John Sheppard, The First Rez-Star, proclaimed the headline in screaming type, with Wants To Be Left Alone, in slightly smaller, though still hideously yellow font below it. Rodney McKay, the youngest person to graduate from the prestigious University of Cadence with a double honors degree in para-archaeology and physics, glared at the cover of the magazine with its picture of a vacuous, though admittedly attractive, dark-haired, hazel-eyed male with pouty lips, and at his pseudo-assistant, at least what little he could see of her, as she was currently hiding behind the glossy rag.
"Cadman!" he snapped.
Laura lowered the magazine enough that the top of her strawberry blond hair and her blue eyes peered over the top. "Rodney?"
Why she called him by his first name, instead of his title or last name, even though he always used her last name, he'd never quite understood. "You're reading a tabloid. In my lab."
She arched her eyebrows, and looked at the front cover facetiously, as if she didn't remember what she was holding. "It's an entertainment magazine, not a tabloid." She shot a glance around the room. "And I gotta tell you, Rodney, this isn't exactly a lab."
The accuracy of that jab hurt, but Rodney was accustomed to not showing how much he hated his reduced circumstances. "It's my lab," he glowered.
"And this is my workstation and my break time."
Rodney frowned, trying to decipher her strange words. "You take breaks?"
"Yes, Rodney. I'm entitled to them by Harmonic law and I intend to take them. And not everyone reads the Journal of Para-Archaeology for relaxation."
"Really?" He couldn't imagine why not. Nothing was more important or interesting to Rodney than researching the Aliens who had lived on Harmony before the Earth settlers arrived, and learning about them from artifacts abandoned in the extensive network of catacombs they had created. Admittedly, most para-archaeologists concentrated on the Aliens' culture, rather than Rodney's personal fascination, their science and how it could be used by humans, but how could anyone not love learning?
"Yes, really." She tapped the amber face on her watch. Like everyone born on Harmony, Cadman had psi-abilities, and always wore tuned amber to help her use them. "And I've got five minutes left."
"When you're done with your relaxation - " Rodney dumped his notes on her desk. "Here are my notes to record. You know the format."
"In five minutes," she said, holding the magazine in front of her face again.
Rodney sighed, but left her to wasting her brain. She could do it faster and more efficiently by walking into a "ghost," one of the free-floating UDEMs, unstable dissonance energy manifestations, found in the catacombs, or setting off an Alien illusion trap, but he'd learned Cadman was abnormally resistant to good advice.
The thought of a badly triggered illusion trap depressed Rodney a little as he wandered to his desk on the other side of the room and sat down, his gaze straying to the picture of him and Aiden. Their arms were around each other's shoulders and they were smiling, the moment captured forever. The picture was taken on the first day of Rodney's first big expedition, his solo run as head para-archaeologist, and it should have been the next glorious step in an already brilliant career. Instead, Aiden had sprung a trap incorrectly, his brain badly damaged by the Alien energy that exploded from it. Rodney could still hear Aiden's screams, clearly remembered looking around at his team, searching for the sound of the noise. Frozen panic was reflected in the faces of everyone around him before they broke out of their shock, all of them rushing down the tunnel to help Aiden.
Rodney had never understood why Aiden hadn't waited for him, hadn't checked with him before working on the trap. Rodney was not only lead para-archaeologist on the expedition, but a powerful ephemeral energy para-resonator, commonly called an illusion trap tangler. Aiden was officially hired as their tangler only so that Rodney could devote his full time to studying the objects they found. The rest of them weren't even in that tunnel yet; why had Aiden wandered so far ahead of them?
Not that Aiden would ever be able to tell him now. He could only babble gibberish and stare wildly out of his one good eye.
Too arrogant, too inexperienced, too foolish... those and many other slanders had been leveled at Rodney before he'd been fired from the university. None of them were true. Rodney knew he'd been following procedure perfectly. It hadn't been his fault that Aiden had impetuously gone off on a wild hair.
At least they haven't been able to revoke his membership in the Dissonance Energy Para-resonator Guild. Once a Guild man, always a Guild man. He could still work professionally, legally, even if no one would hire him for tangler jobs. Not ones he wanted anyway. Rodney wasn't going to risk his possible return to academia by hooking up with a criminal enterprise.
He'd been lucky to find a job at Cowen's Curiosities, a tacky museum/tourist trap located in the Old Quarter, close to the walls of green quartz that formed the aboveground portion of the catacombs. Most of the artifacts were substandard, and Rodney had to lead tours regularly, cringing at the stupid questions that people asked, but the meager paycheck kept him fed and housed and able to buy treats for his dust bunny, Canada, named for the country where his Earth ancestors had been born. Some people did eventually recover from contact with a ghost or illusion energy, and Rodney could only hope that Aiden's youth and strength would allow him to be one of those lucky few. Vindication had to eventually come, it had to, and in the meantime, Rodney kept up with his field as much as he was could, even if it meant only reviewing of other people's work.
He frowned at the folded red paper tucked by the picture. He liked to have everything instantly accessible, which meant that his desk was cluttered with papers, but he didn't recall writing anything on red paper. He pulled it out and unfolded it. Destroyer, it announced in solid black letters. "Cadman!"
"Two more minutes, Rodney."
He stormed over to her desk, waving the paper in front of her face. "Who left this? Who's been in here?"
She shrugged, peering at the writing. "It could have been anyone. I ran the ticket booth for a couple of hours this morning."
"This lab is labeled off-limits."
"I don't think an Employees Only sign would stop someone who wanted to leave a nasty note. It's not like they're concerned about politeness. Destroyer of what, Rodney? Have you been doing something interesting?"
"It's none of your business," he snapped, feeling his body shaking. Cadman had never been his confidant. "When is Cowen going to be here again?"
"He plans to stop by at the end of the week, I think."
"When you see him, tell him I want to talk to him about a lock for this lab." Rodney turned to storm out.
"Are you leaving early?" Cadman asked, her tone falsely bright. "Not doing your full work day?"
Rodney didn't answer as he slammed the door.
A few hours later, Rodney was feeling better. He'd started walking around the outskirts of the catacombs, and called Daniel Jackson, the head of the university's para-archaeologist department, forcefully expressing his criticisms about the newest article Daniel had sent for proofing. One of the few people to truly understand Rodney's brilliance, Daniel had listened respectfully before having to leave for a lecture.
Deprived of an audience, Rodney had continued to walk, muttering direly to himself, being widely avoided by everyone else on the streets, even the cultists in their long green robes. He rhythmically turned his lucky piece of amber in his pocket over and over again, which helped to calm him. The piece was unusually shaped, about the width and length of his finger, a souvenir he'd found in the catacombs on his last expedition. It must have been part of someone's jewelry, but it didn't match any design Rodney had ever seen.
He'd stopped to buy Canada a few cookies and a new cap for Aiden, before sitting down to eat dinner outside at Chuck's, a small cafe a block over from his apartment, while flipping through the newest Journal of Para-Archaeology for diversion. The food was inexpensive, and the cook was always careful of his citrus allergies, so it was Rodney's favorite restaurant.
Rodney was engrossed in the lead article, pleased that Daniel had accepted all of the corrections he had suggested. He'd always regarded Daniel as competitor more than colleague, since both of them proposed innovative approaches to the Aliens, but Daniel had surprised Rodney, being one of the few to support him in his exile. The chance to review articles before publication was one of Rodney's few and treasured contacts with the academic world he'd loved.
A man rushing by suddenly dropped in the chair opposite Rodney's. "I'm with you," he hissed, pulling Rodney's abandoned plate in front of him. "Perfect," he added, grabbing Rodney's brown jacket from where it was draped over an empty chair, putting it on over his black t-shirt, and grabbing Aiden's cap from the table, pulled it over his spiky black hair.
"Excuse me?" Rodney asked, astonished, but at that moment, a horde of women ran down the sidewalk, past the café, and continuing on, most of them screeching loudly, "John! John! John!" Women of all types and sizes: gorgeous, athletic, plain, plump, running in flats or wobbling on heels.
"Please!" the stranger hissed, grabbing Rodney's fork, slouching over the remnants on the plate, pantomiming like he was eating. The last of the women panted past, Rodney staring as they disappeared down the block, before returning his attention to his uninvited guest, who was smiling and seemed more relaxed.
"Who are you and why are you molesting my empty plate?"
"I'm John Sheppard," the stranger said, pausing a bit as if he expected a reaction. "Thank you for the camouflage." He was dressed all in black, and like Cadman, his only amber was on the face of his watch, so he couldn't be a strong talent. Everyone wore amber, using it to focus psychic energy for simple tasks like turning on mechanical devices or cars. The size or amount of amber worn as part of a person's attire tended to indicate the strength of their abilities, with ghost hunters generally bedecked with amber. Though Rodney was extremely powerful, he typically only wore a bracelet of amber stones, each one perfectly tuned for tangling. Academics regarded too much amber as a gaudy and unnecessary display of their abilities.
"Those women were chasing you?"
John blinked in surprise, as if he thought Rodney would know being chased down a street was normal for him. "Yes."
John stared. "I'm John Sheppard," he said again, a bit slower.
"Yes, my hearing is excellent, thank you, and I'll need my jacket and the hat back. Your hair is clean, isn't it?" Poor Aiden would love the present, but he certainly didn't need some stranger's dandruff.
Chuck materialized by the table. "Mr. Sheppard."
How did Chuck know this man?
"Shhh," John said, waving his hand to indicate Chuck should lower his voice.
"Mr. Sheppard," Chuck obediently whispered. "We're so happy to have you in our humble establishment. Can I get you some dinner?"
"I would love your special, and why don't you bring some dessert for my friend, er - "
"Rodney McKay. Doctor Rodney McKay."
"The chocolate soufflé, Doctor?" Chuck suggested. Chuck always knew Rodney's tastes.
"I'll pay, of course, for the dessert and your meal," John smiled, and he had a very persuasive, attractive smile, even if his nose and ears were oddly pointy. Rodney liked free food, and if Sheppard paid for this meal, he could eat out again one more time before payday, so Rodney nodded in agreement. Then something about the tilt to John's smile triggered a memory.
"You were in that horrible rez-movie!"
"Some bread for you, Mr. Sheppard," Chuck said, ingratiatingly. Rodney hadn't even been aware that he'd scuttled off to the kitchen and returned.
"Colony! Or Settlement! Or whatever it was called. You starred in it!" Rodney hissed quietly. "There weren't any earthquakes when the Curtain vanished!" he added, even more vehemently.
John blinked again, his hazel eyes as beautiful in person as on the rez-screen. "You're complaining about the special effects?"
"I'm complaining about the lack of scientific accuracy! The Curtain just disappeared one day, that's all! It didn't cause any geological disturbances." No one had yet determined exactly what the Curtain was, or why it had appeared, allowing Earth people to travel through the fold in space and settle on Harmony, before disappearing and isolating the small colony. Now that Rodney had identified John, he could picture him on the big rez-screen, smiling reassuringly at... had it been a beautiful woman and a small child? Rodney's memory for bad movies was a little fuzzy, only that John had been smiling bravely, with that same tilt to his mouth, as the ground shook underneath them all, declaring that they would survive and prosper on Harmony, even though Earth was lost to them. Rodney never got to see the rest of the movie, as the usher had then thrown him out of the theater. Apparently some of the patrons had the bad taste to object to his critiquing.
"The Curtain just disappearing wasn't very exciting visually."
"But it was fascinating! Do you know how little we still know about the properties of the Curtain? How much there is to discover?" Rodney began earnestly explaining the theorized scientific principles behind the Curtain, and all the difficulties they'd had in learning more, once the equipment from Earth began to break down and had to be recreated with native materials. Chuck served the special and the chocolate soufflé, and they ate, Rodney still talking. John listened, surprisingly intently, and occasionally asked perceptive questions. Perhaps he wasn't as ditzy as his choices in movie scripts made him appear. He was definitely not the vacuous pretty boy his image suggested, even if he was indeed very pretty.
By the time Rodney looked at his watch and guiltily realized that Canada would be hungry for her dinner, the other patrons were gone, and Chuck's hovering was less discreet. "I have to feed my dust bunny."
"You have a dust bunny? I didn't know they could be kept as pets."
"I think she keeps me," Rodney admitted. She was the best thing in his life.
"I'd like to meet her," John suggested, his voice sounding weirdly shy.
"Um... yes?" Rodney felt weirdly shy himself. Was John just interested in one of Harmony's native animals, or was Rodney being picked up by an idol? Apparently the latter, because as they left the restaurant, turning toward Rodney's apartment, John's fingers twined around his, signaling an interest in more than meeting his pet.
"So how did you find her?"
"She found me. When I moved into the Old Quarter," after losing my job and needing a cheaper place to live, he didn't add, "she showed up on my balcony one day. I thought she was a bundle of dirt and tried to throw her in the garbage," he confessed. He'd screamed when she began purring and dug all six paws into his forearm. Fortunately, she hadn't allowed him to dislodge her, no matter how much he flailed his arm around.
"They really look that much like dust bunnies?"
"They really do," Rodney confirmed, though perhaps he shouldn't admit that he was that bad of a housekeeper, allowing the dust clumps to get so excessively large, but then they were at his building, and entering his apartment, and please don't let the cute but occasionally unpredictable dust bunny attack the attractive famous person, Rodney thought. Fortunately, John Sheppard could charm small animals as well as the movie-going public. Canada was soon in his arms, fully fluffed into a gray ball, only her bright blue eyes showing and she made that odd purring noise that wasn't quite like cats from Earth.
At least, people thought the noise wasn't quite like Earth cats. Since Earth videos, along with Earth equipment, had broken down and disintegrated in Harmony's environment, and those born on Earth had long since died, no one knew for sure.
"She's adorable," John said, petting her, and then he looked at Rodney, his eyes changing, like he had a second pair of hunting eyes too, and they'd replaced his normal hazel ones, making them gleaming, gold, and intent. Canada was dropped on the floor, landing lightly on all six paws, and John's mouth was covering his own, and oh… yes.
An electric charge in the atmosphere woke Rodney. He blinked, his brain fuzzy and confused with sleep, and the awareness that something was wrong but not what. Canada was on the pillow next to him, her fur slicked down, both sets of eyes showing, alert and watchful, gazing up at something above the bed. Rodney started to twist in bed, but the warm, hairy arm around his middle kept him from moving. "Be still," John said softly.
The arm couldn't stop him twisting his head, so Rodney followed Canada's gaze to see the dissonant ball of energy hovering over his bed. He may have screamed, which would only be an appropriate response in the situation. The green ghost was small, barely the size of a toddler, but that was large enough to fry his brain permanently.
"I'm taking care of it," John said.
"You're not a ghost hunter!" Rodney whispered furiously, though there was no evidence that ghosts paid attention to the volume of people's voices. How had it spontaneously formed in his bedroom? Flickers of energy often appeared this close to the catacombs, but never full manifestations.
"Quiet," John instructed. Rodney twisted his head enough to see that he had a piece of amber in his hand. It was unusually shaped, a flat rectangle rather than a smooth chunk, and attached to a chain around his neck. He'd put it on the nightstand as they were undressing, but Rodney hadn't paid much attention to it then, fully occupied with ripping John's pants off him. John held out the other hand, slightly cupped, and flickers of green ghost energy appeared, merging and becoming blue as the ghost formed, steadily growing bigger. Canada gave a hiss that sounded like approval as John's ghost floated up and merged with the other ghost. For a time, both green and blue could be seen separately in the large blob, and then the blue completely encircled the green, successfully derezzing the first ghost. The blue ghost fritzed out of existence, and Rodney scrambled to sit up in the bed, staring at the blank air.
"You *are* a ghost hunter! What are you doing as a rez-star?"
John sat up too, but swung his legs out of bed, sitting away from Rodney. "Ghost hunting is for young men."
"You're hardly old," Rodney insisted, because John had to be close to his age. "Besides why don't you tell people?" Having the power to be a hunter could only enhance his macho rez-star image. Theoretically, power was power; a tangler could be far stronger than a hunter or any of the other unusual talents that were developing among the population. But to an observer, a tangler made shadows less dark, while a hunter took control of and eliminated floating balls of energy, a much more exciting skill. He was surprised John's publicist hadn't made sure that little fact was exploited in every tabloid article. Canada began to knead Rodney's thigh, and Rodney absently stroked the dust bunny, which had resumed her puffy state.
"I should leave." John stood, looking for his clothes.
"You should leave? It's the middle of the night."
"Trust me, I should leave."
The room was much darker without the glow from the ghost energy, but with the moonlight coming in through the blinds, Rodney could see John's outline moving around, standing sideways to Rodney as he pulled his shirt on over his head, and was that... "Are you horny?"
John sighed. "Yes, Rodney. I'm horny. I de-rezzed a ghost. I need to get to my hotel before I pass out."
"It was a small ghost," Rodney protested, because he'd seen plenty of ghost hunters work on archaeological expeditions in the catacombs, and John's reaction was more common when they'd handled an exceptionally large ghost, melting amber.
"It's the first ghost I de-rezzed in five years, okay? Maybe seven. A while."
John was searching through the clothes on the floor for his pants, but Rodney realized it was dangerous to let him go. If his body was particularly sensitive due to a large abstinence from hunting, he could easily collapse before he reached his hotel. "You can't leave," he said, pushing Canada off his lap, and getting out of bed, barreling into John's outline, and reaching around him to cup his hardness in his hand. John gasped, but leaned back into Rodney's solid form, his head lolling back to rest on Rodney's shoulder.
"You don't know what you're asking for."
"Yes, because I'm such an innocent," Rodney grumbled. "Come back to bed."
"Rodney, really." John turned in his arms, his eyes startlingly dark, as if they were all pupil, which must be a trick of the low light. "You don't know what you're asking for." He pushed at Rodney, not giving him any choice but to walk backwards across the small bedroom, falling on top of him and onto the comfort of the quilts and Rodney's specially designed mattress. Then John was kissing him like a man possessed, trying to pour himself into Rodney, as if they were two ghosts who could merge. Rodney stroked his hands down John's back, murmuring assent, and held on.
Rodney woke in the morning, conscious of the twinges in the muscles in his thighs and butt. He'd never had sex that vigorous, that passionate, and though his body was sore and stretched, it felt good. Alive in a physical way that he'd never known. He listened, but couldn't hear John. He got out of bed slowly, Canada watching him quizzically, and then he checked everywhere in his small apartment, the bathroom, living room, kitchen, the dust bunny trailing around after him like a fluffy shadow.
John was gone. He'd gotten up quietly, dressed and left, without even saying good-bye.
Well, he could hardly be surprised, could he? John was a famous star, lusted after by hundreds of people, and he was a disgraced academic working in a tourist trap. He fed Canada her breakfast, and got ready for work.
