blue flamingos

Penguins & Sparrows & Stars

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis

Category/Rated: Various slash and femslash

Year/Length: 2007/ ~9842 words

Pairing: John/Rodney, Lorne/Parrish, Cadman/Katie

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Summary: Just once – just once! – he'd like not to be chased off a planet, or chased through the sky right after he left. It really doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Series: Space pirates 'verse

Author's Notes: Space pirates AU for the [info]spacepirate_fic challenge

Beta: Beta'd by the lovely [info]cosmonaut_elf and the equally lovely [info]domtheknight

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

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"Oh hell." Lorne would recognize the whir of that ship coming in to dock from a hundred miles, and it's considerably closer than that. "Cadman, Parrish, time to go!"

On the other side of the scrap lot, two heads come up from the guts of an engine, and Lorne can see Parrish drawing breath to argue. He jerks his head at the sky, feeling for his gun. "Space Force! Unless you *want* Atlantis towed and the five of us thrown in jail."

And wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake of a truly crappy week, getting tagged by a Space Force patrol on a planet so far out it seemed totally safe to dock legally, for once.

Parrish is stuffing engine parts into his holdall, Cadman standing over him with her gun in her hand, and Lorne can see the ship, hovering right over the dock they have to get out of. He taps his comm on. "Zelenka? We've got company; can you get her powered up?"

There's a beat of silence, followed by a Czech expletive. "Yes, yes. You're on way back?"

"No, I thought I'd let you take off with my ship and leave us stranded here." Not for the first time, Lorne reminds himself that his crew are brilliant and, when that doesn't work, that he actually can't fly Atlantis without them.

There's more Czech muttering that he doesn't bother to translate, and the click of Zelenka starting the pre-flight, before the comm cuts out.

"We waiting for something?" Cadman asks, hefting the bag more securely onto her shoulder. "'Cos I'm not wild about a night in SF prison."

"Me either. Let's go."

The ship's still in the air, queued above two others, one of which looks business class, so Lorne forces himself to walk at a regular, if slightly faster than normal, pace, out of the scrap yard and back into the side streets they took up from the dock, Parrish on his left and Cadman behind them. They don't exactly blend in, even off the main shopping streets, their clothes a little too drab, their eyes a little too wild, but he can already see their ship in front of them, Katie standing inside the open door, chewing on her thumb.

Up above, the Space Force ship's siren sounds, shocking and loud.

"Crap! Move!" He shoves Parrish ahead of him, the three of them breaking into a run.

"Uh, you should probably hurry," Zelenka advises in his ear.

"Yeah, no kidding. Ten seconds, take her up as soon as the air lock closes." There's a dock guard in front of them, making Deran yet another planet they won't be welcome on in the future.

"I can't fly evasive maneuvers from the Space Force!" Zelenka exclaims.

"Hey there, what's the –." Cadman pushes the guard away and he goes down hard in the dust to a chorus of outraged shouts.

"You don't have to; just get her in the air." Atlantis' ramp clangs under his boots, and he sees Katie swiping the lock to close the door as he runs past her. "Now!

Atlantis shudders as she powers up fully, then jerks sharply upwards. Zelenka's always been crap at take-off.

Their proximity alarm is chiming when Lorne crashes onto the bridge. He doesn't dare look, doesn't want to see the ship bearing down on them.

Zelenka jumps aside and they stumble in free fall for an instant before Lorne gets his hands on the controls, pushing Atlantis forward with everything she's got, ignoring the shuddery controls and the painful screeching from an engine that's waiting for the spare parts in Parrish's bag.

The comm screen flickers into life. "Atlantis vessel, stand down, by order of the United Planets Space Force."

It doesn't matter that they can't see him with Atlantis' side locked, Lorne ducks his head. "I don't think so." He yanks Atlantis hard right; away from the city and out over empty planes. "Don't suppose you got the cloak back up while I was gone?"

"Yes, because I can fix it with only hair pin and none of the parts you went for in twenty minutes you were away." Lorne definitely doesn't remember Zelenka being so sarcastic when he first hired him; it seems to be what Atlantis does to them.

"Just asking," he says calmly, and drops them a couple of thousand feet, radar still showing the SF ship behind them. He doesn't think it's getting any closer, but Atlantis is hardly top of the range these days, she can't exactly out-run them.

Zelenka mutters unhappily behind him, leaning close to look at the controls. "Any bright ideas?" Lorne asks, pushing the ship harder and swinging left. For a second, the SF ship looms large in their window, before he swings them back right. So much for that plan. "Seriously, anything you've got, now's the time to suggest it."

He sends them left, right, left, empty mugs on the control desk going flying, and the SF ship hails them again. It's definitely getting closer.

"Maybe I can, with the gate drive..." Zelenka trails off and Lorne hears him dashing off the bridge.

He taps his comm open. "Cadman?"

"Yeah?" She sounds a little breathless but calm.

"We carrying anything that's going to be a big problem?"

"No. We sold the last of the silk on the planet before Deran."

"OK." He takes a deep breath and ignores the other voices on the bridge. "Can you rig something to blow if they lock on us? Just in case."

"Oh, I'm sure I could think of something," Cadman agrees, gleeful.

"Great, do it. Just – in case, OK. I'd rather not blow pieces off my ship if I don't have to." Rather not upset the SF any more than he has by running, but he doesn't know if they know who's on the ship and he'd rather they didn't find out if he can avoid it.

"OK, Zelenka, now would be great. No pressure." He drops them down another thousand feet, his stomach bottoming out, and catches sight of their smoke trail above them. They really need to stop and do some repairs.

"Now!" Zelenka shouts, painfully loud through his comm "Maybe."

Lorne wrenches the stick, swinging them round so hard he has to fight to straighten them out on the right angle. The SF ship's captain's realized what he's doing and is starting to swing on his own curve as Atlantis burns under it, but it's larger, doesn't run so neatly, and Lorne guns them up at an angle sharp enough to throw him back into his seat. The mugs rattle around the bridge and into the back wall, and they break atmosphere, leveling out and slowing, the proximity sensor still going. Lorne feels for the switch. "Zelenka?"

