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Code of Honor

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Episode XVII

Prologue

Telos IV, Outer Rim, 3977 BBY

When John was a boy growing up on Telos, he used to have fun running up and down the city with his friends, avoiding droids and the Telosian Security Force, pretending he was a soldier in the Republic and saving the day. There was a Twi'lek girl, Teer, a few years older than he was who joined in sometimes. He remembered how fiercely she wanted to be a Jedi. John didn't know if she wasn't an Adept or if her parents just refused to let her go. It happened sometimes, though rarely. But John wondered because she was so wise, knew so many things, that he began to think she was one, even if she was never an official member of the Order.

She had a carved stick, painted half yellow, for a lightsaber. She used to twirl around with it so gracefully it was sometimes breathtaking.

John used to team up with Teer and her lightsaber, him armed with his refurbished mining laser, which was nothing more than a toy blaster with a red light that lit when fired and rescued all the kids from the Sith or the Mandalorians.

After especially exhilarating battles, they'd collapse in fits of giggles and gorge themselves on beebleberry ice cream, crowing about their victories. He figured when they got older, they'd get married and be together forever. He couldn't imagine a day when she wasn't there to tell him how to pick out the best fruit or where to hide when they were in trouble for playing in forbidden areas.

"John," Teer said, one day after they'd destroyed a rogue faction of Iridonian warriors—who were really the four kids who lived in the apartment block across from them. She had a smile on her face. "I want to let you know something."

"Yes?" he said, wondering if it was the location of a new hideout or a new threat they needed to face together.

She ruffled his hair. "I want you to make a promise to me."

"Anything," he said, and he meant it. She was his best friend and he'd do anything for her at all.

"If anything happens to me, don't come and find me." She was serious when she spoke, and John didn't understand.

"I won't let anything happen to you." John looked at her with a fierce glare. She wasn't making any sense. "You're my best friend."

Teer frowned at him. "Promise me. You're important, John Sheppard. More important than you know. I don't want anything bad to happen to you."

"But I don't want anything bad to happen to you, either," he said, sullen and angry. Then he got suspicious. "Do you know something I don't?"

"Of course not,"Teer said, waving away his concerns. "Remember, a good soldier always has plans for any scenario."

John looked at her, wanting to argue more, but she had asked for something and it was something he could do. "All right. I promise. But you've got to promise me something back."

"Yes?" Teer asked, curious. She gave him an expectant look, nervously chewing on her bottom lip.

With his arms across his chest, he said, "You've got to promise to be my friend always."

Teer smiled delightedly. "That I can promise easily. We'll always be friends."

He was ten when she was taken away. Her father had owed a fortune in gambling debts, and she was the payment. She kicked and fought and when John tried to help her, he was slapped down for his trouble. He ran home to his mother, crying, and explained what happened. She gave him a pitying look.

"She's just a Twi'lek," his mother had said. "Most of them end up dancing anyhow."

John stared at her, betrayed, and vowed to enter the Academy, and join the Republic Navy and be able to save the day for real. He never cried again, to her or to anyone else. Tears wouldn't save people's lives; they couldn't bring anyone back.

Years later, he still felt plagued by that sense of helplessness. Joining the Republic Navy didn't help him save people any more than tears had when he was a child. He still ended up watching as people he knew, people he cared about, disappeared in front of his eyes.

It was easier just to vow not to look at anyone anymore.

 

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

When John woke up, he stumbled to the front of the ship, looking out over the junkyard on the endless barren wasteland of the planet, wishing he could go back to sleep and dream of the endless black of space.

John looked at the small datapad near his bed which informed him that he had to pay Biro, the junkyard's owner, rent for storing his ship there. It wasn't as expensive as the proper docking yards, and he preferred the relative privacy. He really wasn't too keen on getting involved with anyone in security on this planet.

He glanced in the mirror of the refresher as he cleaned up and wondered just what it was he thought he was doing with his life. John sighed, wishing things weren't so complicated or he had far fewer scruples than he did, because his life would be so much easier. Shrugging off the mood as best he could, John set aside the wash cloth and stared at his face. His beard was growing in again, but he didn't feel like shaving it yet. Tomorrow, he told himself.

After that, John went to his quarters got dressed and grabbed his deck of cards. Absently, he scratched at his beard as he mentally planned his day. He had things he had to do and he had a goal. And, damn it, he had a ship. She didn't quite work so well in the flying department, but she was a ship and she was his. With that, he felt marginally better and headed off the ship.

Biro, a scrawny lady with fierce expression permanently on her face, was already outside waiting for him when he got off the ship. "Hey, Shep. I may have a lead for you."

"Yeah?" John said, grinning. "Can this lead actually get the Pegasus flying well or are you just trying to get me out of your yard?"

With a snort of laughter, Biro clapped him on the back. "This guy knows his stuff. Best tech specialist you could hope for, and he already has a utility droid."

That was the best news John had had since he was forced to reside on Korriban when everything got fucked up. It wasn't long before he ran out of credits, never having enough to barter passage of the rock in the first place, and he was forced to start doing odd jobs like couriering illegal things to survive. There really wasn't much in the line of work for a former soldier on Korriban, and trafficking was one of the more reputable choices.

Korriban was a desolate shithole of a planet on the outer rim in the Esstran sector. There were only two places there worth knowing about: Dreshdae and the Sith Academy. Dreshdae was the sole settlement on the planet, and it wasn't so much a city as a stopping ground for those visiting for nefarious purposes or those staying at the Academy. The rest of the land was barren, dust and old tombs—a graveyard of a past John thought ought to stay buried.

"What's the catch?" John asked, tilting his head to the side. Nothing was ever without strings.

Biro smiled unabashedly. "Well, you'll need to convince him to help you. And credits alone aren't going to do it."

"Ah," John said. "A challenge. I like that."

With a pat on the back, Biro said, "Good. Good. He works—quite unhappily—for Czerka. He usually finds his way to the The Drunk Side around lunchtime. His name is Rodney McKay."

If the guy hung out at The Drunk Side, John wondered if he'd seen him before. One of his main sources of income was betting on games of Pazaak with desperate locals and the random off-worlder who didn't know him or his reputation at the cantina. In fact, he'd won the Pegasus in a high-stakes game of Pazaak. Though—based in part on the state of the Pegasus when he went to retrieve it—John had a sneaking suspicion that the shifty little Rodian threw the game on purpose. Still, he couldn't complain as he really hadn't had anywhere close to the twenty-thousand credits the stakes had ended up reaching.

"Thanks." John stared up at the sky, imaging what it'd feel like to fly off this planet.

With a smirk, Biro replied, looking as cagey as ever, "Don't thank me yet."

John snorted and headed off to the city to make his rounds. There were a few people he played regularly, though he usually only netted upwards of some hundreds of credits weekly from them. And then there were the various couriering jobs he did, taking shit from one end of the settlement to the other. He didn't make much, but it was enough to survive and put aside a handful of credits here and there toward his fund to repair his ship. Today he was meeting a new potential employer, Davi Parsh, recommended to him by Dorin, the bartender at the Drunk Side.

"Shep?" A man with light brown hair, nervous hands, and a thin-lipped frown was sitting in the corner of the dingy room called out to him. He had a distrustful expression on his face. He looked like a man who'd spent too much time avoiding trouble.

John grinned. He was an expert at avoiding trouble. Problem was, trouble didn't extend him the same courtesy. "Yep. You Parsh?"

"I've a few questions before I give you this job."

John could understand that."Shoot."

Parsh motioned for John to sit down across from him, which he did, and tried to look as trustworthy as possible. Which probably just made him look constipated.

"Ever had a package stolen?"

"Nope."

"Do you live on this planet?"

John hesitated a moment. "I'm just here until I fix my ship."

"You work for the Exchange?" Parsh asked.

John hated that question. No one was ambivalent about a ruthless, multi-planetary gang of criminals. Never having met a straight answer he couldn't avoid if he wanted, John replied, "I'm freelancing at the moment."

Parsh eyed him suspiciously for a moment before giving him a relaxed nod and pulled a package out of his bag, which John hadn't noticed at first. "I need you to deliver this to the Academy."

Repressing his innate desire to cringe, John nodded. "Just give it to the guard at the door?"

"Yes. I'd go myself, but..." Parsh trailed off, looking as uncomfortable as John felt. The Sith tended to engender that emotion from people. John had a feeling that it was intentional. The more scared people were of crossing the Sith, the less people tried.

John took the package and half the credits he was owed. The other half was to be paid by the guard. He wished he didn't need to do these odd jobs to survive here. But he really didn't have the luxury to be all that picky.

"Shep," Parsh called out, stopping him before he left. "There's another job I know of... A guy down at the Czerka office was needing someone to... take care of some business."

That was a line he refused to step over. Despite stepping down, he was still a soldier for the Republic in his heart. "Tell him to hire a Mandalorian." Now that the war between the Republic and the Mandalorians were over, the remnants of the once wide-spread clan were now reduced to being hired guns. Few had scruples about the jobs they took and mostly went to the highest bidder.

Parsh accepted the statement for what it was and left.

John took a moment to gather his thoughts. Then he headed out of Dreshdae and over to the Sith Academy. Even though it was a short distance from the settlement, it felt like a world away. The path between the two places was much like the planet, sandy and desolate with an ominous sense of something unpleasant lurking nearby.

He'd done his level best to hide his past, so hopefully no one would recognize what he was, a former soldier for the Republic. He didn't have the straight, proud posture these days, and his hair was overlong, and then there was the beard.. He handed the guard, in full body armor, the package and said nothing.

"Here." The guard shoved some credits at him and nodded at him to get out of there. He went.

