his drug numbed mind.
John had never been particularly good at saying goodbye. People would start by getting emotional and want to talk about their feelings, then they'd start crying, and before you knew it they would start hugging. Once that started soon John would just about crawl out of his skin to get out of the situation.
That was probably one of the reasons that as soon as he could get a phrase close to "I can release you but..." from Doc Frasier, he was out of Davis-Monathan and on the road. Of course, he had to be careful to not pull the stitches in his still healing calf or he'd probably risk the Wrath of the Beckett upon his return, but it was worth the risk. The open highways had been calling him with every moment he had been stuck in that darkened infirmary and forced to watch uniforms parade in front of him.
Technically, they were there to see Rodney to get briefed on this, that, and the other, but a year later it was still too soon. The constant reminder dug in as deep as Marrick's knife and twisted just as harshly. Hammond wasn't actually that bad of a guy, and didn't seem to hold John's initial outburst against him. In fact, they were all pretty decent people, and for some reason that just infuriated John more.
So he had to leave. Maybe it wasn't exactly fair to Rodney that he slipped out during one of the update meetings with Major Carter, but like he said before... John sucked at goodbyes.
He flew down the desert highways, riding them up to Route-66 and across the state line through the white sands of New Mexico where he decided to head south. Somewhere after passing a road marker for Las Cruces he realized that the wind was only whipping at his face, the engine was only rumbling beneath him, and that even though he was flying down the highway he would never actually leave the ground.
No matter how hard he looked, there was no solace to be found in the solitude of the road. He screeched to a halt right before the two exits to I-10. East led down to the Rio Grande, Texas and beyond. He could see a green expanse lining the highway, the oasis-like image beckoning him to continue his search. It made sense, because the only thing west of him was the scorching Arizona sun and the barren desert expanse.
Really, it was only logical to continue on forward.
And that was why John headed west, back to where he started from.
The engine idled as he pulled into a space next to his usual parking spot, as someone had decided to leave an idling moving van in his favorite space. He had to smother his annoyance as he took off his helmet, feeling the cool winter air touch his skin. It figured; he took off for a few days, and someone was trying to muscle into his carefully picked parking spot.
"No, no, you idiots, I told you, keep that upright!"
John's gaze snapped up to the third floor of the building in front of him to see an irate figure berating the moving men trying to balance a ridiculously oversized box between them. Of course, Rodney's usual vibrant gestures were hampered by the sling trying to hold his shoulder in place. However, it did not keep him from micromanaging the moving job all the way down the stairs.
"And make sure it's in the back corner of the van, because I..." The last order died on his lips as he caught sight of John. "You're back."
"Yeah," he fidgeted, "thought I'd step out for some air."
"For four days?"
"I needed a lot of air."
"I get that." Rodney tucked his good arm behind his back for a few moments, before trying to jam it into his pants pocket, until finally choosing to let it dangle. Apparently even his nervous fidgeting was constricted by the presence of the sling. "Frasier and Carson are two peas in a pod. It's, uh, a little stifling with two of them hovering."
"Yeah, I didn't want to stick around to see if she had a vein like Carson's."
"Not that I can tell," Rodney hummed, "but then again I'm a model patient, unlike some people."
The banter was easy and inviting, a procrastination tactic that John was well-versed in when he wanted to put off a difficult conversation. The grumbling movers slinked past and headed back up the stairs for more of Rodney's possessions, their presence highlighting the fact that there really wasn't much time left before the inevitable farewell.
With Rodney standing right in front of him, it would be pretty obvious if he slinked off this time. The only real course of action was to stop putting it off. "You're moving."
"Yeah." Rodney swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing with the movement. "I got my new assignment."
"Not another undercover op?"
"Oh, god no!" Rodney chuckled harshly. "Never again."
"Good," John said, "because James Bond you are not."
"What about Maxwell Smart?"
John cocked his head to the side as he considered the resemblance. "Maybe."
"That would make you Ninety-Nine," Rodney grinned.