"Yes," Zelenka says, sounding way too nervous for Lorne's peace of mind. "Yes, OK."

Lorne thinks, oh, God, as the SF ship breaks atmosphere below them and he hits the switch hard. The ripple of the gate drive appears for a moment before they pass through it, and then they're out in deep space, blessed silence as the proximity alarm finally stops.

Lorne checks their position, which is a little off the programmed coordinates, but better than being dematerialized, taps a course into their auto-pilot and leans back in his chair, taking a deep breath. "OK." He taps his comm on. "Everyone all right?"

Four yeses come back, heavy with relief, and then a voice asks, "Who taught you to do that?"

Lorne rolls his eyes. "That'd be you, Sir."

There's a pause, then Sheppard's voice says, "Oh. Well then, nice flying."

"Thank you, Sir."

hr

Lorne finds Zelenka in the engine room with Atlantis' engine open, Parrish's bag of spare parts spread out next to him.

"Should you be doing that while we're in the air?" he asks.

Zelenka doesn't even look at him. "I think we will not fall out of the sky if I take out the parts that are not working."

"OK." Lorne holds his hands up placatingly. "Nice work with the gate drive."

"Thank you. Did you get fuel cells?"

"I was a little busy running from the SF," Lorne points out, but Zelenka's right: they need to stay in the air, for which they need fuel, for which they need money, which they don't have. "I'll see what I can do."

"Good. Now go away while I work."

Parrish is in their tiny kitchen, righting cans that have been thrown across the room, but he smiles at Lorne so there evidently aren't too many hard feelings about the dents. "Nice flying."

Lorne argues with Sheppard frequently about why he has Parrish on the ship, other than his ability to cook food that's edible, which is sadly lacking in the rest of them, but they needed a bigger crew and Parrish looked as desperate as Lorne feels some days. Plus, he's pretty much always cheerful, and he understands the need to run from the SF, without Lorne needing to share his life story first. "Thanks." He stacks a couple of cans on the counter, turning them so their labels face outwards.

"So, where are we going?" Parrish asks lightly and Lorne groans. "Wrong question?"

"Somewhat," Lorne agrees. Fuel, money, food, stay clear of the SF and somewhere in there... This would be so much easier if they had cargo. "We'll be on the P ring in a day. There are a few planets out there where I know people. I'll work something out."

Parrish takes a couple of dented plates from his hands and smiles at him again. "I'm sure you will. We trust you."

That's what worries me, Lorne thinks, and goes to find Cadman.

She's in the infirmary with Katie, sitting on the cupboards and swinging her feet with an echoey thump as Katie futzes around with jars and needles. Lorne likes that she won't say anything about how they need to re-stock. "You two all right?"

"We're fine," Cadman says, grinning. "We could've blown them out of the sky, though."

"I'm sure." Lorne leans in the doorway. "But I'd rather not draw any more attention to us than really necessary."

"You're no fun at all," Cadman says, but she's still smiling. One thing he'll say for his crew: they definitely thrive on adrenalin and death-defying escapes.

Katie closes a drawer and turns to face them. "We got a call, while you were out," she says quietly. "From Ford."

"A job?" Lorne asks, feeling optimistic for a second.

Katie shakes her head. "He thinks he knows where to find Dr McKay."

hr

Lorne joined the United Planets Space Force when he was eighteen and learned to fly everything he could get his hands on.

Eight years later, he and his training officer, LTC Sheppard, blew up an SF ship that was smuggling children illegally between planets. When the SF threw them in jail without trial and declared that it knew no reason why they could have shot down another ship, they broke out, stole Atlantis and gate drove to the edge of the galaxy, blowing out the gate drive in the process. Sheppard had five years left on his extended service; Lorne had two on his basic. If the Space Force finds them, neither of them see the sky again, but he doesn't regret it, not even when they're drifting. He's learnt over time that honor doesn't mean the same thing outside the SF as it did inside, that definitions are flexible out in deep space.

Three years after they broke out, Sheppard was on the wrong planet when he pissed off the wrong person, who turned out to be a sorcerer, and trapped Sheppard's body in a stasis pod and his mind in the ship. Lorne killed the sorcerer when he refused to undo it and stole the stasis pod.

That was two years ago, before he picked up his crew, because Sheppard's good with the ship's mechanics, and Lorne can fly anything, but there's only so much he can do by himself; they've spent the last eighteen months trailing across the galaxy looking for Dr McKay, a genius scientist friend of Sheppard's, from somewhere he doesn't talk about. After five years, they've got contacts all over the galaxy, a depressingly high number of them ex-SF for one reason or another, but Lorne's had better luck searching for free-floating dead ships in deep space.

Until now, apparently.

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"Ford?" Lorne asks, trying to temper his disbelief. Ford's Sheppard's contact, not his, and the few times they've met he's been jittery, unstable. "Are you sure?"

Katie shrugs "He wouldn't tell me. He left a number, asked you to get in touch when you got back."

Despite knowing Sheppard far better than he does Lorne, Ford's generally refused to speak to Sheppard since it happened. "OK." Lorne takes the scrap of paper from her. "Let's see what he's got to say."

"Ford?" Sheppard's voice asks as he makes his way back to the bridge.

"Yes, Sir. What do you think?"

There's a pause, then Sheppard says, "He might know something. He's -. We should talk to him."

"Yes, Sir." As if they'd do anything else. They've chased more dead ends in eighteen months than he would've thought possible. Apparently, they've got a lot of friends - a lot of useless friends. He taps the comm code into their unit and waits for the static to resolve into Ford's face, the patch over his eye. "Ford."

"Lorne." Ford grins at him. "You got the message. How's Atlantis?"

Lorne looks at the little of Ford's ship that he can see behind the man's head. It's not the same one he was on last time they spoke, and it looks like the bridge is a lot smaller. "What do you know, Ford?"

The grin flickers for a second. "You're still looking for McKay?"

"Yeah, still looking. Katie said you know where he is."

"I do."

Lorne waits, but nothing is forthcoming. "Good for you. What do you want in return?"

Ford's eyes drop away for an instant, then back to his. "Is Sheppard – can I talk to him?" he asks, sounding more serious than Lorne's ever heard him.

