blue flamingos

Honor and Country

Fandom: Stargate Atlantis (E-Ring)

Category/Rated: Slash, NC-17

Year/Length: 2007/ ~25,000 words

Pairing: John/Rodney

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

Summary: When he was in sixth grade, Rodney McKay spent several hours being interrogated by the CIA, who decided they'd rather he was working with them than potentially against them. The same year, John Sheppard realized the Air Force would never let him fly since he was color-blind, and decided he'd join the Army instead, when he was old enough. Unsurprisingly, they managed to meet anyway...

Author's Notes: For [info]undermistletoe's Day 18 prompt to put the characters in another fandom's universe. This is based on E Ring, which isn't exactly a fandom but was brilliant.

Beta: by [info]dracotelitha

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

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There's no answer when John buzzes Rodney's apartment at six in the evening, the key burning a hole in his pocket. He's not entirely surprised – Rodney knows he's coming but he's never been good at letting work go or leaving on time.

Across the street, a gray-haired man steps out of the building, nods at John, and starts clipping plants in a hanging basket with a small pair of scissors. He doesn't look like he's paying John any attention, but John's heard enough rants from Rodney about his nosy neighbors to be worried, even if Rodney is undoubtedly exaggerating. He adjusts his duffel, torn between letting himself in and setting up residence on the front steps. Both will probably attract equal suspicion, but at least with the former he won't have to listen to Rodney go on about how he gave John a key for a reason. Plus, Washington in February is many things, but warm isn't one of them, especially compared to Iraq. It's one of the best things about this new posting that he's not sure he wants, but he still doesn't want to stand outside and freeze waiting for Rodney to remember the date and leave work.

Decision made, he tosses a quick wave to the gardener, who confirms John's suspicions by waving right back, and lets himself into Rodney's building to trudge up the three flights of stairs to his apartment.

Rodney sent plenty of pictures when he was buying the place, but John's never actually visited – last time he was stateside, Rodney came to him because he didn't have time to fly across country. It's a nice enough place, with decent sized windows and lots of space; enough space for John to wonder if Rodney tidied in advance of his arrival, or if this is just a sign that he's not spending any more time here than he did in his last place, all claims about not wanting to sleep there because of the drummer living downstairs notwithstanding. John drops his bag inside the door and goes in search of food, which ends up being half a pack of Oreos, since that's the only thing that doesn't look like a science experiment gone horribly wrong. John's not going to ask why the cookies are in the fridge.

He flips through the TV channels, but the only sport being shown is skiing, which is much cooler to do than to watch, and all the other channels seem to be talking about the war in Iraq, the one thing John does not want to think about, not when he can still close his eyes and see body parts, smell burnt flesh like he never left. Not when Ronon and Teyla are still out there without him to watch their backs.

"That was a stupid, reckless stunt," Anderson says in his memory. "You're lucky the three of you aren't being added to the casualty list."

Leave no man behind, John had thought, eyes front and center with Holland's blood drying on his hands. He'd taken responsibility, over Teyla's and Ronon's protests – his idea, his orders, his stupid, too-late, disaster of a rescue – expecting to be told in no uncertain terms that his country had no use for officers who acted without proper consideration for the chain of command or the risk of their actions, as though Special Forces had ever cared about risks. Instead, he's been sent back to Washington and the Pentagon and a desk job that feels like a punishment even with Colonel O'Neill's remarks about being lucky still ringing in his ears.

O'Neill told him, when John finally got him on the phone, that he has a month to decide if he wants to keep the job, no hard feelings at the end, but, sitting on Rodney's couch eating cookies in the dark, John's not sure he'll last out the week.

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The scrape of a key in the door yanks him out of sleep, breathing hard and trying to get his bearings, the dream already fragmenting. He's still halfway between asleep and awake when Rodney finally gets the door open and steps inside, turning on a lamp and flicking through his mail.

"Hey," John offers, finally getting his limbs together to stand, and Rodney gives a very satisfying squeak of alarm, mail flying in several directions, all of which he ignores in favor of glaring at John. Who grins back innocently and says, "You know, it's things like that which make people doubt you when you tell them you used to be a field agent."

Rodney glares some more. "First of all, I don't tell people that, do the words, 'concealed identity' mean nothing to you? Second of all, you're the only person who does things like that to me, because everyone else I know has a mental age above twelve. Third of all, people wouldn't doubt me if I did tell them I used to be a field agent, and fourth of all, why are you even here? You're not meant to get here till the seventeenth."

John turns the TV back to the news, which helpfully shows the date at the bottom of the screen. "Thursday, February seventeenth. Today."

"Oh," Rodney says, sounding disappointed. John wonders if he's arranged a hot date that John's now crashing, then tells himself to stop being paranoid. "Oh. Well. Welcome home."

"Gee, Rodney, don't overwhelm me with your enthusiasm," John says. He's starting to think it might be a good thing that he fell asleep before he could take his boots off. "Look, if this is a problem, I'm sure there's plenty of hotels open at –" Wow, ten thirty, no wonder he's hungry.

"Don't be ridiculous. Why would I have sent you a key if I didn't want you here?" Rodney sounds genuine and he can't lie for shit off the job, but he's twitching like he's got bad news, and it's not impossible that John misinterpreted the offer of a place to stay till he got sorted out. It's not like either of them could be particularly explicit on a phone call from the CIA to an army base. "It's just –" Rodney bends to gather his mail up, avoiding John's eye. "I thought you weren't coming for another few days, so I haven't -. I mean, I don't know what you were expecting when I sent you the key, but –"

"Rodney," John interrupts before this can get any more painful, for both of them. "Whatever it is, spit it out before I use all that expensive Special Forces training to get it out of you."

"Oh please, I'd like to see you try," Rodney scoffs, but he cuts himself off before he can get started on another rant. "It's just, I know how things used to be, but maybe they're different now that you're here permanently, and working for the Pentagon, and I didn't want to -. Well, anyway, I can take the couch, even though it's murder on my back, and I'll have a bed for the spare room by the start of next week. It's not a problem."

John looks at Rodney's ham-strung expression and puts it together with the babble of half-sentences that the last ten minutes have consisted of and finally realizes what Rodney's trying to say. "You're, what, worried I'll think you're trying to seduce me by only having one bed?" he asks.

"Um. Yes? Which I'm not."

"Oh," John says, putting as much disappointment into his voice as he can manage. "Oh, well, if you're not, I guess I can take the couch. You have your back, after all, and I've slept worse places..." Rodney's face is falling rapidly, and John can't keep it going any longer. He's been wanting this since he heard he was coming back – since he and his team caught a transport to Iraq a year and a half ago. "Get over here."

"What?" Rodney asks, alarmed, even as he takes a step towards John. "Why? Because if you're going to hit me, I'd really rather –"

And John would be offended by that, but Rodney's finally, finally close enough for John to grab him by the lapels of his suit jacket, drag him close and kiss him, hard and wet and frantic.

Rodney makes a strangled noise against John's mouth, then gets with the program and kisses back, tasting of coffee and faintly of gum, the mail ending up on the floor again when his hands come up to wrap round John's back, pulling him tight against Rodney's solid, safe body, and for the first time since they burst into that house and found the fourth member of their team blown to pieces, John feels like the world's holding still.

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"I'm still buying a spare bed," Rodney says later, when John's draped bonelessly over him, contemplating whether he's hungry enough to get out of bed and order something. Rodney pokes him. "Did you hear what I just said? Are you even listening to me?"

"Mm-hmm," John says. He is listening, he's just distracted by Rodney's fingers stroking through his hair, and the steady thump of Rodney's heart under his ear. "Gonna buy another bed. Not that there's much point."

"John." Rodney's fingers tighten, forcing John to look up at his worried face. "Be realistic. Even if it wasn't frowned on since we're both working with current intelligence now, you're in the army. If anyone finds out you're not just my room-mate, you'll be discharged."

John tucks away the little bubble of happiness that Rodney's 'not just my room-mate' gives him, to look at later when he's not in the middle of something that feels a lot like it could turn into a fight. "I know that. I'm not planning on announcing it to the office on my first day. I just want –" He leans up to kiss Rodney softly, hoping that will get across what he's trying to say,

Rodney smiles at him sadly and tucks John's head back against his shoulder, hugging John closer to him. John can't help the shudder that runs through him. They've only talked about why he's back in the barest of words, but he knows Rodney will have found out, and that he'll have to talk eventually. He just doesn't want to, not until it hurts a bit less.

"I'm not going to kick you out," Rodney says quietly. "I just want you to be careful." There's a pause, then he says, so quietly John barely hears it, "I don't want anything to happen to you."

"Nothing's going to happen to me," John promises. "I survived ten years deployed with Special Forces, I think I can survive Colonel O'Neill and the Special Operations Division."

"Wait till you're spent a few days in the building and see if you're still saying that," Rodney says lightly, but his fingers are tracing over the bullet scar on John's lower back, the one that could have changed everything, very nearly did, and John kisses him just so he'll stop thinking, stop worrying, because John's *safe* now, and he can't bear the way Rodney's still looking at him.

They kiss for a long time, touching everywhere with the kind of want that comes from eighteen months of stilted phone calls and carefully worded letters. When Rodney finally rolls John onto his back and takes his hard cock into his mouth, John comes embarrassingly fast.

Rodney doesn't seem to care, crawling back up John's body to kiss him again and murmuring, "Can I fuck you?" into John's mouth.

John nods, like the question even needed to be asked. "Just – go slow. Been a while."

"I'd hope so," Rodney says, but John hears the insecurity under it.

"No-one but you," he says, holding Rodney's gaze until he nods. "Mainly because of lack of other options," he adds with a grin, and Rodney splutters in protest, poking at John's shoulders until John's laughing too hard to breathe, so relaxed he doesn't realize Rodney's stopped until a slick finger pushes inside him, and then he's breathless for a whole different reason.

Rodney takes John's request entirely to heart, and John's glad he's already come twice and won't be getting more than half-hard again without chemical intervention, because if he hadn't, Rodney's slow finger fucking would be driving him crazy. In bed and in the field, the only places Rodney's ever had any patience; John prefers not to think about what that says about Rodney, or about the two of them.

"All right?" Rodney asks, reaching for the condom. John gets it first, rolling it over Rodney then slicking him slowly, grinning as Rodney twists and gasps and mutters, "Please, John, please," like he's right on the edge of coming.

"Please what?"

"Please don't tease." Rodney closes his hand over John's. "Please let me fuck you now."

"Yeah," John says, breathless all over again. "Yeah, please."

Rodney kisses him the whole time, moving slowly inside him, and it feels incredible, even without the prospect of an orgasm at the end; Rodney comes pressed deep inside him, his low groan sounding more like pain than pleasure, and this time it's John pulling Rodney close, holding him and trying to transmit reassurance through his skin.

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Rodney, it turns out, actually remembered to arrange to take Friday off, despite forgetting right after that John was coming. They stay in bed until John's stomach demands food, then binge on Chinese take-out, which John only realizes he missed when he has it. Since they can't live on take-out, whatever Rodney says, being up means a run to the grocery store. They buy enough food to feed them for weeks, none of which gets eaten that day, because the adrenaline rush that's carried John through the last few days comes to an end ten minutes after they get home, and he falls asleep on Rodney's bed, still wearing his boots.

Saturday's better, mainly because John's conscious and aware for all of it, and he starts feeling like there's actually a chance of this not being the unmitigated horror he's been expecting.

It's a feeling that lasts right up until Rodney's secure line rings at 0517 on Sunday morning with Colonel O'Neill demanding John's presence in the E Ring.

"You don't even start for another week," Rodney grumbles, snuggling back up against John when John flops back down with an arm over his eyes. The one advantage of this job was supposed to be the lack of early morning emergency call outs. At least no-one's likely to be shooting at him.

Somehow, that's not as much consolation as he would have expected.

"Let me use your car?" he asks, pushing Rodney away and sitting up, reaching for his tags.

"Hmm, let me think about it," Rodney says. "Top secret relationship, high chance of you being fired if someone finds out, level of suspicion aroused by you arriving in my car... I'm going to go with no. Or possibly, hell, no, I haven't decided."

"Some days," John says, heading for the closet. "I really dislike you."

When he turns back around, buttoning his shirt, Rodney's grinning, smug and lazy, his arm disappearing beneath the sheet, moving with an unmistakable rhythm that turns John's pants a little too tight.

Even knowing it's a bad idea and likely to make him late, he goes back over to kiss Rodney, breathless when he finally pulls back, Rodney's hand still sliding over his own dick. "Really, really dislike you," John says, and Rodney's laugh follows him out of the apartment.

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He's greeted on the other side of security by a young marine, who grins at him like John's the best thing to happen to him yet in a day that's already been filled with great things. "Major Sheppard?" John nods and the grin brightens even further. "Lieutenant Ford, sir, Colonel O'Neill's junior aide. Welcome to the Pentagon."

"Thanks," John says, and wonders where he can get his hands on some coffee. He's definitely not caffeinated enough to deal with this much enthusiasm when it's barely light outside.

"You want to come this way, sir?" Ford asks. "The Colonel's expecting us in five minutes."

John's been to the Pentagon a handful of times before, mainly to be berated by superior officers, but the corridors here are the same as everywhere else in the building.

"Any idea what we've been called in for?" John asks, trying to remember which corridors they turn down, but his sense of direction's never been anything to write home about when he's not using it to avoid being captured.

"Yes, sir," Ford says, tapping in a door code that John memorizes over his shoulder. Being able to open every door in the building is occasionally a useful trick if he needs to impress a civilian and doesn't have much to work with. "One of our assets in China just activated his extraction plan." He leads John down another corridor, this one lined with plastic sheeting and large 'Danger: Asbestos' signs. So much for this being safer. He makes a mental note not to mention this to Rodney unless he really needs to derail the conversation.

"Asset?"

"Yes, sir," For says again, and that's going to get old fast; he's used to Teyla and Ronon, who address him as 'boss' if they're feeling exceptionally formal. "He's been passing intelligence to us for a couple of years now, since the CIA turned him."

The CIA. Just when John thought the day couldn't get any worse, it is, and he'll just bet Rodney's involved in this somewhere; he runs his current intelligence team with more micromanaging than a newly-minted lieutenant, fingers in every pie going.

Ford knocks the door to a room made of what look a lot like portable notice boards. "Temporary, till the asbestos is out of our usual office," he explains, and knocks again.

"What?" demands O'Neill's voice.

Ford offers John another grin and opens the door, allowing John to enter first.