As he shrugged into his brown jacket, he noticed Canada playing with a crumpled paper. He scolded the dust bunny and took it away, smoothing the creases to see what note she'd stolen. The writing was an unfamiliar scrawl. 'Hey sleepy head,' he read, 'I have to be on the set early. I ' and there the note ended, John apparently having decided against adding more to his lame goodbye. Wadding the note back up, Rodney tossed it to Canada. "Rip it to shreds," he ordered.
Rodney was in a bad mood when he entered his lab, the walk from his apartment to Cowen's Curiosities having failed to diminish his anger at being used and dropped by a famous movie star, like any generic groupie. At least if John had finished the note and signed it, Rodney could have sold it to some adoring idiot and made some extra cash.
Cadman was at her desk, typing away, and gave him a startled look, as if he shouldn't appear at the same time he had every morning for the last two months she'd worked at Cowen's. "Rodney."
"That's Doctor McKay," he said, tossing his jacket at his chair. "Doctor McKay."
"Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed." She twirled in her chair to face him, her legs crossed, swinging the upper leg. "I don't suppose it was something as interesting as the wrong bed?"
"I'm going to get some coffee." He stalked out, ignoring her, "Don't worry about me, I don't want any!"
His bad mood continued throughout the morning, and he cringed to hear Cowen approach the lab, talking to a visitor. The man was a good storyteller, with a voice that expanded to fill whatever volume of air was available. Not having time to escape, Rodney gritted his teeth, bracing himself to attempt a semblance of politeness. Cowen's guest was a beautiful blond, her hair color the exact antithesis to John's, but the two were both in the top two percent of attractiveness. What were the odds of meeting such gorgeous people so close together? And was she as much of a jerk as John?
"And here he is. Doctor Rodney McKay, meet Doctor Samantha Carter."
"Doctor Carter?" Rodney recognized the name of one of the few others that specialized in the Aliens' science more than their culture. Carter was a celebrity worth meeting, not like John, who was known by the world but completely irrelevant to his profession. "I've read your articles in Journal of Para-Archaeology," he said, coming forward from his worktable to shake her hand briskly.
"And I've read yours, Doctor McKay. You've proposed an interesting theory on the Aliens and whether they could have escaped back through the Curtain."
Back when the Journal would still consent to publish him, Rodney thought bitterly. He should have been a department head by now, not remembered for old articles.
"Well, we'll leave you two to it. Cadman, would you help me out front?" Cowen smiled grandly and left, before Rodney could remember that he wanted to ask him about a lock for the lab door. Cadman gave an inquisitive look, no doubt wanting to stay and listen, but followed the boss as directed.
"You're here to see me?" he asked Carter. Of course, he was the most valued asset at Cowen's Curiosities, but Rodney had gotten accustomed to people not realizing it.
"I am. I'd like to offer you a job. A temporary one, for a few months, but we'd need you full-time."
"An archaeological expedition?" Rodney was almost unable to suppress his excitement. Were things finally turning around in his life?
"Not exactly. I'm taking a break from the university and working for a movie production company. They're filming a movie about early Harmony history. Much of the story takes place in the catacombs, and we were hoping you could join us as an illusion trap tangler and a consultant. Mr. Cowen said it would be okay for you to take a leave of absence and join us."
A movie? Sheppard's movie? Did this mean he wanted to continue their relationship? Had the excuse of needing to be on set been true, not just an easy way to avoid a morning after discussion? Not that a relationship could mean anything in the long run, but Rodney had been alone for a long time, and last night had been… fabulous. He still felt twinges in his muscles when he moved.
"John Sheppard is the star. He said he met you last night and recommended that you would be excellent for the position."
The knowledge that John had recommended him, did want him around, gave Rodney a thrill. But this was Samantha Carter offering him the job, and she was almost as skilled and knowledgeable as Rodney, and at this point, more experienced. "Well, of course. I'm an extremely powerful emphemeral-energy para-resonator. I'm sure John realized that." Actually, he didn't realize that. He didn't even remember mentioning to John that he was a tangler. "And I have a double honors degree in para-archaeology and physics." Which was what Carter had too, if he recalled correctly, Rodney realized. Why was he being hired? "You're also working on the set?”
She nodded. "It's a big production. They'll frequently have two units running at the same time, so the insurance company is insisting on two tanglers and two hunters. They're trying to film mostly in areas that have been well-explored, so it may be quiet for us." She grinned. "But it's always exciting to be in the catacombs."
"Yes," Rodney agreed, yearning to be down there again. He went occasionally on the weekends, but it wasn't safe alone, without a ghost hunter. Ghosts usually floated slowly, and could be outrun, but tended to appear in surprising places, and could move unpredictably. But John was a ghost hunter. They would be down there together… Rodney knew he should be offended to be second choice, but a reprieve from Cowen's Curiosities, and a chance to be around John Sheppard was too tempting. "I want university contract prices," he said. "Prices for an emphemeral-energy para-resonator, not a professor," he added, because tanglers received pay based on hazard duty, but academics went on expeditions for the glory. If they wanted Rodney McKay, they were going to pay full-price for him. "And I want full rights to any Alien discoveries I find."
"We'll only be working in areas of the catacombs close to the city, Rodney. They're won't be any discoveries to make."
"I want full rights," Rodney insisted. The catacombs covered miles of territory. Some even theorized that they circled the entire planet. The areas nearest to Cadence, like those closest to all of the cities on Harmony, had been well-explored, but amazing discoveries could be hidden behind unnoticed traps. "If I do make any discoveries, I won't have them taken away from me. You have full rights, don't you?"
Samantha half-grinned, half-grimaced, and nodded. "You've got me there. It's impossible not to hope. I'll let the company know." She offered her hand, and Rodney shook it, sealing the deal. "Welcome to the movie business."
Rodney had always found archaeological expeditions to be carefully controlled chaos, everyone excited to be venturing into the catacombs, the glow of the walls casting an alien green light over everything, ghost or traps potentially around every corner, as well as the hoped-for major finds.
He was shocked by the sheer number of people involved in a movie production as Ronon Dex led him into the main cavern being used as a base. Dex hadn't needed to introduce himself as a ghost hunter when he'd met Rodney at the entrance. The leather clothes studded with large chunks of amber made his profession obvious. Dex paused as they stepped inside the cavern, letting Rodney look his fill. People with cameras, with lights, with clipboards, all busy working. Rodney found himself bouncing on his heels a little bit, thrilled to be among all the alien green quartz again.
"McKay," said a voice Rodney recognized, and which made him instantly tense.
"Kolya," he said, swallowing dryly. Kolya hadn't noticeably changed, unsmiling, pockmarked face, black hair combed back, khaki outfit accented with chunks of amber. Khaki or leather, the staple attire of every ghost hunter Rodney had ever met, except John.
"You two know each other?" Dex asked.
"We worked together once before."
"It was a long time ago," Rodney said dismissively, pulling himself together. Though Kolya hadn't been responsible for the disaster, Rodney hadn't liked him, and wasn't happy for the reminder. "I believe I'm supposed to meet the director?"
They didn't need to look for her, though, as Elizabeth Weir came striding up, holding out her hand and introducing herself. She wore a black pantsuit with an amber top, and her only amber was earrings, indicating limited talent. Like Dex, she appeared coolly confident, but while he was distant, watchful, she was warm and welcoming, welcoming Rodney to the set. She was soon enveloped by people seeking direction, and dragged off, leaving Rodney with the ghost hunters.
"Hey," John said, squeezing Rodney's arm, making him jump in surprise.
"John." He smiled tentatively.
"I'll finish showing him around," John told Dex and Kolya. "Come on," John said, tugging Rodney away from the activity and into a wide tunnel. "They've set up dressing rooms over here."
'Dressing rooms' turned out to be cubbyholes in the tunnels that had been curtained off, and John pulled Rodney into one. He grinned nervously. "I'm glad you came."
"You look like a ghost hunter," Rodney blurted out, because John did, in brown leather vest, pants, belt and boots, white shirt, with a big chunk of amber as his belt buckle and an amber bracelet. He looked good, because John just did, though personally Rodney thought the solid black he'd been wearing before had suited him better.
"I’m playing Jonathon Kelley."
Rodney snorted. John was going to corner the market on the historical heroes on Harmony. "The ghost hunter who saved Harmony from being ruled by a despot, of course. Is this as wildly inaccurate as your last movie? They wouldn't give me a script."
John grinned. "There aren't any earthquakes at least. And movie scripts are more need-to-know than a dreamstone find." He leaned forward, his lips covering Rodney’s softly.
Giving a soft whimper in his throat, Rodney kissed him back. "How did you know I was a tangler?" he asked when his lips were free.
An odd grimace of embarrassment flashed over John's face before smoothing out. "You are, aren't you?"
"Yes, but how did you know? I didn't tell you."
John licked his lips, hesitating. "I always know."
"What do you mean, you always know? How can you know?"
"I can always tell other people's psi-abilities. If they're strong or not, and if they're a hunter or a tangler. I can tell if they've got an unusual power, but not what it is."
"No one just knows other people's psi-abilities."
John shrugged, a flush on his cheeks, and Rodney realized that he truly was embarrassed at the freakish skill. "I do."
"It must be linked to your ghosts turning blue. Your power pulls from a different area of the para-spectrum than most ghost hunters."
"I know it's… odd."
Rodney snorted. "Everything about our para-normal abilities is odd. We still have no idea why Harmony has affected Earth people like it has, or how our powers will evolve. Though we're lucky that they did. Can you imagine living on Harmony and not being able to explore the catacombs at all? That would be agonizing."
"It doesn't bother you that my ghosts turn blue?"
"Why should it? My brain could have been fried if you hadn't been there, and believe me, I'm very attached to my brain. I don't care if your ghost had been pink with red stripes."
John grinned for some unknown reason, and then tapped the side of his head. "Yes, Elizabeth, I'm on my way," he said to the air, before addressing Rodney directly. "I'm being called to the set. They'll want you with the second unit too." Rodney must have made a face, because John added, "What's wrong?"
"MCKAY!" someone yelled outside. "Second unit is leaving!"
"What's wrong with second unit? Do you want me to have you switched to first?" John asked rapidly. "I can talk to Elizabeth."
The suggestion that John would intercede for Rodney was… wildly hot. No one had ever used their power on his behalf. The jackals who were jealous of him had been happy to tear his career into shreds at the first opportunity. A few of his more objective colleagues had defended him, but no one had gone out on a limb for him. It was almost unbelievable that he'd found someone who would have people rearranged for him, and the opportunity to avoid Kolya was tempting.
"No," he said firmly. As far as he knew, John didn't yet know about his disgrace. He must have given his name to Carter, who could have tracked him down easily through the Guild. Academia was a small world, so she must know about the failure of his expedition, but hopefully no one else on the movie did, and he'd like to keep it that way.
Though he'd remember John's offer. And maybe he'd take it up for something more worthwhile, because Rodney wasn't stupid. John was the king of this environment, just as Daniel was king at the university, no matter what the dean or president thought. Which reminded him, he should call Daniel tonight and report on the day. He'd called him after Carter had left, and they'd talked briefly before Daniel had to go to a faculty meeting, but Rodney was sure he would be interested in a full report on the filming.
The expression on John's face was still a little worried, but also pleased. "Okay." He pressed another fast kiss on Rodney's lips. "Let me know if you change your mind," he added before rushing off.
Rodney touched his lips and went off to find the rest of second unit.
The fact that filming was in the catacombs was the only saving grace that prevented the day from being excruciatingly dull. Rodney really didn't understand how anyone could tolerate it as a profession or consider it glamorous. Second unit was doing shots that weren't part of the main action, centering around a small group of ghost hunters on a scouting mission to locate the traitorous Vincent Lee Vance, who had tried to take control of Harmony from the emerging civil government after the Curtain had fallen.
The group was led by a character played by Evan Lorne, an actor who was shorter and not quite as good-looking as John, though who was able to control his hair better. Much better.
Evan and the other actors didn't actually act much. They gossiped a lot while technical people tried to make the light appear sufficiently green on rez-film, and create markers where the special effects company would fill in ghosts. "Why don't you just generate a ghost for them?" Rodney finally asked Kolya, who seemed equally unimpressed by movie making. Maybe he wasn't a completely horrible person.
"I understand they don't film well."
"Huh," Rodney said, and went back to studying the shadows. Despite the tedium of the process, being in the catacombs kept his senses alert. Any shadow could be deceptive, hiding the true black of an illusion trap, and unlike para-archaeologists, actors didn't appreciate the dangers of their environment. As soon as a shot was done and they were waiting for the next set-up, anyone who weren't involved in gossiping would wander off to explore. Even in tunnels that had been well mapped, wandering was a dangerous enterprise, and both Kolya and Rodney were busy all day, keeping track of the actors and rescuing them from potential peril. Kolya used his intimidating scowl while Rodney lectured, yet still the actors thought they were children in a zoo, free to run around.
He should have demanded double contract prices, Rodney realized before the day was half-done, because they were running his nerves ragged. He rolled his lucky piece in his pocket, wishing that he was herding dust bunnies instead.
They came across two traps, and Rodney cleared both, stretching out with his senses, finding the trigger, gently coaxing it to open so the energy could dissipate. He could feel a wild grin across his face the first time. Like his genius, he'd been born with the raw ability, to find the center of the trap, to ease it open, to drain off the energy so it wouldn't cause harm to anyone. He'd spent years honing his ability, and kept up with regular practice with artifacts at Cowen's, but using his skill in the catacombs was more meaningful. Only one ghost floated into the area, and as the actors and crew flinched back, Kolya swiftly de-rezzed it with another ghost. Many hunters would have made a flashy display, but Kolya was fast and effective.
John had turned the dissonant energy blue, which even John had seemed to regard as odd, though Rodney had heard numerous rumors of ghost hunters working in colors other than green, their psi-abilities pulling from different areas of the spectrum. Though ghost hunters were often showy at demonstrating their skills, they were notoriously private people, an attitude encouraged by the ghost hunters' guild in each city, which liked to ensure that hunters were regarded with awe and paid well. If the guild had done any research on hunters who worked in different colors, they'd kept the results confidential. It would be interesting to know if blue energy made John stronger than a normal ghost hunter. Who would win in a fight, John or Kolya?
Second unit wrapped up before first unit, returning to the main cavern. One of the best benefits of movie making was the catering, Rodney decided, loading a plate for dinner. "Where's the filming?" he asked a harried-looking man.
"Small cavern, there," was the absent reply, followed by an appropriate directional gesture.
Rodney followed the finger to a cavern, standing by one of the technical crew, craning his head over the cameras and lights to see John and the beautiful woman playing his character's lover. She was darker-skinned than John, with shining, straight brown hair, wearing a leather halter top, skirt, and boots. Rodney was sure that the costume designer had taken some liberties with her outfit, which looked more cavegirl than early Harmonic fashion. Female ghost hunters were rare, and tended to dress like their male counterparts in more practical clothes with less exposed skin. The two lovers were embracing, talking too softly for Rodney to hear, though presumably the microphones were picking it up. John made a last statement and they separated, her looking forlorn, him noble, as he headed for a tunnel opening on one side of the cavern, and – "John! Don't!" Rodney yelled.
There were groans as Elizabeth yelled, "Cut!" Rodney found himself the recipient of several murderous glares, but he didn't care, shoving through the onlookers, handing his plate to someone. "There's a trap in the opening," he told John, who had halted, almost in mid-step.
"It was sprung," John said, regret in his tone. "Sam cleared this cavern."
"Your enthusiasm is appreciated, but unnecessary," Sam added, coming forward from behind a camera, still smiling, but in a forced manner.
If there was anything Rodney hated with a deep and abiding passion, it was being wrong. He'd been wrong in so many people's eyes since the failure of the expedition. But he knew a trap when he saw it, the sense of injustice adding an edge to his voice as he snarled, "You cleared the area, did you blondie? Check again." He pointed to the opening.
"I don't need to check, McKay. It's cleared," she snapped, not quite so bright and bubbly when her inadequate professional abilities were questioned.
"It is not clear." He stormed past John to the opening, and concentrated on the deadly alien energy. It was easy to reach out to the doorway, to detangle the trap, emptying it of its power, ready to be reset, but no longer a danger. He heard a few gasps from the crowd as the true black of the trap faded to a softer gray infused with the alien green light of the catacombs, a regular shadow. Turning triumphantly, he saw the dumbfounded expression on Carter's face. "It was not clear," he repeated viciously. "But it is now."
"That's enough for the day," Weir announced. "Everyone out. We'll see you tomorrow bright and early." People began to mill out of the cavern, their voices a babble of noise as they talked excitedly about the discovery of the trap.
Rodney felt exhausted, drained by the long day, releasing the traps, the fear of knowing someone had tried to kill John again, and could have succeeded if the second unit hadn't finished early. Or at least destroyed his mind like Aiden's. He took the few steps to stand by John, who was obviously tense.
Elizabeth stepped close to them. "We need to talk."
"What happened?" Elizabeth asked Sam, after the others had left, only John, Rodney, and Ronon Dex having stayed. Someone had shoved Rodney's plate back at him, which he'd gratefully taken.
To her credit, Sam appeared upset. "I checked this cavern thoroughly and cleared the traps."
"She did," Dex rumbled. "I went through that opening."
"So someone reset it," Weir deduced, and her gaze lit on Rodney.
"I didn't reset it!" Rodney yelped, waving his fork. "I was with second unit!" He felt John's hand curve over his shoulder in support.
The harried-looking man scurried in. "Director Weir, I hear there was a problem?"
"Radek, did you see Rodney return with second unit?"
Radek pushed his glasses up further on his nose. "Yes, second unit all returned together. Rodney got food from catering and walked toward this cavern." He glanced at his amber watch. "Just a few minutes before everyone left here."
"There's another tangler in the crew," John said. "Someone who's trying to sabotage the production."
"It's not just a tangler," Rodney snapped, craning his head back to glare at John. "It's a tangler and a ghost hunter. Or do you think the ghost in the bedroom was an accident?" Perhaps he shouldn't have announced that fact, Rodney realized belatedly, as John rolled his eyes at him and he turned his head again to see everyone giving them inquisitive stares.
"In the bedroom?" Weir asked delicately, but deliberately.
"There was a ghost," John admitted. "Above the bed. It woke us up. The first night I met Rodney."
"You de-rezzed it," Dex said, neither an accusation or question, more confirmation of what he'd already guessed.
"Kolya," Rodney spat, because who else could it be? It couldn't be coincidence that trouble happened whenever the man was in the catacombs.
"Did I hear my name?" Kolya asked, strolling into the cavern. "I understand there's been some problem with an illusion trap."