John was loitering in the The Drunk Side around lunchtime, a small, dank pit of a place, when a loud, excited invective drew his attention to the doorway. A rather attractive man with light brown hair, blue eyes, and red cheeks was waving his arms around, yelling abuse at an utility droid which was beeping and blooping right back at him.

"I don't care what your programming says, you're totally and utterly wrong," the man said, eyes blazing, completely ignoring the stares of everyone in the room.

The droid moved with him. "Deet. Dooot. Deet. Drrrrn. Booop."

"Honestly? If the last five times you said that didn't convince me, what makes you think it'll work this time?"

"Droooot. Deet deeet. Zrrrn."

The man rolled his eyes. "Insulting my parents isn't really endearing you to me at all. Why don't you go back there and see if you can come up with another solution. One, I don't know, that will decidedly not cause an explosion that would level the settlement."

The droid gave another stream of what John assumed were insults toward the man, who was scowling, and turned and left. The man sighed the sigh of the long-suffering and moved to the bar.

"No more stims," the bartender said before the man could even ask for anything. "Not for you."

"Did I ask for stims? Do I look like I need stims?" The man sounded embarrassed and affronted at the same time. John got the sense that this man used stims rather more than he should. "Look, just give me some Juma juice and something edible, and I'll go away."

"Yes, yes, McKay," the bartender agreed readily. "Just no more stims."

John perked up at that. This was McKay? He figured that a tech specialist would be a little calmer than not calm all. Though, he supposed the only guy he'd seen on this planet who could understand droidspeak was probably was a safe bet as someone good with machines. "Hey, you can join me," he offered as soon as McKay had his food and drink.

"What? Are you talking to me?" McKay asked, surprised, as if a little suspicious and flattered all at once. John took a second to marvel at that and then nodded.

"Yeah, there's room at my table. I'm John Sheppard."

McKay gave him a searching look before shrugging and sitting down across from him. "Hi, thanks. I'm Rodney. McKay. Are you a spacer? You don't work for Czerka, at least not here. Mercenary? Though, you don't look like one. Smuggler? Don't worry, I don't care if you are. Wait...You're not a new recruit, are you? Not that there's anything wrong if you are. But...uh. It's just..."

John was stunned through most of the rambling, amazed anyone could talk that long without breathing, but he needed to stop Rodney before he got the wrong idea and ran away to hide. "No. I'm not a recruit," John's eyes darted around the room as he said it. "I'm a pilot." It was partially the truth. And McKay relaxed at once.

"Ah. That's good. That's... good." McKay floundered for a minute before giving John a half-smile. "I fix things. I work at Czerka, unfortunately. I used to work in the Mid Rim but I was shuttled out to this dead pit of a planet a few months ago. And now I'm stuck here, doing mind-numbing work, fixing stuff a halfway decent droid could fix and, while I do it, I have to listen to M1K0 tell me how to do my job. I swear, the droids get more quirky and resistant to memory wipes every day. They'll be taking over the galaxy before you know it."

Laughing, John leaned back in his chair and watched as Rodney inhaled his lunch, still bitching about droids, and gulped his drink down just as quickly. "So, I was wondering if you fancied a game of Pazaak?"

Rodney's eyebrows shot up, clearly not expecting the question. "Well, I prefer Dejarik, to be honest, but I could go for a game. Not much time today. My lunch break is depressingly short. I can play one or two rounds. I don't have my good deck with me today."

With a nod, John got out his casual deck and shuffled. He looked up at Rodney, adding with a leer, "All right. You sure you don't want to play with Nar Shaddaa rules?"

A blush colored Rodney's cheeks as his eyebrows raised in question. "I think losing clothes during the middle of the day, in a bar, is a little too risque, don't you think?"

John laughed. "Yeah, you're right. Let me guess, you're a Republic Standard rules type of guy. Not much of a risk taker, right?"

"Are you a hustler?" Rodney asked and John had to fight to keep his eyes from shooting up to stare at him in surprise. Was it that obvious? John gave Rodney his most charming grin and said, "Nah, why would you think that?"

Skepticism settled heavily on Rodney's face. "Uh huh. Yeah, right. Look, since you don't know me, well, at all, I'll forgive your ignorance this once. I, however, am not a moron. Don't treat me like one."

"All right," John said, trying to placate him. He really couldn't afford to piss McKay off. "I have been know, from time to time, to relieve a few people of their credits during games. But I never cheat, so it really is a mixture of luck and talent."

"Right," McKay replied, nodding to himself. "Fine. Okay. And, for your information, I'm not above betting. Republic Standard rules are only for when I'm broke or too drunk to make good decisions. One hundred credits."

John was surprised that Rodney was willing to bet after what he'd just admitted, but he wasn't stupid enough to turn it down. If he did, McKay would assume he was cheating, so it was more worth it to take his credits than not. "Sounds good."

Although a lot of people didn't find Pazaak cerebral enough, preferring Dejarik like Rodney apparently did, John knew he won through more than just luck. It was knowing what was left in the deck and the likelihood his opponent would hit for over twenty and not have the right cards to get equal or under it again. John watched Rodney's face as he considered his next move. He had two fives and a six in front of him. He obviously didn't have a four in his deck or he'd have placed it down by then. But, chances were he'd go over twenty if he hit. John figured Rodney would stay.

"Hit me," Rodney said after a moment and John was surprised. The next card was a four. Lucky bastard. Rodney grinned.

John wasn't surprised when Rodney took that game. He came back and won the second round, which caused Rodney to scowl. "Last round," John said unnecessarily. Rodney rolled his eyes, but quickly focused on his cards. He only had one card left in his side deck and John figured it was a low digit plus/minus one.

After Rodney drew from the main deck, he pulled out a ten and scowled, as it caused him to bust with no way to get under twenty again. "Damn."

"Close game," John said and graciously accepted McKay's credits. "Want another round?"

Rodney shook his head. "No time. But...if you wanted, I'll have more time tomorrow 'round dinner time."

With a wide grin, John got to his feet, offering Rodney his hand. "I'll look forward to it."

The blush was back and more insistent as it colored from Rodney's cheeks down to his neck. "Yes," Rodney stammered, eyes focused on John's, "yes. Good. Tomorrow. That'll be... good."

John sat back down, this time in Rodney's chair, which allowed him to follow Rodney's movements, and his ass, as he walked out the door. "Hmmm."

~~

Telos IV, Outer Rim, 3974 BBY

John's father owned a lucrative shuttle service, transporting the upper class from place to place. He also had his fingers in a few other pies. John never really paid much attention, as his father was rarely home and when he was he spoke at length about honoring the family name and upholding tradition. Dav, John's older brother, listened intently to this, and often echoed these speeches when his father wasn't around.

It wasn't that John hated being wealthy, because he didn't. It was more that he just didn't concern himself with the finances at all. He liked playing with other kids—real play, not the type of dignified games that most other kids his father approved of engaged.

And then there was the fact that all John wanted to do was fly. He watched the shuttle pad, sometimes, and the many different starships that came and went. He wanted to be in the pilot seat. He wanted to fly off to some far off planet. He wanted to go anywhere, everywhere, from the Core to the Wild Space. And he wanted to do it so badly he didn't care if he had lots of credits or the best clothes or the "honor" of the Sheppard name, as long as he had his own ship.

"You know Dad's not gonna cave," Dav said. He had that maddening superior expression on his face. "He wants both of us to learn the family trade."

John crossed his arms, knowing that his expression was probably mulish but unable to help himself. "It's boring. I'd rather space myself than do that all day."

"For Edge's sake, John. You need to grow up. You're going to be twelve soon, and that means you need to stop playing around and start becoming more serious about your vocation."

"I am serious," John replied sullenly. "I want to be a pilot. I want to be in the Republic Navy."

"Well, forget it." Dav was angry now. "Just do what Dad wants. It's your duty. You owe it to the family."

"No!" John yelled, and then he turned and ran. He didn't want to do boring business paperwork. He didn't want to owe his stupid family. He didn't want to give up his dream, and he didn't want to be like his dad, a man he barely knew.

After a long time running, he found himself out of the city and on the plains of Telos. There were farmers and animals and mercenaries with blasters about, and John felt just a little bit scared. He tried to make his way back, but everything looked the same. He was lost and didn't want to get in trouble asking where to go because he really wasn't supposed to be out there.

John walked toward a copse of trees that looked familiar, but when he neared, he fell into a partially covered ditch. Lost, scared, and hurt, he curled his head over his knees and tried not to cry.

A few hours later he heard the sound of someone at the lip of the ditch. "Hello, young one, may I offer you some assistance?"

Looking up, John saw a beautiful woman looking down at him. He nodded and then was surprised when she levitated him out of the ditch. He watched with wide eyes when she hovered her hands over his hurt ankle and healed him as well.

"You're a Jedi!" John said stupidly. She simply smiled at him as she got him to his feet. "I'm John."

"It is nice to meet you, John," she replied. "I am Chaya Saar, and yes, I'm a Jedi Knight."

John smiled at her. "It's nice to meet you, Master Saar."

"Please, call me Chaya. I must ask why you were out here all alone. It is not safe, and you do not appear to be with your family."

Frowning, John stared at the ground. "I ran away. Sort of."

"What's troubling you? Come, kneel with me and perhaps I can help assist you in your troubles."

"I want to be a pilot! But Dav said that Dad won't let me. He said I need to go into the family business. I don't want to."

Chaya fell silent a moment, seemingly considering his words. "I understand the dilemma you face, John. "

"You do?" John asked, surprised. He'd heard that all Jedi joined when they were very young. It was seen as an honor by many.

"Yes." Her expression was thoughtful. "I do not know if you are aware, but I am of the Echani."

