The Geek's Guide to Goon Warfare

Illustrated Edition because Goons like pictures

By likethekoschka

war·fare (wôr fâr), noun, Acts undertaken to destroy or undermine the strength of another.

Geek's Addendum: There are many reasons that a Goon might go to war. Patriotism, honor, obligations, and vengeance are just a few. As a Geek, these may seem like foreign concepts as our allegiance is to mother science, our honor is tied up in the peer review of our professional papers, our obligation is to the scientific method, and as far as vengeance… suffice it to say there is a reason the Jedi returned and the Sith sought revenge. This is not to imply that Goons are an evil lot. On the contrary, even though the typical Goon would define warfare as "Kill them all!" their hearts are usually in the right place. Seeking to understand the heart of a Goon, however, can be a bewildering undertaking and more complicated than winning the million dollar Millennial Prize for solving the Navier-Stokes Equation. Any attempt to do so should be limited to those with a will of stone, a stomach of steel, and an ability to understand the more primal bodily functions as an endless source of humor. No, for most Geeks, it is best to stick to simple undertakings, like keeping your head down and your Goon in sight when the shooting starts. Because no matter what their motivations, their loyalty to their Geeks can never be questioned. And if you still feel their justifications for destruction are null, try to keep in mind that even Darth Vader redeemed himself in the end.

Mistakes had been made, and for once it was the other guys who had made them.

They were mercenaries, hoodlums, big fish in a small pond. They stole, ran drugs, extorted, blackmailed and kidnapped- anything that would lead to a profit in a galaxy full of dirt farmers and goat herders. 'Goodfellas' meets 'Green Acres'; a veritable crime syndicate of Mr. Haney's as only Pegasus could create. But as backwoods as they were, they were equally as deadly and ruthless. We had first come on their radar a couple of years back. Teyla and Ford had stolen the raw narcotic Wraith's Blood from their fields and barely escaped with their lives. Since then, they had been watching, waiting, looking for a way to take advantage of the returning Lanteans, as they called us. And when they saw that chance, they took it. But as I said, mistakes had been made.

Their first mistake had been to take me and Radek in the first place, but I would expect no less from such short sighted buffoons. They had taken out the marines with us, seeing them as the primary threat and us as the potential money makers. And while I couldn't argue with their assessment of my value on the open market, after all the Genii alone would offer a pretty penny for my expertise in, well, everything, I could argue with their assessment of our potential threat. Sure the Goon squad had had guns, but once subdued without their dangerous toys they would have been little more than six people sitting in their cell and eating their food while they were ransomed back to Atlantis.

Radek and I, however, had something much more powerful at our disposal, our mental capacity and ability to annoy the hell out of anyone in our path. We bitched about our accommodations, complained that it was too hot then too cold, that the humidity was wreaking havoc with my sinuses and Radek's migraines. Finally we convinced them that if they just gave us back our tool kits, we would be able to fix the environmental controls and would then spend the rest of our captivity quietly tinkering in our cell. And they actually fell for it, actually bought the, "Look, you have a gun, I just want a screwdriver," line, the poor schmucks. Because anyone on Atlantis could tell you, there was nothing more powerful than a Geek with a DeWalt. And that fact combined with their second mistake made for an even more dangerous combination for them.

Their second mistake had occurred even before they kidnapped us. They had chosen an abandoned Ancient outpost as their base of operation. For them it was a convenient set of buildings and bunkers that sat cold and dormant on the planet, filled with all sorts of cold and dormant Ancient devices they could use as door stops and paperweights. But when I had walked in with my 'mouse gene' as John called it, the place had glowed to life. And for a moment I couldn't help but beam at Radek and wish John could see what I had done so I could rub it in his smug natural ATA face.

But he had come, as I hoped he would, as I knew he would, and I feared he would. And that's when they made their third and biggest mistake of all. They had shown me his jacket, the massive amount of blood on it so fresh that it still maintained a hint of red, still had a heavy metallic smell that made me break out in a cold sweat. They had no idea who he was to me, no idea even what his name was, but when they had shoved that jacket in my face, gloating that the rescue attempt had failed and the man attempting the rescue was dead, that Atlantis had less than twelve hours to pay for our return or others would, I had caught the scent of sweat and gun oil, of lab created hair gel and Daedalus delivered deodorant, of.. Jesus Christ… of John. Of my John. And at that moment, my heart sank and my will hardened and those fucking sons of bitches unwittingly sealed their own death warrant with his.

I had built bombs before, some small enough to simply blow a college mailbox and fill the student union with smoke, others large enough to take out a Wraith Hive ship, others still nothing more than chewing gum and a life sign detector, but all had fulfilled their purpose in the end. The one I held in my hand now was definitely not the largest bomb I had ever made but it was definitely much deadlier than the one I had used to con a Genii madman. And I was pretty sure what with the chain of small naquada charges I had linked to the detonator it would be considered a weapon of mass destruction by the State Departments of most Earth-based countries. So it was with a certain amount of confidence that I lorded that fact over the cowering and secured criminals in the room.

"Radek, you have thirty minutes to get as far from this location as you can," I told him. "That should give you more than enough time to clear the blast zone. Although my calculations were pretty rough, so it would probably be a good idea to run at least part of the time."

The Czech eyed me warily, glancing worriedly between the confiscated gun in his hand and bomb in my own. "Rodney, what about you?"

"I'm setting the timer then coming right behind you," I lied.

"Then I will wait. It will not take long to do."

"No!" I drew in a breath then continued much calmer. "This is too damn unstable. I want you out of here now." But he knew that wasn't the case seeing as he was there when I built it. In fact, by the pleading look on his face he knew exactly what the case really was.

"But Rodney, the Colonel… he would not want this."

I clenched the patch I held in my hand, the American flag from his jacket. He hadn't taken it off as was standard protocol for off world travel. Hadn't noticed, hadn't bothered, hadn't cared. It could have been any or all of those reasons with John. "Well," I told him hoarsely, "that really doesn't matter now, does it?"

"Rodney…"

"Just go, Radek. Everything will be all right. Just go."

He gripped my shoulder, "I will wait for you at the gate, yes?"

"Sure," I told him with a sad smile and nod of my head. He hopefully returned the smile and nod and then was gone.

I checked my watch, noting the time to make sure I gave Radek his promised thirty minutes. I pulled up a chair and sat, one hand balancing the bomb, the other holding the balance of my life that had been reduced down to a blood-stained Velcro backed flag. I regarded the three men duct taped together on the floor.

"You asked about my ring earlier, well, seeing as we've got a little time I'll tell you about it. That and all the mistakes you made along the way."

Yeah, mistakes had been made. Live and learn, they say. Live and fucking learn. Well, it was too late for that for John and I planned to make sure it was too late for these murderers, as well.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

What was that in his hand? What the hell was…oh no. No. Absolutely not. Not on my watch.

"Put it down, McKay. I am dead serious. Put it the fuck down."

Sitting on our bed, he looked up from the gun cradled in his grip with a hand-caught-in-the-cookie-jar expression. "I'm just borrowing it," he said defensively.

"I beg to differ. You're just not." I held out a hand. "Lola is mine and only mine."

He rammed the clip into my nine-mil and snorted, "I'm sure you're very close and ninety-nine point nine percent of the time before you met me Lola was the only date you had on Friday nights, but I need a gun. You have a gun. Therefore I'm taking your gun. Get over it. It's only a penile extension. You have two more in the jumper bay."

"I don't need a penile extension. Mine is plenty extended already, thanks so much. And where the hell is your gun, Rodney? You know, the thing that's supposed to keep you alive…provided you don't lose it."

"Oh, it's in the lab somewhere." He waved a dismissive hand as he used the other to slide Lola into his holster.

"Which lab?" I asked between gritted teeth. This wasn't a set of car keys we were talking about; this was a goddamn gun. "I'll go look for it."

That had him modifying his statement evasively. "It's in one of the labs, I'm sure. There or the cafeteria or one of the storerooms…and of course, there was subsection U9 we explored last week. And I was in the jumper bay Tuesday….."

Great. We'd now narrowed it down to half of Atlantis. "Fine," I snapped, cutting off the McKay travelogue. "You value your life so little that you're tossing away your weapons like spare change. Whatever. It's a personal choice. You're still not taking Lola. She's been with me since the beginning. We'll go to the armory and get you a new gun and then I'm going to kick your…." My eyes widened and I retreated from the doorway back into the bathroom to puke for the twenty-third time that morning. How did I know it was the twenty-third time? I'd been counting.

As the heaving subsided, I felt the cool touch of a damp washcloth on the back of my neck. A hand smoothed back sweaty spikes of my hair and Rodney said sincerely, "I really am sorry."

All the ill temper ran out of me then. He wasn't the cause of it anyway. It was my body's rampant betrayal that had me pissed. Rodney was going on a mission and I wouldn't be able to watch his back. I wouldn't be there. Cranky wasn't the word for what that made me feel like. "I love the hell out of you, McKay. I do," I muttered. "But please, if you bring me food again, make sure it's still in the can. Maybe even still alive. Or better yet just kick me repeatedly in the stomach and bypass the middleman."

It wasn't often the Head Geek himself had time to bring me lunch or the inclination to leave Almighty Science for thirty minutes or so to delve into goon territory. But this time I'd been doing the yearly evals…who got put up for promotion, who got sent back in utter humiliation on the Daedalus, and…happy coincidence…whose family got letters telling them they were coming home early—in a body bag. We'd lost two marines the week before, and the worst part was I'd thought for a while now they couldn't hack it. That Pegasus wasn't the place for them. I was all set to send them back on the next run, but I hadn't had the chance. They were headed back now though, their not-hacking it days over for good.

I always hated doing evals. I just hated them a little more this time. Rodney knew it, and he's shown up with lunch, a waggle of eyebrows, and a cheerfully leering offer to evaluate my performance. Of course it was four hours past noon, but I cleaned the tray anyway. After all, I had missed lunch and this was some kind of gesture on Rodney's part. His version of hearts and flowers…food and sex. There were advantages to being with a genius, no doubt.

The trouble turned out to be…he'd started out with every intention of actually showing up at lunch time. He went to the cafeteria, got the tray, started towards my office…and that's where good intentions met bad execution. He'd run into Radek and had to check out some new doodad with him. Then there had been that mild catastrophe in the engineering lab, the major one in the chem lab, and finally the failure of the environmental systems. It was the last one that got me I was pretty sure. Chicken salad and one hundred-degree temperatures apparently don't get on that well.

I hurled one more time. Witness for the prosecution…taking a bow.

"Um…sorry. Really, really sorry. Truly." There was the press of lips against the nape of my neck and the wrinkling of a nose behind my ear as he peered over my shoulder. "How could you possibly have anything left in your stomach? I mean…honestly. Maybe there's a pandimensional portal in your stomach. You're bringing over food from a mirror universe. It's quite fascinating."

I'd started vomiting at three in the morning. I wasn't finding anything at all fascinating right then. Not one goddamn thing. I turned to glare at him over my shoulder, but my scowl softened when I saw the worry behind the flip comment. "It's just food poisoning." I straightened, took the wet cloth from my neck and wiped my mouth before headed to the sink and my toothbrush. "I've had worse off a Tijuana burrito. Had worse off an Antarctic burrito for that matter. It'll pass." I winced. "Just hopefully not literally."

He instantly crossed his fingers and agreed fervently, "Say Hallelujah." Moving up behind me, he rested a hand on my back and added, "Carson said if you vomited more than twenty times he wanted you hooked up to IV fluids for dehydration."

"That was number twelve," I lied effortlessly around a mouthful of toothpaste foam. "If I pass twenty, I'll go to the infirmary, I promise. Hand to God."

"You're such a bad liar," he snorted. "Why do you even bother? Quite frankly it's just embarrassing, your sad, sad effort." The hand on my back moved up and down slowly. "It was number twenty-three." Apparently I wasn't the only one who was counting. "The anti-emetics obviously aren't working. It's time for a little intervention by what sadly passes for medical care around here. I'll drop you off on the way to the gate room."

I was already shaking my head. "No. Bad enough I can't go. I want to be there in control monitoring you guys the whole time."

"Yes, yes, that's very moving. Brings a tear to the eye. Too bad your Vesuvius of vomit self is going to be in the infirmary." He was ushering me along before I had a chance to dig in my heels. "Take a book. No flirting with nurses. Sign Dex's cast for me and tell him I would be sorry, but it's his own fault drinking Radek's Smurf piss and then trying to cop a feel off Teyla. Oh, and tell him a little thing like a compound fracture wouldn't keep his fellow Chippendale warriors down. I'm very disappointed in him."

I had no intention of going to the infirmary. None. And I didn't. I headed straight for the gate room, ignoring Rodney's nagging snipes and arm-tugging for the entirety of the trip. The man could bitch like no tomorrow and invariably thought he knew best. Pick a situation, he would immediately tell you, at great and excruciatingly length, on what and how things should be done. And God forbid you shouldn't listen, bow, and obey. When I threw up on Elizabeth's shoes, I thought, damn, he is never going to let me live this one down.

"Colonel, are you…," Weir looked down at her feet and pant legs, then back up at me with just a shade less sympathy, "all right?"

"I think that would be a hugely obvious 'no'." Rodney scowled at me, hand gripping my arm above the elbow. "Idiocy and projectile vomiting, Colonel, it's not an attractive combination."

"Gee, Rodney, I hate that, because I was really shooting for attractive right now." I could feel the cold sweat running down my face as well as the blood running out of it to leave me pasty and green.

"Christ. Shut up, okay? You make me insane, I swear it." His free hand waved frantically in the air. "Elizabeth, I'll be back in ten minutes. Hold the team for me. Colonel…," blue eyes narrowed to slits, the crooked mouth straightened into an uncompromising line, "your ass now belongs to Beckett. That is how pissed off I am at you."

But twenty minutes later…the ten minute deadline came and went without Rodney noticing…I was in an infirmary bed with his hand curled around my wrist and the sum total of his pissed-off-ness being him confessing earnestly to Carson, "I've killed him. I didn't mean to, but I'm pretty sure I've killed him." His hand tightened on my wrist. He didn't honestly believe I was dying, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he did feel somewhat guilty. For Rodney, somewhat guilty was an accomplishment—the same as wailing, beating the breast and breaking out the hair shirt for your average person.