Rodney faced Kolya squarely, wishing he had something more useful or threatening than a plate in his hands. "And with a ghost. Why are you trying to kill John? Is that how you get your kicks, destroying people?"
"You always did get a little excitable, Doctor McKay. Why would I want to kill Sheppard? If he died, the production would shut down and I'd lose my job."
Weir's voice cut through Rodney's response. "Is there a history I should know about, gentlemen?"
"Rodney," John said softly into Rodney's ear, both of his hands now on Rodney's shoulders. "Calm down. Accusing him isn't accomplishing anything."
For such a skinny man, John's body was warm and comforting, and Rodney leaned back into him, trembling, as he listened to Carter swiftly outline his failed expedition for Weir. Carter kept to the highlights, and didn't distort any information, but Rodney still found the situation humiliating. Weir absorbed the details, then with a glance at all of them, said, "I don't think we should rush to assume it's someone on the crew. We did have several visitors today. I'll talk to the studio about increasing security." With a nod, she added, "We're all tired. We'll pick up in the morning."
"Rodney…" John said as they reached the door of Rodney's apartment. "Can we be quiet now?"
"I'm sorry, have I been talking too much about the fact that someone is trying to kill you?" Rodney slammed the key in the lock and opened the door. Canada leaped from the floor, onto Rodney's legs, using all six of her paws to climb up his body and nuzzle at his face. "Are you hungry?" Rodney crooned. "You were scared by the big nasty ghost, weren't you? The big nasty ghost that tried to kill John."
John sprawled in a chair, legs outstretched, watching as Rodney fed the dust bunny. "I thought the ghost was trying to kill you. If it was even deliberately created."
"Of course it was deliberately created. You're being willfully dense. Ghosts don't become that large outside of the catacombs. And why would anyone want to kill me?"
"It was in your apartment. And it's not like there's a lot of reason for anyone to kill me. Everyone loves me," he added with a strange bitterness.
"Yes, they do." Rodney agreed, trying to understand John's apparent unhappiness. "Don't you want them to?"
"They don't even know me, Rodney."
Rodney hesitated, not sure what to say. He stood by John, tangling his fingers in John's. "You're a hero. Well, you're not, you play heroic figures, but you get the point. People see you as a hero."
John laughed, a weird honking noise. "Yeah, I get the point." He squeezed Rodney's fingers. "You were the hero today." He surged out of the chair, cupping Rodney's cheek with this free hand. "My hero," he said, covering Rodney's lips with his own.
The next morning, the main cavern was a noisy place again, people getting ready for the day's filming, when Elizabeth strode in, and leaped nimbly on top of a large hunk of quartz, turning her headset to system-wide. "I'd like everyone's attention, please." Everyone stopped talking, though Rodney and a few others at the catering booth kept filling their plates. Second unit would be leaving soon, and he intended to have a substantial breakfast first.
"This is a momentous project for all of us, the first film made in the catacombs, the first dealing with one of the major historical events on Harmony. It's an exciting project, and I know you are all committed to its success.
"As you may have heard, a dangerous situation was averted yesterday, and we'll be taking measures to ensure it doesn't happen again. Everyone will be issued badges and only those officially on the company's payroll will be allowed to enter the catacombs. You may not have visitors to the set." There was a quiet groan at that announcement and mutterings about disappointed family and friends. Rodney's only sister lived in Crystal City, and he hadn't talked to her in ages, so the news didn't bother him. At least someone was taking the threat to John's sanity and life seriously, even if John still seemed to be in denial. Not that Elizabeth's measures were foolproof; there were many hidden entrances to the catacombs.
"We also will be hiring more hunters and tanglers, who will be patrolling the tunnels around the filming areas. In the meantime, if you see anyone without a badge, please let the regular security know. Please talk to Radek or me if you have any questions, or if you've seen anything that you think we should know. Thank you."
Radek offered her a hand, helping her down from the hunk of quartz, and conversation resumed. With his plate balanced on one hand, Rodney grabbed a few pieces of fruit with his free hand, stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket.
"Hey," John said behind him, and Rodney jumped, almost upsetting his breakfast. "Sorry," John said regretfully, snagging one of Rodney's pieces of bacon and crunching down, jerking his head so Rodney would follow him a few feet away from the others. "I've checked out the people on second unit. Kolya's the only hunter and none are tanglers."
"Were you making sure I was safe? What part of someone is trying to kill *you* did you not get?"
"I don't think the ghost was aimed at me. No one followed us from the restaurant. No one knew I was there."
"You know this why? Because you're so accustomed to being followed you always know when you are? Bad people don't advertise when they're stalking someone!"
"Shhh. I'm going to see if I can find the tangler. Stay safe today."
With that, John left Rodney, weaving through the cavern, apparently trying to be in close contact with everyone. Rodney sighed, and forking down his breakfast as he walked, went to find second unit.
~~~ Break 1
Several days of working on a movie set convinced Rodney that anyone who wanted this job full-time was insane. If they hadn't been in the catacombs, he'd have been bored to tears. Since they were, he could spend part of his time poking around, searching for any missed artifacts, often under the guise of herding the actors back to safety. But mostly they all reached a point late in the day where they stood around, waiting for the technical people to finish the next set-up so that one minute of people running or guns firing or a ghost marker could be captured on film. Woo hoo.
Sunday morning, Rodney woke to the sound of John puttering in the kitchen. He groped around, searching for Canada to give her the obligatory morning pat, but she wasn't cuddled up to him or anywhere in the bed. Yawning, he got up and stumbled into the kitchen, where John was making breakfast. Despite the early hour and brightness of the day, he was dressed in his normal black and appeared disgustingly alert. Canada sat at his feet, her blue eyes gleaming hopefully through the puffy fur.
"Good morning," John said, dropping a kiss on Rodney's lips before he could protest that he still had morning breath. "You're just in time," he added, dishing up two platefuls of food.
Getting fed regularly without having to cook it himself was the best part of movie making. Rodney sat down and dug in, happy that the catering was continuing on their one day off. John poured them coffee, sitting down opposite him.
"Are you living here?" Rodney asked, frowning as he realized John had slept there every night.
"They rented a hotel room for me. I could go back there if you want."
"No! No, here is good. But don't you have a home somewhere?"
"I've bought a couple of houses. They're rented out as investments."
"You have investments?"
"I make a lot of money, Rodney."
"Yes, but I thought – aren't you rez-stars supposed to blow it all? Wild parties, high living?"
"I've never been much for wild parties. I like this," John said. "Breakfast with you. It's nice."
"Yes," Rodney agreed, smiling, feeling very pleased. He liked being with John too, and they hadn't been able to spend much time together during the week. Both of them were typically exhausted by the time they stumbled out of the catacombs and walked back to Rodney's apartment to collapse. The majority of their conversations occurred in the morning on the way to work, which was only a few blocks.
"Do you have anything you have to do today?"
The question made Rodney grimace. "I need to visit Aiden."
"The guy from your expedition?" At Rodney's nod, John added, "One of my first movies, a stunt guy almost got killed. The stunt coordinator didn’t work for years. That's kinda like what happened to you, right?"
Rodney poked at his food, appetite deserting him. "Yes," he said bitterly. "That's pretty much it. Archaeological expeditions are expensive to mount, particularly since we have to go deeper and deeper in the catacombs, away from the city. It's complicated and time-consuming to get all of the permits, personnel and supplies together. We'd only been gone three days when Aiden's accident happened and we had to return. It was a colossal waste of the university's time and money, and I was fired. Daniel – Daniel Jackson, the head of the university's para-archaeology department – has let me assist on articles, so I'm steadily gaining back my credibility." He had to pause, to struggle against the desire to scream in frustration. Canada must have felt his upset, for she flowed into his arms, clinging to his chest, her fuzzy head rubbing on his chin. "I never should have lost it in the first place! If Aiden – " he sighed, suddenly weary. "So there, that's why my career in ruins."
"I'd like to go with you, if that's okay. To meet Aiden."
"He's not the best companion," Rodney felt compelled to warn. He didn't even want to go visit Aiden, driven by the hope that he would recover as much as obligation.
"I'd still like to meet him."
Rodney nodded, smiling at the thought that John wanted to spend their day off with him.
Thankfully, Aiden was in one of his better moods. He seemed happy to meet John, and even understood that he was an actor. "You were there," he said, petting the rez-screen, "when the Curtain fell."
"Yes, when the earthquakes happened," Rodney agreed, giving John a good eye roll.
"Ye need to work on your accent, laddie," Carson said from the doorway, before stepping into Aiden's bedroom. "Carson Beckett, Aidan's doctor." He held out his hand, and John shook it.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. You descended from the Scottish?"
"Aye, my relatives on the colony ships all came from Scotland." Carson dropped the accent, sounding his normal self. "We keep the accent to use when we're all together. A bit of Earth. You did your accent decently, but you needed a wee bit more brogue."
"You played a Scot?" Rodney asked in astonishment.
"Yeah, in The Highlander. That was a fun film to do. My knees got cold though."
Rodney wasn’t all that interested his ancestral past, but the mental picture of John in a kilt was quite appealing. He had good legs, thin, well-muscled, attractively hairy, even if his knees were a bit knobbly. "Obviously the McKays were from Scotland too, though we prefer to speak intelligibly."
Carson snorted at the dig. The two had met years ago, when Carson was a medic and Rodney the junior archaeologist on an expedition into the catacombs. Rodney had loved every moment, but Carson found the catacombs nerve-wracking, and established a practice dealing with unusual ailments, especially those related to psi-abilities or exposure to trap or ghost energy.
"They brought me a hat." Aiden showed Carson the cap with the logo of John's last movie on it.
"It's lovely," Carson said gently.
Aiden turned back to John, asking him excitedly about movies, allowing Rodney to draw Carson aside. "He seems better. Is he getting better?"
"I've been working on an experimental therapy with him, using meditation and amber to help him focus."
"Meditation sounds like something one of those absurd Greenie cultists would do."
"Meditation is an ancient technique and it seems to be helping him. I do know what I'm doing, Rodney. His mind is what was harmed. His mind is what we need to fix."
"You can't go in and – "
"No, Rodney. You know even Earth medicine was still struggling with problems of the mind, and we’ve had to start at square one as our own psi-abilities developed. We'd have no idea what to do if we cut his brain open. We’ll keep working with meditation and amber."
Though Rodney respected that Carson knew as much as any doctor, he sighed, frustrated. He watched Aiden talk with John, and acknowledged that he did seem to be getting better. He was calmer, happier, very child-like, which was certainly better than the visits when he ranted and raged. Aiden needed to completely recover if Rodney’s career was to have a chance of resurrecting.
"His sister's been a big help too. She's been visiting most evenings and she helps do meditations with him."
"His sister? I didn't know he had a sister."
"Adopted sister, I understand. Lovely girl. I'm thinking of asking her out."
"Really? Isn't that some sort of violation of doctor-patient confidentiality?"
"She's not my patient, Rodney."
"Oh. Well, have fun with that." Rodney wished Carson success, but his attention was focused on watching John, the sting of his disgrace eased by his current reality.
"Let's go to the park," John suggested as they got into his car.
"The park? Why?"
"Fresh air? Sunshine? No green quartz?"
"Yes, those are good reasons not to go." Rodney couldn't remember the last time he’d willingly gone to the park, but he guessed it was one of those dreadful academic parties in the university gardens where everyone was supposed to bond and be social. Not everything about being kicked out of academia had been a disaster.
"Come on." John kissed him on the cheek. "For me?"
What am I going to do when the movie finishes filming, Rodney thought forlornly. He wasn't sure how he'd ended up living with a celebrity, but in a few weeks, John would head to the next set, or wherever he went on breaks, and Rodney would again be a disgraced academic scratching out a return to professional respectability, mostly through Daniel's kindness, with only a dust bunny for company. "Yes, okay." Maybe a couple of hours surrounded by nature would illustrate that the two of them were never suited to be together anyway.
The park was surprisingly enjoyable. John pulled a blanket from the trunk, spreading it over the grass in a shady area, and Rodney settled down on his stomach to read the latest issue of the Journal. John napped for a bit, then wandered off to play a game of catch with some kids, wearing sunglasses and the cap Rodney had bought for Aiden. The disguise was silly, but oddly effective. People didn't recognize John without the wild hair.
John was panting when he returned to the blanket and flopped down. "That was great. I never get to run enough during filming."
"You run? Willingly?" The park and exercise – truly, did he and John have anything in common except really good sex and an affection for dust bunnies?
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said. "You called?"
Rodney squinted up at the director. She was dressed in the same kind of outfit she wore on the set, a slim dark pantsuit with an amber top, amber earrings and a matching necklace. "No," he said.
"Thanks for coming." John leaped up. "Have some of the blanket."
As Elizabeth sat gracefully down, curling her legs under her, Rodney asked, "You called her?"
"We need to talk about what happened on the set."
"I'm listening," she said.
"I can tell what psi-ability people have, and how strong they are. I know when someone is a hunter or a tangler."
Elizabeth looked quietly skeptical. "I didn’t know anyone could do that."
"It's not a documented ability, but I can do it. I've always just known." John pulled off the cap, ruffling his hair back to its normal disorder. "I got a list of people on the crew from Radek, and I've gone through everyone this week, been close enough to them to tell if they're hiding abilities. None of them are."
"So you think it was a visitor to the set."
"The only two tanglers officially on the set that day were Carter and Rodney. Rodney was off with second unit when the trap was reset, which means either it was Carter – "
“Aha! I knew that! Miss So Perfect. She was probably trying to frame me,” Rodney burst out. Undoubtedly she was concerned about his possible future success and was trying to ensure he'd never return to academia by creating another tangler disaster. "Ow!" he added, as John smacked him lightly on the head. "What was that for?"
"So yeah, I'm sure it was a visitor to the set, or someone who slipped in. But I don't know who would benefit from shutting down the production."
"Or who would benefit from killing you," Rodney added pointedly, glaring at John, both for being oblivious and smacking him. And he was still considering Carter a likely suspect, no matter what John thought. Maybe she was secretly in love with John and insanely jealous that he was involved with Rodney.
"Look, I've got people who don't like me. I'm not on good terms with my family. But none of them have any reasons to go to extraordinary lengths to try to fry my brain."
"There's no real reason for anyone to shut down production either. The movie business is relatively new here on Harmony. Most of us are busy recreating what we know was common on Earth, and the demand for movies is high," Elizabeth said, with a considering expression on her face. "What about a rival actor?"
"What, someone like Cam?"
"Or Lorne. You must have been offered roles either one of them would like to have."
"Yes, or some delusional idiot who thinks he's good enough to replace John, even though he isn't. Actors certainly seem to have healthy egos," Rodney offered, perplexed when the corner of John’s mouth twitched. The subject was hardly amusing.
"He's right," Elizabeth said. "The person may not be an obvious candidate to us."
A large blue ball came bouncing toward them, slowly rolling to a stop by the blanket. John picked it up as a boy ran up to grab it. John tossed the ball to him, and he caught it. "Thank you – " The boy stared at John. "John Sheppard! Mom!" Twisting to look at his mother, he yelled loudly, "Mom! It's John Sheppard!"
"Let's go." John and Elizabeth both sprang to their feet. Rodney barely managed to stand up before John was yanking the blanket out from under him, tossing it over his shoulder. The reason for John's rushing was unclear until several women screamed, and he remembered the horde that had chased John the first day they met. The cries of "John! John!" soon filled the air, as John grabbed Rodney by the arm, dragging him toward the car.
Rodney spared one glance back as they ran, astonished to see the crowd of people who had been peacefully playing in the park all running after them.
Rodney had thought that a ghost hovering over his bed was scary, but that was nothing compared to John Sheppard driving while being chased by several cars filled with people trying to take rez-pictures of them. Like all cities on Harmony, Cadence had grown around the aboveground remains of the catacombs, so the streets tended to be twisty and rambling. They weren't designed to be a racetrack, but John treated them like one, driving the Raptor much faster than the law allowed, skimming around corners, and dodging around the slower cars. Rodney curled his hands around his seatbelt, closed his eyes, and tried not to scream.
He was on the verge of hyperventilating when the car finally slowed to a stop. He felt John's hand rub his shoulder. "Hands on the wheel," he yelped, opening his eyes to see that they were at a stop light.
"I think we lost them." The warmth of John's hand disappeared. "You okay?"
"You could have killed us!"
"I've taken lessons in stunt driving."
"Ha! But they don't actually let you do it, do they? Someone else does the driving and then you sit in the car for a close-up." Rodney had learned a lot about movie making and how patched together different events could appear.
The phone rang, and John pulled it out of his jacket, answering it rather than responding to Rodney. "John. Oh hi, you away okay? Yeah. That sounds good. There's a good place close to Rodney's. They're discreet." He rattled off an address that Rodney recognized as Chuck's, even as the light turned green and John started the car rolling again. "Yeah, see you there." He snapped the phone shut, returning it to his pocket. "Elizabeth suggests dinner together. She's inviting Cam and Vala and a few others too. They've been pushing filming so fast, she thought it would be good if we socialized a bit."
"They've been pushing filming so fast?" Rodney asked in amazement. How could they be filming quickly when they spent so many hours fussing with lights?
"Yeah, this is one of the fastest films I've made. Our time in the catacombs is limited. Elizabeth thought it might help if we spent some time together, get a feel for each other."
"So she does think it’s a rival actor trying to kill you? Because eating together then would make such sense."
John's mouth quirked at the sarcasm. "It's just an idea, Rodney. We have to eat anyway. You want to invite anyone?"
The suggestion threw Rodney for a moment. He hadn't socialized with anyone lately. Cowen and Cadman sprang first to his mind, but he dismissed them, not even having their home phone numbers. "I could call Daniel and Carson," he offered. Carson had seemed to like John, and he could use a chance to pump Daniel about activities at the university.
Thankfully, Chuck reacted much more rationally than the people in the park when John and Rodney arrived at the restaurant and asked to take over a section for a gathering of movie stars and film people. He escorted them to the backroom, returning swiftly with bread, and taking their drink orders. Cameron Mitchell, who played Vincent Lee Vance, the notorious ghost hunter who'd tried to take control of Harmony, arrived at the same time as Elizabeth and her assistant director Radek Z-something or other. They were followed quickly by Teyla Emmagan, who was starring as John's character's lover. Rodney almost didn’t recognize her in a demure blue dress, so different from her leathers. Then the screenwriter, the fussy Richard Woolsey, and Evan Lorne with a man he introduced as Doctor Dave Parrish, a scientist and his partner in a Covenant Marriage. Rodney was extremely disappointed when Dave clarified that he was a botanist, which was not a real science in his opinion. Plants were not commonly found in the catacombs. Ronon Dex appeared silently, getting seated before anyone had a chance to say hello, while Vala Mal Doran, playing Cameron's character's lover, struck an extravagant pose in the doorway and waited to be noticed. Sam came in last, offering apologies and lamenting the lack of good parking in the Old Quarter.
