The Geek's Guide to Military Vessels

With 'You Are Here' markings on the line diagrams so the Goons don't get lost

By likethekoschka

space·ship (spās'ship),noun, a spacecraft designed to carry a crew into interstellar space (especially in science fiction).

Geek's Addendum: If there is one thing that will have both Geeks and Goons drooling on their boots…other than a mute empathic space bimbo with healing abilities and a miniskirt… it's a spaceship. And why not? Who wouldn't be mesmerized by the idea of a vessel that is sleek and fast, loaded with armaments and scientific gadgets, exploring the universe and shooting alien invaders? It is the ultimate fusion of high tech engineering and bad ass weaponry. Even in the early days, before the concepts of Enterprise or Millennium Falcon had filled our youthful imaginations, before we had gone on to construct the Prometheus or discovered a puddle jumper, at the very dawn of space exploration itself, it was a marriage of brains and brawns that had brought us to where we are now. With Science Geeks like Jack Carman and Steve Bales working with Military Goons like Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, we took our first wobbly baby steps into space and science fiction suddenly became science fact. There is a direct path from Lt. Cmdr. Alan Shepard taking that first trip into outer space and engineer Tom Kelly designing the first lunar module that would eventually take man to the moon to Col. Jack O'Neill and Dr. Daniel Jackson taking that first trip through the stargate to another planet and those of us on the Atlantis expedition eventually traveling to an entirely different galaxy. No matter the final destination, all these groundbreaking achievements had one common denominator- Geeks and Goons working together toward a common goal. And even though you may be fondling the hyperdrive systems while your assigned Goon is ogling the missile launch sequences of the spacecraft in question, just remember your Geek and Goon forefathers. Because there is no doubt that if there had never been a Shepard and Kelly, there never would have been a Sheppard and McKay... and as a certain Czech has pointed out, we never would have had a chance in hell of finding the scantly clad alien women.

John Sheppard had a thing for birthdays. Oh, sure he had a thing for other special days as well… anniversaries, and not just the legal, by the power invested in me one; holidays, and he was quickly learning the Satedan ones like he had all the Athosian; even promotions and increases in pay grades were enough for him to hang a banner and pass out the cake. The first time he had come into the lab with a small wrapped box and the proclamation of "happy anniversary," I realized just how screwed I was. Because as much as I knew with certainty that we were still several months away from the one year mark of our marriage, I was just as certain I was doomed to utter failure in keeping up with John as he celebrated the landmarks of our life together. But there's a reason I'm a member of Mensa, and it goes beyond wormhole physics and theoretical mathematics, because learning from my mistakes has become my secret motto over the years. No, I didn't have a gift to reciprocate for the first time we had… well, that's really no one's business but ours, but suffice it to say I vowed never to be caught with my pants down again. Unless, of course, it was to reenact the first time we had… but I digress.

Open the drawer in my desk in the lab on any given day and you would find a present just waiting to be tossed on the table to trump the one John had for me. Look behind the bound copy of my thesis dissertation in our quarters and you would find the same. And every time it happened, every time his face lit up and he fixed me with that stop-my-heart smile, I added the date to my personal calendar on my laptop with a warning set to ring out a week before, three days before, the day before and finally the morning of the momentous event. What? I'm a genius not a walking day planner. And as… preoccupied, shall we say, as I could become, I refused to let him and his obsession with these things get the best of me. And I absolutely refused to be the one responsible for disappointing him by forgetting.

But as important as these smaller stepping stones that paved our lives and the lives of our friends on Atlantis were to John, nothing compared to birthdays. I had yet to figure out the true nature of this ghost of childhood past that haunted him, whether it was a lack of fanfare in his youth or that the annual fanfare was the only confirmation for a child that desperately yearned to be loved, but that specter was always hovering behind the glitter in his eyes when he presented a gift and shrouding him when he thought his own had been forgotten.

So, I wasn't surprised when the little chime had sounded on my laptop and the dialogue box with 'John's 40th Birthday!' popped up. After all, it was the fourth reminded I had received that week. And when it appeared, I knew we were supposed to be back in Atlantis and off the Daedalus long before the end of the day, even though the tests of the new hyperdrive buffer upgrades had run a day longer than planned. And although my original plans to clear our calendars and spend the entire day doing whatever the hell he wanted to do had pretty much been blown by that delay, I still knew that the replacement Johnny Cash poster that Sam had finally managed to find on E-bay along with the 'Walk the Line' DVD that Jeannie had sent on the last mail run were sitting waiting to be opened and a cake and a case of contraband ice cream would be waiting in the mess hall when we got home to Atlantis.

Of course when that little reminder popped up, I had no idea that within an hour the Wraith would have taken over the ship, and that Hermiod and I would be the only two individuals that I could with any amount of certainty put a name to that were still alive on the Daedalus. That is except for the Wraith raiding party that had boarded the ship and promptly ruined John's birthday party more completely than a delayed engine test ever could. The best laid plans and all that bullshit.

"Dr. McKay, I have finished with the system restart." I jumped at the Asgard's voice in my ear, leaning heavily against the door to the bridge and gulping in air to slow my throbbing heart. "I believe we can initiate the sublight engines at this time."

"Fine," I whispered through my radio even as I watched in dismay as another white blip on the life signs detector disappear before my eyes. "Start them up and get us as far away from the Hive ship as possible." One less blip, one less life, but I told myself the same thing I had when the other two had vanished….Not John. Not John. Not John. There were still at least a dozen more human life signs on the bridge as well as two yellow Wraith ones. And one of those white blips was John, had to be, I absolutely refused to believe otherwise. There was no way in hell I would accept that his date of birth and date of death would be separated by exactly forty years.

I felt the familiar hum of the sublight engines being brought online, decided now was the time and activated the doors to the bridge. My grip on the zat tightened as I peeked around the door and fired three quick blasts at the first Wraith in sight. He was coated with a golden shimmer then gone before he hit the ground. The other Wraith looked from where his fallen comrade should have been then back to me in shock.

Seriously, would it have killed the SGC to send a couple of these babies along with the expedition? Instead I had been reduced to pilfering from the armory on the Daedalus for some protection other than a 9 mm, because, hey, when you have a ship full of Wraith ready to suck the very life from you and leave you a husk-like corpse, there's nothing like a handgun with sixteen little bullets to give you the illusion of security.

Before the second Wraith could recover, I fired the zat in rapid succession again and suddenly I was in a Wraith-free room. Well, at least free of living Wraith, but there was no denying they had been here. On the ground lay three shriveled bodies, all dressed in Daedalus green flight suits… no black shirt, no dark grey pants. I swallowed thickly around the shame of feeling relief at that thought, but there would be more time for that later. Right now I had more pressing matters to deal with, like the dozen or so cocoons that were attached to the walls and filled with the Daedalus crew. They hung there like a cooler filled with snacks for a road trip. Only this trip wasn't cross country, it was cross universe, and I seriously doubted Earth was being chosen by the Wraith because of its amusement parks and its miles of gorgeous beaches. But it wasn't just the crew that had been reduced to the equivalent of a stash of chips and sodas, it was John as well. He was in there, had to be in there, must be in there. And all I could think as I tore into the first webbed package like a seven-year-old at his Chuck E. Cheese's birthday party was that if I could find him, it would be the best damn present either one of us could have hoped for.

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Birthdays.

Birthdays…they kind of…well, sucked.

They always had and there was a time when I thought they always would. But lately, in the past two years to be exact, I'd been proven wrong. Rodney loved to do that—prove people wrong. It gave him a chubby of enormous proportions. Other geeks, the military, Elizabeth, lunch ladies…it didn't matter. High or low, it made no distinction in the glee it afforded him. While the rest of us weren't looking, he probably memorialized the occasions in his diary…never to be forgotten. Years later he could pull it out and gloat. 'November 18th, 2006 I clearly demonstrated that indeed there was lemon on the fish. It was worth the epinephrine and near-death experience simply to see the expression on that wretched cafeteria worker's doughy, vacant face. The fact that he developed anorexia and a fish phobia in no way could be blamed on my understandably testy comment of 'you've killed me, you murderous bastard.'"

Yeah, McKay liked being right and he loved everyone else being wrong. I just wasn't sure he got quite the same enjoyment out of proving my birthday expectations wrong. In fact he seemed rather…on edge, I guess. We'd celebrated two of them together and he'd done everything right. Right present, right cake, right mind blowing sex. Perfect, those two days…goddamn perfect. So why so nervous? So freaked out in that subtle McKay way that has him screaming at subordinates and wolfing down powerbars like he's training for the Iron Man?

Yeahhhhhhh…that might have been my fault.

I liked holidays. I liked the big occasions, the little ones too. I liked making sure no one in my life felt like I h…whatever. I liked celebrating and giving shit, so what? Back in the day, before friends turned into alien ghosts, we did all of our celebrating with cheap beer and cheaper women. I was always the first to buy a round, the first to label the event: We-didn't-get-blown-up-day. Everyone drinks! The-newbie-got-laid-day…where's the nearest keg? The-jackass-Colonel-fell-out-of-the-copter-under-highly-unusual-circumstances-day…that calls for the good stuff. Who has the grape Mad Dog?

Celebrations tended to be less alcohol laden on Atlantis…unless Dr. Z was breaking out a new batch of Smurf piss. They also tended to be more on the up-and-up, despite the fact the enemy and the situation here was much worse than any I'd faced on Earth. And maybe I took advantage of that. Every holiday conceivable, every birthday, the removal of a particularly nasty wart…I didn't care. It was an opportunity to keep morale high. Not an easy thing when vampire aliens want to give you the worst chest hickey of your life. I did what I had to do.

But then it spilled onto Rodney and that's when I might've gone too far. The first time he wasn't prepared. I had a present and a grin for our 'first' anniversary. I didn't expect him to remember it…the man couldn't remember not to blow up solar systems for Christ's sake. Geniuses are a distracted breed, I knew that. And maybe I was a little disappointed, but not hurt. I mean, hell, the man once forget and left Dr. Z locked in a hydraulics room in an abandoned section of the city for an entire day. Wrote him up the next morning for being tardy, ate his breakfast, and was halfway through the staff meeting before he remembered. At least Rodney hadn't forgotten my entire existence yet…ouch. Okay, bad memory. Very bad.

Regardless…he apologized for forgetting our 'anniversary' and made it up to me in ways that made my present of Mr. Fantastic boxer shorts seem pretty goddamn lacking. And the next time he didn't forget…and he had a present. And it was the same the next time and the next and the next. Like clockwork…never forgot. Never paused, just whipped that present out with something of a smug glitter in his eye.

Like I hadn't found the present hidden on our bookshelf or the one in the lab. Geniuses.

That's when I started making shit up. When I'd drop the wrapped package in his lap, he'd open that lab drawer and give me one in exchange as he'd say casually, "Hard to believe this is the day we first…ah…you know." Then he would waggle his eyebrows knowingly. At least he thought it was knowingly. They actually looked like confused furry caterpillars butting heads in frustration and then trying to crawl for freedom up that high forehead.

I'd nod solemnly and give him a warm kiss. "Yeah, hard to believe it's the day we….

'Moved in together.' (More precisely, the day I began my domestic servitude.)

'Told Carson and Radek.' (Were found out when we weren't being careful enough.)

'Told your sister.' (Rodney in a wig and bra with a slightly less sunny disposition. Go on, picture it. I dare you.)

'Told Atlantis.' (Dr. Z sent an email with accompanying pictures to every computer in the city.)

'Saw the rings.' (Rodney ran and I almost threw up.)

'Set a date.' (The day Einstein was awarded the Nobel…of course.)

'Did our first load of laundry together.' (You can love to the end of time…it doesn't erase the skid marks.)

On the last one I thought he started to get a little suspicious. I mean, damn, how much romance can you wrap up in smelly socks and faded boxers? Enough apparently that he didn't call me on it…not that time. And when I left, I went to the nearest storage closet, locked myself in and howled. Just…shit…howled. It was goddamn hilarious and so fucking touching…what can you say about someone who would do that? Gullible, sure. But Rodney was anything but gullible and the fact that he had made himself so over me…that had the laughter fading into something that tightened my throat just as thoroughly. He knew I had issues over things like birthdays, big ones, and while he didn't know the details, he was willing to do anything to make sure I wasn't disappointed. Ever.

What can you say? What the fuck can you say?

I moved up behind him in the bathroom, wrapped arms around his waist and did my best to slide under his skin. Kissing his neck, I then nipped the skin behind his ear and said warmly, "Want me to finish that up?"

With his razor dripping foam and water, his amused eyes met mine in the mirror. "The erotic aspect of that would be pretty amazing if I didn't also picture you accidentally slitting my throat."

"Where's the trust?" I nuzzled his damp hair. "Where's the faith?"

"In my veins—along with my blood, where all three are going to stay," he retorted.

"Spoilsport," I grumbled. Tightening my grip on him, I added, "I'll just watch then."

"Fine, fine. I have a thousand things to do and a cranky Asgard breathing down my neck, but, please, feel free to slow me down." But from the way he leaned back into me, I knew better than to buy the grumpy tone.

I breathed in the spicy musk of the shaving cream as the hypnotic scrape of razor over stubble filled the tiny bathroom, much smaller than the one we had on Atlantis. Space was apparently a premium on the Daedalus. "Your new boss giving you hell?"

Eyes narrowed in the glass. "I have no boss, new or old. There is no higher authority or brilliance in the Pegasus Galaxy. In the universe for that matter."

"At least none you recognize," I grinned and thumbed away a smear of foam from his earlobe. "So why is Hermiod so pissy? The no genital thing getting him down?"

"You are far, far too fascinated by his lack of…er…his lack." Rinsing the razor, he mopped his face with a washcloth.

"I'm not fascinated, okay? I'm disturbed," I frowned. "Highly disturbed. If you'd let me give him those boxer shorts like I wanted to…."

"Yes, that's how I want to spend my day…pissing off the naked alien and possibly plunging into the heart of the sun. Good times." He rolled his eyes and turned in my arms to give me a firm kiss. "How about we avoid that if at all possible? As for Hermiod…I have the feeling the Daedalus is his Antarctica. It's probably not precisely a promotion having to keep the monkeys from blowing themselves up with technology they don't understand."

"You're a monkey?" I asked with a grin as I nipped his chin.

"No," he said promptly. "The rest of you are monkeys. I'm Charleton Heston."

"More like Dr. Zaius…without the fur." I ran an assessing hand over his head and got an elbow in the ribs for it.

"And there went any chance of you getting any tonight."

"Yeah, yeah." I followed him out into the room, which was big enough for both of us to stand in at the same time…barely. "We on for lunch? Assuming I'm still around. If they find me floating outside the airlock, be sure to check my body for Caldwell's fingerprints." Two years later and the man still wanted my job. He had the Daedalus for Christ's sake…the ride of all rides, what the hell was his problem?

Before he could answer, the wail of a siren split the air followed by the distinct overhead cursing of one riled-up, genital-less Asgard.

"That's either my cue or our imminent destruction," Rodney sighed. "Lunch, definitely. Save me a rice pudding. They make killer rice pudding here." One last kiss and he was gone.

I checked my watch. I still had five minutes. Looking around the room, I grinned and started searching for my present.

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"Dr. McKay, I have run the diagnostic on the hyperdriver system once again and all operational parameters are within acceptable limits."

I watched the read outs scroll across my own laptop, coming to the same conclusion as the Asgard. "Okay, if the problem's not in the hyperdrive, then it has to be in a system that feeds into it. Like, say, the pulse-powered engines."

"Dr. Novak ran a full systems analysis on those components just last week in preparation for this upgrade. She was convinced that there were no problems with the interlink between the two schemes. It is unfortunate that she succumbed to the stomach virus and was unable to complete these upgrades herself."