"And," he added reluctantly, "I think that leaving the food unattended in the animal lab was not perhaps the very best decision I could've made."

"You what?" I demanded, sitting up in the bed. He'd kept that little tidbit to himself earlier.

"It's not as if anything was running around loose," he reasoned defensively, "at least, not that I know of."

"Oh my God." I lay back down and swallowed heavily as my stomach began to roil again. "I don't have that much life insurance, that can't be it. I haven't cheated on you. Haven't crashed any jumpers recently…."

"Will the both of you please shut your flapping mouths." Beckett waved a needle in both our directions, then injected the contents of the syringe into an IV access port. "Colonel, you have food poisoning, pure and simple. Nae the bloody plague, and it serves you right taking any food from Rodney. Even uncontaminated food is risky bet with his trash compactor stomach. The man is a human goat. He can digest what mere mortals canna."

A finger pointed to the infirmary door. "And you, Rodney, don't you have a mission? Get on with it, would you? By the time you get back the Colonel will be right as rain. Empty as a college freshman's bank book, but recovered. Now go. He needs the rest and by God, so do I." To emphasize the point there was a crash, the sound of spilling water from a curtained enclosure and Dex's enraged voice, "I want a woman nurse. Do you hear me? Not a man. I want more soap, water, and a woman nurse. And, yes, I shave there. What of it? It is the warrior way."

Beckett shook his head, gritted his teeth, grabbed another syringe and said, "Good luck on the mission, Rodney, and don't let the infirmary door hit you in the arse."

Fingers touched my jaw, drawing my attention from pondering the concept of just why it was the warrior way. Less wind resistance? What?

"John," Rodney said solemnly, his face close to mine. "I promise, I will never, ever try to do anything nice for you again."

I gave him a queasy, but genuine smile. "True love, that's it right there." I hesitated and then said seriously, "Be careful. I'm sending six marines with you and Dr. Z. Stick with them at all times, okay? Every fucking minute."

"Six?" His eyebrows shot up. "Two is normal. Why six? Oh, I get it. You don't trust me. After all this time and you still don't think I can handle myself," he snorted.

"You can handle yourself fine. It's others you don't handle so well. I've seen you in action for years now, Rodney. You have a way about you. A very special way…the kind of way that pisses off native, animal, and, on occasion, even plant life. That overgrown tulip on MC-786 tried to eat you, McKay…eat you…and it wasn't even carnivorous. Harmony with surroundings isn't precisely your thing." I fisted a hand in his shirt and pulled him forward to bump his forehead against mine. "If I can't watch your back, I want at least half a dozen other mean sons-of-bitches doing it for me."

If I had my way, no one but me would ever do it. But this was one of those situations that wait on no man, puking or not. Lives were on the line. Blah blah blah. Okay, I got that. I just didn't want my people's lives on the line too, not when I wasn't there to watch them. To watch Rodney. Profoundly overprotective, he called me. In my book, there was no such thing.

He sighed, leaned back far enough to check his watch. "Oh Christ. Elizabeth is going to kill me. If the stench of her vomit covered shoes doesn't first." He grinned as I groaned. "Hope your eval isn't coming up. I can't imagine it will go well."

I reached out a hand and pinched his arm hard. "Stay with the marines." He rolled his eyes and I repeated it firmly, "Stay with them, you hear me? And…." I sighed and shook my head. My girl was history, I just knew it. "Take care of Lola. Do that and she'll take care of you."

His face brightened. "Really? You're letting me take your gun? Wow. It's amazing…unprecedented. It's just like, no, it's better than our first time." Then the sarcasm faded but the light remained. He leaned down, kissed the top of my head and said, "Try not to throw up any important internal organs."

"Try not to piss off any plants," I countered.

He rolled his eyes, patted my chest with a warm hand and after giving me a last look with concerned, affectionate eyes, he disappeared through the doors.

And for the first time ever, Lola let me down.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Six marines?" Radek shook his head with a quiet cluck of his tongue. "Are we investigating Ancient technology or launching invasion?"

I frowned as I adjusted my pack and stepped down from the gate platform on the planet. The marines fanned out before us as if they were entering a potential combat zone, not a picnic destination for the locals of the Pegasus Galaxy. A picnic destination that evidently had a potential power source that would come in very handy on several planets in need of shield regeneration. Okay, not a picnic destination, per se, given the violent electrical storms that blew in like clockwork every forty-eight days, lasted for another forty-eight then vanished just as suddenly. It was the result of a planetary wobble that superheated the oceans, affected this planet's equivalent of the Gulf Stream and made the weather more predictable than Old Faithful. Predictability was good. I enjoyed predictability in nature, seeing as it happened so infrequently in my life. So, the weather forecast was a given, that was the good news. The bad news was that it was day forty-six of the calm before the storm.

We had learned about the planet and the extremely large Ancient device with the flickering lights a week earlier from a group of traders that gathered mushrooms in the woods near the gate. They were a nomadic bunch, traveling from planet to planet trading what they gathered and bartered with others and my ears had perked up when they mentioned the towering monolith on the abandoned planet. So we had sent the MALP, briefed the team and planned the trip. Then Dex had discovered Radek's still, evolved into a human squark with tentacles that lingered in all the wrong places by Teyla's description and ended up with a broken leg thanks to a well placed fighting stick. And less than twenty-four hours later I had poisoned John with good intentions and bad chicken salad. Suddenly it was just me and Radek and an approaching deadline, which had now resulted in me and Radek and a goddamn platoon of marines as escort.

"John," I mumbled under my breath with a shake of my head.

Radek chuckled. "I know from unsolicited descriptions he is equivalent of six men in bed, but did not realize this applied to field, as well."

"Yes, well, his delusions of grandeur have been greatly exaggerated, in both arenas," I assured him.

He was feeling guilty that he wasn't here. It was the only explanation. Guilty and overprotective, per usual. It wasn't that he felt he was the equivalent of six marines; it was the fact that he was hoping that with six sets of bored marine eyes assigned to us, at least one set would flicker over to where we were working at any given time. His eyes would never leave us, he would never leave us, would always be within arms reach or at the very least within yelling distance in a trait that I found at once comforting and annoying as hell.

I pulled out the energy detector even as Lt. Robbins walked up to address us. "Ready to head out, sirs?"

Well, there was one thing that I got from the marines that I didn't from John, respect for my position. Although at the moment I ignored him, concentrating instead on the readings, or lack thereof from the detector.

Radek regarded me with puzzled eyes. "There is problem?"

"There are no power readings, so yes, that could be a problem."

"How can that be if device was blinking?"

I patted my pockets frantically. "Gee, Radek, I must have left my Magic 8 ball back in the lab. You know as much about this mission as I do, so you tell me."

He shook his head in disgust. "You are even more cranky when you are lonely for Colonel, Rodney. It is not a good quality."

"I am not lonely," I informed him with a scowl. "I just get a little irritated when I'm told one thing and come to a planet to find another. Especially when I'm working on a deadline and doing it on less than three hours of sleep."

I had crawled into bed after midnight the night before, finally resolving the mysterious issue of damage that had been occurring to various personal belongings in the chemistry lab. After Kavanagh had Elizabeth convinced that we were dealing with an alien infiltrator that only seemed interested in eating small holes through his books, journals, and travel mugs, I really had no choice but to see it through to the end. Suffice it to say that asses had been chewed and squirt guns had been confiscated and the more nasty acids had been locked away and out of reach of certain disgruntled junior chemists. So it had been with a certain amount of frustration and relief that I had settled into bed next to a peacefully sleeping John at 12:15 this morning.

At 3:06, John had made a mad dash for the bathroom and at 3:07 I was holding a damp cloth to his neck. That had been our routine for the rest of the morning, with a couple of personal trips by yours truly to the infirmary thrown in to obtain some drugs in hopes of stopping the seemingly endless supply of stomach contents that were exiting rather violently from the man. And the worst part was I couldn't complain. I couldn't blame anyone except myself for his misery and my resultant lack of sleep. I just had to accept it as my penance for trying to do a good deed. Well, I had always known there was a legitimate reason for avoiding such actions and now I had my proof in the form of one Lt. Colonel John Sheppard who had taken on a persistent shade of pale green and was currently hooked up to an IV in the infirmary.

And now, here I was, going to investigate a potential power supply on a planet with no distinct power signatures beyond the gate itself when I should be back on Atlantis where my first and foremost responsibility was lingering under the care of a man who thought chips and dip involved eating French fries after inoculating the flock. If John made it out of the infirmary without being tagged and wormed I would consider myself lucky but without being there to oversee what was being done, I had my doubts that would be the case.

Robbins looked around suspiciously then drawled in his southern twang. "Sir, Col. Sheppard made it very clear that if there was anything out of the ordinary, we were to abort the mission and return to Atlantis immediately."

I shook my head. "This is ordinary for a mission, Lieutenant. No, we're here, we should check it out. There could be some sort of shielding around the device blocking the reading. We were given pretty good directions on where the device was located; we should be able to find it easily enough without the detector."

"But, sir, Col. Sheppard…"

"Is currently incapacitated back on Atlantis." I stopped him before he could continue and started walking down the trail the traders had indicated. "A fact I'm well aware of because I incapacitated him. And as a result, I would really like to get back to make sure a certain kilt-wearing excuse for a medical professional doesn't come to the conclusion that unruly mass on the Colonel's head would make a nice sweater and decide to shear him while I'm away. So if you're ready, Lieutenant, the device should only be about a half mile down this path."

Robbins hesitated so I gave him a quick snap, snap. "Let's go, Lieutenant. The Colonel could be under the clippers as you stand here growing moss."

"Sir, maybe we should just check in with Atlantis…"

I sighed dramatically. I would never live this down if we turned tail now. It was humiliating enough that I had a veritable cub scout jamboree going here, there was no way in hell I was giving John the satisfaction of knowing I couldn't handle a simple tech check without him. I walked back to were Robbins stood and leaned in conspiratorially. "I like you Robbins, I really do. I like your willingness to follow Colonel Sheppard's orders, I like your mom's cookies, hell, I'm even starting to like the way all your vowel sounds are twice as long as most normal Earth natives. So, I would really hate it if you suddenly received an electrical jolt every time you touched that firearm of yours."

The young man swallowed visibly and went a little wide-eyed and I managed to successfully hide my gloating smile. Rumors of my tyranny had obviously preceded me, and that was just the way I liked it. It saved me a ton of trouble and several kilojoules of electricity that way.

"Torres, Barba, cover the gate. Kitt, Tunley, Narducci, ya'll are with me and the good doctors. Radio checks every fifteen. Let's move out."

With a smug grin at Radek, I started into the woods, only to have a hand drop firmly on my shoulder. "Sir, I have to follow at least some of the Colonel's orders. You and Dr. Zelenka are in the middle." He hitched his head. "Kitt takes point. Narducci covers our sixes. And you," he told me pointedly, "follow me."

I rolled my eyes. "You do realize I have more gate experience than you, don't you?"

"Yes, sir, and according to Colonel Sheppard, that is exactly why I'm not to let you out of arm's reach." I frowned and he just shrugged. "Direct order from a superior officer, sir. I don't have any choice in the matter."

I shook my head even as Radek tried to cover a giggle. "Well then after you, Lieutenant."

We made our way through the dense woods slower than I would have hoped, our honor guard on the look out for any vengeful chipmunks and deadly forest slugs that might attack us along the well worn path. Eventually, the crowded trees gave way and opened onto a small clearing that housed a metal tower with swirling supports, looping crossbeams and large blue crystalline ovals on each side. The design definitely had the look of an Ancient... something. But whether it was a functional power source or oversized garden decoration was yet to be determined.

Radek and I set to work examining the tower and I once again regarded the detector in my hand. "Nothing," I told him. "No readings, no anomalies, just nothing."

Radek walked the short distance around the structure and shook his head. "There are no access panels even. Nothing to indicate a power supply."

Beside me, Robbins keyed his radio and checked in with the men he had left at the gate. Or at least he tried, but there was no response.

"Torres, Barba, report," he called again. And again the silence was the only response he received.

Radek furrowed his brow in a mirror image of my own. The other marines tensed and gripped their P90s tighter.

"Torres, Barba, this is Robbins, do you copy?" Nothing. Robbins squared his jaw, surveyed the area around us and closed the short distance between us. "Dr. McKay, looks like we're cutting this trip short after all."

"Right," I agreed, even as I reshouldered my back and pulled Lola. I had been amazed when John had let me bring her. I just hoped his faith in her was well founded.

We had taken no more than three steps back toward the trees when a shot rang out and Narducci went down with a bullet to his head. Radek froze in awe as the splatter coated his vest. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sgt. Tunley yank the stunned Czech down to the ground behind the tower. I barely had time to notice as Robbins grabbed my vest front and yanked me into action and toward the nearest tree line. Another shot and stunted scream indicated Kitt had met the same fate as Narducci. The sound of P90 fire echoed behind us as Robbins led me further into the forest. We were running, hurtling logs and low plants as we moved, the trees fading into a green blur around us. I glanced back, hoping to catch a glance of Radek and Tunley, only to run blindly into the Robbins' back. With an agility that was surprising in his lanky form, he grabbed my arm to steady me and pulled me to a squat.

"Okay, here's what we're going to do," he told me in an accent made thicker by adrenaline. "We're going to circle around, see if we can reach the gate by staying hidden in the trees. Once we're there we'll assess the situation and determine if we can safely access the gate. If we can't, we'll lie low until Atlantis tries to contact us. We're due to check in every two hours. If we don't, then they'll send reinforcements to find us."

"What about the others? Radek and Tunely?" I asked in a rushed whisper.

He grimaced slightly and I couldn't help but notice how much more mature he seemed, even with the freckles smattered across his face. "I ain't heard gun fire from that direction in a while."

"And that's a bad sign?" I asked against hope.

"It sure ain't good."

I nodded, swallowed my fear and panic over the others and took a breath. "Lead the way, Lieutenant."

"Just stay on my heels, sir."

