So I have all these other stories that I'm supposed to be working on, and did I get a single THING written on any of them this week? Of course not! I wrote this instead!


Long Road Home

by Sholio, a.k.a. Friendshipper


I. Across the Rio Grande

The coyote's name was Steve. A man who claimed to be a friend of a friend of her father's introduced her to him, and he said he would take her across the border for all the money she had left.

The night that he came to get her, she had slept in a drain pipe beside the road. Still, she took the time to comb her hair with her fingers, to straighten her ragged peasant skirts. It was not vanity that made her do this; she was remembering something her father had told her when she was a little girl. To have the world respect you, Teyla, then you must present yourself as a person worthy of respect. If you look as if you expect to be spit upon, then that is what will happen to you.

Her father had died in a dusty village street, shot by guerrillas who unfairly branded him a government sympathizer. Now, ten years and a thousand miles away from where she had started, she put her life in the hands of a man with eyes that undressed her even as respectful words fell from his tobacco-stained lips.

He was not the first American that she had ever seen, nor even spoken to. There had been an American nun who ran a school in the village when she was a child. From Sister Margaret she had learned halting English in a soft Carolina drawl. And during her years of walking, she had spent some time selling bracelets to American tourists on the coast. They were strange, colorful people, those Americans -- they wore their privilege like a cloak around them, refusing to meet her eyes even as they admired her wares. She did not sense malice in them, just a confidence that precluded empathy. And yet, they could also be kind. Only days before, an American tourist riding a motorcycle had stopped beside her and given her money to buy food. She had not been begging. She did not beg. Her father would have told her to give back the money. But instead, she bought dinner from a tired woman in a roadside stall, and was grateful for it.

She hoped that in the place she was going, there would be more people like the kind American tourist on his shiny motorcycle, and less of the coyote's sort, with his lank blond hair and his grabby, greedy hands.


II. Wide Open Skies

The day that Major John Sheppard got his walking papers from the USAF where he had spent his entire adult life -- medical discharge, all benefits, etc.; hell, it beat "other than honorable", which was what he thought he was going to get -- he went down to the nearest Harley dealership and spent a very small chunk of his considerable savings on a black-and-chrome Heritage Softail with metal-studded saddlebags. He didn't know how far the road would take him; he only knew that it had to be better than here.

His doctors told him not to, but he didn't listen. The worst he could do was kill himself. The pain he could deal with; he quit taking the meds when a dizzy spell almost made him wipe out on a rainy hill in Tennessee. He learned to brake and shift gears with one leg immobile and one arm a lot less responsive than it used to be. He could do it. The doctors said he couldn't, but he was thirty-seven years old and he'd spent his whole life ignoring perfectly good advice, so he wasn't about to start taking it now.

He ended up riding across the country, from DC to the Rio Grande, and somewhere out there in the lonely stretches between towns, he found himself slowing down. He liked Texas: the wide-open skies made him think of flying.

He wasn't rich, but he'd never really had anything to spend his money on. He didn't have a family, and the Air Force moved him around so often that it wasn't worth it to pile up a lot of possessions. He didn't even own a car. The biggest thing he'd owned was a surfboard, and he'd left that on the doorstep of the Boys & Girls Club on his way out of town. So he put a down payment on a hundred and sixty acres of sagebrush with a beat-up house that ran off a wind-powered generator. The nearest neighbor was five miles away, the nearest town fifteen -- if you could call it that; a post office, a church, a couple of bars and a motel with three letters out on its flickering neon VACANCY sign. The nearest town worth talking about, with a Wal-Mart and a crappy little airport, was another twenty miles beyond that.

John went out there sometimes, stood behind the mesh fence and watched the little puddlejumper planes take off and land.

He thought about getting a horse, but didn't want to be responsible for another living thing besides himself; he didn't think he could handle it, not right now. Living alone, he could take off whenever he felt like it -- ride out to the pine forests of the New Mexico mountains, or across the border into Mexico where dead-eyed children begged for pesos along rutted roads. One time he went all the way to California, to see the redwood forests he remembered from his childhood. Adulthood had worn the shine off a lot of things, so he was happy to see that the huge, moss-draped trees still had all the magic and mystery that he remembered. He camped on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and wished he had his surfboard, before coming down wrong on his bad leg when he was picking up firewood and remembering that he probably didn't have the physical dexterity to catch waves anymore.

He stopped into town every so often to pick up junk mail from his P.O. box, have a few too many beers at one of the local watering holes, and harass the lone INS agent who had been stuck here to protect the town from, one assumed, invading Mexicans and terrorists. Or Mexican terrorists, maybe.

It was a good life, he supposed -- at least compared to being dead, which was what he'd expected when he'd woke up on an Afghanistan hillside, covered with rocket fuel, with his leg in more pieces than a jigsaw puzzle, and Taliban all around him.

But he was still here, and his closest friends were dead, and he didn't really know how to come to terms with that, so he didn't try. When he got to thinking too much about it, he'd take the bike out on the open road under the wide Texas sky, until the sound of helicopter rotors and screaming was drowned out by the rush of the wind in his hair.


III. Ends of the Earth

When Meredith Rodney McKay was five years old, he took apart his family's television set and built a rudimentary laser. When he was twelve, he constructed a nuclear bomb at his high school's science fair, and his parents began getting -- and refusing -- phone calls from various American government agencies. When he was thirteen, his parents took a turn too fast on an icy Canadian highway, and the orphaned McKay children were sent to live with their paternal grandfather in America. Young Rodney had been born in the U.S. to an American father and a Canadian mother, so he was an American citizen anyway, although his Canadian-born sister was not.

The CIA recruited him straight out of high school. He worked in forensics for a while, and then in R&D, but by the time he was thirty-two, he'd leapfrogged from one agency to another as his abrasive personality and refusal to accept orders made him persona non grata all through the middle management of the American government. Rumor had it that some of the orders he refused to follow -- or, maybe, orders that he followed too well -- had to do with building weapons that the American government didn't want their allies to know about. At the age of thirty-seven, he was working for the Customs and Border Patrol, living in a crappy motel in a town that wasn't even big enough to show up on a map, and eating his meals in a bar because the damn town didn't even have a restaurant.

There were a lot of stars here, and no light pollution to keep them at bay. The motel's TV got two channels, his laptop's wireless cut out intermittently, and there wasn't even a video store. Between insomnia and nightmares, he hadn't been able to sleep without chemical assistance in years, and every so often he refilled his sleeping pill prescription at what they laughably called a town, twenty miles down what might, loosely, be termed a road, but sure as hell wasn't a highway. However, with increasing frequency, he found himself dealing with the long nights in a different way. He'd sent off for a telescope and a book on astronomy. Re-learning the names of the stars reminded him of other things -- of the equations that governed the slow dance of the planets, and of the days when knowledge existed for knowledge's sake, rather than as a means to design new and better ways to kill people.

Technically, he was supposed to be here to keep illegals from crossing the river. As far as Rodney could tell, though, the occasional Spanish-speaking strangers who drifted in and out of town were no more dumb, dirty or uneducated than the locals -- not that it was much of a distinction. One night in the motel room, he calculated on a bar napkin how many years it would take the flow of illegal immigrants through this particular corner of West Butthole, Texas, to overwhelm the native population of the United States. After discovering that that many zeroes just didn't fit on a 4" square of napkin, he quit caring completely.

Besides, he wasn't cut out for field work. Even after a year in the desert, he still burned, rather than tanned; slathering himself with SPF400 sunscreen helped with that, but it also made him smell like coconuts, which didn't help his street cred with the leathery-looking locals. He carried his H&K P2000 dutifully, but wasn't precisely sure that he remembered how to fire it. He figured that wearing it ought to net him some respect, if nothing else could, but instead, it just got him heckled by the crazy veteran who lived back in the hills, who told him that he had the holster buckled wrong.

"Go to hell," was Rodney's succinct reply. He had a comfortable arrangement with the locals: they left him alone, and he left them alone. The crazy vet, though, was sort of new in town. From what Rodney had heard, he'd showed up one day on a motorcycle and bought a place even farther out into the armpit of nowhere than this little town. And he liked it out there. That made him crazy in Rodney's book.

"No, really, if you leave it like that, it's going to wear a hole in your leg."

Rodney's hand slipped down unconsciously to rub at the sore spot. He'd just figured it was supposed to do that -- figured you built up a callus eventually. Like learning to play the guitar. Like the way that the emotional scar tissue covered over the place in your brain that remembered the names of towns in other countries, where woman and children were killed by bombs you helped design.

"Excuse me, did I ask you for the finer points of firearms handling? Did you not just hear me tell you to go to hell?"

Rather than getting pissed, the vet just grinned lazily and limped over to sit down on the bar stool two down from Rodney. His left leg stuck out stiffly in front of him, braced against the floor. "Look, I'll buy you a beer if you re-buckle that thing, because looking at it is making my drill instructor roll over in his grave. Well, I'm pretty sure he's not dead, but if he were dead, he'd be spinning, and the noise is giving me a headache."

The guy was clearly loopy as a loon, and it wasn't like Rodney couldn't afford the beer -- he'd been charging all his meals to the Department of Homeland Security anyway. Although, come to think of it, they'd started sending him suspicious memos about his every-growing bar tab. So he figured, why not. Free beer didn't come along every day.

It was the start of ... something. Not friendship, certainly ... well, probably ... well, hell, he didn't know; the last time he'd known anyone he could remotely call a friend, anyone who didn't stick around to get something out of him, was back in grade school. The crazy vet guy was unexpectedly intelligent -- a quality utterly lacking in anyone else in this sorry excuse for a town -- and if they spent most of their time bickering with each other, well, it was how Rodney related to the world anyway. The crazy guy didn't come down to town too often, but Rodney found that he actually looked forward to it. If arguing with a gun nut from the hills had become the high point of his week, then he really did need to get out of this town before he was as loopy as Sherman or Shapiro or whatever the guy's name was.


IV. Painted Sunrise

Besides the wide-open skies, the thing that Sheppard liked best about Texas was the in-between time when the world hung between day and night, frozen for a pink-tinged moment on the cusp of daybreak or dusk. He loved the dry sharpness in the air, and the way that the sunrise or sunset painted the rocks and sagebrush a thousand shades of gold. It had been a long time since he'd been able to stop and appreciate a sunrise without checking the boulders for snipers. Well ... in truth, he did still check the boulders for snipers, but living alone, this far out of town, there was no one to see.

Limping out to the shed where he kept the motorcycle, the lazy morning sun warm through his black T-shirt, he found himself wondering if this was what contentment felt like. It had been so long since he'd felt it that he didn't really know. There was a peace and a sameness to the days, and he thought he could spend his whole life here without missing too much. The screaming place inside him, where Mitch and Dex and Holland had once been, was mostly quiet these days -- scabbed over, he thought. He was friendly with the locals, but he didn't really have friends among them, and he liked it that way. He enjoyed talking with the INS guy and was going to be sorry when they reassigned him somewhere else, but it wasn't a desperate kind of sorrow ... just a little regret.

The shed was part of a complex of outbuildings that might have been designed to house animals or equipment. Some of them had fallen down; the old ranch had been vacant for a decade or more before John had bought it. He used one of the intact sheds to store his motorcycle and an ancient truck that he'd bought off a local for fifty bucks and a round of drinks. It wasn't much, but occasionally he needed something more substantial than the motorcycle. Like today. He planned to head up to the city and get some building supplies. Since it looked like he was staying here, for a while at least, he intended to start fixing things up around the house. His leg and arm were both getting stiff, sitting around without doing anything. The doctors had warned him about that, too.

He pulled off the patched tarp that he used to keep weather and rattlesnakes out of the truck, and then flinched violently backwards when something moved in the bed. His gun was in his hand before he knew it, and the only thing that stopped him from firing was the way his bad leg twisted under him and nearly sent him in a heap on his ass.

A minute later, he realized that it was a person in the bed of the truck, and almost went sick with the knowledge of what he'd nearly done. This isn't Afghanistan, John; it isn't Iraq; you're in the U.S. of fucking A, and you don't shoot people hiding in your shed.

On the other hand, even in the U.S. of A, people hiding in sheds were often bad news, and he kept the gun trained on the pair of dark eyes blinking at him from the shadows. He'd heard stories from the neighbors, of illegals sneaking onto people's property, robbing, raping and killing; and while he dismissed the wildest stories as redneck paranoia, the fact remained that a person who'd been walking through the desert for days and had no money to buy food wasn't usually in a rational frame of mind.

"I don't keep much cash at the house," he told the dark eyes. "You need food, water, maybe a ride somewhere? I can do that. Just don't get ideas, because I can and will use lethal force to defend myself, and I'm more than capable of it."

The eyes blinked back at him, and a soft raspy voice said something querulous in what he assumed was Spanish. Then the person in the truck bed slumped back down in a heap.

"Well, hell," John muttered. He limped forward cautiously to peer at his uninvited guest. It was a woman, young and bruised and filthy. He winced at the sight of her bare, cut-up feet. From her sunken eyes and cracked lips, he guessed that she was pretty dehydrated. What really worried him, though, was the dried blood all over her hands and arms and ragged dress. John knew a lot more about violent injury than he really wanted to, and he could tell just by looking at the spray pattern that most of the blood didn't come from her.

All he wanted was to leave the world behind and live out here without trouble. And trouble was exactly what was lying in his shed, probably a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, and maybe five-four in its bare feet -- pure trouble.

He had some trouble picking her up. A year ago, he could have easily swung her up in his arms, with her head resting against his shoulder ... and that was what he tried to do, but only succeeded in staggering around and nearly dropping her on the rocks. The damaged muscles in his arm couldn't do it, and with his bum leg, he didn't have the balance to support another person's weight, even one as small as her. He ended up draping her over the motorcycle's seat and wheeling her to the house that way. Then he laid her on a rug and gently dragged her into the house.

It appalled him, being this weak. John wasn't a man who was accustomed to demanding something from his body and not having it obey him. Maybe he should start driving into the city again for the physical therapy sessions he'd been skipping.

He laid her out carefully on his bed. She was filthy, but sheets could be washed. He thought about trying to undress her, but the idea of stripping an unconscious young woman was too repugnant; she didn't seem to be too badly hurt, so she could undress herself and get cleaned up when she woke. Her main afflictions, aside from exhaustion and dehydration, seemed to be bruises -- someone had worked her over pretty good -- and then the appalling condition of her feet. John decided it might be a good idea to clean those up before they got infected, so he got a bowl of water and a sponge.

As soon as he touched the wet, soapy sponge to the cuts on her feet, she flinched violently and then, suddenly, he was sprawled on the floor with her elbow in the crook of his throat, with his gun lying a few feet away.

"Whoa," John said.

Immediately she pulled back, and reeled woozily, putting a hand to her head. She looked around with wary caution and then sat back against the side of the bed. "I am sorry," she said, dropping her eyes. She had a heavy accent, but spoke slowly and precisely; it wasn't difficult to understand her. "I thought you meant to hurt me."

John eyed his gun thoughtfully, then decided not to risk spooking her. "Nope. No hurting here. Just trying to clean you up a little bit."

"Oh." She looked down at them, blinking slowly.

Getting off the floor was one of the trickier things for him, these days. He used a chair to lever himself back to his feet, and bent over awkwardly to pick up his gun, tucking it back in its holster. "You're fast," he said. Understatement of the day. He'd never seen anyone move like that.