Ouch. He should have seen that coming. He nodded an acknowledgement to the worthy sting and focused his attention on pulling his riding gloves off in one tug. The rough movement chaffed at his sore knuckles, but that was all right. The physical discomfort helped distract him.
"So," he asked, rubbing his knuckles earnestly, "where are you headed?"
"Cheyenne Mountain," Rodney explained as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
John's forehead crinkled as he recalled the mountain base and gave McKay an askew look. "You're going to work for NORAD?" he asked skeptically. "Isn't that... kind of beneath you?"
"Beneath NORAD is more like it." Out came the grin again, unabashedly happy.
"Well, the Air Force is still trying to figure out how to get the Stargate out of Vertrauen's basement. It looks like they sealed it in there whenever they renovated the old structure. It's looking like they may have to take down the whole thing."
John whistled. "They don't mess around."
"Not when it comes to intergalactic travel it seems, no. They're working on modifications to the Mountain so it'll fit."
"Don't tell me..."
"Yep," Rodney practically rocked back on his heels with restrained glee, "they're going to start an exploration program of their own."
"Yeah, and it gets better."
"Guess who they've decided to put in charge of studying the Stargate?"
"Well," Rodney grimaced, "yes, if you want to get technical about it. But I'll be right up there too—just imagine the papers that I'll write that no one will get to read. I mean, all the theoretical physics might not be theoretical anymore. If stable, artificially created wormholes are possible, what else is? Well, I mean within the realm of physics. Certain rules still apply."
"That's great, Rodney." John's enthusiasm wasn't completely forced. He really was happy that Rodney was getting his life back and from the looks of it, improving on it even more. "Really, congratulations."
"And you remember the guy—well, of course you do, hard to forget—but they managed to get him out. He was, um, a little angry still. Maybe if someone can talk to him, he might tell us what's waiting out there in the galaxy."
"And how do they think they're going to do that?"
"Well, they're looking for the archaeologist—Jocksey? Jayson? Jackson? Whatever—the guy who did the original translations for the Stargate. He's supposed to be some sort of linguistic prodigy."
"They're bringing in an archaeologist?" John asked skeptically.
"Yes," Rodney grimaced, "not exactly a science, but what can you do? They need a lot of brainpower for this undertaking so they're pulling a lot of people in."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah. They've got Zelenka, Grodin, Kusanagi... they've even offered Carson a spot."
"Really?" This time, the smile was completely forced. Four days on the road and John had come to accept that Rodney would be gone after the whole mess cleared up—but he hadn't realized that Carson might not stick around either. It shouldn't have mattered because not even four months ago neither of them had been an issue. "That's... great."
"You don't sound happy." Rodney's smile dimmed, and John could have kicked himself for stepping on the good news.
"No, I am—"
"Look, I can explain," Rodney cut him off quickly, a hangdog expression of guilt flashing across his face.
It was so abrupt and out of place with the rest of the conversation, John couldn't help but feel his suspicions rise. "About what?"
"About the—wait. You haven't had your phone with you, have you?"
"No," he drew the word out into three syllables. "I really didn't think there was a need."
"Oh," Rodney said to himself softly. "Then I guess you wouldn't have gotten any calls."
"That was kind of the point of leaving it behind," John groused. "What's so important about my phone all of the sudden?"
"Um, nothing," Rodney looked away, feigning innocence.
"McKay." He forced a little annoyance into the tone, hoping to bring the scientist around to the point quicker. "What is it?"
"It's just that..." Rodney peeked a look at him, still facing the other direction, a small smile quirking at the edge of his lips. "You're coming with us."
Perhaps Rodney was still high on Frasier's happy juice, because that didn't make any sense. "What?"
"Well, let's just say that the Air Force owes me big time for discovering their little alien portal device, almost getting killed in the process, and you know, probably saving the planet from alien invasion and corporate takeovers."
The leaps in logic and conversations weren't doing much to help illuminate matters, but the hesitant grin that settled in place at the end of Rodney's diatribe didn't really muster up a lot of confidence in John. "What did you do?"