O'Neill's sat behind a large desk covered in papers, in front of a wall-mounted map of China and another of Uzbekistan that John pulls his eyes from with difficulty – his team was headed out there when he was sent back. Even walled in by notice boards, the office looks exactly as John would have imagined, right down to the red phone in the corner of the desk, like O'Neill's keeping it as far from himself as he can.

The Colonel opens his arms expansively and grins in a way that makes John very, very nervous. He's seen the guy in pictures before, of course, but usually in full army dress uniform, not like this, with his sleeves rolled up and his jacket slung over the back of his chair, grinning at John like he's trying to prove the dental work in his back teeth is still good.

"Major Sheppard, at last. Welcome to the E Ring."

"Thank you, sir," John says. He's already itching to open the top button of his green uniform after months in desert cammies and t-shirts, but Ford looks like he was starched into his uniform, and John's not sure how much leeway O'Neill's going to give him.

"Sunday mornings at the Pentagon," O'Neill says, leaning forward to hand John an envelope marked 'Top Secret: Confidential'. "Can't you just feel the love?"

John takes the envelope, a little afraid it's going to bite him, and wonders, again, how the hell he managed to get himself into this.

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"So," Rodney says, when John wheels his bicycle in at ten past midnight that night, so exhausted he only just avoids walking into the doorframe. The TV's on, some show about space, possibly, or maybe vampires, if the pictures are anything to go by, but the volume's muted and Rodney, clad in sweatpants, t-shirt and tube socks, is twisted round in the pile of files on the couch to look at John. "What happened to Shen Li?"

John would ask how Rodney knows that's who he's been dealing with, except he already knows – fingers in every pie – and he wants a shower, food, and as much sleep as he can get before he has to be back in the E Ring at 0600.

"John? Hello? Anybody home?" Rodney comes up on his knees and actually taps John's forehead like he's knocking. "Shen Li? Extraction plan? I assume that's what kept you in the Pentagon until the dead of night, unless the Enquirer's right and aliens really are about to invade the planet."

John grabs Rodney's shoulders, pushing him down so John can drape himself over him and kiss him, which shuts Rodney up, gets John horizontal before he falls over, and also just feels really... nice.

"That was an I-want-to-ravish-you-in-my-moment-of-victory kiss, right?" Rodney asks, pulling away before John's quite done with him. "Not a help-me-forget-my-disastrous-day-that-ended-with-the-capture-and-probably-death-of-our-asset kiss?"

"Yeah, Rodney," John says, and he can't help the laugh that breaks out, because, sure, the Pentagon brass are about as keen on him as any other brass, and yeah, this job's clearly going to involve as much tension and stress as his last one, without the release of shooting something at the end of it, but... but O'Neill backed him up, and they listened, in the end, and now they have Shen Li, and China's plans for a nuclear sub, and John feels good, better than he's felt in ages, since before the explosion, before Holland, like a tiny corner of the black space inside him just got filled.

Rodney's looking at him with an indulgent, fond smile, and he reaches up to trace the side of John's face and down his neck. "You look happy," he says, and John kisses him again, meaning, I am, and, thank you,, and, it's good.

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Of course, it doesn't last.

"Eighty percent facial recognition," O'Neill says, handing John a folder when he walks into their now-asbestos-free office one Thursday morning. John opens the folder to a photo of a thin, narrow-faced man, eyeing something just to the side of the camera with a predatory gleam in his eye and a slight smirk.

"Who is he?"

"His name's Ba'al. He's been working with the Goa'uld organization for years, one of their most senior leaders. He's responsible for most of their major bombings in the last few years, and he's completely ruthless. We've been chasing him for years, Major," O'Neill says, and this John remembers, the intense glare from a CO who finally sees a personal crusade coming together.

"Yes, sir."

The problem is, John's used to the glare being followed up with instructions on where to go, who to take, how they'll get there and what they'll do when they arrive. What he's not used to is being the focus of a look that demands he put together all these details and present them in a neat package to the Chiefs of Staff.

O'Neill smiles at him, like he knows *exactly* what John's thinking and is happy to let him stew. "Briefing in three hours, Major. Come see me with a mission proposal in two. Ford will help you with the paperwork."

"Sure, sir," Ford says brightly, as though he'd like nothing better than to put John's stumbling attempts at mission justification into a language the civilian oversight will understand.

"Great," John says, and sneaks off to call the CIA.

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"I can't do this," he says when Rodney answers his phone.

"What?" Rodney asks, sounding distracted, then, "Wait, what are you doing calling me here? Do you realize that the CIA routinely tapes a sample of all calls made into and out of the offices?"

"Yeah, Rodney, you might have mentioned it," John agrees, even though he'd forgotten until Rodney said it.

"So get off the phone and go back to work," Rodney says. John expects to hear the click of a disconnecting line, but he gets a crackle of static instead as Rodney sighs. "We can have lunch, if you really need me to be around for this freak-out."

"Can't," John says. Someone's moved the model F-16 on his desk, and he straightens it absently. "Mission briefing."

Rodney huffs exasperatedly. "Then get back to work and stop bothering me." He drops his voice, even though they both know it won't help if they are being recorded. "I'll see you later."

"Yeah," John says. Maybe the warm rush he gets from those words will be enough to get him through this after all. "Later, Rodney."

When he hangs up, O'Neill's leaning on his cubicle wall, looking at him. "CIA helping with the mission?" he asks.

"No, sir." John really hopes he's not blushing. "Personal call."

"Right." O'Neill nods. "You're living with Dr McKay?"

"Staying with him," John corrects without blinking. "Just while I find somewhere to live."

"Not easy finding a place in Washington on a Pentagon salary," O'Neill agrees. He taps John's cubicle wall twice. "Mission proposal to me in a couple of hours?"

"Yes, sir," John says, and feels like he doesn't breathe until O'Neill's office door closes behind him.

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"Looks good, Major," O'Neill says two hours later, as John wraps up his proposal: grab Ba'al, get him out of town, and let the Air Force scoop him up and out of the country. Job done, and one more terror cell without their leader. "Though I admit I was thinking of something a bit more permanent."

John offers his most innocent smile. "This way we've got a chance at him and any intelligence he has." Plus, given the choice, he'd rather not start off his Pentagon career by killing someone, even someone like Ba'al.

O'Neill gives him a long look, then turns it on Ford. "Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Who's counsel attached to this?"

Ford grins. "I think it's Dr Weir, sir."

"Excellent," O'Neill says, grinning at John. "Major, you can present this to her."

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John's never met Dr Weir, but he knows her by reputation, and by Rodney's account; she's one of the few – very few – people Rodney talks about with unqualified respect, even admiration, and not just because she helped get him back from a dodgy field assignment in Siberia.

She looks pretty much like he would have imagined – the kind of thin that comes from a healthy diet and yoga, neat brown hair and a smart gray suit, though the bright red blouse under her jacket is a bit of a surprise, as is her warm smile when she takes his hand.

"Major Sheppard, it's a pleasure to meet you. Colonel O'Neill's been telling me all about you."

"All good, I hope," John says, smiling. 'All about him' doesn't actually sound all that good, not if it includes how he wound up at the Pentagon.

"Of course," Weir says with a laugh, and O'Neill gives him a wry smile and says, "Don't let it go to your head."

"No, sir," John agrees. There's not much chance of that.

"So." Weir gestures for them to be seated round the small conference table and nods for Ford to close the door. They're in a glass office, so it's not exactly private, but John's beginning to realize nothing really is in the Pentagon. "You're putting this to the Joint Chiefs?"

"Yes, ma'am." O'Neill watches her flick through John's paperwork, neatly typed up by Ford. John's keeping quiet about the fact that he learned to touch type during a college computing class. "And knowing how much they all like you, I thought I'd get your approval on it first."

"I see," Weir says, sounding amused. "Eighty percent facial recognition? I've seen higher."

"Ba'al isn't an easy man to catch on film," O'Neill points out. "We've had enough reported sightings of him for me to start believing in human cloning, but this is the best we've had yet."

"And if it's not him and you grab the wrong person?" Weir asks, all the amusement gone from her voice, and John would rather be anywhere else. He's not good at this part, even in the field, where he mostly left it to Teyla; he squashes the part of himself that wants to push and charm until she gives in, because this is the Pentagon and he understands the need to be different.

"It's at eighty percent, Elizabeth," O'Neill says intently, doing the pushing for John. "We'll never get another chance like this, and who knows what he could have on him?"

Weir nods slowly, flipping through the papers again. "I notice there's nothing in there about how you'll get him out of the country."

O'Neill looks at John. "I believe Major Sheppard here has some ideas."

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Early on in his career, not long after he met Teyla and Ronon, John spent a year down at Bragg, training alongside the Air Force. He still doesn't know if it was the best or the worst year of his life, being so close to what he'd always wanted and never quite getting it.

The one thing he does remember is playing with the pilots, the tricks they did.

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"It's called the Fulton Recovery System," he offers, then, when Weir continues to look blank, "From 'The Green Berets'? With John Wayne?"

Weir's eyes go wide, and she covers her mouth in horror. "Stop right there," she says, but she's laughing, and John figures maybe Rodney's right about her, even if she is a lawyer. "Oh my God, I can't know that."

She approves the mission, legally, anyway, eyes still bright with humor and horror.

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The meeting with the Joint Chiefs goes well, apart from John being ready to tear off his own skin just to shake the crawling impatience he can feel as they talk around the subject with no indication of an intention to make a decision. O'Neill impressed on him before he went in that he was not, under any circumstances, to open his mouth for anything other than a sip of coffee – a moot point since he doesn't have any – and the enforced silence is almost enough to crack his Special Forces' trained stillness. It's bad enough that his uniform is still too new and stiff to allow him to do anything other than sit very straight in his chair.

He's half-zoned out, absorbing the tone rather than the content of the speeches when General Landry asks, "Which unit are you proposing to undertake this?" and O'Neill says, "Atlantis Unit, sir," with a sideways look at John like he knows exactly what John is thinking.

He keeps quiet, barely, while they wrap up the meeting, just registering that they've approved the mission, and follows O'Neill out, practically vibrating with the need to speak, to complain or refuse or somehow stop this.

What he actually says is, "They're flying back tomorrow."

"Not any more. There'll be another transport."

"They've already been delayed, sir," John protests. These are his people, and they've been out there risking their lives for the last year and a half without a break. They're supposed to be coming back – Ronon and Teyla are supposed to be coming back, so he can see them and make sure they're okay. "There's other units out there." And how did he end up saying this anyway, when he was always the one pushing for his unit to be given the best, toughest, most dangerous missions? He's suddenly got a lot more sympathy for Rodney, left behind waiting for phone calls.

"Major, believe me, I know what it's like when they're your buddies," O'Neill says. "But they're the best unit for the job." He takes a couple of steps away, then turns back. "I'm sure the news would be better coming from you."

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Teyla's voice is brusque on the field line as she bites out a greeting, but it warms when John says hello. "John. It has been many days. Are you enjoying the Pentagon?"

"Oh, sure, more fun than a Ferris wheel in football season," he says, just to hear her laugh. He can't believe how much he's missed the two of them, how much it still aches.

"I am sure you will come to enjoy it," Teyla says serenely. John can hear Ronon's voice in the background, too muffled to make out the words, and a jeep rattling by.

"Yeah. So, listen, I'm really sorry but –"

He can picture Teyla nodding, understanding him without the need to finish. "We are to remain here a little longer?"

She sounds like she went to finishing school, never using contractions, John thinks inanely. "I'm sorry," he says again. "We've got a sighting on Ba'al of the Goa'uld, and they want you guys to pick him up."

"I see," Teyla says, unruffled as ever. "I am sure we will be briefed on the details shortly."

"Sure," John agrees. He doesn't know the guy who's gone in to replace him, doesn't want to – he'll only end up getting Rodney to hack the guy's file, and there's nothing he could find out that wouldn't make him worry more or get jealous.

"John, I must ask you one favor," Teyla says. "Halling and Jinto are expecting me home very soon. I would prefer they did not learn of this from Family Services, but from a friend."

"Of course, "John agrees. Like he can do anything else. He's never been entirely clear on Teyla's relationship to her housemate and his son – they're some kind of distant cousins from her father's native country, but that's as far as he's ever get. "I promise."

"Thank you, John," Teyla says, and breaks the connection, leaving John feeling more guilty, more worried, than he would have if she'd yelled.

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Halling is as calm and understanding as Teyla, though John's glad he managed to phone on a night when Jinto's out; the boy hero-worships Teyla, and John's not up to dealing with his disappointment. Not that it really makes any difference in the end. When O'Neill finally kicks him out at a little past midnight, pointing out that nothing will be happening till the next day, and that he'll be no use passed out from exhaustion, he's so tense that he drops the keys to his bike lock twice.

The apartment's dark when John lets himself in, only the glow of one of Rodney's laptop screensavers giving any indication that someone's home. He goes to shut it down, but there's a password required; it must be from work.

John hangs his jacket and cover behind the door, toes off his shoes and pads into the kitchen. He can't remember when he last ate, but there's nothing that looks appetizing. He's pretty sure he's not hungry for food anyway.

He thinks about taking a shower, but Rodney's pipes are old and noisy, and none of the neighbors will thank him for waking them at 0100. He's actually a little surprised that Rodney's asleep already, but he supposes even workaholic intelligence geniuses have to crash occasionally. Maybe he assumed John would be pulling an all-nighter on mission prep.

He contemplates, briefly, opening out the futon Rodney bought for appearances' sake and actually using it, but that just reminds him of his very brief, very misguided marriage, and he doesn't want his relationship with Rodney to end up like that.

Rodney's got the covers thrown back, even though it's March and still freezing, sprawled on his back in his favorite I'm With Genius t-shirt and boxers patterned with limes, or more likely kiwis, his mouth slightly open as he snores faintly. He half-wakes when John strips down to his own boxers and climbs in, rearranging the covers over them both.

"Okay?" he asks blearily, flopping over to wrap an arm round John's waist and drag the covers askew all over again.

John rests his head automatically against Rodney's, trying to absorb the comfortable domesticity he's gotten so used to lately, trying to let Rodney's presence and warmth relax him and ease the tension skittering under skin like something alien in his blood.