He stood, took one step and went down. It all happened that fast. Stand, step, drop. At first I thought the sharp crack I had heard was nothing more than a branch breaking beneath his feet. But the spray of red that hit me quickly convinced me otherwise. It wasn't his head…his shoulder, neck, somewhere not immediately fatal, because I could hear a panting moan a few feet away in the undergrowth as I dropped like a stone myself, gripping all the tighter to John's nine millimeter. I waited, heart throbbing painfully in my chest, but the shot meant for me didn't come. I decided to try to move and check out the Lieutenant when I heard the footsteps. I froze again, making like a frightened animal hiding from a predator, because that was exactly what I was.

"We know you are here, so put down your weapon and show yourself."

The disembodied voice was calm, totally in control. And why wouldn't it be? Whoever was behind this had been in control from the moment we stepped through the gate, probably earlier I realized with dawning frustration. I stayed where I was, not moving, not even breathing.

"We would prefer to have two hostages, but one will do if you do not show yourself."

Two hostages, that must mean someone else was alive, for the time being. With reluctance, I released my grip on my gun, on John's gun, and raised my hands up out of the undergrowth. "Okay, unarmed, standing up now," I called.

I lifted my head tentatively, saw three figures, one of which was a glasses-free Radek standing with the equivalent of a pistol held to his head by one dark haired man with a full beard. The third figure was fairer, with shoulder length brown hair and a clean shaven, pock marked face. He held a rifle loosely over his shoulder. They were dressed in simple clothes like those of a hundred rural settlements we had come across in this galaxy, topped with leather vests and crossed daggers at the waist.

From behind me I noticed that Robbins had gone silent, and I could only assume the worst. No more snickerdoodles from West Virginia and six more letters home for John to write. This day just went from bad to worse.

The man holding the gun on Radek used it to motion me forward. "Move along. Day's a'wasting."

I stepped in line with Radek and with a shove from the second assailant we started through the trees. "Where are we going?" I asked and was rewarded with a slam of rifle butt into the side of my face.

"What the fuck?" I yelped as I reeled into Radek with stars blooming in my vision and pain radiating through my head. Radek's hands kept me from collapsing to my knees but just barely.

The one with the pistol didn't even turn to see what had happened. "You will see soon enough," he told me in that same controlled tone. And if I had had any doubt of how seriously screwed we were, it vanished at the cold confidence in his voice.

I staggered along with Radek's help, his fingers gripping painfully into my upper arm as we were led through the woods. Mentally I tried to calculate how long we had been on the planet and how much longer until we were overdue and help would come. Because help would come, I had no doubt. I'd be surprised if John wasn't already stalking in the control room, readying a team just in case. That was just the way he was. And I had every confidence that we would be rescued and rescued soon.

So, it was with a sudden sinking conviction that I saw the break in the trees, saw the gate come into view, saw the bodies of the two marines, saw the half dozen or so armed men loitering around it and realized what they were going to do. When we appeared in the clearing, one of the men dialed the gate. They were taking us off world. For all practical purposes we would vanish. The rescue team would come, find the bodies, not find us, and have no way of determining where we had been taken. For the first time in my life I decided that if it were possible, John hadn't been overprotective enough.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fortune cookie philosophy, but true. The Pegasus galaxy…the Milky Way galaxy, not so different. I'd traveled millions of miles—past stars and black holes, past asteroid belts and magnetic storms and all that amazing shit most people only knew of thanks to a few geeky TV shows. I'd flown through all that to end up in a city abandoned for ten thousand years. And I saw things…yeah, some pretty mind-boggling things, some wondrous…some soul freezing.

And then I saw things like this. The same here as it had been on Earth. The same bullets, the same violent death, the same blood and bone and what made up the inside of a person spilling out into the open air. It even smelled the same. Cordite, copper, emptied bowels. It was a veritable fucking potpourri and you would never forget the stench of it, not after catching the scent just once.

I found Lieutenant Kitt in the undergrowth. A big guy with a love of motorcycles and shiny chrome, the open road, his nine brothers and sisters, uncountable nieces and nephews, and an infectious grin that showed a cheerful gap between his two front teeth. The grin was gone, along with the majority of his face. The eyes were still there though…dull and blue—a color I just couldn't see now. Just couldn't goddamn see.

"Colonel."

Bates' voice came from behind me. "We found Robbins."

I didn't have to ask if he were dead or not. I had one nifty Ancient life signs detector to tell me there was no one alive here. No one. There was only an empty screen to match the empty hole in my gut. We'd found Torres and Barba first. They'd been by the gate, two heaps of cooling flesh. Narducci and Tunley had been further out on the trail. Tunley had been lying face down, his P90 gone. He had light brown hair, short and wispy. And for a moment…a breath stealing, acid frozen moment…I'd thought…God.

I'd thought….

And then I'd turned him over and I saw Rodney's face. I saw it as clearly as I saw my own every morning in the mirror while shaving. I saw his clouded eyes, the quirky mouth hanging slack. I saw a face pale and empty, all the brilliance and spark gone. The world tilted under my feet and threatened to spin me off into endless darkness. Then reality shifted back and I saw Tunley's face, not Rodney's. I saw Tunley's staring eyes and the blood covering his neck and chest that was drawing buzzing alien flies. Not Rodney…but someone's Rodney.

"Colonel," Bates repeated.

I stood and said flatly, "Anything else? Weapons?" Anything that would let us identify who had done this. I didn't ask if he had found Rodney or Zelenka. I would've heard it in his voice if he had.

"No, sir. Nothing."

I wanted it to be the Genii. I knew where they were. I knew who to hurt. But this didn't feel like the Genii. It was too bloody. Overkill. Some of the bodies had been shot several times after death. The Genii were a lot of things, but wasteful wasn't one of them. This was different. This was someone with a lot of guns and brutality, but little finesse. Of course killing didn't take much finesse, now did it?

"Nothing…except this."

I turned to see Bates holding a nine-millimeter butt-first towards me. Mine. It was mine. Two hours before it had been in Rodney's holster…or his hand. I accepted it with a numb hand. I literally couldn't feel the metal beneath my hand. I could register the weight, but not the cool kiss of steel. I ejected the clip. Not a single shot had been fired. That was probably what had kept me from finding Rodney's body facedown under the trees.

Because he was alive. Probably very unhappy, but definitely alive. He and Dr. Z both. Genius was a commodity out here. Scientists familiar with Ancient technology…that's what it had to be. An obvious ambush, all the soldiers killed, and Rodney and Radek missing. They were alive because they were valuable. Too bad some stupid son of bitch didn't realize just how valuable.

Infinitely valuable.

I stared at the gun for a second, then jammed the clip home and tucked the weapon into my waistband. "Take our boys home," I ordered grimly.

I would send a jumper to do several fly-overs to search for Rodney and Zelenka, just in case, but they weren't here. They'd been taken back through the gate…God knew where. The bodies of Torres and Barba had fallen in front of the gate—the blood pools had made that clear. And the blood trails made it as clear they'd been dragged out of the way like sacks of garbage. The kidnappers had come through the gate, waited in ambush, and gone back the way they had come. And that's what the fuck you got for listening to mushroom picker gossip.

Time to track them down and ask them exactly where they'd picked up that bit of gossip.

They didn't know shit. Were honestly bewildered at my questions and accusations. And when I threatened to break their leader's legs, they scattered for the woods.

"That was not well done, Colonel Sheppard," Teyla had said quietly.

I didn't give shit if it was well done or not. And I didn't have time to give a shit that I didn't give a shit. So I ignored the comment and headed back towards yet another gate. We were two hours out from finding the team dead. Four hours out from their actual arrival on the planet. The longer Rodney and Radek were gone, the more difficult it was going to be to find them. And I would find them and find them alive; there was no other option.

They'd woken me up in the infirmary to give me the bad news. No one ever wakes you up to give you good news. That you get to sleep through.

I'd never actually meant to sleep at all. My geeks on a mission without me…it wasn't conducive to peaceful napping. I planned to lie in bed, hopefully not do a personal homage to the Exorcist, and watch the clock on the wall. When two hours passed I'd call up to control and get the mission status report. See if Rodney was being chased by a large clump of newly homicidal lichen. Although I was fairly sure Robbins could save him from himself if worse came to worse. Under that slow drawl, horsey freckled face and bemused expression, there was a canny mind. And the kid was good in the woods. A throwback to Daniel Boone days, he could slither through the trees like a greased pig at the county fair. Or so he put it. He was at home in natural surroundings as he never was in Atlantis. If anyone could talk down a pissed off piece of tree-mold, it would be him.

Yeah, I'd stay awake and call up and the best laid fucking plans…. Instead I'd dropped into sleep like a man diving headlong into a coma. It was the drugs. I knew it was the drugs. It didn't make me feel any better. Carson had told me since the other anti-puking meds weren't working that he was breaking out the big guns and they would put me out like a light. Not likely, I'd thought. I had will power. I had resolve. I had a mouthful of drool covered pillow when the hand landed lightly on my shoulder.

"Lad, I need you to wake up."

Like I said, nothing good ever follows a statement like that.

I'd asked Beckett for some speed…what Rodney would call high-grade Air Force amphetamines in a snooty tone to have you believe it wasn't what it was. But it was speed. Pure and simple. I needed it to shake off the fuzz of what he'd given me earlier. He refused. I was still dehydrated, still not at top form, and amphetamines just might tip me over the edge. I'd have to make due with natural adrenaline. He was right. Once I stepped through the gate, I had all the adrenaline I needed.

Fifteen minutes after the team had missed their check in I'd stepped through the gate and into a near dry puddle of blood. I could still feel the tacky cling of it to my boot like the sticky floor of a movie theatre. I almost smelled popcorn. I wondered if the next time I had popcorn would I smell blood?

That pool of blood had colored the rest of the search. Everything was red in my eyes…dark red and heavy with copper and fear. Every body I found I prayed it wouldn't be Rodney. In essence I prayed someone else had died instead. Nice, huh? Hell of a commander, that was me. And then Robbins…a good guy, a guy I hung out with on occasion. West Virginia meets Texas—it wasn't much of a stretch. And, damn, his mom loved him. Sent him cookies, movies, tapes of football games, pictures of his unbelievably stupid dog with his head stuck in a different piece of furniture in every photo…she loved him. Her only child. Her baby boy. He'd blushed fiery red when I caught a glimpse of that in one of her letters he was reading at lunch in the cafeteria. Dear Baby Boy….

I'd left before they zipped him up. I just…left.

"Colonel."

I jerked my attention back to the here and now. Carson was standing in front of me holding a bottle of bright green colored liquid. It looked radioactive, but I recognized it quickly enough. Gatorade. I accepted the bottle and took a short swallow. I was in the briefing room, leaning hard against a wall. We had a meeting in five minutes. We would discuss all the shit we did not know and maybe Teyla would explain why Atlantis was never going to have mushroom omelets again. But probably not…Teyla was Teyla. Loyal always and completely aware of the fact it was unlikely I would ever change, so why waste her breath to tell Weir. Loyal and practical, Athosians were that.

"Drink it all, lad. You look as green as the bottle. Dehydration is no man's friend." He sat at the table, looking a little worse for wear himself. Normally Dr. Biro did the autopsies, but Beckett would've been there. The men were his as well as mine. If standing witness were all he could do, then he would do that and nothing less.

My stomach wanted no part of the cloying sweet liquid, but I drank it anyway. He was right. I wouldn't be much help to Rodney or Dr. Z if I keeled over.

"Colonel," he said after a moment of the thick silence, "did you ever read Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry?"

I shifted my shoulders and shook my head, not surprised by the question. I didn't have enough emotion left over for anything like curiosity. Rage and fear, they were the only thing swirling in my mind right now. Roiling, seething…waiting for an opportunity. "No. Watched the Disney movie when I was a kid though."

"Well then, give that boy the mind of a physicist and you'd have Rodney, now wouldn't you? Can you imagine the havoc he's wreaking right now?" His eyes gleamed. "You should be thinking on how much you want them to pay us to take him back."

Yeah, except for the fact if you want to get rid of someone a bullet was so very cheap.

But for a quick second I could picture Rodney, ranting and raving, driving the kidnappers, slavers, whatever right up the wall. 'Chains? You call these chains? My grandmother could knit chains better than these.' My lips twitched for a moment and I gave a faint snort as I finished the Gatorade.

"Good." A hand retrieved the bottle from me. "How are you feeling then? No more vomiting? Any dizziness?"

I didn't have a chance to answer as I heard the gate wail and someone shout, "Unscheduled gate activation." I must've run, but I didn't remember the motion. I only remembered being in front of the gate as the same voice said, "It's Dr. McKay's IDC."

I didn't doubt, not for a second, even as I automatically aimed the P90. I simply welcomed the cool rush of relief that washed over me like a tidal wave, I felt the fear flow out of me so fast and furious that it almost felt like hemorrhaging, and I didn't doubt. Couldn't let myself doubt. And when the gate opened and Rodney walked through….

But of course that's not how it happened. That's not how it ever happens.

The tiny digital video camera that came through and bounced twice before coming to a rest was Rodney's. When I bent down stiffly to pick it up, I could all but feel his fingerprints on it, seared into the metal with the acid of his personality. "Leadership." The word came out of me, choked and thick, although I didn't feel my lips move. "You better be a little more to the point this time, McKay."

And this one had better not be a fucking goodbye.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Look, all you have to do is push the… no, not that one, the other… oh, for God's sake, Radek show him."

They were idiots. Complete and utter idiots. Violent, homicidal idiots with no regard for human life, for sure, but idiots nonetheless. Radek stood from our seats at the wooden table, walked over to the man holding the digital camera and showed him the correct button to push.

"Whatever you do, don't push this button," the engineer warned.

The man regarded him with suspicious eyes. "Why not?"

"Self destruct," Radek told him, subconsciously reaching up to adjust glasses that were no longer there. "Whole room will go kaboom." He accentuated his lie with expanding hands and eyes. "Very bad, very messy."

Our captor's eyes widened in alarm as he moved his finger away from the pause button and the second man in the room moved a few feet away from the one with the camera. And I allowed myself an internal smirk. About fucking time they worried about their well being instead of threatening ours.

We had broken out the camera after hearing their original plan of sending a written ransom note with an attached body part from one or both of us as proof of their claim. Seeing as Radek and I were both rather fond of all our body parts and had no desire for any part of us to go through the gate without the rest of us in tow, we suggested that the Atlantis personnel would be much more receptive to paying a ransom if they could see and hear that we were both alive and well. And after a quick demonstration of our technical capabilities, they reluctantly agreed to video tape our delivery of their prepared message, holding the removal of limbs and appendages in reserve.