"I called in a favor."
The words hit him like a physical blow as Rodney unknowingly echoed his father. With everything that had happened recently between both him and with Rodney, it was hard for John to not let a hint of accusation line his tone. "You called in a favor?"
"All of them actually," Rodney continued on, seemingly oblivious to the dangerous ground he was treading. "I owe Hammond quite a few 'computer repairs' whenever he needs, no questions asked. And the Chief-of-Staff is allowed to pull me in on whatever special side projects he sees fit at a moment's notice, which is slightly alarming but it's probably nothing. Either way, it's okay. I think it's worth it."
"What is worth it?"
"Well, if you bothered to check your voicemail every once in a while I'm sure you'd already know."
"Don't make me hit you—you're not wearing glasses anymore, so it's completely acceptable now."
"You put in for the Reserves," Rodney said quickly, finally picking up on the hard edge in John's voice, "so it was just a simple matter of the right people making the right phone calls and pushing the necessary paperwork through. I mean, I'm sure your old CO's might have a word or two to say, but still it's a done deal. Or it will be. The whole paperwork part takes a little time from my understanding. That's okay, because they won't start going off world for a few months—"
"Rodney," he interrupted the rambling monologue, "what did you do?"
"I got the Air Force to reinstate you." It came out very small and uncertain but it might as well have been shouted because it rang in John's ears like an endless echo. However he didn't respond within the half-second time frame, so Rodney added, "Well, I mean, I didn't, but I just pulled some strings so that those who could, would make it happen."
It was almost like being back on the highway, because the nervous babbling barely registered over the rushing in John's ears.
"What?" he breathed.
"Same rank and everything from what I understand. I mean, I tried to push for Lieutenant Colonel, but apparently that was asking for too much. Stupid 'protocols' and 'appearances'—"
John was glad that he was next to his bike, because he had to take a seat as the world rushed around him and everything faded out of focus for a second.
"What are you—? Oh, god, it wasn't right." Rodney's horrified tone overshadowed the rapid fire words. "You don't want to go back. I thought you did, I mean, it sounded like that's what you were saying way back when and you looked a little lost whenever the brass were in the room and I just thought that since I kind of killed your other job it might be a nice thing to try and get you a new one, and, Jesus, I'm so sorry—"
"No," John whispered, "it's fine."
"Fine?" Rodney's eyes were still impossibly wide, and couldn't seem to decide whether he was contrite or annoyed. "It's just fine?"
"I mean it's okay." It was really hard to let his voice carry, because he wasn't sure he trusted it right now. "More than okay."
"Really?" Rodney's voice dropped to its own deferential whisper. "Because I think I might have taken the choice out of it and pressed you back into military service against your will and that really isn't okay."
Color and detail rushed back in, and John was able to see the utter desolation painted on the other man's face. It was a stark contrast to Patrick Sheppard's sputtering outrage. The smile that thought summoned was maybe a more wistful one than John would have liked.
"I hadn't really been thinking about that at the time," Rodney defended weakly.
"I..." he trailed off, unable to hold John's gaze. "It was the only thing I could think of that might even begin to properly thank you for what you did."
"You don't need to thank me." John hadn't done what he'd done for any reason other than it had been the right thing to do—the only thing to do.
"You saved my life—more than once."
And in return, Rodney was trying to give John his back. Suddenly, it was John who was studying the tiny dimples in the pavement. "I didn't do it for... that's not why I did it."
"I know." Rodney swallowed and began to finger the strap on his sling absently, letting his last statement hang in the air for several moments. "But that doesn't mean I appreciate it any less."
The movers came down with another set of ridiculously huge boxes, and they both fell into silence as they watched the interlopers pack the van. In the few minutes it took them to rearrange the items, John shifted his position on his bike to relieve the pressure on his calf. The dull throb began to fade as he stared up into the cloudless midday sky, trying to sort through the conflicted emotions warring within him.