"My father taught me to defend myself."

John laughed. "I'd hate to meet your father, then."

"He is dead." Her chin tilted up. "Thank you for helping me. Can you tell me -- where is this? We are in the United States, yes?"

"Texas," he affirmed.

The smile that broke across her face lit her up, for a moment, more brilliantly than the brightest of Texan sunrises. "Madre Dios," she breathed, and then moaned softly and sank back with her head in her hands.

"I was just about to make breakfast," John offered, a bit nervously. It had been a long time since he'd had guests of any kind, especially mysterious, beautiful young women. "Shower's down the hall, if you wanna freshen up first. Uh -- you can wear some of my clothes while yours get clean, if you want to."

She pulled herself up onto the bed shakily, and drew her legs up to her chest, wincing. "You are kind. I have no money; I cannot pay you."

"I don't want to be paid." He was genuinely surprised that she'd feel like she had to. Was this the world he lived in, where an injured young woman couldn't get a little charity from a stranger? "I'm John, by the way."

"I am Teyla." She gave him one of those brilliant smiles again.

"I guess I'll leave you alone, then, Teyla. Towels in the bathroom; some T-shirts in the closet that you can wear. Just holler if you need anything."

He went downstairs as quickly as his leg would allow, and broke eggs into an iron skillet in the farmhouse kitchen. He wasn't much of a cook, but found it was oddly pleasant cooking for someone other than himself. He made omelets, toast and bacon, setting the table with a large glass of milk at each place.

She came into the kitchen so quietly he wasn't even aware of her, until he looked up and there she was, in one of his T-shirts and a pair of jeans rolled up at the cuffs. Her wet hair was slicked down to her head, and with the bruises and shadows under her eyes, she looked about twelve years old. Only her grip on the doorframe seemed to be keeping her upright. John had been doing just fine up until then -- making breakfast, not really thinking too much about the stranger upstairs -- but at the sight of her, all awkward and shaky and weak, he suddenly didn't know if he could handle this. He'd been doing so well. He liked his life, as much as he'd liked anything in years, and he found that he was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, something which he had never experienced before. He'd lost it all once -- the friends who had become his family, the life he'd known, the ability to lose himself in flight. To risk losing it all again ... he didn't know if he could do that and survive.

She would be gone in a day or so, he told himself, and then she wobbled, and before he knew it he was across the kitchen, catching her and helping her to a chair. "I could have brought the food upstairs, you know," he chided her gently.

"I want to eat at the table, as Americans do."

She sat primly in one of the straight-backed chairs, and though her eyes greedily followed the food as he served it, she gripped her fork tightly and waited for him to scrape the slightly overdone omelets and bacon onto her paper plate.

"It's not much ..." he apologized as she began to eat. Actually, "inhale" would be more accurate; she was eating like a ravenous wolf.

She paused to say, "No, no, it is wonderful, I have not had anything so good in ..." Then she swallowed, and set her fork down, swallowing again.

"Dammit," John muttered, because he'd known she was probably starving and he'd just -- crap. You don't feed starving people bacon and eggs. She lunged out of her chair and he did too, helping her to the trash can in the corner.

"I am so very sorry," she breathed when she was done, slumping against him.

"No, no, it's my fault. You probably haven't had anything to eat in days. The last thing I should have done was dump a bunch of greasy, unfamiliar food on you." He helped her up; she leaned against him, weighing almost nothing. "You want to go lie down, I can make you some soup."

"You do too much already," she protested, as he led her upstairs.

"I like doing it." And it was true, he realized. Somehow, he got more satisfaction out of taking care of a sick stranger than he'd gotten out of all his days of peace and contemplation among the Texan hills.

He reminded himself, again, that she'd be gone in a day or so, and this time it wasn't relief that he felt.


V. Stalemate

The car appeared at sunset, and at first it was just a cloud of dust, far away down the winding ribbon of dirt road that led to the town. John noticed it from the porch, but it took him a while to realize what it was, because in all the time he'd lived out here, no one had ever come to see him.

It had been so long since he'd really had to deal with the outside world that he didn't even think about the implications of having Teyla here: an illegal alien, and one who'd shown up with blood all over her hands and her clothes. Earlier in the day, after eating a small bowl of soup and then sleeping the afternoon away, she'd told him what had happened to her -- sitting wrapped in a blanket on the edge of the porch with her bandaged feet dangling to touch the sand.

"It was a man, a coyote, they call them. You know what those are?"

"I do." Coyotes were the men, and sometimes women, who smuggled immigrants across the border. John had met a few in town, and found them to be a mixed bag -- some were immigrants themselves, genuinely interested in helping their countrymen or else dabbling to earn a quick buck. Others were professional human traffickers, dangerous and ruthless.

"He took my money and after leading me into the desert, he told me that he still had to collect the rest of his fee. When I said I had no more money, he said he would take it in --" She broke off for a moment, her lips tight. "He tried to rape me. I stabbed him with my father's knife." She mimed thrusting a knife upwards. "There were other men with him. They beat me. I escaped from them into the desert. I have been running for days."

"Did you kill him?"

She shook her head. "I do not think so. There was a lot of blood, but I do not think it was deep enough to kill."

Since she didn't seem inclined to talk about it further, John got a piece of wood from the pile curing on the windowsill, and began to whittle it, sitting on the edge of the porch with a cold beer between his knees as the sun went down.

Teyla leaned forward, drawing the blanket closer about her shoulders. "What are you making?"

"Chess pieces." He showed her. He was working on one of the queens. "When I was a kid, my dad had this gorgeous marble chess set. He taught me how to play. I don't know whatever happened to it; I was an Air Force brat and we moved a lot, so I guess it probably was lost in one of the moves. But I always wanted to have a nice chess set like that when I grew up, and I figured since there's nothing much else to do out here, maybe I'd make one."

Her dark eyes drank down his words, as starved for knowledge as her body was for food. He felt silly, then, under that intense gaze. She probably didn't even know what chess was. "It's a game," he added, self-consciously. "You try to take your opponent's pieces, and they all move in different ways -- the knights go in L's for example, and the queens, like this one ... you know, I'm not explaining this very well, am I?"

She smiled with both her dark eyes, and her mouth. "This is a game that Americans play?"

"Some of them, yes."

"Will you teach it to me?"

He held up the half-finished queen. "Unfortunately, all I have right now are a few pawns and a bishop or two. You need all the pieces to play a proper game. I don't even have a gameboard yet."

"Oh," she said, sadly.

"But hey, when you get to where you're going, why don't you send me your address, and I'll come visit you? I can teach you then."

Again, the thousand-watt smile. "I would like that very much, John."

He went back to carving, watching the curls of blond wood pile up around his feet. He'd noticed the dust cloud out on the horizon, but had not yet realized what it was, what it meant. "Where are you going, anyway? Do you have a destination in mind?"

She nodded. "My brother lives in America. Well, he is not my real brother, but we grew up together, and when he left to go to your country, he said that I could live with him if I ever came here. So I will find him."

"You know where he lives?"

There was a hesitation. "I have not heard from him in years. The last thing that I heard, though, was that he and his wife worked for a chicken farm in this place, Texas." She lit up again. "And now I am almost there!"

John hated to deflate her enthusiasm, but ... "Texas is a big state, you know. A whole lot bigger than any of the states in Mexico."

"After I have come across so many countries to get here, it is not a big thing to cross a state, John."

Well, she was probably right about that. He peeled off another curl of pale wood, and then looked up, squinting against the lowering sun. "Hey, it looks like we got visitors."

The car was small and silver. They watched it draw closer. "Maybe you should go inside," John told her.

Teyla shook her head. "I will not hide, and I will not bring danger upon someone who has helped me. If it is the coyote's friends, then I will go with them so they will leave you alone."

"I don't think it's that easy." John loosened his gun in its holster. "And I'm sure as hell not letting them take you without a fight."

The look she gave him was surprised and grateful.

The car, a Lexus, drew up in front of John's farmhouse. He recognized it immediately; it was usually the only vehicle parked in the lot of the Atlantic Motel. It had acquired a few new gravel dings on its journey up John's five-mile driveway.

"Your road sucks," was the first thing McKay said as he got out, looking even more out of place among the rocks and sagebrush than he usually did in the bar.

"It's easier in four-wheel drive," John told him. He kept his hand on the butt of his Beretta, because even though McKay looked slow and soft, John knew that he did have a gun. It didn't take much muscle to pull a trigger.

"How in the hell do you do it on that bike? With your leg?"

John hated being reminded of the leg, but he'd learned by now that McKay wasn't someone who pulled verbal punches. "Because unlike you, I have skill," he said, and smirked.

Rodney sputtered. His blue eyes swept the rugged hills, the sunset-stained sky. "So this is the hell hole in which you live. Wonderful. Never met a place that cried out for paving the way this godforsaken wasteland does."

John just shrugged. "I like it out here."

"I know you do. I blame that on brain damage from whatever war you were in." His gaze rested, eventually, on the blanket-wrapped woman on the porch. He didn't even look particularly surprised; he just sighed. "You know, Sherman, I was really hoping I wouldn't find her here."

John's stomach clenched, but he managed to answer lightly. "My name is Sheppard, and she's my sister."

Teyla's eyes widened for a moment. McKay's suspicious glare went back and forth between the two of them. "Different fathers?" he asked, challengingly.

"Precisely," John agreed.

"What's her name?"

Their eyes locked in a stare-down. "Teyla."

"Teyla what?"

"Teyla Sheppard."

One edge of McKay's mouth quirked smugly. "Different fathers, though?"

"Adopted, actually," John lied smoothly.

"You are lying through your teeth, you cocky bastard."

John's eyes narrowed. "Prove it."

The smug grin got wider. "Show me her driver's license."

Something broke in John. He threw the unfinished carving as hard as he could with his lame arm; it skipped off into the yard somewhere. Teyla jumped, and McKay flinched and threw up his hands to protect his head, though it was nowhere near him.

"For God's sake, Rodney!" It was the first time he'd ever called the other man by his given name. "You know what she is. I don't know why you've suddenly decided to do your job for the first time in, well, ever, but I'm going to shoot you before I let you take her. And I'm not kidding about that."

Teyla was now staring at him in wide-eyed shock. He was a little surprised himself. He just couldn't help remembering how she'd looked that morning, so fragile and weak; even now, she could barely keep herself upright on the porch. Like hell he was going to let the border patrol drag her off to a cell before dumping her back on the street in Mexico.

McKay bristled, but then his shoulders sagged. "You think I like doing this?" he demanded, his voice cracking. "Look, there's some guy in town -- they call him Coyote Steve -- who's been raising hell. Says a Mexican woman beat the crap out of him and stabbed him."

"I am not Mexican," Teyla said in a soft, clear voice.

"Yeah, whatever, same difference." McKay waved a hand dismissively.

"He tried to rape her." And somehow John wasn't surprised that it was Coyote Steve. He'd met the guy -- creepy bastard, wouldn't be shocked to find out Teyla wasn't the first woman he'd gone after.

McKay looked a bit sick; his shoulders were hunched, as if to close himself off from the world. "I thought it might be something like that. Look, I'm not going to press charges against her, or anything. Really. I'll just --"

"Deport her?"

His look of discomfort deepened. "Well, she's here illegally, Shipley."

"Sheppard! And look at the woman, McKay. See the bruises? See her feet? You honestly think someone's going to go through all that to get here and then just quietly go home? She'll come right back, with someone just as bad as Steve or even worse. Only this time, maybe she won't be as quick with the knife."

"You're trying to guilt me, aren't you?" McKay's voice was an indignant squeak.

"Is it working?"

His shoulders drooped. "Of course it's working."

John had to suppress a smile. "Listen, McKay, you drove all the way out here, you looked around, you didn't see anybody, and you went away. That's all. It's not even really ... lying, per se. You just didn't see her here."

McKay slouched back to his car. "I can't believe I'm letting you talk me into this. There' s a huge difference between turning a blind eye and actively helping you hide an illegal --" He froze, staring at his car. "Oh great. And I thought my day couldn't get worse."

One of his tires was flat.

"Sorry," John said, and he genuinely did feel sorry this time. "The road ... it does that. I've got a pretty good jack in the truck, if you want some help changing it."

McKay cleared his throat and shuffled his feet. "Yeah ... about that ... I kind of ... don't have a spare."

John's eyebrows shot up. "You came all the way out here, over that road, without a spare tire?"

"I forgot!" McKay flared, defensively. "I had to use it a few months ago, and I just forgot to get the other one fixed. All your roads out here are crap. And if you had a phone, like a normal human being, I wouldn't have had to drive all the way out here!"

"You got a cell phone?"

"Of course I do, but it doesn't work out here." He waved the offending item in the air. "Nothing works out here. Because you're living in the nineteenth centur!"

He stood for a moment, panting in indignant ire and staring at the tire as if the force of his glare could fuse the rubber back together. The sun had slipped below the edge of the world, and it was growing dark.

"Tomorrow I'll take you into town and get the tire fixed," Sheppard said. "It's the least I can do. But, trust me -- even I don't like going over that road in the dark."

"Wonderful," Rodney growled. He kicked the tire.

"You can stay here tonight." John couldn't resist twisting the knife just a bit: "Unless you'd rather sleep with the rattlesnakes."

He hadn't realized someone that obviously out of shape could move that fast. Rodney was up on the porch next to Teyla almost faster than John's eyes could track him. "Snakes? There are snakes out here?"

"Haven't you ever seen a Western, McKay? Of course there are snakes."

"I do you people a favor, and now you're trying to kill me."

Teyla finally, shyly spoke again. "He may not be appreciative of what you are willing to do for me," with a reproachful look at John, "but I am very grateful. Thank you, sir."

Rodney blinked. "Uh, it's Rodney. Not sir. Rodney McKay."

"I am Teyla."

"Great, now I'm on a first-name basis with illegal aliens," McKay groaned. "I am officially the worst border agent ever." He sighed, and slumped down in a dejected heap on John's porch.

"I've got steaks thawing in the fridge," Sheppard said. "Who's hungry?"


VI. Down and Out in Texas

John woke slowly, as the sun crept across his face. He peeled his eyes open, feeling fuzzy-brained and tired. Normally, he was up before the sun, and watched it rise from his porch. Still hazy with sleep, he tried to figure out what was different, what was wrong. One hand crept towards the gun under his pillow, only to discover that there wasn't a pillow. And then he remembered -- he had company. That's what was different. He'd been up 'till all hours the night before, sitting on the porch with Rodney and Teyla, talking. Well, mostly it was John and Rodney talking, drinking cheap beer and arguing about politics, while Teyla leaned sleepily against the wall, wrapped up in John's best blanket.

Somewhere in the middle of Rodney ranting about Cold War mentality and the way those idiots at the State Department were shooting themselves in the foot in Iraq, John reached over and nudged him in the arm, then pointed at Teyla. She was fast asleep, resting limply against the wall in a pool of light shining through the door.

The conversation got quiet after that, and somehow John found himself talking about things that he'd never talked about, to anyone. He still couldn't even venture around the edges of the topic of Afghanistan. But he talked about the way it felt to feel the wind under his wings in an F-14, and it was the first time he'd thought of flying since leaving the Air Force without the pain in his chest crushing the air out of him.

