And Tie Another

Two days later

They came back through the gate at a decent speed, all of them facing backwards. Their weapons were not drawn, but Major Sheppard's team appeared tense, and Lieutenant Ford's hand kept twitching in the direction of his P90.

Elizabeth Weir mentally counted heads, as she always did when one of her teams was out on a mission. One, two, three, four… five? Frowning, she counted again just to be sure. Yes, there was a fifth person, a woman. She was thin as a rail, with long hair and enormous eyes.

Weir moved closer to the low wall of the command center overlooking the gate chamber below. "I wasn't expecting any guests," she called down to them, her tone mild but inquiring.

"Neither were we," Sheppard replied, sounding more than a little sour. He sliced a look of pure disgruntlement at McKay, who returned it with interest.

"Who is this?" Weir asked. The girl seemed ill-at-ease and was sticking close to McKay, to what was clearly his discomfort.

"Fred," the girl replied, climbing the stairs. "I'm Fred Burkle."

Weir held out her hand for shaking. "Elizabeth Weir," she said, smiling politely. "To what do we owe your visit?"

But Fred missed the smile; she was studying her surroundings with eyes that were somehow both dreamy and sharp at the same time. "Oh, it's not a visit," she replied absently. "I live here now, I guess."

Weir's eyebrows shot toward her hairline. "You do?" she asked, turning on her heel to pin Sheppard and McKay with a gimlet gaze. Somehow, she just knew those two had something to do with it. "And why is that?"

McKay was pointing to the conference room. "Can we--? So no one can--?" he urged, making crablike sideways progress toward it. There was a flush across his cheeks that spoke of embarrassment, and his eyes were pleading.

"She lives here now because she's his wife," Sheppard replied, his voice both loud and clear.

Immediately, the low buzz of ambient conversation around them ceased. Weir gaped at the major for the space of a heartbeat. "She's whose wife? Rodney's?"

The man in question groaned and covered his face with his hands. "You bastard," he moaned.

Weir spun around to face him. "You were gone less than a week," she stated flatly, steering him toward the conference room with the rest of his team following, Fred trailing behind distractedly. "How did you manage to get married in six days?"

"I didn't mean to, alright?" McKay snapped, yanking his elbow out of her grip. He found his customary chair and took a seat with what would have been termed a flounce, had he given it just a little more of a flourish. "I was just trying to—"

"Trying to be a knight in shining armour, rescuing the damsel in distress from being locked in a tower," Sheppard interrupted, grinning almost ferally at McKay, who promptly threw him a positively filthy look as the conference room doors swiveled shut.

"With all due respect, Major, I believe that Fred's situation was somewhat more unpleasant than merely being locked in a tower." Teyla's measured tone was a welcome island of serenity in the jangling atmosphere of the room.

"Of course it was," McKay interjected. "You know damned well I don't just go marrying people for the hell of it. If she was just going to be locked away somewhere, I wouldn't have said a word."

Weir began to massage her temples, feeling the nucleus of a headache form behind them. "Okay, from the beginning. You went to Azimia in search of a ZPM, didn't find one but the people were willing to trade medicine for food. You were there to negotiate, their leader stated that they required help fixing something—"

"There was a problem with their aqueduct system," Ford volunteered. "The poop wasn't going away, it was coming back."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Weir said with a slight wince, turning back to Sheppard. "So, their leader Innak said that unless you didn't fix the plumbing, there would be no treaty."

"So I set my considerable intellect to solving such a menial issue, yes." McKay picked up the narrative when Weir left off. "One of the people I was assigned to work with was Fred, here. We got to talking, and…"

He looked at Fred, then shocked them all when the tone of his voice, usually strident, gentled. "Do you want to explain, or should I?"

She gave him a little smile and patted his hand, laying flat on the table before them. "I'll do it, thanks." Then she turned to the others. "See, I'm from Texas. When I told Rodney, he just about died, let me tell you. I didn't even mean to mention it, because people tend to think you're nuts when you say you're from another dimension—I thought this was another dimension, see—but I really wanted a taco and it just sort of slipped out, and—"

"Fred's from Earth," McKay interrupted, but pleasantly, and with a faint smile of his own in her direction. "She says she died in Los Angeles, and woke up on Azimia. She was one of Innak's slaves—"

"At least I wasn't a cow this time—" came the extraordinary comment. She was perfunctorily shushed by McKay, who now patted her hand.

"And she was slated to become his next concubine, since she hadn't been able to make any headway with the aqueducts," McKay continued, directing his words to Sheppard. "Since she's not only a bright person who's worth far more than being just a common whore, but from our own planet, I thought we should make at least a token effort to extract her from that situation."

With a final glare aimed the major's way, McKay sat back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest, looking quite satisfied with himself.

Slowly, Weir turned to face Sheppard. He ran a hand over his stubbled jaw and sighed tiredly. "You could have tried to go about it a better way, is all I'm saying," he said at last. "We could have tried to buy her, or to get her thrown in with the food we were trading for."