"Yes, yes," I answered as distractedly as possible, sliding my eyes away from my monitor to see if Hermiod suspected anything. "But what are you going to do? Sometimes life isn't fair and we have to learn to adapt to what it gives us."

And two weeks ago, life seemed to be pretty damn unfair, the proverbial bitch that she is so often characterized as. And for good reason. That's when John had come home to tell me that Caldwell had decided John should broaden his horizons. Career development the Colonel had called it, see how the Daedalus really operated, see how the command worked, see it from the big chair on the big ship during an actual exercise. And gee, the ship was going out on maneuvers for about five days, seven, maybe eight tops, and John should (i.e. would) come along.

And leave me on Atlantis.

Yeah, that went over like a gallon of tritiated water. But after my initial disappointment wore off, and I placed an order to replace all the glassware in the lab that had somehow ended up shattered into a million tiny pieces, I did a little checking into the nature of the exercises the Daedalus would be conducting. What I found was that in addition to a few military maneuvers, the primary purpose was to upgrade the hyperdrive buffers and put them through the wringer in an at least partially controlled environment. All tests would take place in deep space, but within Jumper flight distance from the nearest stargate so that aid could come if needed.

So I had requested to go as well. If John needed career development, then I could pretend that I did as well. Honestly, aside from Hermiod and Novak, no one else in the Pegasus galaxy had even worked with Asgard technology except for me. And I had come up to speed quickly on what I had missed out on during my time away from the SGC the few times I had been onboard. But if it got me on the ship, I would play… well, not dumb, but at least less ingenious than normal.

And they had the nerve to turn me down. Some ridiculous excuse that there were too many scientists working on the engines already, that Novak needed to concentrate on the systems upgrades and not trying to tutor me as well, that Hermiod got agitated by the tenor of my voice and claimed the equivalent of Asgardian migraines whenever I was around. Not to mention the case of chronic hiccups that started as soon as I walked into the same room as Dr. Novak.

At that point I skipped right over disappointed and moved straight to pissed as hell. But then, as I was signing the requisitions to replace the laptops that now had my boot prints on the outside, as well as all their inner workings, it came to me. If Novak somehow couldn't make the trip, then their only choice would be to take me instead. A batch of chocolate chip cookies later, I was in.

See, Novak loves chocolate chip cookies. Almost as much as the geologists hate the quality control assessment I conducted on a quarterly basis, one of which was scheduled for the week that John was supposed to be gone. And honestly, some of the best desserts I have had while in Atlantis have come out of the sediment drying ovens in the geotech lab. So, when the division head offered to make some of her mother's Famous Amos rip-offs, substituting Ex-Lax for the chocolate chunks, I couldn't help but offer to skip the audit for this quarter in exchange.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Novak couldn't leave the bathroom in the infirmary and the Daedalus couldn't leave until I packed my bags and happily walked aboard beside John. Granted the accommodations were a little… well, little. A fact that Col. Caldwell apologized for with an evil gleam when he showed it to us, with the concession that at least it had two bunks. Evidently the only room available on the officer's deck was one for Junior Officers. Junior Officers. Christ. John was the second highest ranking person on the damn ship and Caldwell stuck him in a Junior Officer's quarters.

"We'll be fine," John had assured him with a tight smile and a glance in my direction that dared me to contradict him.

"Yes, king-sized beds, all that pesky extra space. Who needs them?" I confirmed to Caldwell, squeezing into the tiny quarters that were about two inches from trigging a claustrophobic episode. I dropped my bag on the top bunk, pointedly next to John's and kept the thought to myself that the remaining small bunk on the bottom just meant that I was going to have to sleep on top of John and gosh, wasn't that too bad.

As pissed as I was at the perceived insult to John, I was just happy to be there with him and would have slept in the cargo bay in a crate if that would have gotten me onboard the damn carrier. And for the most part, it had been a good trip. John had been learning about command of an intergalactic battle cruiser and piloting the F-302s, which was probably the best aphrodisiac for a flyboy since the movie 'Top Gun' and had me singing the praises of the engineers that had designed both the fighters and that tiny little bunk on a nightly basis. And while my companion during the day was nowhere near as exhilarating as the one I had at night, Hermiod and I had learned to tolerate each others company. The upgrades went off without a hitch and it looked like we were home free, until two nights ago when the buffers stopped buffering and the system almost overloaded.

Since then we had scoured every line of code in the computers and every line of wire in the engines only to come up empty handed. So if it wasn't the buffers themselves, it could only be something feeding into them. And, as I had suggested, the pulse-powered engines were the most likely suspect.

At Hermiod's suggestion that Novak had already run the diagnostic, I pointed out the obvious. "Besides, Dr. Novak ran that before the new buffers were installed. Something from the setup could have impacted them and they could be damaged now."

"Very well, Dr. McKay. I shall rerun the diagnostic now."

About fifteen minutes in, a synthesized riff of the Beatles 'Birthday' played on my laptop and up popped the dialogue box reminding me of what today was.

"Oh, shit," I groaned.

We were supposed to be back on Atlantis by now. We were supposed to be back and I was supposed to be nibbling on John's ear as I whispered, 'good morning, birthday boy'. Then he was supposed to roll over with a grin and we were supposed to commence with the God awesome birthday sex. That's what was supposed to happen. I'd had it planned, had it all worked out, down to the hands gripping my hair and the voice panting my name. And instead…

Well, at least I may have figured out the problem with the Daedalus. That had to count for something, right? Fuck. I hadn't even told him happy birthday. And this wasn't just any birthday, it was the big four-oh. You just didn't ignore days like this, not with John Sheppard. Lunch. We were having lunch together in a few hours. I would see him then, maybe squeeze in a quick birthday nooner, fix the ship and have us back in Atlantis for cake and ice cream after dinner. Not exactly my plans for the perfect fortieth birthday, but it was better than nothing.

At my outburst, Hermiod turned his attention away from the displays and over to me. "Is there a problem, Dr. McKay?"

"Today is Col. Sheppard's birthday," I told him, expecting that to be enough explanation.

"And you are not happy that he was born on this day?" Okay, evidently not enough of one.

"I'm ecstatic that he was born on this day. As far as I'm concerned, the day he came into existence is probably the single best reason to celebrate in the universe. I just wish that the day he was born didn't happen to coincide with today."

Hermiod shook his head in disbelief. "I have always found this human fascination with the date of your births most peculiar."

"Don't Asgard's celebrate birthdays?"

"Seeing as we are not birthed, per se, but are instead cloned and our consciousness downloaded, it would be nearly impossible for us to pick a date for such a celebration."

"Huh," I conceded lamely, "I guess you have me there."

Okay, I can totally understand why the Asgards are considered a superior race. I mean, look at the Daedalus and the Prometheus, look at their own ships and the technology that they have created. But, honestly, there have been a few things over the years that have made me question their supposed intellectual supremacy. First, their belief that Jack O'Neill is a worthy representative of the human race in general. The man considers tic-tac-toe a game of skill and cunning and he is off negotiating intergalactic treaties. Yeah, I know I sleep a little sounder knowing that. Second, the fact that they named one of the most highly advanced spaceships ever created, an Asgard science vessel commanded by Thor himself, after Daniel Jackson. He's an archeologist and a linguist for Pete's sake, not even a real scientist, and they named a science vessel after him. It is to weep at the injustice. And finally, perhaps the most telling of all, they have managed to breed themselves out of the ability to reproduce sexually. It's the most basic, primal instinct in any species and they managed to lose the ability as well as the equipment to do it. Sure, they are as close to immortal as you can get and still have a heart beat. But to go an eternity without sex? Seriously, what the hell is the point?

Before I could say anything more, the computer system chimed, indicating an error had been detected. "It appears you were correct, Dr. McKay, there is a problem in the cooling system of the pulse powered engines."

"Well, then chalk one up for the meiotic organisms," I responded smugly only to shrug an apology at his disapproving mumbles in his native language.

"We can run a full reboot of the engine systems from here," he told me when he had resorted back to English, "however, that will take approximately eighteen hours to complete."

"Eighteen hours?" I demanded in dismay. "Isn't there something we can do faster? Maybe a manual repair?"

"A manual repair would cut the time significantly. However, it will mean that the power to both the pulse-powered and sublight engines will have to be offline during the repairs. In addition, we would have to go down into the pulse engine room, to complete the manual realignment."

The pulse-powered engines generated an incredible amount of heat, which is to be expected when you are basically creating a ball of plasma that is equivalent in energy yield to a small sun. As a result, even the smallest degree of misalignment could cause the heat output to bleed out of the system and into the hyperdrive. The room housing the engines was probably the most insulated and shielded room on the ship. Radio transmissions were almost nonexistent and with the engines disengaged, the chamber was eerily silent. So that the small crackle of my radio activating after almost an hour of silence was a jolt to both Hermiod and me.

Out of curiosity I stepped out of the engine room and into a corridor to hear John's almost frantic voice talking more to himself than to me. "Come on, Rodney, answer me. Where the hell are you?"

"I'm down working on the pulse-power engines with Hermiod. Where the hell are you?"

"On the bridge. We have a little situation up here."

"Situation?" I really, truly hated situations. "What kind of situation?"

"We ran across a Wraith Cruiser about ten minutes ago. It disappeared a few seconds later only to reappear now with two Hive ships."

"Okay," I admitted, "that definitely qualifies as a situation."

"I thought you might think so. Caldwell's on his way back to the bridge. He got caught up over in the hangar bay. But we need the engines operational and you and Hermiod up here, stat."

"Copy that. We're almost done with the repairs. Once we get the engines back on line, we'll be up. McKay out."

But before I could turn back into the engine room, he had one final word of advice. "Be careful, Rodney."

"Why?" There was something in his voice that made me think that was more than just a simple reminder. "John, what's wrong?"

"Something just doesn't feel right. The Hive ships are just sitting there. They haven't scrambled any Darts, made a move, nothing. It's like they're waiting for something. Just…watch yourself. Okay?"

"You, too," I told him around a sudden tightening of my chest. If what he said was true, then something bad definitely was coming.

But he didn't answer me. Instead I could hear a mumbled call from the bridge pilot through John's still open link. "What kind of energy buildup?" he demanded.

"John?" I called but there was no answer, only more discussions in the background as John called for full shields. "John!"

Fuck! I ran back into the engine room, intent on leaving Hermiod to finish the repairs while I went on ahead to the bridge. Instead I felt my legs give way beneath me in an all too familiar pins and needles sensation. I rolled to my back, fully expecting to see a Wraith with a stunner standing over me. Only he wasn't there, and neither was the unconsciousness that typically followed such a blast. I moved my head and saw Hermiod slouching against the wall access panel he was working in.

"Dr. McKay? Are you experiencing the same paralysis I am?"

"It's a Wraith stun blast," I told him as I heaved myself over and pushed myself up to my knees, "or something awfully damn similar." With a monumental effort, I half crawled half wobbled my way out of the door and back into the area where I had been able to send and receive radio transmissions.

"John, did the Wraith ship fire something at us?" But there was no answer. "John, do you read me?" When I once again received no response, I switched my radio over to an open channel. "Bridge, this is McKay, do you copy?" Nothing. "This is Dr. Rodney McKay, can anyone hear me?"

But no one would respond, which had to mean that no one could respond, which could only mean that John's bad feeling had turned into a really bad situation.

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Plausible deniability.

Probably my first words, if I really thought about it. Not mama or dada (better known as sir, yes, sir), but good old plausible deniability. It had managed to keep my ass out of a sling more times than I cared to count. The incident that had gotten me sent to Antarctica wasn't the first time I'd felt the need to ignore orders, but it was the first time I'd gotten so very supremely nailed for it. Yeah, plausible deniability had carried me a long way in my life and I wasn't about to turn my back on it now.

"So, quite the coincidence…about Dr. Novak."

I tilted my head towards Colonel Caldwell and furrowed my brow slightly in the most earnest confusion I could manage. "Sir?" Coincidence my ass. Good old plausible had been thrust into overtime since I'd first become friends with Rodney, much less what we were now. What I didn't know couldn't hurt me…okay, not strictly true. What I didn't know, I couldn't tell. And I tried very, very hard not to know the Machiavellian machinations that the infamous Dr. Rodney McKay got up to at times. It saved me the occasional heart attack and it allowed me to lie with ease to the face of my superior officer. "I don't know what you mean."

Yeah, right. I'd known Novak was doomed from the moment they'd refused to allow Rodney aboard the Daedalus. I didn't know how though…didn't know the dastardly plot, didn't know the ugly details and I'd kept it that way. I just nodded when Rodney, his blue eyes narrowed to enraged slits, informed me of their decision to leave him behind, and asked casually, "You want me to pack for you?"

The anger had faded for a moment as he quirked up one side of his mouth and kissed me firmly. "You and me, Pinky. Those bastards don't have a chance in hell."

"You don't know what I mean?" Caldwell repeated in caustic disbelief.

Not as bad as Sumner was the first thing I'd thought about Caldwell. Sumner had hated my guts, Caldwell simply seemed indifferent. And then I'd found out how he was angling for my job. The man had the baddest ride around. He was Captain Kirk. He had the ship, the comfy chair, he even had a Spock…sort of…in a disturbingly naked Asgard. But it wasn't enough, wasn't what he wanted and it wasn't bad enough to face the threat of Wraith on a daily basis, I had to watch my back against him too. It sucked; it honestly did.

Made lying to him easier though.

"Most people who come to Atlantis for the first time pick up something or the other. Apparently even the Ancients never found a cure for the stomach flu." As we passed Hermiod's empty station, I surreptitiously left a small package wrapped in brown paper on his consol. "If she's that delicate, maybe she should've stayed on board the Daedalus." I curled my lips faintly. "For her own good of course…sir."

His eyes narrowed in calculation, but it was only a faint shadow of Rodney's similar expression and I rode it out with ease. "And," I added blithely, "by the time we get back Dr. Novak and Ronon will be an item. He seems to think that hiccuping thing is some sort of come on, her own quirky mating call. It all worked out for the best. He'll probably need a bigger bed than is available in the junior officer quarters though. He's a big guy." I stopped by the Kirk chair, folded my arms, and rocked on my heels . "You'll love having him around. Not much on forks…or hygiene…or playing well with others, but he kicks some serious butt."

Caldwell settled in his seat, saying matter-of-fact, "You're on thin ice, Colonel."

Yeah, I usually was.

Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the big chair while Caldwell went to do a routine inspection of the hangar bay personnel. The big chair. I ran a hand along the leather arm of it. There was a time when I would've been tempted…damn tempted, but that time was before I set foot through my first stargate. Flying had always been the end all be all of my existence, but then there was the city of the Ancients…there was Atlantis.

And there was Rodney.

Just being with him was better than flying. Sitting across from him in the cafeteria, listening to him bitch and snipe about Kavanagh or the poor quality of equipment from Earth and the even more poor quality of the scientists. Watching his hands fly about and chop the air emphatically, his eyes bright with annoyance, anger, or sheer brilliance. Caldwell could wave an entire fleet of ships in my face. They wouldn't equal one moment of that.

Still, it didn't mean I couldn't enjoy it while I was here. Leaning back, I crossed my ankles, looked around, and wondered idly when the Star Trek miniskirted ensign idea had died out. Pity. I could literally feel the smack on the back of my skull and grinned, wondering how Rodney and Hermiod were getting along. Rodney was bound and determined to prove he was as smart as, if not smarter than, the Asgard. And that Hermiod was ahead of him a few millennia in evolution wasn't about to stop him. If he had to literally force himself to evolve over a space of a few days, then by God he would. He would be the smartest person in the Pegasus Galaxy and no X-Files extra was going to stop him. Hopefully he'd remember while evolving to keep his good bits…I liked those. I'd miss them if they were gone. A lot. A whole helluva lot.

"Colonel, we're picking up something on the sensors."