It was similar with Rodney -- a sense that there were huge gaps in his life that he talked around, rather than about. But from some of the oblique hints he dropped, John thought that he had a much better idea of why someone Rodney's age, with Rodney's brains, was rounding up illegal immigrants in a hole-in-the-wall town rather than pulling down a six-figure salary working for one of the big agencies.

John gave Teyla his bed -- she was so sleepy when he helped her upstairs that she didn't even protest -- and Rodney got the couch, while John dug an old, musty military cot out of the attic for himself. He drifted off to sleep listening to Rodney, in the living room, complaining loudly to no one in particular about the lumpiness of the couch and the possibility of mice, bugs and RATTLESNAKES hiding in the cushions.

It actually scared John, as he fell asleep, how happy and content he was. It scared him because he knew it wouldn't last, and he wasn't strong enough to face the loss again.

Now he lay on the cot and wondered how much of yesterday had been a dream. A sudden round of cursing from the kitchen, followed by a low, admonishing voice with an exotic accent, made him smile and relax into his scratchy blankets. Not a dream at all.

He slouched into the kitchen in yesterday's T-shirt, realizing belatedly that he should probably clean up before greeting his guests -- but he'd been living alone so long that he'd stopped thinking about such things. Rodney was standing on tiptoe, poking around in one of the highest cabinets. Teyla, at the table, looked infinitely better than yesterday. Her feet were hooked around the legs of her chair; a pair of John's socks covered the bandages.

"Doesn't the man own a coffeepot?" Rodney demanded.

"It's on the stove, McKay." John shuffled into the room, yawning, and pointed at the battered aluminum coffeepot on the back burner.

"I mean an electric coffeepot, a real coffeepot."

"What you see is what you get."

"So how do you get the grounds out of that thing?"

"You don't. You pour from the top."

"Barbaric," Rodney growled, dumping a scoop of Folger's into the pot. "He's living in the dark ages."

"We did not want to wake you," Teyla said apologetically, with a pointed look at Rodney.

"It's okay, I was already awake." He tried not to limp too obviously as he made his way over to the fridge; his leg hurt even more than usual after sleeping on the cot all night. "I got eggs. Who's up for breakfast?"

Teyla grimaced. "I ... do not think I want eggs."

"Corn flakes okay, then?"

She smiled politely, looking blank.

"They better be damn good eggs to make up for this sorry excuse for coffee," Rodney snapped, fiddling with the stove. "Hey, does this thing work?"

John reached over and turned off the burner. "It'll blow us sky-high if you keep that up. The pilot light's broken. That's what the box of matches there is for."

Rodney gave him a look of disbelief. "What century are you living in?"

Teyla cleared her throat. "Perhaps ... I could make breakfast? I could make some of my people's foods for you."

And that was how John and Rodney ended up out on the porch with cups of slightly gritty coffee, while Teyla rolled out tortillas on the rickety folding table in John's kitchen. They had been chased out with exquisite, yet firm, politeness.

"I bet she cleans, too," Rodney said, in between picking coffee grounds off his tongue. "Despite the fact that it's politically incorrect, immoral and illegal, you should keep her."

Sheppard snorted. "She also nearly crushed my windpipe yesterday morning when I accidentally woke her up. She's a little more than just a handy, undocumented maidservant from across the border."

He noticed that Rodney, perhaps unconsciously, was slowing down to match his pace, and forced himself to speed up, stretching the atrophied muscles in his hip. God, he hated this. Being around other people again, even for this short time, reminded him of one of the reasons why he'd wanted to shut away the world: because normal people with four healthy limbs reminded him of what he wasn't anymore.

He hadn't even been able to protect his friends with a fully functional body; with one leg nearly useless, and one arm only slowly recovering, he couldn't help anyone or anything.

"Excuse me for asking, and not that I wouldn't be up for a twenty-mile hike across the Sheppard estate, but where are we going?"

John realized that he'd just started walking, forgetting once again that he wasn't alone, and explaining himself might be the polite thing to do. "Since we need to make a trip into town, I figured I'd get the truck out, make sure it's running."

"I can't help noticing the phrasing there -- not 'Make sure it's running well', but rather 'Make sure it's running' ... as in running at all. This inspires stratospheric levels of confidence in me. Maybe I'll walk."

"The nearest place to get a tire fixed is thirty-five miles away, so I hope you're ready for a long walk."

"You're kidding me," Rodney said flatly, as Sheppard pulled the tarp off the truck.

"Nope. You can't do it in that little one-horse burg. Have to go on over to the big city."

The truck coughed and sputtered, but after John opened up the hood and did some manual fiddling with the carburetors, it came to life with a roar and settled into a rattly idle. Rodney amused himself in the meantime by poking his index finger through various rust holes in the truck's leprous body. "Could rattlesnakes get through those, do you think?" he wanted to know, wiggling his finger in one of the holes.

"What's the deal with you and snakes, McKay?" John shut off the engine because the truck had a tendency to backfire badly when it idled for more than a few minutes, and one of these days he was worried it might burst into flames.

"There is no 'deal' except for the fact that I'm far too young and too valuable to the United States to die of snakebite on the open range."

"People rarely die of rattlesnake bites, you know." John was tempted to dig at the "too valuable" comment, but remembering some of the things Rodney had said last night under the influence of a little too much alcohol and camaraderie, he decided not to.

Teyla leaned out the door, dusty with flour, and hollered, "Comida!"

John left off fiddling with the truck and headed for the door, Rodney a bouncy step or two behind him. "Presumably that's Spanish for Come and get it," Rodney said.

"You patrol the Mexican border and you don't speak Spanish?"

"Hello, not my preferred line of work here," Rodney snapped defensively. "I speak a little bit of French and that's about it."

The food was wonderful -- not quite tacos as Sheppard was expecting, but rather, crispy, bready concoctions filled with a mix of meat and vegetables.

Teyla hovered nervously as they took their first bites. "I did not find all the things I needed to make them. I had to make do with other things in your kitchen. I hope they are good?"

"Teyla, they're wonderful," Sheppard told her, as soon as he could talk without spraying food everywhere.

Rodney didn't say anything, but he made little appreciative noises as he dug into his food. Teyla, rosy with pleasure, sat back to eat her own meal.

An hour or so later, John had cleaned up the kitchen and Teyla, whose rosy glow of happiness had been replaced by the pallor of exhaustion, had fallen asleep on the couch. John tiptoed out the door with Rodney in tow and got out his heavy-duty car jack from the shed. Soon the tire was off the Lexus and the two of them were jolting down the washboard ruts of the road to town.

Sheppard hadn't told Rodney this yet, but he planned on spending more than just a few minutes in town -- besides needing to pick up a few things from the store, he intended to make a few phone calls in search of the brother Teyla had mentioned. During their late-night discussions last night, she'd given him a few more details to go on, such as a name and a physical description. "Chicken farm in Texas" was still an appallingly vague search area, but he figured that a six-and-a-half foot tall Guatemalan with a penchant for knife fighting couldn't be that hard to find. Someone, somewhere, was bound to remember him.

He noticed Rodney watching him shift gears -- curious, apparently, about how he managed it with his left leg largely nonfunctional. Once again, with anyone else his hackles would have gone up, but with Rodney he found that he didn't really mind. It was just curiosity, like a kind of mild scientific interest. Rodney had watched with similar interest when he'd taken the tire off the Lexus earlier.

The leg would never be precisely straight; it was held together with a mass of screws and pins, probably more metal than bone. Key muscles and ligaments had been traumatized or destroyed, so he couldn't bend it -- much -- without taking it in his hands and doing it manually. It did bend, just not very well. When it was straight, though, he still had almost as much thrust as he'd ever had -- he could bring his upper body to bear, while locking the leg in position. So using the clutch wasn't that much of a problem as long as he had the seat pretty far back. The trouble was, it hurt; the feeble muscles in his leg tired out quickly and exhaustion brought the deep, aching pain that was never far away from him. To distract himself, he tuned into Rodney, who was a lot more entertaining than the staticky and erratic radio. Currently, Rodney was ranting about the state of the roads, again.

"I always thought the Border Patrol were given federal vehicles."

Rodney snorted. "Only at those stations that have actual funding."

"Have you thought about getting a car that's actually made for these conditions? Like a Jeep or a truck or something?"

Rodney gave him a supercilious sneer, as only Rodney could do. "That would only make sense if I were planning on staying here, Sheppard."

Like the thought of Teyla going up north, that gave Sheppard a painful stab in his stomach. Still, he knew that the situation wasn't permanent with Rodney. People who lived in a motel and ate in a bar were clearly people ready to drop everything and move at any given time.

"That may be, McKay, but if you expect to be stationed out here for at least another few months, it might be worth it anyway. You can always sell the truck when you leave." He wondered if that was as transparent a pretext as it seemed to him, to ferret out how much longer McKay expected to be here.

But Rodney wasn't cooperating. "It's not worth it to me. I don't like driving trucks."

"Are you serious? You'd rather drive a dinky little car like that than a truck?"

McKay's crooked smile came out to play. "You know what they say about over-compensation, right?"

God, he was going to miss this -- the annoyance, the verbal sparring, all of it. He hadn't been this relaxed around anyone since Mitch and Dex died. And it surprised him to find that he could think of them now with more ease. When he remembered them, what he remembered was laughing in dive bars and hitting on local women ... watching football ... cracking bad jokes. Not blackened corpses and the smell of charred flesh, the way he'd last seen them.

In town, they dropped off both Rodney's damaged tire and the equally damaged spare to be repaired. John hit a couple of stores to pick up various staples; with the way that his houseguests were decimating the food supplies, he was definitely going to need to go shopping more often than once a month.

One of the reasons why he didn't like going to town was because it usually involved walking, and he absolutely refused to use either crutches or a cane. He could walk pretty well over short distances -- his leg hurt when it took his full weight, but he'd gotten used to that. However, prolonged exercise made the traumatized muscles flutter with fatigue and then seize up. When he was by himself, he'd find a quiet corner and try to massage out the cramps, but with Rodney around, he couldn't do that. By the time they were done with the basic shopping, he was in a very bad mood and Rodney's normal abrasiveness had begun to grate on him like sandpaper on exposed nerves. And of course Rodney had had to stop at the snack food aisle at least twelve different times to pick up various things he "needed" back at the motel. The store wasn't crowded -- it was a Wal-Mart on a weekday in a relatively small town -- but John could feel the presence of so many unfamiliar people prickling on the back of his neck. Between that and the hot knives shoved up under the skin of his leg, he just wanted to escape back to his little house in the country and be alone for a while.

His usual way of getting into the truck was to step up with the right leg and then grab a handful of his left pants leg and swing the other one up after it. It was normally smooth and fast enough that he didn't think people paid attention to it. Getting back into the truck after spending an hour navigating Wal-Mart, though, took a couple of tries and there was pain-sweat running down his neck when he was done.

"God, you're white as a sheet," Rodney said.

It was absolutely the wrong thing to say. He could take a lot; he was usually an easygoing guy, and easygoing with Rodney in particular; but at that moment in time, he didn't think he'd ever hated anything the way he hated his disability -- and goddammit, it was a disability, no matter what he tried to tell himself. This spilled over into hatred for everyone and everything that reminded him of it, including Rodney McKay.

"Fuck off," John snarled.

This didn't have the desired effect, because unfortunately Rodney had the hide of a rhino when it came to that sort of thing. "Seriously ... are you okay?"

The concern appeared to be genuine, but he didn't want people to worry over him; he wanted to not be a fucking cripple anymore. He came damn near just throwing Rodney out of his truck and leaving him standing in a dusty Texas street. "Leave it alone, McKay."

Incredibly, Rodney shut up. John didn't look at him; he just put the truck in gear and drove. Shifting gears was torture. He didn't realize that he'd automatically started driving home until he looked up and saw the exit sign for the country highway leading out to nowheresville and his hundred and sixty acres.

Sighing, he took a different exit and circled downtown aimlessly until he located the library. He'd never been there, but he figured they'd have computers where he could access the Internet and maybe start looking for Teyla's brother. He killed the engine -- it continued to idle for a minute or two in defiance of orders, before shuddering into stillness and leaving them in an almost deafening silence. Oppressive heat shimmered off the pavement.

John couldn't figure out what to say; he sucked at apologizing, and his leg still hurt like a bitch. To his surprise, Rodney was the one who spoke first. "I have a big mouth sometimes."

"Only sometimes?" Sheppard managed to quirk a bit of a smile, and Rodney gave him an echo of it back. John ran his hand through his sweat-damp hair. "No, look -- I'm just used to living alone, that's all. Being around people like this ... it gets to me ... sometimes."

"You could -- you know --" Rodney fidgeted, his hands clasped between his knees. "There's probably a bus that goes out that way ..."

"Oh, for Pete's sake, I'm not just going to leave you here." Not that he hadn't been thinking about it a little earlier, but not seriously, and it depressed him that Rodney actually thought he might. "Look, the library's probably air-conditioned. I'd rather not sit out here until I turn into a puddle." His traumatized leg complained that yes, it did want to sit here, all day if necessary. He ignored it and gave it a nudge to get it down to the pavement below.

"I thought this time of year was supposed to be cooler," Rodney complained, slamming the truck door and then staring at the rust flakes that shivered off. "Are you absolutely sure this thing isn't going to fall apart before we get back?"

"It's hung together so far." He didn't bother locking it; anyone who stole it probably wouldn't get a hundred yards before they ran afoul of its various clutch problems, if they could even get it started at all.

The library was pleasantly cool inside. Rodney suffered through watching him use the Internet for about five seconds before pushing him out of the way with an irritated, "My cat can use a computer better than you!"

"You've got a cat?" John asked, sliding over.

"Well, not anymore." Rodney looked momentarily wistful. "Gave it to a neighbor when I moved down here. Probably a wise move; I imagine poor Newton would've been shot and eaten by a random redneck inside a week."

John leaned his chin on his fist and watched as Rodney manipulated Google in ways he'd never seen done before. "Well, that's what you get for naming a cat after a kind of snack food, isn't it?"

The look on Rodney's face was priceless. "The cat was named after Sir Isaac Newton, you clueless mor--" He froze, glowering at John. "You're making fun of me, aren't you?"

John smiled with all possible innocence, still with his chin resting on his hand. Rodney heaved an exasperated sigh and went back to the computer.

To John's amazement, after several rounds of searching agricultural websites and after feeding a lot of quarters into the pay phone down the street, they found a lead. The foreman at one of the farms near the Oklahoma border actually remembered Ronon and Melena -- not by name, but by description. He thought they'd gone down to Florida to work as orange pickers. The guy said that he knew some of their friends and thought he might be able to get a message to them. Sheppard gave his name and rough directions to his house, although he knew that the odds were about a million to one that it would ever get to the intended recipient. He gave them the number of Rodney's motel, since he didn't have a phone.

"Needle in a haystack," Rodney commented as they drove back to the tire store.

"I know." John wasn't sure why he was so determined to find Teyla's brother for her, except that he suspected she'd never find him on her own, with only a limited grasp of English and no money or resources at all.

He stopped by a convenience store on the way out of town to pick up a couple bricks of ice cream and stash them in the cooler in the back of the truck. Noticing Rodney's eyes following the treats, John said, "You know, we'll probably get back late enough that everything will be closed; you want to stay for supper?"

He could see Rodney hunting around for an excuse, and not finding one. "Teyla might cook for us again," John added.