The man with the camera wasn't part of the party that had captured us. Although he wore clothing similar to the ones the field team had worn, it was apparent his duties where of a much more administrative nature. He was a little more clean-cut and a lot less scraggly with close cropped reddish-brown hair, neatly trimmed goatee and a business-like approach to our whole abduction. I could almost picture him being called away with a frustrated huff from an important conference call in order to take care of the ransom note. Telling the people on the other line, 'I'll have to call you back. I have to go hack off a hand and send it through the gate. As if I don't have a million other things to take care of today. At this rate I'll never get the monthly death threats report out on time.' That is if they had been technologically advanced enough to have any sort of communications device beyond using their hands to cup their mouth and yell. But regardless of their lack of hi-tech gadgets, the man was obviously in the bureaucratic wing of the organization.

And they were an organization, which was just as obvious. Not like the military, not nearly that hierarchical or regimented. More like the mob and this facility was more like a chop shop than an army barracks. We had passed dozens of men in the halls on the way to the room they had designated as our cell, and just as many rooms filled with various contraband. It was when I saw the dark bricks of powdered Wraith's Blood, a powerful narcotic manufactured and traded by an even more powerful drug lord, that I started putting two and two together and coming up with the reason we were here in the first place. We were a form of contraband in and of ourselves. A commodity to be bartered just like any other they had managed to get their hands on and I only hoped to God that they planned to give Atlantis first dibs on us.

The second man, the one with the longer hair and the shorter temper, was very familiar. He was the same one that had provided me with the painful swelling on the side of my face. And it was just as obvious why he was present in the room. He was muscle, plain and simple. The brawn to the other's brains and the two of them were the criminal equivalent of Atlantis' own Geek and Goon squad. Although the guy with the camera came nowhere near envying my brilliance and, bad hair aside, the one with the gun had nothing on a certain Lt. Colonel near and dear to my heart.

Near and dear and yet somewhere far across the galaxy. And thank God for that. If he had been there when we had been ambushed… if it had been him and Ronan and Teyla instead of those six poor marines… Well, that was cosmic karma for you. Sometimes it worked in your favor and sometimes it bit you in the ass. And this time it had managed to do both.

Radek returned to his seat and I straightened in mine, adjusting my jacket in preparation of the taping. "Is it on?" When the man with the camera furrowed his brow I rolled my eyes and my hands and added, "look at the screen, is there a red light?" When he nodded I shook my head. "Don't move so much, you'll just ruin the picture. Although how you aren't shivering where you stand is beyond me. It's a goddamn meat locker in here." I pulled my jacked closer around me. "If you would just give us our tools, we could fix this problem."

Of course if I just thought about it being warmer in here instead of having the temperature hover at subarctic temperatures, it would probably help. But I had no intention of doing that, especially after I had spent the last two hours maintaining the temperature at Saharan Africa levels. But if I could just convince them to give us our packs and our tools, we had a chance to find a slim advantage

"We did not have this problem before you arrived," the one with the camera accused.

"Well, that's what you get for kidnapping people with the powers of the Ancients and bringing them to a building built by the Ancients," I snipped right back then looked directly at the camera. "See, John, you're not the only one that can cause a goddamn facility to glow to life at the mere pitter patter of your enormously booted feet. My fucking mouse gene works just fine, thank you very much."

And if anyone can use the fact that we're being held in an Ancient outpost to his advantage during a rescue, it would be you, I added silently.

"Then fix it with these powers you possess," he demanded.

I rolled my eyes dramatically even as I made sure the camera was still rolling. "First off, I was exhausted from that hike from the gate. What, it must have been three or four miles through the jungle, don't you think, Radek?"

"Yes, at least," he confirmed. "Too bad we did not have jumper. Would have made trip much easier."

"You're right," I agreed thoughtfully as I leaned back in my seat and crossed my arms. "It would have cleared the gate no problem. And it would have afforded a much nicer view of the mountains in the distance."

The cameraman frowned. "You are well rested now, you should be able to fix it."

"Yes, I should, if it wasn't for the fact that the facility is over ten thousand years old and falling apart around your ears. I'm not going to be able to do anything without popping open a few panels, probably scavenging parts from some of the devices that are stored around here and doing some actual hands on repairs."

The business man sighed in frustration. "We will discuss repairs to the building after we send the message."

"Fine," I sighed in return. "Okay, are we ready to do this?" I flicked impatient finger. "Where's the script?"

The second man handed me the rough parchment and I read over the first few statements quickly. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You seriously want me to read this?" I snorted as I showed it to Radek who probably couldn't see a single word but clucked his tongue and shook his head in a show of disappointment. "I am Dr. Rodney McKay and this is Dr. Radek Zelenka? Well isn't that blatantly obvious as they will be seeing us on the video? I mean the whole point in taking us was because Atlantis would recognize us when you ransomed us back. This is really an exercise in redundancy to state our names. "

The second man whipped out a dagger and thrust it into the table top by my hand. "We can always go back to the original plan if you would prefer. We could send your finger, the one with the ring; it would be recognized as well would it not?"

Without thought I thrust my hands under my thighs and sat on them. As if that would in any way stop him if he did decide to cut it off. "Yes," I conceded weakly, "it would."

"It is the only ornamentation you wear and it is so simple, it must be more than decorative. It must have some symbolic meaning to you and your people." I didn't answer, only swallowed as he pulled the knife and twirled it gracefully in his hand, scraping beneath his nails with the tip. "Am I correct?" He took the blade and wiped the small fleck of dirt on my jacket above my heart, pushing in enough to puncture the fabric.

"Yes," I stated without moving a muscle. Beside me, Radek sat as stone still as I did. They could ransom one scientist just as easily as two and we both knew it.

"Why do you wear it?" he asked me simply, pressing the blade in a little further so that I could feel the sharp pressure against my chest. I had no doubt he could feel the pounding there reverberating through the metal.

I flicked my eyes to the camera, saw it was still running, still recording, and I was still able to send a final message if this was going to be my last one. "Because it makes a nice sound," I told John hoarsely.

He gave me a slightly confused look, but never removed the blade. "It would also make a very good token of our convictions to the other Lanteans, yes?"

I found that I had lost my voice and was unable to draw a breath, much less find it, so I nodded mutely.

"Good," and he removed the blade and resheathed it in one fluid move. "Remember that as you read the statement."

I slumped slightly in my chair, pulled my shaking hands from beneath my legs, and started reading the statement.

"We are being held to ensure that proper retribution is made for property stolen from Ral Dala. The returning Lanteans took that which was not theirs and as such must pay for Master Dala's losses or alternate means of compensation will be pursued." I cleared my throat, trying not to pale at the prospect of that idea. "Therefore, fifty Lantean small firearms, with one hundred reloads each, twenty large firearms with five hundred reloads each, one hundred charges of the explosive known as C-4, and one thousand doses each of the medicines known as morphine and Keflex will be delivered to the world shown here."

With trembling hands I held up the piece of paper, showing the gate symbols for a planet, not this one but another to be used as a drop point. The camera man moved in closer, so that the address showed clearly on the screen.

"If payment is not received within two Lantean days, then we will be sold to the highest bidder to compensate for Ral Dala's loss." My voice trailed off as I looked to Radek, certain that the expression of shock I saw on his face was a mirror of my own.

"You plan to sell us?" Radek demanded.

The man with the knife shrugged. "Descendants of the Ancestors are highly valued. Some worship them as religious relics. Master Dala has yet to decide if he will offer you whole or in pieces."

I slumped back in my chair, trying to decide if they were complete idiots or utterly insane or maybe a little of both.

"They plan to sell us," Radek informed me in frantically calm voice, as if I hadn't just read that same statement outloud. "…in pieces."

Anxious eyes locked onto mine and I took a deep breath trying to hold my own growing panic at bay. They were going to sell us. To religious zealots. In pieces. What the hell was that? I mean, honestly, as much as I deserved to be revered by others, even I would admit that worshipping my pinky toe as a holy icon was a tad on the excessive side.

In fucking pieces?

I realized the camera was still recording and the last thing John and the others needed to see was the two of us on the verge of losing it entirely.

"Turn off the camera," I told him suddenly. "Turn it off."

"What button do I push to keep it from exploding?" he asked nervously.

I did my best not to break out into a psychotic laugh as I yanked the camera from his hand and stopped the recording. They were idiots. Violent and homicidal idiots. Idiots that had killed six innocent men just because we had insulted a single brutal one. I clung to the camera, our hints to our whereabouts, our only chance for salvation. The information that could lead John to our location or into a trap as deadly as the one they had set on the planet with the tower. I found myself desperately hoping he could find us and just as desperately fearing that he actually would.

Cosmic karma indeed.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Turn off the camera. Turn it off."

Well, not an essay on leadership or even an obvious goodbye, but it still sucked nonetheless.

"Tell me, Doc, did they threaten to chop Red Chief into tiny pieces to sell to Baptists and Catholics?" I asked with an eerie calm. "Because I think I must've missed that part."

He swallowed, squeezed my shoulder, but said nothing. After all…what was there to say? They were going to cut Rodney and Radek into pieces if they didn't get what they wanted. Actually, they were going to cut them into pieces even if they did. Or sell them alive and whole to the Genii, which would not be as much an improvement as you might think. Why give them back to us when they could charge us and then charge someone else? It was just good business sense. And crooks and druglords were all about the good business…all about making a buck. If we played by their rules, we'd never see either of our geeks again.

I guessed it was a good thing I was never good at playing by anyone's rules.

They threatened to cut off his finger. They threatened to cut off Rodney's ring finger. Those expressive hands that rarely stopped moving and they threatened to mutilate them.

I could still see his eyes on mine through millions of miles. Because it makes a nice sound. With a dagger at his chest, that's what he had said and said for me alone.

I was going to enjoy killing the son of a bitch with the knife. I was going to enjoy the hell out of it.

"We can't give these people guns they'll use to kill innocents." Weir's voice echoed quietly in the briefing room.

I didn't hold it against her. Someone has to say those things. In situations like this, it's a standard, like 'this is no ordinary shark' and 'I have a bad feeling about this.' Cliched for a reason, someone has to say them. That's why Elizabeth got paid the big bucks. I never would, because I had one concern and one only…get my men back. No matter what. I'd ended up in Antarctica thanks to that philosophy, but what the hell? Antarctica had brought me to Atlantis, and I wouldn't be anywhere else.

I hit the play button and watched again. And then a third time. Four miles from the gate. Mountains in the distance. An Ancient stronghold.

He was scared, sitting on his hands defiantly. He looked brave, but he was scared. Zelenka was hanging onto his calm with both hands, but he was flat-out terrified and…fuck….

Rodney was scared.

"John." The hand fastened on my shoulder and she repeated, "We can't give them guns or explosives. We simply can't."

"We won't have to," I said with a savage flash of teeth. "I have something else to give them." Something they really weren't going to like.

Me.

Elizabeth said no, and she said it several times over the next hour. I went anyway. She wanted to open up negotiations at the ransom drop site. She wasn't so Pollyanna as to believe they'd say they were sorry for being bad, bad boys and hand over our scientists, but she thought she could haggle over the price. Give food and medicine instead of guns and explosives. A great deal of food and medicine. Human beings, no matter what galaxy, were at their heart rational creatures, right?

Yeah. Hardly. That didn't even stand true on Earth. Why would here be any different?

And when she laid down the law, that absolutely I would not go off on some half-baked yet fully suicidal rescue mission, I said good luck getting me in the brig. With Dex down and Teyla ambivalent at best I had doubts it could be done.

Now here I was, with the repercussions in the distant future…two days at least. Elizabeth's last words to me at the gate had been quiet and grim as she'd asked, "How many do you plan to kill?"

"As many as I have to," I'd replied flatly.

It was one of the reasons I came alone to the ransom site. Had I lied on mission reports before? Well, lie is a harsh word… I had skirted the truth once or twice. With Kolya. Definitely with Kolya. As then, I didn't want anyone to be put in a position where they had to follow my maybe less than honest lead. The second reason I came alone was these guys were good. They took out six of my marines, including Robbins, and ambush or not…that was saying something. They knew their shit. And now that I was laying an ambush for them, I wanted no chance they would spot it. With only me lying in wait, the chance of that happening plummeted. Also when I found the base where McKay and Zelenka were being held, I didn't want Ral Dala's men panicked. If I came in with a team, they might kill Rodney and Radek. After all they didn't need them alive to make money.

Okay, if I thought about that while I waited, I'd go crazy.

Crazy or not, wait I did. I was prepared to watch the gate for two days. I had the bare minimum of food and water and Lola. I had Lola. I had Rodney too…in my mind. Bitching at me as always, telling me this was far too dangerous, and what was I…an idiot? He also complained that the pollen had to be hell on allergies, and did I have an antihistamine on me.

"I don't think they got my good side."

The sky had darkened to twilight a long time ago and now there were only stars, Rodney and me.

"Your good side," I repeated as I watched sky and gate from my tree.

"In the tape," he said impatiently. "Hellooo, they weren't precisely concerned with good lighting or minimizing certain…never mind."

From the corner of my eye I watched as he automatically smoothed his high hairline. "You looked fine. Christ, Rodney, you're a kidnap victim. No one expects you to look like you're ready to accept the Nobel."

"Ah, the Nobel. Next year," he sighed. "Next year that idiotic, short-sighted Dr. Finklestein goes down."

I glanced over my shoulder at the trunk of the tree. I couldn't see him, not really…but I could see mirage glimpses of blues and gray…I could see a potential. It probably should've worried me. But as certain aliens once told me, I had a way of manipulating my environment—inner and outer. Goody for me. "Going to put it on a shelf in our room?"

"Absolutely. As soon as I beat Kavanagh to death with it," the answer came promptly.

I snorted and rested my chin on my arm. The gate was a faint silver coin in the distance, still and quiet. No one had come through yet. But they would. They would, and then…I felt my lips twist.

"John." Rodney's voice was closer, at my ear…warm breath on my jaw.

"Yeah?" I closed my eyes, just for a second. It's always easier to pretend that way.

"Promise not to get yourself killed?"