He stood up and began pacing, not noticing the effect his words had on the others. "Instead, you march up to the throne room and say that you've rigged the plumbing to explode and won't defuse it unless Innak gives Fred to you!"

McKay sniffed, staring at a point over Teyla's shoulder. "If we'd given him the chance, he'd have robbed us blind. He would have demanded far more than we can afford to trade away. We don't exactly have an unlimited store of things we can use to barter, you know!"

"But thanks to you, those people now think we're terrorists! Slave-stealing terrorists!" Sheppard replied, face flushing red with anger.

"Oh, and that's worse than what they actually are, which is slave-owning criminals?" McKay ranted back, standing as well and leaning on his hands over the table toward Sheppard. "They had her slated for his bed tonight, Major. I had to do something before that happened. Unless you're okay with the idea of her being raped for however many days it took us to finalize the negotiations?"

Teyla held up her hands for silence, and for a moment the only sound in the room was the sound of the two men breathing heavily.

"You both have valid points," she said calmly. "Major Sheppard is correct that at least a token attempt at a more peaceable solution should have been tried, but Dr. McKay is also right. We could not have allowed her to be taken by force while we worked to conclude the trade treaty."

"Um." Fred's voice was wobbly, and she seemed to shrink in upon herself as the other five all turned to look at her. "For what it's worth? I'm really glad Rodney did what he did. Otherwise, I'd be with Innak right now, and that's not really something I was looking forward too. I like my men forceful but not that forceful, if you get my meaning."

Weir judiciously ignored Sheppard's under-breath mutter, which sounded like "Too bad you're stuck with him, then."

"So, you blackmailed Innak into giving Fred to you," Weir said, addressing McKay. "How did you end up married?"

"Innak insisted the only way he'd let Fred go, even under threat of blowing poop all over the city, was if we were married," McKay replied grudgingly.

"Innak's a real bastard, pardon my French," Ford said cheerfully. "I think he was only doing it to piss everyone off."

"He succeeded," Sheppard grumbled. "There's nothing about this situation I like."

"Bottom-line it for me, gentlemen," Weir commanded, feeling her patience begin to slip. "What's our status with this planet?"

"McKay miscalculated how long it would take before the toilets began to blow," Sheppard said flatly.

"Miscalculated?" McKay snorted. "As if. No, it went off precisely as I planned—just as we were about to leave."

Sheppard heaved another sigh. "Innak had just finished the wedding ceremony when the first explosion occurred, and they were definitely getting threatening when we were able to get to the gate and dial out."

"It is doubtful, Dr. Weir, that the people of Azimia are amenable to trade with us any longer," Teyla said carefully. "And I would not suggest we return anytime soon."

Weir sighed. She'd been hoping for some sort of positive alliance; with a group their size, having enough food was always a concern. And now, they had an extra mouth to feed. Couldn't be helped, though, and she was glad to tighten her belt a little more if it meant keeping a woman out of forced prostitution.

"Okay," she said finally, and glanced at Fred. "I assume that you won't actually be honoring these marriage vows, and will live separately?"

Fred looked surprised at the question; McKay actually flinched. "Yes," he said firmly, fishing a necklace of polished wooden beads from under his shirt and pulling it over his head, leaving his hair rumpled.

"Yes," Fred agreed, and removed her own necklace. Elizabeth took this to mean that the necklaces were the Azimian equivalent to Earth's wedding rings. "No offense or anything, Rodney, you've been really nice and you risked your life to save me and you're even kind of cute in a pudgy Canadian way but I don't think I'm ready to be married to you."

"Thanks… I suppose," he answered, standing, then continuing briskly. "Elizabeth, Fred's a trained physicist. I'd like her on my team here at Atlantis."

Elizabeth looked taken aback at the sudden change of subject. "If you're confident her abilities are up to par with the performance you'll need out of her…" Honestly, Fred looked like a strong breeze might knock her over. Elizabeth couldn't imagine her putting in the long, arduous hours McKay and Zelenka and the rest often put in during crunch time, which seemed to be at least once a week. Usually on Friday evenings, now that she thought of it.

"What do you think, Fred?" Again, that weird softening of McKay's voice when he spoke to her. It was beyond unnerving, to the point of being downright spooky.

"I think that should be alright," she replied, her Texan drawl a comfortable bit of home to Elizabeth's ears.

"Excellent. Then it's settled." McKay seemed to have conveniently forgotten that his superior hadn't actually agreed yet, and ushered Fred from the conference room toward his laboratory.

Elizabeth sighed, not quite annoyed but not exactly happy, either.

"Think of it this way," Sheppard offered, sauntering around the table to stand by her side and watch McKay and Fred depart. "Maybe she'll be able to keep him quiet. Calm him down a little, so he's not having a hissy fit every ten minutes."

"She does seem to have a soothing effect on him," Elizabeth admitted.

"The value of that cannot be underestimated," added Teyla, and slipped past them and out the door.

No one could argue that.