"Are you sure you aren't going to keep her?"

"Of course not. She's got places to go, things to do, and a new life in America to live, which hopefully doesn't involve cooking for a recluse on a farm in the middle of nowhere." Hmm, that had come out with wince-inducing levels of self-pity.

Rodney didn't seem to notice. "Well, as long as you can wring a few home-cooked meals out of her first."

But Teyla didn't cook for them that night. They got back as the sunset stained the western sky, to find Teyla sprawled on the couch with a blanket in a tangled knot around her legs. There were bright spots of color on her cheeks, and she didn't wake up when John called her name, nor when he gently shook her.

"It's those damned feet." John was testy with his own pain and worry; Rodney hovered in the doorway, grocery bags in his arms. "They were full of dirt and gravel, and then she hasn't really been resting -- she feels like she has to keep up with us. Damn it!"

McKay set the bags down and leaned over the back of the couch. He held his hand near Teyla's cheek, feeling the warmth. "We should take her to the hospital."

"Rodney, you work for the Border Patrol; I shouldn't have to tell you what's wrong with that idea. She's undocumented. They'll fix her up and then send her straight back to Mexico, if she doesn't sit in a jail cell for a while first."

"So ... what? Let her sit around here and bake her brain inside her skull?"

Sheppard stared at her, contemplated the logistics of getting her upstairs without having to resort to dragging her in front of Rodney, and decided that she looked comfortable enough on the couch. "Cold washcloths. Try to bring the fever down a little, make her more comfortable."

"She needs antibiotics."

"McKay, I know that, but we work with what we have, all right?"

Sheppard roused her enough to get her to take a couple of aspirin; she was out of it, though, mumbling in Spanish, and he could feel the heat coming off her body as he supported her head to tip a glass of water to her lips. He changed the bandages on her feet, wincing at the swollen, oozing cuts and scrapes, some of them alarmingly deep. She'd been walking on those all morning, and he hadn't even thought about it...

Rodney hovered, wringing his hands, and then followed Sheppard outside into the warm darkness, where he held a flashlight while John put the tire back on the car. "I feel useless," he complained, shifting from foot to foot while Sheppard tightened bolts with his leg stretched out in front of him in the dust, the abused muscles screaming at him.

There were a lot of ways he could have answered that, but all he said was, "I like getting my hands dirty."

Rodney shivered, rubbing his free hand over his arm, and looked away as John pulled himself up on the hood of the Lexus. "Is that why you live out here, with the ... you know, the sagebrush and the snakes and everything? Lots of manly physical labor opportunities, I'd imagine."

There were a lot of reasons why he lived out here. Maybe some of it was because he liked working with his hands; he'd never thought about that. "Partly, yeah, I guess."

Rodney followed him around the side of the car and directed the flashlight beam downward while he stowed the other tire in the trunk. "You know ... about today ... I ..."

Sheppard closed his eyes briefly. This ... this was why he didn't like having other people around. "Rodney, seriously, I was a jerk and I'm sorry about that, so let it go."

Rodney leaned on the roof of the car, getting in Sheppard's personal space, impossible to avoid. "Your leg, it -- Isn't there something that some doctor, somewhere, can do? Could they fix you? Have you tried?"

John waved a hand up and down his body. "This is fixed, all right? I was crushed in a chopper crash, McKay; you don't jump up from that and do handstands. I can do everything I want to do regardless of how it looks, and the subject is fucking off limits."

Rodney was quiet for a little while as they walked back to the house -- or, rather, Rodney walked; John limped, and slowly, too. "You certainly do swear a lot," Rodney said at last.

Sheppard barked a laugh, because of the various things he'd been expecting when Rodney inevitably couldn't keep his mouth shut any longer, that wasn't one of them. "I'm a soldier; we do that." WAS a soldier, his brain reminded him. "Don't you watch the movies?"

"Not those kinds of movies." And something about the way McKay said it let John know that they'd trespassed, just a little bit, on one of his sensitive areas.

Aren't we a psychologically healthy bunch, he thought. Out of the three of them, it looked like the woman who'd walked barefoot from Mexico was the most well-adjusted, and that was just sad.

Teyla tossed and turned through the evening. John got some more water and aspirin into her, and then left her alone. He and Rodney sat at the kitchen table in a pool of lamplight and tried to get the very touchy oven warm enough to bake a frozen pizza.

"I really can't believe you don't have a microwave. How in the world do you make popcorn?"

"Believe it or not, Rodney, people actually did eat popcorn before the microwave was invented. I hear they had it at Plymouth Rock, actually."

"Lies, damn lies," Rodney muttered, staring at the oven's temperature gauge as it crept sluggishly past 200.

From the living room, Teyla cried out "Papa!" in the voice of a little girl.

John looked over and saw Rodney staring into the dark doorway, a world of worry on his expressive face. "You know, I could drive into town, maybe find a pharmacy and get her some drugs or something."

"Not in the dark. Even I don't drive that road in the dark, unless I really have to."

Teyla began sobbing softly. Rodney ran his hand over his face. Maybe it was just the lamplight, but he looked ten years older, the lines in his face painting a stark tracery of age. "You know, I think I could get some antibiotics for her."

"By doing what, robbing a pharmacist?"

Rodney shook his head. "I'm serious. In my line of work ... you meet people, you know? I've never, um, tried to buy illegal drugs, but I think I know some people who would sell them to me."

"Except that if you know about them, then they probably know you're a fed. This isn't a big town, McKay. Sounds like a good way to get yourself shot."

"Nobody out here is crazy enough to shoot a cop." Rodney sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as John. He waved a hand towards the living room. "If the alternative is sitting here and watching her get eaten feet-first by bacteria ... I'm telling you, my stomach isn't that strong, okay? I'm serious -- I know where I can buy antibiotics for her."

He was serious, Sheppard realized, amazed -- and suddenly his estimation of Rodney McKay went up about ten notches. The INS agent was actually willing to walk into a den of drug dealers to get antibiotics for a young woman he'd known for less than 24 hours.

"We're not going anywhere tonight, so let's just see how she does until morning, okay? She's not going to drop dead in a few hours. If she's not any better, you could tell me who to talk to, and I can do the actual -- er, buying."

Rodney let out a long sigh, and leaned on the stove. "And now I've gone from having dinner with illegal aliens, to buying drugs for them. This is a pretty steep slippery slope you're pushing me down, Sheppard."


VIII. Crazy Gringos

Teyla wasn't better in the morning; in fact, she was worse, tossing and moaning, talking to people who weren't there.

"What if she dies while we're gone?" Rodney fretted, trailing Sheppard out to the Lexus.

"She's not that sick, Rodney." Sheppard slid into the passenger's seat, then turned to frown at him. "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this? We could try to find another way."

"I'm absolutely sure I do not want to do this. However, since taking her to a hospital is out, as you so irritatingly yet accurately pointed out -- name one other option on the table. Other than watching her die."

He was actually scared out of his mind, and with good reason, he felt. In a couple of hours he was going to have to talk to an actual drug dealer ... an actual drug dealer who knew that he was a fed. He thought that Sheppard could be a lot more supportive.

"Are you sure this guy's not going to shoot you?"

Rodney gritted his teeth and eased the car down into a washed-out place across what passed for a road, then gunned it to get up the other side. "Of course I'm not sure, and thank you so much for bringing up the possibility every five minutes. But he's a friend. I mean, well, we've talked. Okay, we talked once. But it was friendly, the talking. Sort of."

Amazed to have made it back to town in one piece, he insisted on swinging by the hotel to pick up his gun and take a shower -- Sheppard had offered the use of a shower back at the ranch house, but Rodney didn't want to climb back into his dirty clothes, and he sure as hell wasn't wearing Sheppard's.

When Rodney opened the door to the dingy little motel room, a piece of paper went sliding across the nappy carpet. He knelt down and picked it up, turned it over. It was a USPS notice that he'd missed the delivery of a certified letter and should pick it up from the post office -- he'd been having his mail delivered to the motel, to the management's annoyance.

"What's that?" Sheppard asked, limping into the room without being invited.

"None of your business." He stuck it in his pocket.

While Rodney showered, Sheppard used the motel phone to call a few more leads on Teyla's brother.

"You'd better not be running up my long-distance bill, Sheppard." Rodney stepped out of the bathroom, feeling a little more confident now that he wasn't wearing two-day-old clothes. He toweled his hair into stiff spikes and ran a hand over it to smooth it down.

"Aren't you billing it to the government anyway?" was Sheppard's comeback. He set down the phone and sighed. "No luck. Needle in a haystack, like you said."

"There are three hundred million people in this country; what are the chances you can find one of them?"

"I know, I know, but ..." Sheppard's voice trailed away and he looked at the wall. "If she really is dying, her brother ought to be there."

Rodney grimaced and strapped the gun to his leg, taking pains to buckle the holster correctly because he knew he'd never hear the end of it if he didn't. "Let's go buy some drugs." He paused then, realizing that he only had about twenty bucks on him. He wondered if drug dealers took Visa. "Uh, let's find an ATM and then buy some drugs."

"Way ahead of you." Sheppard reached in his pocket and held up a wad of bills. Rodney could feel his eyes go round.

"Where'd that come from?"

"I keep a little on hand in case of emergencies. My bank's back in DC and the nearest ATM's in the city, so it pays to be prepared."

"You're very strange," McKay said, flatly.

Sheppard grinned. "I know. Take me to your drug dealer."

"He's not my drug dealer."

The drug dealer that Rodney knew was named Edgar Kavanagh, which Rodney thought (and Sheppard agreed) was about the least drug-dealer-ish name ever. From what Rodney had heard in town, Edgar paid illegals to smuggle drugs across the border under their clothes. He also had a meth lab and dabbled in sundry other chemical substances, including resale of nominally legal drugs, such as painkillers and antibiotics, obtained in various ways.

"Regular Renaissance man," Sheppard commented as they jolted down the rutted road to Edgar's place. "And you never busted him?"

"I never had any evidence," Rodney protested defensively. Actually, he probably could have come up with some if he'd tried; he just didn't care enough to bother. "He's a small-potatoes kind of guy by drug dealer standards. Even with the reorganization and funding increases after 9/11, the CBP is stretched pretty thin, and they don't really have time for guys like Edgar; they're more concerned with busting up the big rings. Edgar's just a high school dropout who knows a few people."

"CBP?"

"Customs and Border Patrol; aren't you paying any attention at all?"

"Sorry. Other things on my mind." Sheppard leaned on the car door and stared pensively out at the brown hills.

Rodney found that even he didn't have much to say to that, because his rebellious brain kept drifting back to Teyla thrashing around on the couch. He didn't even know her, and it was stupid to risk what he was risking to help her. But she'd smiled at him, and she'd thanked him for helping her, even though he really hadn't done anything, at that point. And it had been a long damn time since he did anything he could feel proud of.

Sheppard raised his head from the window as they jolted into Kavanagh's yard. "So this is where drug dealers live."

"This is where one very pathetic drug dealer lives," Rodney corrected him. It was a shiny aluminum house trailer, with a few feeble cottonwood trees shading it from the sun. The yard was awash in rural detritus: assorted cars on blocks, old refrigerators and washing machines, a child's swing set.

John reached to open his door. Rodney said, "Nice try at hogging the glory, but I don't think he'll talk to you. He doesn't know you; he does know me."

"Unfortunately what he knows about you is that you're a fed."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, but I'm a fed who's been living in this town for a year, drinking beer with the locals and never once arresting any of them. While you, on the other hand, cruised into town one day on your motorcycle with your -- your flyboy hair, and your random loads of cash, and bought a crazy-person house out in the country. For all they know, you're a fed too, only one with better funding who's conducting some kind of actual, long-term sting."

Sheppard's eyebrows shot right up to his scruffy hair. "You've got a point," he said, and added, a bit apologetically, "Not well liked in town, then, am I?"

Although he didn't sound too put out about the idea, Rodney felt oddly compelled to soften the blow. "Well, they just don't know you. Whereas, they know me, and they know what to expect from me." Hmm, he was making himself sound like some kind of incompetent, Barney Fife type of cop, which was certainly not true. He just didn't do a whole lot of actual crimefighting.

"I'll wait in the car." Sheppard handed him the cash, then patted the pocket of his jacket. "But I've got my Beretta here, and if you holler, I come out with guns blazing."

"And in all likelihood fall flat on your face because you can't run." When Sheppard glared at him, Rodney just smirked; it was better than giving in to the stomach-churning panic creeping over him. He was about to talk to an actual drug dealer. "What? You know it's true."

With that, he walked away from the car towards the trailer, because if he didn't get this over with, he was going to throw up or otherwise embarrass himself and totally lose whatever paltry street cred he possessed. He let his hand slip down to rest on the butt of the H&K, and then he wished he hadn't brought the H&K because it was sort of threatening and made him look like he was here on official business, but at least he had Sheppard backing him up and covering him from the car ... but he'd just insulted Sheppard, which meant that there was a drug dealer in front of him and a possibly crazy and, now, angry veteran behind him with a gun pointed at his back ... and why, oh why didn't he think this plans through beforehand?

He knocked on the door.

There was a long silence and then, as he raised his hand to knock again, a mumbled voice from behind it asked, "Wh'm'th'r?"

"What?" Rodney said.

The door opened a crack. A bloodshot eye peeked through.

"Kavanagh?" As Kavanagh recognized him, the bloodshot eye widened and the door started to close. "Wait! Wait! I'm here to buy drugs!"

The door paused in its swing. "Huh?"

"Drugs. I need to buy some. Well, antibiotics actually."

The door opened just a bit wider, so that he could see the drug dealer looking him up and down -- over the barrel of a shotgun, pointed at Rodney's head. "Most people go to the pharmacist for that."

When Rodney was scared -- and having a shotgun pointed at him did have that effect -- he had a tendency to babble. "Let's just say I can't but I heard you might have some and I really do need it and I can pay and -- Uh, maybe I'll just go away now."

"If you're wearing a wire, I'll shoot you."

"No wire!" Rodney's voice was just a squeak of terror now. "Look, nothing, see?" He ripped open his collar and pulled it wide to reveal his shoulders and the upper part of his chest.

Kavanagh groaned and shut his eyes for a moment. "For God's sake, put it away." He opened his eyes again; they narrowed, speculatively. "Let me see your cash."

"Oh no, I know how this works. I show you the money, you kill me and take the money."

The bloodshot eyes rolled skyward. "I'm trying to run a business here, okay? And I don't extend credit. Just show me the cash."

Hoping desperately that Sheppard was a good shot and, even more importantly, a fast shot, Rodney dug in his pocket and let the edge of the money peek out. "See? Cash. Now show me the drugs."

"How much you need?"

"I don't know? A lot? She's pretty sick -- here, look, however much this will buy me." He pulled out a random handful and handed it through the door.

Kavanagh snatched it out of his hand. "You suck at haggling," the drug dealer informed him, thumbing through the bills.

"I know," Rodney said.

"Hang on." The door closed, and Rodney fidgeted in the sun, until he heard Kavanagh's shuffling footsteps coming back, and tensed up. The door cracked open again, and a ziploc bag was deposited into his hand.

"There's only six pills in here."

"I know. It's the newer kind. One a day. Heavy-duty stuff. Oh, and the sixth pill's morphine. Whoever it's for, in case they're in pain. New customer special. Nice doin' business with you." The door slammed.