My shoulders sagged a little and I opened my eyes. "Do you?"

"Red Chief is indestructible," he offered smugly. "You really should've read the book. No physics, but still mildly entertaining. Er…you did learn to read before high school right?"

The faintest quirk of a smile curved my lips. "Miss you, McKay. Miss you like hell."

"The feeling, I suppose I have to admit, is completely mutual." Ghostly fingers touched the nape of my neck and then he was silent. It was very unMcKay-like, but maybe he was as tired as I was.

Still, tired or not, he didn't leave. He waited with me all night and I appreciated the company. As it turned out I didn't have to wait that long. They came in the morning, after only a day. I suppose they thought that was long enough to avoid just what had happened. There were only four of them. Three thugs and a vaguely business-looking type. His clothes were neater, his hair short and neat, I could even see the gleam of buffed nails through the scope of my rifle. Lola was there…but I'd brought a few friends of hers along. The good old standby, the P90, and the Marine sniper weapon of choice…the M40A3. As I aimed it, I noticed Rodney was gone. That was okay. I'd be getting him back again in a matter of hours, maybe less, and the rifle was ready…hungry to help me.

It handled like a dream. And it felt like a dream when I put a bullet in the head of one man and the hearts of two others as they fired wildly at what they couldn't see. A dark red-edged dream.

The last man, our sharp-dressed, manicured one, turned and lunged for the DHD to dial back home. I blew out his knee with one round and, when he kept reaching for the DHD, I blew out his elbow as well. He screamed and kept screaming the entire time as I ran from where I'd been perched in a distant tree. He didn't want to talk when I crouched down beside him. Screaming he was good at, talking not so much. For a bureaucrat, and that's what he had to be, he was surprisingly tough. Or maybe he just feared Ral Dala more than me.

That changed.

It took some time, but it changed.

And then I was in the jumper and flying. In stealth mode, I exited the gate on a different world. One with purple and silver mountains in the distance, two amazingly huge moons hanging in a dark lavender night sky, and the hot sizzle of an Ancient outpost whispering in the back of my brain. There were other things whispering in the back of my mind as well…none of them as beautiful as mountains bathed in lunar light or as fascinating as the warmth of Ancient power calling to me.

They kept whispering all the same.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"This is all of it?" I asked as I surveyed the pile of Ancient technology they had brought to our holding cell. Mostly recognizable and mostly junk… a couple of life signs detectors, one smashed and probably beyond repair, three of those energy field storage boxes, a couple more Ancient flashlights with hover capabilities, a half dozen locking mechanisms, an alarm clock similar to the one we had on our bedside at home and one or two things I didn't know what they were but they didn't respond immediately to my thoughts so I had my doubts about their usefulness.

"This is all that is left from when we first occupied these facilities," Bettix, the one who had operated the camera during our ransom recording, told me. He shifted from foot to foot, pulling the sweater he wore closer around him. Behind him, Heldon, the wielder of daggers and a mean backhand, blew warm breath into his hands. After nearly twenty hours of freezing temperatures in the facility, they had seen fit to allow us access to our packs to repair the environmental controls. After prying open a few panels and lamenting the condition of the wiring, which was actually nearly pristine for sitting untouched for ten thousand years, Radek and I informed him that the magnetic solenoid valve was blown and without a fractal modulator unit there was no way we could repair the system. But in true grease monkey fashion we informed him he was probably in luck because we could fashion a new one if we could scavenge some parts from a flux capacitor if we could find one. So, with near frostbitten hands and the promise of returning heat he had delivered the pile of mechanisms to our little work bench.

I picked up one of the life signs detectors, deciding there was possibility here, but not much. I needed something more, though, if we were going to get ourselves out of here before John and the others tried to rescue us.

"Is there a chair room?" I asked as casually as possible. Radek perked at my question, but after a quick glance from me, he maintained a level face.

"Chair room?" Bettix asked. "You mean the metal throne?"

My heart skipped a beat. They had one. They had a goddamn chair room. I could control the entire facility from there. We could be home in time for dinner tonight if I could just get in that chair.

"Yes," Radek answered when I didn't, "that must be same thing."

"Well, we did, but the throne was removed, as were most other items."

"You removed the chair?" I demanded incredulously. "You people really are idiots."

"It was a chair," he defended. "It served no purpose where it was, sitting useless in the middle of a room."

I shook my head in disbelief. "Oh, this is just unbelievable. So did you sell it off to the highest bidder or is your buddy Ral using it as the easy chair in his multipurpose room?"

A foot kicked hard into the back of my knees and I folded down to the floor with a grunt. "You will refer to him as Master Dala or not at all. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I told him even as Radek offered me a hand and helped pull me to a stand. "It's just that the chair that Master Dala saw fit to remove was the interface to control the temperature in here. I could have possibly fixed the problem from there."

"Perhaps we could find other way to interface controls," Radek suggested. "It would be worthwhile to see room, I think."

"Yes," I agreed quickly, "we should still see the room." If they didn't know anything about Ancient technology, which was quite obvious… they had removed the goddamn chair, sigh, morons… then they may have just removed the exposed equipment and left behind some other useful items.

"Very well," Bettix told us with a scowl. He hitched his head toward the door that Heldon opened for us then led us down through the complex until we reached what was probably the center of the facility. Once there he opened the door to a vacant room. In the center stood the chair platform, now empty with a gaping hole.

Radek and I walked over to the hole, shining our penlights into its depth.

"It appears to go back quite a ways," I observed.

"Do you see anything useful?" Bettix asked hopefully. Evidently he hadn't brought his cold weather clothing with him to this particular job assignment.

"No, not really, at least not immediately."

"Perhaps further in," Radek suggested, "there might be something useful."

I licked my lips nervously. "That… uh, that looks like a pretty tight squeeze."

Radek shook his head. "Is pathetic. Could write book about all your psychoses. McKay's giant pop-up book of mental disorders. Use it to scare small children into eating vegetables and minding mama. 'Look, zaychik, this is what will happen if you spend all day avoiding sunlight and reading physics texts instead.' "

"Fine," I scowled, "I'll go. You probably wouldn't know what you were looking for anyway."

With another shake of his head, he climbed down into the opening with a stream of frustrated Czech. The unintelligible speech continued but became even more unintelligible as he put the penlight in his mouth and started to crawl down the small access way. I took the opportunity to survey the room, noting where the control podium had stood, the screens no longer on the walls, even the holographic projector was gone. As I made my way around the platform, I finally saw what I had been looking for, what I knew had to be there because otherwise even my ATA gene would have had no effect on the facility. I pushed a button and watched the ZedPM lift from its location in the floor. I had no idea how much charge was left in this one. It could be like the others we had found before, barely any juice left, on its last self contained subspace/time leg. Or it could be fully charged, capable of powering the city and the gate for eons to come. But making that determination would have to wait.

Bettix looked over my shoulder. "Is that what you are looking for? Is that the flux capacitor?"

I shook my head as I relowered the ZedPM back into place. For now, I needed it right were it was. I had sacrificed plenty for Atlantis, it was her turn to return the favor. "No, its nothing. Just made the chair move." And every fucking other thing in this facility, I added silently.

From the hole I heard my name echoing down the access way. I stood quickly and shined my flashlight into the opening. "Radek, did you find something?"

The fuzzy-haired head appeared a few seconds later with a wide grin, an object cradled in his arms. "Yes," he told me proudly, "yes, I did." He held out his arms so we could see what he held. To our captors it must have had the appearance of a large egg with squid-like tentacles dangling from the back. But to me it looked like our ticket out of here. He had found a drone, an Ancient drone, a missile capable of taking out a Wraith dart.

A smile to rival his own broke out across my face. "Were there more?"

"Yes," he told me giddily.

Bettix looked at the weapon and appeared to be unimpressed. "Is that the flux capacitor?"

"No," I told him, "its better. It's a proton pack and photon torpedo all rolled into one."

"Will it fix the temperature in here?"

I nodded my head solemnly. "I guarantee it will be a hell of lot warmer in here with that."

"Good." He stood straighter. "Then take it and fix it."

"We need one more," I informed him, "to be sure. This one could be damaged."

With an authoritative wave of his hand he dismissed Radek. "Fine, fine, get it so we can go."

Radek scurried into the access way and retrieved a second drone and then we returned to our cell each carrying one delicately in our arms. Once there Bettix left us in the pleasant company of Heldon as he evidently had much more important things to take care of than watching us build bombs… I mean repair the heating unit… like approving overtime for the guys that had kidnapped us.

I scrubbed at my eyes that were feeling thick and gritty. I was going on just a handful of sleep over the past two days. Radek had slept a little the previous day curled into a tight ball for warmth on the cot they provided while I stood watch. Not that there was anything I could have done if someone had wanted to do us any harm. Activate the fire suppression system and turn out the lights maybe, and that was about it. But even as exhausted as I was, sleep had eluded me.

Every time I closed my eyes I would think about John. Had he finally stopped puking? Surely by now. How had he reacted to the video? Not good, I could be pretty certain. Had he understood our clues? Of course he had. Had he heard my message? Yes. Was he going to attempt a rescue? Once again, yes. Did he have a chance in hell of getting us out? If anyone could it would be him. I could picture him, going over the plan of attack with the marines, all steely resolve and calculating command. God, he was amazing when he got into that mode, letting that brilliance that he hid behind his devil may care attitude run herd over everyone around him, always thinking one step ahead and compensating for if they fell two steps behind. And evidently releasing twice his normal allotment of pheromones because in those situations I was far from the only one in the room that looked like they would like to rip off their clothes and follow any order he gave. Okay, maybe I was the only one willing to do the whole clothes ripping thing, but the others would have followed him to the end of the galaxy and back, and they often did. No, I had no doubt that he would find a way to get us home.

But, could he do it without getting himself killed in the process? And that's were any chance of sleep disappeared.

He would come. Of that I was more certain than my own name. But I was just as certain that the people holding us were killers to their core and they would cut him down without interrupting their thoughts of what they wanted to eat for lunch.

No, we needed to get out and get out soon before John could play the hero and the martyr all at the same time.

"Radek, hand me that…" but he already had the screwdriver in hand. I began disassembling the drone, opening up the mechanism to reveal the helix of small naquedah enhanced charges that I knew rested inside. If we could separate them, divide them into the individual charges, we could use them like hand grenades. All we needed to do was collect the parts we needed for detonators from the other devices and we'd have a small arsenal at our fingertips.

And we were close to having it. Close to completing the disassembly after talking in code about spare parts and environmental controls for what seemed an eternity. Close to beginning the assembly that would give us five small explosive devices when the commotion started in the hall. Heldon moved to the door when the first shouts arose, the first sounds of booted feet running through the corridors. He pulled his gun, seemed to consider for a moment, then opened the door.

Radek and I eyed each other with a mix of excitement and trepidation. "What is happening?" the engineer asked our guard.

"Stay here," was all he said, "and know that I will still be watching this door." Then he slipped out and we heard the bolt slip into place outside.

"Let's get these puppies put together," I told Radek in a rush even as he reached for a piece and began attaching it to another.

"Here, here, like this," he showed me, "it will go more quickly."

"Right," I agreed, "good idea."

And so we worked, for almost half an hour, hurriedly putting our bombs together as the yelling continued and shots were fired until eventually our frantic pace slowed as we neared completion and the frantic activities in the hall slowed as well. And I took that as a good sign. It had to be a good sign. I refused to believe it could be anything else.

And I still firmly believed it, even as the security bar scraped outside our cell, even as the door opened and I knew John would walk in, cocky grin on his face, smart ass comment on his lips.

"You're late reporting in, McKay. Weir is pissed," or "I can't send you anywhere without me," or even "Miss me?" with that breath-snatching smile and a waggle of eyebrows.

And I would have taken any or all of them at that moment, because it would mean that we wouldn't have to use our bombs and we would be going home.

But then John didn't walk in and we never got to use all our little explosives.

No, after what they showed me and told me, I decided to use something bigger and I decided I wasn't going home after all. Because if what they told me was true, I didn't have a home left to go to.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The Ancients…the children of generations of war and not once had they come up with a good security system in any facility of theirs that I'd seen. Oh yeah, they were hell on wheels when it came to biohazard lockdowns, but something as simple as your average cat-burglar could walk with ease through Ancient hallways. Other than showing up as glowing on a computer screen XifX something thought to ask for it, the place was yours.

Too bad.

I would've liked to have walked into the facility, slapped their version of an ADT panic button, and had some nifty hopefully laser shooting device pop out of the walls and get to work. Take everyone out except the two ATA-ers and a guy with fuzzy hair and a thick accent. But things are never that simple. If only we could've reprogrammed that Wraith spider…of course it was nothing but floating molecules now, but it would've been something to have that on our side. Charlotte could kick ass and take names with the best of them.

So could I, but unfortunately I wasn't as bulletproof as Charlotte had mostly been. Leaning against a wall, I examined the bullet wound. It wasn't anything life threatening, a simple deep gouge in the flesh just below my flak vest and just above my hip. In anyone else it would've been an in and out. As Rodney told me often enough, I didn't have enough flesh for an in and out wound. I had grazes or I had organ puncturing wounds and maybe if I ate a goddamn Twinkie once in a while….

But I didn't have time to think about what Rodney said and I didn't have the luxury of a ghostly reassuring presence at my back. This was the endgame. This was me, a base full of soulless psychopaths, and a ticking clock. I let my shirt fall and didn't bother with a bandage. It was barely bleeding now and my shirt would soak up what there was. I cradled the P90 in my arm, peered around the corner and took off at a dead run.

But I thought anyway.

My best side. They didn't get my best side.

What was your best side when one third of your face is a massive bruise and the rest is tight with fear, annoyance, and impossible bravery?

I hadn't been able to experience first hand the things Rodney had done and said during the Genii attack. But I'd heard about them. How he'd stepped in front of a gun to save someone else…the way he'd lied to Kolya's face with guts and bravado despite the fact the man had him tortured. How he had thought I was dead but kept doggedly trying anyway, for the sake of Elizabeth and Atlantis, even though he thought they didn't have a hope in hell. I'd heard all about those things and, for once, not from Rodney.

It was the very definition of bravery. Doing what you had to do while you were scared shitless and hope was nothing more than a dream.