"Your hair, your eyes," John said, looking at her properly now. Her hair was white and her eyes silver. "I should have noticed."

"Worry not about that," she said kindly. "My mother was a Jedi Master and my father an Echani warrior. I have a sister as well. I was forced to choose between two sides of me. I could either become a Jedi like my mother before me or follow the ways of the Echani, which forbid the learning of said ways. It was seen as a betrayal, John, the choice I made when I was young. My sister became a Handmaiden along with the rest of our half-sisters. I alone chose this path. For that, I am no longer welcome amongst them."

John understood at once why she was imparting such a personal story. He, too, might have to make a similar choice. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Jedi train themselves to be free from attachment. It is no matter," Chaya said, though her voice said it wasn't as easy as that. "I could not have contact with my family even if I were welcome."

"Was it worth it?" John asked, because this was even more important than knowing of potential fallout.

Chaya smiled at him. "If given the choice, I would choose the same again. The Force is my ally. It gives me peace. You need to decide which of the paths before you will give you the most peace. It is not always the right choice to follow a path that has been decided for you. Often, the Force will guide us to a different path than what is obvious. What your path is, I cannot see. Clear your mind, John, and let the Force guide you. You will know, then, what is the right choice."

"Thank you," John whispered, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. She had not told him what to do, but had left it up to him. No one had ever asked what he really wanted to do. No one had given him permission to follow his own way before.

"It has been a pleasure, John. We are more alike than you realize. Now, I think it is time for you to go back home." She started walking toward a road that looked a little familiar. "I will guide you."

He wanted to say thanks again, but his throat was tight with it. He simply followed her until he knew where he was. He turned to her before he made his way back to the city. "Will I see you again?"

"If the Force wills it." She nodded at him once and went back they way they had came.

John never did see her again, though he had never forgotten her.

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"I wouldn't advise that," John said with a would-be casual tone. This little job of his took him across the busier parts of Dreshdae, away from his comfort zone of the area where the cantina was and toward the decrepit areas of the settlement. True, it was further away from the Academy, but that didn't mean it was any safer. The man in front of him kept darting his eyes toward the door, his hand twitching over his belt.

"I don't know what you mean?" the man replied nervously.

John placed his hands on his hips, tilting his head to the side. "Let's just say that I'm pretty sure I'm better with a blaster than you are. How bout you just turn around and go back the way you came. I've got a job to do, and you're not going to be stealing from me."

"What makes you think I'm going to steal from you?"

With a step toward the man, John grinned. "Well, you've been following me since I picked up my package, you only came out of the shadows when we were all alone, with no witnesses around, your hand's been twitching toward your blaster since I stopped pretending I didn't know you were there and turned around. I could go on, but you get the picture."

"I... just remembered," the man sputtered, "I've got to meet someone for a drink. Can't be late." And with that, he scurried out the door. John watched him leave, grateful that he didn't need to back up his words.

After that, John backtracked to the place where he had realized he was being followed, and turned in the other direction. He didn't want to lead anyone to the drop off in case someone decided to come back later, with friends.

"Hey," John said as soon as he saw Stackhouse. They'd been in the Naval Academy together. He had the sneaking suspicion that Stackhouse wasn't here for a vacation, and John had kept it close to the vest that he'd known the man from his other life. If Stackhouse was working for the Republic, John wasn't going to be the one who got him captured or killed. "Got something here for you."

"Thanks." Stackhouse took the package, but didn't open it. John figured it was something important for the Republic. He was curious, at least a little, but he had decided a while ago not to get in deeper than he already was. "Here's your credits."

John accepted them with a nod. "I'll see you around."

"Shep," Stackhouse said when he was at the door. "I..." John didn't turn around. "Never mind. See you around."

He left quickly, his heart pounding a little. John didn't know what Stackhouse was going to say, but he had a feeling it was going to be about coming back. John didn't think he could do that. He didn't think he was worthy of wearing the uniform anymore.

Feeling a bit grim, John headed toward the cantina. He wanted a drink, a couple of mindless games of Pazaak, and maybe something to eat.

That Sith Twi'lek who recruited for the Academy was in the corner again and John almost just gave it up as a bad day and went home when he spotted McKay, sitting near a couple of pilots, fiddling with a datapad.

John grabbed some food and a drink and sat down across from him. "Hi again."

"Oh!" Rodney looked up, startled and maybe a little scared, but it was soon replaced by recognition. "You."

"Yeah, me," John agreed. He grinned a little when Rodney turned his attention back to his datapad. He hadn't told John to get lost and that was a good sign, as far as he was concerned.

The Sith Twi'lek and the eager young man she had been sitting with got up and left the cantina. Moments later, John heard sounds from the hallway, screaming mingled with laughter. John made to get to his feet, but Rodney clamped his hand down on John's.

"I can't just let it..."John said. It wasn't the first time it'd happened since he'd been there, but it got harder for him to ignore it, despite knowing there really was nothing he could do to help the situation.

Rodney cut him off. "Yes, you can. If you don't want to die, you will. What do you think will happen if you run out there with your blaster? That one is the apprentice of the man who runs the Academy here. She'd slice you with her lightsaber before you could get a chance to save anyone."

The voices outside were fainter and he heard the sound of the outer door leading to the desert outside of Dreshdae, the exit nearest to the path to the Academy, open and close.

He felt irrationally angry at Rodney for stopping him when it was his job to save people. Maybe Rodney was callous and could hear someone's screams without reacting, but John wasn't that guy. Not yet. And he was maybe a little mad at himself for never even trying before.

"Whatever you may think of me," Rodney said, as if he could read John's thoughts. "I couldn't just let you walk out to your death. No one could have stopped what happened out there."

John nodded, knowing that Rodney was right, despite what his instincts screamed at him to do. "Have you seen this happen a lot?"

Rodney gave him a searching look and then nodded. "Yeah. Everyone here has, I suppose. Though, it's easy to avoid if you don't come here much. Some of us just have the knack of being in the right place at the right time," he said with a bit of irony.

"Lucky you" John knew immediately that it was wearing on Rodney too, that his initial assumption was wrong. Just how many people had Rodney seen die unnecessarily? Not as many as John, that was almost impossible to match, but probably more than a fair share for a technician.

With a roll of his eyes, Rodney got up and asked the bartender for a round of drinks. "Yes, yes. Lucky me. Here," Rodney pushed a drink towards him. "Looks like you need it as much as I do."

"To everyone," John said, leaving off who died too young, and saluted. Rodney echoed his words and movements and sipped his drink in equal silence.

"I didn't think I'd be seeing you again," Rodney said casually when their drinks and food were gone. "You don't seem the type to stay in one place."

John had to smile at that. "Well, let's just say that I've no immediate plans to leave. Some business to take care of."

"Fair enough." Rodney took out his cards. "I'm sure you won't say no to a game, then? I have another twenty minutes to kill before I need to go back to work."

John had to hold back a laugh. His instincts were telling him that the man across from him was a workaholic, so holding off going back to work seemed strange to him. Though, it wasn't as if John actually knew the man. "Sure. A hundred credits again?"

Now, Rodney smiled at him. "Prepare to lose, Scruffy."

"Who you calling Scruffy?" John shot back with a wide smile.

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

Parsh found him the next day with another delivery for the Sith Academy.

"Same thing as before," Parsh said, thrusting some credits at John. "And probably again tomorrow."

John nodded, because he really couldn't afford to say no, but he hoped that tomorrow was the last of it. Every time he went down to the Academy, it felt like he was testing fate or something.

"You again," the Sith guard said when he walked up to the door, which made John uncomfortably aware of the blaster at the Sith's side. "Here," and the rest of his credits were passed over to him. John turned and left, beating the guard to it.

Back in Dreshdae, he wandered over to a shop and checked out some of the stock of weapons, wondering if he should buy something aside from the blaster pistol he already had, but the good stuff was out of his price range and the things he could afford weren't all that reliable.

John found himself drifting toward the Drunk Side come lunch time, hoping McKay would show up again. Mostly because he never actually did get around to bringing up the topic of his ship and how receptive Rodney was to fixing one. He never used to spend a lot of daytime hours there, preferring the nighttime crowd. The desire to see Rodney wasn't completely about his ship, if he was honest with himself.

"Oh, you're here," Rodney said the moment John walked into the cantina. "Might as well join me."

There were enough drink and food for two, and it made John want to smile like an idiot. "Thanks," John said, and then they ate and drank in silence. There was plenty of bustle going on. A few new shipments had arrived, and there were unfamiliar faces talking shop with the local patrons. John grinned. It was going to be a good night.

"Guess we shouldn't play right now," Rodney said shrewdly. "If you want to relieve these morons of their credits later."

John shrugged. Rodney was interesting, so he gave him a good-natured smile. "Bet it'd help if they see me lose."

"Are you going to lose?" Rodney asked, taking out his deck. "Wouldn't that make me your ringer or something?"

"Nah," John answered easily. It was easy to wind Rodney up, without even trying much. "Would I do such a thing?"

With a quick smile, Rodney shook his head. "You're something else..."

John grinned as he shuffled the deck and then proceeded to lose dramatically and loudly, interspersed with a few choice curses. He ended by calling Rodney a Schutta.

Rodney raised his eye at that. "Schutta?" he asked in a quiet voice. He looked like he was seriously wondering about John's sanity.

"You were using your wiles to con me out of my credits," John answered with an innocent expression. "It fits... sort of."

And then Rodney laughed, which surprised John. He got the sense that Rodney didn't laugh all that often and when he did, it was usually meanly. The corner of his eyes crinkled, and he let his fingers drag against John's as he picked up the main deck to reshuffle the cards for another match. "You'd know if I were flirting," Rodney said after he set the cards down. "It's not a pretty sight."