"What, don't I even get a -- a product fact sheet, or anything?" Rodney demanded of the closed door. He held up the baggie at eye level, squinting at the capsules. They looked like antibiotics. On the other hand, for all he knew about drugs, they could have been horse pills.

With dawning amazement that he'd survived an actual encounter with a genuine drug dealer, he scurried back to the car and shoved the baggie at Sheppard. "Here. Do these look like antibiotics to you?"

"I don't know. I guess so." Sheppard pinched them between his fingers and stared at them, holding the bag so close to his face that he was almost cross-eyed.

Rodney slammed the car into gear and sped out of Kavanagh's driveway before the little weasel could change his mind and decide to shoot them instead. As the trailer receded behind them, his heart rate slowed from heart-attack-inducing levels to merely uncomfortably fast.

"I can't believe I did that. I just bought something on the black market. Me. Rodney McKay. And he had a gun and I didn't freak out -- much -- and I was ... I was cool, Sheppard!" He felt like a total dork, getting this excited about it -- but, damn. True, he'd been working for the CIA at the age of eighteen, but he'd never been out of a lab. It was different to be out here in the field, doing this kind of thing for real.

"I know. You were cool." Sheppard was grinning infectiously at him.

On his way back through town, Rodney stopped at the post office to pick up his certified letter. Wonder of wonders, the little window was actually open; the post office had exactly one employee, who both delivered the mail and staffed the window, on those rare occasions when she felt capable of facing the public.

Sheppard wandered off to check his mail, and Rodney strolled up to the window. After standing there for a minute or two, and being ignored, he cleared his throat. The postmistress jumped, sending the pile of letters that she'd been sorting all over the floor, and began hiccuping.

"A little service would be nice."

"Sorry, sir," she managed between hiccups, scrambling around to pick up the letters in a flustered kind of way.

"So -- could I actually get service? This millennium, maybe?"

Rodney gave her the postal slip and waited while she hunted around in the back, popping up occasionally to reassure him that she'd have it -- hic! -- in just a minute, and then vanishing again. She never once made eye contact.

Rodney had never really figured out if she was pathologically shy, or just terrified of him specifically -- or both.

Eventually, he signed for the letter and turned away, glancing at the return address. It was from the CIA. Rodney's stomach curled into a ball, and he swallowed. He stuck the letter in his pocket without opening it.

"All done?" Sheppard asked impatiently, coming up with a handful of catalogs and a Soldier of Fortune magazine.

"Yeah. Done." The letter burned in his pocket like a live coal. He steadfastly ignored it. "Let's see if Teyla survived our absence." She'd better have survived. He hadn't risked his life so that she could inconsiderately drop dead.

She was still alive, but limp and sweaty. Sheppard lifted up her torso and gently coaxed her to swallow one of the pills. Rodney looked away, jealous and, at the same time, glad that he wasn't the one having to do it.

He went out and sat on Sheppard's hot, dusty porch -- honestly, had the man never heard of air conditioning? -- and opened the letter. As he'd suspected, it was a job offer, and the pay they were willing to offer made his eyes go wide. Apparently he hadn't burned all his bridges, after all.

Rodney sighed, crumpled up the letter and stuck it deep in his pocket. He so didn't want to deal with this right now.

He heard Sheppard's distinctive clunking footsteps coming up behind him -- one normal, one dragging. "You staying for dinner?" Sheppard asked.

He ought to get back to town. He didn't want to get involved with these people. He had a job offer waiting for him in DC, where the buildings actually had air conditioning and all the damsels in distress were somebody else's problem.

But, free food.

"Sure."

Sheppard cooked something that involved pasta, while Rodney sat on the back of the couch, feeling useless, and watched Teyla sleep, occasionally changing the cold compress on her forehead. "She still looks way too hot," he reported.

"Antibiotics take days to work, Rodney," Sheppard called back from the kitchen.

"I know that." Then he looked down and discovered that a pair of fever-glazed dark eyes were open and staring at him. "Oh. Uh. Hi." In a moment of panic, he yelled in the direction of the kitchen, "Sheppard! She's awake! Uh ... I think."

Teyla blinked slowly. As Sheppard nearly fell over himself sliding into the living room, she turned her head and blinked in his direction, too. "John," she said in a soft voice.

"And Rodney," Rodney said, indignantly.

Her lips curved up a little. "And Rodney," she agreed, her voice a breathy whisper.

"We got antibiotics for you," Sheppard told her. "So you'll be all better in no time."

"Assuming that they're actually antibiotics and not laced with -- ow!" Rodney cringed as Sheppard elbowed him in the stomach.

Teyla frowned blearily up at them. "I do not know that word."

"Medicine," Sheppard said. "You have an infection. This'll fix it."

"Bought 'em off a drug dealer," Rodney put in.

"Yeah, Rodney's got the strangest friends."

"He's not a friend --"

Teyla's forehead creased. "You did this for me?"

"As opposed to letting you lay there and die, yeah," Rodney said brusquely.

"Crazy gringos," Teyla mumbled in an affectionate kind of way, and drifted off to sleep.


IX. Coyote Steve

Since Teyla had the couch, and John took the bed, Rodney spent the night on the cot. This was getting to be a habit ... and one that was exceedingly bad on his back. Waking up slowly to the smell of cooking bacon, he reminded himself that he needed, very badly, not to get too involved with these people.

But there was bacon. He'd always been a sucker for bacon.

"Overcooked things a tad," Sheppard said, scraping slightly blackened bacon and eggs onto their plates. "Heat regulation on that stove is a bit of an art."

Rodney snorted and dumped copious amounts of pepper on his eggs. "Why don't you take one of your fat wads of cash and buy a new stove?"

"I'm not made of money, McKay. I don't work, so I'm living on my savings."

Suddenly Rodney felt guilty for eating John's food. Annoyed with himself, then, he took second helpings.

There was a sudden squeak and then a thump from the living room as Teyla woke up and rolled off the couch. She blinked woozily up at the two anxious gringos hovering over her.

"Your fever broke last night, I think," John said, helping her back up onto the couch. "Are you hungry? Do you want anything?"

Teyla blinked slowly, thinking about this. "I think I would like a drink of water," she said finally, in a faint, raspy voice.

Rodney jumped up. "I'll get it." He was sick and tired of feeling useless around here. Soon he was back with a beer stein full of water -- proper glasses seemed to be another thing that Sheppard didn't own.

Teyla drank, and then with a little help from Sheppard, made it upstairs to the bathroom and shower. Rodney followed him back down to the kitchen and watched him heat up a can of soup. "You like this sort of thing," Rodney accused him.

"Hmm?" Sheppard looked up, all spiky hair and innocent green eyes.

"You like this stuff, taking care of people, don't you? You're one of those."

"One of those?" Sheppard mimicked in a lazy drawl, tipping the soup into a cup.

"What, have you turned into a parrot now? You heard me. I thought I had you figured -- living out here with your truck and your guns, farming rocks and shooting at planes. Crazy hermitude is something I can, kinda, almost get my mind around. But this ..." He waved his hands around him, aware of Sheppard's eyes on him with something sharper and darker behind the lazy amusement. "Why are you here? I'd expect to find you, I don't know, working with abused quadriplegic orphans or something other disgustingly heartwarming vocation."

"I like living alone," Sheppard said, with a sharp undercurrent of Leave it alone, McKay.

"Yeah," Rodney muttered, "sure you do."

Teyla limped into the kitchen just then, her hair dark with water and wearing another of Sheppard's T-shirts. She was holding onto the wall for support. Sheppard gave up glaring at Rodney and caught her just before she fell, maneuvering her to the couch.

"I am fine," Teyla protested. The fact that she was clutching her head in both hands and trying to keep her feet from touching the floor didn't give much credence to her claims, though.

"Uh-huh." John brought her the cup of soup. Rodney, feeling more useless than ever and definitely out of place in this disturbingly domestic little scene, edged towards the door.

"So, I'll just be -- you know, places to go, stuff to do, lots of work and ... stuff."

"Wait!" Teyla set aside the cup of soup and rose to her feet, teetering for a moment, and then limped across the room. Rodney eyed her nervously, especially when she put her arms around him and drew him into a hug.

"Um ... what was that for?" he asked when she let go. He hoped that the flaming heat in his cheeks didn't mean that he was blushing, but from Sheppard's thinly concealed smirk, he didn't have a good feeling about it.

"For helping me. I do not know how to repay you, but I hope that I will someday find a way."

"Er ..." He was acutely aware of Sheppard watching them. "There's no need for repaying and ... stuff -- I was, it was, um, yeah. You're welcome." Feeling about as uncool as it was possible to get, he flustered his way out the door.

Sheppard followed him out into the dry Texas sun. "You know, you're welcome to come back out here for dinner anytime, if you want. I know it doesn't exactly compare to the homey charms of the Atlantic Motel, but ..." He shrugged. "We've got ice cream, and enough people to play most of the major varieties of poker."

"Until her feet heal and she goes north." He didn't mean to be cruel, but the barely perceptible slump of Sheppard's shoulders let him know that he'd cut deeper than he intended.

"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Until then."

Feeling like a Grade-A cad, Rodney reminded himself that this sort of thing was why he needed to get away from these people as quickly as possible. The CIA letter felt hot in his pocket. "One of these nights," he lied, and pretended that he didn't notice Sheppard watch him drive away.

He checked for cell phone reception at several points between Sheppard's ranch and town, finally getting three glorious bars on top of a ridge that had simply no business being part of a road. With the countryside spread out at his feet in glorious green, red and gray, and completely failing to notice it, he called the CIA and was bounced around between different departments until finally they redirected him to Weir.

"Elizabeth. Rodney. I'll do it," he said, and hung up before she could ask for particulars. He dropped the phone on the seat beside him, cranked the air conditioning and tried not to think about it on the rest of the drive to town.

Back at the motel, he showered and then stared at the mess of dirty laundry, takeout containers and dog-eared scientific journals scattered around the room. He contemplated packing, and then procrastinated by driving into the "city" -- as the locals called it -- and hiding out in a darkened theater all afternoon, watching a series of asinine and instantly forgettable movies. In lieu of trying to follow the banal plots, he tried listing the many benefits of living in DC.

Starbucks, he thought. Restaurants. Wireless that actually works. People who discuss more intellectually stimulating topics than last night's episode of "Hee Haw". CIVILIZATION.

But every time he tried to make that list, he found himself, sooner or later, thinking of Teyla, limping across the room in her sock feet to hug him, and Sheppard saying, You're welcome to come back anytime ...

He got Chinese food and ate in the car as he drove back to the motel over twenty miles of potholes. He was packing tonight, by God, and leaving first thing in the morning.

He pulled into the parking lot of the Atlantic Motel just as the sun began to set. A surprisingly cool wind shivered in his hair when he got out of the car, and he stood for a moment, looking at the surreally beautiful hills. Then he shook off the mood and headed for his hotel room.

The door opened under his hand when he reached out with the key, and he was thinking in surprise, Crap, I must've forgotten to -- when motion exploded in his peripheral vision and suddenly he was up against the wall of his room with the air being crushed out of him and an unshaven face six inches from his own.

"I hear you been buying antibiotics, McKay." Coyote Steve twisted Rodney's shirt into a knot under his chin. "Who you buyin' em for?"

Rodney managed a gargling sound.

"Jesus, Steve, he can't talk if you choke him to death." There was a harsh laugh. "You can do that later."

Ohmygod, Rodney thought, I'm going to die. He tried to remember where his gun was. In the car, probably.

Steve laughed, easing off on his grip. It was an ugly sound. "Don't need to kill him, Bob. It's 'Look the Other Way' McKay. Everybody in town knows that all he wants is to stay as far away from trouble as possible."

"Hey!" Rodney protested weakly.

Steve and one of his buddies shoved him down into the motel room's single chair, and bound his hands and feet to the frame with -- oh lord, he really was in redneck hell -- bungee cords.

"Now, let's chat." Steve sat on the edge of the motel bed -- a bit carefully, with one arm around his middle, and Rodney remembered that he'd been supposedly stabbed just a few days ago. Still, he looked about as healthy as he ever looked, with his crooked teeth and sallow skin. "I hear you been running around town with the crazy guy that bought the old Sumner place -- what's his name -- Sheppard? Hear you been buying up antibiotics. Couldn't be drugs to fix a sick wetback, huh? You two keeping a piece of Mexican tail stashed in the hills?"

"She's not Mexican, you moron," Rodney said, and God, he really did need to do something about his smart mouth one of these days.

Pain exploded across the side of his face. One of Steve's microcephalic buddies had hit him. Rodney licked his lips, tasting a salty sting that might be sweat or blood. A steady litany ran through his head: Be brave, be brave, be brave...

"Now Mike, no need to go gettin' rough with our cop friend here." Steve smiled, showing a row of hideous tobacco-stained teeth. "He already told us what I wanted to know. Didn't ya?"

And crap, he had, hadn't he? He'd given them away. Rodney closed his eyes briefly in despair.

"Lucky for you, a man can go up the river long and hard for killing a fed." Steve stood up, looming over Rodney. "There's no need for us to kill you, right? Because you're going to stay out of our way. Right?"

Rodney swallowed and almost gagged on the dryness in his throat. For the first time in his life, he was literally scared speechless.

Steve backhanded him hard across the face, snapping his head to the side. "I said, you gonna stay out of our way. I can't hear your answer, McKay."

"Okay," Rodney whispered.

"Good boy." Steve reached out and grabbed Rodney's face with one dirty hand, squeezing to open his mouth. As Rodney made incoherent protesting noises, Steve jammed a rag between his jaws. He choked and tried not to think about where it had been.

"Now," the coyote said, stepping back. "You just stay out of this, McKay, and you ain't gonna have trouble with us. This has nothing to do with you. This is between me, that bitch, and the asshole who's been hiding her." He laughed again. "If anything, I'm doing you a favor. Since you don't like getting your hands dirty, we'll do your job for you. One less wetback in the country. Hey, you might even get a promotion, huh?"

They filed out of the room, laughing, as McKay trembled with rage -- and not all of it at them. Steve was the last one to leave, and he turned back, the laughter gone. "I'm serious," he said softly. "Stay out of this. All you have to do is walk away."

The door closed softly behind them.

They're going after Teyla. And thanks to you, idiot, they know exactly where to find her.

Rodney wrenched at his bonds. Fortunately, bungee cords -- being stretchy -- didn't hold up very well to prolonged wriggling. Soon he was free and lurching towards the door. He froze at the thought that they might have left someone behind to guard him, but peeking out the door showed him only the weed-strewn parking lot with his Lexus parked at the edge. The sun had set, and the sky was the color of blood.

"Gotta warn them," Rodney muttered. He pulled out his cell phone, and then remembered belatedly that Sheppard had no phone. Also, he was only getting one bar. "Stupid freaking antiquated cell phone towers!"

The motel office. He started towards it. He could call the sheriff's office, get some backup, send somebody out to Sheppard's ranch --

-- whereupon they would arrest Teyla and deport her, and arrest Sheppard for helping her.

Crap.

He stood in the parking lot, desperately torn.

If the choice was between being deported, or being dead ...

But for Teyla, it might well be one and the same. Sheppard had been right, when he'd said that she would just try again, and maybe wouldn't make it this time. And he could guess what Sheppard would want, if it was left up to him.