It could only have been more perfect if they'd said long-range sensors, but you take your fantasies where you find them. But the fantasy element faded fast when we realized what the sensors were picking up, and when I couldn't get through to Rodney, things went from sugar to shit in a heartbeat.

"Come on, Rodney, answer me," I repeated desperately. "Where the hell are you?" I'd made the demand at least twenty times before to receive no answer. I refused…absolutely fucking refused…to believe the Wraith had gotten on board without our knowledge. They were not on board and Rodney was not lying on the floor, all his drive, spirit, smugness drained away to leave a brittle, empty husk that would turn to dust under your touch. That was not what had happened. It was not, and if the son of a bitch didn't answer his com….

A puzzled and slightly impatient voice crackled in my ear. "I'm down working on the pulse-power engines with Hermiod. Where the hell are you?"

Christ. He was all right. He was…shit. I felt my spine dissolve…turn to water and pour right out of my body. "On the bridge." I scrubbed a hand over my face. "We have a little situation here." I then proceeded to tell him about said situation as I watched the ships floating in the distance. They were close enough to see with the naked eye now. They squatted against the blackness like spiders…those trapdoor spiders you saw on nature shows. There you were, minding your own business, and they'd come boiling up from beneath you, pull you down and feed on you before you could even twitch. Or maybe they'd just poison you…paralyze you…and wrap you up for a bedtime snack.

And nature shows had nothing on the Wraith.

I was telling Rodney to watch himself and hating like hell that I wasn't there to do it for him when the ships began to make their move. There was an energy build up registering and I called for the shields as I could hear Rodney's demanding voice in my ear. Demanding, scared, and pissed as hell. He liked the Wraith maybe even less than I did.

I didn't get a chance to answer him as something cut through our shields like they were the flimsiest of tissue paper. For a fraction of a second I felt something similar to a Wraith stunner…but stronger. So much stronger.

And then I dreamed. I dreamed of spiders and dark dens in the ground. Dreamed of bleeding to death from a gaping hole in my chest.

Dreamed of Rodney's voice…his warm fingers on my face.

Dreamed….

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It was like getting socks for Christmas.

Remember that aunt? Your grandfather's sister that hadn't had a date since World War II and it showed? The one that gave socks for Christmas, underwear for your birthday, soap-on-a-rope and cologne that even Sheppard wouldn't wear for your high school graduation? The one that got everything confused and would tell people that instead of finishing your physics dissertation you were studying phys ed?

Remember the anticipation of opening a present only to find two pair of navy blue dress socks instead of the Star Wars figures you had been begging for? And what was the first thing you did? Toss them aside without a glance back and move onto the next gift with that same hopeful expectation of finding Han or Luke or even Obi Wan.

And that's all I could think as I moved to the third cocoon on the bridge, the other two filled with living, breathing crew members still stunned by the blast… but not John. I peeled back the webbing to see a slack female face, long hair slopped back in a swoop of haphazard ponytail. The bridge pilot… not John. Gee, thanks, Aunt Helen. Next!

I should have moved faster, should have been here sooner. I might have been able to stop the cocoons from forming in the first place, kept the feedings from taking place on the bodies lying withered on the deck behind me. But it had taken a good twenty minutes for Hermiod and me to get the feeling back enough in our legs to walk. Then we had headed out for the bridge.

There's a reason why you never see the Asgards just out and about strolling around the ship or the SGC, why they tend to beam themselves everywhere they go. It's because they have these itty-bitty, spindly little legs that can barely maneuver them from Point A to Point B, much less with any speed. You know, if you're going to evolve into a being of pure intellect then at least have the decency to evolve beyond the need for bipedal motion… floating brains with eye stalks and vocal chords or flitting globules of goo with telepathic abilities. Hell ride around in power scooters with hover capability, anything to have you moving faster than a grey hair on valium. Because if you don't, Darwin will eventually prove your ass less than fit.

And if not by my intervention on several occasions as we snuck our way through the ship, Hermiod would have gone the way of the dodo birds. At one point I was tempted to take a cue from one of John's football DVDs and tuck him under my arm as I made a dash for the goal line in the form of the Daedalus armory.

As soon as I had seen the yellow blips appearing on my ever present Life Signs Detector, I knew we needed weapons and we needed them fast. I didn't go around armed on friendly vessels, unlike some people I knew and was desperately trying to locate. And my sidearm was tucked away in our quarters… unloaded and with the safety on per a home safety requirement newly mandated by the same desperately sought after individual. So we were off to the armory which was closer and better equipment than John ever let me be.

"Okay, there's the armory," I whispered to the alien engineer at my side. "And there are no Wraith in this hallway, so we're good to go."

"Dr. McKay, we really must return to an engineering station so that I can restart the engines."

"Oh, and how to you propose we do that? Wile the Wraith with your Asgardian charm? They may have to squat a little, but I have a feeling they would feed off of you just as easily as us humans."

We were dead in the water so to speak. Whatever the Wraith had hit the Daedalus with had evidently been enough to shut down all the ship systems, including the human ones. I could only assume that the only reason it didn't completely incapacitate the two of us was that the pulse-power engine room was so well shielded that it buffered us from the blast. The emergency systems had been initiated and only the backup lighting was available. It gave the ship a very creepy aura, almost like a Hive ship. Of course that was only exacerbated by the presence of Wraith, and more importantly, the fact that they were packing the crew away in cocoons. They were stashing a food supply in preparation for the trip to Earth. If that thought didn't cause a chill to run through you, then you were already pumping ice water in your veins.

They'd tried to steal the Daedalus before by running a virus that would control the ship. That had failed thanks to some puke-worthy aerial acrobatics by John in the coronasphere of a flippin' sun no less, combined with my own brilliant reboot efforts. This time, they had decided to take a more direct approach…disable the crew and board the ship. A plan that had so far been pretty damn successful. Only, they hadn't gotten past the security protocol for restarting the engines. On the positive side, that meant we couldn't take an unscheduled trip back to Earth. On the negative side, we couldn't get the Daedalus away from the Hive ships that were sure to follow it.

We needed to reinitiate the engines and in order to do that we needed to reach an interface that would allow us to override the security codes and access the proper systems. And in order to do that, we needed weapons because, lets face fact, no one was going to accuse one short-legged Asgard and one short-tempered Canadian of stealth.

"Weapons first, then you can restart the ship."

"And where will you be while I am reinitiating the engines?"

I wish I could say his tone was one of worry or even concern, but it was one I was more than familiar with as I felt it on an almost daily basis with the inferiors that reported to me… annoyance. Not that I was a subordinate to him and his almighty smarter than thou attitude, his cerebral superiority mind-set, his… see, there it was, annoyance. Evidently I had been underestimating myself when I limited my aggravation triggers to just the horde of glassy-eyed minions that greeted me in the lab every morning.

"The bridge," I informed him just as snippily. "We retake the bridge and we have all the controls of all the ship's systems at our fingertips." And that was John's last known whereabouts I added silently to myself. "Once I have the bridge secured, you can beam over and we'll be one up on the bastards." Sure, sound confident, McKay, sound like you have a plan, sound like you have a fucking clue how you are going to do that.

But once we entered the armory and I looked past the rows of hand guns and P90s and various other Earth armaments and saw the little snake shaped beauties stashed away in one corner, I decided I might have a chance.

"Are you familiar with the operations of the zatn'kitel, Dr. McKay?" By the tilt of his head and the wary inflection on my name when I hefted the zat in my hand, I was pretty sure Hermiod doubted I had any idea how they worked.

He was right.

I had seen them in Area 51 and the SGC, knew the basic concept of how they functioned… one blast stunned, two killed, and a third in succession vaporized… but I had never actually operated one. Still, how hard could it be?

I squeezed the grip and the head lifted with a small mechanical whir, giving the weapon the appearance of a snake poised to strike. With a smug grin I turned to face the doubting Asgard who was gingerly fingering a row of M9s. "What do you think?"

But the alien never had a chance to answer, never even had a chance to look up from the handguns, because as soon as the words left my mouth, a pulse left the zat and enveloped the Asgard, dropping him quicker than a brass casing being expelled from one of the Berettas.

Fuck a duck.

I hadn't just done that. I hadn't just done that. I hadn't just… oh, hell I had. I had just shot the Asgard liaison to the Daedalus with a Gou'ald weapon in the middle of the Pegasus galaxy. Dear God, if that didn't qualify as an intergalactic incident then there never was one. And all I could think as I leaned over the small form lying unmoving on the floor was how the hell was Jack O'Neill going to sweet talk our way out of this one? We could just take that whole treaty of protected planets and wipe our collective asses with it, right after we kissed them goodbye. Christ. John had always said that when civilization finally fell, he had no doubt that scholars from the future would be able to trace it back to me as the root cause. And here I was, smoking zat in hand, living proof of his theory.

I shook the small boney shoulder. "Hermiod? Can you hear me? Are you all right?"

Large almond eyes slivered and regarded me in confusion. "Dr. McKay, what… what happened?" I froze. Was that a loophole I saw before me? When I didn't answer he continued. "Did the Wraith fire another blast at us?"

"I, uh… well, that is… you see, I…" Loophole, McKay. Take the damn loophole and save the whole Human-Asgard alliance. "Yes, yes they did," I lied, forcing myself to look him in the eye.

"It feels… different, this time."

"Yes, I know," I grimaced and stretched my arms stiffly in mock sympathetic pain. "Our bodies must be acclimating to it."

His eyes moved to the zat in my hand. "I see you have located a zatn'kitel. Have you operated one before?"

"Yes, yes I have." At least that statement wasn't a lie… anymore. "Listen, do you think you can walk? We need to get out of here and I need to get to the bridge."

As soon as he was able, I had him up and us moving again, this time to an engineering station two decks down. Once I had Hermiod locked in the small room, I headed to the bridge, vaporized a couple of Wraith and started my search for John.

After the fifth cocoon, I turned my attention back to the dead bodies in the center of the room. Forcing the painful constriction in my chest to relax when I confirmed none of them were him. Forcing away the thoughts that maybe he had left the bridge before the attack, maybe they took him to another location… after all the female Keepers couldn't seem to keep their grubby little life-taking hands off of him. I swear it was like dangling a pool boy in front of Mrs. Robinson, if Mrs. Robinson was a goth chick that would suck more than your youth out of you if she managed to seduce you. Juan, could you rub some cocoa butter on my pasty white skin while I devour the life-force from your tanned and toned body?

Jesus, Rodney, focus.

Was I getting a little panicked? Was I letting the pressure get to me? What do you think? Just what the fuck do you think? I tore into the sixth cocoon repeating the same thing I had since the very first one. He's here, he's here, he's here, he's… not here. Six cocoons down, six more to go. Six pairs of socks and not a single Millenium Falcon in sight.

"Dr. McKay, the Wraith are outside the door. It will not be long before they are able to override the locks." Hermiod had managed to move us out of range of the Hive ships, but that still left the Wraith onboard to contend with.

"Secure the station and beam over to the bridge," I told him. "I have control of it." For the time being.

"I shall be there shortly," the Asgard informed me.

Great, fine, whatever. I had other things, much more important things to deal with at the moment. I moved to number seven, pulled back the silky strands and choked on the breath that tried to force itself past the sudden lump in my throat. My shaking hands tangled through a mess of dark hair, wiping the webbing haphazardly on my legs to free my fingers for more delicate work. I moved thumbs gently over closed eyes to clear them of the strands, brushed away the filaments from his nose and cheekbones, ran a lingering finger over his mouth. With a sigh I cupped his face, leaned my forehead against his in absolute relief and smiled at the flinch and shiver the touch of my lips on his elicited. I smiled at the contents of the package in general. Because this wasn't a pair of socks or soap or Skin Bracer. This was Battle Ship and Stretch Armstrong and Rock'em Sock'em Robots. This was Luke and Chewie and ...

"Han Solo," I breathed.

Because I'd finally gotten what I wished for, asked Santa for, killed Wraith for, and there had never been a better present than that.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It was white.

Everywhere white. Pristine and pure as angel feathers…if angels existed. Which they didn't. There were only cold alien women who turned into a seething nest of light and tendrils…who touched your mind with an icy grip nowhere near as soft as feathers. Nowhere near as soft as….

Snow.

I was in the snow. We'd been trudging up the mountain, Rodney bitching all the way. Canadian and yet he was moaning about the cold and snow, whining about the altitude, and flailing his arms at the bizarre screeching icegulls that had taken a particular interest in his hat. I think it was the flailing that caught the attention of the Yeti.

It wasn't a Yeti, not really, or a Bumble…I mean, if it was a Bumble then where was Yukon Cornelius? No, no Bumble, but it was twelve feet tall, covered with white fur, and had a mouth twice the size of a polar bear. Yeah, a mouth almost the size of Rodney's who it promptly charged.

I fired at it before I even registered the grip of the P-90 in my hand. Rodney dived to the ground, hands over his head…blood bloomed on white fur…snow turned red.

And the mountain fell.

It's cold under the snow. The kind of cold that tells you Hell is a frozen place, not hot at all. It's cold and you can't breathe and you can't feel and you're lost. Lost….

Until a warm hand touches your face, a warm breath drifts across your lips, a warm voice calls your name anxiously.

I tried to open my eyes. The lids were sluggish and it took several efforts to even crack them. But I finally managed to see Rodney's face, his gray and worried face. The pom pom hat with the maple leaf on it was gone…I loved that damn hat. Cracked me the hell up. It looked even more ridiculous on Ronon's tangled mass of dreds. He liked it though. Could hide five more knives with that hat.

"John? Can you hear me?"

Just barely. The snow was muffling everything.

"Where?" I coughed spasmodically. "Where….Bumble?"

His eyes darkened in confusion. "Oh, Christ, John, wake up, okay? We're in a lot…well, let's be more specific…a huge, huge amount of trouble and you're scaring the shit out of me. So, please…wake up." There was a hand on my face and one, curiously, tugging at my shirt then pants.

I tried to swat it, but my own hand flopped and fell to the floor to lie twitching. "Not the time, Rodney," I slurred. I managed to look down and see it wasn't my shirt and pants he was intent on removing—it was a thick sticky mass of webbing. Did spiders burrow under the snow? Did they wait for their chance? Like an avalanche…wait until you were buried and then come for you, bloated bodies burrowing…spitting poison and webs.

Okay, suddenly not a fan of the spiders. And worse than spiders were…shit…Wraith. Worse than spiders and Bumbles both. So goddamn worse…I looked down at the remnants of the cocoon that held me captive and swallowed hard. "Trouble. Huge trouble."

"Thank God." An arm wrapped around my neck and squeezed hard. "Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me. I thought…damn it, Sheppard, don't do that to me." I could hear the hammer of his heart in my ear, the ragged breath moving through his lungs.

"Didn't mean to," I said aggrieved with thoughts still as fuzzy as Dr. Z's hair. "What's going on? Wraith?"

"Yes, Wraith. Many, many Wraith. All over the ship. Like Starbucks, there's one on every corner." He looked up as dancing lights appeared several feet away and Hermiod appeared in all his nude glory. And I was never going to get used to that. Christ. "About time. I thought you'd been drained dry and were now an ET bobble doll sitting on the dashboard of a Wraith cruiser."

The large eyes blinked. I wasn't sure how the Asgard managed to make a blink disdainful, but he did. "We are currently pulling away from the Wraith Hive ships at sublight speed. I imagine that the ones on board will notice this sooner or later…unless they are more related to humans than you have hypothesized."

With hands still shredding my cocoon, Rodney scowled, "At least I wouldn't have to piggyback a Wraith. They don't get cramps in their spindly little legs because they don't have spindly little legs. And you know what? For a tiny guy you weigh a lot. I think I pulled a muscle in my back and don't think I won't be sending the Asgard my chiropractor bill. No matter what the illustrious Mick Jagger says—I am not your beast of burden. Get a scooter for God's sake. In fact, I'll call Earth. I think my Nana has a spare."