"Not really," he says quietly into Rodney's hair, but Rodney's already gone back to sleep.

hr

He knows it's a dream the moment he looks round and sees sand – he's always been good at distinguishing fantasy from reality, just not good enough to stop it. He's back in Iraq, and it's no surprise to turn and see the smoking wreck of the house at the end of the dirt track. He walks toward it anyway, feeling the familiar weight of his weapon in his hand, the slight tug of the sand at his boots every time he lifts his foot. He knows both of those come from memory, like the tiny black dot of a bird floating in slow circles high above him, but he's alone in silence, and that part's pure dream-state. He's used to it, like he's used to dreaming of gunfire and screams.

He wraps a cloth round his left hand before reaching for the door handle, because even in a dream there's some training he can't shake; it means he's left with nothing to cover his face, and the smell of burning flesh makes him gag as he gets the door open, wanting to step back.

He goes in anyway, weapon up, light on, scanning the corners for shadows that shouldn't be there, and when he steps into a hallway and finds bodies in charred US Army uniforms, the shock is a distant, muffled memory.

He crouches next to the first body, trying not to see the empty space where limbs should be, reaching to turn it over and at least find the tags, find out whose funeral he'll be attending now, and it was a man's body, Holland's body, he'd swear to it, but when he turns it now, Teyla's eyes are looking up at him, Teyla's face is burnt and bloodied, and he wakes himself up, gasping for breath, Rodney's hands on his shoulders holding him down, his face close and worried in the lamplight.

"John?" he says. "It's a dream, you're dreaming."

And John knows this, he knows, but Teyla's face is *right there* and he can't breathe, feels physically sick with it. He pushes up against Rodney's hold, breaking it and swinging his legs over the side of the bed to sit up, his shaking, clenched hands between his knees, his head bent.

"John," Rodney says. He doesn't touch, but John can feel him there, sitting close enough behind John that all he'd need to do is lean back. "Breathe."

John takes a shuddery breath and wonders when Rodney became the calm one. At least when he was deployed he could call up Rodney when he got blind-sided by memories and dreams and Rodney's empty eyes staring at him. He never really thought about what it would be like to have them when he can't check on his people with just a phone call.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Rodney asks awkwardly.

John thinks distantly that it's his silence, not his nightmares, that are unnerving Rodney, but the last thing he wants to do is talk.

He half turns to find his prediction was right – Rodney is sitting right behind him, frowning worriedly, close enough to kiss, so John does, fast and dirty, the kind of kiss that's guaranteed to get Rodney going. This time is no exception, Rodney's hands fisting in John's t-shirt and pulling him down to the bed. John's not really in the mood, the adrenaline of his nightmare slowly draining away, leaving him exhausted and shaky, but Rodney turns into the kiss, solid and present under John, still warm with sleep, and John thinks maybe he can get into the mood, especially if it will distract Rodney from his questions.

Especially when Rodney rolls John onto his back, shoves down John's boxers and sucks John's half-hard cock into his mouth.

Rodney gives the best blow-jobs of anyone John's ever had sex with, all intense concentration and wicked flicks of his tongue round all the spots that make John gasp. He doesn't try to hold John down or do anything really fancy, just strokes his thumbs over John's hips and sucks his cock till it's all John can think about, till he's clutching the bed clothes so tightly his hands hurt, till he's gasping and cursing and coming before he can say anything to warn Rodney.

Rodney holds him in his mouth till John's finished shuddering through the aftershocks, then drapes himself over John to kiss him gently. John reaches for Rodney, intending to return the favor, and it's only then that he realizes he's been had in more ways than the obvious, made the mistake, once again, of forgetting that Rodney's been trained in making people talk and learned along the way to get creative with it.

"Thanks a lot," he says darkly, shifting his leg until he can feel his boxers with his foot. He feels like an idiot, and weirdly cheated, considering he got to come and Rodney barely got hard; like Rodney was servicing him, like he was a mark for a field trained agent not... not whatever he's supposed to be to Rodney these days.

"You talk more when you're relaxed, and that was the quickest way to relax you," Rodney says, slightly defiant.

"Didn't last," John tells him. He pulls out of Rodney's embrace and gets his boxers back on; he's humiliated enough, without lying around half-naked as well. "I'm thinking it's time I tried out that futon you bought."

"John –" Rodney's fingers brush John's arm as John climbs out of bed. He might as well get up, really – he knows he's not going to sleep any more now. "John, come back to bed. I'm sorry, okay, I was trying to help."

"You didn't," John says.

He doesn't bother with the futon, just lies on the couch and stares at the darkened ceiling, until it's light enough out that he can get up and go for a run.

When he gets back, there's a dirty coffee mug in the sink and the house feels empty. He checks, but Rodney hasn't left a note, and he doesn't have time, now, to call his cell and try to make things better. He reminds himself to call when he gets to the office.

hr

Except that when he gets to the office, Ba'al has changed his plans, moved his meeting up, and the Atlantis team is on their way to his meeting place. O'Neill grabs John before he's even turned his computer on and drags him into the situation room, a mass of video screens showing everything but the one thing he really wants to see.

It'll be a big coup if they pull this off, so the Joint Chiefs are all there, polished and starched and looking at John like he's got his spotty history tattooed on his forehead, till he's itchy just from the eyes on him.

He lasts an hour and forty minutes before he has to excuse himself to go walk up and down the corridor. He's got his cell in his hand before he really registers his own intention, and his fingers seem to dial Rodney's number on their own.

"This is Dr Rodney McKay," Rodney's recorded voice says, the message just long enough for John to take a deep breath.

"Ronon and Teyla are going up against a terror leader this afternoon," he says quickly. "It's my mission, I planned it, and I just –" He stops, not sure what to say, or how to say it to Rodney's voicemail. "I wanted to tell you I'll be late tonight."

It's the closest he can get to apologizing, to saying that he isn't going anywhere, but Rodney knows him well enough to read between the lines, and anyway, Ford's looking up and down the corridor for him, and he hasn't got time to say anything else.

hr

He feels better when Atlantis is in position and their comms are patched through so he can hear what's going on, even if he can't see it.

"Three guards," Teyla reports.

"Sniper on the roof," Ronon adds. "Kind of crowded for him to start something."

"Unless he's pretty confident he'll hit the right target," John points out, getting himself a small grin from O'Neill. You can take the soldier out of the field...

"Do not worry, Major," Teyla says. "Ronon will deal with him before he can attempt anything." She sounds like she's laughing at him in her own subtle Teyla way.

"Great," he says, and shuts up. She doesn't need him back-seat leading; she has it under control.

Right up until Ba'al walks out with a guard they didn't know he had, and everything goes to hell, a chaotic babble of gun fire and shouting that ends in Teyla's voice saying, very calmly, "Ronon has been shot. He is bleeding badly. Request medical transportation immediately."

Just for a second, John thinks he's still dreaming, that he never woke up from the nightmare, but his mouth's moving on auto-pilot, saying, where? and, how badly? and, med evac won't make it in time. He's barely aware of O'Neill and the others in the background as he tells Teyla to flexi-cuff Ronon and Ba'al together, hook them both up to the line and get the target balloon up.

On the screen in front of him, the green dot of their extraction plane is moving rapidly towards their position, and the pilot isn't designated to stop, can't land even if he wants to. He'll hook the line and reel it in whether Ronon and Ba'al are on the other end or not. John tries not to think about Teyla, when he explained their extraction plan earlier, saying, "People are more easily broken than mannequins, John, are you sure this is wise?" It's too late to worry about it now.

"The balloon is up. I see the plane now." Teyla's voice drops, too low for John to make out words intended only for Ronon, and then there's nothing, echoing silence as John strains to hear the plane approaching hundreds of miles away.

"We have the target," an unfamiliar voice says suddenly on the comm, making John jump. "I repeat, we have the target. Medics are treating Sergeant Dex, first reports highly positive."

The room erupts into congratulations, startling John all over again, and O'Neill grins at him. "Nice work, Major."

"Thank you, sir," John says. He excuses himself and walks perfectly calmly to the men's room down the hall, where he sits on the floor and throws up. He was completely wrong when he thought this was going to be all right; there's no way he can keep doing this, sitting safe in Washington while his people risk their lives, and he decides right there that he's getting back into the field as soon as humanly possible.

hr

Rodney's waiting for him again when he gets home, and he grabs John almost before the door's closed behind him. "Well? Well? What's the matter with you, I've been calling your cell all day, why didn't you answer?"

"What?" John asks stupidly, pulling it out to check. 32 missed calls, 12 new messages. Huh. "Why?"

"Oh, let's see, maybe because you told my *voicemail* that Ronon and Teyla were out risking their lives and I was worried, you asshole." Rodney actually shakes him. "Are they okay?"

"Teyla's fine. Ronon was hit, but he's in the hospital, he's going to be fine." He's in surgery, actually, removing the bullet and stitching the holes it left, but Rodney doesn't need to know that, not when he's looking at John like that, like John's the one who was bleeding out in the middle of the desert, and John's on the floor abruptly, leaning against the door, and he doesn't remember how he got there.

"Did you eat anything today?" Rodney asks in clear exasperation, then, when John takes too long to think about the answer, "No, of course you didn't, that would require you to actually use your brain for more than just deciding what to shoot."

John thinks about pointing out that he's the one responsible for the daring rescue plan, but Rodney's on a roll and John's not up to fighting for control of the conversation, so he just lets it go, drinks the milk and eats the soup, then the cookies, that Rodney puts in front of him, so that he's actually feeling human again when Rodney winds down and just looks at him, mouth twisted in worry.

John still doesn't want to talk, but he understands the need to put other people above what he wants sometimes, so he opens his mouth and says, "Holland got captured when we were in Afghanistan. We went back for him against orders..."

hr

Teyla calls him two days before Ronon's due back from the hospital in Germany and invites him to the unit's postponed welcome home party at her house that weekend.

John's weirdly touched, though he can't really explain why. "Are you sure?" he says.

"Of course," Teyla says, in the voice that means she thinks he's being an idiot, but respects the chain of command too much to say it out loud. "You do not cease to be part of Atlantis simply because you no longer go on missions with us." She pauses so he can absorb exactly how much of an idiot he's being, then adds, "You should bring Dr McKay with you. Since we have worked with him, and you are staying with him now."

"Sure," John says. "Sounds great."

hr

Rodney, predictably, disagrees. "Seriously, are you trying to get yourself court martialed? It's a military welcome home party and you want to go with your – with your –"

"Friend I've known for years?" John suggests with a raised eyebrow. He hates that Rodney's so paranoid about this, especially when he's the one who'll be losing his job if anyone finds out. It's kind of sweet, but John's been doing this for years, he knows how not to get caught, and he doesn't know when Rodney stopped trusting him on that. "Person I'm staying with who worked with this unit before and knows half of them already?"

"Person you're sleeping with in violation of the army's homophobic rules about your sex life," Rodney says, hands flailing in clear agitation. "*You* don't even know everyone who'll be there, you can't possibly know if you can trust them all."

This is getting way out of hand. "Rodney, unless you're planning on jumping me on Teyla's dinner table, which I suspect she'd object to strongly, I think we can probably keep our relationship secret for a couple of hours while we have dinner with some friends." Dinner with a friend who came much closer to dying than John likes to think about, who he needs to see with his own eyes.

"Don't look at me like that," Rodney says, which is a problem since he doesn't *know* how he's looking at Rodney. "I'm thinking of your career here. One of us has to."

John knows this already, has had it explained to him more times than he can count, including once just after he got back, when Rodney agreed to a blind date with a friend of one of his colleagues. John gets the point of that, but he'd really rather not relive the argument.

"Just don't mention that I like your dick in my ass," he says sweetly, "And we'll be fine."

hr

They are fine – no-one appears to notice that Rodney and John are an undefined something-more-than-room-mates, Halling cooks, to everyone but Teyla's relief, Jinto grins the whole time, and Ronon, even still obviously recuperating, looks healthy and whole. They take a cab home, too buzzed to drive, and fall into bed to fuck all night.

It's the last really good night John will have for a while.

Part 2

Part 3 Ice skate
Part 1

hr

Part Two

There's always a TV on somewhere in John's glorified cubicle farm, and he's learned to tune it out, just listening for anything that might be important, and even tuning most of that out these days, since anything relevant has usually got to them already by the time CNN break it.

It's the only explanation he's got for why he doesn't register what the anchor-woman's talking about until she says, "Westway Apartment Complex," when he registers that that's Rodney's building, and it's always seemed pretty secure to him.

Whatever's happened, it must have been early, because they're filming on the street when he looks up at the screen, and there's an ambulance, a couple of police cars, and John's about to dismiss it as mildly worrying but not on a Special Operations level when the camera moves and he's looking at Rodney's car, surrounded by crime scene personnel.

His first thought is that someone was trying to steal it, then that maybe it was something a bit more serious, since it's being reported by CNN. Maybe a fire, or a car bomb, except there's no smoke, no fire service personnel, just ambulance and police.

"...Unnamed CIA agent was shot twice this morning in his car outside his apartment building," the anchor-woman is saying when John gets close enough to the TV to hear properly. "No official comment has been received yet from –"

"You think it's just a coincidence?" Ford asks curiously, suddenly right by him. "I always figured that was a pretty good neighborhood..." He doesn't know, John realizes, doesn't know who the agent is, or if he does, he doesn't know that John knows him, and John thinks, 'shot twice this morning,' Rodney was going to work at home and go in late, and Ford says, "Whoa, Major, you okay?", his hand on John's arm, steadying him.

The world grays out for a split second, and everything seems too loud when it comes back. This can't be happening. It's not that long since Ronon was injured. Rodney's not even in the field any more. They're supposed to be safe now. "I need to go to the hospital," he says, and his voice sounds funny in his own ears.

"Major?" Ford asks, still holding John's arm. "You want to sit down?"

"Not for me." John nods at the screen, where they've moved onto – he doesn't know, something about ships. "The agent, I know him – I'm staying with him, we're friends. I need to –"

"Okay, sir. You hang tight here a second, I'll find out where they've taken him."

Ford disappears, leaving John alone at his desk, trying to keep breathing and not give in the temptation to just put his head down on his desk and break.

hr

He's feeling a lot more together by the time an airman drops him outside the hospital, like he can maybe deal with this without falling apart, or at least without yelling at the perfectly nice receptionist who takes his name, points him to the waiting area, and promises to send Rodney's doctor out as soon as she's got a minute. John knows better than to harass the guy for details of Rodney's condition, which he won't have and wouldn't be able to give if he did, but he still has to fight the urge to demand to know if Rodney's okay, if he's badly hurt, if he's...

His uniform gets him a few looks from the handful of people waiting with him: a man holding a bandage to a head wound that's dripping blood anyway, a pair of young women, one with her hand wrapped in ice, an older man with two wide-eyed, worried children, but no-one tries to talk to him, or even catch his eye.