"Son of a bitch," Rodney groaned, and ran to the Lexus. The engine purred smoothly to life. He gunned it and tore out of the parking lot.

In the movies, there was always a convenient back route to get to the beleaguered farm ahead of the outlaws. In this case, though, he was pretty sure that the road was the only way, and certainly the most direct. Why on Earth couldn't Sheppard have a phone like a normal person? Now all he could do was drive like a bat out of hell and hope he could catch up to Steve and his buddies, and then somehow get around them without getting shot or run off the road. And even if he did make it to Sheppard's place, hopefully the ex-military guy would have a plan for how to hold off a half-dozen angry rednecks, because Rodney was certainly drawing a blank.

Jolting along over ruts that were probably killing his transmission, he reached into the glove box and located his gun. He tossed it onto the seat beside him. Maybe he could take some of them with him, before they killed him horribly.

He could see why Sheppard had warned him about driving this road in the dark. It was bad enough in the daylight, but at night, he couldn't see the potholes or loose rocks until the car slewed across them. He knew from driving it by daylight that there were some pretty steep drop-offs along the fifteen miles to Sheppard's ranch. If Coyote Steve didn't get him, the road probably would.

This was crazy and stupid. He couldn't imagine what he was going to accomplish other than getting himself hurt quite badly and probably killed. On the other hand, he had exactly two friends in the world, and Steve and his psycho buddies were going to kill them if he didn't do something.

Friends.

Crazy.

He passed the lonely lights of the last neighbor's house, and thought about stopping, calling for help, turning around. But then he was past it, the Lexus gamely bounding over the sun-baked cracks in the road. And there, up ahead of him, he saw the distant glimmer of taillights.

Rodney's hands tightened convulsively on the steering wheel. The road was climbing now, heading up into the hills where Sheppard lived. He kept losing sight of the taillights as Steve's truck vanished over each dip in the road, but it always reappeared again, climbing up the other side. And he was gaining on them.

Now if he could just figure out what to do when he got there.

Shoot out their tires? Yeah, right. On solid ground, with both hands on his gun and all the time in the world to aim, he could barely hit a target. Trying to shoot from a moving car -- he'd be lucky if he didn't blow his own ear off.

The truck was close enough that he could hear the growl of its engine. His headlights washed over it, and he could see the good ol' boys -- and a couple of mangy dogs -- in the truck bed staring at him. Some of them had shotguns.

"Look the Other Way McKay huh?" Rodney said between his teeth, and rammed them with the Lexus.

It was flamboyant and daring, and would probably have worked beautifully in the movies. Unfortunately, the truck just slewed around and then recovered, while the front of the Lexus crumpled like a sheet of printer paper.

But it hadn't killed his engine, and the truck had swung around so that it was broadside to him. Undeterred, Rodney came in for another hit. He didn't even really have to cripple the truck; all he had to do was run it off the narrow road so that he could get around it.

This time, Steve gunned the truck at the moment of impact, rotating so that it took the impact on its rear bumper. There was a horrible shrieking metal sound, and the Lexus coughed and died.

Rodney screamed obscenities that he'd forgotten he knew, twisting the key in the ignition desperately. Then the doors of his car were yanked open, and he managed to snap off one lucky shot that utterly missed anyone, before the gun was knocked from his hand and a hard blow to the lower back sent him sprawling in the sand at Steve's feet.

"All you had to do was walk away." Steve sounded amused and maybe a little disappointed in him.

"Go to hell," Rodney said, spitting sand.

"You first." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of Steve's buddies aiming a shotgun at his head, and squeezed his eyes shut.

The anticipated explosion never came. Rodney peeked one eye open, to see Steve pushing the gun away.

"Don't be stupid, Mike -- he's a fed," Steve snapped. "There's gonna be an investigation here. Don't put a bullet in him. Hell of a lot of ways to kill someone out here and make it look like an accident."

Oh, this isn't good, Rodney thought, as he was hauled to his feet with his arms twisted behind his back. Around his feet, the dogs snarled at him.

"You said it yourself, I'm a fed!" They were dragging him off the road, his feet stumbling along as he tried to keep up. "They'll come looking for me! If you just let me go, no one's going to --"

Pain exploded in the side of his head, sending pinwheels of sparks cascading through his vision. He gasped, blinking tear-filled eyes to see Steve holding a jagged, fist-sized rock. There was blood on it. His blood.

"Looks like you're about to have an accident." Steve hit him in the head again with the rock. Dazed and dizzy, he didn't put up a fight as he was dragged down the hillside into a ditch beside the road. There was a culvert here, old and clogged with sand and brush.

"That's a good place, boys. Put him there."

Rodney stifled a cry of pain as he was dumped into the dark space like a sack of laundry. Rocks and sand cascaded on top of him, and the moment when he realized that they were burying him alive was the moment he could no longer hold back his screams.

"We'll come back in a few days, dig you up and dump you somewhere a little more outta the way," Steve said from far off, sounding thoughtful. "No incriminating bullet holes, see? Dump the car in the ocean, maybe. By the time they find your corpse, there won't be enough left to figure out what happened to you."

He couldn't move. The weight of the rocks was crushing him. Curling his arms over his throbbing head, he tried to create a little air space to breathe in.

Steve was still talking, but his voice was muffled and distant now. And finally the digging sounds stopped completely, or were blocked out, and Rodney was alone, immobile and hurt and trembling in the dark, trying not to count his own breaths. The thing that astonished him, though, was that as terrified as he was of his own impending, unpleasant demise, he was more scared for Sheppard and Teyla.


X. Siege

After Rodney left, Teyla drank some of the soup, took another antibiotic pill and then fell asleep on the couch. John went outside and did some maintenance on the shed, repairing holes in the roof and cleaning out an old wasp's nest under the eaves.

Restlessness haunted him this afternoon. He couldn't seem to stick to one task. He left the roof half-patched and started polishing the chrome on the bike; then, with that half-done, he went and located the partially carved chess queen that he'd thrown at Rodney the other night, and worked on it for a little while, but his heart wasn't in it.

Damn it, he'd been -- not happy, really, but content. And now he wasn't. He couldn't stop thinking about Teyla leaving, going north to look for her brother. And he wanted to know why he was so anxious about Rodney, too. Even the heat felt ominous this afternoon, like something waiting, hovering. John looked to the southeast, where the storm clouds usually rolled in, but the sky was clear.

He went into the house, expecting Teyla to be asleep. Instead, she was lying on the couch with her head propped up, looking at one of John's books -- he glimpsed pictures of F14s. As soon as he came in, she scrambled hastily upright. "I am sorry! I have not meant to be lazy; I must repay you for all your kindness. I could make dinner, if you would like."

John sat down on the end of the couch. "Teyla, I don't know how many times I have to say it. You don't owe me a damn thing. It's been a hell of a long time since I had anyone but myself to cook for. I like it, all right? Right now, you're sick and you need to rest. And you're welcome to stay here as long as you like." He grinned crookedly. "Yesterday Rodney and I did some calling around for your brother, and I found a guy who might know him. So you at least need to stay until he gets back to us."

Teyla stared at him, her eyes wide and bright. "I cannot repay this," she said in a soft, tiny voice.

"There's nothing to repay." He couldn't explain it, even to himself -- how helping her had filled a place in him that had been dead and empty for a very long time.

"It has just been so long since..." She swallowed, pressing her hand against her mouth, and murmured something in Spanish. When she got control of herself, she said, "My mother died when I was young. When I was teenage grown, my father and Charin, my beloved grandmother who is not really of my blood, were both shot by the rebels. Since then, I have always been the one to take care of others. I had forgotten what it is like, to have someone take care of me."

Her gratitude made him uncomfortable, fidgety. "Well, maybe one of these days you'll get a chance to take care of me, huh? That's how it works, right?"

She smiled in a way that looked dangerously close to tears, so he got up quickly and limped into the kitchen. "Still got some of the soup left."

"I would like that."

He brought her soup and another glass of water, and first-aid supplies so that she could change the bandages on her feet. It was growing dim in the living room as the sun lowered behind the western hills. The restlessness was still with him; he found himself pacing, his bad leg dragging on the floor.

The sound of car tires crunching on the gravel in the yard made him jump.

"Is that Rodney?" Teyla asked, looking up hopefully.

"Too big." John lifted the blinds on the front window to peer out into the yard. He recognized the vehicle, a battered old Landcruiser that belonged to his neighbor down the hill.

The whole time he'd lived out here, he'd never gotten a single visitor. Now they were coming fast and thick. John grabbed his jacket from the chair by the door, touched the pocket to be sure the Beretta was still there. "Stay in here," he told Teyla, and stepped out onto the porch.

The sun was low, slanting in his eyes. The Landcruiser idled as he approached, and old man Caldwell leaned out the window. Caldwell was retired military, same as John, but of a different and harder generation; they'd butted heads at first, but over the past few months had come to an uneasy sort of mutual respect, though not actual friendliness. Sheppard couldn't imagine that he'd drive over five miles of rutted road just to pay a social call.

"Howdy," Caldwell said, killing the engine.

John raised an eyebrow. "Howdy."

"Since you got no phone, just thought I'd come up and warn you. Some of the boys in town have been asking around about you."

"Which ones?" But he thought he knew.

"Steve, Bob, Michael. That bunch." Caldwell's mouth twisted.

"You know what they want?"

"No. Just that they were trying to find out who you were, where you lived."

John's stomach crawled. "Thanks," he said, and meant it. "Thanks for the warning." He was genuinely touched.

Caldwell shrugged and started the engine again. "Folks round here look out for each other," he said. "But there's still a bad element, like everywhere. Steve and his bunch, they're trouble. Mixed up in some pretty dirty stuff, smuggling and the like."

"Yeah. I've heard."

"It's not my business. But if you've done something to get on their bad side, I'd lay low for a few days. Go see friends in the city. Take a road trip."

"Thanks. I'll think about it."

Caldwell raised a hand in a wave, and revved the engine. Gears clunked as the Landcruiser started the slow descent into the valley. The last rays of the setting sun painted its dust cloud pink and red.

John stared after it for a moment before going back into the house. He found Teyla hovering just inside the door, holding a heavy iron skillet like a weapon, and was touched all over again. She said nothing, but her eyes asked the question.

"Neighbor," John explained. "Wanted to warn me that Coyote Steve and his bunch have been asking about me in town. Guess my little excursion with Rodney yesterday wasn't as low-key as we'd hoped."

"You mean when you obtained medicine for me." Her brow furrowed, and then she limped as quickly as possible into the kitchen and set down the skillet. Back in the living room, she scooped up the bag of tablets on the table.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

"I am leaving, John. Where is my dress? I will give your clothing back to you."

"Hey, hey!" John grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him. "You're going nowhere -- not without me, anyway."

"I have brought danger to you, John, and perhaps to Rodney too. This is exactly what I did not want to happen."

"Teyla --" Damn it, how did he explain? "You're my friend and if they want you, they're going to have to go through me to get to you. Is that plain enough for you?"

She stared at him in amazement. Then her lips firmed into a hard line -- the face of the woman who had stabbed a would-be rapist and survived for days, barefoot, in the desert. "You are mistaken, John Sheppard," she said quietly. "They will have to go through me to get to you."

That tugged on a part of him that hadn't been touched in a long time. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Old man Caldwell suggested that I just get out of Dodge for a few days until the heat dies down. Doesn't sound like a bad idea to me."

"Out of Dodge?" she echoed.

"Figure of speech. Means leave town. And that wouldn't be a bad idea in any case. We can take the bike, go up north, look for your brother. Think you're up to a trip like that?"

"Wherever you are going, I will go," she said firmly.

"Yeah, that's great, but don't let me push you too hard and make you sick again, okay?" He went into the kitchen, and began filling a sack with the perishable and portable foods -- bread, apples, Twinkies.

"We are leaving now? You said that the road is not safe at night."

"It's not, but I've done it before -- we'll just take it slow and careful. I'd wait until tomorrow, but I want to warn Rodney tonight. There's no way to know how much these creeps know about his involvement in this. Then we'll just clear out of town for a little while, and come back once they stop looking for you." Looking over his shoulder, he saw her standing stoop-shouldered and forlorn in the doorway. It was obvious that she felt guilty, and he could guess why. "Listen, I do this kind of thing all the time -- drop what I'm doing at a moment's notice and take off on the bike for a few days. It's how I live. It's not a big deal to me." With the ease of practice, he put together a quick roadside cooking kit -- skillet and saucepan, knife, salt, a few utensils. Mindful of having an extra person along, he took two cups and two forks and spoons, rather than one as usual.

"May I help?" Teyla asked, following him to the door.

"Not really. Like I said, I've done this a lot; I've got it down to a science." He opened the door and stepped out into the warm dusk, already running down a mental checklist. As he'd told Teyla, he had done this so many times that it was second nature by now -- although not usually under threat of impending redneck rampage. He'd need to go upstairs and get a change of clothes and a toothbrush ... and need to remember to unplug all the appliances except the freezer. It was possible that Steve and his buddies would break in and rob the place, but he didn't have anything valuable in it. He'd come into town with nothing but the contents of his Harley saddlebags, and he didn't mind leaving the same way.

It would suck to have to fix the house if Steve and company trashed it, though. He knew it wasn't running away, but it certainly felt like it. If he'd had no one but himself to worry about, he'd probably have stayed. But there was Teyla, and he was worried about Rodney in town.

As John stowed the food in the saddlebags, Teyla called softly, "John."

"What?" The urgency in her voice worried him. She was standing on the porch in a pool of lamplight, looking out towards the dark hills and the distant glow of lights that marked the town.

But there was a nearer light: a flicker in the darkness, appearing and disappearing as the hills concealed and revealed it.

Headlights.

"Damn it," John whispered. He'd had no idea they'd be so fast.

Near as he could tell, they were about two or three miles out. Even with the road slowing them down, he and Teyla had ten or fifteen minutes before they'd be here, tops.

He started for the house at the closest thing he could manage to a run -- a fast, awkward trot. Teyla jumped back to let him by. "Could it be Rodney, maybe?" she asked.

"Doubt it." After all his warnings about driving the road in the dark, he really didn't think that even a desperate Rodney would try it. And it was possible that it was old man Caldwell coming back for some reason, but he wasn't going to bet his life on it.

"Teyla, I have a pair of boots by the back door. My feet are a lot bigger than yours, but with the bandages and everything, you should be able to wear them if you put on an extra pair of socks." He climbed the stairs three at a time with his good leg -- screw the toothbrush, but there was a shotgun in the bedroom. Rodney seemed to have pegged him as some kind of gun nut, and he wished that it was actually the case. All he had was the Beretta and an old twelve-gauge Mossberg that he kept around for shooting rattlesnakes and, if necessary, home defense. In the bedroom, he also grabbed a spare jacket for Teyla; despite the heat of the day, it could get cold in the hills at night.

"Can you shoot a gun?" he called down from the top of the stairs.

"Yes," she said simply.

He decided it was probably better not to ask where she'd learned. "Here; you take this one." He didn't know how good a shot she was, so it was probably better to give her the shotgun. Hitting anything in the dark with the pistol would be a trick. "Pump action, six round magazine. Here's the box of shells. You know how to load it?"

"I have used something similar before."