I couldn't help but hope myself now…hope Rodney had put away that stubborn bravery, shut the hell up, kept his head down and did exactly what he was told to do. The Genii had needed him and his big brain in one piece. Dala did not. Dead or alive, it didn't matter to him. But it did matter to me. So, for once, if Rodney could pack away that stubborn nature and be a chickenshit coward, that would be just fucking great.

Almost as great as him taping together my Johnny Cash poster with the meticulous care of a sixth grade art student. As wonderful as him now being fixated on my toothbrush being blue. When the supply store ran out of blue, he got a white one and painted it. Every time I brushed my teeth now a little bit of blue came off on my hand. He'd scowl and pretend he didn't see it; I'd grin and pretend the same and neither of us would say anything about it.

The way he would stay up with me all night as I puked my guts up. The fact that his poisoning me may have saved my life….

If he could top those things by staying alive, it would be the hat-trick of the century in my book. No Rodney at those parties aliens planted in your head. No Rodney saying who decorated your apartment…those wild and crazy guys off Saturday Night Live? Yes, chrome and leather is a classic. Never goes out of style. But a polyester track suit…really?

Be a coward, Rodney, I thought to myself. Don't bait the bad guys. Don't talk back.

And just who the hell did I think I was fooling?

I ran on. The rifle was gone. It had done its job and taken out the ten guards Dala had stationed around this place. He wasn't Ancient and it showed. He believed in security. Believed in it like a five-year old kid believes in Santa Claus. Wholeheartedly, fervently, with every fiber of his homicidal being. Those ten guards outside weren't the only ones I'd run into so far. And oh look…here were some more.

I thought the lights out as eight men came down the hall behind me. The thump of booted feet, the abrupt darkness, the nasty sound of bullets whining overhead as I threw myself on the floor, it was like old times. But these guys weren't the Genii. They weren't as smart and that made them more dangerous. If you're too stupid to realize the danger you're in, you're in effect a Kamikaze. A Beserker. If you don't look at me and know that I can kill you before you draw your next breath, you'll just keep coming and keep firing. And yeah, I will kill your oblivious ass, but you might get me too.

Give a man a gun and he's dangerous. Give a stupid man a gun and you'd better run for your life.

The gloom was impenetrable. I had night goggles, but they needed some ambient light to work. Besides, by the time I got them on and aimed…well, I might not be here anymore to do those things. But I had a quicker, if messier, option. I pulled the pin on that option, counted, and tossed it.

It wasn't a flash-bang, but I covered my ears anyway. Normal grenades are just as loud. The floor shook under me like an earthquake and blood rained from above. When it was over, I sat up slowly and took off my jacket. The front, protected by the floor, was untouched and I cleaned the blood from the rest of me with it. Letting it fall when I was finished, a sodden clump of material, I moved on down the hall blindly. I wanted space before I turned the lights back on. I didn't want to see what a grenade did when it landed in the middle of eight men. You've seen it once…you don't need to see it again.

I had the life signs detector back out. The more men I took out, the more dots seemed to appear on the screen. It wasn't true, but it seemed true.

The next man I used a knife on. I needed to save my ammunition.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Once upon a time…

All the best stories started that way. Once upon a time… In a galaxy far, far, far away… Space, the final frontier… They were all the same thing. A way to signal you that the story you were about to hear wasn't real but damn didn't you wish it was. Because when you heard those words you knew that the story was going to have heroes and villains, bravery and deceit, unwavering friendship and undying love…

It was heavy. I knew it would be by the way it lay in a lump on the floor, but until I actually picked it up, I had no idea what the word heavy had meant. I lifted his jacket from the ground and the room spun around me like a carnival ride, like a merry-go-round, like a goddamned ferris wheel… and the leaden weight pulled me down and for a moment I thought I might never reach the floor, might never actually come to rest again, might just spin in an endless curling wave for all eternity.

"Rodney?"

The voice was muffled, like I was hearing it from under water, from under the weight of an ocean's worth of seawater, cold and thick and heavy in my lungs. I didn't answer and with the weight of my existence pulling me under the waves, I couldn't answer. All I could do was bury my head in his jacket and breathe in what little remained of my life.

When the door had swung open, it took me a second to realize that it wasn't John and three marines walking in, but Heldon and three of his thugs instead. He moved quickly and purposely to me, a dark object held tightly in his clenched hand. With a snarl he grabbed me by the back of the neck, pinched hard and walked me quickly to the nearest wall where he roughly slammed me face first.

"The Lanteans will pay! Do you hear me? You will pay!"

"What…what's happening?" I managed to gasp out as he ground my bruised head into the wall. Behind me I heard a yelp of pain from Radek and assumed he was receiving similar treatment.

"The arrogance is astounding." He pressed harder and leaned in close to my ear. "First you steal from Master Dala and now you dare to attack his stronghold, to attack him? No one is that stupid. No one until now."

"Well, what did you expect?" I demanded back. "That we would just roll over and pay the ransom? We have a technologically superior military force."

"You're technology has failed. The attack has failed. Our skill has prevailed."

I felt nauseated by the implications. "What do you mean failed?" I asked weakly.

He released me then, taking a step back so that I could turn and see what he held in front of me. "We have killed one, and we will kill any others when we find them."

It was an expedition military jacket, blood soaked and battered, an American flag on the shoulder.

"Where did you get that?" I stretched my arm for it and he pulled it back out of my reach.

He smiled then, taunting and malicious, "He was a worthy fighter, possessed the power to control the lights like you. But in the end it was not enough."

It could be someone else, my mind instantly justified. Some of the marines had the ATA gene, some naturally, but most thanks to gene therapy, and that jacket could belong to one of them just as easily as John. Because once upon a time there was an Air Force officer that was brave and noble and self sacrificing to a fault and this was one of those stories, the best stories, and they always ended with a happily ever after. Always.

I shook my head in denial, searching for the happy ending. "Where's the body?"

"On its way to the gate," he told me with a smile, "to be prepared."

"Prepared?" And then I realized what he meant. They were doing to him what they had threatened to do to us. They were going to sell him off, piece by piece. But it wasn't John, couldn't be John. Once upon a time, right? Once upon a fucking time.

"Unless you show me the body, I won't believe you. You're just making this all up." Just like all the best stories, only this one wasn't turning out to be one of my favorites.

He stepped closer, shoving the jacket in my face. "Is this not proof enough? Is his blood not enough to convince you that the attack has failed?" But I barely heard him. Because the blood was nothing compared to the heady scent of John that rolled over me like a breaking wave, and break is just what I did.

He threw the jacket to the ground and stepped in close. "The ransom has now doubled. And I will chop you into bits myself when the payment is not received in twelve hours."

He turned and stormed out of the room with the others close on his heels. I was vaguely aware of Radek tentatively walking toward me, quietly calling my name. But the weight was already pulling me down, my ears humming from the pressure of it all, and my mind desperately trying to convince me that it was all just a fairy tale, a horrible nasty fairy tale and the happy ending was just a turn of the page away.

But when I picked it up, when I felt the immensity of one stupid fucking jacket, all thoughts of happy endings vanished. And all I could do was bury my face in the fabric. Wrap it around me and make believe it was the weight of his arms around me instead his death that I was feeling. Pretend it was the scent of his body next to mine instead of the only thing that I had left of him. So I buried my face and imagined, because I knew that was the only thing I was going to have to bury in the end.

Sometime later, a hand landed on my head and I flinched away. "Rodney," Radek called softly, "we can still get out of here. We can still go home."

But home was just a fairy tale that no longer existed. I raised my eyes to meet Radek's pleading ones. I may not have had a home, but he did and he deserved to have a chance to get back to it.

"Open the other drone," I told him with a voice flat and numb.

"But we have no more detonators," he informed me in confusion.

"I'm not making another bomb. I'm making a bigger one."

I would get Radek out, but that thought was secondary to my new objective. As he started the disassembly, I pulled the flag off the shoulder of John's jacket and stood, barely noting the blood clinging to my hands as the garment slumped to the floor. It wouldn't be the last blood I had on my hands, not by a long shot, and that's just the way I wanted it.

I moved to stand behind him as he started to uncoil the charges. "Don't bother," I told him, "it will work just fine the way it is."

His eyes widened. "A bomb that size, it will destroy entire building."

"And a few of the outliers as well, if I'm lucky." I began the task of realigning the charges, connecting them so that the cascade would proceed properly, each feeding the next. "How many drones were left under the chair platform?"

He shrugged with a small shake of his head. "Dozens, maybe more."

"Good," I stated, more to myself than to him, and began my calculations even as I continued making the bomb, still clinging tightly to the patch in my hand.

We worked in silence for a few moments more before Radek finally started to speak. "Rodney, you know…"

But I didn't want the comfort he was going to try to give, so I cut him off. "He must have taken out a shit load of them for them to be so pissed."

I didn't look up from my work but from the corner of my eye I could see him shift uncomfortably, cross his arms and hang his head. "Yes, you are right."

"I wouldn't have expected anything else from him." John was good at killing, excelled at it, had taken out a whole regiment of Genii with a single thought and the push of a button. He hated it but he would do it when necessary, like all good fairy tale heroes. And I couldn't help but wonder who those fictitious characters wrapped themselves around and clung to at night to remind themselves they were still human after they had had to do what was necessary.

"Nor would I," he agreed quietly.

I finished the final connections and surveyed my work. Not pretty, but functional and aesthetics were the last thing on my mind. "Okay, show time."

Radek placed one of our homemade grenades by the door. We turned up the table and moved as far back against the furthest wall as possible. He pushed a button, ran to our homemade shield and leapt down beside me where I sat cradling the other bombs. A few seconds later the door and part of the wall exploded outward and a shower of debris and what could have been a body part rained down around us.

We waited a few seconds as the sound of booted feet approached and gunfire started. Radek pressed another button, counted to five and threw the bomb back over his head. Again, the debris came down and this time there was definitely more than just concrete and structural supports.

"Hold your fire or we throw another one!" I yelled over the ringing in my ears.

The gunfire stopped and I tentatively lifted my head to peer over the table. Three men, including Heldon, stood with guns held loosely in their hands. "Put the guns down," I directed even as I lifted another explosive device threateningly, "and step inside the room."

The guns dropped and Radek scrambled to gather them even as I directed the men to sit on the ground. "Get the duct tape from my pack." Radek bound the men's hands and feet with one of the technological advancements of our time. "Mouths too," I told him, "I haven't liked what they've had to say lately."

Once we had them secured, I handed the remaining explosives over and one of the confiscated pistols. "You should be able to use the grenades to clear a path out of here and back to the gate." He started to protest but I stopped him. "Radek, you have thirty minutes to get as far from this location as you can. That should give you more than enough time to clear the blast zone. Although my calculations were pretty rough, so it would probably be a good idea to run at least part of the time."

The Czech eyed me warily, glancing worriedly between the confiscated gun in his hand and larger bomb in my own. "Rodney, what about you?"

But I had no intentions of going and by the look he gave me when he finally left with my lie to meet him at the gate still hanging heavy in the air, he knew it. And then it was just me and three of the murderous sons of bitches that were about to pay dearly for what they had taken from me. I picked up one of the chairs that had miraculously survived the blast, sat, and looked Heldon square in the eye.

"You asked about my ring earlier, well, seeing as we've got a little time I'll tell you about it. That and all the mistakes you made along the way."

Thirty minutes. I'd promised Radek thirty minutes. That was plenty of time before I needed to head out to the chair room, plenty of time to tell a little story of my own.

"Once upon a time," I started, because all the best stories started that way. And this one was a doozy. It had heroes and villains, bravery and deceit, unwavering friendship and undying love. But it didn't end with they lived happily ever after, instead it was going to end with me detonating my bomb amongst a multitude of Ancient drones and reducing this facility and everything within a good half mile radius into even smaller pieces than they were planning to reduce John. And the weight and the wait I had been lingering under since they showed me his jacket would finally, finally, be gone.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

For a wiry little guy, Dr Z could hug you until your bones creaked. And I had no idea what he was saying…it was all z's and s's and the words zipping along so fast that it was like a large happy bee buzzing in my ear. Hands patted my back and a few English words managed to slip through. "Okay. Will be okay now. Will be. No boom. No…." I felt the hands fly from my back and wave about to illustrate the boom.

"Okay. No boom. That's nice, Dr. Z. Good to know." I gave him a gentle push back and kept an alert eye on the corridor where we stood. He had the pockets of his pants stuffed with several round objects that gave him pear-shaped hips. There was a cut on his jaw, his glasses were gone, and his eyes were wet. He wasn't crying, not that I would've blamed him in this situation, but his eyes were definitely moist. "Rodney." He pointed back in the direction from which I'd seen him run. Zlaty ro…ah. Shit. Go…hurry."

I'd seen Radek upset many a time. I'd seen him panicked, terrified, and on more than one occasion fairly sure that he was going to die. But I'd never seen him so frazzled that he basically lost command of his second language. I shoved him in a room with a gun I'd lifted off one of the bodies in my wake and told him to barricade the door. He checked his watch, nodded grimly and, recovered enough to get a few words out, gave me a hard shove. "Rodney has bomb. Big bomb. Go!"

Rodney and a big bomb. Well, didn't that just make all kinds of sense, I grinned to myself…the first bit of humor I'd felt since I'd been shaken awake in the infirmary. Red Chief strikes again. Explosives and Rodney McKay tended to go hand in hand. The only thing I couldn't figure out as I ran was why Radek was making a break for it and Rodney wasn't. Was he finishing up planting the bomb? Was he taking another way out?

He was.

He was taking another way out and I realized that the second that I saw him.

Because Rodney, Atlantis' Rodney…my Rodney, was gone. And his way out had nothing to do with leaving this base. It had nothing to do with coming back to me. It was fire and vengeance and leaving a gaping hole within me where Rodney should've been. Rodney was gone and he only planned on being that much more gone.

And, yeah, that sort of pissed me off.

"You stupid son of a bitch. What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Not quite along the favorite lines of geekdom…my name is John Sheppard and I'm here to rescue you…but at the moment it was the best I could do.