He takes out his cell phone, wondering if he should call O'Neill – he doesn't remember seeing him before he left, but Ford will have found him and told him, after John turned down his offer of company, and maybe O'Neill will know something. The FBI will have taken over the investigation, now they know what Rodney does, and they'll find out John's living there. It occurs to him that anyone going into Rodney's apartment will know they're not platonic friends sharing a place, not with the futon folded up, obviously unused, and John's spare uniform tossed on the bedroom floor, waiting to be cleaned, but it's a distant worry, because it's hard to care about being reprimanded when Rodney's been shot, Jesus-

"Mr. Sheppard?" He looks up at a woman in a white coat, stethoscope round her neck and blond hair tied back from her face. "I'm sorry – Major, right? My name's Dr Keller, Andrew said you're here for Dr McKay?"

"Yes. Is he –" He doesn't know what he wants to ask, not when she's giving him the neutral doctor face.

She sits down next to him, turning slightly to block out the rest of the room. "Are you his next of kin?"

"I –" John's first instinct is to say yes, because he is, really, in every way that counts, and his second is to say no, because every way that counts doesn't include in the eyes of the law, and anyway, he has no idea who Rodney has listed as next of kin, but he's absolutely sure it isn't him, not when he's only been back in the country a few months. "We're friends," he says finally, aware that the silence has gone on too long to be comfortable. "I just got back to the States, I've been staying with him."

Keller eyes him dubiously then nods. "I guess if you can't trust a man in uniform..." She smiles slightly and John tries to relax. She wouldn't be smiling if it was really bad news. "Okay, well, the bullets did some serious internal damage. He's on his way to surgery right now, but I have to be honest with you, Major – there's no guarantees here. Dr Beckett's a gifted surgeon, but –"

John nods, cutting her off. He can't bear to look at her, at anyone, not when his hands are shaking and he feels like he might throw up. It's not fair, he wants to say, like fairness has anything to do with it, like Holland didn't already make that 110% clear. But they're the ones this is supposed to happen to, on the front lines and armed, not fucking *defenseless* in their cars on the way to work.

He makes himself take a deep breath, because there's no part of this that can be improved by him having a panic attack in the middle of the ER. "Thanks," he tells Keller, unsurprised when his voice comes out rough.

She gives him a sympathetic smile, but her hand's already on her stethoscope, ready to move on "You're welcome to wait if you want – Andrew can point you to the family area – but it's a complicated procedure, there won't be news for hours yet."

"Thanks," he says again, doing his best to pull up a smile that ends up feeling weirdly twisted on his face; it does the job though, because she pats his arm and leaves him to freak out in semi-private.

He's just about done, trying to decide whether he wants to go back to the Pentagon and try for distraction or wait it out here and go crazy, when someone stops in front of him.

"Major Sheppard," a familiar, female voice says quietly. "Colonel O'Neill suggested I might find you here."

"And you have," John says, looking up at Dr Weir. She looks as put together and at ease as she does at the Pentagon, but there's something strained around her eyes, something that John thinks is probably reflected in his own face. "You want to sit down?"

"Thank you." She tucks her feet neatly under the chair, and sits very straight. John leans forward, elbows on his knees so he won't have to look at her. "Is there any news?"

John recounts what Keller told him, watching Weir nod from the corner of his eye. "I assume you're intending to wait," she says. "Would you mind some company?"

Pretty much the last thing John wants is company, unless it's maybe in the form of Teyla, but Weir cares enough about Rodney to come down to the hospital, and he doesn't have exclusive rights to Rodney, no matter how much he might wish for it some days.

"Sure," he says calmly, and goes to get directions to a waiting area that's not the ER.

hr

John loses track of actual time, measuring it by cups of coffee (3), calls from Ford (2), and times Weir steps out to talk quietly on her cell (6).He's about to offer to go get more coffee, since Weir went last time, when a man in a dark suit steps round the open door and knocks lightly on the frame.

"You folks from the Pentagon?" He's got his ID clipped to the pocket of his suit jacket, but he's across the room and John can't make out the details of the logo.

"Yes," Weir says, closing the file on her knee and sliding it casually under another. "Can we help you?"

He pushes away from the door and closes it behind himself when he comes inside, leaving the three of them alone with the flowered wallpaper and worn children's toys. "Agent Mitchell, FBI. I'm gonna assume you're Major Sheppard?"

He's got an open, trustworthy face and a hint of a southern accent that reminds John of six months in Kansas as a kid, but John didn't get into Special Forces by letting his guard down. "Sure."

"Nice to meet you, Agent Mitchell." Weir stands up and shakes his hand. "Dr Elizabeth Weir, Deputy General Counsel to the DoD."

Mitchell flinches slightly but returns the handshake gamely. "Pleasure to meet you, Doctor. I wondered if I might have a word with the major here."

"Of course," Weir says, like John's not sitting there and perfectly capable of answering for himself. "I'm sure you won't mind if I stay."

Mitchell glances at John just long enough for John to read the amused and exasperated lawyers in his eye, then shrugs. "As long as Major Sheppard doesn't."

Major Sheppard doesn't care what they do as long as they stop making him feel like he did at Christmas after his parents split up. "Fine by me."

"Great." Mitchell sits on the low coffee table in front of them and looks at John. "You've been staying with Dr McKay since you got back from Iraq?" he says, and there's something about the way he says staying with that John recognizes, that makes him suddenly certain that Mitchell's ex-military and aware of exactly what John's doing. He thinks his initial urge to like him might have been right after all.

"Yeah, while I'm looking for somewhere more permanent," he says.

Mitchell nods. "So you'd know if he'd been worried about anything lately."

John thinks about Rodney's constant litany of things that worry him, from the possibility of there being citrus in their take-out order to the inability of his staff to comprehend their own stupidity. None of it's serious enough for him to be shot over, no matter how annoying he can be to work with. John shakes his head silently at Mitchell, and something in his stomach twists at the sympathy on the agent's face.

"There's something you might be able to help me with though," Mitchell says idly. "Dr McKay left us a message."

"Yeah?" John says, aware that he sounds strangled. He feels the way he did the first time he parachuted from a plane, the stomach dropping feel of free fall.

"Mm." Mitchell looks down, flipping through his notebook. "He wrote the initials PP on his car window. Does that mean anything to you?"

John blinks, years of training the only thing that makes him sure his face isn't showing anything but careful blankness. "Can't think of anything," he says calmly.

"You're sure?" Mitchell presses, leaning in, focused completely on John, and it might work, but John's done what Mitchell's doing, had it done to him by people with guns, and his people's lives in their hands. "Must have been important to Dr McKay – he wrote it in his own blood."

Weir makes a strangled sound next to him, but John already figured that part out, so he's had chance to move past the shock. He shakes his head again. "Can't think of anything," he repeats. "Maybe he's met someone."

hr

John waits through the rest of Mitchell's questions, waits till he hands over his card and closes the door behind himself, even though he's jittering with a need to move, to do something.

"Major?" Weir asks, touching his arm before John can move away. "Something you want to share?"

His brain is running at warp speed, full of memories that he shoved away and locked down years ago, memories that barely feel real under the gloss of the cover story he's been living for five years. He doesn't really know where to start.

"Agent Mitchell's initials," Weir says, and John nods automatically. "Major –"

"I need to talk to Colonel O'Neill," John says, and swallows down the urge to say I know who did this, because even this situation is no excuse for sounding like a soap opera heroine.

hr

John digs his cell out again while Weir goes to call up some transport. He shouldn't be doing this, not really, but they'll get the call soon anyway, and he needs to *do* something.

Teyla sounds out of breath when she answers, like she's been laughing hard at something, and John chokes on what he needs to say. "Hello?" she says again, sobering. "John, are you there?"

"Yeah," John says. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes. "Yeah. Listen, where are you?"

"Halling and I have taken Jinto to the park," she says. The unit's still on stand down, between Ronon's injury and the R&R time owed to them, and Teyla's been making the most of it. "I assume you are not calling because you wish to join us."

"No, I'm not. You need to get somewhere safe – you'll be getting a call soon, but Rodney was shot this morning. I don't know, but I think – he wrote PP on the windshield."

"The Pegasus Project," Teyla says quietly.

"Yeah," John agrees. His head hurts and he feels exhausted, so, so ready to wake up from this nightmare and be back in bed with Rodney this morning. "I think we missed someone."

hr

He'd been back in the county for two weeks, just, when the call came from his CO: terrorist group down in South America planning a cross-country campaign of bombings throughout South America and the States, and they'd just gotten themselves a new leader to coordinate it.

"Cut off the head and the snake dies?" John said, staring at the picture of Kolya, new military leader of the Genii.

"Exactly," Caldwell said. "I want you to lead a three man team down there to get it done."

"Three person," John corrected absently, thinking of Teyla and Ronon, who'd been with Special Forces nearly as long as he had, the three of them working like they'd been designed to fit together as a team.

"If you must," Caldwell said resignedly.

hr

Teyla promises to call Ronon, sends her good wishes for Rodney and for John, and hangs up so John can go talk to the hospital staff again.

"It's a complex procedure," the nurse tells him apologetically. "It's hard to say when the surgeon will be finished." She takes John's card anyway and promises to call when they know something.

John's itching to get back to the Pentagon, to fix this thing he didn't even know was broken, pulling up memories he'd forgotten he had, everything looking different in the new light this has given the mission, but at the same time... At the same time, Rodney is in surgery, with two bullets in him, and there's a very real possibility that John's already said goodbye to him without even realizing and he wants to be *here*. In case Rodney wakes up, in case he doesn't, in case someone has to make a decision. He just doesn't want Rodney to be alone, even if Rodney's drugged into unconsciousness and doesn't *know* he's alone.

The problem is, the army's been the most important thing in his life for years, sometimes because he's wanted it to be and sometimes because it had to be, and this time it's the latter, however much he wants to stay.

He pulls his cell out again and calls the Pentagon switchboard, trying to remember the name of the one guy Rodney hadn't blasted as being completely incompetent. He's a little surprised that no-one from Rodney's department has shown up, but he assumes they're busy investigating the case from their side – the CIA being, in John's limited experience, incredibly mistrustful of the FBI and their ability to run an investigation.

"Hello?" says a voice in his ear patiently, like it's not the first time she's said it. "Can I direct your call?"

"Yeah. Dr Zelenka, please, in current intelligence."

"One moment."

There's a brief silence as he's put on hold, then the line rings twice before someone lifts the phone. "Current intelligence."

"Hi," John says, a little surprised to hear a woman's voice. "I was trying to get hold of Dr Zelenka."

There's a pause, then the woman says, "He's not here right now. Can I take a message?"

Rodney's always mocked John's intuition, calling it his spidey-sense until John started mocking him in return for quoting Buffy the Vampire Slayer at him, but he's rarely wrong when he gets a bad feeling, so he pushes this one. "Do you have his cell? I really need to speak with him, I'm a friend of Rodney McKay's."

"Um..." she says.

"I work in the E Ring," John adds. "My name's Sheppard. Major John –"

"Oh," she says brightly, her voice sharp with something that might be relief. John hates having his bad feelings confirmed. "Rodney's room-mate. Do you – is there any news?"

"He's still in surgery," John says. "They won't know anything for a while. Listen, I'm sorry, but I'm kind of in a hurry, so if you could –"

"Radek's cell number, right." She hesitates again, then carries on in a whispered rush. "Radek's been suspended. Director Oberoth authorized it, he said Radek was passing intelligence to someone in the Czech Republic, but Radek's not like that – he wouldn't. Rodney was furious, he wanted Radek to take it further until the Director spoke to him, and then he just dropped it."

CIA staff are notorious for being paranoid conspiracy theorists, and John should know, living with Rodney, but this is a different kind of paranoia. "Why are you telling me this?"

Her voice drops even further, till John's straining to hear her. "This was a couple of weeks ago, and now Rodney's been shot. Staff in this office don't get suspended, they don't get shot, and now all this in the last couple of weeks; it's more than a coincidence."

John should have just let her take a message for Zelenka and left it alone; even knowing that some of it's probably paranoia and shock from what happened, the words almost make sense, almost fit into what's already in his head. He just needs time to shake them into place, and time's the one thing he doesn't have. He never does when he needs it, only when he doesn't want it, and he can see Weir coming towards him again.

"Okay," he says. "I don't know what I can do with that information, but thanks for telling me." He hesitates, then decides he's being an idiot and asks. "I really do need Dr Zelenka's cell if you have it."

"Right," she says, back to normal volume, and rattles off a number just as Weir joins him.

hr

He doesn't have time to call Zelenka – it's not, now, a conversation he can have in the car with Weir, and Ford's waiting for them on the other side of security. "Any news, sir?" he asks, nodding at Weir.

"It's still too soon to tell, Lieutenant," Weir says smoothly. "But the hospital staff are optimistic."

"Great," Ford says, genuinely relieved, even though John's pretty sure he and Rodney have never met. "Colonel O'Neill's waiting for you, sir, ma'am."

John forcibly shuts down the part of his brain that's trying to figure out how Zelenka fits into all this, as he follows Ford; he's sure he's going to need every available brain cell for this.

hr

"So, Major," O'Neill says when he, John and Weir, who seems to have appointed herself as John's unofficial counsel while John wasn't looking, are settled in another of the E Ring's endless stream of glass-walled offices. "Why don't you tell us about the Pegasus Project?"

hr

They needed a way to get close to Kolya, which wasn't going to be easy. He wasn't interested in women, or men, he didn't drink or do drugs or gamble. He didn't appear to go out, or enjoy sports, or patronize any particular restaurant. The only thing he did do was hand-to-hand combat, and even that he practiced in his private apartments, with a trainer he'd known for years. They weren't getting in that way, even with Teyla's and Ronon's skills combined.

"Doesn't the man have any interests?" John groaned a week into mission prep, tossing his pen down in frustration.

"Blowing people up," Ronon offered from across the table. He still had the dreads he'd grown on their last mission, though how he was getting away with it with Caldwell, John didn't choose to speculate. They worked though – people remembered the hair and forgot the face under it.

"Other than –" John started, then thought about it. "Actually, you know, that might just work."

hr

Except that Kolya was using some kind of new weapon that even the military hadn't gotten their hands on, something his people had developed to be a bit like a nuclear warhead while simultaneously completely unlike it. Officers who knew how to build one weren't exactly thick on the ground, and between the ones who didn't even know enough to sound convincing to John and his team, and the ones who'd spent so little time in the field that they fell apart when Ronon looked directly at them, they rattled through – and rejected – the available candidates in record time, leaving John to go begging to Caldwell.