"Good enough." He had a box of ammo for the Beretta in the bike's saddlebags and another half-box in his pocket. They weren't exactly loaded for a siege. Hopefully, they wouldn't have to deal with anything like that, though. He was expecting some pissed-off and possibly drunk good ol' boys looking for a fight; with any luck, a few shots would chase them off. Abandoning the house was probably overkill, but he didn't want to risk getting trapped, because it sure as hell wasn't designed to repel invaders. There were three different doors, all of them flimsy enough that Teyla, in her present condition, could probably have knocked them off their hinges.

He put "remodel house for defensibility" on his mental to-do list for when they got back.

It was almost totally dark in the yard now, as Sheppard closed and locked the door. The only light was a blood-red slash of fading sunset. He could hear the approaching truck's engine, rising and falling as it labored up and down the hills. It was definitely not Rodney's light car, but the deep throaty roar of a V-8.

"What is your plan?" Teyla asked quietly, following him to the Harley with the shotgun held at her side.

"There's an old cow pasture up that way, and an old road -- really more of a dirt track -- that goes to it. Plan A is just to take the bike up there and wait'll they leave." He straddled it, waited until Teyla climbed on behind, and then kick-started the engine. "If they start looking for us or look like they're settling in for a while, Plan B is to go around them and get on the road, heading for town. Once we do that, we're home free, because over that sort of terrain, we can go a lot faster on the bike than they'll be able to manage on anything with four wheels."

As long as they stayed on the bike, he was confident they'd be fine. On foot, though -- no way. Neither one of them could run. It was one reason why he didn't want to be caught in the house, because if it came to hand-to-hand combat or having to outrun an opponent, he and Teyla were both at a severe disadvantage: him with his leg and gimpy arm, her with her feet in tatters.

"Do you think they will leave?" she asked as he peeled out of the yard, the bike sliding around on the gravel before straightening out on the rough road to the upper pasture.

"I hope so." He had to concentrate on driving, then. He hadn't done a lot of offroading on the bike, and his stronger right arm was forced to do most of the work, fighting the ruts that tried to snatch control from him. He could feel the places where his left arm had been broken -- not severe pain, but little twinges pricking at him every time he tried to wrench the front of the bike around.

He could tell that he wasn't going to make the upper pasture before the truck pulled into the yard, so he turned around at the first set of leaning fence posts, standing forlornly in the dusk with a few lonely strands of rusty barbed wire swinging between them. He killed the bike's headlamp, and then its engine. Hot metal pinged quietly as, a couple hundred yards below them, a pair of headlights washed across the darkened house.

Teyla leaned against his back, warm in the cooling evening air. She said, very softly, "I hope that Rodney is all right."

"Yeah, me too." Up until a couple of days ago, he would have been confident that Rodney was too self-interested to get involved with someone else's problems. But that was before Rodney had walked up to a drug dealer's house to buy antibiotics for Teyla. Now he wasn't so sure.

The truck idled in the front yard of the house. John and Teyla watched as Steve's gang roved around the dark structure. John winced at the distant, splintering crash of a door being kicked in. His hand tightened on his Beretta. God, he wanted to be down there, defending his property from those jerks.

But the house was just wood and paint. He could feel Teyla pressed against his back -- her warmth and the slow rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. He listened to voices below, and the sound of shattering glass as a window was broken, and he kept his breathing slow and controlled, matching it to Teyla's breaths. Just a house, just wood and paint. What mattered was on the motorcycle behind him ... what mattered was in town, and safe, he hoped.

Teyla suddenly sat upright. "Dogs," she whispered.

John's stomach clenched, and he squinted at the play of shadow and light beneath them. From up here, it was difficult to make out anything that was happening around the house, but Teyla was right. He saw one of Steve's gang cross in front of the headlights with two dogs on leashes. Flashlights sparked to life in the darkness, casting about.

John's mouth had gone dry. He'd been thinking of these guys as rednecks, but Steve, and probably some of his buddies as well, were used to making money through the difficult and dangerous work of guiding illegals across the border. They were comfortable in the desert, and familiar with the area.

His estimation of Teyla went up another few notches. She'd managed to avoid these people while injured and barefoot in a strange country.

Teyla's voice hissed urgently in his ear. "John, they are coming towards us."

It was impossible to tell if they were following the motorcycle's tracks, or if the dogs had caught a scent, or if Steve and his buddies had just located the old road and decided to see if their quarry were hiding down it. John watched them searching the area around the outbuildings, and then start up the road towards the upper pasture -- and the fugitives.

His heart beat faster and his senses heightened, becoming hyper-aware of everything around him -- the sound of the wind in the rocks, the smell of the Harley's dissipating exhaust, the feeling of Teyla's hand on his waist. He shifted his weight and the pain in his leg shivered up his nerve endings with a silvery flash.

For years, this had been his life, this wary dance of hunter and hunted. Sometimes he'd been the predator, other times the prey, and always, as now, his only goal had been to get out alive and protect the people in his care.

He might be able to get past them with a frontal assault, simply charging down the trail and trusting that their sense of self-preservation would make them get out of his way, but he hated to try it. Impact with a human body could easily throw the motorcycle off its wheels, and once it was down, they'd be pretty well screwed. Also, getting so close to armed enemies was a dangerous and desperate thing to do. The other option was to try to go around them, but that wasn't good either -- off-roading in the dark, over unfamiliar terrain.

Of the two options, though, the one that kept the most distance between them and their pursuers was probably the best. John tucked the Beretta back in his pocket.

"I'm going to take the bike down the hill," he told Teyla softly. "Hang on, and don't drop the shotgun."

He kicked the Harley to life. The sharp beam of the headlight illuminated two very startled-looking men, both armed and one holding a dog's leash. John wrenched the handlebars and took off down the side of the hill. He heard gunshots, but he was counting on being a moving, hard-to-hit target. The bike slid around wildly, bouncing off rocks with a series of bone-jarring impacts.

"John!" Teyla cried urgently. The headlight's beam flashed off a double strand of barbed wire -- they were heading straight toward it.

"Sonovabitch!" The abandoned ranch was crisscrossed with old barbed-wire fencing, so much a part of his landscape that he hadn't even thought about it. John braked hard, sending the bike spinning on its suddenly stationary tires. No, shit, don't flip -- He got control, pointing back up the hill with his heart battering his ribs. Wiping out on these rocks could easily be fatal for both of them.

"That was effing stupid," John muttered. From above them, he could hear shouts and running feet. "There are pieces of fencing all over this place. In the darkness, we won't be able to avoid them. Shoulda gone with a frontal assault."

"Now what?" Teyla asked softly, her heart fluttering against his spine.

"I don't know. Hang on."

He opened up the throttle and cruised alongside the broken fence, gritting his teeth as they bounded over rocks and crashed through a stand of brush. He'd meant to cut straight down the hill to the road, but now he was going to come out too high. He just wasn't sure how high ...

Much too high, he found, coming out of the brush and slewing onto the lower part of the road that led to the upper cow pasture. The house, the truck and the majority of Steve's boys still lay between him and escape.

Rather than turning and heading for the house, Sheppard shot straight across the road and took the bike behind the outbuildings. There was absolutely no way to be stealthy; all he could do was keep himself a moving target and try to get around them, get on the road.

"Shall I shoot at them?" Teyla gasped as the bike slid around the end of the largest outbuilding, bringing them in full view. A bullet pinged off the corrugated metal side of the shed, just above their heads.

"No. Don't waste bullets. Moving, hard to aim." He didn't have attention or breath to spare for answering questions. Gunning the engine, he raced around the backside of the house.

He was going to have to run for it. Circling the back of the house, he gained speed on the flatter land. He was good at dodging obstacles, although usually the obstacles weren't shooting at him. If he had enough speed, they'd be through in a few seconds and on the open road.

He came around the house and gave it all he had, running for the road. As he'd hoped, the men between him and freedom scattered when the Harley bore down on them. The truck was a large dark shape in his peripheral vision, pointed away from him -- what he didn't expect was for the driver to throw it in reverse and careen towards him. He threw all that he had into taking the bike in a sudden sharp turn, but the edge of the truck clipped him and suddenly he was airborne.

Fuck.

He lost Teyla, lost the bike, hit the ground with an impact like a blow from a sledgehammer and skidded several yards with his shoulders and arms taking most of the brunt. Thank God he'd been wearing a jacket. When he stopped moving, it took him a second or two to recover from the shock and pain. Then he rolled over quickly and found himself looking up the barrel of a shotgun, at the leering face of one of Steve's friends.

"I got the woman," another voice called. Pushing his head up, John saw Teyla half-sitting in the glare of the truck's headlights, with a shotgun in her face.

Typically, now that it was too late, his brain gave him a whole bunch of different scenarios that he should have tried: hide Teyla in the hills, and make a run at Steve's gang to lead them away; spend the time barricading the house rather than hiding, and try to hold them off; stay hidden rather than running or fighting, and pick them off from cover.

Hindsight was 20-20.

He tried to sit up; the shotgun shoved him back down. His forearms, chest and legs were stinging; he'd be picking out gravel for days. As far as he could tell without checking himself over, though, he hadn't been seriously hurt in the crash. He hoped Teyla hadn't.

Steve sauntered over to Teyla, toying with a snub-nosed little automatic pistol. He was moving a bit stiffly, and John hoped that when she'd stabbed him, she'd gotten him somewhere painful. "Hi, bitch," he said, and when she didn't answer, he switched to Spanish, rattling off something that John didn't understand. Teyla obviously didn't like it, though, because she stiffened and spit at him.

"You leave her the hell alone," John growled.

"I don't think you're calling the shots here, buddy." Steve approached him with a lanky, confident stride, and knelt on the gravel to thrust his gun into John's face. "We heard about you in town. Just a cripple living out by himself in the hills. Guess you thought you'd pick up some free Tex-Mex tail, huh?"

For once, John didn't have a smart-mouthed answer to that. He was staring, almost cross-eyed, at the gun.

It was Rodney's gun. He remembered it -- remembered showing Rodney how to correctly wear his holster when they'd first met. And while it was certainly possible that Steve might own a Heckler & Koch P2000, it wasn't the kind of gun that you normally saw in the hands of a guy like Steve, in a town like this one. Guys like Steve preferred more ostentatious firepower, the kind that barely fit in a holster and couldn't be concealed under a jacket. Quantity over quality.

"Where did you get that gun?" John demanded. He barely recognized his own voice.

Steve looked down at it as if he'd forgotten he was holding it. "Nice, ain't it? Little bit small, but powerful. Say one thing for the government -- they give their boys good guns."

"Where did you get it?"

Steve grinned, revealing his crooked teeth. "You know where I got it. That cop put up more of a fight than I expected, from all I'd heard about him. Tried to protect you two. I gave him a chance to walk away, you know that? All he had to do was abandon the two of you. And he wouldn't do it. Crazy."

John's fingers curled into fists in the dirt. And then he moved, with all the speed of a lifetime's training in how to kill people.

He grabbed the shotgun with one hand and the H&K with the other, wrenching both away from his head. He'd been goddamn special ops; he'd fought, and won, against men who'd spent their entire lives on the battlefield; why was he rolling over and letting a bunch of hill-country yahoos push him around? The H&K discharged harmlessly into the ground, and the other guy was so startled that he let go of the shotgun, which John swung around and clubbed into Steve's temple. Steve's fingers went limp on the H&K and John tore it from his hand.

The guy holding the gun on Teyla bellowed, "Don't move or I'll k--" But that was as far as he got before Sheppard shot him with the H&K. It was a nice gun, a little different than his Beretta, but not so different that the many hours he'd spent target practicing on beer cans and sagebrush, keeping his shooting reflexes sharp, hadn't paid off. The guy went down with a groan, clutching his gut, and John snapped off two quick shots at the other two that he could see with guns -- one he got in the arm, and the other lost a few fingers. He wasn't trying to make kill shots, but he didn't mind hurting them a lot.

The one who'd been holding the shotgun on John made a lunge for the weapon lying in the dirt. John tripped him with his good leg and then hit him in the throat. Hearing a scuffling sound, he saw out of the corner of his eye that Teyla had capably disabled another of their assailants.

"Son of a bitch!" Steve's weight knocked him down, but John was in his element now. He was starting to understand how to work within the limitations of his body, just as he'd done before when he was fighting while wounded -- and he'd done that a lot. Steve was obviously a brawler and knew nothing about the finer points of hand-to-hand combat. John dislocated his kneecap with a kick -- Steve screamed -- and overpowered him in seconds, twisting the bigger man's arm behind his back. He didn't stop at the point of resistance, but went ahead and dislocated it with a violent jerk. From the hideous meaty sound that it made, and Steve's hoarse scream, he'd probably torn some ligaments and the rotator cuff as well. It'd be a miracle if Steve ever used that arm again.

John rolled the coyote onto his back and pressed the H&K to his throat.

"You thought I was a cripple, right? You thought I'd be an easy target." John dug the muzzle of the gun into the flesh under Steve's chin. "I'm fucking special ops, you dumb redneck. I know a dozen ways to kill you with a spoon. I've taken out entire battalions of Taliban by myself." He was exaggerating shamelessly, but he could see from the terror in Steve's eyes that Steve was buying it. "Now we're even, right? You got one arm and one leg, the same as me. How're you doing?"

Steve made a tiny whimpering sound.

John glanced over at Teyla. She was holding a shotgun on the others. Nice going, he thought.

Swallowing against the pressure of the gun in his throat, Steve groaned, "If you let me go, I'll tell you where to find the fed."

John bore down on Steve's chest with his knee. "Thought you killed him."

"No -- no, he's alive, but he'll be dead soon, if you don't do something." Steve's eyes glittered. "Let me up, and I'll tell you."

John swore in a combination of disbelief and weak-kneed relief. "You're trying to make deals with me? You've got a gun in your neck and you're making deals?" He bit down hard on the moral part of him, the part that had once swore I will never do this again, and he ground his knee into Steve's gut, where Teyla had stabbed him. Steve screamed again. "Now you tell me where to find him, and he'd better goddamn be alive."

"Road -- off your road -- there's an abandoned road, used to be a ranch out there, years ago. Dumped him in a ditch by the road, buried him alive."

"Where?" John demanded, jamming the gun against Steve's adams' apple.

He choked. "Told you -- off your road, this side of the Caldwell place. About four miles down."

"He's alive?"

"For now," Steve gasped. "Didn't hurt him that bad."

John held the gun against Steve's chin for a moment longer, then sat back on his heels. His bad leg was crimped up under him, and he was afraid if he tried to stand up, he'd fall over.

"The first thing I'm gonna do the next time I'm in town is buy myself some heavy ordnance. You've seen what I can do when I'm unarmed, you'll love what I can do with a couple of assault rifles. You and your buddies ever come back here, you won't get within a couple hundred yards of the house. I'll pick you off with a rifle and scope. Blow your brains out before you know what hit you. Got it?"

Steve nodded wildly, scrambling backwards in the dirt with one leg dragging and one arm curled against his chest.

"If you're lying, and McKay's dead, I won't bother with the police. I'll just hunt you down and kill you myself. You got that?" When Steve didn't answer immediately, John fired in the ground at his feet.

"Yes! Yeah, I got it! You're crazy, you know that?"

"I've heard," John said, and he told Teyla, "Let them go."

Teyla stepped back, still holding the shotgun on them. John had never seen a bunch of guys get into a pickup truck that fast. One of Steve's buddies got an arm around him and hauled him into the back of the truck as it was already starting to move. They tore out of the driveway, leaving darkness in their wake.