Conversation was lively because if actors were good at anything other than acting, it was telling stories. Any of them could give Cowen a run for his money. To his surprise, Rodney found himself listening a lot, even if much of the subject matter wouldn't normally interest him. Their lifestyle was so extreme, so different from his own, that it was oddly fascinating. Vala, in particular, was captivating and humorous. It felt good to be among the rich and famous, to be accepted as one of them.
Cadman would be wildly jealous, he was sure, and he mentally memorized a few stories for future retelling to her. Perhaps by doling them out, he could motivate her to be more cooperative. It was too bad that Carson and Daniel couldn't come; he thought they would have enjoyed themselves.
Unlike the others, John was mostly quiet. He was attentive, and answered questions when directed to him, but didn't say much otherwise.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked, leaning toward him.
"Yeah. Just…" He shrugged with a smile, as if that was a comprehensive answer.
Rodney studied him, but John gave no clue that anything was wrong.
"Rodney has a dust bunny," John said, making Rodney jerk his head to look at Evan, who had apparently been saying something relevant to animals.
"They say that they don't make good pets," Evan said, giving Rodney a quizzical look. "That by the time you see their hunting eyes, it's too late."
"Canada is a wonderful animal. She is the best pet possible and she adores me. She would never hurt anyone."
"I've always wanted a dust bunny. How did you end up with her?" Vala asked.
"She adopted me. Dust bunnies are very selective."
Elizabeth tapped her fingers on the table. "Do you think she'd film well?"
"I guess?" Rodney looked at John, seeking his input.
"She's pretty independent," John said. "I don't know how she'd react to being on a film set or doing actions on command."
"But she's smart enough to follow signals?"
John nodded. "Yeah, but it would be her willingness to obey more than her intelligence that would be a problem."
"Wait. You want to put my dust bunny in your movie?"
"No one has ever included a dust bunny in a major film. Every documentary shots are rare. It would be worth trying," Elizabeth explained.
"I presume this means you want me to write a scene?" Richard complained, but he was already scribbling on a napkin.
Vala clapped her hands together. "I think my character should have the dust bunny as a pet. After all, she's the least well-known, so it would be more historically valid."
"Dust bunnies hadn't even revealed themselves to the human population until the last decade or so," Woolsey contradicted her. "Nothing about a dust bunny in the movie will be historically valid."
"You don't know that," Vala insisted. "Perhaps she did have one. Her life is still mysterious."
"Stunt bunny casting!" Cameron crowed, amused, and Teyla suggested that perhaps her character should own the dust bunny. Even though he was pretty sure that Teyla was more interested in teasing Vala than acting with Canada, Rodney took vocal exception to the thought of anyone owning a dust bunny. Canada would never be a possession.
Rodney felt oddly embarrassed by his apartment. This wasn't where he should be living, not if his life had gone right. He'd have a swanky apartment in the New Quarter, instead of a hidey-hole in the Old Quarter. To cover his nervousness, he spoke louder and faster, offering wine and running around the front room, tossing scattered items into the closet, relieved that only Cameron, Vala, Richard, and Elizabeth had followed them.
"This is much nicer than hotels. Not so sterile," Cameron noted, flinging himself into a chair. "You lucked out," he directed at Sheppard.
"Thanks," John said, squatting in the middle of the living room, offering one hand toward the direction of the bedroom. Both sets of Canada's eyes gleamed from the doorway, as she surveyed the newcomers to her domain. She must have decided they were acceptable, because she was fully puffed when she left the bedroom, drifting across the floor to John's outstretched hand, nuzzling his fingers.
"Oh, she's adorable!" Vala tucked her legs under her, sitting on the floor, her black skirt billowing around her. "Will she come to me?"
"If she likes you," Rodney answered, dropping a handful of items behind a chair, as the closet was too full to risk opening the door again. They weren't hidden but at least the room was less obviously cluttered.
"Is there anyone she doesn't like?" Vala asked, waving her fingers toward Canada.
"She didn't like Daniel," Rodney answered. "She hissed at him. But she often doesn't even appear around other people." That had been the last time Rodney had invited Daniel to his apartment, not willing to risk finding out if Canada would follow the hiss with her teeth or claws. Since then, Daniel swung by Cowen's when he had an article for Rodney to review.
"Have you ever tried to take a picture of her?" Elizabeth asked, studying the bunny with that expression she frequently wore before a scene started.
"Just that one." Rodney nodded to the end table, toward a picture of him with Canada perched on his shoulder. She'd come to the museum one day, and a tourist had taken the picture of the two of them, surprising Rodney by mailing a copy to him later on.
Elizabeth picked up the frame. "She does look photogenic."
"What will she do?" Richard asked.
"Do? What do you mean, what does she do? She's a dust bunny. She does dust bunny things."
"She's a lot like cats supposedly were. She can leap onto things. She can scratch you. She makes different noises, sorta chirpy." John stroked his hand along her back, trying to make her hair slick down. "She's puffy when she's happy, but her fur gets flat when she senses danger."
"Can you make her do those things?"
"She is not a trained animal," Rodney grumbled, but John snapped his fingers encouragingly, getting her to jump onto the couch, and then walk along the back, demonstrating her agility. He lifted a front paw, pushing on one to show her claws. Everyone studied her with fascination, and the attention made her so happy, she stayed resolutely puffy, refusing to demonstrate the flexible nature of her fur or her second pair of hunting eyes.
Elizabeth and Richard talked in low voices of where she might fit in the script, while Cameron seemed content to stretch his legs and relax in the arm chair. Vala laid on the floor and giggled as Canada walked over her. Rodney appreciated the view as her short skirt rode up even higher on her thighs, pleased that John didn't even seem to notice.
Vala, Cameron and Elizabeth all hugged Rodney as they left, though Rodney noted that neither John nor Richard managed to not get involved in the demonstration of affection. Richard simply wasn't a hugger and John was just somehow… not available. Shutting and locking the door after them, Rodney turned around to face John, who had Canada in his arms, and was stroking the dust bunny's fluffy curls. "Do you think that she'll be okay? On the set? I've never tried to take her anywhere," he fussed. Canada had been his best friend, a unique animal. The thought of sharing her with the world was a bit disconcerting.
"It's a small scene. If it doesn't work, it'll be dropped."
"What Cameron said - is that why you're here? It's not as sterile as a hotel?"
"I'm here because I like being here." John licked his lips. "You like having me here, right?"
"Of course I do. You're – " Rodney waved his hands up and down. "You."
"Cool. We're got an early start tomorrow." He let Canada drop from his arms, grabbed Rodney's hand, and tugged him toward the bedroom. Rodney followed willingly.
For the umpteenth time, Rodney had to wonder whether anyone truly enjoyed making movies for a living, or just tried it out and got caught by the apparent glamour. The days were incredibly long and boring. Archaeological expeditions could be tedious too, days spent in the catacombs, walking for miles, untangling traps and avoiding ghosts, but at least the possibility of an exciting discovery was always motivational. Was the prestige of walking a red carpet at a film premiere worth hours watching the tech crew do incomprehensible tasks and repeating the same lines over and over?
Movies did have the advantage of better food. Expeditions had to carry everything with them, but catering brought new food into the catacombs daily. Rodney's stomach rumbled, reminding him that dinner was several hours overdue. Trudging through the tunnel, he wondering what catering would be serving tonight.
"I understand that your dust bunny is coming to the set soon," Kolya said, walking by his side.
"Um? Oh yes. Day after tomorrow. Woolsey wrote a scene for her. John's character is going to encounter her." Vala's bid had lost to Elizabeth's practicality of assuming that Canada would work best with the actor she knew.
"I presume you'll switch to the first unit."
"Yes, Sam will be on second unit. I'm needed to make sure Canada follows commands."
"Then it's time to do this." Kolya grabbed Rodney's arm, twisting it behind his back, forcing him to his knees. Rodney yelled in pain and surprise, struggling as he felt his amber bracelet ripped from his wrist. He brought his free hand up to touch his headset, but that was ripped from his ear before he could call for help.
"What are you doing?"
Kolya leaned over, his lips next to Rodney's ear. "You were right not to trust me."
Rodney craned his head back to see Kolya smiling sadistically. "What are you doing?" He looked down the corridor, realizing that in his carelessness, they had become separated from the others. "Help!" he yelled.
"They're too far ahead. They won't hear you." A flicker of ghost energy appeared before Rodney, who whimpered at the sight. Then another appeared, blending in with the first. Rodney struggled frantically, trying to stand, but Kolya's grip was strong, and he had the advantage of position and weight.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I'm only sorry I didn't get to do this last time. You're a very annoying person, Doctor McKay. You'll be much more satisfying to destroy than Aiden."
Rodney glared at him. "It was you! You fried Aiden's brains! It wasn't an accident."
Kolya smiled at the accusation. "It's quite easy to push a man into a trap, particularly a naïve young man like Ford."
"You – you – "
"Don't bother threatening me. You won't remember a thing after tonight. You won't even know how to tie your shoelaces."
In desperation, Rodney rocked back and forth, seeking to escape, watching in fascination as more ghost energy flickers joined the first, an enormous green ghost forming in front of him. A ghost that size would completely destroy his brain, if not kill him outright. If he did survive, Aiden would be a paragon of health in comparison.
Then Kolya gave a "yow," his grip relaxing. Rodney threw himself back, away from the ghost, scrambling to his hands and knees, getting his feet under him, and running down the tunnel. "McKay! You can't escape!" Kolya yelled, and Rodney glanced behind him to see the ghost floating after him. But ghosts were slow, and Rodney could outrun it. A little chirp made him look down to see Canada running beside him, fur slicked down, both pairs of eyes showing. Her six sets of claws must have been the distraction that made Kolya release him.
"Give up, McKay! You have no amber!" was the last words Rodney heard Kolya yell as he turned a corner, still running, blessing fortune that he had his lucky piece in his pocket. He'd never used it for focusing, but it had to work. It had to, or he was dead.
He lost the ghost after a couple of turnings, and leaned against the wall, panting harshly. Canada flowed up his body and into his arms, fluffing as he hugged her. "The best Canada. You are the best girl," he murmured into her curls. "You get two cookies tonight. Ten. Now, here's hoping this works." He pulled his lucky piece out of his pocket, focusing on it, ecstatic when he felt it resonant. "This way," he said, to Canada, letting her drop out of his arms, and taking a step… east, west, north, south, he didn't know and couldn't tell, trusting the feeling of the amber to lead him toward an exit. Canada chirped at him, and turned the other way. "No, this way." He pointed and took another step. Canada's answering chirp was definitely unhappy, but she followed him.
The amber resonance felt solid and true, but after a while, with Rodney's stomach rumbling, and his mouth dry, he began to wonder if Canada had been right. This area didn't appear to have been explored at all, which didn't bode well for their path leading to an exit. He'd lost track of the number of passageways they'd gone down and the traps he'd untangled. The concentration required for trap work and his hunger were giving him a headache.
He slumped to the ground, burying his head in his hands. Canada batted a front paw at his hand and chirped. He couldn't ignore her, even though he was ready to curl up in a ball and surrender. His hypoglycemia was kicking in, and soon he'd be fuzzy and light-headed. He'd probably fry his own brains for Kolya by walking into a trap or blundering into a ghost. Gathering, his feet under him, he stood up with Canada in his hands, standing still for a moment as she skittered up his arm, settling around his shoulder, and chirping encouragingly into his ear. He walked on, functioning on automatic, worried he was heading deeper into the catacombs.
The pull from the amber was increasing, and finally he undid a trap, and walked into a room, nearly blinded by the glow of amber. He stood, staring stupidly, trying to understand what he was seeing. An object, half-circular, about the height of his chest, made entirely of amber. He stepped into the center, confused more than anything. "The Aliens didn't use amber," he told Canada, who chirped and walked down his body, leaping lightly onto the pieces of amber that ringed the inside. They made a trilling sound as she landed. She appeared delighted and curious, walking along the edge, creating sound with her feet, until she reached one place where there was a gap, a piece of missing amber. She gave him an inquisitive look with her big, blue eyes.
His hand was shaking as Rodney reached out, slipping his lucky amber piece into the gap. It fit perfectly. "It's a piano," he told her, sliding his hands lightly along the amber pieces – the keys. "Or a pianoforte." Simpler than an Earth piano, as best he knew. The Earth musical instruments made of wood hadn't survived on Harmony, though replicas had been made. "I played when I was a kid."
Canada gave another inquisitive chirp.
"I was very good. Technically perfect." He tried a simple melody. The notes were all different, the melodies would have to be rearranged, but it was a working musical instrument. Made by the Aliens. "Do you know what this mean?"
She tilted her head.
Rodney picked her up, swinging her around and around. Her six legs flailed in the air before wrapping around his hands. "I'm famous! I'm famous! I'm famous!" His feet slowed to a stop. "I'm famous. The university will beg for me to be on their staff again. And Kolya was responsible for Aiden. It wasn't an accident. It wasn't my fault. I told them it wasn't. Now I just have to find a way out because there is no way I'm going to die in the catacombs when I can live to be a rich and famous para-archaeologist-physicist." But his lucky amber piece had led him here, to its home. "Can you get me out? Can you find home?"
Canada's chirp was full and throaty.
"Okay, just give me a moment." He grabbed his lucky piece back out of the instrument, and stepped into the corridor, setting the trap again. "Home, Canada. Find home."
The dust bunny took off running, and his energy revived from his discovery, Rodney ran after her. He faltered a few times, having to stop and rest and pant, while Canada rubbed against his legs and made encouraging noises. But her dust bunny instincts were unerringly accurate, and she led him to the entrance closest to main production cavern. Elizabeth was sitting on a chair, studying the script. "Elizabeth. Do you have food?"
"Rodney!" She dropped the script and hugged him. "You're okay!"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." And about to be incredibly famous, but he didn't say that. No one could know about the instrument until he'd managed to retrieve it. Thieves and vulture colleagues could scent the slightest hint of a major Alien find. "Food? Do you have food?"
"I – no. Rodney, you went missing. Everyone is looking for you."
"I hope not everyone. Most of the people on your production couldn't find their way around the city, much less the catacombs. Oh, and if one of them is Kolya, have him arrested, because he tried to have me killed and ha! He admitted to destroying Aiden's brain. I said he couldn't be trusted."
"Rodney, where are you going?" Elizabeth asked as he walked past her, and out of the catacombs.
"Home! I need food." He stopped long enough to throw back, "Arrest Kolya!"
Eating on the movie set had left his refrigerator woefully deficient, but Rodney scarfed through John's leftovers from Chuck's restaurant, drinking several glasses of water with them, then decided the eggs and cheese were viable enough for an omelet. He was sliding it onto a plate when the front door slammed open. "Rodney?"
"John." Raising his voice wasn't necessary with the size of his apartment. John barreled into the kitchen, staring in shock at Rodney.
"We found your amber." He flung Rodney's bracelet on the table. "We thought you were lost in the catacombs."
"Canada led me out." Rodney grabbed a fork from the drawer and began eating, wolfing down the omelet while standing. "Dust bunnies seem to know how to navigate the catacombs. Or at least, she does."
"I'm going to buy her a diamond necklace." Then John was hugging him, his body shaking with fine tremors.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked, concerned.
"Rodney. We found your amber."
"Kolya tried to kill me with a ghost. An enormous ghost. And he admitted that he pushed Aiden into the trap." Eating with his arms around John's shoulders, cutting the omelet with the fork and shoving it into his mouth, was a little difficult, but Rodney persevered, since John didn't seem to want to let go. "I told everyone he wasn't trustworthy."
John made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a hiccupping sob. "We should have listened to you."
"Yes, you should have."
His body finally relaxing, John loosened his grip enough to see Rodney's face. "What else happened?"
Giving him a narrow-eyed look, John said, "Rodney, you were missing for hours. It's the middle of the night, you missed dinner, and Kolya tried to kill you. Something else happened or you'd be down in the catacombs, making us hunt him down."
The academic paranoia that had stilled Rodney's tongue loosened when he remembered that John was a hunter, and he needed a hunter. His run through the catacombs was too risky to repeat. "I made a find. The find of the century. An Alien musical instrument. You have to help me retrieve it. We'll need a transport to carry it. One of those open flat-bed ones that they use for supplies."
"The Aliens didn't play music."
"We've never known that the Aliens played music. But they did, because I, Doctor Rodney McKay, have found the first genuine Alien musical instrument, and it's made of amber. I'll be famous. This is my ticket back to the university. The editor of the Journal will be begging me to write an article."
"Are you through eating?" John asked, looking pointedly at the plate and fork in Rodney's hands, now devoid of omelet.
"I'm hypoglycemic and I was almost killed tonight. I needed to eat."
"But you're done now?"
"Good." John took the plate and fork, set them on the counter, and attacked Rodney's mouth like he was famished for a taste of his lips. He dragged Rodney into the bedroom, reminding him that some things in life were even more amazing than Alien discoveries.
Morning came too early, the result of having stayed up too late. The alarm began shrilling, leaving Rodney feeling like he'd barely slept two hours. Which was probably true, he decided, snuggling up to John, even though the other man was flailing around, fumbling for the alarm. "You're getting up?" he whined, as John sat up, disturbing Rodney's hold on him.
"I've got scenes this morning."
"I almost died yesterday." Surely that deserved a sick day?
"I know. And I want to make sure Elizabeth has talked to the police about Kolya." John rolled out of bed, heading to the shower, and Rodney opened his eyes enough to admire the sight. "They won't be able to run second unit until they get another hunter," he yelled as he started the water running. "You might as well sleep in."
"Okay." Rodney burrowed his face into John's pillow and fell back asleep, breathing the scent of leather, amber, and John's cologne.
"Oh, it's you," Rodney grumbled, his good mood caused by sleeping in late and discovering that John had stopped at Chuck's to have lunch delivered to him, dissipating by the sight of Detective Caldwell outside his door.
"Doctor McKay." Caldwell tipped his hat politely. He wore a gray suit and tie, with white shirt, and amber tie pin, looking almost exactly the same as when he'd given Rodney's last expedition the required police examination, and instantly leaped to the conclusion that the accident was caused by Rodney and Aiden's inexperience and carelessness. "I understand that there was an incident in the catacombs yesterday. I came to hear your version of events."
"My version is that Kolya tried to kill me and admitted that he was the one who fried Aiden. He – "
"Doctor?" Caldwell prompted, as Rodney froze.