Always a fun experience.

hr

"We couldn't find what we needed in the military," John tells Weir and O'Neill, looking out at the cubicle farm. He can't sit still, even the glass walls of the office too close, trapping him. "But Caldwell agreed to us recruiting among the other agencies."

"Including the CIA," O'Neill says.

John sighs and keeps his back turned. It's rude, but he doesn't think O'Neill's going to object. "Yes, sir."

hr

Rodney wasn't particularly high on their list – PhD in physics, continued interest in weaponry and how it worked, several articles on leading developments, but also mostly office based these days. He announced his arrival with a horrified, "My God, please tell me that thing isn't the real McCoy," that made John revise his position severely downward, then followed it up with, "Because you three clearly can't be trusted not to set it off by accident, honestly, I did a better job building one when I was in sixth grade. Science fair," he added, apparently off the deer-in-the-headlights expression John could feel on his face. "It's actually how I got recruited to the CIA in the first place."

"You built a nuclear bomb for your school science fair?" John asked blankly. If John could train him to think then speak, rather than blurting out whatever came into his head, this guy had the arrogance to pull it off. Maybe.

"Non-working model," Rodney said dismissively. He turned to the three of them, hands on his hips, and demanded, "So? Am I in, or do you want to waste some more of my valuable time first?"

John looked at Ronon and Teyla, reading the answers on their faces. Even if Rodney hadn't been the closest they'd got yet to a good choice, they were getting desperate, every day without a suitable inside man another day closer to Caldwell pulling the plug on their involvement in the whole thing.

"You're in," he told Rodney.

hr

"I wasn't aware that Rodney was field trained," Weir comments.

John shrugs, back in his seat. "He wasn't, really. We trained him for the mission."

"I see," Weir says. "And what happened when you went to South America?"

John takes a deep breath of relief that she's letting it go, because he can't talk about training Rodney now, about everything that happened while the four of them were holed up in isolation.

"Captain Emmagan had some experience with the Genii, some contacts that we used to get in with them, but we needed someone who could get close to Kolya. We knew he was looking for people with training to help in building his new bombs, and he wasn't afraid of using... less than scrupulous methods to get his hands on someone."

hr

"You want me to *what*?" Rodney demanded. "You'll get me killed. The man's clearly a psychopath. I've read the files, he keeps a member of the *Wraith* on hand to persuade people to do what he wants."

"Relax," John said, risking a quick touch to Rodney's shoulder when he passed close enough. Predictably, Rodney didn't even notice. "I'm not going to let him take you, we just need to let him think we might."

"But I still have to work for him. What if he decides I'm not working fast enough? Do you know what the Wraith do, they train their members –"

"As torturers, Rodney, I know." John took a deep breath, not thinking about Colonel Sumner. "It's not going to come to that. I'll be there with you."

Rodney blinked at him. "Oh. Oh, well, that's different."

hr

"Things didn't go exactly to plan," John says. He wants to look away, but O'Neill's holding his gaze. "Rodney was without back-up briefly and Kolya put a knife in his arm. I guess he wanted to be sure Rodney was telling the truth about wanting to join him."

They'd almost canceled the whole thing right there; it had been Rodney, pale and still bandaged, who'd insisted he could do it. John thinks, now, that he should have stuck to his guns, said no, but the mission was important, and Rodney was bleeding at Kolya's hands, and John was already in far too deep, with Rodney, with Kolya, to be making a clear command decision.

"But it worked, and it gave Rodney a reason to have a bodyguard with him in Kolya's complex."

Kolya had refused to let John into the labs where the bombs were being built, and they hadn't been able to get a wire on Rodney. John had felt like he was going slowly crazy, hidden away for eight, twelve, fifteen hours a day. It had been a relief when they got to the objective.

"What happened?" Weir asks.

John looks away, down at his clenched hands. "We killed them."

hr

It took three weeks to set up, because Kolya monitored his lab staff pretty closely, and five minutes to activate, John pushing the button and releasing a gas that left three quarters of the Genii's lab staff and agents dead.

Kolya didn't even know it had happened when Ronon, Teyla and John infiltrated his apartment, shot his guards and lieutenants and followed Rodney's earlier directions into Kolya's inner office, where he and Rodney were peering at plans, Rodney keeping as far from Kolya as he could.

"What the –" Kolya said, standing up, and John shot him.

Somewhere in the apartment, someone shouted. "Got it," Ronon said, him and Teyla peeling away, and John was moving to check on Kolya when Ronon shouted and a gun went off.

"Get his picture," John said quickly, tossing over his camera without waiting to see if Rodney caught it.

Two minutes later, Teyla leaning on Ronon and bleeding from her thigh, John grabbed Rodney's arm, shoving him out. "You got it?" he asked. "He's dead?"

"Yeah," Rodney said, staring at Teyla with wide-eyed horror and stumbling over his own feet. "Yes, yeah, of course."

hr

"You think this is revenge for what you did to Kolya?" Weir asks.

John shakes his head, but O'Neill answers. "He thinks it was Kolya."

hr

John calls Zelenka because he has nothing else to do: Weir's gone to talk to someone she knows about getting her hands on the Pegasus Project files without days of red tape, O'Neill's making calls to his own contacts, trying to find out if Kolya might still be alive, and John's been informed in no uncertain terms that he'll be focusing all his attention on this until it's resolved. Ronon and Teyla are being summoned to contribute to a fuller debrief, and John... has nothing to do but worry. So he's calling Zelenka.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Dr Zelenka? My name's John Sheppard, I –"

"Are you calling from the Pentagon?" Zelenka asks quickly. "From a Pentagon phone?"

"Dr Zelenka, I've worked Special Ops for most of my career," John tells him. He's standing by a coffee cart down the street from the Pentagon, too many people for anyone to overhear, running up his own cell bill. "I've picked up a couple of things along the way."

"Forgive me for wishing to use caution when I am under suspicion from my own employers," Zelenka says sharply. "What can I do for you – Major, yes?"

"Yes," John says. Apparently Rodney really has been talking about him, which makes even less sense than usual, given Rodney's paranoia about them being caught. "Listen, I don't know if you've heard, but –"

"Rodney has been shot," Zelenka finishes. "I hope you are not calling to say there is worse news."

John looks at his watch, then pulls out his government issue cell and checks for missed calls. Nothing. "No, I thought – he's mentioned you, maybe you could, you know. Be there. At the hospital."

There's a long pause, then Zelenka sighs. "I see. No, Major, that is impossible."

"Ah, come on," John wheedles. He's charmed suicide bombers – well, one suicide bomber – he can handle one CIA agent. "I know you're on the out with the Agency right now, but they can't punish you for visiting McKay."

"It is not myself I worry about," Zelenka says. "It is Rodney. There will be many people at the hospital and very little is secret."

"Okay, what the hell's going on over there?" John asks. "Because between you and the woman I spoke to, I'm starting to think that McKay wasn't telling me jackshit."

"He was attempting to protect you," Zelenka says. "I am sorry Major, I must go."

The line disconnects and John really, really wishes he had a coffee cup to throw. He's good with mission plans, he's not good with the intricacies of the kind of politics the CIA plays. He's sure it all fits together – Rodney's desperation about keeping them secret, his occasional blind dates with friends of his colleagues, Rodney going to the director when Zelenka was suspended, then dropping it and never mentioning it to John, Rodney being shot, even what happened with Kolya – but John can't see how. If it was Kolya who shot Rodney, there's no reason for Director Oberoth to be involved, and if it wasn't him, there's no reason for Rodney to have written PP on his windshield.

John rubs at his aching head and goes back inside.

hr

Ford's waiting for him at security again, and falls into step with John, silently handing over a take-out coffee that John inhales gratefully. It probably won't do much for his headache, but at least the caffeine might jolt his brain into working again.

"The hospital called," Ford says as they step in the elevator. "Dr McKay's out of surgery and in recovery. He's not expected to wake up for a while, but the nurse said you could go visit." He puts a hand out before John can reach for the elevator buttons and escape. It's the first piece of good news he's had in what feels like weeks. "The Colonel wants to see you first," Ford says apologetically, and John braces himself for more bad news.

hr

Rightly, as it turns out, because Weir hasn't been able to find the Pegasus Project file. Or rather, she knows where it is, she just can't access it, because Director Oberoth requested it two weeks ago, citing Rodney's upcoming performance evaluation as the reason, which means he knows about Kolya, from the file if not before, and John has to outline the strange events at the CIA for O'Neill and Weir, so it's been a couple of hours since they called when John finally gets to the hospital.

Where he's politely but firmly informed that, since he's neither a relation nor Rodney's next of kin, he can't see Rodney.

"I don't understand," he says stupidly. "You just called to say he was out of surgery and I could stop by."

"I'm sorry, sir," the nurse says again. "That shouldn't have happened."

John pulls off his ID badge and holds it out to her. "I'm Major John Sheppard, I was here all morning. I work in the Pentagon, I'm staying with Rodney. We've known each other for years. I don't understand what the problem is."

"I'm sorry," the nurse says again, refusing to take his badge. She does seem genuinely sorry, but John's past caring. He just wants to see Rodney in one piece, breathing. "But we've been given strict instructions, since Dr McKay's involved in matters of national security."

John wishes, just for a second, that he had Rodney's ability to rant and rave without thought for the possible consequences, because then he could demand to see Rodney, point out that he probably has higher security clearance than Rodney does, that he's the senior aide to the director of Special Operations and it's not like he can't get one of the Joint Chiefs to verify his identity if they're going to get into that.

Unfortunately, that's been Rodney's role in their friendship since they met and John can't take it on at this late stage, particularly when Rodney's lying in a hospital bed.

"Thanks for your time," he says, reattaching his ID, which, not that the nurse looked, states clearly that he works in the *Pentagon*. He gives her a polite smile, with just a hint of I'm-a-trained-Special-Forces-black-ops-killer, and executes the kind of about face departure (minus the salute) that would have made Caldwell weep.

hr

He gets the cab to drop him a block from the Pentagon and walks the rest of the way back, trying to put it all together in his head, trying to make *something* make sense. It's gotten dark at some point, but the numbers on his watch have lost all meaning. He feels like the day's gone on forever, like climbing out of Rodney's warm bed this morning was a lifetime ago, and he's so, so ready for today to end, because, please God, tomorrow can't possibly be any worse. Also, it's gotten cold along with dark and he appears to have left his uniform jacket somewhere, since he's only in his shirt sleeves now and is freezing.

He's walking up the front steps to the Pentagon, no closer to having figured anything out – except that his jacket is probably in O'Neill's office, since he was wearing it when he went out to talk to Zelenka – when a familiar voice says, "Sheppard."

Teyla and Ronon are both in uniform, both wearing coats and scarves and gloves, looking ready for whatever's about to happen to them even though they're unarmed, and John's never been more grateful to see anyone in his entire life.

"God, am I glad to see you guys," he says. Teyla blinks at him, a moment of surprise showing under her constant calm, and John realizes it's probably the most explicit expression of how much he cares for them that he's ever made. She rallies though, because she's Teyla, and doesn't say anything, because she knows him, just rests her hands on his shoulders and touches her forehead to his, another little piece of her father's home that she's kept and gotten them used to.

Ronon gives John a quick, back-slapping hug, pulling away before John can respond, and then they're both standing with him, filling up the space was barely aware of, and he just feels *better*.

"You guys come to meet with O'Neill?" he asks.

"We have," Teyla says. "He was – most insistent – that we present ourselves here as soon as reasonably possible."

"Yeah, that sounds like O'Neill," John agrees. They're starting to get looked at by the guard, so he heads up the steps, trusting them to follow.

"You really think Kolya's still alive?" Ronon asks. He's cut the dreads off, John realizes abruptly, and his hair's still slightly curled. It's also longer than regulation, but so is John's, and they've really got more important things to worry about.

There's a familiar face waiting on the other side of security. "You know, Lieutenant, I can find my way round the building without an escort," John tells Ford. He's only gotten lost once in the last week, and the Pentagon does have seventeen miles of corridors.

"Yes, sir," Ford says. He doesn't give the expected smile, and now John's paying attention, he looks awkward – nervous. John's stomach drops and he feels like someone's just dumped a bucket of ice on his head. This can't, can't be happening, not when he was just there –

"Major?" Teyla says, slipping into the formality like she always does around other service personnel.

John takes a deep breath and tells himself to get it over with, but it doesn't help – he can't hear this in the middle of the entryway, surrounded by people who can't know.

"Did something happen to McKay?" Ronon asks abruptly. John looks over, but Ronon's looking at Ford, not him, has John's back, like always.

"No," Ford says quickly. "Or, not that I've heard, that's not why -. Sir, this isn't about that."

It's probably too much to hope, through the light-headed fog of relief, that it's about something related to his actual, current job, a mission that's suddenly become top priority, but John hopes anyway.

"Dr Weir asked me to catch you on your way in, sir. She's gone to fetch Colonel O'Neill, she's got a room for a meeting, if you want to come with me."

"For the debrief, now Sergeant Dex and Captain Emmagan are here?" John asks. He knows that's not what Ford means, when they've already arranged that, but he's got the same feeling of spiraling helplessly to his doom that he had when he went after Holland, and he'll do anything to put off being proved right.

"I don't think so, sir." Ford offers a shadow of his usual grin to the rest of John's team. "Dr Weir asked for you both to wait in one of the debrief rooms, I can show you the way."

"Rather stay with Sheppard," Ronon says, and Teyla nods, which just confirms that John's feeling of doom is right. At least it's not Rodney, unless it is and they just don't know yet.

"I think Colonel O'Neill does want to debrief with you –" Ford starts uncertainly, and John remembers what it's like to be caught between two sets of orders. Not that it stopped him from occasionally putting other people in that position, either by accident or by design, but he tries not to.

"Go on," he says to Teyla and Ronon. "It's probably some dull bit of paperwork anyway." He can tell from their faces that they know he doesn't believe himself. "I'll see you later."

"If you are certain," Teyla says, like she'd really be able to do anything if O'Neill insisted.

"Go." John reaches out to pat her shoulder awkwardly. "I'll be fine."

Ford gives John a grateful, worried smile. "Meeting Room 47, sir, down that corridor and turn right." He waits for John's nod, then turns to Ronon and Teyla. "This way, please."