"Does that mean you're not flirting with me?" John asked, lips curled. This was fun. More fun than he'd had in a while. "I'd hate to think I was the only one.

Rodney's cheeks pinked a little bit as he placed his side deck down on the table. "I could possibly be persuaded to do such a thing. Not that you'd really want to see it, but yes. Maybe I am. A little."

 

~~

Telos IV, Outer Rim, 3971 BBY

Despite dire warnings from Dav, John's dad ended up paying for him to go to an expensive school which churned out students ready to go to one of the academies for training the Republic's Galactic Forces. John wasn't exactly sure what his father was playing at, but he was too excited to think about it too deeply.

After coming back for summer holiday during his second year, he entered their home only to hear his father talking to Dav in a quiet, determined tone.

"Stop worrying."

Dav snorted in disgust. "I think it is a waste of time is all. He should be studying under me instead of gallivanting off to that damned academy."

"You know how stubborn he is," his father returned evenly. "Just let him get it all out of his system. Then, when he's of age, we'll make it clear what's expected of him."

"And you think this will work? You don't think he'll just do what he wants, just like he always does?"

"He'll do his duty unless he'd rather come up with all the credits he needs to survive on his own."

John stood frozen, listening to his brother and father discuss him like he was just a tool they were using. Even though he had wondered at times why his father agreed to send him, he never really expected it to be like that. A part of him had always hoped his father understood him and just wanted him to be happy.

He dropped his bag where it was and left. John didn't think he could deal with them right then. Inevitably, he'd blow up, letting them know he knew exactly what they were up to and then he'd probably be forced to leave the Academy. If anything, what he heard just made him want to do better in his classes.

Instead, he dropped by the nearest cantina, got a drink, and made his way toward the Pazaak tables. He'd learned to play at the Academy and discovered his knack for numbers translated into being a fairly decent player.

"Hey, John, remember me? I go to the Academy with you." John looked up and saw a boy his age he recognized a moment later as Cam standing in front of him.

"Cam, right?" John said and gestured to the seat across from him. Cam grinned as he sat down. "Yeah, I remember. Up for a game?"

"Sounds good. " Cam pulled out his cards. "We didn't have any classes together, but I've seen you around. Didn't know you lived in Telos."

"I spent most of my time as kid getting into trouble here." John grinned. His dad hated his penchant for mischief, which was probably why John enjoyed it so much. "I was grounded half the time and the other half was running wild."

"Well, I moved here about four years ago. Originally, I was from Taris, but my family decided to move. The gang wars over there are crazy." Cam grinned at him, and John felt a tiny squirm in his belly.

"Every place has its own particular brand of crazy, doesn't it?" John said with a laugh. "I like it here well enough. Though I wouldn't mind seeing a few other planets. I can't wait to graduate."

"What are you planning to do after?" Cam asked. "My uncle works for the Telosian Security Force. He figures if I do well enough, I'll be able to join up right after."

"Oh, I'm going to continue on with another Academy. One of the ones which train officers for the Navy. I want to get into Flight School."

"Totally gonzo," Cam exclaimed. "It'd be something else. Flying starfighters, blowing up Mandalorian scum."

"The Republic has the best ships." John didn't care that he'd lost the first round of Pazaak to Cam because it was such a novelty to be able to talk about his dreams with someone, something he'd not done since he'd met the Jedi Chaya all those years ago.

"Hey, you want a tour of the TSF?" Cam asked. "My uncle won't mind. I can say you're thinking of joining. They're always looking to recruit."

"Yeah," John said. "Sure. Let's go." He followed Cam out of the cantina. A couple of his classmates told him that working local security could sometimes lead to better positions in the Republic later on. He spent the rest of the day with Cam, almost forgetting about what he'd heard at home entirely.

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"Hi, Derra, is it?" John said as he greeted the young woman who answered the door. He'd been sent to deliver a package to her in exchange for credits he was to deliver back, less his cut.

She gave him a wide-eyed frightened look and started pleading in a language he didn't understand. Fear was universal, though he wasn't sure what caused it.

John smiled in what he hoped was a nonthreatening manner. "Do you know Basic?"

"Yes," she answered tremulously. "I do not have the credits. Please...Please do not hurt me."

"Whoa," John replied, shocked. "No one's hurting anyone. Let's sort this out, all right? I was told you ordered this package. I'm just the delivery guy."

"It's how... it's how it works. He sends packages to people and if you don't pay..." Her eyes darted around frightfully as if she expected goons from the Exchange to show up and start shooting indiscriminately.

"What exactly is in this thing?" John turned the package over in his hand. It seemed innocuous enough, but he never asked about contents, figuring he was better off that way.

"Spice," Derra replied. "Probably. I don't...We don't use it. I never wanted to even try. If I take it, I'll get addicted and come back for more. If I refuse..."

Sighing, John scratched the Trandoshan who had hired him off the list of sentient beings he'd work for. The list got shorter with each passing day. He itched to be off this stupid planet. The sooner, the better. He didn't want to end up losing what few scruples he still had. "Don't worry," John said finally. "I'll take care of it."

She looked surprised and on this planet, he supposed someone not immediately inclined to violence was somewhat of a novelty. "You...will? I...have no way to repay you."

There was something about the way she held her body as she said this that sent red flags up for John. She couldn't think he wanted... well, of course she did. He couldn't help but frown. "Don't worry. I don't need anything. At all.."

It was then that she visibly relaxed, not by much, but enough. John wished he could do more to put her at ease, but maybe it wasn't even a good thing. She clearly had reason to be wary and John would hate to know that getting her to trust him would make it easier for another huttspawn to come around and use it to their advantage. She closed the door and he took a moment to just breathe. Sometimes, this life wasn't easy and it was the little moments like this that really brought that knowledge home.

He turned around and headed off to pay the Transdoshan who was probably a slaver and thought with a bit of a laugh that he was the worst debt collector ever. John tightened his grip on the package, realizing he should probably not be carrying it when he handed off the credits. Maybe he could get some credits off one of his contacts as he really couldn't afford to spend what credits he had. Still, the way that woman had looked at him, scared and helpless, tore at him. He couldn't just be another piece of scum roaming the galaxy. He might not be the same guy he was before, but he wasn't that low yet. John thought he'd rather space himself before getting to the point where he'd harass innocent sentient beings into slavery or kill them for fighting it.

 

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"Let us not waste any more of my valuable time," Rodney said as he sat down, "by dancing around whatever it is you want with me." John automatically opened his mouth to protest, but Rodney cut him off with a stern, "And don't insult my intelligence by denying that there is, in fact, something you do want me with me."

John leered at him. "Yeah, well maybe you're right."

The look he received in return was incredulity bordering on annoyance.

"All right," John said holding up his hands in surrender before Rodney said anything else, or worse, left. "Thing is... I need someone to get my ship back in the black, and I heard that you're the best engineer around."

Visibly preening, Rodney smiled at him, giving him his full attention. "Oh? Yes, well... yes. That would be true. I am the best. A thousand times over, actually. What's the model?"

"It's a Dynamic-class freighter. Got damaged in the Mandalorian War and the guy who was piloting it landed here. It and he ended up staying. Won it off him."

"You won it? Those things can run around thirty thousand credits, used!" Rodney's were wide and disbelieving. "Sure you didn't space anyone for it?"

"Rodney," John said, laughing. "Yeah, I'm sure. It wasn't only was damaged, but stripped, I think, for parts. It's a great ship, though."

"And this is where I come in, I'm guessing?" Rodney asked, looking amused. "I highly doubt you've got the credits to pay me."

Wincing, John glanced at Rodney as he signaled for another round of Juma juice. "That's probably fair to say. I was hoping we could work things out..."

"No, you were hoping that I'd keep losing to you in Pazaak and I'd have to pay you back in trade," Rodney answered with unerring accuracy. Their drinks were clunked down in front of them. John took a fortifying gulp.

John sighed and took another sip his drink "Yeah, that's also fair to say. Well, seeing as that's not gonna work, I guess that leaves us where we started." He was about to get to his feet, when there was a hand over his. He could feel the cold sweat from the glass of Juma juice on the palm of Rodney's hand. He told his body firmly to stop reacting.

"Hey, hey," Rodney said, cutting him off. He had an appraising expression on his face. "I didn't say I wasn't going to help you." John sat back down and stared at Rodney's face with his bright eyes and pink cheeks and quirky smile. "I just was pointing out that the standard method of payment wasn't going to work for us."

John felt the tips of his ears grow warm—as well as his cheeks and neck—at that. Rodney couldn't, couldn't, mean what it sounded like he meant. He had to say no. Not that Rodney wasn't attractive or that John hadn't been staring at him like he'd enjoy nothing better than stripping him out of those clothes and licking him all over—because John was fairly sure he had been doing just that—but he wasn't the sort of guy who paid for anything with sex. He flashed back to the scared woman he'd delivered a package to, and had a bitter moment to think that this was what it felt like to be on the other side of the equation. Not the person who held the power, but the person who had nothing to bargain with except their body.

"So, what I want is for you to take me with you when you fly off this rock," Rodney said simply. "I hate it here. This place is worse than the last five planets I was on. I hate the... um. Yes, you know. I hate Czerka, too. I want out. So, that's the deal. I'll fix your ship. I make it space-worthy and you take me when you leave," Rodney crossed his arms. "Oh, and that's the only deal I'm offering, by the way."

"Yes," John said immediately, pretending he wasn't the least bit disappointed that Rodney hadn't asked for sex instead—not that he'd have agreed—but it was the point of it. "Yes, deal. That's great. I'll pay for any parts you need and take you anywhere once we're out of here."