"You let them go?" Teyla asked.

"I don't want to explain a bunch of bodies in the yard, do you? If we're lucky, the idiots will wipe out on an arroyo somewhere between here and town, at the speed they're going."

John limped over to the motorcycle and turned it upright. As far as he could tell, it hadn't been badly damaged in the crash. There was some superficial paint damage and denting; he'd have to spend some quality time on bodywork, later, but he liked that sort of thing.

"You hear what Steve said about Rodney?" he asked, straddling the bike.

"Yes." Teyla climbed on behind.

John had been serious when he'd told McKay that he didn't think the road was safe in the dark. He eased down a series of switchbacks, where steep ravines waited for the unwary, and navigated around car-swallowing potholes.

"Look," Teyla said softly, pointing. The motorcycle's headlight picked out a gleam of metal, off the road. John turned and steered that way. There was an old road here; he'd never really noticed it. He brought the bike to a halt beside Rodney's Lexus. Its front end was crumpled and the driver's door stood ajar.

"Damn it." There was a flashlight in the bike's saddlebag. With the Beretta in his other hand, John played the flashlight over the car. There was no blood on the seat or bullet holes in the windows.

Teyla limped after him, studying the ground. "As a child, I was quite good at following tracks," she said.

The sand showed up tracks well. Even John could see that some scuffling had taken place here. Teyla pointed silently away from the road, and John went that way, shining the light in front of them so that she could see the ground.

Teyla tracked in silence, except for an occasional instruction: "Left" or "Not that way." She paused for a moment where the rocks were splattered with a few drops of blood; John's teeth were clenched so hard that his jaw ached. In the ditch beside the road, Teyla stopped, and knelt, and began to dig with her bare hands.

John joined her, dragging away rocks with increasing urgency. His fingertips brushed the material of Rodney's pants leg, and the leg flinched away from him.

"He's still alive," John breathed.

"I am sure they intended to let nature kill him without doing the work themselves." Teyla's voice was grim. "It was done that way sometimes in my country too, or merely as a way to make an accused man confess."

Rodney was bloody and battered and nearly catatonic, but very much alive. They dragged him out of the hole in the rocks -- John on one side, Teyla on the other. He was shivering violently, and he fisted one bloody hand in John's shirt and the other in Teyla's sleeve. "Alive," he said, his voice breaking. "You're alive." Then he slumped on Teyla, and she staggered with a gasp as she took his full weight on her injured feet.

Taking Rodney's weight from her, John's teeth clenched again when he felt the wetness against his shoulder and realized that Rodney's hair was soaked with blood. "Hospital," he said. "But I don't know how the hell I can keep him on the motorcycle --"

"Rodney's car," Teyla said immediately.

Between the two of them, they manhandled him back to the car. Teyla slid in and John handed him in to her. The keys were still in the ignition, thankfully -- although he could remember how to hotwire a car, he was glad he didn't have to -- and the engine started on the third try. It ran with an unpleasant rattling sound, but it did run.

John looked over his shoulder into the backseat, where Teyla had Rodney's head in her lap and was picking gravel out of the scrapes on his face. "You could maybe take the motorcycle back --"

She shook her head and said in a tone that brooked no argument, "I will come with you."

It was a long drive in the dark. At some point Rodney woke up, and John heard Teyla trying to reassure him in the backseat. The sound of the soft voices made something uncoil inside him, tension easing out of him as he drove.

He parked next to the hospital's emergency room entrance. Rodney was wide awake now, and snappy with Teyla's attempts to help him out of the car. "Should I be moving? Shouldn't I get a gurney or something? I'm bleeding. Did I tell you they hit me with a rock?"

The emergency room was nearly deserted. They handed off Rodney to a nurse. "Do you need to see someone too?" she asked John.

He started to say no, but then the weight of everything crashed down on him, and he realized that there wasn't a single part of his body that didn't hurt, between bruises and strained muscles and the throbbing in his leg. "Yeah, probably a good idea."

Teyla began to follow, anxiously, as he started to walk away. Raising a hand to the nurse, John took a couple of steps back to her. "You'll be all right," he told her.

"But what if ..." She looked around nervously, and he realized it was the first time she'd been out in public since crossing the border. "What if they ask me who I am, where I came from?" she asked in a whisper. "What if they learn I do not belong here?"

"You do," John said simply. "You have every right to be here. You're just waiting for some friends. No one is going to make you show papers to do that." He squeezed her shoulder. "I'll be back soon, and so will Rodney."

He tried not to think about how forlorn she looked as he limped off.

------

Teyla tried to find a comfortable way of sitting on the hard plastic chair. Eventually she moved to a softer chair near the wall. For a while, she watched the people come and go with her heart in her mouth, but John was right: no one asked for her papers, and no one asked what she was doing there. She even saw patients come in who were dark-skinned and foreign, like her. She began to relax.

There was a pile of magazines by the chair. A couple of them were even in Spanish, and she noticed that the various health brochures on the table with the magazines were written in both English and Spanish. This struck her as a good opportunity to improve her English, so she took them and spread them out in her lap. She was reading about male cancers when John came back, slump-shouldered and weary, with a bandage on his face.

"Will you be well?" she asked him. He shrugged and nodded, and sank down into the chair next to hers. He raised an eyebrow at the reading material in her lap.

"Light reading?"

"I am learning English," Teyla said primly. She looked up to the door that John had come through. "How is Rodney?"

"Dunno. We weren't in the same room, although I could hear him complaining from all the way down the hall, so I assume he's going to be all right."

Teyla smiled at that. Still, they both watched the door until Rodney came through it, pale and bruised and arguing with an exasperated physician's assistant about how his hypoglycemia was not, in fact, all in his head, and he was going to pass out if they didn't feed him -- already done it once tonight -- and was this all the painkillers he got? Hadn't they seen his head? Didn't they need to keep him overnight for observation?

The woman closed the door and abandoned him in the waiting room. Rodney turned around and froze when he saw them waiting for him. It was very obvious that he hadn't expected them to still be there. Teyla wondered if he knew how clearly his face displayed his emotions -- surprise and hope and suspicion and relief and fear all chased each other across his expressive features.

They both got up without saying anything, and gathered him up and took him home.


XI. Home

Rodney woke up when his painkillers wore off. He hurt from his eyeballs down to the tips of his toes, and his brain felt like it was full of cotton wool.

He started to move, said "Ouch" and stayed with his face buried in a totally unfamiliar pillow. Then he started wondering where he was, because a lot of the previous night was a blur. He braced himself for the pain and raised his head, and very nearly panicked when he realized that he was lying in a strange bed. Then panic turned to full-blown terror when the lump under the blankets next to him rolled over and turned out to be -- Teyla?

He sat bolt upright, then moaned and clutched at his head. Looking around the room, he finally figured out where he was. He and Teyla were both in John's bed. And he was still fully clothed, aside from someone having removed his shoes. His clothes were gritty and crusted with dried blood and felt like they were sticking to him.

After finding his shoes and the painkillers the hospital had given him, he shuffled into the bathroom, took a few pills and splashed water in his face. It didn't help. He still looked liked hell and felt worse. Every time he closed his eyes, he could feel the rocks falling on his head. Buried alive. His worst nightmare.

"No good deed goes unpunished, huh?" he told his reflection in the mirror.

He shuffled out of the bathroom. Teyla had rolled over again, and her hair was spread out in a shimmering copper cloud over her pillow. He looked down at her for a minute, and hurt in a different kind of way. Then he slipped on his shoes, and slipped out the door.

The stairs were squeaky, so he tiptoed down. Sheppard, predictably, was asleep on the couch, a huddled ball in a rolled-up army blanket with just a few tufts of hair sticking out the top. Rodney stopped in the kitchen for a bagel because, hey, he'd earned it. He closed the front door softly behind him.

His car was parked in the front yard; the keys lay on the dash. He winced at the damage to the front end, but it started after a few tries and it stayed running, so he pulled away without looking back.

He told himself that it wasn't cowardly, leaving like this. It was just easier. He had a job waiting for him in DC, and it was time to stop hanging around in a one-horse town and get on with his life. Last night had been -- crazy, and scary, and he was through living that way.

It was a long, slow drive back to the motel, and his bruises made him aware of every bump in the road. After all that had happened the previous day, it was a little disconcerting when he pulled in sight of the Atlantic Motel, with its same weedy parking lot and malfunctioning neon sign. He did get a shock when he shoved on his motel room door and it swung easily open; he fumbled wildly for his sidearm before remembering a) Steve's gang had kicked the door in, and b) he didn't have his sidearm anymore. Yet another thing he'd get written up for, maybe even lose his job. But the CIA wouldn't care about that. All they wanted was his brains.

A folded piece of paper had been shoved under the door. He picked it up carefully and laughed, in an unhappy sort of way, when he read what was written on it. Well, no way was he going back out to John's place to deliver the message. They'd find out eventually anyway.

He took the time to shower -- carefully and painfully -- and to shave and change clothes, which was, in retrospect, possibly a mistake. He hadn't figured on John's bird-dog-like persistence. He was just shoving the last of his belongings in the trunk of the Lexus when the truck rattled and shuddered into the parking lot of the motel.

Crap, Rodney thought. Busted. He slammed the trunk lid and then looked up as John slid stiffly out of the truck and limped over to him. Teyla, in the passenger's seat, waved to him. He didn't wave back.

They just stood there for a minute, awkwardly. This was why he hated this sort of scene. Finally Sheppard said, "Oh!" and reached in his pocket. He handed Rodney a gun.

"Hey ... this is mine."

"Yeah. Took it off Steve last night." Sheppard lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. "Guess you were right, by the way."

"About what?" he asked warily.

"Guess there was no point in you buying a truck, after all." A ghost of a grin tugged at Sheppard's mouth, but slid away when Rodney didn't smile back.

"Look, Sheppard," Rodney said quickly. "I don't do goodbyes, okay? Not good at them. And don't say you'll write because you won't." Before Sheppard could say anything, Rodney fumbled in his pocket and shoved the folded paper at him. "Since you're here, the motel office took a call for you. Teyla's brother? Remember him? I guess he got your message after all. He and his wife are hitching down from Abilene in the next few days."

The ghost of a smile was back. "Needle in a haystack, huh?"

Rodney shrugged a little.

"So where are you going, anyway?"

"DC. CIA sent me a letter, offered me a job making a hell of a lot of money to work in an air-conditioned lab with other smart people. I'd be a fool not to take them up on it."

"Making WMDs?" Sheppard asked quietly.

"Or whatever they want me to make. They sign the paychecks; they call the shots."

"Rodney, you hate working for them. You're here because you hate working for them."

Rodney hadn't ever told him that, and he hated people making assumptions about him, even if the assumptions were true. "Yeah, well, maybe I came to my senses and realized that there are worse things, okay? Like almost dying in a godforsaken sun-blasted wasteland."

Sheppard fidgeted, and looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry you got hurt. That's my fault, really --"

Oh hell, this was going about as well as he'd expected. "No it's not," he snapped. "It's just -- look -- I need to get out, okay? I can't stay here."

Sheppard raised his eyes in a way that was strangely diffident. "If you just need a place to go, you're welcome to stay with me and Teyla, for as long as you want. Don't jump into a job you hate; just stay with us and think about it before you decide. I'm sure the CIA will still want you in six months or a year if you change your mind."

It made him angry, how much he wanted to do exactly that. "We can't all turn our backs on the world," he said harshly.

"Yeah, well ..." Sheppard looked over his shoulder, at Teyla in the truck, and then back at Rodney. "Looks to me like none of us can."

Rodney's mouth twisted. "You can't keep taking in strays; you'll run out of room."

"I have a hundred and sixty acres, McKay; there's plenty of room."

He wanted to. God, he wanted to. And that was why he couldn't. Because it was time to be a grown-up, be responsible, stop playing around. "If you'll excuse me, I have a job to get to."

He got in the Lexus, slammed the door, started it up, and then realized that Sheppard was standing by the window. Reluctantly, he rolled it down. "I already said no."

"I know you did." Sheppard leaned on the edge of the window, and shoved a piece of paper at him. "Just wanted to give you my P.O. box number. Drop a line when you land somewhere, okay? Maybe I'll take the bike up and visit sometime."

Rodney couldn't help a snort of disbelief. "All the way to DC?"

"I drove the other way, didn't I? For a lot less." Sheppard stepped back quickly, and raised his hand in a wave, effectively ending the conversation.

Bastard just had to have the last word. Rodney wouldn't have let him get away with it, except that his throat was inexplicably refusing to cooperate. Instead, he put the car in gear and pulled out onto the highway.

------

The drive back to John's place was a very quiet one.

At one point, Teyla said, "He will not be happy, working for your government, will he?"

"No," John said, and added, "He's an adult, though. Can't keep him from doing what he wants to do."

"That is true." And they were silent for the rest of the drive.

The sunlight seemed oppressive, the house disturbingly quiet. It was already late afternoon. John tinkered with the truck a little bit, seeing if he could fix its idling problems, while Teyla sat on the porch and practiced carving on a bit of wood. She seemed less excited about seeing her brother again than John had expected -- happy, yes, but the subdued and sad tone of the day weighed her down.

"Shall I make dinner?" Teyla asked as dusk crept across the hills.

"Only if it doesn't cause you to relapse," John said from under the truck. "American men are perfectly capable of cooking, believe me."

"I know that, but I would like to --" She trailed off, and then scrambled up. Her voice was startled and thrilled. "Is that Rodney's car?"

John slid out from under the truck. "Guess so." He'd been aware of the approaching dust cloud for some time now, but he really hadn't wanted to get her hopes up ... or worry her. There were a lot of things that could make a dust cloud other than a silver Lexus, and he'd figured that it would take Rodney a little more time to change his m ind.

"Then I really must start dinner," Teyla said, and despite her injured feet, she practically raced off into the house.

John went ahead and put away his tools, waiting for the silver Lexus with the crumpled nose to pull into the yard.

"Flat tire," Rodney said immediately, as soon as he stepped out of the car and before anyone had a chance to ask.

John had managed to contain his grin, but it still showed in his eyes and voice, as he took an assessing look at Rodney's tires. "They all look round to me."

"Well, I changed it, obviously, genius. But considering that I only made it about five minutes out of town before getting a flat, I realized that the roads are clearly too bad to be driving anywhere this late in the evening."

The road to John's house was a whole lot worse than the road out of town, but contrary to belief, he really could contain his smart mouth sometimes. "Teyla's making dinner."

"Great! I'm starving." Grabbing a bag from the passenger's seat of the car, he started towards the house. Then he stopped. Looked back. The uncertainty was showing through the cracks. "Uh ... are you sure this is okay?"

"For God's sake, Rodney, of course it's okay. It's my house and I told you, you can stay here as long as you want."

Irritation flashed. "I didn't say I was going to stay."

"I know you didn't."

As they walked towards the house in the gathering dusk, Rodney said thoughtfully, "You know what this place needs? Other than a Starbucks, obviously. And air conditioning, and a stove that works."

John held the screen door for him; yellow light spilled out, striping the rocks. "No, Rodney, tell me: what else does it need?"

"You should get a cat. No, really, you should. They practically take care of themselves. I know this guy who has some kittens --"

The screen door slammed behind them, cutting off John's laughter in the warm Texas night.

-fin-