"Come in." Rodney stepped back, waving Caldwell in, shutting the door behind him. The enormity of being right all these years was sinking in, almost making Rodney wish he'd been wrong. Kolya had deliberately, callously hurt Aiden. Certainly there had been many times that he'd wanted to slap a colleague upside his moronic head, but how could anyone willfully hurt another person as badly as Aiden had been? "He said he pushed Aiden into a trap," Rodney added quietly.
"Are you all right, Doctor? You look pale."
"Yes, I – " Rodney sat on the couch, and Canada took immediate advantage to leap into his lap, giving Caldwell a little hiss, and kneading Rodney's thighs. "Someone must have hired him to sabotage the expedition."
Caldwell took a seat on the chair. "I understand the world of academic expeditions can be fairly cutthroat."
"True." Rodney nodded. "It's not surprising that someone would try to shut down my expedition. But it's unknown for anyone to take such drastic measures out of professional jealousy. The effects of trap exposure on a person aren't an exact science. Kolya could easily have killed Aiden."
"It seems odd that a ghost hunter would use a trap rather than a ghost."
"A ghost would have pointed to Kolya. He was the only hunter on the expedition."
"But ghosts do form naturally in the catacombs."
"It's easier to mistake a trap for a shadow then walk into a ghost. They're green and they glow," Rodney sneered, irritated that Caldwell was still refusing to accept Kolya's responsibility.
"And Kolya definitely tried to kill you last night?"
Rodney told the story, fumbling a bit as he omitted following the resonance of his lucky amber, having to throw the blame for the lost time on Canada's reliability. He stroked her soft curls in compensation.
"You were very lucky."
"No thanks to the police. If you'd arrested Kolya before – "
"Before there wasn't any reason to assume malicious intent. Did Kolya indicate why he wanted to kill you?"
"Why? What do you mean why? The man is a monster!"
"But apparently a paid monster, Doctor McKay. Such people usually have reasons for their actions, and frankly, you're not a threat to anyone. Did he want to kill you to shut down the movie production?"
"You think I was a convenient target? That any death would do?"
"Given your history with the catacombs, your death would be dramatic, so yes, that's what I'm wondering."
"And you would be wrong again, Detective Caldwell. He specifically said that he was going to destroy me because I was switching to first unit and it was his last chance." The horrific memory from last night, watching the ghost form in front of his eyes, flashed through Rodney's mind, and he shuddered. "He wanted to kill *me.*" He began to struggle to breathe, and pushed Canada out of his lap, hanging his head between his knees, trying to regain control. Had John been right that the ghost in the bedroom was directed at him? He would have died without John. But who reset the trap? Did someone want to harm both him and John?
Caldwell went to the kitchen and brought back a glass of water, sitting it on the coffee table, and Rodney gratefully took a sip. "That still doesn't mean that you weren't just a convenient target."
"Someone reset a trap. John was almost hurt."
"Yes, Elizabeth Weir mentioned that a trap was reset on the first day that you joined the filming."
Rodney stared at Caldwell, but the detective's face remained impassive. The attacks on John and Rodney were only a job to him. "Was there anything you wanted? Because if that's all you need, I have to go to the work."
Caldwell glanced at his watch. "You're a little late for work, but yes, Doctor, that's all I need. If you remember anything else Kolya said, please contact me."
As Rodney escorted Caldwell to the door, he thought with satisfaction that Caldwell's watch wasn't even amber. His talent must be very small. Hopefully his detective skills had improved with time.
Though he wasn't expected in the catacombs today, Rodney felt antsy after Caldwell's departure, and he decided to see what John was doing. With the encouragement of a cookie, Canada followed at his heels. He decided he was going to keep her with him throughout the filming. A living navigational beacon out of the catacombs was invaluable.
Two security guards were now working the entrance, and a new hunter and tangler escorted him to the main production cavern. Canada seemed to vanish, but out of the corner of his eye, Rodney caught glimpses of her following him, her gray fur blending into the shadows. "About time," Rodney sniped as the guard onsite checked him off, before slipping behind the tech crew, who were all watching John and Cameron behave oddly. The two actors yelled at each other and frowned hard, holding one hand out as ghost hunters often did for focusing, while two tech people dressed all in green shuffled back and forth between them. Teyla stood proudly by John, and Vala behind Cameron, clinging to him. Finally, the green people converged on Cameron and Vala, who screamed horribly and collapsed, after which John and Teyla said a few noble lines about Harmony's future.
"And cut!" Elizabeth called. "Everyone take ten."
John said a few words to Teyla, and then beelined for Rodney. "You okay?"
"What are you doing? Who are the green people supposed to be?"
"Stand-ins for the ghosts, so the special effects people know where to put them. They're using people rather than markers because these will be the biggest ghosts in the movie."
Rodney gaped. "Vance wasn't killed by a ghost! He and his wife fled into the catacombs and starved to death. Their corpses were only found recently."
"Starvation isn't a cinematic ending, Rodney."
"You're changing history again? For a movie?"
"People don't watch movies for history lessons. They watch for entertainment."
"Can't you be entertaining without being so spectacularly inaccurate?"
John gave a shaky laugh, leaning his forehead against Rodney's, and cupping the back of his neck. "Don't ever change."
"Change? Why should I? I'm a para-archaeologist and physicist. I believe in discovering the truth."
"You're honest." John said intently, with an emphasis Rodney didn't understand, but Elizabeth interrupted them before he could question the statement.
"Rodney, are you okay?"
"Yes, of course," he answered, resenting her presence.
"Good. The company would like you to have a medical exam soon, just to make sure that there are no lingering effects."
"I'm perfectly capable of determining the state of my own health, better than one of those so-called medical practitioners."
"Still, we hope to wind up filming sooner than expected, and the company wants to make sure that there will be no repercussions to your health."
"Winding up sooner? How much sooner?" Rodney glanced at John to see reluctant confirmation in his eyes. "You're leaving?"
"We don't have a definite date. We weren't sure how many technical problems we'd have filming in the catacombs, but everything's gone smoother than anticipated."
"I'm so glad my almost being killed hasn't put a damper in your filming plans."
"The attack on you and what almost happened to John also have led the company to think it might be wise to leave the catacombs as soon as we can. We do appreciate your services and what you've been through, Rodney." Elizabeth touched him lightly on the shoulder. "You'll receive full pay for the length of your contract, even if we end early."
John's face indicated his unhappiness, but he didn't say anything. They'd be leaving soon, abandoning Rodney with money and memories. And an Alien musical instrument, Rodney reminded himself. Filming finishing early would work out fine. Perfect, in fact. Cowen didn't expect him back immediately, which would give him more time to study the instrument, write a paper, and let his colleagues know the truth about Aiden. "Of course, I expect full payment," he said briskly, "considering the disruption to my life and Kolya's murderous attack. John, can I talk to you?" He grabbed John's arm, dragging him away from everyone else. "I need your help," he hissed. "I need one of the film's transports to get that Alien instrument and I need you to go with me."
"We're going to be filming again soon."
"Not now! I don't want Sam trying to horn in and take credit for this discovery. Tonight, after filming is over."
"Okay," John agreed, suddenly looking tired. But then Elizabeth called for everyone to take their places, and his vigor was magically restored as he and Cameron faced off again in their mock battle to the death, holding their hands out toward each other, scowling as the green people shuffled back and forth.
With Canada following discreetly, Rodney headed off to catering. He was hungry.
Filming lasted even longer than normal, no doubt driven by the need to finish and leave the city. Not that Rodney was bitter about being dumped.
"Are you sure you want to do this now? Shouldn't we wait until the weekend?"
"People were exploring this area! Looking for me! What if someone else found it? It could disappear."
"I thought it was behind a trap," John said, swinging into the driver's seat of one of the flat bed transports, rezzing the engine.
Rodney hopped into the passenger seat, and Canada leaped between them, her back paws on the seat, her front paws on the dash, middle paws tucked up to her body, hidden by her fur, fluffed with happiness. "Sam could still find it, and she's the most dangerous. She'd recognize its uniqueness."
With a sigh, John started driving, first to where the confrontation with Kolya had happened, and then following Rodney's directions, his lucky piece of amber guiding him. The trip went much faster this time, and then Rodney was standing in front of the instrument. "Look at it. Isn't it beautiful? It's the big kahuna."
"What's a big kahuna?" John asked, slouching against the opening to the cavern.
"It's an Earth expression for something very valuable. The kids visiting the museum use it a lot."
"It's pretty," John admitted grudgingly.
"It's beautiful, but its aesthetic appearance isn't its main value. It's unique, completely unknown. Listen." Rodney played his hands over the keys, the delicate sound echoing in the chamber. Canada gave an inquisitive chirp, rubbing against his ankle. "Canada likes the music."
"It does sound nice. Let's get it loaded."
Rodney whipped out his rez-camera, taking numerous pictures to document its location, and then they lifted it onto the transport, John deftly securing it in place with cords. Rodney had to admire his technique, remembering that John had done ghost hunting for expeditions.
The return trip was equally uneventful, though Rodney flinched at every corner, convinced that they would see Kolya blocking their path. The catacombs were dangerous, but would make a good hiding place for a ghost hunter, as long as he kept out of shadows that might hide traps. Rodney's worst fear failed to materialize, and the final difficulty became carrying the instrument up the stairs to Rodney's apartment.
Mission achieved, Rodney collapsed on the couch, so entranced by its beauty that the soreness of his back and muscles failed to penetrate his attention.
John disappeared into the kitchen, returning with glasses of wine, offering one to Rodney as he slumped onto the couch next to him. "So this will give you everything you want."
Not everything. It wouldn't give him John. But then, nothing would. "Everything," he agreed.
"Come on." John poked Rodney in the leg. "Help me take the transport back."
"Can't it wait?"
"The tech people will be looking for it first thing in the morning."
"Can't you take it back without me?"
"I could. But I don't want to."
Rodney sighed, reluctantly following John out of the apartment and down to the street for the short drive to the catacombs, parking the transport at the security station. He yawned as they walked out of the catacombs. The glow from the green walls, the moon, and the light from a nearby bar gave plenty of visibility, but he was too tired to appreciate the pale washes of color and shadow. He hadn't stayed up so late since his first archaeological expeditions as a junior professor. Thank the founders he'd been able to sleep in.
John and Rodney both froze. "Kolya?" John asked, his voice tense.
Kolya walked out of his hiding place in the shadows and into the middle of the street, the moon reflecting off the polished amber on his clothes. "Doctor McKay, it's good to see you. It makes killing both of you so much easier."
John stepped off the sidewalk and into the street. "Why do you want to kill us? Who hired you?"
"You think I'll be like one of those villains in your rez-movies and confess all?"
"It would be convenient."
"I've already made the mistake of telling Doctor McKay too much. I won't do it again. Still, I'd like a curiosity of my own satisfied. How did you avoid my first ghost?"
"You're not the only one with secrets."
"Touché." Kolya smiled mirthlessly. "But you're going to have to reveal yours if you want to survive." As he spoke, he held out his hand, flickers of ghost energy beginning to coalesce in the air.
"There's an old Earth saying, that some truths can't be handled." John placed his hand on his chest, over the flat amber he wore on a chain around his neck, and copied Kolya's action, forming his own ghost, the flickers of green ghost energy becoming blue as they combined and grew.
"I'd heard rumors that one of the Sheppard boys was a freak."
"He is not a freak!" Rodney yelled, his voice rising with fear and worry. "He's an extremely powerful hunter who pulls from a unique area of the para-spectrum! And he's going to fry your brain!"
"You should give it up, Kolya, while you can."
"McKay's faith in you is touching, but I'll take my chances."
Rodney watched the battle in horror. It was so similar and yet so different from John and Cameron's battle, completely real and deadly, the two ghosts floating in the air, crackling with energy. And then Kolya gave a short yell and whirled, facing a smaller blue ghost that had formed behind him.
The sight amazed Rodney. "You can handle two ghosts?" John didn't answer; his concentration was fully focused.
Kolya backed sideways away from the second ghost, keeping his ghost trying to evade John's main ghost and reach John.
John's second ghost fritzed out of existence.
"Overstrained yourself, didn't you Sheppard?" Kolya taunted. "My power is stronger than your parlor tricks." His ghost darted around John's, heading straight for Rodney as John seemed to flounder.
Rodney squeaked, wanting to run, but his legs refused to move. He looked around for some way to help, something to throw at the ghost or Kolya, but the street was lamentably barren of debris. "John!"
"I know, Rodney," John snapped, sweat forming on his temples, his ghost following Kolya's, still trying to merge and de-rez, both of them coming dangerously close to Rodney.
"Your lover's doomed, Sheppard. And then you'll be next."
"At least tell me why!" John yelled, sounding scared and desperate.
"That's too bad. It might have saved your life." John suddenly sounded fine, his voice calm. His ghost moved faster than Rodney had ever seen a ghost move, merging with Kolya's, the entire mass becoming blue before vanishing with a loud crackling sound.
"This isn't the end, Sheppard." Kolya turned to run, walking straight into a third ghost. He screamed, his body shaking as blue ghost energy surrounded him, frying the electrical impulses in his body. The ghost winked out of existence as Kolya collapsed to the ground in a heap. John collapsed too, going down on one knee, breathing heavily, the exertion hitting him.
Two men came out of the bar, one of them yelling, "Hey, what's going on here?" Rodney couldn't see them well, but the bars in the Old Quarter usually attracted tough customers. He had no interest in finding out whose side they would take. "Is that guy okay? What did you do to him?" one called, as they started toward Kolya. Rodney yanked at John's arm, draping it over his shoulder, and started dragging him away.
The noise was deafening in the big cavern used as the main production area when John and Rodney stumbled in the next morning. Everyone appeared to be talking more than working. "We shouldn't be here," John hissed for the umpteenth time. "We should be going to the police."
"It was self-defense," Rodney hissed back, for the first time doubting John's intelligence. The normal testosterone surge hadn't kicked into sexual drive after the fight with Kolya. Instead of crazed sex, Rodney had yanked John's clothes off on his practically unconscious body, and put him to bed, where he slept solidly through the alarm and a vigorous amount of shaking before awakening. Once alert, John seemed determined to get himself locked up, an odd masochistic trait that Rodney didn't understand.
"And they'll believe that."
John was naïve if he didn't fear Caldwell would make some incredibly stupid assumption. "Are you kidding? That idiot? He'll – "
"John, Rodney," Elizabeth said, approaching them. "I'm glad to see you're okay."
John rubbed the side of his face, going from agitated to sheepish in one second, reminding Rodney of his fake-out in the battle last night. "Yeah, sorry. We overslept a bit this morning. I'm sorry if we held up filming."
"That's okay. The police are here asking questions again so we've been delayed starting."
"The police? Why? Did something happen? John and I were together."
"You sound like you have a guilty conscience, Doctor."
Rodney flinched, glaring at Caldwell. For a man with such broad shoulders, he moved quietly. "Of course, I don't have a guilty conscience. Nothing happened, and if it did, John and I were together. We were together since the end of filming yesterday. All last night."
"Yes, security mentioned you checked out a transport."
"Yes, we did. We went exploring. I am a para-archaeologist."
"I would have thought the movie business would be keeping you both fully occupied now." Caldwell gave John a searching look.
"Well, it didn't. We were together. We explored the catacombs, we got tired, we went home and went to bed." John's hand pressed against the small of his back, though whether in warning or comfort, Rodney couldn't tell.
"And then slept in."
"It happens. Do you have any idea how long the hours on a movie set are?"
"Not really, no, but it doesn't matter because nothing happened last night."
"No, it didn't. At least not that I'm aware of," Caldwell said dryly. "Or is there something you want to tell me about?"
"Oh. No, of course not. Nothing happened last night. Why are you here then? Shouldn't you be out investigating?" Where was Kolya's body? Had the guys from the bar dumped it somewhere? Maybe stolen his money and amber?
"Mr. Sheppard, you come from Crystal City, I believe?"
"Yeah," John responded, looking surprised at the change in subject.
"Do you still have connections there?"
"My father. And my brother and his family. I don't see them much."
"And you, Doctor? Do you have any connection to Crystal City?"
"My sister lives there. She could have had a brilliant career in para-archaeology, but gave it up to marry a language teacher and have a kid. Can you believe it? Ridiculous waste of talent."
"It's interesting that the two of you have been Kolya's targets and both have connections to Crystal City. He was born and raised there, and his first jobs were for the Crystal City Hunters' Guild. That was his last regular source of income. After he moved to Cadence, his income must have all been paid in cash."
"If he worked for the Crystal City Guild, I might be able to get you information on him. Friends, which ghost hunters he worked with," John offered.
"And how would you do that, Mr. Sheppard?"
"My father is head of the Crystal City guild, though he's mostly retired now. My brother runs the guild."
"Your father and brother are ghost hunters?"
"But you're not."
"I'm an actor."
Caldwell looked doubtful, but that seemed to be his default expression. "I appreciate the offer, but I can contact them directly and ask."
"Ghost hunter loyalty is very important in my family."
"You think ghost hunter loyalty will matter when your life has been threatened? We have to assume Kolya's attempt on Doctor McKay is linked to the tangler who restored the trap."
John glanced at Elizabeth. "It would only take an overnight trip to visit Crystal City. I just think… I might get a more complete answer than an official investigation."
Elizabeth nodded at the implied question. "We can rearrange filming to give you tomorrow and the day after off. We'll concentrate on Cam and Lorne's scenes."
"Your family has an interesting sense of priorities," Caldwell said drily. "But yes, if you can get any information on Kolya, that would be helpful."
They were walking home before the issue of John's family rose again.
"Would they really not talk to the police because Kolya being a ghost hunter is more important than your life? Are they insane?"
"Your sister doesn't get along with you," John responded tersely, taking the stairs to Rodney's apartment two at a time.
Rodney followed John more slowly up the stairs. "She'd give me any information she had to protect me. She'd hit or twist my ear afterwards, and hold it over my head forever, but she wouldn't not tell something important to the police."
"Dad will probably give me the information. He just has to think about the guild too." John leaned against the wall as Rodney de-rezzed the lock to his apartment. "Would you like to meet them?"
"Meet your family? Why?" Rodney entered the apartment, kicking his shoes off, going to stand by the Alien musical instrument.
"I'm going to Crystal City in the morning," John said, shutting the door behind him. "Since they've hired more tanglers, Elizabeth said you could go too, if you wanted. I thought you might like to see your sister."