Meeting Room 47, like a lot of their meeting rooms, doesn't have any windows beyond the small slot in the door. It's not meant to be used as an interrogation room, but it could be easily enough: take down the Air Force recruitment poster that John sits with his back to, swap out the meeting table and reasonably comfortable chairs for something in gun metal gray, and John could be waiting for pliers to his fingernails.

hr

"I need my hands," Rodney said, reading through John's file on the member of the Wraith that Kolya's Genii had working with them. "I need my hands, and my brain. I can't be permanently damaged."

"I won't let anyone damage you," John promised. He put down his gun on the table he was sat on and held out a hand for Rodney to come closer so John could catch his hand and hold it till Rodney met his eye. "I won't let anyone damage you," he said again, and Rodney nodded.

hr

"Major Sheppard," Weir says, preceding O'Neill into the room. "Sorry to have kept you waiting."

She looks pissed in the way John's seen military wives look pissed, all icy politeness painted over rage. O'Neill, on the other hand, looks pissed in the way John's used to, like he wants someone to shoot and it's made worse by the lack of same.

Weir sits opposite John and places a manila envelope on the table. After a moment, O'Neill sits next to her. "Major, I'm sorry, and there's no easy way to break this to you, but you're being temporarily suspended from duty."

"I – what?" John says stupidly. He understands the words, it's just that no-one's ever said them to him before, even with some of the stupid shit he's done during his career. "Why?"

"I'm sure this will all get sorted out as soon as things calm down," Weir says, obviously trying to be soothing, tapping one finger lightly on the envelope. John wants to rip it from her hands. "I'm sure it's a mistake that will be rectified –"

"Someone's made an accusation against you under Don't Ask Don't Tell," O'Neill says suddenly.

Rodney knew this was coming, John thinks, feeling his face get hot. Hence the paranoia, hence the occasional date. Whoever is doing this, Rodney knew they could, that there was something that would trigger them to do it. If John wasn't already too numb to really feel anything else, he'd be pretty angry at Rodney for knowing this was an imminent, real threat and not warning him.

"I see," he says.

"We'll sort this out," O'Neill says, sliding over the envelope. "But you need to stay clear until we do."

"Sure," John says. He thinks, decides to risk it. "Do I get to know who made the allegation?"

Weir looks away, but O'Neill holds Johns gaze. "Funny that it's happening now, right when you're stirring up trouble for the Director of the CIA," he says blandly, and John feels sick, because if any of the nebulous suspicions in the CIA are true, he's fucking lucky that the only thing of his that's being threatened is his career.

"Major, I'm sorry, but I'm going to need your ID, your government credit card and your passport," Weir says carefully.

"Right," John says, and twenty minutes later, he's walking out of the Pentagon, suspended pending an investigation that will probably get him dishonorably discharged, with Rodney in the hospital and a terrorist they thought was dead running around the country.

The worst part is, John's been waiting for this his entire career, even when he was married, even when he was with a woman, because he's in an army that doesn't believe in shades of gray, that sees bisexual as synonymous with gay, and he's always known this could happen. He decided early on that if anyone asked him outright, before Don't Ask Don't Tell meant they couldn't, he wouldn't lie, and in that respect it worked for him, because people didn't ask and he didn't have to lie. The ones who knew talked to him without saying anything, and it worked.

It won't work like that if this goes to a hearing, and when they ask, John won't be able to lie.

Somewhere, a clock starts chiming midnight, and John heads for Rodney's apartment, even knowing it's a bad idea, because right now he still lives there and it's as good a place as any to wait and hope the new day brings something better.

hr

There's evidence of the crime scene team that must have been through the apartment, when John gets there, but it's not as messed up as he would have expected. Some of Rodney's things are gone: files, one of his laptops, the lockbox that even John doesn't have access to, but John could believe without difficulty that Rodney's just gone away for a couple of days.

hr

"I could go in late," John offered, sitting on the edge of the bed, already in his uniform, dark giving way to day outside the window.

"No you couldn't," Rodney said. "Who'll protect the world from O'Neill's flights of fantasy otherwise?"

"Ford?" John suggested.

"Oh please. He probably only joined the Marines so he could have a good excuse to blow things up."

"Thought you'd never met him," John joked.

hr

He's got Rodney's address book in his hands when the memory fades out – weird that the FBI didn't take it, but maybe they figured the data would be on Rodney's laptop – and he only needs a moment to find Jeannie's phone number.

The line rings for a long time, long enough that he's ready to hang up when a sleepy female voice says, "It's the middle of the night, what do you want?"

It's too late for John to hang up, so he says, "Jeannie McKay?"

"Miller," she corrects, her voice sharp with suspicion, and John does not want to do this, was hoping the FBI would have already done it for him.

"You don't know me, my name's John Sheppard –"

"Mer's friend," Jeannie says, then, "Oh God, what's happened?"

There's a script for this, John's used it before, but he might as well never have seen it, because he can't remember a single word. "It's all right, he's been injured, but he's not –. He's in the hospital, it's bad, but he's not –" And he has to stop, because he feels like he can't breathe.

"What the hell's my big brother doing in the hospital?" Jeannie demands. There's a noise in the background – her husband waking up, maybe – and John's grateful she's not on her own.

"He was shot at," John says. "I can't tell you more than that, I'm sorry."

"Oh God, I knew working for the CIA would lead to something like this," Jeannie says, but she clearly recovers from panic a lot faster than her brother. "All right, tell me which hospital."

John does, then feels compelled to add, "I won't be there."

There's a moment's pause. "I suppose you're busy with the investigation."

"Not exactly," John says. He's too tired to explain all of what's happened, especially to this person he's never met. "I'm not next of kin, I'm not allowed to see him."

"Oh for..." Jeannie says, exasperated. "Why did Mer have to go work for such a backwards country, I'll never know..."

Which is a little close for comfort in a number of ways. "Okay, just – call when you get your flight, I'll try to pick you up."

"Thank you," Jeannie says, then, softly, "He will be all right, won't he?"

John wants, really badly, to lie, but he can't, not to Rodney's sister, who seems nice and clearly loves him. "I don't know," he says, and hangs up before she can say anything else.

hr

He doesn't remember falling asleep, but he must have, because he's waking up on the couch with a stiff neck and too-bright daylight in his eyes and someone's leaning on the intercom, the buzzing like a chainsaw right in his ear.

He discovers, when he stands up, that his left foot has gone numb, so he crashes into the door gracelessly, wincing at the explosion of pins and needles. "Hello?"

"Good morning, Major," O'Neill's voice says brightly. "I know it's early, but perhaps you could trouble yourself to let me up before the friendly gardener across the street reports me for loitering."

John remembers being eyed by the guy when he first came back, and buzzes the door open hastily. It won't take O'Neill long enough to get up to the apartment for John to do anything about the crumpled uniform he's still wearing, or his morning breath, but he rakes his hand through his hair in the vague hope that it will make a difference this time, though it never has before.

O'Neill, of course, looks perfectly presented as always, even though he's probably had less sleep than John. "Major," he says, sliding past John and into the apartment, where he places a briefcase on the coffee table and turns to watch John close the door. "Any news on Dr McKay?"

"Not that I've heard," John says. He doesn't have much hope for his chances of getting anything until Jeannie arrives, but he'll ring the hospital when O'Neill leaves.

O'Neill nods. "I'll get Dr Weir to call them up. Pretty sure they won't say no to her."

"Thank you, sir." John's still feeling half-asleep, so he leans his shoulder against the door to wait for O'Neill to explain why he's here.

"So," O'Neill says, looking round the apartment. "Dr Weir's working on your other problem, which I'd just as soon not discuss with you." John nods – everyone's heard the rumors about O'Neill, who divorced his wife years ago and hasn't been seriously involved with a woman since. "But I think it would be best for you to be out of town while we hash it out."

John opens his mouth to protest, to argue that even if he can't see Rodney, he can't leave while Rodney's still – but O'Neill opens his briefcase and takes out a familiar passport. "Obviously, I can't send you on a mission right now, but Dex and Emmagan have agreed to take a quick trip down to Mexico to pick up some intelligence from an on-going mission." He holds out the passport, not quite far enough for John to take it without moving. "The three of you have been together for years, it would be odd for you to not see each other if they happened to be in the same place you were taking a couple of days R&R, waiting for things to calm down. Since you and Dr McKay are just friends, and there's no point in you hanging around when you can't see him."

O'Neill's trying to help him, and John has no idea why that makes his chest hurt. It's not like he doesn't already know that O'Neill's different from every other CO he's ever had, but not like this, not helping him break the rules and get the revenge he still wants after all these years.

"Did I mention that we've received photographs of someone who looks a lot like Kolya, crossing the border back into Mexico?" O'Neill asks idly. He's still holding out the passport. "Only Dex and Emmagan are hoping to link up with the CIA agent south of the border who's been investigating a group he thinks might be an off-shoot of the Genii, and I wouldn't want you to get a nasty surprise."

"I, er – no, sir, you didn't," John says stupidly.

O'Neill shrugs. "Well, busy week and all. Lots of responsibilities."

"Yes, sir." John reaches out for the passport, but O'Neill holds onto it.

"I'm trusting you to do the right thing," he says seriously. "You're finishing up an old mission, not getting revenge for what he did to your friend. Major, is this sinking in? Dr Weir's going to get this suspension nonsense straightened out, and I want you back here when it's lifted."

"Yes, sir," John says again, not sure if he means, yes, he's listening, or, yes, he'll do it right and come back. Judging from the pause before O'Neill lets go of the passport, he's not sure either. He lets John take it though, and drops a manila folder on the table. "I shouldn't have these," he says casually. "And I certainly shouldn't be letting you have them. So if you must get yourself killed down there, try not to do it while you're carrying any of this ID with you."

"I'll try," John promises. The passport's due to expire at the end of the year, his face and someone else's name, the man who hired on as security for a physics lab with a government contract, then went with their lead scientist when he defected. The man he left behind when he got back from Mexico and shipped out for Bosnia again.

"See that you do," O'Neill says. "Place ticket's in there. Don't miss the flight."

"No, sir," John says, still looking down at his old picture. He had longer hair then, and doesn't look exactly like himself. "Thank you," he adds, even as O'Neill waves it off.

"I'm serious about having you back," he says, letting himself out, and John's glad that he doesn't linger over saying goodbye, because that's what finally makes his vision swim, and he's definitely not ready to break down in front of his CO.

hr

John should have pulled the mission, and the worst part was that he knew. The moment he realized the buzz of electricity between him and Rodney wasn't just friendship and the connection of finding someone he clicked with, the way he had with Teyla and Ronon, he should have gone to Caldwell and asked them to take Rodney off the mission. Except that asking for Rodney to be removed from the mission would have put a huge dampener on Rodney's career and John wasn't prepared to do that because of his own feelings. He could have taken himself off the mission – Caldwell would have let him, eventually – but he didn't know how to explain, couldn't come up with a reasonable sounding excuse and couldn't tell the truth.

Plus, that was after Kolya had stuck a knife in Rodney, sent him back to them bleeding and in shock, and if John was honest with himself, he didn't want to be taken off the mission. He wanted to make Kolya pay for what he'd done, so he convinced himself it would all be fine, that he could put his feelings away and be only as concerned about Rodney as he was about Ronon and Teyla.

He couldn't.

Teaching Rodney to fire a gun, to take a punch, to deflect questions and give answers that gave away just enough and no more, to talk, walk, act, sleep like the guy he was supposed to be and not the guy he was, all of it meant too much time with Rodney, too much time allaying Rodney's fears, just the two of them, too much time to absorb the way Rodney looked, sounded, smelled, felt, to wonder what he'd taste like if John kissed him, licked his neck, opened his pants and put his mouth on Rodney's cock... Too much time for Rodney to notice and make a decision and lean over the table as John was cleaning his weapon, and kiss him.

John's always associated Rodney McKay with gun oil since then, which has led to some truly weird moments.

It didn't go beyond a kiss – John wasn't so far gone as that – but everyone knew, and Teyla suggested, gently, that he might ask to be replaced for this mission. She didn't look convinced when John said he could handle it, but she didn't push, and John convinced himself.

Which, as it turns out, might have been a mistake.

hr

The clerk hands him a note when he checks into his hotel, eyes gritty with exhaustion from a day of pacing and impotent worry, followed by a late flight. There's nothing in the note except an address, but he recognizes Ronon's handwriting, which is all the explanation he needs.

He'd thought he'd crash for a few hours before going to find Ronon and Teyla with a clearer head, but with the address in his hand, he forgets all about that, doesn't even bother going up to his room, just buys a large coffee to drink as he takes a cab to the general area of the address. He won't say the coffee exactly helps, but he does feel fractionally more human, and he has a feeling he's going to need every fraction he can get. Weir's phoned a couple of times to say there's no change with Rodney and John's holding onto that, but he's not looking forward to the moment when it isn't enough.

The address turns out to be a run-down apartment block in a street of similarly run-down apartment blocks. It's not dissimilar to the safe house they used the first go round, the street having enough people and cars for them not to attract too much attention, but in the kind of neighborhood where anything suspicious will be written off as involvement in something mildly illegal rather than government sanctioned.

The front door swings open when John tries it, all his instincts on high alert, wishing for a weapon he wasn't allowed to carry on a commercial flight, but there's no-one there. It's entirely possible the place is empty apart from – he hopes – his team.

Most people wouldn't hear the rustle behind the door when he knocks, except that it's familiar the way his weapon is, Ronon getting into cover position while Teyla moves to open the door, because most people expecting a Special Forces team hesitate for a moment when they get a woman, and that's all the advantage they need.

The lock clicks as Teyla turns it, then the door's open and her wary look is dropping away into relief. "John," she says warmly. "It is a relief to see you here."

John's not at all sure it's a relief to be there, but it's definitely a relief to see her and Ronon, armed even in their street clothes, to see the familiar table of electronics and papers set up in the middle of the otherwise empty room, curtains half-drawn across the windows and a phone line already up and running. He assumes they got a military transport out while he was kicking around the airport, but he's still impressed by how fast they've got this operation going.

Ronon's waiting patiently when John gets done prowling round the room, checking it out. He doesn't say anything, just holds out the holster John uses when he's under cover, complete with his sidearm. John fixes it to his belt with shaking hands, feeling better as soon as he's done it, and doesn't ask where, or how, Ronon got his hands on that. There are some things he's better off not knowing.