"Of course. He's right here. Say whatever you want."

"No." Ford shakes his head. "In private."

It's not like Ford – like Sheppard – can do any harm, but Lorne hesitates. "You might as well tell me where McKay is – Sheppard can't fly this ship."

"Let me talk to Sheppard!" Ford twitches towards the screen, agitated. "I'll tell him or none of you!"

"Ford." Sheppard's voice cuts over him, soothing. "There's no need to get upset. Lorne's just looking out for Atlantis. Lorne, go on. It's fine."

"You sure, Sir?"

"I'm sure. Go on."

Lorne's tempted to linger outside the closed doors and listen in, but Sheppard will know he's there. He takes his data pad down to the common area instead, and starts paging through it, looking for something they can use. They need fuel cells more than anything else, or it won't matter what they can get their hands on because they won't be able to take it anywhere. And they don't have money for fuel cells, which means they'll have to get them some other way.

He pages to a scan of the nearby sky, blinking dots indicating other ships amongst the solid dots of planets, and sighs. Being an honorable space pirate is a lot more difficult than it should be. He taps at each of the planet dots, bringing up more information on each one: residential planet, Space Force holding centre... He stops on a manufacturing planet, poking around a map of the place. There's what looks a lot like a fuel repository down there.

"Lorne?" Sheppard's voice asks near his ear.

"Sir? Any luck with Ford?" He taps the screen clear.

"Yeah." Sheppard sounds tired and kind of hopeful. "He's sending coordinates. They're a week from here."

"A week," Lorne says flatly, and doesn't ask what Ford wanted in return. If it's anything they can give, Sheppard will tell him, but he's not going to hold his breath.

"Yes." Sheppard sounds a little apologetic now. "So you'll have to make a run on that repository you were looking at."

"I miss having privacy," Lorne mutters, calling up the maps again, and Sheppard laughs.

hr

"All right." Lorne flips the ship's cloak on and starts to drop them out of atmosphere. "Everybody ready?"

Behind him, he hears Cadman check her gun and turns to look at his crew, all of whom have gathered on the bridge. Cadman's grinning, sliding her gun back into her holster as Katie watches her nervously. She's staying on the ship with Zelenka, as usual, and he's busy futzing with the control panel. Parrish is leaning on the back of Lorne's chair, his own gun holstered at his side. Lorne's never sure about taking Parrish out on jobs, but he's good at it, and Lorne doesn't exactly have a lot of choice.

The repository's a little out of the main town, so Lorne's safe to put Atlantis down on the edge of its fencing. "No guards," Parrish comments.

"Nope," Lorne agrees, not surprised. There's an hour to go before the place will open, and this planet's out of the way. "All right, let's go."

Going in is easy: Cadman blows a hole in the fence, then the lock in the outside door, and they follow Parrish down the dimly-lit corridors in silence. "This one," Parrish says eventually, tapping a door on their right. To Lorne's surprise, it opens when he tries it and then they're inside, surrounded by crate after crate of fuel cells.

"Oh yeah," Cadman breathes. Lorne couldn't agree more. At least that's one problem solved.

Of course, getting out proves harder than getting in: he and Cadman are carrying two crates between them, struggling to keep them steady and trusting Parrish to lead the way when Lorne hears the unmistakable sound of an energy weapon firing up, and Parrish says, "Oh, hell."

They hit Atlantis' cloaked ramp as fast as they can while carrying two crates of fuel cells, and burst into the sky with five guards shooting energy weapons at their wake.

"You know," Sheppard's voice says dryly as they break atmosphere. "That's getting a little old."

There's not really a lot Lorne can say in response to that, especially since it's true. They do seem to leave a lot of planets at a run. "Yes, Sir."

"Only, I'm not sure I want you risking my mind because you keep getting my ship shot at," Sheppard continues.

"You don't have to tell me." Lorne pulls up their navigation system and starts plotting a course now that they're actually got enough power to get there. "We'll try harder to avoid it next time."

"See that you do," Sheppard says, sounding like he's smiling.

hr

Parrish finds him sitting on the bridge, early on the second day of their trip, staring, literally, into space. They're striking out to the edge of the galaxy, which means fewer and fewer planets as they go, and more and more ships they want to avoid, even if the Space Force rarely makes it this far out.

"Anything interesting out there?" Parrish asks, leaning on the control panel by Lorne's hands.

He shakes his head. "Nothing on the radar either. We're too far from the next planet."

He and Zelenka argued, once they'd got fuel cells, about using their gate drive to get there faster, Lorne pointing out that it had worked before and Zelenka claiming that they couldn't be sure it would work fine again, especially this far out, and that if they were even a little off, they could end up drifting, light years from anywhere and unable to get back.

"Fine!" Lorne said, glaring at his engineer.

"Fine" Zelenka snapped, throwing up his hands and going back to his power conduits.

Lorne withdrew to cool off; it hasn't happened yet.

"You OK?"

He looks up at Parrish's concerned face and grins. "Fine. You?"

"Fine." They grin at each other stupidly for a minute, and then Parrish glances over his shoulder and asks, "Do you think this is it?"

It's not exactly possible to have a private conversation on Atlantis, given how small it is and that, although he promises he doesn't, no-one's ever completely sure that Sheppard isn't eavesdropping. Mostly, they react to this by pretending, and learning how to recognize the sound of someone coming.

Lorne suspects Sheppard's listening to this, but there's no point lying because Sheppard will know. He tries to put it diplomatically anyway. "Sheppard does. He knows Ford better than I do."

"But?" Parrish asks, looking skeptical.

"I hope it is." He doesn't know how to explain that he wants this as much as Sheppard does, that he misses having an actual *person* looming over him and knocking his hands off the controls, making the decisions and getting captured on every second planet: he just misses *Sheppard*, who he knows is regretting ever talking about his bond with Atlantis and how he wished he had wings, because now he does and they've turned him into a penguin, rather than an eagle. The trouble is, it's been eighteen months and he's kind of given up hoping, sometimes wonders if McKay even exists or if he's just a fiction Sheppard has to keep himself from going insane.

Parrish squeezes his shoulder reassuringly. "Have a little faith," he suggests, and that's when Lorne's comm bursts into life with Zelenka squawking at him in angry Czech.