Rodney nodded slowly, seemingly in thought for a moment, then he shook his head as if to clear away those thoughts. "Yes, hmm. So are you going to show me this ship of yours? Or do I have imagine fixing it when I sleep at night?"

"Oh!" John got to his feet and walked over to the bartender and handed him some credits for the drinks. "Yes, let's go. We can go see her right now."

The walk out the the junkyard was punctuated with a few glances at each other and a handful of scathing remarks about reliability the of stealth-field generators. John waved to Biro as they passed and led Rodney to where his ship was parked.

"Meet Pegasus," John said with a sweeping gesture toward the expanse of his ship.

Rodney raised an eyebrow at the call sign, but said nothing as he followed John up the ramp into the ship proper.

"This is the garage," John pointed to the room directly across from the ramp. "Tool bench is here. I'd like to get myself a Swoop bike. There's plenty of room for it."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Of course you would."

"Down that way is the starboard dormitory. Can't get in there, though. Door sticks. Not always," John explained. "Just found it better not to risk getting stuck in there if the door stops working."

"Should be easy enough to fix if you find the bad circuitry."

"Over here's the Medibay," John said. leading Rodney around. "And down that way is the engine room."

Rodney followed John's line of sight. "I've worked on this sort of hyperdive before. Good, good."

"This is the main hull. Navicomputer. That's a storage locker, but I haven't got that open, either. Up here's the security room. Maps, cockpit, and all that." John stared out the window to the outside and Rodney simply glanced over the room with an appraising expression.

They turned back and walked toward the Medibay again. "I forgot, this is the hatch to the hull and the turrets." They moved toward the hallway and turned right. "This is the storage room. Food supplies, storage containers, plus a few hidden places for smuggling."

"Are we going to be smuggling?" Rodney asked, eyebrows raised. He didn't seem condemning, but merely curious. John simply grinned back and led him back out.

"And this," John said, coming to the last hallway, "leads to the room I bunk in."

Rodney gave him a slow, lazy smile. "Aren't you going to show me?"

"Show you?" John echoed back, quite sure he was reading the situation wrong, even though he desperately wanted to be right. "I could show you."

"You're a crappy tour-guide, Captain."

John resolutely did not pout. "Hey..."

Then Rodney brushed against him as he walked past him and down to the room.

When John caught up with him, he found Rodney standing in the middle of the room, pointing at the bunk which John called his own. The other two bunks in the room were military precision neat, but the one he slept on had a mattress that extended outside of the bunk. Rodney had looked askance at it, than bent over to see what held it up.

"Apparently," John said, rubbing the back of his head with his hand, "one of the previous owners of this baby was married. He had that installed."

"And here I was just thinking you were a closet hedonist."

John shifted on his feet again, because he'd sort of spent more than a few minutes imagining what he'd do if he ever got Rodney in his bed. In all the scenarios he'd pictured, Rodney determining the structural integrity of his bed out of curiosity was not one of them.

Rodney hmmed under his breath and then straightened. "So, are we just going to stand here awkwardly all night long, talking about your bed in vague, clinical terms, or are you going to start getting naked so we can fuck?

It was like being electrocuted into motion. One second he was standing there, watching as Rodney bizarrely commented on the alloy used for the additional frame for the bed, and the next minute he was tugging Rodney close to him, wanting to finally, finally kiss him after weeks of flirting and furtive glances at Rodney's ass whenever he could manage.

"John." Rodney pulled back slightly, eyes narrowed on John's mouth, which he figured was as wet and swollen as Rodney's was. Then there was another kiss to his mouth, and another, and another. Rodney nipped slightly on his bottom lip, then stepped away, tugging off his shirt. John watched for a moment before doing the same.

Naked was a good look for Rodney. His chest had a smattering of hair, his body was solid, a little soft around the middle, and his cock was thick and, hard between his legs.

"Come here," Rodney said, sitting down on the edge of the bunk, legs spread in invitation.

Without sparing a second to think, John walked over and pushed Rodney down till he was sprawled across the mattress. "Hey," he whispered, despite the fact they were alone. Rodney hooked his hand around the back of John's neck and tugged him down.

The kissing was even better now that he could feel every inch of Rodney against him. Every time he sucked Rodney's bottom lip, he could feel Rodney's cock twitch against his own. He ground down against Rodney just to watch the way his whole body shivered.

Rodney cupped his ass, pushing their cocks together, moving John faster than he wanted. It had been forever since the last time he had sex. And he wanted their first time to comprise of more than two minutes of frantic fumbling on his bed.

He trailed his fingers down Rodney's arms and then curled them around his wrists. Rodney's eyes widened at that, his pupils darkening as John tightened his grip. He pinned them above Rodney's head, watching the way Rodney just melted against the bed, and he wished he had something better, like rope, just so he could have Rodney at his mercy and he could watch the way Rodney loved being held down.

Either unable or unwilling to break out of John's hold, Rodney lay beneath him, chest heaving, and started begging in a rough voice. "John, please, I want it. I want you. Please. I... I... give it to me. Fuck me. I don't care. I want you. I want you, now."

John wanted everything Rodney was asking for. He wanted to suck him, fuck him. He wanted to never let Rodney leave his bed ever again. He wanted every single kiss, every sigh, every moan to be for him and only him. John almost broke under the ferocity of how he felt. It was new and scary, but he refused to back away. Rodney bit his lip, and looked up at him, and John knew right then he wouldn't last long enough for half of the things he wanted to do.

He moved Rodney so his wrists were both pinned in one of John's hands, and he used his other hand to grope along the side of the wall for the panel which held the oil he used whenever he jerked off. It was half-empty, which John attributed entirely to his recent lunch dates with Rodney, which had sent him back to the ship hard, horny, and alone.

But not tonight. Tonight, Rodney was underneath him, squirming, begging, hard and hot and now his.

He poured a small pool of oil onto Rodney's belly, then tossed the bottle aside. He wet his hand with the oil thoroughly, using it to slick each of their cocks up, then he brought his hand up to caress Rodney's face, not caring about the oil glistening on his fingers as he kissed him again.

Their cocks slid against each other as he finally started to move. Rodney clenched his eyes shut, kissing any part of John's face and neck he could reach as John slowly ground their hips together. It was a burst of sensation, curling across every nerve he had, and some of which he had only just become aware.

"John," Rodney said, moaning as he tried to thrust up against John. He tugged helplessly against John's hold, which made John want Rodney even more.

It was a little while before John finally let go of Rodney's wrists so he could use his hands to cup Rodney's face, kissing him deeply. Rodney wrapped his arms around John's back immediately, holding him close as he whimpered into John's mouth.

"Oh," Rodney said, pulling away from that contact, face turned to the side. John bit down on Rodney's neck and was rewarded with Rodney's tightening grip as he came, spurting wildly all over John's cock.

"I want..." Rodney said, panting. "I want to see you. Come. Now. All over me."

John didn't need to be told twice. He got up on his knees, gripping his cock, and jerked himself roughly until he was coming all over Rodney's chest, neck, and face. He dropped down as soon as his cock softened and fell into another deep kiss.

A million years ago, it seemed, John had been with someone else, doing similar things. The memories ached a little, but the pain was lessening. He pushed the thoughts out of his mind. They didn't belong in bed with him and Rodney, who shoved his way inside John's heart and refused to leave.

John didn't even spare a thought about cleaning up when they finally pulled apart, looking at each other with fifty kinds of intent between them. He was going to kiss Rodney again, and again, and when his cock decided to participate once more, he was going to make love to him all over again.

"That," Rodney said, looking at John with something akin to wonder, "was good. But," he managed, still breathing heavily, "Not enough."

"Oh?" John asked, even though he agreed profusely. "Not enough?"

"No," Rodney answered decisively. "I think... More sex. Yes. I want it. You want it. We should get on that now."

Laughing against Rodney's shoulder, John eyed their quiescent dicks, which looked no more ready to go than they did a minute ago. "Only one problem with that, buddy."

"That?" Rodney said, and then he was leaning over the bed for his pants. "A solution." He pulled out two hypos from a pocket.

"Are those stims, Rodney?" John was more curious about what Rodney had in mind than he cared to admit.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Sort of, yes. Well, these were supposed to be a batch of Adrenal Stamina stimulants."

"I'm not taking botched stims, Rodney."

Leering at him, Rodney handed him one. "Oh, they work. On stamina, that is. Only not the stamina they intended."

John was suddenly very interested. "And they're safe?"

"Tried one myself," Rodney said with a grin. "No side effects. Just a lot of... energy for certain things."

Rodney had already injected himself so, shrugging, John figured what the hell. They wouldn't do it every time, he told himself, and followed suit.

Not even a minute later John realized that Rodney was definitely right, and he was going to show him just how much he appreciated that rightness.

~~

Telos IV, Outer Rim, 3969 BBY

The last night John spent on Telos before leaving for flight school was both awkward and brilliant.

Even though he hadn't really wanted to, he went to his parents' home to say goodbye. He helped his mother make dinner while his father and brother were still at work and let her tell him about all the latest gossip about their extended family and closest neighbors. John could tell it wasn't what she really wanted to say, but neither of them wanted to spend their last few hours together crying or fighting.

Neither his father nor his brother even looked at him when they came through the door that evening. John told himself that he wasn't surprised, that he didn't care. It worked, mostly.

He sat at the dinner table and suffered through one last, silent meal with his family. His father refused to speak to him and Dav followed suit, both having already expressed their opinions at great length for the last two years.

His mother hugged him close and whispered good luck in his ear, and then he went back to the apartment he'd been sharing with Cam off and on for the last year and a half.

Cam gave him a rueful grin when he packed the most important of his possessions, but didn't say much of anything but, "It'll be too quiet here without you."