"So, where's this CIA agent, then?" he asks.

hr

Agent Lorne, when he gets back from a meeting with his superiors, turns out to be nothing like the other agents John knows, making up for not having their unnatural genius by being unflappable and calm to rival Teyla, accepting John's ragged, exhausted, suspended appearance in the middle of his investigation with a nod and an offer to go over his files with John. John wouldn't say he likes him immediately, but he doesn't meet many people he *does* like immediately; he thinks they can work with Lorne, and he's ninety percent sure Lorne's not involved with whatever Oberoth's got going on back in Washington. Maybe eighty percent, actually, but John's aware that he's always less trusting when he's tired.

"We got access to the non-classified parts of your files," Lorne says, when they're all settled round the table, laptops shoved out of the way. It's too hot for coffee, but John's not going to stay upright without chemical assistance, so he's got a can of Coke going warm in his hand. "I guess they didn't cover the best parts, but that was some nice work." Lorne grins, a little impressed, and it shouldn't make John feel good, but it does, knowing someone thinks they did good, even if he doesn't.

"Not that nice if Kolya's still running around," Ronon says, low and dark. He's not fingering his knives – Teyla's probably warned him not to freak out the nice agent – but he looks like he wants to be.

Lorne makes a face, conceding. "There have been rumors about the Genii for months," he says. "They were crushed when you guys were down here, but everyone says they're coming back, moving into trafficking people across the border." He slides a couple of files over to John and sighs. "We couldn't figure out who was doing it, though. None of the Genii who were still around had that kind of experience, or power. If Kolya really is still alive, that would answer a lot of questions."

"Yeah," John agrees. And raise a whole lot more. "You guys have the photos from the border?" he asks, and Teyla nods, already looking through the papers to find them. "You got anyone inside the Genii?" he asks Lorne.

"Kind of," Lorne says. "She's been with them since they re-emerged, started feeding us intel a few months back."

"Great. Can you set it up for us to meet with her? Not here," John adds, getting himself a mild glare of how-stupid-do-you-think-I-am from Lorne, then a nod. "Great," John says again, almost meaning it. He can feel all this coming together, feel the end in sight, the shape of his weapon in his hand and the kick of recoil when he fires the bullet that's going to kill Kolya, for good this time.

hr

Lorne arranges to meet with his contact in the Genii the next morning, and they spend the rest of the day and most of the evening poring over each other's files, until John's seeing double and Lorne says, "All right, I'm going home before my head explodes from too much information. You need a ride to your hotel, Major?"

"Um," John says. His bag's still by the door where he dropped it when he came in, and he thinks he's forgotten the name of the hotel anyway.

"Major Sheppard will stay here with us," Teyla says firmly, which solves that problem.

Once Lorne's gone, Ronon breaks out his mother hen act, which has always freaked John out slightly: Ronon cooks dinner, though it's not up to his usual standards, and makes them both eat; refuses to allow John any more coffee, which is probably not a bad thing considering how jittery he feels; and declares that eleven thirty is a perfectly reasonable time to go to bed when they've got an early meeting. John doesn't have the energy to argue, not even when Ronon points him towards one of the two bedrooms, which means he's evicting someone else for a night on the couch. Unless Ronon and Teyla are going to share.

He's been up for two days straight at this point, and it feels fantastic just to lie down and close his eyes. It's not the most comfortable bed he's ever slept on, but he doesn't care, sure that exhaustion will pull him under in seconds.

It doesn't. He can't stop thinking: the meeting tomorrow, Oberoth and Zelenka, the original mission, Rodney. Every time he starts to slip into sleep, something catches at him and pulls him awake again, until the darkness is filled with shadows he can't quite see and he feels like he's caught Rodney's claustrophobia.

There's nothing for it but to get up. He didn't pack War and Peace, which is a shame since it's been his cure for insomnia since college, but maybe there's something in the apartment that will put him to sleep, and if not, he can always read the files again.

He's not really surprised when he finds Teyla sitting serenely on the couch in her workout clothes, her sticks across her knees, waiting for him.

"How did you fit those in your bag?" he asks, because he's seen the duffel Teyla travels with, and there's no way it's big enough.

She turns the stick in her hands, separating it into two smaller halves. "They are not as good as my own, but they suffice." She pulls another set from her bag and starts screwing them together.

"What about Ronon?" John asks. He feels half a beat behind what's happening, but he knows Teyla has the right idea, exhausting his body until he *has* to sleep.

"Ronon will be fine," Teyla says, and John's not sure if she means fine listening to them or fine sleeping through it. He's not sure it matters.

She hands over his sticks. They feel different from those he's used to train with her before, balanced slightly differently, still new rather than worn from years of handling.

"Ready?" she asks, and comes at him almost before he's got himself balanced to block her.

John's done this with Teyla so many times that he can recognize within a minute which version of her he's got: trainer, expert, show off, practice partner. This is none of these, and all of them, relentlessly coming at John again and again, but pulling every hit in deference to his slowed reaction time, so he gets taps instead of bruises, swings so close he can feel the air move rather than actual blows when he's not fast enough to dodge or block. Of course, none of that can compensate for the way his balance abandons him when he's not concentrating, making it easy for Teyla to trip him to the floor, again and again and again, grateful for the rug under him, even if it does scratch unpleasantly at his over-heated skin. Teyla waits, every time, for him to pull himself up, rather than offering a hand – testing whether he's fit to carry on, and he does it, even when every muscle aches and he just wants to close his eyes.

Teyla, though, has a better sense of his limits than he does – she waits until he goes down hard enough to knock the breath out of him, then leans in close over him, one stick just touching his throat, not pressing hard enough to hinder his breathing. "That is enough," she says quietly, then offers her hand and pulls him to his feet.

They sit quietly against the wall, sipping from water bottles. The world seems glass sharp, fragile, even in the dim lamp light, and John thinks he might actually sleep once the adrenaline of sparring wears off.

"How's Ronon doing?" he asks eventually, then, when Teyla raises and eyebrow at him, adds, "After the, you know –" and waves his hand vaguely at his own stomach to indicate 'major wound that nearly killed him'.

"He is well," Teyla says patiently. "Or he would not have joined us."

"Right," John says. He knew that, kind of, but he feels better hearing Teyla say it. They fall into silence again, but he can feel the words crawling up his throat, and he can't keep them in. "I'm sorry you were –" he starts, then swallows and tries again. "I'm sorry I wasn't... I should have been there."

"To do what?" Teyla asks, sounding genuinely curious, a sure sign that she already knows the answer. "Step in front of the bullet for him?"

"No," John says, though he knows he would have, if he could. "It's just – you guys are, you know, my oldest friends. And I wouldn't... it's my job to protect you."

"We are quite capable of protecting ourselves," Teyla says sternly, but she rests her hand on his briefly, and John thinks she understands. "What happened to Ronon is not your fault. No more than what happened to Mark."

John takes a long drink of water, even though it's suddenly hard to swallow. He still dreams about finding Holland after the explosion, can't imagine ever not.

"Perhaps," says Teyla, very quietly, "Being reassigned is not the punishment you think it is."

"I don't think it's a punishment," John says automatically. He's been waiting to deny this accusation that no-one's ever made since he got there.

"Perhaps," Teyla says again, humoring him. "But consider that maybe someone was doing as you would do, and protecting you."

John doesn't have anything to say to that. He barely remembers the weeks between losing Holland and coming back, a haze of anger and grief and complete helplessness, shot through with much clearer memories of various people yelling at him and looking at him with disappointment. He wants to ask Teyla what she remembers, what it was like for her and Ronon while he was wrecking his career and, now he thinks about it, probably doing a pretty crappy job of protecting them.

After a while, Teyla pats his arm and leaves him alone. He sits there for a long time before getting up and going to bed, feeling even more confused than he did before.

hr

"You didn't say you were bringing someone," a young woman says, dropping into the free chair at John and Lorne's table in the crowded coffee shop. She smoothes her skirt and tosses her hair out of her face. "I would have brought my boyfriend as well."

Lorne rolls his eyes good naturedly. "This is Sora," he says, though John's already guessed. "Sora, this is John Richardson, he's a colleague of mine, from the States."

They agreed on the half-lie before they came out – if she presses, John will say that he's with the CIA, but he's hoping it won't come to that, that she'll just assume. He's having enough trouble keeping his real identity and his cover straight, without adding any more details to a cover for his cover.

Sora's eyes are wary, but she shakes his hand. "Not his boyfriend, then. Shame, he could use someone to –"

"Okay," Lorne says quickly, cutting her off. "I don't think either of us wants you discussing my sex life."

"Or lack thereof," Sora mutters, and John can see why Lorne likes her.

Lorne glares at her again, then something changes in his face, sliding into seriousness. "We need to meet with your boss," he says quietly, and Sora shakes her head immediately.

"You can't," she says. "Do you know what he'll do to me if he finds out?"

This is the tricky part, the part that's going to be hardest to sell because it's the biggest lie. Even Lorne doesn't know for certain why they're here, though he must suspect. It's probably why he hasn't asked.

"He won't ever find out who we really are," Lorne says. "I won't be there, it'll just be John, maybe a couple of people he knows." One of whom is reading a paper on the other side of the coffee shop, keeping an eye on what's happening, the other of whom is out in Lorne's car, listening in through John's wire, because Teyla's actually met Sora before. "You'll tell him they've come from America, that they're interested in working with him when his people get across the border. He'll never know they aren't who they say they are."

This is the part of the lie that's true, though it's a very carefully phrased truth: Kolya will never know because they themselves will never say they're anyone but who they are, who Kolya will recognize them as the moment he sets eyes on them. The lie comes in who Sora will say they are, but John's counting on her not realizing this.

Her wary expression intensifies. "How can you be sure?"

"Trust me," Lorne says, looking so open and honest that *John* half-believes him, even after helping to script the conversation.

It obviously works on Sora as well – either that or she's the most trusting spy John's ever met, because she stares at Lorne for a drawn out moment, then nods. "I want – if he does find out, you have to promise to help me," she says.

"I promise," Lorne says, and John realizes there is a difference after all between trust-me-I'm-harmless and genuine you-can-really-trust-me on his face, because he's seeing the latter now; if it comes to it, Lorne really will do his best to protect her.

"All right," Sora says finally. "Let me go make a call."

John waits for the door to close behind her, then says, "Teyla?" quietly into his comm.

"One moment," Teyla says. She leaves the line open so John can hear her equipment running. Across from him, Lorne drinks his coffee, affecting a pretty convincing casual pose. "Dialing," Teyla says in his ear. "Okay, coming through clearly."

"Great," John says. It's not that he doesn't trust Lorne's contact – well, partly it is – but he feels better knowing that they'll be able to hear any calls she makes from now on. At least this way he'll know if they're being set up, even if they end up having to walk into the trap anyway.

hr

They're on their way back to the apartment, meeting with Kolya set for that evening, when Teyla, who's still wearing one ear piece, starts and says, "Sora is making another call."

"Yeah?" John twists round in the front seat, which has the added advantage of meaning he doesn't have to watch the way Ronon drives, like a car is alien technology to him. "Who's she calling?"

There's a moment of silence while Teyla listens, then she says, "We may have a problem."

"She's calling Kolya back?" John asks.

Teyla shakes her head. "Director Oberoth."

"What?" Ronon says, half-turning from the road.

"That's not good," John adds. Not good, and yet, it makes sense. Or it makes other things make sense.

Teyla hushes them all, and they ride in strained silence as she listens. Finally, she turns the recorder off with a disgusted sigh. "It would appear," she says darkly, "That Kolya's continued existence will not be the surprise to the Director that it was to the rest of us."

"He's working with Kolya?" John asks, kind of stunned to hear it confirmed even after assuming it was true for the last couple of days. "How did he even know Kolya's still alive?"

"Oddly, Sora did not mention this," Teyla says. "Still, perhaps we should inform Colonel O'Neill of this."

"Yeah," John says. "And get some extra ammo." He thinks about it for a minute, then asks, "What was she calling Oberoth about? Us?"

Teyla shakes her head. "It did not seem so. They were discussing plans for a lorry to go across the border in a few days' time."

"So, wait," John says, trying to think. It's too hot, and his headache is back. "You're saying that she's working with Kolya, who's working with Oberoth, both of whom know about us and Rodney, but that they don't know we're here because Sora doesn't know who we are."

Everyone's quiet briefly, making sense of that. It seems almost too good to be true, that they've managed to get into the country, are right under Kolya's nose, and yet neither he nor Oberoth have realized. He wonders where Oberoth thinks they've gone, since he must have noticed that the three of them have disappeared. Unless O'Neill's cover for their presence on this mission includes saying that they're gone somewhere else.

"Yeah," Ronon says finally. "That sounds about right."

hr

By the time they get back to the apartment, John's got a working theory for everything that's happened. Well, apart from the part where Kolya and Oberoth somehow managed to find each other, but no theory's perfect. He's sure O'Neill and Weir will be able to work that part out between them.

"Rodney must have known he was doing something wrong," he explains to O'Neill. "Maybe Zelenka as well." He doesn't know how they would have figured it out, but Zelenka will be able to fill that gap. It wouldn't have taken much, not for two of the CIA's leading intelligence analysts. "I think Oberoth already suspected something was going on between me and McKay and used that to try and get him to leave it alone."

"Clearly, he didn't know Dr McKay very well," O'Neill says dryly.

"No sir. And suspended Dr Zelenka for the same reason." He's less sure about that argument, whether it was to deter Rodney or get rid of Zelenka or both.

"And when that didn't work, he had Kolya come down here and shoot Dr McKay."

"Yes, sir. Kolya would've leapt at the chance, he never liked Rodney. Probably liked him even less once he realized who Rodney really was."

"On the bright side, assuming the Director was behind the accusation against you, this should make it a lot easier to quash," O'Neill says, and John realizes that he's pretty much forgotten about that while he's been in Mexico.

"Yes, sir. I suppose."

"Mm." O'Neill hesitates, then says, "Look, Major, I'm not going to tell you what you should or shouldn't do, and I understand wanting to – even the balance – after what happened to your friend, but –"

"But now we know he knows who we really are, maybe this isn't such a good idea?" John finishes. "Don't worry about it, sir, we're pretty sure he doesn't know who he's really meeting with this evening. We don't think Lorne's contact with the Genii knows who we really are."

"That's a big 'if', Major, especially if you're wrong. I don't know if Dr Weir's managed to contact you already today, but the hospital's saying that McKay looks to be improving. They're cautiously optimistic."