"All right, all right." He's so loud that Parrish leans away from the noise. "I kind of need my hearing, you know."

"Not so much as you need whole new engine," Zelenka retorts.

"That doesn't sound like something I want to hear." What it sounds is expensive, and they've got to run to the end of the galaxy before they can pick up anything that'll make them some money.

"Is not something any of us wish to hear," Zelenka agrees. "Tertiary fuel line is almost worn through."

Tertiary doesn't sound too essential, Lorne thinks, until he gets a look at Parrish's face. "OK. I'll come down."

Zelenka's got three wall panels off and is poking at the insides with a screwdriver. "See?" he says, as soon as Lorne and Parrish get close enough. "Here and here. Should be rigid."

The pipe's drooping in ways that Lorne doesn't want to contemplate too deeply, worn thin enough that he can see the fuel chugging through it. "You couldn't have mentioned this when we were on a salvage run two days ago?" He doesn't bother waiting for an answer. "OK, how essential is it?"

"Depends. How essential is engine cooling system and back up navigation?"

Lorne has a vivid and unpleasant flashback to safety films at the Space Force Academy. "Can we at least make it to the next planet?"

hr

If there's one place he truly hates, Lorne thinks, tugging at his leather pants like there's anything he can do to make them less uncomfortable, it's Zelk, with its stupid trader dress codes and its lack of convenient dark alleys where they could just mug someone for the cost of a fuel line.

He leans against the edge of the stall, turning a flat battery in his hands and watching Katie and Cadman from the corner of his eye. They're dressed in the same long, flowing skirts and tight, low-cut leather corsets as all the women in the market, their arms linked as they pick up bits and pieces of space ships.

"See?" Katie says, reaching up to slide a coil of silver wire through Cadman's hair, pressing close to her. "It's a hair piece."

Cadman pulls it loose, smiling, tracing her thumb over Katie's collarbone. "No. Put it back." She drops it on the table, her eyes flickering to the trader then back to Katie. "We need power couplings, remember."

"Couplings?" Katie tilts her head, her hair brushing Cadman's bare shoulder. "What kind of couplings?" She shakes her hair back, exposing the line of her neck just as Cadman moves closer to whisper in her ear.

It's basically porn with clothes on, and the trader can't take his eyes off them. Moments like this, Lorne's glad he said yes when Cadman came back from a planet run leading a shy girl with a wide smile and asked if she could join the crew. He tells Cadman it's because Katie knows something about medicines, but really it's for the distraction the two of them together cause, even when he doesn't need them to. Even when it's in their little kitchen and he really doesn't *want* them to.

"Not that kind of coupling," Cadman says, leaning on the stall and reaching for another dead battery. The stall's more junk than anything else, Lorne thinks, and he doesn't watch Parrish snatch a fuel line and a couple of other parts he doesn't recognize while the rest of the market's distracted by Katie's hand on Cadman's thigh.

hr

When their proximity alarm goes off, hours later, Lorne's more surprised that it took so long than he is that it's going off in the first place. "I hate that place," he grumbles, calling up the video display. The ship on their tail is the saddest thing he's seen in the sky in months, and undoubtedly belongs to the trader they just stole their tertiary fuel line from. "Great. Just perfect." He taps his comm. "Everyone hold onto something."

There's a general muttering before he taps it off again, but no-one comes dashing up to the bridge. He's at least managed to train them out of that.

"Problems?" Sheppard's voices asks from somewhere in the control panel. Lorne hates that, always gets unreasonably worried that he'll somehow zap Sheppard by mistake.

"Nothing I can't deal with," he says firmly, and throws Atlantis up at a seventy degree angle, burning whatever the space equivalent of rubber is.

"Do you have to do that to my ship?" Sheppard demands.

"Yes." Lorne glances at the screen, the ship fading in their wake. "Unless you want to be shot at again."

"Never mind," Sheppard says. "Carry on."

"Thank you, Sir," Lorne says, and levels them out as the proximity alarm fades.

hr

He's just thinking about setting the autopilot and going to bed the next night when his comm taps on and Zelenka's voice says, "I think you should come see this."

Lorne throws the autopilot on with a lot more force than is either necessary or wise, and stomps off the bridge and down to the kitchen. "All right, no," he says, when Zelenka opens his mouth to say something. "No. We're supposed to go across the galaxy, get Sheppard's mind back in his body and go about our business. Instead, we've been chased by the SF, run off a planet at gun point, prostituted Cadman and Katie for a fuel line, and been run across the sky by a trader. This trip has had more than it's fair share of problems. I refuse to have any more."

He takes a deep breath, and notices that his entire crew is staring at him: Cadman on the sofa with Katie's legs in her lap, Zelenka leaning on the tiny counter and Parrish next to him, one hand behind his back. They're all caught between staring in surprise and laughing.

"Feel better now?" Sheppard asks, amused.

"No," Lorne snaps, though he does feel like kind of an idiot. He's usually a lot calmer than this. "What the hell's the matter now?"

Parrish looks a little flustered as he draws his hand from behind his back. "Nothing," he says. "Katie... found... some chocolate on Zelk, we thought it ought to be shared."

He's holding a plate with a chocolate cake made with actual chocolate, and Lorne feels like a complete jerk. Well aware that he's gone bright red, to Cadman and Katie's evident amusement, he says, "Thank you. Sorry, that's, er – thank you."

Zelenka pats him on the arm and says, "No matter. Plus, when we are done with Sheppard's friend, we will need money for new inertial dampeners."

Lorne takes a big bite of chocolate cream and just glares at Zelenka. He really does love his crew some days.

hr

After that, things go more smoothly: Zelenka sets a couple of parts on fire, but they're non-essential and it gets put out quickly; Lorne catches Cadman and Katie making out in the infirmary and goes to Parrish's bunk for a bandage instead; they fight off another ship with only a few minor scratches; and Sheppard gets increasingly nervous, launching into conversation at the oddest moments, about Sateda, where they're going, and Salgon, where the sorcerer was, people they both knew in the SF and the possibility of picking up a job that won't have them running for their lives in the near future. Lorne answers him steadily and doesn't ask any of the questions he wants to about McKay or Ford or why Sheppard is so sure this time.