"Rodney?" The fuzziness had cleared as the tingling slowly left my limbs and I began to help with the cocoon. "I'm fresh out of paperbags. So go to your happy place, okay?"

"Happy place, my ass," he muttered, hands moving to my shirt. "Being Jabba's psychotic snot monkey on a chain would be a happy place in comparison right now." Yanking my shirt out of my pants and up, he looked at my chest and swallowed. "I knew they hadn't, but…." He touched fingers to my unmarred chest, then pressed his palm flat over my heart.

"I'm okay, Rodney," I said softly. "I'm okay."

He swallowed again, squared his shoulders and dropped his hand. "Of course you're all right. Who would eat you? A Wraith on Jenny Craig? There can't be much life-force in your scrawny frame. Now me…I could feed a life-sucking family of five for…." I cut him off with a kiss. With hand cupped behind his head, it was of necessity short, but it was warm and real and no avalanche of snow, no Wraith cocoon could stand up next to that.

I heard a sound, much like a musical burp crossed with a phlegmy snort. I had a feeling it was what Hermiod thought of human mating habits—not damn much. I was right.

"Unless you can formulate a Wraith-fighting weapon with your mouths, this seems a waste of time," came the acerbic commentary.

"Well, if anyone could." I grinned at Rodney, then sobered to say in a barely audible question. "Okay?"

He nodded, quirky mouth relaxing slightly. "Okay," he confirmed, eyes alight. "Now." He helped me stand and steadied me as I swayed on numb legs. "As for you." He turned to Hermiod and smirked. "At least we can still reproduce." Then he frowned. "Well, not John and I personally, but as a race…oh what the hell am I doing wasting my time arguing with a being who prefers spastic hiccuping to immeasurable brilliance." Turning back to me, he went on. "Wraith…all over the ship. Every crew member was stunned in one giant blast from one of the Hive ships. It's an all you can eat buffet out there. What do we do?"

It was a good question. What the hell did we do?

"Weapons." I look bemused as he held up a snaky looking metal thing and beamed. "That's a weapon?"

He waggled it cheerfully. "Once stuns, twice kills. Three times disintegrates. It's a great weapon." Digging in a duffel bag at his feet, he handed me a duplicate. "Here. I brought you one. Let me show you how to use it." He flashed an unreadable look at Hermiod. "It's not as easy as it looks."

While he gave me lessons, I said distractedly, "Hermiod, could you try to wake up some of the staff? We'll unwrap the rest."

With another excruciatingly slow blink, he moved over to the heap of still forms, wrapped except for their faces, and began to poke a long finger at whatever was showing. Forehead, nose, ear… "I think you're unwrapping job was a little half-assed there, McKay," I muttered as I managed to disintegrate the Captain's chair. Now no one was Kirk.

"I was looking for something pretty specific." He flushed a little then squared his shoulders. "You complaining? Should I run and get some toilet paper to re-cocoon you?"

"No," I grinned. "I'm good." And then more quietly, "I would've done the same thing." Would have and had.

Before he could comment, there was a moan and bubbling cry. "No! Don't probe me…don't!"

Hermiod was knocked backward by a flailing arm. Lying there staring at the ceiling, he said calmly, "No deluxe extended-functioning clone body is worth this."

No, it probably wasn't. Imminent death and annoying humans: it didn't pay to leave the Asgard homeworld.

Ten minutes later we had everyone up and moving and, thanks to Rodney, armed with zats as he called them. Now there's a stupid name for a gun if ever I'd heard one. Freeze or I'll pop you with my zat. It led to images of junior high dances and lots and lots of Clearasil. Less Rambo and more Mr. Kotter.

"They're coming. They're two hallways from the bridge entrance." Rodney looked up from the life signs detector and grimaced. "And there's fifteen of them."

"Then let's see what we can do to whittle them down." I looked around at pale, set faces. "Who wants to make like Luke and piggyback Hermiod around?"

One Yoda loving fan volunteered, not the probe-phobic obviously, and we were in business. What Rodney and Hermiod combined didn't know about the ship wasn't worth knowing and within minutes we found ourselves in a crawlspace under the floor. We came up behind the Wraith, although at the last minute one of them smelled us. Smelled us…like the predator it was.

Then there were zats firing, Wraith screaming in rage, Rodney yelling and pointing….and fuck.

There was a Wraith cruiser looming large in the porthole.

Blocking out the stars.

Blocking out space itself.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Sheppard was a focused sort of guy. Once something caught his attention, it was hard to distract him away from it. Have a beautiful alien princess strip off her clothes in front of him and it gave new meaning to the term boob tube. Of course in recent years a naked astrophysicist could illicit much the same reaction…only, of course, without the boobs. Pop in a DVD with fast planes, an eighty's soundtrack, and a scientologist with possible mental stability issues and he was captive for the one hundred and ten minute running time. The Wraith and the Genii could join forces and launch an attack on Atlantis and he would simply respond with a choked, "In a minute, as soon as they recover Goose's body."

Let him watch me die just once and he'll threaten to shred the very fabric of the universe to tatters in order to turn back time so that it never happened. Never mind that no one and nothing might have existed if he hadn't gotten the damn hand-held Ancient flux capacitor to work properly. And he had the nerve to give me shit about accidentally destroying a solar system, and technically it was only five sixths of one… although I have no doubt that the remaining sixth really wasn't very functional when all was said and done. Regardless, it was an accident and what he had done was intentional. And he had nearly died because of it, nearly swapped his life for mine. Christ. Now I was the one that was going to get choked up and it had nothing to do with malfunctioning ejector seats.

Anyway, what was I saying?

Ah, yes, John was the type of guy to focus on the task at hand. Me, not so much. But that's why we made such a great team. Yin to his yang, heads to his tails, Butch to his Sundance, green eggs to his ham… or something like that. The point was, while he was intent on taking out over a dozen Wraith that were storming toward us, I had noticed something a little more disturbing outside the ship.

"John!" He ignored me as he took aim and dropped a Wraith. Or maybe he just didn't hear me, between people yelling, Wraith hissing and zats and stunners blasting away, it was pretty damn noisy in the hallway. "John!" A crewman standing next to him fell to a stunner blast and I shot my zat at the Wraith that had fired the pulse at the same time John did. "For God's sake, Sheppard, look!"

His ears perked and, finally hearing me, he turned to see me pointing frantically out the window. With a furrowed brow he closed the distance and saw what I had been trying to show him. "Aw, hell." Well, that summed it up nicely when all you could see was a Wraith Cruiser perched just off the bow of the ship. "Is that the only one?"

"That I can see," I told him. "For all I know there's a Hive ship sitting on the other side of us." Just then the Cruiser turned and blipped away as it initiated its hyperdrive. "Where'd it go?"

"If the last time is any indication," he informed me grimly, "to go find his big brother. If there isn't a Hive ship hovering out there right now, there will be soon enough."

I guess that was my cue to ask the obvious. "So, now what?"

"We need the weapons systems back on-line."

Once again, my cue to point out the obvious. "Whoa, do you really think that's such a good idea?"

"You know, Spock never stopped to question Kirk's request to have photon torpedoes to blast the Klingons out of the sky." The frown on his face only deepened as he pushed me back against the wall, raised his zat and shot a charging Wraith.

I frowned back as he fired the other two charges and the Wraith body at our feet disappeared. "Only because the Klingons weren't onboard the Enterprise at the time. Right now the Wraith are locked out of the Daedalus' mainframe. We start overriding security protocols and bringing systems online, the Wraith will have as much access to the weapons as we do. And I, for one, think that's a pretty shitty concept."

"Yeah, well, so do I," he conceded with a slight sulk. "Damnit, there has to be some way to defend the ship without the main…"

"What?" I asked as a smile spread across his face and the light bulb blinked on in his head. "What?"

"We have weapons systems on board, individual systems that can operate independent of the Daedalus. An entire goddamn bay of them."

"Of course, the F302s." I snapped fingers excitedly as I remembered. "You said Caldwell was in the bay."

"Doing a routine inspection of the flight crew. There's a fucking fighter battalion sitting over there right now and all we have to do is wake them up."

"If the Wraith haven't gotten to them first." It wasn't that I wanted to be pessimistic, but Yin Yang and all that.

"Lets just hope that's not the case," he countered with a grimace, "I'd hate to have to take on an entire Wraith armada by myself." Before I could comment like hell that would ever happen, he turned to the crew member closest to us. "Get Hermiod back to the bridge and have him get us out of here. We're going for reinforcements."

When the young officer nodded her head in understanding, John tugged my arm and had us jogging down the corridor toward the hangars. We rounded a corner and he slowed, eyeing the life signs detector he held before him cautiously. With a hand to my chest he stopped me, pulled me back, held up two fingers and proceeded to try to explain the plan in a convoluted sign language that would have had Helen Keller weeping in frustration. I scrunched my face in confusion, shook my head and mouthed the word, 'What?'

With a perturbed roll of his eyes he whacked the base of my skull, held the life signs detector so that I could see and pointed meaningfully to two yellow dots. He then motioned between the two of us, held up the zat, mimicked firing it and spread his arms in a patronizing 'got it?' fashion.

Well, he didn't have to be so condescending. If he had just done it like that in the first place instead of trying to use the charades equivalent of Sanskrit, we would be done by now. I rolled my own eyes and gave him a broad 'after you' sweep of my arm.

With a final glower he peeked around the corner, jumped out and started firing with me at his side. When the last Wraith had disintegrated, he turned and backhanded me in the shoulder. "Three years, McKay. We've worked together for well over three goddamn years now and you have yet to learn the most basic field signs."

"Well, what the hell?" I bristled. "I couldn't tell if you wanted me to shoot a Wraith or steal third base."

"They're hand signals, Rodney. It's not like I asked you to learn Navajo for Christ's sake."

"Fine, fine, I'll learn them. Geesh!" I threw up exasperated hands and shook my head. "Consider it an early Christmas present."

With a sigh he shook his own head and started back down the hall. I barely caught the mumbled, "One holiday at a time. Right now I'm just concentrating on keeping you alive as my own personal birthday gift to myself."

"Oh, yeah, about that." I captured his arm, pulled him in close and then captured his lips with my own. It was all I could do and it had to be done much too quickly, considering where we were and where we were heading, but at least I got the chance to do that little bit. "Happy birthday," I told him lamely. "Not exactly how I had planned it, but you know how much I love to improvise."

He leaned his forehead against mine with a small snort. "You sure know how to throw one hell of a surprise party, McKay."

"Well, if it wasn't for these damn crashers. Talk about sucking the life out of the party…literally."

His hand moved up and down my back reassuringly. "You're here; only person I really care about showing up." Another quick kiss and he straightened. "Just be sure you stick around till the end."

"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it. That's when I get to blow out a birthday candle myself."

Hazel eyes glimmered as he hitched his head with a smirk. "Come on then, let's kick these uninvited guests to the curb so we can get to the cake and ice cream."

We took out three more Wraith before finally reaching the fighter bay where we stopped and studied the life signs detector. The good news was there were so many life signs that they were overlapping each other, the bad news was that we couldn't tell which were Wraith and which were human.

I reached around his shoulder and pointed to the small screen. "It looks like there are at least four in there, but that could be a couple over in the corner of the bay as well."

His shoulders squared under my forearm. "Only one way to know for sure; I'm going in for a look."

"You mean we're going in for a look," I corrected.

"Nope, you're staying here and covering the door. There's no way out of there other than this door and the launch doors and I have no desire to step outside the ship to make an escape."

"And you plan to take on all the Wraith in there by yourself?"

"I just want to see exactly how many there are and where they're at. I'll call you in when I come up with a plan of attack. Until then you stay here and guard the door."

"So what happens if they see you first?" I demanded.

"Call in back up from the bridge and wait right here until it gets here. Do you understand me? You are not to go in there alone." I clamped my mouth shut and refused to meet his eyes. If he thought I was just going to stand around waiting for help to come while they sucked the life out of him he was sadly mistaken. "Rodney, I'm not kidding around here. You stay put until I call you."

I refused to answer again and looked instead to the life signs detector. One white blip vanished from the screen. "Oh, shit. They're feeding on the flight crew."

"Fuck. I've got to go." He looked between me and the detector and back again, hesitation to leave me battling with his desire to save the crew.

I pushed him forward. "Go." At his questioning look I snapped, "I'll stay here, just go before anyone else disappears. But if you get yourself killed don't come crying to me when there's no sex in the afterlife."

With a smirk and a quick nod of his head he slipped across the hallway and into the door to the hangar. I stood watching the hallway to either side, waiting for him to call. Finally, his voice whispered through the radio in my ear.

"God damn, there are Darts in here."

"Darts? How many?"

"Dozen or so. We'll have to take them out before we can launch the F302s. Of course we'll have to take out the Wraith before we can take out the Darts."

"How many of them are in there?" I whispered back.

"Looks like six… no, wait, seven… I think."

"You think? You're a goddamn math whiz and you're having trouble counting as high as the typical three-year old?"

"I can't tell, Rodney, okay? I can see movement over in one of the corners but I can't tell how many are over there for sure."

I shook my head even though he couldn't see me. "Look, it doesn't matter. Just come on out of there. Seven is too many for the two of us to take on our own. We need to call in back up. We'll have Hermiod beam over…"

And that's when it hit me, the pins and needles sensation that radiated through my body in an instant. And this time when I slumped to the ground and looked up, I did see a Wraith standing over me with a stunner and another one behind him. The corridor faded before my eyes and John's worried voice calling through my radio faded as well. I felt a cold hand tug the earpiece out then another set of hands tug me up from the floor and I could only pray that if they were going to feed on me, they did it during the blackness that finally took me away.

And that John wouldn't be the one to find me after they did.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Plausible deniability…I talk about that a lot in regards to Rodney, but there's something else that comes into play even more. It's something I don't talk about or even think about, not if I can help it—sort of defeats the purpose. But it was there all the same.

Denial. A lot shorter than plausible deniability…and a lot simpler.

Denial, not just a river in Egypt, boys. Step up and embrace the concept. Because that's what it was all about. Say it with me…denial.

Every moment of every day I lived in denial that anything could happen to Rodney. The Pegasus Galaxy was no more dangerous than your average corner Starbuck's, right? There were no poisonous frogs, no murderous Genii, no jumpers plunging into the watery depths, no friends turned drug addicted enemies, no monsters in the shadows, no kidnapping cloners, no a thousand and one lethal things waiting around the corner.

It was a fine line to walk mentally trying to deny those things and protect him from them all at once, but I did it. I did it because if I didn't I'd have lost my goddamn mind. Rodney wasn't a soldier, no matter how much I ran his ass around the gym or taught him self defense; he just wasn't a soldier. Not to say he couldn't be about a hundred thousand times more dangerous than any soldier if he had the right equipment with him, but you can't always haul a nuclear warhead around in your back pocket. And not that he and his nine-mil hadn't saved my ass on many an occasion, but he was Rodney…Rodney.

And that led us straight back to denial.

No frogs, no Genii, no drowning, no Fords slipping over the deep end, no life sucking Wraith. Please God no life sucking Wraith.

The universe is always funny about giving you what you want. When Rodney's voice stuttered to a stop in my ear, when I made my way back to the door as fast as I could possibly move, there were no Wraith just as I'd hoped for. But there was no Rodney either…only his communicator lying on the floor. And there was no denying that. No fucking denying that.

Denial, it wasn't so simple now.

I saw the zat out of the corner of my eye. It had been dropped and had skittered down the hall. Dropped because when you're hit with a stunner you tend to drop things. There's the pins and needles, things tumbling from your hands and then blackness as you begin to fall. Sometimes you manage to hang on to consciousness long enough to see the cold white face leering over you or feel the icy hands that reach out for you. Sometimes.