John wanted to tell Cam how much he'd miss him. He wanted to say he'd be back soon. He wanted to tell Cam to wait for him, but he said nothing instead. John was all too aware that the war raging meant he shouldn't make any promises he couldn't keep.

There wasn't much time and John didn't think it fair to Cam to take any big steps with the nature of their relationship, but he didn't want to leave Cam with the impression that he was a part of John's life which was being left firmly in the past. Truth was, John didn't know what to do about Cam. He didn't want Cam waiting for him like some glorified military spouse, but he didn't want to close off their relationship, which meant more to him than any other had in a long while.

They spent a long time just kissing. It felt right to him, nice, pleasant, and he didn't even try to stop Cam when he pushed down their boxers out of the way.

Reaching orgasm didn't take long with actual skin contact. Their cocks were a sticky mess between them, but neither of them made a move to clean up just yet.

"Maybe I'll see you when you have some leave." Cam looked at him so earnestly when he spoke that John didn't have it in him to disagree. "Of course," he said instead, wanting to mean it.

Later that night, Cam asleep next to him, John stared up at the ceiling and followed the advice Chaya had given him long ago. He did his best to clear his mind and see if the Force, which he really didn't understand, would guide him. He opened his eyes, not sure if it worked, not sure if the Force would even reveal itself since he wasn't a Jedi, but he felt in his bones that he was making the right decision and that was just as good as far as he was concerned.

When he left the next morning, Cam was the only one who saw him off. John wasn't even disappointed anymore, having left his family behind in his heart a good while before then.

 

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"I'm up here," Rodney called down to John when he approached the ship. Rodney was standing on the hull with M1, and they were doing who knew what.

John went inside to the hatch that led to the outside hull. "Whatcha doing out here?"

"Oh, fixing your quadlaser turret canons. If someone attacked you, you'd be target practice right now. You're missing some key parts and a proton core."

"Anything I can do?" John asked. He hadn't even thought about the turrets not working. It wasn't that he didn't know anything about repairing ships, but this was different from the starfighters he was used to flying, and before there had always been handy utility droids to do the heavy lifting when he was in the service.

"That's a question you should ask yourself." Rodney said. "Do you know what to do?"

John felt a bit needled. "I'm not just the guy who flies a ship. I know things."

"When you're done pouting, there are a few wires that need to be fixed on the starboard bow. M1 can help you."

Without dignifying the pouting accusation with a response, John followed M1 to the other side of the ship. He could hear Rodney from the other side, cursing under his breath, but other than that, there was nothing but the sound of metal on metal for the next few hours.

He'd made at least ten different repairs when he felt a poke at his shoulder. "We should be heading inside."

"I'm not done yet," John said, still trying to figure out what was causing the wires to short out.

Rodney tugged at his arm and hauled him up. "Now you insist on working instead of standing around smirking and providing color commentary." Rodney sounded aggrieved. "There's a storm coming." He pointed to the rapidly darkening sky. "And it's probably not a smart idea to be toying around with wires if there's going to be lightning and rain any minute now."

Forced to concede the point, John packed up the tools he was using and followed Rodney back inside the ship. Rodney stored the supplies and John rustled up some dinner for the both of them.

"You're actually not that bad," Rodney said. "With the ship."

John knew the real question was why John hired Rodney if he was capable of fixing things himself. Part of it was because while he knew how to do some things, he wasn't that great with astronavagation repair; if the damage wasn't obvious, he didn't always know it was there. The other part, and he hated to admit it, was that he missed being around someone for more than a game of Pazaak and a hand-off of a package for credits.

"Well, when you have the choice between mediocre and genius level work, the decision's already made, isn't it?" John watched as Rodney's cheeks flushed under the compliment. It was a good look for him. "I'm surprised you're not out working on one of those core planets on a Capital ship or something."

John could see Rodney's face close off and he instantly regretted saying anything. He knew better than anyone that life didn't always work out the way you wanted. He needed a way to distract Rodney, and himself, before they both went on unnecessarily painful sojourns to the past.

"I was going to watch a holodrama, want to join me?" It was desperate and transparent, but John didn't care beyond fixing the problem he'd inadvertently caused. "I've been wanting to find out if the rich Zeltron falls in love with his Twi'lek slave..."

Rodney snorted derisively, but followed John back to his bunk anyhow. "How people consider that bantha poodoo entertainment is beyond me. But, if you insist..."

When they got to the bunk, John grabbed ahold of Rodney, kissing his neck as he pushed his hands under Rodney's shirt.

There was something about Rodney being sad that was like a punch to John's gut. Even if he wanted Rodney, and had wanted Rodney right from the start, he still hadn't planned on wanting more than just release.

This was turning out to be more than release.

Once they were naked, John spent a long time just kissing Rodney, slowly caressing each part he could reach. For once, Rodney didn't seem interested in hurrying him along.

John kissed a trail up his arms, over his shoulders, on his neck, and down his chest. He bit at Rodney's nipples 'til they were wet and red and he could hear Rodney's heart pound under his ear.

John licked at the hair under Rodney's bellybutton and at the juncture of his hips, and watched Rodney make abortive little thrusts as John avoided his cock and flicked his tongue to taste the soft skin of Rodney's sac.

"Torture," Rodney said, voice breathy and amused. "You just... are ... torture. You... killing me."

Huffing out a short laugh, John licked at Rodney's sac more insistently, sucking his balls into his mouth, knowing how much Rodney liked it when he was just a little bit rough.

It was only when Rodney's fist was curled in the sheets, trying to avoid gripping John's hair the same way, did he relent and press open-mouthed kisses up the length of Rodney's cock.

"More," Rodney moaned. "Now. Kill you... sleep."

"If you killed me, could I do this?" John asked and then sucked in the head of Rodney's cock, slowly gliding his lips down until his nose was pressed against the thatch of Rodney's pubic hair. He breathed it in, loving the way Rodney smelled.

Only then did Rodney unclench his hand and thread it through John's hair, gently, and in such contrast to the barely-contained need and want Rodney's body betrayed, that it felt like a punch to his chest.

He tried to focus just on the cock in his mouth, the way every inch of it was imprinting in John's mind through his tongue, his lips. His concentration was shot, though, because Rodney's fingers never stopped moving, just carded through his hair, scratching lightly against his scalp, and it felt so good that he ended up moving restlessly against the mattress, not wanting to wait for Rodney to touch him more directly, but not willing to give up the delicious feel of cock in his mouth, heavy on his tongue and pressed in as far as it could go.

A quick tug of his hair was all the warning Rodney gave him before coming wordlessly, filling John's mouth. He closed his eyes, enjoying the taste of it as he came moments later, humping the mattress.

Rodney tugged him up after a few hard desperate breaths and held him close. John was grateful when Rodney made no move to reciprocate, saving John the embarrassment of having to explain just how undone a cock in his mouth could make him.

There was a kiss to his cheek, and he turned to see Rodney, with his eyes closed and a sated smile on his face. Maybe John's orgasm wasn't as unnoticed as he thought, but Rodney, perceptive in strange ways, had just chosen to not comment on it.

Instead, Rodney kissed John's cheek again, sliding his lips down 'til he reached John's mouth. Rodney forced John's lips open, sucking his tongue and giving happy little moans at the taste of Rodney's come in his mouth.

Maybe, John thought, he didn't have cause to be embarrassed after all. Soon, the kissing tapered off, and John closed his eyes and hoped he could fall asleep before his brain got back online and tried to think about things again.

"I hope this storm doesn't last long," Rodney said. John had thought he'd fallen asleep. "I still need to figure out what's causing the storage room door to stick. And there's the second bunk, which doesn't have any lighting. That door sticks, too. I'd like to be able to test the turrets, but it's not exactly the sort of thing you want to do while on the ground. It'll need to happen during a test flight."

John let the sound of Rodney's voice wash over him. He closed his eyes and noticed that while the pain of the past wasn't gone, it was receding. John wasn't sure if he deserved to be happy, but everything in him begged him to latch onto it. He needed to feel human again, alive, and he decided right then to not sabotage himself if he could possibly help it.

 

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

After a week of Rodney slipping off the ship early in the morning to go back to his unit to get changed and ready for the day, John decided that it would be best if Rodney just moved in with him. Rodney agreed with him, mainly because—and he stated this bluntly—as much as he liked the sex, he hated getting up early. This proposition promised double the orgasms Morning sex, Rodney had said with a lecherous grin and none of the early, unwanted wake up calls.

Rodney's unit was a tiny hole in the wall with two rooms and a refresher. It had a sparse, unlived in feel to it like Rodney spent most of his time anywhere but there. Rodney made noise about his neighbors, too many people drunkenly coming to his door by accident, and the occasional screams from what he figured was a secret torture chamber. John wondered if Rodney's lack of possessions had to do with lack of money or disinterest, but Rodney didn't seem to be afflicted with either.

That's why John was surprised that Rodney had so much stuff. Box after box after box of things, and John carried more than his fair share to the garage of the ship. Rodney immediately commandeered ten of the unused storage cylinders and started sorting his various droid and other spare parts—the bulk of Rodney's possessions—into the containers.

"You'll thank me later," Rodney aid as he stored a case of computer spikes. "This is all stuff I've accumulated over the years. Czerka is incredibly wasteful. They don't know the value of repairing older things. It's worth tens of thousands of credits, all told, and it's more expensive to buy new. Mark my words, you'll be grateful to have this stuff as I fix up your ship."

"Won't I need to buy it from you instead?" John asked, mentally tallying the repairs Rodney pointed out which needed to be done. He cringed at how many Pazaak games he'd need to win to pay for it all.