"Huh." Rodney fingered the keys, trying to decide what to do, wondering if Elizabeth had volunteered that Rodney could take the time, or if John had asked. The notion of spending more time with John, of perhaps understanding him better, was definitely appealing. The thought of seeing Jeannie was… mixed. Telling John that she would support her brother no matter what had reminded him of better days, when they'd been close, even if their relationship had never been easy. He pictured how she would look, what she would say. She'd probably observe with great glee that his career had been even more completely destroyed than hers had been. If she tired of being a mommy, she'd be happily accepted at any university while he wouldn't. Then she'd punch him in the shoulder and try to feed him something revoltingly healthy.
Still, anything she could say about Rodney's career would be mitigated by bringing a famous boyfriend in tow.
"I talked to Ronon," John said, interrupting the lengthy silence. "He'll come stay here, if you want someone to watch over the instrument."
"You didn't tell him what it was, did you?"
"Of course not. Though he'll probably figure it out."
Rodney fingered a few more keys, trying to create harmonious chords. Playing the instrument relaxed him. John was right; any ghost hunter would recognize an Alien artifact, even such an unusual one. But Ronon seemed trustworthy. "Okay, yes, I'll go with you."
~~~ Break 2
Rodney had never been fond of traveling between the cities, even though the roads were kept well maintained by the central Harmonic government. The jungle was intimidating, with unpredictable mysteries and wild animals. The dangers of the catacombs were preferable, since Rodney knew how to undo traps and ghosts were slow.
At least John's car was fast and in perfect condition, so there was no risk of breaking down, and the trip to Crystal City was accomplished extremely quickly. In a few hours, they were pulling up in front of Jeannie's house.
"Are you sure you want to stop here? We could see your family first. They have the information about Kolya."
"It's fine. We can see Jeannie first." John got out of the car, Rodney reluctantly following, cursing that the driver always had power over selecting the destination. They walked up to the door of the house, which was a nice two-story in a decent neighborhood, indicating the language teacher earned a reasonable living.
The door jerked opened after his ring, and Rodney looked to see… no one.
"Hi," a soft voice said, and Rodney glanced down to see a blonde girl. "Who are you?"
"Madison!" Jeannie shrieked from the interior of the house. "What did I tell you about opening the door to strangers? Oh – Meredith. You're here." Jeannie came to stand behind Madison, wiping her hands on a towel. Motherhood didn't appear to have changed her, blonde hair still long and curly, blue eyes inquisitive, dressed in the kind of casual top and skirt she'd always favored.
"He's not a stranger, mommy. You know him."
"Yes, here I am," Rodney said brightly, ignoring John's mouthing of 'Meredith?' "And this is – "
"Young lady." Jeannie knelt down, giving her daughter a stern glare. "You know you aren't supposed to open the door to strangers."
"But you know him, mommy."
"Hey, that's logical! You know me so I'm not a stranger. She's very young for logic. Not as young as I was, of course, but much younger than most children."
Jeannie straightened up, transferring her glare to him. "Meredith, do not encourage her. You haven't even – John Sheppard!"
"Hi." John gave Jeannie a big smile and offered her his hand. "I'm a friend of Meredith's."
He should have known, Rodney accepted ruefully, while eating cookies, and sipping milk in Jeannie's warm and friendly kitchen, that John was an incorrigible flirt adored by millions, and that his sister would succumb to his charm like all the rest. She'd almost dragged them into the house and to the kitchen, pointing them toward the table while bustling around, serving lunch, thrilled to have a famous celebrity visiting.
"So how did you two meet? Why are you here?"
"We met when Meredith saved me from my fans. He's working as a tangler on the movie we're filming in the catacombs," John answered.
"At least you've got a decent job again," Jeannie said, sitting down with them, taking a cookie of her own. "Meredith ranted at me because I left academia, and then he got kicked out," she added to John, almost gleefully.
"I don't use Meredith and John knows what happened." The cookies were tasty but definitely uniquely flavored. Rodney wondered what sort of 'healthy' substitutes Jeannie used, and decided against asking.
"What's the movie about?" Jeannie asked John, ignoring Rodney's protest against his first name. She always did.
"It's about Vance's attempt to take over Harmony."
"You don't play Vance, do you? No, you must be Kelley, aren't you?" Jeannie barely waited for John's nod. "I love your movies. They're always fun, even if the science and history are usually wrong."
"Ha! I told you." Rodney was happy that he and Jeannie could agree on one thing. "I've told him. Atrocious science and history. He kills Vance in this one. He fries him and his wife with a ghost."
"Vance wasn't killed. He and his wife starved to death in the catacombs."
"Rodney's told me that." John bumped against Rodney, pressing their upper arms together. "It's not a cinematic ending."
Jeannie frowned, looking at the way their bodies touched. "Are you too involved? Did you get a Marriage of Convenience? Meredith, did you have a ceremony without inviting me?"
A Marriage of Convenience? Rodney hadn't even considered the idea, though Harmonic culture encouraged any long-term relationships to be taken seriously and formalized by a marriage contract. Use of the one-year Marriage of Convenience contract was fairly common; only couples who intended to stay married until death entered into Covenant Marriages. "What – no!"
"No, of course not. After all, he's John Sheppard," she said, gesturing with her hands toward John. "And you're just my brother. That was silly of me."
"What does that mean, he's John Sheppard and I'm just your brother?" Rodney asked with indignation.
"Seriously, Meredith, you're hardly going to get John Sheppard into a Marriage of Convenience. Everyone wants him."
"People want me too!"
"If you say so, Meredith," Jeannie said doubtfully.
John bumped their arms together again. "Your brother isn't impressed by who I am. I like that about him."
"Why would he be? Meredith's never been impressed with anyone except himself."
"Well, it's true, Mer. You're not exactly polite. Or respectful of other people."
"What's respectful, mommy?" Madison asked, nibbling on a cookie as she spoke. Rodney was pleased that she'd mostly sat quietly, listening to the adults talk. If Jeannie had to be a full-time mom, at least she wasn't raising an undisciplined hooligan like most of the children who visited Cowen's Curiosities.
"Respectful means you treat other people with dignity and let them live their lives as they choose." Her significant stare at Rodney indicated she still hadn't forgiven him for objecting to her decision to marry the language teacher. "And don't talk with your mouth full."
"Uncle Meredith does."
"Yes, well," Rodney said, leaping up, "it's been great visiting with you, Jeannie. And meeting you, Madison. We have to visit John's family today too, so we need to be going. John?"
"You're visiting each other's families? Are you sure you didn't have a marriage ceremony without inviting me?"
"We need to see my dad about some business information," John answered, standing to follow Rodney's lead, rapidly drinking the last of his milk.
"Your dad? Not Patrick Sheppard, the head of the Crystal City Ghost Hunters' Guild?"
"Yeah," John said with one of his grimaces. "One and the same."
"I thought the children of ghost hunters were usually ghost hunters."
"It's common but it's not absolute. Rodney's right, we should go."
"I want a hug!" Madison leaped off her chair and ran up to John, who obediently picked her up and gave her a big squeeze.
"Meredith." Jeannie forced a hug on Rodney. "Don't be such a stranger. Tell your niece that you're going to see her regularly. Bring her a present next time."
"Yes, alright." Since Madison was still clinging to John, Rodney patted her shoulder. "I'll see you again."
"And bring me a present?"
"Yes, um, something little girls like." Jeannie had better call him and tell him what he should buy, because he had no idea whatsoever.
They managed to escape without Rodney feeling required to make any more promises. "That didn't go horribly, ridiculously bad," he said, brushing crumbs off his shirt as John drove the car away from the house. He was positive that Jeannie would have taunted him much more about his career without John's presence.
"Your niece is cute."
"She is, isn't she? And there are signs she's inherited the McKay intelligence. So your father now?"
"Yeah." John glanced his watch. "We should be able to catch him having his after-work drink."
Rodney's stomach gave a little rumble, the idea of alcohol on top of cookies and milk not that appealing. "And then dinner?"
"Will your father want you – us – to have dinner with him?" The idea of dinner with only the two of them was very appealing, except the part where John got mobbed in restaurants. Perhaps dinner at the Sheppards would be preferable, if John and his father got along better than he and Jeannie.
"I don't know. Maybe not." John was quiet for the rest of the drive. Rodney didn't know Crystal City well, but he could tell John avoided most of the main center city around the catacombs, driving through progressively nicer residential neighborhoods, until hitting an extremely pricey one, where every house was custom designed on a huge lot, protected from scrutiny by tall walls or elaborate gardens.
"This is your father's?" Rodney asked in amazement as John pulled into a curving driveway, parking the car in front of a huge, white mansion. His sister's house and his childhood home could both fit inside with plenty of space to spare.
"I grew up here. Your sister's is nicer."
"My sister's is nicer? My sister's is a cottage compared to this house." Even the doorknob was impressive, an amber bell with a small amber hammer. John hit the bell, which made a deep, ringing sound.
"Hi Walter," he said to the white-haired man who answered the door. "Dad in?"
"I shall see if he is available, Master John."
"Never mind. I'll find him." John sidestepped around the butler, striding across the tiled hallway, straight to the doorway on the left. Rodney followed quickly. If he got lost, amber wouldn't help him find his way out.
"John." Rodney heard Patrick Sheppard speak before he saw him. John's father was sitting in a plush, leather chair, sipping a drink. His resemblance to John was striking. They shared the same lean build, pointy nose and ears. Age had made Patrick even skinnier than his son, and his hair was all white, but full and cowlicky. Rodney instinctively brushed his hair back over one temple, trying not to think of the receding hairline that he had inherited from his father. Patrick wore a dark business suit, but the large chunks of amber – his wristwatch, tie pin, a ring, and his belt buckle – revealed a ghost hunter's typical fashion sense. "Long time, no see," he added drily, not making any effort to stand or welcome his son.
"I wouldn't have bothered you but it's business. This is Doctor Rodney McKay. He works for the studio. A ghost hunter named Kolya tried to kill him, and was probably working with a tangler who reset traps that had been cleared."
"The movie business attracts nice types."
"As nice as the people on a lot of archaeological expeditions."
Rodney was astonished at the coolness with which John and his father talked to each other. When he and Jeannie had disagreements, they squabbled and yelled. They didn't act like distant strangers.
Patrick made a disgruntled noise in the back of his throat. "You've come to me for information on the hunter then."
"I need to know about Kolya. Who might hire him, who would shelter him."
"Acostas Kolya. I remember him. His talent was strong but his choice of assignments was less than desirable. He'd work for anyone with enough money, no questions asked."
"Did you have problems with him?"
"Nothing formal, but I was glad when he left town. Dave's the one to help you. He's in charge of the guild now." He pointed his cane at John. "You'd be in charge if you'd stayed a ghost hunter."
"I like acting, Dad. The money's better than ghost hunting and you're not buried without sunlight for weeks at a time."
"All Sheppards are ghost hunters," Patrick insisted. "It's in our blood."
Rodney felt compelled to insert basic reality into Patrick's affection for family tradition. "Which really can't have been that long, considering that the development of psi-powers on Harmony is fairly recent. You've had – what? Three generations of hunters in your family? Maybe four?"
Patrick glared at Rodney for his interruption. "My father and his father were both hunters. I'm a hunter. My sons are hunters. My grandsons will be hunters."
"So five generations of male hunters? That's actually an interestingly strong line. I have a friend who does genetic research into psi-development. You remember Carson?" he asked John. "His specialty is helping people recover from trap and ghost energy, but he does the whole," Rodney waved his hands helplessly, "healing and genetics and understanding how our powers work. It's all medical voodoo, of course, but he gets a lot of respect from his peers, for whatever that matters. He'd love to talk to you about your family," he directed at John.
"Who were you again?"
"Doctor Rodney McKay." Rodney took a step forward to offer his hand. "I have a double honors degree in para-archaeology and physics from the University of Cadence. I'm working as an ephemeral energy para-resonator for the studio." Patrick didn't make any move to take Rodney's hand, so he let it fall, and stepped back, glancing hesitantly at John.
"At least an academic and a tangler is an improvement over Nancy," Patrick said gruffly. "So do you approve of John wasting his talent by acting?"
"He hasn't lost his talent by acting. He saved my life. Twice," Rodney said simply, flashing on the fear he'd felt, seeing the ghost in his bedroom, watching Kolya's ghost approach him on the street. Even though he wouldn't have been in danger without John's presence in his life, John was the one who saved him from death or permanent brain damage. "And who's Nancy?"
"Nancy's my ex-wife. We had a Marriage of Convenience. She was the one to suggest I try acting."
"She thought he needed to get in touch with his feelings. It was doomed from the beginning or you two would have gotten a Covenant Marriage. Sheppards don't dilly-dally when we find the right person." He fixed his son with a stern glare, which seemed to be one of Patrick's two expressions, the other being impatience. "And what does he mean, you saved his life? What have you done, John?"
"I dueled with Kolya."
"One less idiot in the world. He should have known not to attack a Sheppard." Patrick stabbed his cane at Rodney. "He's a para-archaeologist and a tangler. You could get a Covenant Marriage with him and fund your own expeditions. I hear you're rich enough. Your mother and I did expeditions together."
"I don't need my life arranged for me, Dad. Just the information about Kolya."
Patrick stood, using the cane to help him rise. "Dave'll be home soon. You can have dinner with us. Your nephews miss you. I'll have Walter put your bags in a room for you." He gave them a glare. "You do have a Marriage of Convenience, don't you?"
"One room is fine, Dad."
"Which means you don't. I know how you evade, John." Patrick's glare hardened, but John returned it with a casually insouciant smile. "Oh very well. I'll tell Walter one room. But I'm disappointed, John. You know the founders didn't believe in casual relationships." He walked briskly out of the room, the cane seeming more a prop than a necessity.
"What is it with our families? Why are they both trying to get us married?" Rodney hissed, following John up the wide stairs and down the hallway into a bedroom, which was quite possibly larger than his entire apartment, and definitely had nicer furniture, a massive bed made of dark wood with matching chest of drawers, a rez-television, and two plush armchairs.
"The founders were prudes."
"Yes, I know that. But – you!" Rodney waved his hands up and down, indicating John's tall body. "You'd have enough certificates to fill a library if you married everyone you had sex with." And from John's face, that was clearly the wrong thing to say. Rodney frantically tried to backpedal. "I mean – you're famous! Everyone wants to have sex with you."
"Yeah. Right." Now John looked weary. "I've only had Marriage of Convenience, and that was to Nancy."
"So why does your dad think you should marry me?"
There was a knock on the door, followed by Walter carrying in their overnight bags. He put them on the bed. "Thank you, Walter." John tossed him the keys. "Can you move the car to the back?"
"My pleasure, sir."
John grinned. "Take her the long way around."
Walter beamed at the permission. "Thank you, sir."
"Why does your dad think you should marry me?" Rodney hissed again as soon as the door shut behind Walter.
John started taking clothes out of the bags, laying them on the bed. "I haven't brought anyone home since Nancy."
"Yes, Rodney. Really." He started stripping. "I won't marry again until it's a Covenant Marriage."
"So you just – "
John paused, wearing only his trousers. "Do you know what it's like to have sex with someone who thinks you're an idol?"
"No, but I'd like to."
Giving a weary laugh, John sat down on the bed, leaning over to take off his shoes and socks. "It's not that fun, believe me."
John's weight on the bed caused Rodney's dark gray suit to shift slightly toward him. "Hey, I didn't pack those clothes."
"I repacked your case while you were showering this morning. We dress for dinner."
"I thought you said – "
John stood, beginning to unzip his trousers. "I'm going to shower before dinner." He waggled his eyebrows in a manner that skittered between funny and sexy. "Want to join me?"
"Can two people fit in the shower?" The one in his apartment barely fit him, and he occasionally bumped his head on the shower head.
"With plenty of room to spare." John started toward the bathroom, and the sight of John's bare body, back and butt muscles subtly flexing with his stride, was all Rodney needed to encourage him to stop thinking about John's previous relationships (or weird apparent lack thereof) and start stripping.
Rodney realized he may have to revise his opinion of the younger generation, if all children were as tolerable as Madison and John's nephews. The nephews were both in their teens, and far more boisterous than Madison. They were fascinated by their famous uncle, pestering him with question after question about movies during dinner, all of which John seemed pleased to answer, even if laconically. Normally, Rodney found children dominating the conversation to be annoying in extreme. However, he had the very strong feeling that without them, Patrick and John would be having another tense conversation, so he was willing to forgive them.
Besides, the steady chat between John and his nephews meant that Rodney could focus on the food, which was exquisite. He'd eaten gourmet food at catered university events, those with wealthy donors who needed wooing, but usually it was served by strolling waiters who were instructed to avoid the professors as much as possible. Walter had no such reservations, and was happy to refill Rodney's plate constantly.
John's brother Dave was as long and lean as the other two Sheppard men, but there the similarity ended. His face was more glossily perfect than John's, his nose and ears not interestingly pointy, and his hair was as restrained as Lorne's. His wife Mary was attractive, a blonde with her hair elegantly curled into a bun, and she wore a green dress that highlighted her eyes.
Rodney studied the fork, his eyes occasionally straying toward the door to the kitchen, waiting for Walter to return with the next course. He thought the fork might be real silver, and an artifact from Earth, instead of an exceedingly fine replica.
"Earth origin," Patrick affirmed the unspoken question.
"Your ancestors brought some exquisite pieces with them," he admitted grudgingly. Earth artifacts didn't present the same mysteries as the Alien artifacts, so his interest in them was limited. But he'd had enough required courses to know that many archaeologists and historians would salivate at the chance to examine these extremely rare items that the Sheppards used casually at the dinner table.
"Sheppards piloted two of the settlement ships that came through the Curtain. They had extra captains' allowances."
"One of the McKays was the chief engineer on the Orion." Very little that the McKays brought had survived the deteriorating effects of Harmony's atmosphere, though the first Meredith McKay had used native materials to paint pictures of the McKay crest, and formal and casual tartans, so her descendents would know their history. Rodney had always been sorry that his parents had been so determined to honor her, and so uncertain whether they'd have more children. Why couldn't they have waited for Jeannie to be born?
"Our ancestors may have known each other then."
"Everyone would have known each other at the time of founding. The population was very limited."
"Yes, one of the reasons for formalizing conjugal relationships. It made people think about their responsibilities and prevented social disarray at a time of great upheaval." Patrick didn't need to add the glare between Rodney and John to get his point across, but he did anyway.
"Dessert, Doctor McKay?" Walter asked, setting a platter of something chocolate-y in front of him. For an entirety of one second, Rodney admired the positioning of the cookie, the artistically swirled sauce, and the consistency of the chocolate, before digging in.
"It's good to see you have a healthy appetite, unlike my son."
"John eats. John has a very healthy appetite." Rodney stared at John, who glanced back and raised his eyebrows, indicating he was aware of Rodney's side conversation with his father, but he kept talking, answering one of his nephews' conversations about special effects. Traitor.