I lunged, scooped up the zat and shoved it into my pocket as I began scanning with the detector. They couldn't be far, they couldn't…there. Three life signs moving away from me fast. Fast enough that I felt the air sucked out of my lungs but who needs air? And who needs blood to actually pump through veins and arteries when it can lie there still and frozen. Not me. All I needed were legs that moved.

As I ran, I called Hermiod and told him to beam a rescue party into the bay, a party capable of taking on seven Wraith. And when he asked where Rodney was I ignored him because admitting that I'd lost him…that I'd lost Rodney…it wasn't something I ever was going to be able to do. As I ran, I didn't want to think. I didn't want racing thoughts or frantic images circling in my head; I wanted only frozen, murderous purpose.

I didn't get it.

Instead I got visions of the withered corpses of Gall and Abrams. I saw my bullet taking out what remained of Colonel Sumner, his white eyes rolling back in his head. And I remembered Rodney, not long after we'd first walked through the stargate into the Pegasus galaxy, drinking with me after the Invulnerable incident. He'd gone hog-wild for food and drink once the personal shield was off. And when he'd shown up at my door with his stash of twinkies and Radek's very first bottle of home brew, I'd let him in. I learned a lot about Rodney that night. Rodney can talk if he's in the mood…fuck, can he, but a drunk Rodney…just try to shut him up. Can't be done. He'd talked about everything under the sun…and he talked about things that didn't belong under the sun—the Wraith.

"What the hell kind of bad guys are they?" he'd demanded sloshing smurf piss everywhere. "Cold War Russians—good bad guys. Darth Vader, great bad guy. Godzilla, a complete affront to any scientist, but when he's stepping on tiny Mikos with such panache you have to give credit where credit is due. But the Wraith…." He'd stared broodingly into the glass. "They play with your brain and then they suck you dry. What's the point of being rescued if you're a drooling hundred-year-old bag of bones that's going to live maybe five more seconds anyway? What's the point?" He'd shuddered and taken another drink. "I miss the Russians. They'd smack Bond around a little, strap him to a table with a laser, and then go their merry way."

"The good old days," I'd agreed a little less than soberly. "And the Terminator. Don't forget the Terminator."

He'd grinned wide and sniffed. "My eighth grade science project. It was a smaller version, about three feet tall, and it kicked science class ass. At least it did until it blew up my teacher's car." The smug smile had faded. "I don't want to be sucked dry…er…well…not by a Wraith anyway. I don't want to go like that. After what you said happened to Sumner…." He'd swallowed and shaken his head. "Not for me. Nope. Absolutely not."

And I was going to make sure that was true. No mind-shredding bitch was going to stick her mental claws in his brain. And she wasn't going to drain any of his life. Not a minute, not a second, not a single goddamn moment. Because I needed them all…every last one and I wasn't giving them up. I wasn't giving him up. I wasn't…. At that moment, once again, just for fun, the universe fucked me.

The three life signs disappeared.

Rodney disappeared. Rodney who feared the Wraith more than he feared anything…even more than he had feared Kolya. Rodney had been in that Wraith ship alone with Abrams' corpse and Gall. Gall who was a corpse too, technically, even though he was still talking. He wouldn't last. Couldn't. Even Gall himself knew that. And when he had shot himself the moment Rodney had turned his back for a short second…Rodney hadn't gotten over that. Never would. I'd seen it happen to Sumner, but let's face it…I didn't know Sumner and I sure as hell didn't like him. Rodney both knew and liked Gall. The back and forth between them…Rodney had been grooming Gall in his image. Smug and brilliant. And to see a colleague…a friend…die like that…Christ.

Facing first hand what the Wraith did, it changed your view of the world. To know there's no reasoning with them…no hope. Did the slaughterhouse worker give a shit about the cow? Did KFC give a damn about their chickens? No. We were nothing to the Wraith but a meal. A rabbit to the wolf. And how many rabbits talk their way out of the snap of jaws on their neck? Even incredibly bright rabbits with a mouth that wouldn't stop and two PhDs?

Not a single one.

I stopped running and stared at the scanner. Shit. Oh, shit. Oh, God. The wolves were gone and had taken Rodney with them.

"Hermiod." My voice was calm because that's what they train you to do in the Air Force…stay calm. Stay in control. "Hermiod, where the fuck are you?" I snarled when I didn't get an immediate answer, but I snarled it calmly. Calm-ly.

Yeah…right.

"I am here, Colonel Sheppard," came the testy reply. "Beaming the team as you requested."

I heard the faintest shuffle of a foot and flattened myself against the wall as a Wraith flashed around the corner already firing his stunner. The bolt flashed past my chest and I instantly hit him with the zat. Two shots later he wasn't even a memory for me. "I need you to find the nearest transporter to me," I ordered, "and tell me where it just sent two Wraith and Rodney."

"Oh." There was a pause. "Level three, recreational area. And, Colonel, there are six more Wraith there as well. One signature is slightly different, the temperature higher. I believe it is a female."

A queen. A goddamn queen. But of course it was. They were in charge of interrogation…in charge of everything as far as I could tell, and they knew how to hurt you. Hurt you until you wanted to scream your guts out. "Beam me there now," I rapped, voice fractured glass.

"Very well."

And suddenly I liked the hell out of that smart mouthed Asgard. He didn't argue, didn't try reason, he simply did what had to be done. And whether it was based on not giving a damn if I lived or died, I didn't care. It got me where I needed to be. It got me to Rodney.

Unfortunately, someone else got to Rodney first.

There wasn't any time or way to do recon first. There was one door to Recreation and one big ass Wraith parked in front of it. It was the seven foot kind with the hockey mask and matching Jason personality and as efficient as a zat was, I missed the thud of bullets into pallid flesh. A zat was too easy a way to go for what these bastards deserved. Way too fucking easy.

I passed through the space where that piece of shit had once lived and breathed and dived into the room, rolling up behind the nearest couch. Metal and plastic, it was military discomfort through and through, but it held up to a stun bolt, I'd give it that. But the sizzling flashes weren't enough to keep me from hearing Rodney. A voice still slurred from the stunning, he was saying something about his grandmother.

"I can't go out like this. I can't die at the hands of someone who looks like my grandmother. Same shade exactly. Lovely Lilac. I remember the box it came in and the smell. God, did that hair dye smell. And Nana thought she looked great, of course. That's what she thought, that purple hair was all the rage. So you can see my point, right? You can't kill me, because that would be like my grandmother killing me and that's not good, now is it? It's just not good. So let go, okay? LET GO!"

Okay, Rodney had lost it. But that was all right, because I'd lost it the moment I saw a stretch of empty hallway waiting for me instead of his smug smirk. I wanted to see that smirk again. Now. But as I came around the couch firing, I saw something entirely differently. I saw long, pale hands twined around his neck and in his shirt. I saw him suspended up in the air, his face almost as lavender as his granny's hair. And I saw utter terror there. I'd seen Rodney afraid before. If you were in the Pegasus galaxy and not afraid, then you were a fucking idiot. I'd seen fear on the face of everyone I knew out here. I'd seen fear of invasion, fear of loss, fear of death, fear of nuclear death…but I'd never seen what was on Rodney's face before now.

And I rather enjoyed killing the bitch who put it there.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

My Nana is probably one of the most outspoken, egotistical, and straight forward people that has ever drawn breathe in the universe. She was once banned from her homeowner's association meetings after telling the organization's president that his hair plugs had obviously rooted into his brain if he thought he could stop her from informing her neighbors that the spray from their sprinklers was crossing her property line, and the fact that she chose to inform them of said indiscretion at two a.m. utilizing a bullhorn on their front lawn should have no relevance on her God given right to a spot-free automobile. She is also one of the brightest people I have come across, having obtained a master's degree in mathematics before finally caving to the societal pressures of her time and settling down and starting a family instead of pursuing her Ph.D. And I have never let the fact that she is also crazier than a loon stop me from absolutely adoring her.

My first clue that she was slipping into dementia came when I was in my early twenties and she informed me in a conspiratorial whisper over a breakfast she had just cooked for me that she had had a sexual encounter with Einstein while completing her graduate studies at Princeton. You can only imagine my growing consternation as she went on to tell me how he had ravaged her in the Physics library, the spine of James Clerk Maxwell's 'Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism' eating into her own as my idol and academic hero pressed her up against the stacks and grunted sweet German nothings against her heaving bosoms. My fork had clanked loudly on my plate, the pancakes instantly forgotten, partially in shock from hearing my grandmother discuss her bosoms so candidly but more because for a brief exhilarating moment I had thought that maybe, just maybe, I was more than just the intellectual heir to the man's brilliance but could possibly be the physical heir as well. A rapid calculation, however, of my mother's birth date quickly squelched that idea, no matter how thrilling it may have been. And from the way Nana's eyes gleamed at the memory, real or imagined, she had found the whole encounter thrilling, as well.

Things had only gone down hill from there as a few years later she informed my parents that she needed them to drive her to Zellers department store so she could buy a new Cray supercomputer, otherwise she was never going to finish the calculations she was working on and, besides, the one she currently owned kept burning her toast. God, I love that woman.

On one of our last trips back to Earth, I had taken John to meet her, and evidently she was convinced that she was residing on the Love Boat instead of a retirement home. This is purely speculation, but based on the way she kept calling me Gopher and asking me to schedule her for shuffle board and jazzercise classes and the fact that she kept pinching John's ass and asking him up to her stateroom, I had a fair amount of confidence in my theory. And more power to her, I say. I can only hope that when I'm closing in on ninety, I can still pinch John's ass and make the same overtures, and that I can firmly believe the cafeteria meals I'm eating are actually a buffet being served on the Mezzanine Deck.

That is if I could make it to ninety, which give the situation I was in, wasn't looking very likely. It was also why Nana was on my mind.

Who the hell does their hair?

It's an odd thing to think about as you open heavy eyelids to the face of death framed in purple locks, but last thoughts are inexplicable… and the hair shade was uncanny. Actually, it wasn't my thoughts that were fluttering around the periphery of my consciousness when I first came around but hers… not Nana's, hers.

How? The word whispered in my mind and in my stunned state I knew exactly what the question meant… how do we get the ship to respond?

"Codes," my lips answered numbly in the dark.

Tell me, the voice echoed through me, causing me to pry my eyes open. Because the only people that really needed to know them already did. And that's when I saw who had been making the requests, thought about bad dye jobs and Nana and just how truly screwed I was.

The pale female face leaned in close to mine, jagged teeth revealed by a thin-lipped smile. "Tell me the codes." And even though she spoke the words out loud this time, I could feel them in the base of my skull, eating into my subconscious, willing my tongue to work.

Oh, fuck. No no no no no no no no no no. This wasn't happening, wasn't happening, wasn't happening. I wasn't meant to be killed by a woman with Nana hair and life devouring hands. And that's what I tried to tell her, that it wouldn't be right to die at the hands, literally, of a woman who reminded me of one of my favorite people in the world. That women with lilac hair were supposed to cook you pancakes and tell you disturbing stories of illicit rendezvous with cornerstones of physics, they weren't supposed to kill you trying to obtain the security codes for the spaceships you were flying around on in another galaxy.

But that wasn't what she wanted to hear. She wanted codes, and honestly if I could have remembered them through the sheer terror I felt clawing at my throat, I probably would have told her. Problem was, she didn't want to wait that long, didn't need to wait that long, because she could suck them from my mind at the same time she sucked my life from my body. And that's when there was more than sheer terror clawing at my throat.

Breathing. Not something I was able to do anymore, not with a hand around my throat and my feet kicking uselessly in the air. Not with my heart pounding painfully in my chest and the words pounding painfully in my mind, tell me, tell me, tell me. Then the other hand was at my chest.

Oh, God, it was on my chest. God damnit. God fucking damnit, it was on my chest.

People say you find a moment of clarity at the end, a final peaceful acceptance of your death that lets you pass over to whatever awaits us on the other side. Well, let me tell you, that is complete and utter bullshit. There was no peace, no tranquility, no acceptance or clarity. There was pain and fear and words that just wouldn't stop. Tell me, tell me, tell me… God damnit, I didn't want to die, I didn't want it to end, not this way, not anyway.

Kicking did no good, not a damn bit of good. Screaming was out of the question, fighting was not an option. All that was left was dying and that sucked beyond sucking because I wanted to live. I wanted to live and not be here anymore. And I wanted John, more than anything else in the world I wanted John. I wanted John. John, John, John, John, John.

And there he was, his form barely visible in the narrowing tunnel vision that was closing in around me. And, fuck, was he pissed. Its not my fault, I thought as he aimed his zat at me, it's not like I want to die.

The lion's share of the blast hit the Keeper, with enough residual energy coursing through my body to leave me in a painful daze when we both slumped to the floor and I pulled in a ragged breath to empty lungs. I tried to use arms leaden and aching to push her body off of mine, but couldn't muster enough strength to do it. It didn't matter anyway; John was there within seconds kicking her violently away even as he shot and incapacitated another Wraith. With a second zat in his left hand he fired the fatal pulse into the female Wraith, then kicked her again with a snarled, "Bitch!" before firing the third. And just like that Nana Wraith disappeared. John didn't stop, just kept firing both Gou'ald weapons that he held. From my position on the floor, I couldn't see where or what he was shooting, just black boots and dark gray legs standing over me, between me and the Wraith. Pulses from both zats and stunners continued to fly for a few more seconds as I gulped air then he knelt down beside me.

"Rodney?" He didn't give me time to answer before his hand was untucking my shirt the same way I had yanked at his not that long before, fingers moving as frantic as the tremor in his voice. "Christ, Rodney, talk to me."

"Fuck, she had her hand…John… fuck… her hand was…" I was babbling, panting, trying to get the sentences to come out through tingling lips. "Fuck." Cool air moved across my chest as he lifted my shirt, "Did she…? Fuck, John, did she feed?"

Trembling fingers brushed across my skin. "Oh, God," he breathed heavily.

"Oh, goddamn, she did." I was dead. He'd come to save me but not in time. I was dead, dead, dead. "Fuck." It was the only word that seemed to fit the situation.

His hand pressed down against my sternum. "No, she didn't. You're all right. She didn't take a single goddamn second." He was breathing as quickly as I was as he reiterated quietly, "You're all right."

"What?" Flopping noodley arms onto my torso, I swatted weakly at his hands, raising my head to peer down at myself. "Let me see. Let me see!" He moved his hand long enough for me to sneak a peek at undamaged skin and force out a final relieved, "fuck," before scooping me up and pulling me to his own chest so that he could hold me tight, tight, tight. And as far as I was concerned, that was perfection made sweaty flesh and shaking bones and thrumming heart and John, John, John.

"You're all right," he repeated into my hair and whether it was for my benefit or his that he continued to say it over and over, I have no idea, but those words, his voice, his arms… at that moment even sex with Einstein would have paled in comparison.

"Remind me to send a letter to Nana when we get back to Atlantis," I choked into his shirt after several wonderful minutes of not being dead.

His snort in response was thick but genuine. "How about we send her some flowers, compliments of Captain Stubing?"

I grinned and wrapped arms that were regaining feeling around him. "I think she would like that. Maybe pinch someone else's ass for a change."

The feel of his hand moving up and down my back only made me slump into him further. "Now, I would like that. Next time we go to visit, I'm not turning my back on her for a second."

"Next time," I repeated dreamily, happily, because there would be a next time, thanks to John there would be one… unless of course the Wraith that John hadn't killed but merely debilitated had his way and shot us with his stunner. That's the problem with imminent death… it's always so damn imminent.

Pushing all of my weight into him, I toppled us to the floor so that the bolt skimmed over us and impacted the large screen television mounted to the wall raining sparks across the room. With one arm still firmly around me, John lifted the zat with the other and fired, dropping the Wraith once again.

"Time to go," he coaxed even as he coaxed me to a stand and two other leather-clad forms started to rise. I leaned into him heavily, stiff, tingling legs protesting the action.