It takes them a day longer than they expected to get to Sateda, and when they drop out of atmosphere over the city in the early afternoon, the entire crew is on the bridge watching. Lorne swears he can hear Sheppard breathing above him, even though Sheppard doesn't breathe these days.

"The docks are that way," Parrish offers, breaking the silence. Sateda's capital city looks more advanced than anywhere they've been in a while, which will make the trip worthwhile even if they don't find McKay.

"Ford say where to start looking?" he asks.

There's a pause long enough that he starts to think Sheppard isn't there at all, then Sheppard says, "McKay used to work in a science lab, when I knew him. He'll be in the science district somewhere." He sounds more tense than he has all week, but oddly hopefully under it. He must be pretty confident of Ford's information.

"All right." The comm link beeps as the dock agents send up a berth number and authorization code. "Any of you know Sateda at all?" No answer from behind him, which he takes to mean they're shaking their heads and have forgotten he can't see them do it. "We'll split up then. Katie with Cadman, Parrish with me. Ask around, discreetly, see what – or who – we can find. If Ford knew he was here, someone else will." If he's here, he doesn't say. Everyone's already thinking it. "Zelenka, you stay with the ship in case something goes wrong."

"And we must leave quickly?" Zelenka finishes for him, which Lorne doesn't bother to dignify with a response.

"Keep your comms on. Check in every hour. If you don't get a check in, come back to the ship. If it's been more than two hours, leave." He touches Atlantis down in her designated berth and keys in the code. "If you run into any Space Force, get back here as fast as you can." They're a long way out for the SF, but Sateda is suspiciously high tech for a planet without an SF presence.

"Good luck," Sheppard says quietly as they clomp down the ramp.

Sateda looks from the ground like it looked from the air, modern and industrialized, the buildings clean and well-kept, the people neat and relaxed. There are even sign posts, though Lorne can't read them. Not for the first time, he wishes that the translation implants worked on something other than the single official language of each planet, and then only in spoken form. "Looks like we're doing this the hard way," he says, and they split off into their pairs.

Sateda's science district, or at least the science district of its capital, is on the outskirts of the city, they quickly learn. While Lorne's getting directions, Parrish puts his light-fingeredness to good use, swiping another man's thick wallet before Lorne can stop him.

"Don't do that," he mutters as they make their way down the main street. "We're trying not to draw attention to ourselves, remember?"

Parrish grins and counts the notes. "He won't even notice it's –"

He's cut off by an angry yell behind them, and they end up running halfway to the science district.

It's a lot smaller than Lorne expected, barely four blocks square, though each building is several stories high. Lorne taps his comm. "Cadman?"

"Here."

"Where are you?"

"On our way to the science district. Nice people here. Nice jewelry."

"Oh God. Just – try not to get arrested, all right?"

"Always do," Cadman agrees, sounding like she's smiling. She usually is: Lorne's never met anyone so happy in her work, even though, from the little she's said about her life before she was recommended to him through a friend of a friend, she hasn't been doing it all that long. Universe is full of ex-SF, no reason she shouldn't have been one. "Anything else?"

"Yeah. We're already here. When you get here, take the west two blocks. We'll take the east."

"Roger that," Cadman says, and her comm clicks off.

"Let's go, then." The streets out here aren't as busy as in the centre of the city, but they're still far from empty; more civilians than the people he's come to realize must be local military, and he relaxes a little.

The first few people they ask look at them blankly, barely lifting their heads from the tablets in their hands. It's not like Lorne expected this to be easy, but just once, he thinks, grabbing Parish's wrist before his hand can get any closer to the tablet on a momentarily empty sidewalk table, just once he'd like it to be less difficult.

"There," Parrish says throwing him a pout that Lorne manfully ignores. "Ask him."

'Him' is a man twice Lorne's size, hair in tight dreadlocks, prowling down the sidewalk with definite malice afore-thought. Lorne hopes like hell that Parrish isn't planning to rob him, and tightens his grip on Parrish's wrist just to be on the safe side. "Why?"

Parrish shrugs, his pout turning to a leer. "He looks like he'd know... things."

Lorne absolutely does not want to go there, but Parrish's mark is coming their way, and it can't hurt to ask.

Of course, he's been wrong about that before, he thinks a moment later, as he's pressed back into the wall of an alley he swears wasn't there a second ago, the man's arm so tight across his throat that he's starting to see stars.

"Why do you want McKay?" the man growls.

Score one for them. Sort of. He's still got hold of Parrish's wrist, and his fingers don't seem inclined to open. "We just want a word with him," he gasps.

Parrish nods. "We're traveling with a friend of his, asked us to look him up."

"Why didn't he come himself?"

Lorne's vision's starting to go a little gray at the edges. "He's, ah, indisposed. But very eager to see McKay."

"Exactly, very eager," Parrish agrees. "We don't want any trouble. Any more trouble."

"You're thieves," the man says.

"Well, not exactly *thieves*," Lorne says. "More – pirates. We've got a ship."

"Though not one anyone but us would want," Parrish adds hastily. "We'd be happy to show it to you. And Dr McKay, if you know where he is."

"Ronon?" calls a voice on the street. "Ronon, where –" A man's silhouette appears at the entrance to the alley. "Oh, for pity's sake, what have I said about terrorizing innocent bystanders?" He comes close enough for Lorne to pick out a few features, but no overall detail. "I assume you are innocent?"

"We're looking for Dr McKay," Parrish says brightly. "Your, er, friend, didn't seem too keen on us finding him."

"Why do you want him?" the new man asks curiously. Ronon presses his arm more firmly into Lorne's throat and he swallows what he was intending to say in favor of gasping for breath.

"We're traveling with a friend of his who's very eager to see him," Parrish repeats. "A close friend."

"What's the friend's name?" the new man – McKay, surely – asks.

"Why don't you tell us yours first, since we're not the ones choking a man to death against a wall for no reason." The polite humor is gone from Parrish's voice, leaving behind ice and steel. "Or we can find out another way."

"There's no need for threats," the man says hastily. "I'm Dr McKay. What do you want with me?"