Patrick harumped. "If you say so. He usually eats like a bird around here."
"The catering is full-time on movie sets. He eats during the day to keep his strength up," Rodney said dismissively, even though he didn't have a clue how John ate while Rodney was off with second unit.
"Are you on the movie too, Doctor McKay?" John's younger nephew asked. Rodney could tell them apart only because one of them was smaller than the other. They looked like Dave, but with John's hair, though Rodney wasn't sure if they'd inherited John's cowlicks or if the style was deliberate.
"Rodney's a tangler. He's been defusing traps in the catacombs for us," John explained.
"He's not a hunter? Uncle John, you're a hunter, aren't you?"
"John's a hunter," Patrick said. "He started working as a hunter when he was only a year older than you, Davey. He could control ghosts with hardly any effort."
"Why did you stop, Uncle John?"
"I tried acting and found I liked it."
"That idiot Nancy." Patrick was clearly a man to hold a grudge.
"But you were a ghost hunter, Uncle John! You were one of the most powerful people in the world."
"Excuse me, what?" Rodney inserted, staring at Davey. "Hasn't anyone taught you about the nature of our psi-powers? A ghost hunter's power isn't intrinsically stronger or more dangerous than a tangler's power. It only looks more impressive because people don't understand the mental focus required for trap work. I could be as strong as John, or even stronger." Rodney remembered that John had created three ghosts in the matter of minutes. "Okay, admittedly, perhaps not as strong as John, but I could be as strong as your father or grandfather. Or even stronger."
The kids both regarded Rodney with an expression on their faces that indicated he was a blasphemer. "You can't be as strong as a ghost hunter. You can't control ghosts," Davey said.
Maybe the younger generation wasn't quite as tolerable as Rodney had begun to think. "Psi-power is measured in units, not by how it's applied," he said flatly, giving the urchin his best 'how dare you argue with the professor' look.
"Hear, hear," Mary said lightly, raising her glass to Rodney. "It's nice to have some tangler support amongst all these ghost hunters. After all, if you can't walk through the doorway, it doesn't much matter if you can destroy the ghost."
"And your Uncle John was at least three years older than you when he started working as a hunter, so don't even think about it."
Mary Sheppard actually had a quite excellent 'how dare you argue with the professor' stare herself, or perhaps it was 'don't dare think of doing what your mother doesn't want you to' look. Rodney admired parents who controlled their children.
"Shall we have drinks in the other room and let Walter clear the table?" Mary rose, the men of her family following suit. Rodney scarfed the last two bites of his dessert, happily contemplating what after-dinner liqueurs the Sheppards might serve.
Despite the fullness of his stomach from the meal, and the mental haze from several glasses of alcohol, Rodney felt agitated as he and John entered the bedroom. During the after-dinner conversation, Patrick had given up on the marriage issue, instead resorting to tossing out more barbs about John and ghost hunting. Rodney had thought some of his colleagues could beat a subject to death, but Patrick easily won the persistence award with full honors. "You're not with me because I remind you of your father are you?" he asked. John gaped at him in surprise. "No, seriously, he does the same thing to you that I do to Jeannie, try to tell you how to live your life. That was frightening. No wonder she's always mad at me."
"Rodney, believe me, you do not remind me of my dad. At all."
"We both think we know what other people should do! Of course, you became famous and admired while Jeannie stays at home and makes cookies, and doesn't use her mind, but still, we both think we know what other people should do."
"Raising children is a very important thing to do."
"You do! You think I'm like your father! You think I'm wrong to tell my sister what she should do!"
Sighing a bit, John took Rodney's hand, pulling him over to the full-length mirror, standing behind and slightly to the side of him. Rodney took a moment to appreciate that they looked good together, his dark gray suit against John's black tux. "Rodney." John snuggled his arms around Rodney's waist. "You're hot and smart and dedicated and funny, okay? That's why I'm with you."
That was how John saw him? "Oh. Well, yes. I am all of those things, of course. But you're sure it's not because I'm like your dad?"
John squeezed Rodney's waist. "My dad's a dictator who wants to run everything in my life. He had it mapped out before I was born."
"I wanted Jeannie and me to work together."
"I was a genius. I already knew when I was a kid that I was going to be a para-archaeologist and lead expeditions. We used to play together that we were down in the catacombs and she'd be my assistant. I badgered my mother until she let me paint my room green."
John smiled. "That's cute." He squeezed him again, rubbing his chin on the back of Rodney's shoulder. "You must have felt really betrayed when she left the university."
"Yes. I did." He'd never thought of Jeannie's decision in quite this light. He'd been furious that she was leaving the university, but he'd never thought… she left him. And his plans for their futures. They were going to be the most famous brother and sister in the history of para-archaeology. "I am your father," he insisted.
"If you were my dad, you wouldn't be worrying about the possibility of a comparison between the two of you." He turned Rodney, kissing him softly, beginning to remove his clothes, letting them drop to the floor, murmuring, "You're Rodney. You're you." Later on, as John pressed Rodney into the bed, encouraging Rodney's leg to curl around John's hip, Rodney imagined he heard the whisper change to "You're Rodney and I love you."
Rodney studied the list that Dave had provided at breakfast in fascination. His inclination to motion sickness usually made reading in the car difficult, but John's car was a very smooth ride. "Are you sure this list is accurate? Absolutely, positively, sure?"
"If Dave listed it, Kolya was involved in it. Dave's good on details. Why?"
"The number of highly illegal and privately financed expeditions is staggering. Do you realize how many priceless artifacts may be ending up in private hands, where no one can study them?"
"The rich owners can."
"Precisely! Which is as good as not being studied at all."
"Does it give you any clue who the tangler might be? Or who might have hired him?"
Rodney sighed in exasperation. He was a professor, not a detective. "No. We'll have to see if Caldwell has any success. Let's hope he does a better job than last time."
"He must have some brains to have made detective."
"Which doesn't say much for the rest of the police force." Rodney drummed his fingers on the top of the door, staring vacantly at the jungle flashing by the windows. "I'm going to talk to Daniel. He's listed on several of the university expeditions." He needed to call Daniel anyway, and find out how the new article was progressing.
"A criminal is more likely part of the private ones."
"I know that! But that's all I can suggest."
"Hey." John took one hand off the wheel to squeeze Rodney's knee. "I'll ask Ronon and the other hunters in town. Sign a few autographs. Throw dad's name around. See if I can find something."
They drove in silence, Rodney's stomach happily digesting the excellent breakfast, his mind less pleasantly occupied with thoughts of their families, Kolya, and the unknown tangler, until John announced. "I'm going to tell Caldwell about what happened with Kolya."
"What? No! He'll think it was murder and lock you up."
"Kolya was a ghost hunter and he died from ghost energy. That says a duel, not murder. You'll back me up and those guys from the bar heard the noise."
"They don't even have a body. Caldwell's still researching Kolya, not looking for how he died."
"It must be down at the morgue, labeled as an accident victim."
"Yes, and if you help identify their body for them, then Caldwell will lock you up until they do an autopsy, and the movie production will have to stop. Elizabeth has already worked for two days without you."
John muttered an expletive. "All right. I'll wait until the movie is done."
"Good. It's the best decision, John." Rodney relaxed, pleased at John's agreement. He didn't want to be without John until this was over.
They reached the edge of Cadence, the view abruptly transitioning from jungle to a residential neighborhood, and Rodney asked, "Can you stop at the museum? My Chamber membership list is there. I'll call a few of the tanglers and see if they'll tell me anything."
"Sounds good. I'll drop you off and go look up hunters."
"Oh hey, you can come in and meet my assistant."
"She's the most irritating person in existence. But she loves movies and those trashy tabloids. Maybe I'll get some decent work out of her once she knows I know you."
"So you want to use my success?" John asked, his voice curiously empty.
"It's not using you! Well, maybe a little, but it's for a good cause."
"Me and my work."
"Success really matters to you, doesn't it?"
"Of course it does! I'm wasted in Cowen's Curiosities. I'm a genius. I should be going on expeditions and making important discoveries, discoveries that could further our understanding of the Aliens. What if they had been able to open the Curtain? If we could duplicate that feat, we could get in touch with Earth again."
"We don't even know if the Aliens had that technology."
"And we never will find out if I'm stuck at Cowen's for the rest of my life. John – " Rodney had to pause, struggle for breath, the frustration of the last few years almost overwhelming him. "I'm going crazy there. I did more advanced work, dealt with more interesting artifacts in primary school. I need to get out. You don't know what it's like. You've always been successful."
"Yeah. My dad wouldn't have accepted anything else. Only he couldn't change the fact that my ghost energy turns blue and the clients thought I was a freak."
The bitterness in John's tone surprised Rodney. John had always seemed so relaxed and adaptable. "You work from a different part of the para-spectrum. Only ignorant morons would find the color change freakish. Besides, then you went into acting and became famous."
"And now everyone wants a piece of me."
Rodney winced at the thought that he'd asked John to come in and meet Cadman, inadvertently lumping himself with everyone else who wanted to use John. "The people on the film treat you like a peer."
"You weren't there for the first few days." John pulled up to Cowen's and stopped the car. "Let's go say hi to your assistant."
"You don't have to. She won't be my assistant for very long anyway."
"That's okay. I don't mind helping."
"Really, she's not worth it," Rodney protested, frantically trying to backpedal. Cadman wasn't worth screwing up his relationship with John. "I don't want you – "
"Rodney." John leaned over, giving him a gentle kiss. "It's okay."
"Okay," Rodney said, hoping that it was. They got out of the car, John pulling a cap over his distinctive hair. They skirted the visitors wandering around the displays, heading to the lab at the back. It was weird to think that he'd soon be leaving this place that he'd been trying to escape since walking in the doors for the first time. The departure was long overdue, and yet… Cadman hadn't been much worse than any assistant he'd had at the university, Cowen was generally as decent as any of his colleagues, and the tourists had a better reason for being ignorant morons than his students.
Cadman was gratifyingly stunned to meet John, and asked for his autograph. Even his bold signature in black ink on a piece of red paper was attractive. She asked almost as many questions as John's nephews, and John answered them all charmingly. Rodney fussed with papers on his desk, letting Cadman enjoy the time with John. Another weirdness, to think that John was unhappy at being famous, when Rodney was dying to have the admiration and respect of his colleagues again. Would he share John's feelings if he was famous world-wide, instead of only among his peers?
John excused himself from Cadman, gave Rodney a kiss, and left to do his own research. Rodney settled down to flip through the Chamber membership list, looking for people on Dave's list that he could contact. He didn't trust Caldwell to conduct this investigation thoroughly.
Daniel would be a logical person to call first, since Rodney knew him best, though it was unlikely that he'd be able to tell Rodney much. The expeditions Daniel had done with Kolya had all been several years ago.
What was he going to ask these people anyway? 'Did you know Kolya was a heinous murderer? Did you hire him to kill me?' Contemplating possible questions, he booted up his computer, and logged into the Alien database, searching through the categories, studying all the pictures, looking for any previous discoveries that might be related to his musical instrument. Time passed quickly, Rodney completely absorbed until Cadman began shutting down her computer. "Is it that time?" He glanced at the time on his computer, guiltily realizing that Cowen's had closed an hour ago, and that he hadn't made any calls. "You're working late."
"So are you. Missed us?"
"I – I made a discovery. In the catacombs," he blurted out. Cadman wasn't usually a confidant, but he needed to talk to someone.
"A big one?"
"The biggest. A major one. I'll be returning to the university. They'll have to accept me back."
"You made a major find in the catacombs close to the filming? I thought they were all explored?"
"The ghost hunter on the production tried to kill me. Canada saved me and we followed my lucky piece. I thought it had come from someone's jewelry, but it was from the instrument and lead me straight to it."
"So you have a world-famous boyfriend and a major Alien find. Who would have believed that could happen?" Her tone was oddly deadpan, her expression blank, and Rodney found himself regretting having brought up his good fortune. It was becoming his afternoon for sticking his foot in his mouth.
"Yes, well, not that it hasn't been a pleasure working with you – " and it hadn't, that was true – "but I will be leaving as soon as I can."
"Who would have thought so many good things could happen to someone less deserving?"
"Oh ha ha," Rodney said, and then stared at Cadman, because she wasn't smiling or indicating in any way that she was teasing. "I'm sorry?"
"I didn't think I could do this myself, but I guess I'm going to have to." She held out her hand, and Rodney could see the concentration on her face. Feeling the surge of energy, Rodney jumped up from his chair, watching in horror as a ghost formed next to his desk. "You're a ghost hunter!" What was it with hunters lately that they wanted to hide their skills?
"Don't make this hard, Rodney, and I'll be quick. Quicker than you were."
Rodney backed away from the ghost, panicking. Her ghost was small, and green, so her talent was standard and not as strong as John or Kolya's, but it could still fry his brain. If it touched him, he'd become Aiden's companion, locked up in Carson's tender care. "Quicker than I was? What are you talking about? Are you crazy?" He darted toward the door, but the ghost took a direct route over the tables, floating to block Rodney's escape. He had to backpedal so fast, he almost fell. "Laura, what are you doing?"
"This is for Aiden, Rodney. You fried his brain, so now I'm going to fry yours."
"Aiden? Aiden wasn't my fault."
"You were in charge, Rodney, and his brain was destroyed. That makes it your fault."
By the Aliens, she was like all the others, his university colleagues and Caldwell, blaming him, and they were all wrong. "It wasn't my fault! It was Kolya! Kolya did it!" Rodney dashed toward one of the windows, clawing at it, but even in Cowen's Curiosities, the windows were kept securely locked for climate control, and he had to scuttle away as he felt the ghost approach.
"What do you mean, it was Kolya?"
"He admitted it! Before he tried to kill me! He pushed Aiden into a trap."
"Kolya was a ghost hunter. He would have used ghost energy."
"Why is everyone so stupid? Only if he wanted to draw a great, big target on himself! If he'd wanted to scream, I'm the only one with the talent to be the bad guy, blame me! Anyone can push someone into a trap! Or wander into one accidentally! He was trying to ruin my expedition, not go to jail!" The ghost drifted closer, trying to back Rodney into a corner. "Laura, why are you doing this?" he asked desperately. "You don't even know Aiden!"
"But I do. His grandparents took me in after my father killed my mother," and boy, was Rodney not surprised that she had a violent back story. "Aiden is the closest thing I have to a brother."
Carson's tastes in women sucked, because Cadman must be the sister that he mentioned wanting to date. Rodney dropped to his hands and knees, scooting quickly across the room, not daring to look up to see if the ghost was hovering over him. "Aiden wasn't my fault! It was Kolya!"
"It wasn't Kolya. He would have told me."
"Kolya wasn't always big on sharing," John said, stepping into the room. One hand was placed on his chest, on top of the amber he wore under his shirt, and he held out the other, using his power to simply take control of Cadman's ghost. It turned blue and fritzed into nothingness.
"Oh thank the Founders." Rodney stopped, and turned over, sitting on the floor and flopping against the wall. "John."
Cadman sat down slowly in one of the chairs by the work bench. "You're a hunter."
"Yeah. I killed Kolya. He was trying to finish the job of killing Rodney. He admitted being the one to harm Aiden."
"That bastard. That bastard."
Rodney stared at Cadman, wondering at the hysterical intensity in her voice. "Wait – you know Kolya?"
She gave a bitter laugh. "I paid him to kill you. He tried to do it one night. He said something went wrong, that there must have been another hunter in the building. You, I guess," she added to John.
"You wrote that note," Rodney blurted out. "The one that said 'destroyer'." He'd completely forgotten about the note, his thoughts distracted by meeting John and being offered a new job.
"I wanted to see you squirm. I wanted to take care of you myself, but didn't think I had the nerve. I thought it would be easier if someone else did. And then you were going down to the catacombs and Kolya said it would be the perfect time to rig another accident. He said he'd try to push you into a trap, like Aiden had been, but that most of the traps had been cleared around the filming area. He didn't say – that bastard. He let me pay him to kill you for something he did."
John's lips quirked into something that wasn't really a smile. "He probably found that amusingly ironic."
"You came back." Rodney wrapped his arms around John, holding on tight, not caring about the presence of their audience. "You came back."
"I kept wondering why she didn't wear more amber since she was a hunter. I thought I'd better come back."
For once, Caldwell had showed a measure of competence, managing to appear promptly after Rodney's call. Cadman stared listlessly out of the window and didn't respond to Caldwell's questions, so he turned to Rodney and John.
"So she attacked you, Doctor McKay, and I understand that you de-rezzed her ghost, Mr. Sheppard."
Oops. Rodney had talked too fast on the phone. He hadn't meant to reveal John's ability.
"Yeah." John licked his lips. "You need to check your morgue. I had a duel with Kolya night before last. He's dead. We figure he must have gotten picked up as an accident victim."
"It was self-defense! Kolya would have killed both of us."
Caldwell seemed to take the news in stride that the person he'd been hunting was already dead. "That's something for an investigation to determine, Doctor McKay."
"We were the ones who were there! We know what happened!"
"Yes, you were, and I only have your word on it." Caldwell jerked his head toward Cadman. "Since she's a ghost hunter, is she a danger to my men?"
"The talent is strongest in the Old Quarter, but it's believed that the catacombs continue under the entire city. So yeah, anywhere she is, she might be able to pull ghost energy to her."
"I'm not going to do anything stupid – well, more stupid than I already have," Cadman said wearily, jangling the silver handcuffs around her wrists. "I'm not going to attack a cop."
"Forgive me if I don't take your word for that," Caldwell answered drily.
"No, but you can."
"Your only defense is another hunter," John added. "You could call the head of the Cadence guild, ask for an old-timer, someone's who retired and doesn't go on expeditions anymore."
"Not someone young?"
"The police can't afford someone young. And she's not that powerful."
"Thank you for the suggestion."
"Do you realize how much this will hurt Carson?" Rodney blurted out, glaring at Cadman. "He was going to ask you out."
Cadman's eyes widened. "I liked him. I wish I'd known it wasn't your fault."
"He deserves better than you anyway."
"Rodney." John placed his hand on Rodney's shoulder, steadying him. "Come on, let's go."
They saw Caldwell and Cadman out, watching as he put her in the back of his car. Rodney locked up Cowen's behind them. "Cowen will probably be ecstatic. An attempted murder with a ghost in the building. He'll tell the story to all the tourists."
John grimaced. "At least someone can get some good out of it."