He shoved one of the zats into my hand then with his arm around my waist fired the other, pushing us quickly toward the exit. Once on the other side he fired into the controls for the door. "That should hold them for at least a little while." He all but dragged me to the nearest transporter, opened the doors and shoved me in as he turned and fired down the hall at another advancing Wraith.

"Oh for the love of…" I fisted a hand into the back of his shirt and yanked him in as well then activated the transporter to…someplace.

He looked over at me and asked, "Where're we going?"

"Anywhere but where we were. I've been stunned and zatted and nearly fed upon and had my mind melded with the Amazing Karnack she-bitch from hell. All, ironically enough, within the goddamn rec room. I don't know about you, but if that's what fun is on this ship, then I think they need a new social director."

His arms were around me again before I could catch my breath from my rant. "Sounds like a plan."

"Actually it sounds absolutely nothing like a plan, which is exactly what we need right now." With my chin on his shoulder I could hear Hermiod's voice through his earpiece telling him that the hangar bay was secured.

"Copy that, we're on our way," he replied as he straightened, then, "yes, we… Rodney is fine." And his fingers brushed across my chest just to reaffirm. He reprogrammed the transporter destination and within a few minutes we were standing in the fighter bay surrounded by F302s and stunned…literally…pilots and flight crews.

John strode straight for the flight chief who was blinking down at the withered body of one of his crew mates and pulled him aside and away from the gruesome visage. "Where's Caldwell?"

"On his way back to the bridge," the airman told him dazedly. "Sir, what exactly happened?"

"The Wraith decided they wanted to borrow the family car without asking permission. How long until we can launch the fighters?"

"Launch the fighters? Sir, half the pilots can barely stand… and the Darts are blocking…"

John placed a hand on the other man's shoulder and cut him off. "Get the pilots up and in their fighters, they don't need to be able stand to sit in their cockpits. We've got uninvited company coming any minute now and we need to be ready for them. Understand?"

"Yes, sir. But the Darts…."

"I'll take care of that," he assured. With a click of his radio he called the bridge. "Hermiod, can you clear out a little trash for me?"

A few minutes later, the darts were gone and floating somewhere off the rear of the ship thanks to one handy dandy little Asgard transporter and those pilots that could at least stand were in their fighters. I had retrieved my radio in the hallway and was putting the earpiece back on when Hermiod informed John, "The Wraith Cruiser has returned along with several dozen Darts."

"That can only mean the Hive ship is nearby," I predicted gloomily.

"Col. Sheppard, is there anything else you need from me?" the Asgard inquired.

"Yes, beam Dr. McKay directly to the bridge."

"What?" I demanded. "And just where do you think you're going?"

With a hitch of his head toward an empty F302 he told me simply, "Gotta fly, McKay."

"Like hell you do. Sheppard, that is a Wraith Hive ship we are talking about, not a military practice drone."

"It's my job, Rodney. And you've got one to do, too."

"Your job is acting as Caldwell's Executive Officer," I argued, "not playing Buck Rogers."

"Rodney, look around. Half the pilots are still out of action and the ones that aren't aren't operating on all cylinders. They need me here and they need you on the bridge. I need you on the bridge."

I didn't need to look around the bay to know he was right, but I did anyway, because it was easier than looking at him as he prepared to fly off into God only knew what shitfest was waiting for us this time. He may have needed me working the problem on the bridge, but I needed him, period. With a shift of weight and scuff of my boot I told him, "Just do me a favor, don't get out there and go all Goose on me. Okay?"

I raised my head to see a small smirk. "Ice Man all the way, I promise."

"Ice Man? What about Maverick? He was the hero, he got the girl in the end, after all."

He took a few steps back toward the fighter and shrugged, "Who needs the girl? I've already got the Geek."

He kept moving backward, moving toward the F302, moving away from me, smirk still firmly in place and eyes locked on mine until his image shimmered away in a flash of golden light and the bridge shimmered into view instead. With a sigh I forced my feet to move me toward the engineering control panels at the back of the room where Hermiod was already stationed.

"Dr. McKay, it is good to see you unharmed. However, the Wraith Hive ship has just appeared."

"Thanks and oh, fuck," I told him dryly, then keyed my radio. "Sheppard, the Hive ship is here."

"Copy that," he drawled in that calm Texas tone of his. "Fighters are launching now."

"Energy readings from the Wraith ship are building like they did before," the Bridge Pilot informed us.

"Shields to maximum." Col. Caldwell marched into the room as if he had just been away for a coffee break, not on the verge of becoming one for a Wraith. "And get me weapons on line, stat." He wiped absently at a strand of cocoon that still hung on his shoulder, moved to his usually position and looked around. "Where the hell is my chair?"

I ignored him on both accounts, knowing from previous experience that the shields wouldn't do a damn thing to protect the ship from the pulse and even Kirk stood now and again. No, what we needed was something with a little more bulk, something to take the lion's share of the blast…. That was it! And if the Promethius could transport an entire building from Earth to orbit, I figured the Daedalus should be able to transport a single Wraith Cruiser from one side of the ship to the other. With a growing smile, I turned to Hermiod. "Lock onto the Cruiser with the transporter beam."

If the Wraith Keeper could shield me from a zat blast, then why couldn't a Wraith Cruiser do the same for the Daedalus? I guessed there was no time like the present to find out.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

There was something to be said for being at the top of the food chain.

You got fat and lazy.

Okay, so the Wraith weren't fat…I guess life sucking is low in calories…but they were lazy. Don't get me wrong; their Darts were fast and wickedly maneuverable, but when it came to one on one dogfighting, the Wraith were good—they just weren't that good. They were competent, but going ten thousand years without an adversary close to their technology or skill level had made them complacent...made them mediocre. The best thing you can say about a mediocre fighter pilot is their ship makes pretty lights when it explodes. They were getting better though…sharper, smarter, faster and the majority of our pilots right now were barely conscious. Bad news for us, good news for the Wraith, and I couldn't be everywhere at once no matter how fucking hard I tried.

"John?"

Rodney's voice filled my ear, a little breathless and frazzled. The dull knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach eased a fraction at the sound of it. It was going to be a long, long time before he could be out of my sight and my pulse not spike over a hundred. He could've died, so easily have died…drained dry by that Nana-haired fucking Wraith-bitch. I felt my mouth twist, unable to even find the humor in the fact that now I wasn't going to be able to see Rodney's grandmother again without twitching at the first glimpse of her violet hair…instead of her roving hands, which were twitch worthy enough in their own right.

"Right here, Rodney," I said reassuringly. As difficult as it was for me to not be at his side now, he couldn't exactly rest easy either with me in the center of a cloud of Darts. I fired as another one covered his six a little too late. Boom. And there were the pretty lights.

"You and the other pilots need to pull back close to the Daedalus. We're about to block the Hive ship's stunner."

"Block it?" I demanded. "How?"

"You'll see," he said smugly, before adding urgently, "or, if you prefer, you can read it as cause of death on your obituary if you don't hurry up and fall the fuck back now."

"Sir.Yes, sir," I responded sardonically, suddenly more relaxed than I had been. He was coping. That monster hadn't taken what made Rodney Rodney…hadn't changed him, hadn't scarred him. Rodney had faced one of his biggest fears and come out whole and as gloriously conceited as ever. Kolya, the Wraith, you name it, he survived it…he was one resilient son of a bitch and he made me so damn proud…there were no words.

I radioed the other pilots, seven less than we'd started with, and we swooped back towards the Daedalus just in time to avoid being integrated into the hull of the Wraith cruiser. Most of the Darts weren't so lucky.

"Holy shit, Rodney," I breathed. "I mean, cool as hell, don't get me wrong, but holy shit! Warn a guy next time, would you?"

"I did warn you. Thus the importance of pulling back," he pointed with a snort. "Uh oh, here comes the stunner beam."

I saw it hit the cruiser that now was unwittingly protecting us with its bulk. White fire crackled around it and the ship suddenly began to drift aimlessly. "One down," I drawled. "One to go. Any ideas on the homefront?"

"Actually, yes. Hermiod says the Hive ship is jamming us, same as before, but their power levels have decreased significantly after the stunner blast. We have a good chance of getting through their shields if we launch a nuke. Try not to be hit by it, if you can avoid it."

Avoiding being blown up by a nuke had become a hobby of mine after the original Wraith siege. "I'll do my best," I said dryly then filled in the rest of the pilots and within seconds the warhead was launched. Sleek and deadly, it streaked off to my left. The cruiser had continued to drift off and the missile had a straight shot to the Hive ship. It was almost there when a Dart dived in front of it. I shielded my eyes against the resulting explosion. "Damn. Somebody just took one for the team. Launch another one and we'll carry it home."

"That sounds like Goose talk," came the suspicious comment. "I thought there wasn't going to be any Goose talk."

"We'll peel off at the front door, I promise," I reassured.

I heard the harsh exhalation. "Hold on." After apparently getting the okay from Caldwell, Rodney rapped, "All right. Launching in five…four…three…two…launch."

And this time we made a path for it. Streaking ahead, we took out every Dart between the Hive ship and us.

Except one.

There's always one exception to the rule. One wolf in a pack of dogs. One Great White in a school of nurse sharks. There was one Wraith who hadn't gotten lazy, wasn't mediocre, wasn't going out in a shower of lights, pretty or otherwise, not without a serious fight. So I gave him one. He was good…quicker than hell with the unexpected moves only truly an alien mind could foist on you. He was on my six for a split second before I tumbled, flipped, and was on his. That's when he realized what I was doing…keeping him away from the nuke and his happy little death-for-his-queen destiny. And right as he realized it, the Hive ship blew. The nuke wasn't Rodney-made, didn't have the Canadian seal of approval on it, but it still worked. Talk about your pretty lights.

And talk about your concussive wave. It tumbled my and the Wraith's ships over and over, tail to nose. "John?" came the voice in my ear as I fought for control.

"Hold on, Rodney," I gritted between clenched teeth as the stabilizers fought to do their best. "I've made a new friend and I need to blow his ass sky high." Yeah, yeah, we were already higher than the sky, but I was sure Rodney got my drift.

"You're already higher than the sky," he pointed out promptly.

Damn, we weren't going to be one of those couples that finished each other's sentences, were we?

I managed to get the F302 under control only to see the Wraith Dart beside me. It was so close that I could've rolled down the window and touched it…had F302s come equipped with power windows. I rolled the ship to the left and then did a patented bootlegger's turn. Now facing the Dart, I fired. So did he. I don't know what he called his turn but it was as fast as mine. It was my luck to come across the Wraith Maverick. Eat hot laser, lousy human, and by the way, have you ever considered Scientology as an antidote to the emptiness of your life? Just asking.

The shark was good; I was better, but he was still good. Good enough to make his shot count before his ship detonated under my guns. "Shit," I muttered as sparks flew and the F302 began to wallow like a three-legged pregnant cow. "Shitshitshit."

"What's wrong?" Rodney demanded instantly.

"I met the Wraith Top Gun and the son of a bitch did some damage to my ship." More sparks flew and the control board began to smoke. I swallowed what I was going to say, snarl rather, and went with calm. If I were calm, Rodney would be calm. Oh, Hell, who was I fooling? "I'm going to be coming in hot and sloppy. Clear out the bay."

"Shitshitshit," Rodney echoed me, then started barking instructions to the crew in the F302 bay. I supposed Caldwell was twiddling his thumbs during all of this. I sincerely doubted that Rodney or I would be stepping on the Daedalus for some time to come after this adventure. Rodney was a walking talking coup d'etat and Caldwell nothing but a casualty of the almighty McKay.

Wrestling with the controls I managed to get the ship turned towards the Daedalus. As far as I could tell, the stabilizers were all but completely shot. It made for interesting flying. "Good thing you're not in here with me, McKay," I grunted. "You'd be puking your guts up."

"Yes, well, I imagine I would also be able to fix the ship between my heaving, so don't sound so smug," he snapped. Rodney did that when he was worried. He did it pretty much all other times too, but especially when he was worried. I could picture him now watching my approach on radar or whatever passed for Asgardian radar. The deep furrows between his eyebrows, the nervous rubbing of his fingers and thumb, his black scowl aimed at anyone that attempted to distract him, I could see it all so clearly.

"It's okay, Rodney," I said softly, squinting in the smoke and restraining a cough. "I can fly anything and I can land anything."

"Yes, yes, you can defy the laws of physics at will, I'm quite sure. Just…." I heard him suck in a breath and the stiff realization he was anything but alone on the bridge. "Just try to stay in one piece or I'll feed your birthday ice cream to the squarks."

"Ice cream?" Even with the smoke and the sickening roll of the ship, I couldn't help brightening and asking eagerly, "You really got me ice cream? From Earth? Not that weird stuff from Athosian camel-cows?"

"Get your ass in here and you'll find out."

He said more than that, but the power system of the F302 chose that moment to go out. I lost everything including communications. I was almost at the mouth of the bay, floating helplessly, when the power surged back for a second. It was long enough. I gunned it and managed to get into the gravity well of the bay before I lost power again.

Apparently I lost more than that because there was nothing after that…nothing but darkness.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

John Sheppard had a thing for birthdays. And I had a thing for John Sheppard. Which was why I was currently running down the corridor, powering through the turns and dodging people as I went.

I had been amazed at how fast I could run when properly motivated and John's craft making an emergency landing in the fighter bay was all the motivation I needed. If I had stopped to think, I could have had Hermiod beam me over. But when John had stated with a façade of false control, "I'm going to be coming in hot and sloppy. Clear out the bay," I pretty much stopped thinking and went into autopilot. Too bad the F302s didn't have such a thing, although if they did, it didn't sound like it would have done much good at that moment.

His communications had cut out about the time I entered the transporter to reach the hangar. One minute we were discussing ice cream, the next my blood turned to ice. And no matter how many times I called his name, it soon became obvious he wasn't going to answer. But he was a pilot, a hell of a pilot, as he liked to remind me. He could fly anything and he could land anything, and as long as I kept telling myself that, my feet would keep moving and my heart would keep beating and he would be okay and I would be okay. But the explosion that rocked the ship ten seconds after I exited the transporter pretty much destroyed any chance of that.

"Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod…"

If at all possible, I actually ran faster, charged through the doors to the hangar and skidded to a stop at the sight before me.

But running wasn't necessary, not really, not anymore, not back here on Atlantis. Because as much as I wanted to run away from the memories, they just refused to be left behind. I forced myself to slow, gripped the thin black case in my hand tighter and made my way at a brisk walk the rest of the way to my destination. When the door slid open before me this time there was no smoke, no lingering flames disappearing under a deluge of fire retardant, no crew members running and yelling directions in a bizarre organized chaos, no mangle of metal that had once been an F302 fighter. Instead there was a dimly lit room and chairs and Radek staring at me with a worried expression as I blinked away the recollection.

"Rodney, are you okay?"

"Yeah," I reassured with a forced smile. "I'm fine."

He gave me a disbelieving frown before asking, "Is that it?"

"Oh." Realizing that he was asking for the case I handed it forward. "Yeah. Can you set it up?"

"Of course." Taking the thin box he headed to the back of the room and informed me, "Dr. Beckett just called on radio; he and others will be here shortly."

"Others? How many others? I know you are the Mothra of social butterflies, Radek, but this was supposed to be small. I told you John didn't want…"

He cut of my alarmed rant with raised hands. "Rodney, it is just a few very close friends, that is all. You ask me to take care of it, I take care of it."

"It's just, I want this…" At the impatient tilt of his head, I realized he was right. I had asked him to take care of it; I had to trust that he had taken care of it properly. "Okay, you're right, I'm sorry. It's just been a rough couple of shitty days. Really rough and really shitty."

"I know," he told me sympathetically. "It is why I take care of these things and not you, yes? Now you must trust me."

With a deep breath I nodded my head then turned as the door slid open behind us and Caldwell walked in.