"Let him go and we'll tell you."

"Ronon..." McKay's voice drops in warning, and Ronon's grip eases. Lorne chokes, trying not to start coughing. "Why do you want me, then Ronon will let him go."

Parrish glances at him and Lorne nods. He's too busy fighting for breath to feel the kind of exhilaration this moment deserves. "We're traveling with Captain Sheppard," Parrish says.

McKay must make some gesture, because Lorne's suddenly on his knees. Through the rush of blood in his ears, he hears McKay say, "Sheppard, my God," with exactly the right amount of amazement for the moment.

hr

McKay talks the whole way back to the ship, and Lorne really hopes he's not going to get them all into trouble for being seen with him; it's not that he's not grateful, but this seems far too easy all of a sudden, Though, on the bright side, Ronon, who Lorne's pretty sure is military, or maybe ex-military, can probably fight off anyone who challenges them without too many problems. He's clearly a lot less happy about this than McKay is, though Lorne's not entirely sure why.

McKay talks about his research, how he really shouldn't be leaving it for a social call; about how important he is to the city – hence, Lorne assumes, the bodyguard; how this is so completely like Sheppard to not even come himself, the man's got some kind of allergy to science; and every time he says Sheppard's name, his voice drops and his hands go still, and Lorne somehow still hasn't managed to tell him when they reach the docks.

"OK, look," he says, stepping in front of McKay. Ronon looms and Lorne wonders if he can get to the knife in his boot before Ronon kills him. "Sheppard's a little – different – from how you probably remember him."

"It's been twenty years, I should hope he's different," McKay snarks, stepping round him.

"Well, yeah, but –" Lorne's never had a problem explaining that the captain of the ship is trapped in it to new crew, but he can't for the life of him remember what he tells them. "He's not –"

"Oh God." McKay glares at him. "What's he managed to get himself into this time?"

Lorne quashes the urge to say 'a ship', since it's neither appropriate nor as funny out loud as it sounds in his head, and McKay loses his patience. "Which ship is Sheppard's?" he asks, and Lorne gives in and takes him over to Atlantis.

"All right, Sheppard," McKay demands, as he sets foot on the ship. "You wanted to see me, here I am, now tell me why I'm wasting my valuable time being here."

"We should..." Lorne says quietly to Parrish, nudging him in the direction of the kitchen. He'll have to call Cadman and Katie as well, tell them to call off the search.

"McKay?" Sheppard sounds like they've just survived a crash landing, stunned and kind of disbelieving.

"Who else?" McKay turns slowly in their tiny cargo bay. "Not really in the mood for hide and seek, here."

"I'm not hiding," Sheppard says, and Lorne shoves himself and Parrish through the doors, wishing he could take Ronon with them; he's never heard Sheppard sound like that and he wants to give the man some privacy. Lots of privacy.

"So?" Zelenka demands, looking up from a cup of tea and more engine parts. Lorne can't remember seeing the engine whole once since Zelenka came on board. "You found him?"

"More like he found us." Lorne sits on the counter and watches Parrish make more tea. "Well, his bodyguard, technically. He's talking to Sheppard. Which remind me –" He taps his comm. "Cadman?"

"Nope, the small blue bird of Telan," Cadman says, sounding like she's smiling, or possibly drunk.

"OK." Whatever his crew is smoking, he's going to have to put more effort into getting rid of it; either that or join them. "We found McKay, so you can stop looking."

"Great. Cos I don't think everyone here's as keen on him as Captain Sheppard."

A loud crash in the cargo bay punctuates that statement. "Don't blame them. You've got a couple of hours if you want, but if there's any trouble, get back to the ship."

"Yes, boss. Blue bird out."

Yep, definitely crazy. No wonder he was so keen to hire her.

hr

McKay finds him a little less than an hour later, poking around the sky maps on the control panel on the bridge. "You know, you'd be better off rewiring the entire thing than using this," he says from the doorway, gesturing to the mess of wires that hooks them into the rest of the ship.

"I'll put it on my to-do list," Lorne promises. Right after getting pardoned by the Space Force and finding a planet they won't be chased off.

"Good." McKay shifts uncomfortably. "Sheppard said – they trapped him in some sort of stasis pod."

"Yeah. You want to see it?" None of the crew's asked, and Lorne keeps the pod under code lock; for security, he tells them, but really it creeps him out a little, Sheppard lying there looking dead.

Mc Kay nods. "I think there's got to be something in the power course to the pod – they had to have a way to release people from it – if I can get enough power going through it, link the whole thing into the ship... well, it'll either do the trick or blow us all up."

"I sort of promised Sheppard I'd stop risking his ship," Lorne says, leading McKay down to the bunks.

"Good for you, but I'm sure he'll think a little risk's acceptable when it comes to getting him out of there. Besides, there's a much higher probability of it working." McKay sounds pretty sure, and Sheppard obviously trusts him. Anyway, it's not like he has a lot of choice, Sheppard can over-ride any lock on the ship with his mind, literally.

The door slides open with a hiss of escaping air, revealing the smoothly curved, semi-opaque pod. The blue dial on the top lets him know that Sheppard's still breathing, which is as much as he needs to see.

"I'll leave you to it," he offers, but McKay doesn't seem to hear him. He's resting his hands lightly on the pod, staring down at Sheppard, even his back radiating unhappiness.

"Honestly," he says quietly, his voice filled with affection. "You're not safe for me to leave you alone for a minute."

Lorne lets the door slide closed behind him and thinks he might've just found out why Sheppard never wanted to talk about McKay.

Twenty years, he thinks. McKay said it had been twenty years since they saw each other, which would make it right around the time Sheppard joined the Space Force, back before they allowed the tiny relaxation of some of the rules that they had while Lorne was there.

He sighs, plodding back up to the bridge, wondering how he managed to stumble into an epic love poem without even realizing.

"Lorne?" Cadman's voice comes breathlessly over his comm and he freezes. He jinxed them, thinking it had gone well.

"Go ahead."

"Sateda definitely isn't keen on McKay. Or it's keen on him and doesn't want us to have him." There's a sound far too much like a gun shot in the background. "Anyway, I think we need to leave."