They stopped at Chuck's to pick up dinner to go, and then to Rodney's apartment, sitting on the living room couch to eat, food on the coffee table, Canada purring between them and occasionally darting a paw out to try to snag a sample. Rodney ate voraciously, the thought of almost dying making him hungry, but the food didn't relax him. His attention drifted to the Alien musical instrument still ensconced in the middle of his tiny living room. Leaving Canada the last bite of his dinner, he wandered over to it and began playing, learning the sound of the individual keys, trying to play songs he knew. The tones were different than a human piano, the keys wrongly spaced for human hands, which wasn't surprising since no known picture of the Aliens existed, but other artifacts indicated that they weren't quite humanoid.
"That sounds really nice."
"You like it?" Rodney glanced over at John, who was sprawled on the couch, appearing incredibly relaxed and ridiculously attractive. Canada was a fluffy gray ball curled on his chest.
"Yeah. It's really peaceful. It makes me feel good. Relaxed."
"It does, doesn't it? Which is odd, considering that we don't even know if Aliens had ears similar to ours. There's no reason that we should find their music pleasing."
"More things for you to discuss in your paper," John said, standing and stretching. "We're back to work tomorrow." He caught Rodney's hand, tangling their fingers together. "How about an early night?"
Rodney thought that was an excellent suggestion, though he didn't get a chance to say so.
They were back at work the next day, getting up at an absurd hour to stumble down to the catacombs, Canada discreetly following them, keeping out of sight. Rodney ate breakfast while women fussed with John's hair and makeup, as if he needed to be made more attractive.
Elizabeth bustled up to him. "Can we shoot the dust bunny scene today? Is she here?"
Rodney glanced around, finally seeing Canada hiding behind a rock of green quartz, her blue and gold eyes peering out, her fur slicked down to help hide. "Canada?" he held out his hand. The dust bunny hesitated a second, then came to him, fluffing as she walked, until a little ball of fur curled at his feet. "Do you want to be filmed?" he asked. She looked up at him, only her blue eyes visible now.
"She looks cooperative."
"She's a very intelligent animal."
Rodney hadn't been with first unit yet, but they didn't work any quicker or more effectively than second unit, which had the advantage that he spent much of the morning chatting with John, Teyla, and Ronon, waiting for the tech people to be ready for the actors. Then John and Teyla stood at one end of the tunnel, with the tech people filming into the tunnel, and Rodney standing behind the camera with Canada. "You know what to do, right? Go see John. Go see John." Canada regarded him quizzically, and Rodney worried, but then she strolled past the camera and into the tunnel, stopping once to glance back, before resuming floating toward John and Teyla, as they walked toward her, on their quest to locate Vance.
"Look, it's alive," John said, crouching, offering out his hand. Canada depuffed and made a noise that sounded hiss-like. "Yeah, it's okay," John reassured her. She fluffed up again and sniffed his fingers, before emitting a pleased rumbling noise.
"She's adorable," Teyla said, placing her hand on John's shoulder.
"We're lucky to meet one of Harmony's friendly native animals."
Then one of the tech people made a noise, and John and Teyla looked alert before rushing toward the camera as Canada ran off in the direction they'd come.
The dialogue was possibly the most banal of the entire movie, but Canada was a dream, repeating the scene several times in the row, growing noticeably more confident until she reached the point where she swarmed up John's arm and walked along his shoulders as Teyla laughed. Her face transformed from its normal studious mask, became more open when she laughed. It was a shame she and John spent so much of the movie appearing serious. Though John was his most attractive when he was relaxed and sleepy in bed, and no one except Rodney needed to see that expression.
"She's perfect, Rodney," Elizabeth gushed between takes.
Canada chirped from the comfort of Rodney's arms, as if understanding she was the subject under discussion. "She is wonderful, isn't she?" Rodney beamed, delighted for once to be a part of the movie business.
His good mood dimmed when he returned to the main area to see Caldwell leaning against a green wall, clearly waiting. Canada had followed him, but skirted around the edges of the cavern, still nervous around all the people.
"Detective. Come to make more incorrect assumptions? Cadman hasn't escaped, has she?"
"She's still in custody and has been very cooperative. I'm curious about the fact that one of the names that keeps coming up in this investigation is Doctor Daniel Jackson."
"You're kidding me." Caldwell's face indicated he wasn't, and Rodney yelped, "Daniel? Are you insane? Because he was on expeditions on Kolya? So was I, if you can manage to remember back that far. Besides, Daniel is one of the logical thinkers on the university staff. He's almost as brilliant as I am."
"I understand you two were in competition for head of the para-archaeology department at the time of your aborted expedition."
"No! Well, we would have been, except Doctor Hammond was still head."
"And yet after your disgrace, Doctor Hammond had a heart attack that forced him to take early retirement. Doctor Jackson was a shoo-in for the position."
"That was a coincidence that was fortuitous for me as well as for Daniel. No one else would have let me assist with reviewing his articles. Daniel's been my only hope in achieving academic credibility again, until – well, he's been my only hope." Rodney bit off mentioning the Alien instrument in his apartment.
"So everything has worked out perfectly for him. He's head of the department and you help him."
"Your insinuations are absurd. Did Cadman bring up Daniel? You can't take her word for anything."
"She doesn't have any reason to lie at this point."
"Like she needs a reason to lie? I don't trust her."
"It's not a matter of trust, Doctor. It's a matter of taking information from different sources and verifying it."
"I'm glad you're doing some research this time. Now did you need anything else?" Rodney barely waited for Caldwell to shake his head. "Then I'm going home." He stomped off, his grand exit slowed by having to wait for a ghost hunter escort out of the catacombs, courtesy of Elizabeth's new security rules. John caught up to them when they were halfway out.
"You're not supposed to be alone in the catacombs, sir," the hunter reminded John.
"And now I'm not," John smiled easily, lacing the fingers of one hand with Rodney's. "What's up?" he asked quietly. "People said you had a fight with Caldwell."
Caldwell's insinuation spilled out of Rodney in a long rant as they left the catacombs and started for home.
"It sounds possible. He's a tangler, right?"
"Of course it's not possible. Why would Daniel reset the trap? He doesn't benefit from harming you."
"He gets the production shut down and you back at Cowen's."
"Why should he want that? He's got no reason to care if I work on a movie."
"But the movie's in the catacombs, and that's where discoveries are made. You know he could have gotten into the catacombs by a secret entrance."
"As if Daniel – " Rodney paused in horror. His apartment door was ajar. John squeezed his shoulder, pulling his flat piece of amber out from under his shirt. He stepped around Rodney, poking lightly on the door so that it would swing gently.
"I heard you walking up the stairs," Daniel called. "You don't have to sneak in."
"Daniel." Rodney shoved around John and entered his apartment. Daniel stood by the Alien musical instrument, running his hands delicately over the keys, not pressing hard enough to make any noise. "What are you doing here? How did you get in?"
"I broke the lock."
"You broke the lock? Why did you break the lock?"
"You know, Rodney, for a genius sometimes you're not very bright."
Rodney was conscious that John remained in the doorway, still holding onto his amber, as Daniel turned to face them. He looked different somehow, his face harder, his normally inquisitive blue eyes angry behind his glasses, his soft lips tight. He was dressed as he often did for lectures, a white sweater over beige trousers, his amber bracelet around his right wrist. "I said, Rodney, for a genius you're not very bright. But unfortunately for me, you do suddenly seem to have provoked Caldwell into doing his job."
"You hired Kolya to push Aiden into a trap, didn't you?" John asked, his voice mild.
"It was time for Hammond to retire. I knew I would likely become head of the department, but Rodney was too close for comfort. His work really is quite brilliant, even if his manners suck, and my ideas – sometimes people think my ideas are a little extreme too. Rodney had to be out of the running."
"And all you needed was one little push and the job was yours."
"It was quite easy. You just couldn't stay at Cowen's, doing what I needed you to do, could you?" he snapped at Rodney.
"Excuse me?" Rodney asked again, in shock.
"I thought I could shut the production down, and that would solve the problem, but you ruined it."
"But you didn't hire Kolya, did you? You wanted Rodney alive."
"That was Cadman." Daniel's lips puckered with distaste. "Though I did put her onto him. I met her visiting Aiden. I didn't realize she'd try to hurt you, Rodney."
"So she's told Caldwell that you were the one who led her to Kolya?" John asked.
"Apparently she has, and now he's asking all kinds of awkward questions. He's even suggested exhuming Hammond's body. He made comments that – " Daniel gestured to the instrument, "made me wonder if you'd found something. If you bring this to the university, everything will have been pointless."
"But Caldwell doesn't know about this." Rodney felt a little sick, disbelieving that Daniel could have been so callous, his ambition so coldly calculated.
"But Cadman does," John pointed out. "You told her you'd made a find."
"So why are you here?" John asked, and Rodney realized he was still loosely cupping his amber, prepared to create a ghost. "Everything against you is still circumstantial."
"Yes, but this – this instrument is very real. And needs to be mine." Daniel suddenly pulled a rez-gun from where he must have hidden it in the small of his back. "So here's the deal. I shoot you, Kolya takes the blame, and the police bring the instrument to the university. We'll put it on display with a plaque honoring you, Rodney. Caldwell can throw accusations if he likes, but I'm very good at looking innocent." Daniel smiled, his expression softening, scary in its sweetness.
"That won't work. Kolya's already dead."
"Actually, no, he's in bad shape, but he's alive." Daniel frowned in perplexity. "Now how did you know that he was hit with ghost energy?"
"He did it." Kolya leaned against the doorway into the bedroom, his body listing as if he couldn't hold himself up, one arm dangling uselessly. His words were slurred because one half of his face was frozen, mouth and eye drooping. "He did it," he repeated, his arm flailing uncontrollably toward Rodney and John.
The surprise of Kolya's appearance made Rodney yelp, "How are you not dead?"
"You're a ghost hunter?" Daniel raised the gun. "I need to take care of you first, then."
"Too late," John said with a savage grin, as Rodney instinctively yelled, "Daniel!" Daniel whirled in response to where Rodney was looking, flinching as an enormous blue ghost floated from behind the Alien instrument. He started to back away from the ghost, and tripped over Canada, falling onto the carpet as the ghost zoomed to hover over him. John rushed forward, stepping on Daniel's wrist, leaning down to grab the gun.
"Call Caldwell," John ordered, as Kolya flailed his arm again, repeating mindlessly, "He did it. He did it."
There was a party to celebrate the end of filming in the catacombs, held in the large cavern that had been serving as the main production area. Any props, costumes, and equipment that could be packed up had already been shipped out, on their way to Resonance where the jungle filming would be completed.
"Jungle filming?" Rodney complained to John, waving his glass, risking spilling red punch onto the green quartz floor. "Vance was a ghost hunter. Why would he have taken the battle to the jungles? He couldn't materialize ghosts there."
"He could if he was over the catacombs."
"Yes, probably. It would still have been an insane risk."
"I don't think sane people try to take over a planet, Rodney."
"Hmm. Well, probably not," Rodney conceded grumpily, watching the dancers. Vala and Teyla looked hot together, as did Ronon and Cameron. Radek seemed to be ecstasy, leading Elizabeth around the dance area. Rodney had never been keen on dancing, but at least the food was excellent, courtesy of Chuck's so that the regular catering staff could join in the festivities.
"So I guess you'll be leaving Cowen's and going back to the university," John said.
"Yes, I should be. I've talked to the dean and president about it. No promises yet, they don't want to show how eager they are to have me back, but they'll have to appoint a new chair of the para-archaeology department soon, now that Daniel's waiting trial."
"It's too bad your friend Carson couldn't come."
Cowen had happily accepted the invite, and was across the cavern, telling stories to some of the tech people, but Carson had declined, claiming a lack of time. "He's offered to sponsor Cadman for parole, did I tell you? She's pleading guilty and asking for leniency."
"Huh. I hope it works for them."
"I wanted to thank you," Rodney said abruptly, because he didn't know how to say this kind of thing gracefully, "for what you've done. If I hadn't been on the set to be almost killed by Kolya – "
"You would have found a way."
"Yes, almost certainly," not that he had, blindly allowing himself to be used by Daniel, "I couldn't have stood to be wasted for the rest of my life, but – well, everything's worked out. Faster than it would have. And you caused that, and you saved my life. Repeatedly."
"You saved mine."
"Well, yes, I did. We saved each other, didn't we?" Rodney felt a glow of satisfaction at having identified that the trap has been reset, until he remembered that had been Daniel's fault. "Though yours was only in danger because of me."
"I thought I might come back. After the filming ends. If you wanted," John suggested diffidently.
"Yes, of course, any time," Rodney said, wondering if there was any likelihood in John's suggestion, sneaking a look sideways at him, both of them watching the dancers rather than looking at each other. John would probably head off to do publicity or to film another movie, but Rodney let himself hope.
~ epilogue ~
"Carson, Aiden, come in, sit down." Rodney escorted the two men to chairs in the front row. The university's largest meeting room had already been set up for tonight's debut, the chairs arranged in rows for the university most influential donors to sit and listen, the conference tables moved along the back wall, ready for the catering staff to bring in drinks and appetizers. Aiden was still wearing the cap from John's movie, and clutched Carson's arm tightly, nervous about being away from the home.
"Thank you, Rodney. Aiden's been excited about hearing you play."
"You're the final test before tonight's performance." Not that Carson and Aiden were necessarily the ideal audience; Carson's taste in music deplorably leaned to overly sentimental ballads, and Aiden could hardly be relied upon for discerning critical input.
Carson dropped his voice. "I have to warn you, I don't know if he'll like the music. And you know how he gets when he's unhappy."
"Let me know if I need to stop," Rodney said, well aware that this performance may end disastrously. At least it would be a fiasco without observers, and Rodney had learned to be more selective about what he mentioned to Aiden. No more talking about plans that Aiden might find exciting, until after the event was over. Rodney took a seat on the bench in front of the Alien instrument, giving Canada's fur a brief pat. She lifted her head, giving a happy chirp, and recurled into a fluffy ball of gray on top of the instrument. Rodney took a moment to focus, flexed his fingers, and began to play. The composition was his own, created during weeks of practicing on the instrument. The sounds that the instrument created were beautiful, powerful, magical. At the end, he let the notes die off, sitting, staring distractedly into space.
"Rodney." Rodney twirled on the bench in response to Carson's soft call. "He liked it," Carson added softly. Aiden's eyes were closed, his expression peaceful.
"Oh – good." Hooray for no demented freak-out.
Aiden's eyes opened. "That was beautiful. I really liked it. Can I come hear you again?"
"Of course you can." Frowning, Rodney got off the bench and walked closer to them. "Is your eye better?"
Carson also frowned, peering at Aiden. "I think you may be right. The damage looks less severe."
"I feel good. Like I'm waking up."
Carson and Rodney exchanged glances. "We've been working with amber and meditation," Carson said. "I wonder – " He stopped and squeezed Aiden's shoulder. "Come on, lad. Let's go home and do some tests, see what's happened to you."
"Sure," Aiden said agreeably, standing and shaking Rodney's hand good-bye, as if everything was normal. He turned and started for the door, without waiting for Carson.
"Did that just happen? Did the music help fix the damage to his eye?"
"It looked like that. Do you suppose the effects could be cumulative? More exposure would…?"
"If it does, do you realize the repercussions? I'll be even more famous!"
"Aye, Rodney," Carson said with amusement, as they watched Aiden, noting the easy manner in which he moved. "I'll call you tonight after I've examined him. Hopefully the change will be permanent."
Aiden stopped, turned. "Are you coming?"
"Aye, lad." With a hopeful glance at Rodney, he followed Aiden. For the first time, Rodney noticed John leaning against the wall by the door. He talked briefly to Carson and Aiden, and then came toward Rodney as the other two left.
"You're back," Rodney said, a ridiculously obvious comment. John looked as fabulous as always, dressed all in black, but with more amber than normal. His flat piece hung outside his shirt, visible for once, his belt buckle was amber, and bracelets of flat links of amber were around both wrists, peeping out from the sleeves of his black jacket.
"We finished the jungle filming. The movie's all done." He nodded toward the instrument. "I got here just in time to listen to your performance. It was beautiful."
"It's my own composition." Rodney stopped himself from saying it was how John made him feel. "I'm still refining the middle section. I'm thinking of writing an entire symphony and giving performances for paid audiences. Tonight is for university donors."
"So you think it helped Aiden?"
"I hope so. Did you see how much he'd changed?" Rodney snorted. "Of course, if it can cure trap damage, the morons will probably be even more careless. Why should I worry about a trap? I can be fixed by McKay's magical medical musical instrument," he mimicked.
John grinned at the alliteration. "You're going to be famous."
"I'm already famous. It's the most significant find in at least a decade of discoveries. The first article is featured in the next Journal of Para-Archaeology, and I'll write another one if it helps Aiden." He cleared his voice, wanting to grab John and kiss him, but not certain why he had returned. "So are you getting ready for your next movie? Another historical epic, I assume?"
"Not really." John looked down at his feet, and back up, his eyes intent. "I was actually thinking of changing careers again."
"Yeah. Getting out of the movies and back into ghost hunting."
"You said hunting was for young men."
"Yeah. Well. I know this famous para-archaeologist-physicist. He's probably going to be organizing an expedition soon. I thought he might need a ghost hunter on staff. Especially one with money to invest. Universities are always looking for more funding."
"You want to work with me?"
"Yeah?" John's voice was indecisive, as if Rodney's hesitation was confusing him.
"Look, believe me, this is great. I would love to work with you. You're hot, you're talented, you're protective, but you're famous. You're – "
"I never asked to be famous. I can't even go out for dinner without a disguise, Rodney. I'm ready to do hunting again. With you."
"Yeah. There's just one thing though."
"You know the Founders believed in committed relationships. And I always said I'd never have a Marriage of Convenience again. So I thought - "
Rodney did not feel faint, because he was a grown man and grown men did not feel faint. "Yes, John?"
"I thought - " John pulled his hand out of the pocket of his black jacket, opening his palm to reveal a gold ring. "It belonged to one of the Captain Sheppards that came through the Curtain. I thought you might like it better than amber. If – if you would enter into a Covenant Marriage with me?"
The gold ring was beautiful, a simple, perfect, shiny band. "You realize Covenant Marriages are for life? Well, no, that's not entirely accurate, they can be dissolved but it's incredibly difficult and complicated? Years of paperwork? You'd be essentially stuck with me. And Canada. Jeannie and her family, because she writes and calls regularly. She's decided I'm going to be a good, caring uncle to her daughter, whether I like it or not."
"You'd be stuck with me. And my dad and Dave and his family. They'll expect to see me more if I'm a hunter again."
Rodney reached out hesitantly, taking the ring. "Left, right?"
"Right." John grinned madly. "Left."
Rodney slipped the ring on his finger, with only a moment to admire it, before John's hands were sliding around his waist, and they were kissing, bodies pressing tightly together, sealing their commitment as Canada walking over the keys of the alien instrument, creating a beautiful sound.