"Col. Caldwell," I greeted in surprise, "I thought the Daedalus was leaving tonight."

"I've decided to delay our departure until morning. I figured the crew could use at least one evening of down time after everything that's happened. I was hoping to stop by and pay my respects to Col. Sheppard. That is, if I'm not intruding."

"N..no," I stuttered in wary surprise. "Feel free to stay."

Caldwell had been there when I had arrived in the hangar. The only thing I could guess was that he had stopped to think and had Hermiod beam him over. That would have been the only way he could have beat me there, but he only beat me by a little. He was being briefed by the crew chief and I didn't even acknowledge his presence until a hand landed heavily on my shoulder as I started to run past him and toward the wreck.

"Dr. McKay, you need to stay back."

I shrugged violently away. "Get the fuck off of me." Who the hell did he think he was telling me I couldn't go? That was John in that mess, not some nameless, faceless pilot. John. My John.

The hand moved from my shoulder to grip tightly on my upper arm. "You need to stay back and let the rescue team do their job." I glared and tried to pull away only to have his grip tighten and his face darken menacingly. "If you get in there, you'll only be in the way. Now, if you want to help Sheppard, you let the team do their job and stay the hell back."

We stared each other down for a few seconds more before I decided maybe he was right. He released his hold when I dropped my eyes before turning them back to the carnage spread out before me. One of the wings was sheered completely off and leaning against another fighters. The other had evidently disintegrated on impact, small bits and pieces were strewn across the entire bay. And the cockpit… oh Jesus, the cockpit was rounded off from rolling and was resting hatch-side down. One of the crew was on his knees with a hydraulic ratchet removing bolts so they could get him out, the tool thrumming to a high pitched whine then lowering again with each subsequent bolt. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the chief telling Caldwell that he wasn't responding to verbal stimulus, but it was muffled by the blood pounding thickly in my ears. In fact everything was muffled, dimming, darkening, until the echo of the cockpit panel clanking onto the floor brought it all back into crisp clarity and someone yelled, "I have a pulse!"

My feet were moving before even I registered it and obviously before Caldwell did, because he could do little more than holler after me, "McKay, where the hell do you think you're going?"

"McKay, where the hell have you been?"

I pushed back against memory and settled on reality in the form of John being wheeled into the room. Bandaged and bruised and breathing and bitching, I could live with the former as long as I had the latter.

"I had to get the movie," I told him as I moved to push Carson out of his spot as chauffer and push John to the front of the room. "It wouldn't be much of a birthday movie night without the movie." Or without the birthday boy, I added silently.

"You could have gotten it after bringing me down," he insisted, turning a face colored by two black eyes, gashed brow and annoyance to look up at me.

I shook my head. "Carson says he's only giving you a three hour furlough. I couldn't waste the time."

"Aye, and even that is against my better judgment," the Scot admitted. "You should be recuperating in the infirmary, not having a night out on the town."

"I would just be lying in a hospital bed, Doc. What's the difference in that and lying on the couch in here?"

"You sound like a five year old arguing against his bedtime, Colonel, and I'll not stand for it. I have no qualms about putting an end to the evening earlier if it looks like the stress is too much on your body. Lord knows it's had enough of that as it is."

"Rodney?" John whined to me, as if I had any control over Carson when he was in sheepdog mode. And as much as I wanted him here, I would have rustled him back to the infirmary myself if Carson thought he was overexerting himself.

But this was his day, his birthday party… even if it was a week late. Better late than never, and never had truer words been spoke. I leaned down with a pat to his shoulder and whispered conspiratorially so that Carson could hear, "Don't worry, I'll spike his drink and we'll pull the stick out of ass while he's out."

Carson rolled his eyes and frowned. "You'll just have to pull it out yourself, Rodney. The Colonel isn't getting up from that sofa. And while you are back there, pucker up and kiss it as well."

John grinned and placed a bandaged hand over mine, sterile gauze replacing the feel of familiar flesh. "Sorry, Carson, he's taken."

"Just as long as you understand there is a no return policy, Colonel," the physician grumbled.

"Good evening, Dr. McKay and I believe the appropriate greeting is Happy Birthday, Colonel Sheppard, even though your official date of birth has indeed passed."

"Good God almighty," Carson breathed beside me as I struggled to find words to address the boxer short-clad Asgard standing before me. John just sat and grinned like a loon.

"Hermiod," I finally managed, trying my best not to stare at the myriad of smiley faces covering the alien's nonexistent nether regions. "I'm surprised you decided to leave the Daedalus."

"Dr. Zelenka mentioned the festivities you had planned for the evening while helping to recalibrate some of the sensors damaged by the Wraith blast. I have never attended such a human celebration and thought it would be an excellent chance to observe Earth culture."

"Ah, well, then welcome to your own private anthropological experiment. Enjoy. Nice… pants." I couldn't help but let the questioning inflection slip on the last word.

"I believe the proper Earth phrase is 'when in Rome…'?"

"All hail, Caesar!" John exclaimed happily from his wheelchair.

With a benevolent nod of his head, Hermiod excused himself and went to join Caldwell who did a shocked double take of his Asgard liaison before recovering and shooting a questioning look in our direction.

I leaned close to John's ear with a frozen smile. "Where the hell did he get those?"

"Maybe he just got cold. Maybe they don't lack genitals as a race after all. Maybe it's just an epidemic case of severe shrinkage brought on by drafty conditions."

"Well, then, in that case, congratulations, John. You and Joe Boxer just saved the entire Asgard civilization from their inevitable genetic death and in the process have given me an image that will haunt me for the rest of my life."

"You can't deny it's an improvement," he challenged.

"It's like Oscar Madison crash landed at Roswell."

"Dr. McKay, would you care to help clarify to Col. Caldwell the reconfiguration that was done on the sublight engines?" Hermiod requested.

With a final, "I really hate you right now," and an affectionate squeeze to his shoulder, I made my way over to the two Daedalus crew members.

John may have thought he was the one that had brought about the newly clothed alien in our midst, but I had it on good authority that it was probably more to do with his discovery of human anatomy during the final scouring of the Daedalus for Wraith and survivors. Evidently he had stumbled across an unfortunate technician that had been making use of the bathroom at the time of the attack. Faced with a stunned human male with pants around his ankles and hand still around his… parts he wasn't lacking, Hermiod had evidently exclaimed, "So this is why you humans wear pants. Horrifying."

I had been speaking with the two for a few minutes when I heard, "ow, ow, ow, ow," behind me. Turning I saw Radek and Carson trying to help John transfer from his wheelchair to the couch.

"Hey! Careful!" Without a word to the other two, I was already closing the distance between us.

When they had lifted John's body from the rubble, any relief I had felt at hearing he had a pulse vanished, because they had to have been mistaken.

"Easy, easy, careful of his neck," the medic overseeing the move cautioned the rescue team.

His flight suit was still smoldering. Burnt, black patches on the suit, his hands red and blistered, one whole side of his face blood red. His body limp, arms dangling as they lifted him up over the rubble and to a waiting stretcher. There was no way a body like that could be alive, no fucking way.

"John," I called hoarsely, then pushing past the workers to reach the backboard they were placing him on, "John!"

Up close he looked even worse, if that was possible, with skin ashen where it wasn't bloody, blistered or bruised…which didn't leave a lot. I watched the paramedics work, wishing like hell they were Carson. Because Carson wouldn't let him die. Carson would do everything in his power and then some to save him. Hell, Carson was practically family, and these people were strangers. Strangers that didn't know him, didn't care about him, the real him, the true him, the amazing reason for my existence him. And there was no way in hell they could save him anyway because they had to have been wrong. And that kept running through my head… they have to be wrong, there is no way in hell he still has a pulse. Just look at the wreckage, just look at him…. just look at the way his finger twitched.

Oh, fuck, it had twitched! "John?"

And then his lips moved, silently forming my name.

"Rodney?"

"What?" I asked dazedly. Not even realizing until that moment that I had bullied Radek out of the way and was stopped midway between the chair and couch with an arm around John's waist. "Oh, right. Sorry." I moved him the rest of the way, then busied myself adjusting the pillow and blankets I had brought from our quarters.

As I squatted beside him he reached out the tip of one finger to brush against my jaw. "You okay?"

My smile was as stiff as the nod of my head. "Fine." And I was saved from any challenge of my lie by more arrivals.

"We've got popcorn!" Elizabeth announced as she entered the room, arms filled with bowls.

Behind her Teyla and Ronon hefted a cooler. "Dr. McKay, where would you like this?"

"Be right back," I promised with a quick kiss to a mouth frowned in worry, then moved to help with the snacks. I opened the cooler, pulled out a pint of Ben and Jerry's and rummaged for a spoon.

That had been the first thing he asked me about when he woke up.

We had made it back to Atlantis and I couldn't have been happier with that fact. The medical facilities on the Daedalus were little more than a field hospital; the infirmary on Atlantis was practically our second home. I knew the staff, knew the routine, and they knew me, which meant they knew better than to try to get me to move from where I was firmly planted next to John's bed.

I sat staring at his hands, the very tips of long, lean fingers the only thing sticking out of the white dressings. They were longer than mine, but thinner, which was why I couldn't get his wedding ring past the second knuckle of my ring finger. I had my Nana's fingers; the woman had cheekbones you could slice meat with and knuckles you could use to tenderize it first. I was running the tip of my own index finger against his, my head pillowed on my arm on his bed, when he flexed his hand. Looking up I saw half-mast eyes and a weak shadow of the lopsided smirk that drove me to the verge of madness every time he flashed it.

"Thought you said you could land anything," I accused.

"Where's my ice cream?" he croaked in return.

"Its so much squark chum, now, you lying son of a bitch." And I buried my head in the mattress so he couldn't see the tears of relief.

I felt a hand rest on my head for a few minutes before he finally pleaded weakly, "At least tell me it was something crappy like Neapolitan." With a snort I placed my hand blindly on his chest, flexing my own fingers against him. "Hey, why the hell are you trying to steal my ring? One not good enough for you?"

I snuffled the sheets to dry my face then raised my head and explained, "The bandages. Fortunately they were able to get it off without having to cut it."

"I want it back," he whispered insistently.

"Not until the bandages come off."

"I want it back, its mine."

I raised eyebrows. "And just where do you plan to wear it? Your toes or on another… appendage?"

The smirk broadened slightly and he coughed on the attempted laugh. I gave him a small sip of water and he touched the tip of a finger to the ring against the cup. "I want it back. Put it on with my dog tags."

"Okay," I agreed, slipping the chain over his head, undoing the link and sliding the ring from my finger to the chain before slipping it back into place around his neck. "There," I told him as I fingered the tags and the ring on his chest, the two symbols of his life, my life and our love clinking together. "Better?"

"Much," he agreed. "Closer to my heart this way anyway."

"You're such a goddamn romantic." I leaned in and kissed him gently, careful of bruises and burns, and stayed in close. "But it's still not getting you your damn ice cream.

John was chatting with Caldwell when I returned to his side and presented his treat. "Here. I managed to wrestle it away from one of the squarks."

John smiled widely, taking the cardboard container between gauze laden hands. Caldwell tapped the back of the sofa with his fist. "Enjoy, Colonel. I nearly had a mutiny on the ship when the crew realized we were hauling 'Half Baked' and 'Cherries Garcia' in the hold."

"Thank you, sir. I plan on it." With a final nod, Caldwell excused himself and went to take an offered bowl of popcorn from Elizabeth. John fumbled with the lid and spoon for a few seconds before I finally took it away from him. "This isn't going to be as easy as I thought."

"It never is," I mumbled more to myself as I pried off the lid. "But that's why you have me." I sat cross-legged on the floor beside his makeshift bed, spooned out a scoop and popped it in his mouth.

He closed his eyes and savored it before opening them and looking me in the eye with a grin. "Rodney, I need a pillow."

"But you have a pillow. Is there something wrong with it? Do you want me to go get you another one?" I was already pushing myself to a stand.

He shook his head. "I want you for a pillow."

"Oh." I sat back down on the floor, understanding instantly what he wanted. "How about I put your pillow in my lap?"

He shook his head again. "Not good enough, I want to lean back against you… like we do when we watch movies at home."

I took in his damaged form. He was so fragile, so goddamn breakable, I just wanted to package him up in bubble wrap and stick him on a shelf with a 'do not touch' sign so that no one or nothing could damage him any more. I shook my head in return. "I'll hurt you if I start moving you around."

"The only way you'll hurt me is if you stay sitting on the floor." He held up his hands. "I can't touch you, Rodney, and it's about to drive me fucking nuts. I just want to feel you next to me, okay?"

What was I so scared of? He was alive. Why wasn't that enough this time? But I knew what he meant; it was driving me nuts too. I'd stayed with him every night, but it wasn't the same sleeping in a chair next to him. But the way he grimaced every time he moved… I just couldn't bring myself to crawl into bed with him and cause him to grimace even more. Still, it was his birthday party, and if he was willing to risk it, who was I to say no?

"Let's see if we can get you sitting up for a minute." He grinned as broadly as he had when I handed him the ice cream. "But if it's too painful, you tell me."

"I swear on my tub of 'Karmel Sutra'."

He sucked in a sharp breath as I helped to lift his shoulders and slide behind him. Carson happened to look over and nearly birthed a lamb by the punch bowl. "What in the bloody hell do you dolts think you are doing?"

"Just getting comfortable, Carson," John grit out.

"You're going to tear out sutures, do more damage to those ribs, what in the name of all that is holy made you think this was a good idea?" But he came and supported John while I wiggled the rest of the way in.

As I settle in and John settled back against me, winded and a little sweaty, I held up my hand and showed him my ring finger on my left hand. "This," I informed him simply.

"That's a wedding ring, Rodney, not a get out of jail free card." Beckett fussed with the blankets and kept an assessing eye on John.

From the projector Radek snorted. "Evidently marriage license came with free lobotomy coupons."

With hand still raised I showed the Czech my middle finger instead.

"Let it go, Doc," John breathed heavily. "I asked him to do it."

"Oh, and that's supposed to make it all right, then? Might I remind you that you are the patient, Colonel, and I am the medical professional. Try a stunt like that again and I'll revoke your hall pass in a rapid heart beat."

"Yes, sir," John cringed, then changed the subject with a question to the room in general. "Are we going to start this movie or I do I have to wait until my next birthday?"

"We are ready," Radek announced and everyone took their seats as he dimmed the lights further.

John slumped into me even more and pulled my hand up to rest on his chest, just above the line of bindings around his ribs. And I have to admit that a small bit of the tension that had been making me feel like I was on the verge of snapping like a very dry twig slumped away from me, as well.

"So, this movie is about an Earth singer?" Ronon's tone suggested that he found the concept of devoting an entire movie to a musician made as much sense as using a fork to eat his dinner… not much.

"Yes, a singer," I confirmed, "Johnny Cash."

"Whoa, hold on now. Johnny Cash is a whole hell of a lot more than just a singer." I could feel John's protests reverberating through his chest and back into mine and decided this idea of his might not have been such a bad one after all.

"Well, yes," I agreed then turned to amend my statement to Ronon. "He played the guitar as well. So I guess the technical term would be a musician."

John's weight against me increased as he released an aggrieved sigh. "Is the 'Mona Lisa' just a painting? Is 'War and Peace' just a long ass book? Is E equals m c squared just another math equation? Was Einstein just a physicist?"

"Bite your tongue you blasphemous bastard!" I pinched the tender flesh just below his armpit without realizing what I was doing until I had already done it and John yelped, then I paled with the idea that I had caused him any more pain. "Oh, Christ, John, I'm…"

He cut of my attempted apology with a twist of his head and glare. "You're the blasphemous bastard, you…blasphemous bastard." His face was darkened in a frown as well as bruises but hidden in those blackened and swollen eyes was mischief and affection.