He really would have appreciated a say in the matter about his re-enlistment, but John had a feeling that after disappearing into the desert for a few more days he would have come up with the same answer. A new frontier was about to open up and he'd just been offered a chance to be part of it. He would be able to step onto ground that no one else on Earth had. Not wanting that would be akin to not climbing back into the X-302.
And John really wanted to get back in that glider.
When the movers had shuffled back upstairs, he looked to see Rodney still fidgeting nervously. "So..."
"This job thing—is travel to other planets required?"
"Well, that's the point of having a giant ring that goes to other worlds, isn't it?"
"Does it hurt?"
"I don't know. I just saw them activate the stupid thing but there didn't appear to be any painful screams when the Buff Force walked through so I'm assuming—"
"Are you going to do much of that oh-so-scientific assuming when we're off world?"
"Of course 'we'. Do you think I'm going to leave you back on base so you can waste your time playing The Sims while I'm out working?"
"Excuse me? I'm not the one who spent so much time with the vending machines that we were on a first name basis."
"That thing had no name, just evil in it."
"I really hope you don't have some sort of technological phobia. That's pretty much not a good thing if we find more, uh, cookies."
The movers walked past again, somehow with an even larger box than before.
"Oh," John said. "Probably should talk about this somewhere else."
"Oh, they'll be off again in a second," Rodney waved a hand dismissively. "There's plenty more where that came from."
"What is in those things? Parts for a giant laser gun?"
"No," Rodney grumped, but did not elaborate.
With a barely hidden glower at the person responsible for their schlepping duty, the movers were back up the three flights for probably another ridiculously sized box, and Rodney seemed to deem the conversation safe to resume.
"I'll have to think about it," he said. "Who knows what's out there?"
"Untold scientific breakthroughs, beautiful native women, spaceships—"
"Aliens, weapons, explosions—"
"That I can handle."
"Yeah," Rodney cracked a smile, "I guess you can... Major."
There should have been a stab of something upon hearing his rank used again, but John could only grin stupidly. "Exploring the galaxy, making you undergo probably ridiculous alien rituals for the good of the planet—I think I'm liking the sound of this job already."
"You're insufferable, you know that?"
"What did I just get myself into?"
"No, seriously, how did you get me to agree with this?" Rodney scratched at the SG-3 patch adorning his shoulder, letting the P-90 hang from its strap in just the way that John instructed him not to hold the gun. "This uniform itches. And why are we wearing green? I still haven't figured out the rotating schedule on the colors. Is there some sort of secret code that you military types whisper to each other when the scientists can't hear?"
"McKay." John rolled his eyes.
"The gate's still open. You're wasting valuable electricity paid for by the taxpayers."
Rodney huffed an annoyed breath. "Thank you, Major, I can't see that for myself."
"Let's not keep Ford and Stackhouse waiting." John motioned to the two men on the ramp. "More than they already have been."
"I was working."
"We all are." Resisting the urge to physically drag the scientist up the ramp, John settled on readjusting the aviators resting on the bridge of his nose. According to the briefing, it was going to be quite bright on the other side of the gate. "Any time now."
"I think I left something on back in my lab—"
He nudged McKay in the ribs, interrupting the protest and indicated the shimmering wormhole. "The galaxy isn't going to explore itself."
Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Ford's stern Marine composure falter a bit as he bounced on his toes, clearly eager to start the mission. Stackhouse looked similarly enthused as he barely checked a grin. John simply arched a brow at Rodney. "Coming?"
"Fine, fine," Rodney grumbled as he trudged up the ramp, "someone has to keep you children from touching all of the shiny objects."
"That's why we bring you along, Goose."
"Damn it, I'm changing my call sign to Viper." Rodney pointed a finger at John as Ford took point, disappearing through the shimmering portal first. "I refuse to be named after a loud, honking, squawking avian—"
As John stepped through the event horizon, he couldn't help but grin. He had two feet firmly planted on the ground—but he was flying nonetheless.