The door was gone. Hell, most of the wall was gone when I cautiously edged up with gun in hand. I'd snatched a quick look and then a longer one when the scene before me came into focus. Three duct taped baddies and Rodney sitting with squared shoulders and straight spine on a chair as if he was lecturing them. It was almost a humorous scene…would've been humorous if not for the fact that behind Rodney's eyes was nothing. Nothing at all. There was no anger, no fear, no gloating…and Rodney always gloated in these situations…nothing. Just…nothing. The blue was now gray from roiling shadows, and his face was as blank as fresh piece of paper.

Nobody home. Nobody the fuck home and then I heard what he was saying. The relief that I'd felt when I first saw him, the one that took my breath as easily as a certain oxygen deprived atmosphere, melted away.

"And when the bomb goes off in the chair room, this base and everything for a half mile around it will be gone." His fingers were curved lightly around the metal ball in his lap. "You and I…we might very well fly. I think John would like that, to know I got to fly. Of course we'll be dead," the empty eyes focused on one particular captive on the floor, "but that's the way the ball bounces. And that's the way the fairy tale ends. No happily ever after for you or me."

Then came my stupid son of a bitch line. Not my finest hour by any means, but…damn…he scared me. He scared the living shit out of me. Two days ago I'd seen Lola in his lap and now I was seeing a base-destroying bomb. It wasn't doing much for my nerves, no lie.

The clouded eyes came up to find me and the high forehead furrowed. "John? What are you doing here? You're dead." Dead? What the hell? Before I could say anything, he'd moved on, "I can't afford any hallucinations right now, you know. I have things to do. Buildings to destroy." Then his face changed, from fresh paper to gray and brittle glass. "You look so real. I guess that's the good thing about being a genius. You can come up with the really convincing delusions." He swallowed hard and gave me a smile that was so fucking lost. "I miss you."

"Rodney." My voice gentled. The hell with the bomb in his lap and the hell with what he planned to do with it. I stepped over rubble into the room. Pausing only long enough to kick in the head of a certain son of a bitch I recognized from the tape, I moved over to Rodney, holstered my gun, and laid a careful hand on his shoulder. "I'm not dead. I don't know why you'd think I was, but I'm not." My own lips curved with what I was hoping was a more encouraging emotion. "Way to have a little faith in me, McKay."

He blinked, his own smile dissolving. He looked from my hand on his shoulder then back to me and shook. It was one single vibration, here and gone, so quick that I could've imagined it. "Where's your jacket?" His voice cracked and he repeated, "Where's your jacket?"

"My jacket?" I echoed mystified. "I left it in one of the halls. I got a little kidnapper on it." The kind that doesn't come out with a good dry cleaning.

"Oh," he said. Stunned, confused, I couldn't pin down which emotion it was and I couldn't begin to catch the nuances of what was flaring behind those shadowed eyes. I could catch him though and I did. He lunged out of the chair and hit me hard. I wrapped one arm around him tightly and caught the bomb with my free hand. Chances were it wouldn't go off from just hitting the ground, but tell that to a suddenly overfull bladder. Cradling it in the crook of one arm, I cradled Rodney in the other. He had his face pressed firmly against my neck and this time the shaking didn't stop at once.

"Missed you too," I murmured at his ear.

A hand fisted tightly in the back of my vest. "I lost Lola." Thick and choked, but it sounded like heaven to me.

"Nope, I have Lola right here." The son of a bitch torturer from the ransom tape was still twitching and trying to yell behind his gag, so I sidled Rodney and I sideways a step and kicked him again without missing a beat. "And she's yours from now on. Hey, you still need a replacement gun, right?"

His arms, impossibly, tightened even more around me and he finally straightened. "Your beloved penile extension?" His voice was hoarse but that amazing, knock-you-down, joyfully crooked grin was perfect. Just…perfect. "The honor is unimaginable. It's like being knighted. Sir Rodney. Sir Rodney the Brilliant and Brave." The back of his hand swiped at his eyes. "It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"

Sir Rodney the Brilliant and Brave's hand refused to release its hold on my vest and I was fine with that. Couldn't be finer. "It does," I agreed. "And if we can add Sir Rodney Never Does His Own Fucking Laundry, it'll be even better."

He gave a wet snort. "When you make groundbreaking strides in science every single day, then I'll do your damn laundry. Until then be grateful you're fondling the underwear of the next Einstein."

"I wouldn't call it fondling. I mean, fondling….that sounds perverted. Handling with extreme and thorough care, that's more like it." I gave him a push towards the new, improved, giant-sized door and kept up the patter. I didn't know what had happened to make Rodney think I was dead, but he very badly needed some normalcy right now, and I was going to give it to him. For a moment I thought of bending down to check the bonds of the son of a bitch who'd held a knife to Rodney's chest and threatened to cut off his finger. I could loosen those bonds, just slightly. Their guns were in a pile off to one side. Loiter in the hallway for a moment and I might very well get an opportunity to do what I'd wanted since I saw the tape. Kill that bastard. He'd be armed. It wasn't as if it would be cold-blooded murder. Right?

Except for the loosening of the duct tape. Except for leaving the guns. Except Rodney would know….

I'd done a similar thing once…to Kolya. I felt then that I didn't have a choice. I felt the same about it now. But to make that choice twice…it was a step down a long, dark road I wasn't sure I could come back from.

I stared into the man's face and stared hard. He knew. He knew exactly what I was sorting out…that the scales were dipping to one side and then the other. It was when the sharp smell of urine hit the air that I made my decision. I had Rodney. And that was the only truly important thing right now. It didn't stop me from giving the bastard one last kick though for good luck, in a place that would ensure those homicidal genes wouldn't be passed on to future generations. Hey, I was only human. Then I continued ushering Rodney out into the hall.

"Hey, McKay, I think I have an idea for your happy little playmate here." I jerked my chin at the bomb. One that didn't involve suicide, but now wasn't the time or the place for that discussion.

"You? An idea? Are you sure? How does one recognize what they've never had before?" Typical Rodney banter, although not up to his usual razor sharp standard. But his hand didn't leave my vest for a second and a good thing it was too, because between carrying my gun and the bomb I didn't have a spare hand to hang onto him. And I needed the connection, every bit as much as he seemed to.

"Yeah, yeah," I snorted. "Keep 'em coming. But while you're doing your vaudeville act, get Lola out of my holster. Just in case." I felt a hand at my hip and a lightening of weight. "Now let's go get Dr. Z and blow this popstand." Again I gave an uneasy glance at the bomb. "So to speak."

"Radek's still here?" he frowned. "I sent him to the gate with grenades in his pockets and Czech vengeance in his heart."

"He was looking a little hippy," I said with a straight face. "But I ran into him and had him barricade himself in a room with a gun. Right up here as a matter of fact." We took another corner cautiously as Rodney expressed confidence and admiration in my plan.

"What? Are you an idiot?" he scowled instantly. "You gave the man a gun and then put him someplace where he couldn't see who's coming?"

I'd already lifted a hand and knocked on the door with the butt of my gun. "What are you babbling…." The shot came through the elaborate metal and opaque glass door, shattering the glass, and hit the opposite wall.

I yelped and pressed flat to the wall beside the door. "It took three times for him to pass geek bootcamp," Rodney hissed in my ear. "The man is a brilliant engineer, but he's a little high strung when it comes to bullets and guns and things that go boom. I think you would know that from the panicked jump and scream he's patented for offworld missions."

I turned towards him, considered the information and then kissed him quick and hard. There wasn't time for anything other than that. But the fleeting feel of his mouth under mine, including his warm breath three days without a toothbrush, was so damn needed that I couldn't have done anything else. "Okay," I said brightly. "Now I know." Rubbing a gentle thumb across the livid bruise on his face, I called out, "Dr. Z, it's Colonel Sheppard. Get your scrawny butt out here. We're going home."

And we did. After a quick stop to wire the gate with Rodney's naquadah bomb along with my radio, we climbed into the jumper and went through the gate. On the other side, we hovered in the air over bodies who'd come seeking ransom and found me instead. I hoped Rodney and Dr. Z didn't look down. I had taken them out of the Ancient base another way, avoiding the path of death and destruction I'd left in my wake. I didn't want them to see and I didn't want them to know. They'd been through more than enough already. Anything at this point that I could spare them, I would. But there was one thing…one thing I didn't think they wanted to be spared from. I turned to them both, Radek in the co-pilot seat…Rodney at my side with hand firmly and almost painfully attached to my shoulder. "You guys want to do the honors?" I asked soberly. No one had more right than they did. Not even me.

Radek squared his shoulders and dialed the address with stiff, angry fingers. "Rodney?"

Rodney's hands didn't hesitate for a moment. They danced over the communication controls and sent the frequency. Almost simultaneously Radek shut the gate back down. We didn't want a chain reaction blowing this gate as well.

"Did it work?" I asked in a hushed voice. Why hushed? I don't know. Explosions just seemed to call for it after the fact. Before the fact, it called for lots and lots of yelling.

"It worked," Rodney said flatly.

"You're sure? I hate to think those sons of bitches ever get off that planet again. So…." I looked up at him. "You really are sure?"

He rolled his eyes as if it were the most stupid question in all known recorded history. Considering his talent for all things destructive, maybe it was. "That one idea and your whole brain goes into shock." His other hand brushed over hair that I couldn't remember the last time I'd combed. "You said something about going home?"

"I did." But I didn't dial the gate back to Atlantis; I could've done that from the planet we'd just spent a not so fucking hot time on. Going straight home wasn't necessarily what I had in mind.. "What do you guys think about taking the long way home?" I'd brought food, water, blankets and I'd thought maybe we could all use a little time to decompress before Carson began poking at us and Elizabeth began the interrog…the briefing.

"As long as we go home, I don't care how long it takes to get there." A chin rested on top of my head and the hand on my shoulder squeezed tightly. "Besides," Rodney added in a voice so low I barely caught it, "I'm already home."

He was a genius…in everything, he was a genius.

"Dr. Z?" I asked.

Radek nodded in weary agreement to my suggestion and I said contentedly, "The long way it is."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Carson sighed as he saw John and me once again sitting on the same infirmary bed. "Colonel, I cannot finish your examinations if you keep playing musical beds on me. Karen needs to clean and redress that gunshot wound and she can't do that with you sitting knee to knee with Rodney." We had started out on separate beds, but within a few minutes I was sitting next to him while they took the standard post mission blood sample. A few minutes after Carson managed to separate us again John was on my bed while they took my blood pressure. And so it had gone for the past twenty minutes.

I was about to tell Carson exactly what I thought of his inability to improvise, that just because he was raised among sheep he didn't have to think like them, but John silenced me with a squeeze to my knee as he reluctantly slid down and stepped over to the bed facing mine. It was no more than five feet away and yet it seemed an infinite gulf. By the look on John's face, I could tell he felt the same way. It was the look of a hungry predator, a wolf that was facing down a long winter and I had the unshakable feeling I knew what a baby caribou felt like. And surprisingly it wasn't unpleasant. Maybe I had just gotten used to it. He had been giving me that same look since we left the facility, blew away a stargate, and decided to take the more scenic route home.

That route ended up including a trip into orbit around the planet we were on.

John guided the jumper up and up until we left the atmosphere and popped out into the star smattered darkness of space. Radek let out a small sound of wonder and I had to remind myself that he had only been on a few missions where the gate was in orbit.

I moved my arm from John's shoulder so that it was wrapped around his neck and let out a sigh of my own. He placed a hand on my forearm and twisted in his seat to give me a small smile with a wince.

My own smile vanished instantly. "What?"

"It's nothing," he lied.

"Which usually means it's something. I swear you are such a horrible liar, tell me what it is."

"Rodney, seriously, it's nothing more than a graze…"

"You were shot?" I pulled away from him searching over his body with my eyes. "Where?" When I didn't see anything obvious I started patting over him with my hands.

"Rodney," he started, then sucked in a breath when I touched at the juncture between vest and pants.

The black shirt felt damp and I pulled my hand away to see red fingers. I squatted next to him and started pulling up on his shirt. "What the fuck, Sheppard? Why the hell didn't you tell me you were hurt?"

"It's a graze," he told me as he snagged my hand and started wiping the blood off my fingers and onto his own pants leg, "a through and through at the worst. And it's fucking nothing compared to having you back. Nothing."

I swallowed thickly at the emotion in his voice and the way his hand tightened around my wrist. Behind me I heard Radek give a hmph and a mumbled, "What about me? Am I chopped liver?"

Ignoring the Czech, I cleared my throat and turned my hand so that I was looping John's wrist in return. "I'll get the first aid kit. You put us into orbit so that I can get you bandaged up."

He nodded, eyes locked on me as I stood to walk to the back of the jumper and retrieve the kit, as though he were afraid that I might disappear with the next step out of his reach. Then with visible effort he turned back to the controls and guided the ship into a high orbit around the planet.

I reached the back storage bins and realized I was shaking. He had come alone. No battalion of marines to storm the facility, not even a couple to watch his back. He had come alone and had evidently killed a hell of a lot of the criminals that were holding us. I hadn't seen them, the bodies of the ones he had killed, but he had killed them, for me, to get to me, to get me back. And at that moment I didn't know if that made me happy or scared or guilty or angry and anyway now was not the time to try and figure that out. No, I hadn't seen the bodies, John had made sure of that, but I had seen Heldon and his reaction and I had seen the blood on his jacket. Blood that had turned out not to be his after all, but had me so convinced that I was willing to take out everyone in a half mile radius, myself included. I shuddered at the thought of how close I had come to not just reaching the edge but diving off head first.

And suddenly everything John had done made perfect sense.

With an indrawn breath, I opened the cabinet, found the first aid kit, and with steady hands, returned to John's side. "Can you take off your vest?"

John maneuvered out of the vest and let it drop to the floor. "It's really nothing, Rodney. You've taught me to whine over the years." And he flashed one of those dazzling smiles at me and even though it was tinted with pain, it was the most beautiful sight I had seen in days.

No reason to let him know that, though, especially since he had kept the injury to himself. Still, my scowl was only half-hearted and I'm sure it showed. And his smile was only part of the reason. He was alive. He was sitting here next to me alive. I lifted the shirt to reveal a slowly bleeding wound and placed my hand on his abdomen, felt warm flesh that was more familiar than my own, and it was finally sinking in that this wasn't a delusion but fact. I forced a gruffness into my voice. "Nothing doesn't bleed, Colonel. Nothing doesn't make you wince when you move." I pressed the bandage on the opening with more force than I probably needed to.