With a leer on his face—which made him look ridiculous---Rodney replied, "I'm sure you can find some way to compensate me."

John couldn't do anything but laugh as he dragged Rodney off to his bunk to work off a little of that debt.

~~

Leviathan, Near Onderon, Inner Rim, 3960 BBY

The only thing about the war, aside from flying, that John didn't mind was hanging out with his bunkmates, getting drunk, playing Pazaak, and making up shit to impress each other. It was like getting a family, one that actually understood you and liked you and wouldn't sell you to the Hutts for credits.

"Now," Dax said, grinning wildly as they crowded around a table on which there were a few abandoned cards and a little hologramatic Twi'lek dancing to music that none of them could hear. "I was out on Coruscant, in this cantina. And this beautiful woman came up to me. Could have danced personally for a Hutt kind a pretty. She winked at me and she ordered us drinks. Anyhow, I wake up, naked, credits gone, and tied to the bed of a really irate Iridonian."

Mitchee, shook his head, mumbled something in his own tongue, before continuing in Basic. "No, no. I know something much, much worse. This girl I was supposed to marry was sleeping with her boss. We track our mates with pheromones. Well, she synthesized her scent and I traced it to this storage room. When I got there, a baby rancor was waiting for me! I barely escaped. No more women for me, thanks. Crazy, crazy beings."

It was a tradition for them. Two days before they had a mission, they'd gather round and trade stories and play cards and get uproariously drunk, nurse a hangover the next day, and fly out as the best, most tightly knit squadron on the vessel.

Horlando had just finished describing in disturbingly graphic detail the actions of a rewired droid that his last girlfriend set upon him, which John could imagine in technicolour detail, when they all turned to face him.

Laughing, John refused to offer any of his own tales. For one, there were no women in them. For two, nothing he could tell them would even rank close to as bad as their tales. His love life has been ridiculously sedate, almost boring. "I'm telling you. Honest. I had two boyfriends and none of them hate me. Yet. I could make something up, if you want. I don't think I have the imagination to top your stories anyhow."

"You need a life, Shep," Horlando said, grinning at him drunkenly. "It's not living unless you've been tied to a tree, had your genitals covered in strange liquids, and licked by a curious kath pup."

"I don't think I want to know how you came up with that particular scenario so quickly," John said with all the earnestness of the exceedingly naïve and horribly drunk. His friends, however, fell about laughing hard enough to cause their drinks to spray out of various orifices.

They headed off to bed an hour later, and John figured that maybe he shouldn't have had that last drink. He over-corrected himself as he listed to the side and almost fell on his ass in the corridor of the large ship. When he wasn't looking that he was slammed into from behind with a force that felt like his head almost it was almost removed. Though, he was grateful that he ended up passing out before he could register just how much it fucking hurt.

When he woke some untold time later, he was in the Medibay, and a droid was tutting over his head. "He is awake, Master."

A healer came over to him with a grim expression. "You're not supposed to get injured while on the ship, you know."

"What happened?" John asked, not remembering anything after the strange trip through Horlando's psyche.

"Oh, a droid fell on your head when it shorted out." He said it so matter-of-fact that John just boggled at him.

"A droid?" John asked, quite sure he was just mishearing things. It hardly made any sense.

"Yes," the healer said, amused now. "It was heading to the droid bay for repairs when it suddenly shorted out, causing it to lose the power to levitate. Your head just happened to be in between it and the floor."

John spent another two restless days in his Medibay bed, wondering how the mission went without him. He was surprised when he realized they hadn't come to visit him. Even if his injury was rather embarrassing.

It wasn't 'til he woke up on the third day that he found out why. The whole team was ambushed by Mandalorian fighters, in freaking Basilisk War Droids. They were all gone, dead. He didn't know how long he lay there, just thinking, knowing that if he had only been there, they would have been alive.

When he was finally released, he went back to his bunk and found the room empty now that his buddies were gone. As soon as he was healed enough, he asked for a transfer from his current fleet to another. His next assignment was more dangerous, had more risk, but he wasn't sure it mattered anymore. At least there wasn't a chance of forming close bonds again, not when everyone was convinced they were on a suicide mission.

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"Rodney," John said, as he watched Rodney working in the engine room. The hyperdrive was functional again, but Rodney had plans to modify it for extra speed and a smoother transition between realspace and otherspace. "I was curious..."

"About?" Rodney asked, not looking up. He motioned for M1 to start soldering the metal back together. He then did a few more diagnostic tests on functionality. John waited for Rodney to look at him, but Rodney remained resolutely focused on his task. After a few minutes, Rodney waved his hand absently in John's direction.

John rubbed the back of his neck. "Is there anyone you want to see... after we leave?"

There wasn't an immediate answer and John hoped it wasn't a touchy subject. The thing was, though, that the galaxy was a big place and he didn't really know where to head when they left. There were pit stops, but a part of him wanted to have somewhere to eventually settle down. He loved his ship, loved being in the black, but he also wanted a place to call home. He wanted somewhere to erase the gaping hole left by Telos in his heart. Rodney never talked about his family, his home planet, wherever that was, and he only skimmed over his career with Czerka, vaguely referring to other posts he'd worked at before.

"No," Rodney replied tersely. "There isn't." There was a few more minutes of silence, and then Rodney spoke again, his voice softer, more plaintive. "I don't have a family any longer."

"The Sith?" John asked, because it was an obvious choice. Though, to be fair, there were other obvious choices. Too many.

With a shake of his head, Rodney replied, "No. The Exchange. We were all living in the Corellian Sector of Nar-Shaddaa at the time. My sister got involved with a guy who was in the Exchange. He got in over his head in debt, and his former buddies went to collect. My sister, she was always a bit feisty. We used to argue with each other a lot when we were kids. She was nearly as smart as me. Almost as good with droids. She was a great slicer, too. Well, anyhow, she got in the face of one of them. They killed everyone. My parents. My sister. Her loser husband. All dead. I came home that night and saw the whole place covered in blood. They just left them there, like trash."

John felt his throat close up. "I'm... I'm sorry, Rodney."

"I got back," Rodney said, fierce and angry. "I found those Duros idiots who killed them. They had gone into the Slag Pit for a drink and I rigged their speeders to blow when they used them next. I left Nar Shaddaa the next ship out. The Exchange never came after me, so I'm pretty sure they don't know who was responsible."

"Good," John said roughly. "And even if the whole Exchange came after you, you know I'd still... we'd still..."

Rodney glanced up for the first time since John walked into the engine room, looking more sad and vulnerable than John had ever seen him. "Yeah, um. Thanks."

M1K0 beeped at them both and then Rodney nodded. "Sure. Yes, I'll leave the rest to you."

Taking Rodney's hand, John led him away and toward their room, leaving M1K0 to the repairs. Having a break right now was probably for the best.

"Hey," John said, as they sat down on the bunk. "I know I can't bring them back... but..." I'm here remained unspoken, but he bet Rodney got what he was trying to say.

There was a tentative smile playing on Rodney's lips. "Yeah, I get it. There are plenty of decent places on the Outer Rim. Mid Rim, too. Probably should avoid the Inner Rim and Core for now."

"Yeah," John agreed. "Tatooine's all right. As long as you're not trying to mine the place or set up a farm. That'll be as good a place as any to start."

"We can plot our destination later," Rodney said decisively. "You were going to distract me from unpleasant memories. And I'd like to get on with that now, please."

John grinned against Rodney's mouth. "I think I can do that."

They stumbled back to his bunk without even bothering to look. Their clothes were strewn along the path they took, but John was only interested in the teeth and tongue against the side of his neck, and Rodney, apparently, was interested in leaving marks wherever he could reach.

They collapsed on the bunk, laughing and kissing at the same time. John reached down and gripped Rodney's ass firmly, grinding against Rodney's thigh. Panting against his neck, Rodney rolled both of them over, so he was on top.

John grabbed at Rodney, thrusting up against him ineffectually. "Hey," he said, wanting Rodney to get with the program, but Rodney was kissing him determinedly; granted, it was naked kissing, which was better than any other kind of kissing, but John was pretty damned horny by this point and was ready for naked kissing to become naked rubbing and eventually naked orgasms.

There wasn't much in the way of finesse, but when Rodney finally decided to stroke John's cock, he was beyond caring. The kissing was messy and Rodney jacked them both haphazardly, no where nearing a rhythm, but it felt good, even though it was bordering on more awkward than anything he ever did when he was a teen.

Rodney curled on his side after he came and lay his head on John's chest, focused entirely on making John squirm and then fall apart. When he was back to coherent thought, he found Rodney hadn't moved an inch, and was now asleep. He wrapped an arm around Rodney's back and followed.

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"It looks like you're going to need to buy a few things after all," Rodney said as he tested a circuit in the wall panel. "I uploaded it all to your datapad. Um. It's no rush, in the sense that I need them as soon as possible."

John grinned. "Yeah, okay. I need to get a few things today anyhow. You off today?"

"Well," Rodney said in a strange, higher-octave voice, "the thing is... I sort of quit. Working. For Czerka... yesterday?"

"Oh," John said, for lack of anything better. "Why's that?"

Rodney darted a glance in his direction. "It's not that I don't have credits stored up, I do. And I'm going to pull my own weight and I'm sure once we get wherever we're going, I'll find another job."

"Rodney," John said, rolling his eyes. "Why'd you quit?"

"I sort of got in a yelling match with my boss and called him an incompetent moron who couldn't figure out the right end of a laser. And then he got a bit tetchy about it and said that I was an arrogant little son of a mynock who wasn't going to get paid if I kept up the attitude."

John attempted a bland. "Oh... I see."