"Right. How far away are you?"

"About –." Cadman gasps. "About three minutes."

"OK. Be safe. Lorne out."

Just once – just once! – he'd like not to be chased off a planet, or chased through the sky right after he left. It really doesn't seem like too much to ask. "Zelenka? Get up on the bridge, we're leaving."

"And you've lost ability to fly?" Zelenka asks, but Lorne can hear him moving.

"No." Lorne starts retracing his steps. "I'm going to convince the man with the gun in our cargo bay that we're not kidnapping him. I'll be back to fly the daring escape."

"Good."

McKay starts guiltily when Lorne opens the door, but Lorne cuts him off before he can start talking. "Apparently the Satedans don't like you. Or us, I'm not sure and I really don't care. Someone's shooting at my crew – we're leaving. Could you convince your friend not to kill us before we even get in the air? I'd rather not have to fight for my life and fly us out of here if I don't have to."

"But – my equipment! How do you expect me to fix this without any of my equipment?" McKay's hand doesn't leave the pod.

"Hey, you wanna stay and talk them down, go ahead. We'll swing by and get you later, but this ship is leaving in a minute and a half, so decide fast."

McKay's face goes pale. He clearly doesn't like that idea any more than the rest of them. "I'll just – I'll go talk to Ronon. I'm sure I can rig something up from this junk heap you call a ship."

"McKay," Sheppard says, his tone heavy with warning.

"Fine, I'm going." He storms off towards the cargo bay and Sheppard follows Lorne back to the bridge, where Zelenka's tapping in the codes to release them from the dock.

"Now would really be a bad time for us to take any damage," Sheppard says. Zelenka gives up his seat to Lorne, smirking a little.

"As averse to others when it was a *good* time?"

"Just – try not to get us killed, all right? Rodney would never let me hear the end of it," Sheppard says, and Cadman announces their return breathlessly.

hr

Lorne's all about looking on the bright side – today, at least – so he counts it as a success when no-one comes after them and the few shots fired at them don't get close. Of course, that's a lot easier to do when they're out in deep space with nothing on the radar, not even Sateda, and his crew all tucked up in bed, even if the beds they're tucked up in aren't necessarily their own.

He reaches for the autopilot before he remembers that they haven't actually set a course for the autopilot to lock onto yet, and checks their stabilizers again instead. Next time, they'll have to find something to extend the proximity sensors: they're essentially hovering in deep space with about a three minute warning if anything gets close, and it does *not* make for a restful night's sleep.

He turns the lights off and wanders down to the bunks, all the doors but one closed and quiet. The door to the pod-room is ajar and Lorne doesn't mean to listen, but his feet seem to stop of their own accord. There's a total stranger – two total strangers – on his ship and just because Sheppard trusts them, doesn't mean he does.

Most of the sound in the room is coming from the device McKay has rigged up from parts he and Zelenka scrounged from around the ship, which seems to have a lot of spare parts, given how much Zelenka complains; the device apparently needs twelve hours to charge, and it's a good thing they've got crates of fuel cells in their cargo hold, because whatever it is – and Lorne really has no clue, even after McKay and Zelenka explained it twice – is eating power at an alarming rate, and Lorne has no intention of being stuck out here longer than he has to be.

McKay's sitting on the floor next to the device, leaning against the wall and looking at nothing – at the patch of wall Sheppard's voice is coming from. "-do anything," Sheppard's saying. "He didn't even have a daughter."

"Oh, like I believe that. I remember how we met." McKay sighs, like it's not a happy memory, but he's sort of smiling.

"Which reminds me," Sheppard says abruptly. "Who's your friend?"

"Ronon? He's not – well, I suppose he sort of is my friend by now. He was part of the Satedan military, but he got thrown out, for insubordination, of all things." Just like everyone else on Atlantis then, Lorne thinks, thrown out of the place they want to be and winding up here. "Your... whatever he is, pilot, was right when he said the Satedans don't like me all that much, they don't take well to incomers, but they liked the technology I was working with. Ronon kind of... He just turned up one morning and started following me around with a gun." McKay twists his face into an expression of mystification as he says this, but Lorne gets it.

"Does he want to go back?" Sheppard asks, his voice deeply casual.

McKay shrugs. "Don't know. There was a girl, but he hasn't said anything about her for a while. Probably not." There's a pause, which Sheppard doesn't fill with the obvious next question. "I thought I'd never see you again," McKay says softly.

"You still might not," Sheppard point out. Lorne remembers, from five years ago, what nervous sounds like in his training officer's voice, enough to know he's hearing it now, under the teasing tone.

"You came all the way to Sateda to find me. On Ford's advice, and he's a lot less reliable now than he used to be. I'm one of the best scientists on that planet, or I was before your second in command kidnapped me, so don't try and pretend you don't know I can do this. I know you, remember?" Lorne loses the urge to hold his hands up and make calming gestures as McKay's voice slides back into affection again.

"Be nice about him," Sheppard says, sounding amused. "He's standing right outside."

McKay looks round and Lorne takes a step into the room. He's not blushing, not at all. "Evening, Doctor. How's it coming?"

"Fine." McKay glares at him but doesn't get up. "It should be ready in another seven hours, three minutes. Of course, it would have been ready a lot faster if I'd had access to my own equipment.

Since parts of the device are literally held together with string and, in one place, a teaspoon, Lorne can't really argue with that. "OK. Good night then. Sir."

"Night, Lorne."

hr

Seven hours and thirteen minutes later, because apparently teaspoons don't conduct power quite as fast as they thought, the entire crew, plus Ronon, are crowded round the pod and McKay, who's hooked a data pad into the pod and is tapping away.

"This is going to work, right?" Katie asks. She's standing as far from McKay as she can, Cadman between the two of them, and he hasn't gone near her, deterred by Cadman's glare. Lorne's not going there on that one, at all.

"Of course it's going to work," McKay snaps, making Katie flinch. He gentles his tone a little. "There's no reason why it shouldn't, at any rate."

It's not exactly the ringing endorsement they were hoping for, but if it makes things worse, the chances are they won't be around to see it anyway. Somehow, that doesn't make him feel a whole lot better.