"That's good to hear, sir," John says. He already knows from Weir's voicemail message, but O'Neill's not really telling him that. He's trying to tell John not to do anything stupid, that there are things in Washington waiting for him, and John hears that loud and clear.

hr

Lorne hangs around, despite John's repeated suggestions that he must have other things to do, and Teyla eventually says quietly to John that Lorne probably feels badly for trusting Sora and allowing them to put themselves in more danger, even if Sora hasn't actually contributed meaningfully to their danger level. John thinks that's pretty stupid, but he also knows he'd feel the same way in Lorne's place, and stops trying to persuade him to leave. He does take him aside, though, and explain in small words that Lorne can't come with them, for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is that it's really not a good idea for a CIA agent to be involved in what amounts to an illegal operation.

John gets more and more keyed up as the day ticks away. He wants to go out and run, but he can't take the risk that someone's tailing them. He can't settle to anything on TV, and reading through the files is starting to destroy his will to live. Teyla offers to spar with him again, then rescinds the offer ten minutes in, declaring that he's too distracted and will end up hurting both of them. Ronon just laughs at him when he suggests they go a round of hand to hand, and John's not quite desperate enough to ask Lorne.

He takes himself off to the bedroom in the end, closes the curtains and lies still on his back with his eyes closed, trying to relax, maybe even fall asleep.

hr

Rodney caught his arm after yet another in a seemingly endless line of debriefs, a week after they got back, when John was starting to feel like his entire life outside the mission was ceasing to exist. "Have dinner with me," he said and John agreed quickly. Caldwell was looking at Rodney's hand on his arm, and John liked his job.

They went to a bar Rodney knew, tucked away in a booth in the back corner, and John didn't give in to the temptation to drink, because he wanted whatever happened to happen because he was sober and decided, not because he was drunk and stupid.

"Look, Sheppard," Rodney said finally. "I understand if you don't...I mean, things happen, spur of the moment, adrenaline, bonds of intense experiences, et cetera, and it doesn't have to mean anything. That is, you're in the army, and you're away a lot, and I wouldn't ask – I'm not asking – for, you know, exclusivity or, or a commitment." John opened his mouth to say something, he wasn't entirely sure what, but Rodney plowed over him. "But that was an amazing kiss, and I can't stop thinking about it, and I'm going through a traumatic experience, as if being there when you shot a man wasn't bad enough, now I have to waste my time with all these bureaucrats... Really, Sheppard, I deserve sex." He said the last bit a little louder than John was entirely comfortable with, but the bar was pretty noisy, so he could convince himself that no-one had heard. At least Rodney wasn't using his rank.

"I can keep a secret," Rodney said, lowering his voice again when John didn't say anything. "And I really, really –"

"Okay," John said quickly. Who had he been trying to kid anyway, when he'd been jerking off thinking about that kiss since they got back, like a horny teenager. "Okay, what the hell. Your place or mine?"

They went to Rodney's apartment, figuring the chances of getting caught were lower, and that they could always come up with an excuse about watching a video if anyone said anything.

"Do you, um, do you want a drink?" Rodney asked when they got inside, toeing off his shoes and fiddling with his keys.

"I'm good," John said. He felt slightly breathless with nerves, doing this in a premeditated way with someone he cared for, which he hadn't done for a while, but it was clear that Rodney wasn't going to make the first move. Decisive action, he thought, and pushed Rodney back to sit on the sofa so John could straddle him and kiss him.

Rodney got with the program surprisingly quickly, kissing back, wrapping his arms round John to hold him there, and they made out for what seemed like forever, until they were both hard and gasping.

"We should – I have a bed," Rodney offered. He looked debauched, mouth red from kissing, hair mussed, shirt open and hanging from one arm after John had lost patience with the buttons on his cuffs.

"Here's good," John said. They were pressed a bit too close to reach easily between their bodies, but he managed it, yanking down Rodney's zipper and shoving his hand into Rodney's boxers to wrap round his cock.

"Oh," Rodney said, his eyes going wide when John slid his hand down his length. "Oh, that's really good."

John couldn't get a good rhythm going at that angle, and his wrist didn't really want to bend that way, but in the end it didn't matter, Rodney thrusting up into John's hand a half dozen times before coming with a low groan, pressing his mouth to John's throat.

"Wow," he said after a while. "You know, for a soldier, you're really very good at that."

"Thanks," John said dryly. Just what he needed, a reminder that if anyone found out about this, his career could be over. Particularly helpful when he was pretty sure Rodney had got come on his pants. "And, you know, any time you feel like returning the favor..."

"Right. Of course." Rodney lifted his head to kiss John again, and John was too caught up in the kiss to realize what was going to happen until Rodney, showing previously unevidenced strength and coordination, shifted him round and dropped him flat on his back on the couch, before crawling down to give John quite possibly the best blow job of his life.

John, like Rodney had said, was away a lot, and neither of them were the long-distance pining and celibacy types, but they gravitated towards each other every time they were close enough, and John, at least, noticed a definite drop in the number of people-other-than-Rodney who he was having sex with over the years. He wasn't at all surprised, really, when Rodney offered to put him up while he looked for somewhere to live in Washington, or that the subject of him actually finding somewhere never came up again.

hr

"John?" Teyla says quietly, outlined in the doorway by the bright light from the main room. "It is time to go."

"Right." John sits up and rubs his eyes, not sure if he was dreaming or just remembering. "Coming."

hr

Sora has set up the meeting in a small public park, though 'park' turns out to be a bit of a misnomer, since it's basically a path, a couple of benches and some grass, enclosed on three sides by brick walls and the fourth by metal railings and a gate. It has the advantage of meaning they're unlikely to be spotted and reported to the police, but the disadvantage of meaning they can't get anyone into place for concealed surveillance, plus, well, 'public' is never good when it's a black op. They've dealt with bigger problems, though, and at least the place is deserted. John's visions of shooting round civilians recede into the background.

They're early enough to watch Kolya's car pull up and Kolya step out of the back. He hasn't changed much since the last time John saw him, and John wonders for one mad moment if maybe they never shot him at all. He still doesn't know if Rodney really thought he was dead, or if he couldn't go through with allowing John to kill a man, in the end. He suspects he'll never know – he can't ask Rodney and he won't ask Kolya.

"You two get the drivers," John says, and both Teyla and Ronon nod. They're not happy about him going up against Kolya alone, but they seem to understand why he has to.

John gives Kolya a couple of minutes to get inside, then checks his weapon and reaches for the door handle.

"Good luck," Ronon says, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Be careful," Teyla adds, and John hears, don't do anything stupid.

"Of course," he says, and climbs out of the car.

Kolya's standing in the middle of the path, his back to John, shadowed by the gathering dusk, for all the world like he really is meeting with another trafficker, someone he thinks he can trust. John doesn't think he makes any noise going in, but Kolya turns anyway when he's halfway down the path.

It's only because John's expecting it that he sees Kolya's tiny flinch, the moment of realization across his features that gives John a hard, sharp feeling of satisfaction. Yeah, he wants to say. Bet you weren't expecting me, were you? Turns out you don't know everything that's going on over the border. He doesn't though, just waits, still like the army, like Teyla and Ronon taught him, for Kolya to make his move.

"Mr. Richardson," he says eventually. He has to be carrying some kind of weapon, has to know what's going to happen next, but John can't see a gun, and Kolya's not moving to draw one. He thinks of a set-up, of walking into a trap after all, but that's for Teyla and Ronon to deal with. John's whole world has narrowed down to him and Kolya and the faint scent of honeysuckle in the air, his gun in his hand and the bitter certainty that he won't hesitate. "Or should I be calling you Major Sheppard? It is major now, isn't it, or have they already removed your rank?"

"Not yet," John says easily. His hand aches from how tightly he's clenching his gun, and he forces himself to loosen his grip. "Richardson's fine. Worked for us last time." He lifts his weapon a fraction, aiming for Kolya's general direction, waiting for something. For Kolya to reveal whatever back up plan he has. "I'd call you a ghost, but somehow that just doesn't seem a strong enough expression of my feelings."

"I suppose not," Kolya agrees, and John realizes he's been so busy watching Kolya's gun-hand that he stopped watching Kolya's other hand, which is sliding into his coat pocket. He's not ready to die, especially not by this guy's hands, and John doesn't even think about it. His gun comes up, his finger curled round the trigger, and John fires twice, the double crack splintering the quiet, blood blooming on Kolya's coat as he goes back and down. No-one comes running.

Kolya's not moving when John steps up to him, but he's not making the same mistake twice. He aims again and shoots Kolya between the eyes, once, then again, just to be sure. He can't quite bring himself to bend down and feel for a pulse, but Kolya, when he looks, is definitely dead.

He leaves the gun beside Kolya, wiping it clean even though he's wearing gloves. When the report's called in, Lorne will find it, run it through the system, and come back with no hits. He won't be able to close out the case – no evidence, no suspects – but it should be enough to shut the Genii down for good, and at least he'll be able to arrest Sora for her part in it.

Ronon and Teyla are covering the gate, waiting for him, and John's got nothing he wants to say to Kolya. He just wants to get the hell out of here and go home, because he thought he'd feel better when he did this, and instead he thinks that nothing's changed. None of the important stuff.

He leaves the gun behind, and goes to join his team.

It's over.

 

Epilogue:

There's a message from Jeannie when John turns his cell on, back on American soil, and his heart seizes up with horror when he hears her crying. It's not until she starts laughing through her tears that he can breathe again, her voice in his ear saying, "He's awake, he's all right, John, he's okay, he's asking for you," and he has to lean against the wall in the arrivals hall, weak-kneed with relief, and glad Teyla and Ronon are still in Mexico, picking up intelligence for the mission they're officially on. It's not often he gets to not be seen doing something that will undermine his tough-commander impression.

He's still suspended, as far as he's aware, and even O'Neill probably can't swing a ride for a suspended army Major, so John gets a cab to the hospital. There's something to be said, possibly, for stopping by the apartment to drop his bags, shower, maybe even pick up some of Rodney's things, but John needs to see with his own eyes – if he's learned anything from this it's that he can't rely on other people seeing things right.

The nurse on the desk stops him when he makes to walk past. "Yes, sir, can I help you?"

"Major Sheppard, to see Rodney McKay."

She looks him up and down dubiously, which is fair comment, he supposes: he hasn't shaved in a couple of days and his clothes are crumpled from the plane ride. He hasn't looked in a mirror since he caught his reflection in one at the airport, but he can't imagine the flight's done much for the dark circles he saw under his eyes, and he knows it hasn't helped the mild lack-of-caffeine-and-sleep tremor that he's developed in his hands.

"It's okay," a male voice says, and John looks up to see Agent Mitchell leaving a side room, another man stepping up to watch the door as it closes. Protection detail, though it's a bit late. "It's okay," Mitchell says again. "Let him in."

The nurse still doesn't look convinced, but she nods for John to go past. "Thanks," he tells Mitchell, who wraps a hand round his wrist and leads him further down the corridor, past the guard and the door with MR McKay scrawled under the occupant label. John digs his heels in. "You know, I'm already being investigated for violations of the UCMJ, so if you're hoping to have your wicked way with me, this probably isn't the best week."

Mitchell grins, but stops. "Actually, it probably *is* the best week, get all the suspicion out of the way at once." John glares at him and he shrugs. "Fine. Jackson would probably object anyway."

John blinks, but he's not actually all that surprised that Mitchell's apparently seeing a man (or a woman who doesn't object to being called by her last name). "So glad we had this little chat," he tells Mitchell. "But I was actually hoping to see McKay."

"I've been talking to your CO," Mitchell says, like John didn't say anything. "And a CIA agent in Mexico. Who've apparently solved my case for me."

"That's nice," John says, wondering if the man's deliberately trying to be annoying.

"Isn't it," Mitchell says. "Though they don't seem to like my chances of actually bringing the perpetrator to justice, which is a downside, especially when they think it's either a Mexican trafficker or the director of the CIA." He smiles slightly, then drops the act. "Look, I used to be in the Air Force, I'm not blind. I know where you've been." John wonders for one horrifying moment if he's going to be arrested by this guy. "So we'll call this one a win, and say no more about it," Mitchell adds, to John's relief. "Also, Colonel O'Neill asked me to pass on a message if I happened to run into you here."

John waits, then raises an eyebrow when nothing is forthcoming.

"He said to tell you, 0500 Monday morning, and don't be late," Mitchell says, and he doesn't even know John, but he looks really happy to be saying this. Almost as happy as John feels, like a weight he was mostly managing to ignore has suddenly gone, and he thinks he'd float away if the corridor ceiling wasn't so low.

"Thanks," he says, and makes a mental note to call up Dr Weir and say... something. Or maybe do something to say thank you, which he's always found easier than actually saying the words.

"No sweat," Mitchell says easily. He tilts his head to Rodney's room. "We're leaving the protection detail there for a few days, just to be on the safe side, but it's just a precaution."

"Great," John says. "Look, I don't mean to be rude, but –"

Mitchell makes a weird shooing gesture. "Go," he says, and John doesn't need telling twice.

He's not sure what he was expecting – tubes, unconsciousness, evidence of a very recent near-death experience, maybe – but not this, Rodney, eyes closed, half-sitting up in bed, a single IV line in the back of his hand and an oxygen canula in his nose. He doesn't exactly look wide awake and ready to go for a run (though in fairness, John's never seen him looking ready to go for a run in all the years they've known each other), but he looks like Rodney. He looks like he's going to be okay.

John has to lean against the closed door for a second, till he feels like he can walk across the room without his legs giving out. He makes it, just, collapsing in the chair by Rodney's bedside. There's a physics journal and a child's coloring book on the cupboard by the bed, so Jeannie must be around somewhere, but John's pretty sure he'll hear her coming. He reaches out and puts his hand over Rodney's, careful not to squeeze, not wanting to wake Rodney yet.

He's got the covers pulled up to his chin, so John can't see the bandages that must be under them, which John is definitely more than okay with. He'll have enough nightmares, he's sure, from the scars, without adding to them quite yet.

"It's over," he tells Rodney quietly, trying to believe it. Kolya's dead, John's suspension's been lifted, Rodney's safe, and, he assumes Oberoth will shortly be trading his corner office for a jail cell, which means Zelenka should be reinstated. It's over.

He still doesn't quite believe it, wishes he still had his gun.

Rodney stirs, makes a weird snuffling nose, and opens his eyes. He's facing the wrong direction, but he turns his head slowly and finally looks at John.

"Oh," he says quietly, his voice a little rusty. The corners of his mouth lift in a slight smile. "Hey. Where've you been?"

John squeezes his hand a little harder, because he can't help himself, because he feels light-headed with relief and he just spent three days thinking he'd never get to do this again. "It's a long story," he says.


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