John flinched away from my rough treatment. "Jesus, McKay!" He pushed my hand away. "It was nothing. Now it's something. Damn."

I slapped his hand, took back the bandage and went back to applying pressure. "Shut up. Just shut up, okay? I didn't get you back from the dead to watch you bleed to death in front of me."

"Rodney." Long fingers ran along my jaw and lifted my chin so that sincere hazel eyes met mine. "I've had worse from Teyla kicking my ass, I promise you." The smile disappeared to be replaced with a confused frown. "And why'd you think I was dead?"

Why indeed? How do you tell someone that you believed the word of a madman over the faith you had been holding on to so tightly that it finally snapped along with your sanity for a few minutes. I drew my I eyes away from his and went back to binding his wound. "Oh, I don't know, your jacket. Your fucking blood soaked jacket that they showed me. And when I demanded to see your body they told me…" I stopped, the weight of the jacket returning, smothering the breath out of me again. I couldn't speak. The scent of John was overwhelming me again, but this time it was real. He was real… real and alive. I cleared my throat. "…they told me some unpleasant things were being done to it," I finished, nuzzling lightly into his chest as I wrapped my arms around him to tie the bandage off.

Before I could finish two arms were around me, squeezing me as tightly as he could. He pressed his cheek to mine and whispered huskily in my ear. "I wish I'd killed them all. I wish I'd killed every last motherfucking one of them."

I hugged him back and God did it feel good to have him in my arms. With a choked laugh I admitted, "Well, that had been my plan when you interrupted me."

He let out a small snort of his own, even as he tightened his grip on me possessively. "No one does wholesale destruction like you, McKay."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

A hand moved up and ruffled my hair. "Take it as an irrefutable fact of life. You're a goddamn force of nature."

With an exhaled breath he loosened his hold and eased back into his seat. "Sit down, Rodney, you look like you're ready to drop. Or grab the food I brought for you and Dr. Z." He grinned teasingly. "Spam sandwiches."

I sat next to him on the floor as I felt the adrenaline that I had been running on for so long flow out of my body with the fear and anger that had been just as sustaining. I leaned heavily against his leg. "Not exactly the stew, but a close second."

John smiled down at me. "Stew doesn't travel well," he told me as he rested a hand on my shoulder then turned to Radek. "Dr. Z, would you mind grabbing Rodney a sandwich? There's roast beast for you."

Radek stood with a frown and opened the pack on the floor. "Ah, yes, when need sandwich remember I am here." He pulled the two wrapped packages and offered one to me. "But when giving hugs and comfort, I am invisible man."

I yanked the sandwich from his hand with a glower. "Sorry, Radek, I'm not hugging you. You'll just have to wait until we get back to Atlantis and maybe Elizabeth will press her much stared at bosoms against you."

Radek frowned back as he unwrapped his meal. "Was not wanting hug from you, Rodney. Was hoping for one from Colonel."

John grinned from his seat. "Well, I do love my geeks." Thenhe laughed at the glare I shot him. "Okay, okay." The hand on my shoulder squeezed, even as he told Radek, "Sorry, Dr. Z, I'm a one geek goon."

Radek spoke around a mouthful of sandwich. "Yes, well, is unfortunate that you chose that particular geek."

John looked down at me again, running a thumb along my jawline with a smile. "Yeah, well, I'll take this kind of bad luck any damn day."

Not exactly 'and they lived happily ever after', but a much better ending than the one I had been picturing just a few hours before.

"Rodney?"

I realized Carson was talking to me and peeled my eyes away from John across the way. When he saw that he had my attention he continued.

"I want some x-rays of your face. That's a nasty bruise and I need to make sure they didn't break anything when they hit you."

Of course they weren't true x-rays. The Ancient machines allowed a real time feed without the use of gamma radiation. I nodded my understanding and looked back to where John was chatting with the nurse who was cleaning his wound. Carson tugged gently on my arm, so I dropped down off the bed and started reluctantly following him toward the door. It really was ridiculous, I'd only be gone for a few minutes, but the thought of being gone from John made my stomach sink. I was just about to say something about waiting when John looked up and realized what was happening.

"Hey, where the hell are you two going?"

"X-rays, Colonel, to see if my prayers have been answered I finally get to wire Rodney's jaw shut like I've always wanted."

I frowned at Carson's comment and so did John, although for an entirely different reason. "Then I'm coming, too," John informed him as he stood from his bed.

The nurse was trying to finish her bandaging even as John pulled down on his shirt. "Colonel, if you would just hold still…"

"We will be nae but a minute, Colonel. You'll never know we're even gone," Carson explained but John would know I was gone. I would know I was gone. And right then that was too much for either of us.

"Carson," I started, but he was still talking to John.

"And you need to get that wound cleaned and bandaged."

John pushed the nurse's hand away. "Fuck the wound; I said I'm coming with you!"

Both the nurse and Carson blinked at his outburst. John wasn't known for being a bad patient, that was my claim to fame, among so many others. But aside from a persistent whining to go home, he usually did exactly as the medical staff ordered while he was their guest with little complaining.

"Carson, can my x-ray wait a few minutes?"

He exhaled and patted my shoulder with a smile of dawning understanding. "Aye, lad, it can wait."

I walked the few steps over to John's bed and hopped up, patting the empty space next to me. With an embarrassed look of relief, John took his spot and mumbled an apology to the nurse as she resumed her duties. He winced as she dabbed at the graze and I knew John's ranking as favorite patient had just dropped a few points.

I bumped his shoulder with mine and flashed a grin. "Well, going to the bathroom over the next few days is going to be interesting."

He returned the grin sheepishly. "I'm sure we'll work something out, call Marco Polo to each other through the door or something."

I shrugged in consolation. "Although shower time could be fun."

The grin broadened. "Way to see the positive in the post traumatic stress disorder, McKay."

I reached over and took his hand in mine. "Emotional traumas are so underutilized for their sexual potential."

He snorted. "You better watch out or Heightmeyer's going to write a damn book about you."

"She already is. I get half the royalties and we're almost guaranteed an appearance on Oprah. Of course we'll have to wait until the entire program is declassified, so there's no need to pack our bags for Chicago just yet."

John looked down at our hands and interlaced our fingers with a meaningful squeeze. "Good, I hate being away from home for too long."

It had been three days away from it, three days away from each other, three days away from happily ever after. But we were together now and for now that was enough.

"Yeah," I admitted happily, reveling in the simple contact with him, "me too."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Marco," I called.

The muffled 'Polo' came from behind the bathroom door.

I thought it was safe to say we'd both tripped or slipped…however it had happened, we'd gone tumbling over the edge. But oddly enough I was okay with that. Rodney was alive, that's what mattered. Crazy I could work with…death, not so much.

As I sat on the edge of our bed and pulled off muddy boots, I saw it on the floor. So incongruously innocent…if you didn't look too closely at it. It was a flag patch, American, and stained rusty brown with dried blood. I recognized that it had to be mine. I'd lost it when I dumped my jacket at Ral Dala's base…leaving the wadded mass of cloth to be shoved in Rodney's face later. It's always the little things that come back to bite you in the ass. As I bent down and picked it up from the floor, a hand closed over mine and quickly pulled the patch free. Rodney ducked his head, flushing, but only tightened his grip.

"Rodney," I said gently, "it's not my blood. Not a single drop of it."

He blinked, obviously startled. "No, it's not, is it? I suppose I…forgot." He let me uncurl his fingers and take the flag. I shoved it in a desk drawer for later disposal before turning back to him. He'd thought I was dead, and not only had he thought me dead, but he seemed pretty damn anxious to follow me. I didn't want that for Rodney…I could understand it. God, could I. But the thought of it…the thought of him so willing and determined to take that shortcut home, it curdled in my mind. It honestly did. I knew he'd been in a place where I couldn't hold his decisions against him; I'd been in a similar place more than once. But…it was Rodney. I wanted Rodney alive, no matter what happened to me. I wanted…I wanted to not be thinking about this anymore. Not right now. There was plenty of time later. Thank God, Geeks, and sniper rifles, there would be plenty of time later.

"Ready to get cleaned up?" I asked suddenly. "I can't decide which of us smells worse." I leaned in and gave an exaggerated sniff. "Okay, you. Definitely you."

"The tears you're bringing to my eyes aren't exactly ones of olfactory joy," he sniped as he turned and headed back to the bathroom. I'd like to say we got it on in there, steaming as hot as the shower. And the spirit was willing, but the bodies…they were dragging. Seriously dragging. Three days without sleep on both our parts. Food poisoning followed by little nutrition on mine. And Rodney, while fed and given water, had been for all intents and purposes living in a freezer. Those things took their toll and no matter how much your libido protested it was raring to go, it just wasn't happening. We exchanged several water soaked kisses, deep and warm, grabbed a happy handful here and there, but then Rodney dozed off with forehead on my shoulder and we both almost fell when I did the same. We survived a drug lord only to die of broken necks in the shower…it wasn't quite what I wanted on my tombstone.

Squeaky clean, we staggered naked to the bed and collapsed onto it. Rodney was parallel with the headboard and I was cattycornered across the end and neither of us seemed inclined to move an inch. At least not until ten or so seconds passed and I realized how far away two feet can seem. I managed to crawl up beside him, but even that wasn't enough. Turning, I flopped over, using the small of his back as a pillow and anchoring my arm firmly around his.

"The Kama Sutra of Sleep," he murmured. "Position fifty-two, the Mustardless Pretzel."

"I got your mustard right here, Supergeek." I tried for a leer but I had a feeling I didn't pull it off. Numbly exhausted lips, numb exhausted face muscles, numb everything…it wasn't conducive to the whole seduction scenario.

He snorted, one wet with approaching sleep. But he wasn't ready, not quite yet. Wriggling out from under me, he finally maneuvered to his usual position, next to the wall, and regarded me with solemn eyes. "Sleep on top of me."

I didn't consider it for a second. "I can do that." I rolled on top of him instantly. I felt strong, expressive hands pull a sheet up over us and then wrap around my back in a grip that had Jaws of Life written all over it…because I wasn't getting out of it without them. Once again…that was something I could do. Going anywhere other than here was absolutely not on my list.

Rodney and I were nearly the same height. Maybe there was half an inch difference; I wasn't going to rub it in too much. So we matched up well. I slid down a few inches and pillowed my head between his shoulder and neck. The sliding was also nice for a little friction. Nothing we had the resources to do anything about, but the heat, the pressure, the ache…sometimes the anticipation is better.

"Thanks," I whispered against his skin.

"For…what?" He was almost gone, tumbling into sleep swiftly.

"For staying alive." That brought him back to alertness quickly enough and I was sorry I hadn't waited until after we'd slept to say it…no matter how desperately I meant it.

His grip tightened on me and I felt my spine twinge. I told it in no uncertain terms to shut the hell up. "I almost screwed that up quite thoroughly, didn't I? But…thanks for doing the same." Fingers flexed against my back muscles and he finally asked softly, diffidently…afraid to hear the answer, "No more Snickerdoodles?"

I remained silent for a moment and then said with reluctant honesty, "No. No more." I could've given him the usual platitudes…Robbins knew what he was getting into when he signed his papers. This was his job, his fate…that's what he chose. But it was shit, all of it. You did know…we all knew, theoretically; it didn't mean we wanted to die or that we ever thought we actually would die. No one, man or woman, ever truly believes that…in their heart. The exception to that being a suicide run on a Wraith ship…or struggling to survive in a siege of the same. Then you knew. But when you signed your enlistment papers, happy and young, you never once thought it would be you who'd go down in the underbrush bleeding your life away. We're just not wired that way. I'd miss Robbins, miss him like hell and there simply wasn't anything I could do about it. Rodney either. Robbins was…Robbins had been a good guy and he was gone, along with five others and all you could do was go on. Go on and remember the cookies from home, his thick accent, his stupid dog. It wasn't enough, not nearly enough, but it was all you could do.

"He wanted to go back," Rodney said quietly. "When I didn't get any readings from the Ancient tower, he wanted to go back, but I said no." I didn't have to see his mouth to know it was twisting. "I said we hadn't come all that way to just turn around and go back…because after all, I am the end all be all of knowledge in this universe, right? All bow before me. Sure I get people killed, but almighty science marches on."

I wriggled an arm free of whatever geek wrestling hold it was he had on me and pinched his ribs hard. "You might not be the end all be all, but you damn sure think the universe revolves around you. They would've shot you all before you could dial back home. They didn't really need you alive, remember? That close to the gate they wouldn't have taken any chances. You would've all died. Every last one of you. So shut up and stop thinking you can control everything around you before I go get Dex and have him explain in detail why the way of the warrior involves shaving his…."

A hand moved from my back to clamp over my mouth. "Scar me for life, there's the gentle hand of therapy I've been looking for. Bastard."

"That's me. Total and utter. Don't forget white trash while you're at it." I gave him a kiss. It wasn't as hot as the one in the shower or as intense, but it was long and warm and real. Not ghostly. Not that of a phantom. It tasted of toothpaste, hypoallergenic, and mouthwash, also hypoallergenic, and of stubbornness, worry, regret…it was real. It was Rodney.

The reality of that beat fantasy every time, hands down.

He shifted under me, kissing my neck with sleepy enthusiasm and pie-in-the-sky hopes of staying awake. When he moved, so did the mattress. The shot was immediate and loud. I didn't remember rolling out of bed or landing on my ass on the floor, but my eyes were instantly drown to the charred and smoking hole that drilled my Johnny Cash poster in a place the Man in Black would never have approved. Talk about your Ring of Fire.

"Oh, hey," came the sheepish comment, "um, just a guess, but…I think I might've found my gun."

As I watched with stunned eyes the singed edges of the bullet hole were spreading on the poster. Spreading and turning red. Within seconds the poster went up in a whoosh of fire, the anti-incendiary foam billowed from the walls and ceiling, Rodney sat up arms waving and cursing loudly, and the gun under the mattress went off again. I threw myself onto the floor, hands over head, and prayed like I hadn't prayed since I wanted Santa to bring me that souped up Big Wheel. And that's when I got my second gunshot wound of the day. The third bullet screamed through the air and skimmed the top of one naked butt cheek. And all I could think as burning pain flared and a small trickle of blood began was….

Red Chief strikes again.

The End