"All right." McKay taps a couple of keys and the previously blue dial on the pod goes green. "Ready? Sheppard?"

"Yeah." Sheppard can't take a deep breath, but Lorne swears he does it anyway. "Do it."

Cadman and Katie's hands tighten, and Parrish and Zelenka press closer to Lorne. Even Ronon, over in the corner, leans in a little.

"Here goes nothing," McKay mutters, and presses a key decisively.

The device whirs and hums frantically and for one awful moment, nothing happens.

Then the dial flashes a message, too fast for Lorne to read, and the pod's cover starts to slide open, very slowly, releasing frozen mist into the air with a hiss.

Sheppard cries out, the sound echoing through the ship, sharp and pained. Katie presses her face into Cadman's shoulder, pressing her hands to her ears like that'll be enough to block it out.

"It's not working!" Zelenka shouts over the screaming ship.

"Just give it a minute," McKay says, but his face is white and tense, and his eyes don't leave Sheppard, unmoving beneath the open cover of the pod. If he looked bad before, Lorne thinks, he looks worse now. Zelenka's right, it's not working, and Lorne can't stand the noise, the sound of Sheppard in obvious pain.

It's barely a coherent thought, before he's crouched over the device, which must have an off switch somewhere, then Ronon's got a knife in his face.

"What are you -?" McKay's eyes go wide. "Are you insane?"

Lorne meets Ronon's gaze, flat and hard, the knife in his hand unwavering at the bottom of Lorne's field of vision. "Do you even know what you're doing?" he asks McKay, coughing as he tries to make himself heard over the noise. He can't remember what silence sounds like.

"Of course! Just – this thing isn't designed to open like this. I never said it would be pleasant!"

"You never said it would be like this, either," Lorne points out. The moment he says it, he knows it wouldn't have mattered. Sheppard would have done it anyway and really, it's not like they would have – could have – locked McKay and Ronon up to stop them.

"Something is happening," Zelenka says.

Lorne turns, forgetting the knife in his face because Zelenka's voice actually sounds hopeful. He's right as well: so slowly it barely looks like it's moving, the cover on the pod is sliding back. Ronon takes a step towards it, around him, his knife still out, and Lorne wonders for a crazy moment if he's intending to use it on Sheppard or the pod.

The sound of the cover clicking into the side of the pod shouldn't be loud enough to cut through the screams echoing off Atlantis' metal walls, but it is, and the sound drops, lower and less cutting. It takes him a moment to realize why, the screaming still ringing in his ears; it's Sheppard's body screaming, and it worked.

The relief barely lasts a second, before the device, still vibrating on the floor, emits a high pitched scream of its own and they're enveloped in smoke, something that feels a lot like a teaspoon striking Lorne's knee hard to bruise.

When the smoke clears, Katie and McKay are both leaning over Sheppard, who's stopped screaming and is blinking up at them in something like shock. Katie's got her fingers against his throat, feeling for a pulse, but McKay's just staring at him, gripping the edges of the pod so tightly his knuckles are white.

Lorne kind of gets how he feels. He'd love to have something to hold onto right now.

"Are you - do you - can -." McKay stutters to a halt and Sheppard's lips quirk into what's probably trying to be a smile.

Whatever he's trying to say comes out as a groan, his voice scratched and raw.

"Oh, thank God," McKay breathes, and Sheppard's eyes slide closed.

Katie's fingers tighten against his neck for an instant before she looks up, smiling. "It's all right. He fainted."

"That's not all right!" McKay grumbles. "In fact, that's probably a sign that he's not all right. Are you sure you know what you're doing? Are you even a real doctor?"

"McKay." Ronon puts his hand on McKay's shoulder, looking like he'd maybe rather be putting it over the man's mouth, but Lorne doesn't even try to say anything: he's laughing too hard from relief.

Epilogue

Atlantis is different once Sheppard is whole again, like they've lost something that Lorne hadn't realized they had. For days after, he finds himself waiting for a comment that doesn't come, speaking to empty air before he remembers to activate his comm to get hold of Sheppard.

Sheppard's different as well. For the first couple of days, he's got no energy, no coordination, and he stumbles into furniture and people and doors, relearning a body he's been without for eighteen months, collapsing on random chairs and passing out for a couple of hours at a time. Katie explains it as stasis being unnatural, not restful, sleep, but they all worry until it stops.

Sheppard cheers up then, a lot and very fast, and Lorne keeps finding him trailing his hands over corners of Atlantis, grinning like a little kid.

Not that he can talk: he's just like his crew, can hardly keep his eyes off Sheppard or halt the smile of pure joy he feels every time he looks at Sheppard. It's hard to remember that the crew don't know Sheppard like this at all, especially when they carry on treating Lorne like he's in charge.

After nearly a week, when they're running dangerously low on fuel cells, Sheppard drifts onto the bridges and lowers himself carefully into the co-pilot's seat; his coordination still isn't great, and his hands shake when he's not concentrating.

"Everything OK, Sir?" Lorne asks, not looking up from the data stream he's scrolling through, looking for possible targets in the near vicinity.

"Peachy," Sheppard says cheerfully. "McKay knows of an abandoned moon not far from here. I thought we might take Atlantis over, see what's there."

"Sure. Should we, ah, stop at Sateda first?"

"Nah." Lorne can hear the flush in Sheppard's voice and keeps his eyes down. "Figured we'd keep them around for a while. Ronon's pretty scary."

"Yeah. I guess we can't have enough muscle," Lorne says diplomatically, like he really believes it's Ronon Sheppard wants to keep on board; although Ronon seems to be bonding with Zelenka over spare parts and energy weapons, which is disturbing on a large number of levels that he *really* doesn't want to think about.

Besides, Atlantis' entire crew is nothing but misfits and refugees and oddities. A week ago, the ship was occupied by its commander, how much weirder can McKay and Ronon make it?

hr

They leave the not-as-abandoned-as-previously-advertised moon in a hurry, Sheppard's hands steady on the controls as Lorne dials up the gate drive and prays for it to engage right. In the moment before it engages, something strikes the ship. They go through the gate tilting wildly, holding on, and Lorne knows he's grinning like an idiot because, for once, they're not being shot at because of him.

 


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