"Oh, fine," I exclaimed in exaggerated outrage. "Johnny Cash is John's social, spiritual, and fashion inspiration. I'm surprised he doesn't prostrate himself before his image five times a day." At John's deepening frown I was kind of glad he couldn't pinch me in return.

"I was not aware he was also a religious leader," Teyla confessed in confusion.

"I tried, I failed, your turn," I told John, washing my hands of the whole issue.

"Johnny Cash was a rebel, he crossed boundaries, challenged the establishment, he was a man with a mission to do his own damn thing."

"So he was a rebel fighter?" Ronon asked, his interest suddenly piqued. "Are there battles with him fighting this establishment?"

Realizing the hole he had just dug for himself, John offered lamely, "I think he might have an argument with his wife."

Diplomat that she is, Elizabeth thankfully stepped in before Ronon could verbalize his disappointed confusion. "Maybe we should just watch the movie and let everyone see for themselves."

Radek pushed play, everyone settled in and the movie started. John wiggled against me and whispered giddily. "This is so cool, Rodney. Thanks."

I answered with a press of lips to his jaw and a light squeeze, happy that he was so happy with his birthday present… a present that he barely got to enjoy. An hour into the show, with half a carton of ice cream melting on the floor beside us, his head bobbed and the quiet snoring began. Pain killers and spaceship crashes will do that to a man, I supposed. I nuzzled hair that had bypassed simple bed head days before and grasped the pieces of metal that hung on the chain that I could feel through the fabric of his shirt, fisted the pieces of my life that hung in the balance every fucking day we walked through the gate and sometimes even when we didn't. He shifted so that he could lay with his cheek pillowed on my chest and raised one injured hand to rest over my own fisted one.

When the movie ended and most everyone had said their goodnights, Carson approached me with reluctance. "We need to move him back to the infirmary, lad."

"I know, it's just… he's resting so well right now. Can't it wait a little longer?"

"Rodney, the pain meds are going to wear off soon. And when they do… well, you know better than anyone what that means." I nodded, feeling the anxiety that had disappeared during this rare reprieve fuse my spine once again. Listening to the person you love moan in pain, even in their sleep, will do that to a man, as well.

"You're right," I conceded. "Better to get the pain killers in him now than later." But my grip I had on his dogtags and wedding ring through his hospital scrubs only tightened.

Carson sighed. "I'll help Radek straighten up a wee bit, then we'll transfer him back."

I smiled my thanks for the few extra minutes then rested my cheek against the top of his head. His body was warm, firm, reassuring. It felt so damn good, so real, so… right. "Sorry this was such a crappy birthday," I murmured to his sleeping form. "I'll make it up to you next year. I promise." Because there would be another birthday and another and many others after that. Right? The inability to answer my own question had me clinging even tighter to those items resting on his chest and even more determined to keep him around so that I could live up to my promise.

Because John Sheppard had a thing for birthdays. And there was absolutely no denying that I had a hell of thing for John Sheppard.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

I didn't have a lot of toys when I was a kid. Not that we couldn't afford them, we could, but….

Never mind.

The point is I never had many. But that didn't stop me from playing with those my buddies had. I'd like to say I took good care of them, showed them the respect they deserved, but, hell, I was a kid. I bent, mutilated, and broke the shit out of them. Stomped the GI Joes, sank the dump trucks, wrestled Charlie's dog for the frisbees…that usually ended in a tie. The dog got a piece and I got a piece. But really--aren't toys made to be broken? It's the sign of a well-played with, well loved toy.

Rodney wasn't a toy. He was definitely well-played with and well loved, but he was no toy. I thought I might've broken him though. At the very least bent him pretty fucking good, and I couldn't stand that. I damn sure couldn't live with it. But I wasn't going to be able to do much sitting in the infirmary. Four days since my birthday party and here I still sat. Four days of Rodney watching my every move like I was an experiment that was about to go into catastrophic failure at any second. Or like I was heat-brittled glass that was doomed to shatter, it was just a matter of time.

And touch me? Forget that. He would touch the tips of my fingers and one spot on my jaw, but steered clear of anything bandaged or stitched, which was almost everything. I'd nagged him into letting me lean back against him during the movie, and I'd thought for a moment I wasn't going to get my way…wasn't going to get what I needed. To touch him. But he'd given in and I'd spent half of the movie I'd looked forward to seeing for months dozing against his chest. Couldn't have been a better way to spend a birthday.

But that had been the last major touching I'd gotten. For these past four days he'd slept in the chair beside my bed. No matter how many times I'd told him that I was okay, dammit, and to go home and get a decent night's sleep, he didn't listen. Or if I told him to get his stubborn ass up in bed with me, he shook his head. Carson would have a cow or a sheep or something livestock related…like Rodney would or ever had let that stop him.

No, he wasn't acting like Rodney. Hell, he wouldn't even leave me go to the lab. The lab. His home away from home. Then again, our home might be his home away from the lab. I had to finally call Zelenka and a posse of geeks to bodily haul him out of the infirmary and back to the lab for an hour or two before he completely lost it. And losing it he was. If he were gone twenty minutes to take a shower, he'd hurry back in the infirmary snapping and snarling at anyone who dared fluff my pillow. That was his job and get the hell away. And every time he came back he looked at me with such utter relief, as if he thought I wouldn't be there when he got back. As if he'd only imagined I'd survived the wreck.

Bent, broken, and mutilated. Me physically, him mentally and weren't we a pair?

"Rodney?"

He looked up from the bedside table where he was cutting my meat into pieces so tiny that chewing was superfluous. Wouldn't want me to choke, right? I'd survived a Wraith cocoon, an F302 wreck, and, by God, no mystery meat from the mainland was going to take me out by lodging in my larynx. "What? You need more pain pills? Thirsty? You need another pillow? You want me to help you to the bathroom?"

"Oh, Jesus." I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and suppressed a grimace at the sharp twinge that ran through my ribs. "That's it. Bubble boy has left the building. I'm going home."

"Oh, no, you're not." He dropped the fork and knife to clatter on the plate and loomed in front of me with arms folded. "Absolutely fucking not. You're sick. You almost d…." He swallowed and said flatly, "You're sick and you're not going anywhere, Colonel, no matter what your deluded mind might think."

There was a little bit of the real Rodney shining through…the bossy, it's-my-way-or-the-highway Rodney. Damn, I missed him. And I wanted him back—unbent and unbroken.

I leaned into his personal space. "Whatcha going to do? Push me back down?" I saw the instant horror and worry flare. Push me? Hurt me? The twinge in my ribs and the searing ache of my burns was nothing compared to the sudden pain I felt at the sight of what was in his eyes. "I didn't think so," I said gently. I gave him an apologetic kiss then stepped past him. "Now where are my clothes?"

"You don't have any clothes," he replied blankly as he rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. Then he squared his shoulders and glared at me. "They were, oh, wait…let me think. Oh, yes, burned off your body. I'm sure you don't remember that, what with being near death and all, but I do. I remember very well. I even remember the smell of your burning flesh." He paled and swallowed thickly. "So sit down and eat your goddamn gopher-steak or whatever the hell it is, okay? Can you just do that?"

I could. I was still fatigued, I still hurt and I could've easily sat back down on the bed and my body would've thanked me. But Rodney wouldn't have thanked me, not in the long run. "Nope," I said cheerfully. "I can't. Guess I'll just have to walk out of here with my pride and joy flapping in the wind." I grinned, then patted the ring around my neck. "Excuse me, I guess this makes it your pride and joy."

And walk I did and for a few seconds I did try to hold my medical gown together in the back, but doing that pulled on my ribs and I finally just let it hang in the breeze. Hey, I had a nice ass. Who was I to deprive those around me?

"John, stop," came the forbidding command from behind me.

I waved a slow hand over my shoulder. "See you at home."

"John, please." It was more desperate this time and I almost wavered. But at the last minute I held firm. Rodney was in trouble and the longer I stayed in the infirmary, the longer he went without help. I wasn't going to let that happen.

"Carson!"

He was that desperate, that backed into a corner, that he was actually calling Carson for help. I shook my head grimly. I should've done this days ago. I'd like to say that by the time Carson caught up with me, I was halfway home, but that would've been a honking lie. I was barely a hundred feet from the infirmary door, but I kept plugging on doggedly. And if I used a hand against the wall to steady myself, what of it?

"And where do you think you're going then, Colonel?"

I slid a glance at Carson and behind him Rodney with his face stubborn and set. "It's all you can eat seafood night at Red Lobster. How could I pass that up?"

"Funny, lad, but it'll be less so when you fall on your face, and who'll be eating your shrimp then, eh?" A broad hand clasped my shoulder carefully. "Rodney, run back to the infirmary and bring us back a wheelchair if you please." Within seconds, Rodney was out of sight…without a single smirk or smug I-told-you-so. It was unnerving and beyond worrisome. "All right then, Colonel," Carson sighed. "What are we to do about Rodney?"

"You noticed?" I leaned against the wall and tried to ignore the cold sweat beading on my neck.

"Aye, it's hard to miss," he said solemnly. "He's wound tighter than my mum's girdle. He won't work, he barely eats, I doubt the man would attend to hygiene if we didn't run him out of the infirmary with disinfectant spray." He squeezed my shoulder. "When they beamed you over from the Daedalus," he said quietly, "it had been eight hours since the accident and Rodney was still wearing your blood…on his hands, his clothes." Carson shook his head. "I'm not sure he even knew, poor lad."

I could see it all too clearly…precisely because that's what I'd seen the moment I opened my eyes. I think Carson must've forcibly scrubbed Rodney's hands with antiseptic wipes because they were oddly clean in contrast to the rest of him. His blue shirt was stained brown with old blood and there was soot smudging his face. His hair had been flattened and matted with sweat and his eyes were red and strained with exhaustion. That was over a week ago and the look in his eyes hadn't changed. He was wearing clean clothes, he was free of blood, but on the inside…Rodney was still at the moment of the accident. Still watching as they pulled me from the wreckage, not knowing if I were alive or dead….

"So you know why I have to go home then?" I rubbed the back of my neck. "I need it to be just him and me. And I need it to be away from the infirmary. Everything he sees in there reminds him, you know? Even the smell…alcohol, disinfectant. He can't forget and I need him to, even if just for a little while. I need one night. Okay? Just one."

He eyed me and from the darkening of his hound dog eyes he apparently didn't like what he saw, but he exhaled and nodded. "One night. One night and then you're back at the infirmary in the morning. Are we clear on that, Colonel?"

"Clear," I said with relief.

By the time Rodney arrived with the chair, Carson and I were a united front. "What do you mean you're letting him go home?" Rodney snapped, his face flushed. "You're supposed to be a doctor. You're supposed to care about your patient's health. I don't remember the Hippocratic oath saying anything about kicking your patients out when you want a vacation or to play strip Operation with your nurses."

It sounded close to what Rodney always said when one of us was in the infirmary. The only difference was this time he actually meant it. Every word of it. Carson took it in stride and patted his back sympathetically. "It's a one night furlough, Rodney. You'll both be fine. I'll send a nurse over with the Colonel's pain meds and antibiotics." One last pat and he was gone.

I eased down in the chair with wobbly-legged relief and looked up at Rodney with a grin. "Home, Jeeves."

He stared down at me, wholly unconvinced. "What if something happens?"

I gave him a happy leer. "Something's going to happen all right."

He snorted despite himself. "Living in a dream world doesn't even begin to cover that, Colonel." Reluctantly, he took the handles of the wheelchair and starting pushing me towards home. An hour later I was pilled up and Rodney had done the dressing changes on my arms. He'd been doing them for days now and his touch was as sure and gentle as that of any of the nurses. He'd stopped turning green after the first two times, but his mouth still flattened, his brow still furrowed with tension. I could've told him to let the nurses continue to do it, but I'd been on the other side. I knew it wasn't going to happen.

"Hungry?"

Looking up from my position on the couch, I considered. "Any ice cream left from the party?"

"It was gone five minutes into the movie." He ran a hand over my hair, trying unsuccessfully to smooth it. "We do, however, have cake. Lots and lots of cake. Seems there weren't too many fans of peanut butter banana cake. Go figure."

"They don't know what they're missing." When you're seven and you're making your own birthday cake, you can make exactly what you want. Years later it was still exactly what I wanted.

"Yes, philistines all." He rolled his eyes and gave one last lingering pass over my hair. "So, cake?"

"Later." I reached up and tugged at his arm. "I want to see the rest of the movie. Get down here and keep me company."

He hesitated. "I should get you some juice or something. Carson said you should drink a lot of fluids to replace what you lost through the burns. How about grape? I'd hate to get contact anaphylactic shock if you drink orange juice."

"Rodney, seriously, screw the juice and sit down already." I stopped tugging and started yanking. He overbalanced and tumbled down onto the sofa next to me. "You're so damn bossy," he muttered.

"I learned from the best," I said promptly as I aimed the remote and pressed a button. As the endless previews began to roll, I announced, "Okay, now…." Leaning over, I kissed him. His lips met mine for a moment and then he started to pull away. I didn't let him. I cupped the back of his head and made a firm negative sound against his mouth. Nuh unh. No way he was pulling away now. He'd spent two weeks doing that and it was about to stop. So I kissed him…I kissed him with two weeks of missing his touch. I kissed him with apology, reassurance, and so much goddamn love…. It was the latter that let me know exactly where he was, because it was exactly where I would've been if he'd almost died…with a mental foundation in ruins.

Several seconds into it, he stopped trying to pull away and settled into it. He kissed me back with warm intensity and an edge of desperation. The desperation had me wrapping my arms around him tightly…tightly enough that I was glad I had the foresight to take an extra pain pill in preparation. And when it was over, Rodney rested his forehead on the top of my shoulder. "You lied."

"I did?" I swept a hand slowly up and down his back. "How?"

"You said you could land anything." His voice was muffled against the cloth. "You lied."

And as much as I hated to admit it, he was right. "I didn't mean to," I said softly. "I know that probably doesn't count for much, but I swear, I didn't mean to."

"I know." There was a heavy exhalation. "I know…but you could've died. You should've died. If you'd seen the wreck…but of course you didn't. I did though. I saw it all."

And he probably saw it all again and again every time he looked at me. I raised my hand to his neck and squeezed. "I should've died," I repeated. "But I didn't. Doesn't that tell you something?"

He straightened and frowned. "Like what?"

"Like I didn't. I'm still here. I survived when maybe I shouldn't have. Long and short, you can't get rid of me." I gave him a smug grin because that's what he needed, normalcy. And he needed it badly.

"Oh, so you're saying even death itself can't part us. That is so very Titanic of you. Shall I regift my lunch now or later?" he scowled.

"You didn't eat lunch and don't think I didn't notice," I snorted. "Just like you barely sleep and brushing hair you've apparently passed off as a fad. I frigging defy death itself for you and all I get out of it is a scrawny muppet haired insomniac."

"Seems fair. That's what I've got…except for the insomnia part." He relaxed against my shoulder. For the first time in two weeks, he relaxed. "Fighting, serving, and sleeping for your country. It's quite the combo."

"I try." I felt him loosen against me. Two weeks of little sleep met one instant of relaxation and it was all over. I wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer.

"Defied death, huh?" he said quietly after nearly a minute of silence.

"Yeah." I kissed him again. "Can you believe that for me?"

He hesitated, then answered slowly. "Maybe. Maybe I can."

Bent, not broken. Thank God.

"Good." I tightened my arm around him. "Hey, the movie's starting."

"Mmmm." His head settled easily onto my chest, forgetting about my ribs. I couldn't have been happier. His eyes closed as his hand automatically sought the ring hanging around my neck. After a few moments his breath started catching, but before he slipped away, he murmured, "…have a thing for you, John." He was so close to sleep that I wasn't sure he even knew he'd said it.

I rested a cheek on top of that unbrushed hair and murmured back, "I have a thing for you too, Rodney." And I did.

One helluva thing.

The End