"I replied that I'd care what a nerf-herder like him had to say when Jawas swim and then he tried to fire me but I quit before he had a chance." Rodney looked proud when he said this.

Laughing, John clapped Rodney on the shoulder. "Well, you get points for style."

Rodney gifted him with a scowl. "If you must know, I overheard them talk about transferring me back to Kashyyyk."

"The Wookiee planet?"

"Kriffing Slavers took it over, and I hate dealing with Slavers."

John could understand that, probably better than Rodney realized. "Don't blame you."

"Regardless, it doesn't matter. I'd have had to quit soon or later. It shouldn't take longer than another two weeks to get everything ready."

"That soon?" John was impressed and surprised. Granted, he realized it wasn't that the Pegasus couldn't fly, because it could now. But he and Rodney had discussed various ways to improve on the model. Rodney had worked on a ship like this one when he was stationed at the Czerka office on Taris and modified that one, too. Special commission.

He refused to admit he felt a disappointment that the Pegasus was apparently not as unique as he thought it was going to be. Instead, he forced himself to acknowledge that if Rodney hadn't done this before, it would take him longer to do what he was doing. This was to his benefit.

"So, you can make Pegasus as good as that other ship?"

"Of course, I've learned quite a bit since I fixed up that ship. I've a few new ideas up my sleeve. These Dynamic-class freighters are fairly sturdy, though. Should outlive you, as it were."

That was probably true, and not because John was destined to have a long, peaceful life. Rodney quirked his lips as if he knew how ironic his last statement could be. "Well, let's just say you won't have to worry about buying another ship, at least as long as I'm around to keep it in the sky."

~~

Above Malachor V, Outer Rim, 3960 BBY

John had spent only a few years in flight school before he was assigned to a ship and sent directly into war. Eight years after he joined, he had risen to the rank of Captain and was wondering if the Mandalorian Wars would ever end. The only bright side so far as John could see was that a faction of Jedi Knights finally joined them. The tides were turning in the Republic's favor, for once.

The Mandalorians were a blood-thirsty bunch. They were made up of multiple species, genders, and hailed from planets across the galaxy. What bound them together was their culture. It was battle they craved. Honor. John didn't see how slaughtering millions of innocent sentient beings earned anyone any honor.

It was another year before John found himself over the Mandalorian-controlled planet of Malachor V, as part of a group of Capital ships sent to lure the Mandalorians into some sort of trap.

John patrolled the space above the battleground in his Aurek fighter . There were a few skirmishes in space, but most of the fight was down below.

"Pull back," John heard in his ear, a whisper. It wasn't from any of the communications systems from his fellow pilots or those directing the battle. However unnerving it was, John obeyed as he felt in his gut that it was the right thing to do. John flew straight toward the Capital ships of the Republic. He was close when the unthinkable happened.

It looked like the planet just died. Like a light went out. It seemed deformed, and there were crushed ships orbiting it.

Another announcement over his headset stated that all fighters remaining were to pull back. His ship and many others were going to chase the remaining Mandalorians in the Unknown Regions. The rest would return and announce the victory to the Republic Senate.

John stared out at the planet and detoured to a Capital ship other than his own. He didn't need to worry about whether there was enough space to hold his fighter. Most of them had been destroyed. All he knew is that he had a bad feeling about going to the Unknown Regions. He flew into the berth and stumbled out of his Aurek fighter .

"You're not on the manifest," an officer said as he exited toward Crew quarters.

John gave him half a grin. "I missed my ride." They both turned and looked at his craft, which didn't look its best. John knew it was only superficial, but the blackened marks on the body of the vessel gave him a half-assed reason to be there. However, he didn't think the guard would care. John certainly didn't. Let them toss him in the brig; he was beyond worrying about things like that at this point.

The guy gave him a shrug. "Whatever, we have plenty of room. You just..." the man seemingly aged right before him. "Just get something to eat, and then take your mandatory rest."

On his way to the mess, he heard people talking in hushed whispers. A device... a mass-shadow generator... was responsible for the destruction, killing friend and foe alike. The Jedi, the soldiers, and the Mandalorians they'd been fighting, all were gone. Snuffed out in a blink. Even those in the atmosphere had been crushed into the surface of the planet.

John didn't even make it to the head before he was vomiting on the floor. He had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach as he thought about his old ship, going to the Unknown Regions. Following the Jedi who had apparently authorized this. It didn't set right with him. Jedi were the guardians of the peace. They didn't kill unless necessary. All those people.

When John came back to himself, he was in the Medibay. A droid was doing rounds, and a few healers were talking in hushed whispers.

The trip to Coruscant, capital of the Republic, wasn't the triumphant return it should have been. He still couldn't believe what had happened. John wasn't alone in this either.

A day after he disembarked, he resigned his commission. He had served out his term, more than, and John didn't want to see another day of war. And, at that moment, he didn't want to see much of anyone. It wasn't that John had deluded himself that there was no killing in war. He'd ended many lives over the course of his career. But people he knew, people he had fought alongside, people who were his buddies, had been sacrificed to kill the enemy without warning, without thought. There hadn't been a group of people who came to this decision after a lot of discussion. There had only been three people who knew, the Jedi Revan, another Jedi in his command, and the man who created the device which caused the devastation.

John found his way to a local cantina and spent the next few days inhaling unhealthy amounts of Juma juice, trying to get his mind to forget the way a planet looked after it had been killed.

The truth was, there wasn't enough alcohol in the world. And he knew it.

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

John was making his way to eastern exit of Dreshdae, heading back to his ship, after completing a small job when a slight flutter of fabric behind him caught his attention. Normally, he would've ignored it, because Rodney was waiting for him and Rodney generally rewarded punctuality very nicely, but something pinged on his something's-not-quite-right radar.

He turned and found himself face to face with a beautiful woman. Her eyes were covered, but her mouth was curled in a pleasant smile. Her robes were a nondescript brown, well-worn, but not cheap, and there was a slight protuberance about her waist, visible if you were looking carefully enough, that gave her away as a Jedi.

"Hello." Her voice was quiet yet warm as she spoke. "I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time, Captain John Sheppard."

Without letting the surprise that she knew his name show on his face, John nodded and said, "Sure thing. Somewhere private, I'm guessing?"

"Yes, I think that would be best. Please, follow me." She turned and started down the hall, turning after three doors down into another hall. A few minutes later, she opened the door to a small room, the size of a cupboard, and ushered him inside. A man was there already, kneeling on the floor in meditation. He looked up when John came in the room, but said nothing.

"Do not let such things distract you, young Padawan. Retain your focus on centering yourself," the woman instructed. "Train yourself to let go of your impatience."

She turned from the man on the floor to look at John. "Forgive me, Captain Sheppard. My name is Teyla Emmagan, and I am a Knight in the Jedi Order. This is my Padawan, Ronon Dex," she said simply as she gestured to him to sit down. John thought Ronon looked a little old to still be a Padawan, the lowest rank of the Jedi Order."I have brought you here on a matter of some importance."

John nodded as he sat. "Yeah, I figured. It's not every day strong, beautiful women approach me, and most of time it's with a laser pointed at my head."

"I do not wish to cause you harm, no," Teyla said with a smile. "Though I am sure it is the hazard of your profession which causes those things to happen."

"Or maybe it's just my charming personality," John replied. "Not to be rude, but if I don't get back to my ship soon, my friend's going to come searching for me... loudly... and I'm guessing that you want to stay under the radar."

Teyla nodded her agreement, and there was a quite snort from the man who was supposed to be meditating. "Focus, Ronon," Teyla said, before turning her attention back to John., "Yes, it is our wish to not make our presence known."

"If you don't mind me asking," John asked slowly, "what are a Jedi Knight and her Padawan doing on a planet like this? With the Sith around every corner."

"We are on a mission and the details are not as such that we can divulge openly. Suffice to say, we came here for an important reason, but the people who were supposed to transport us away from here have not arrived and it has been over five weeks. I believe that something bad has befallen our allies. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that Ronon and I leave this planet as soon as possible and make our way back to Dantooine."

"Oh," John said, wondering why anyone would want to go to Dantooine if they weren't raising crops."So, you're needing a ride is all."

Teyla hesitated a moment and then spoke again. "I wish it was as simple as that. If it were, Ronon and I would have boarded any of the ships that come and leave this place every day. However, it is not. My senses tell me that you are the one who I must ask."

"Senses?" John asked, a bit incredulous. He had heard other Jedi speak of feeling through the Force, but never like that. And then he watched her push her hood back, revealing an intricate, silver headband over her eyes, and said, "You're a Miraluka."

"Yes," Teyla replied, almost thoughtfully. "I am a Miraluka. We do not see like you see. We sense things in ways you do not. We see through the Force. Those of us who become Jedi are able to sense things to a greater degree than even most other Jedi. I see you, John Sheppard. I know you are the one who is to help us."

It was a rather baffling thing to hear, and a great deal of John wanted to deny it. He wasn't worth the respect he could hear in her voice. He was no better than a deserter. He let his friends, his family down. He let them get killed.

"You will cease that line of thinking," Teyla commanded. "It is not true. It is not your burden to bear. The responsibility for the loss of life lay on other shoulders. Perhaps it was not your destiny to stop the tragedies you have seen.. Perhaps you are destined to a different path. The Republic is in danger of falling. Everyone needs to do what they must to prevent this. We cannot allow the Sith to win."

"I... I'll fly you wherever you want to go," John said finally. "I'm not sure about after that, but I'll get you off this planet at least."

Teyla's mouth closed for a moment in disappointment, but it was quickly gone. "Very well. I do appreciate this. I will let you know when we are ready to depart. I have things, now, that I must discuss with my Padawan, and as I recall, you have someone waiting for you as well."

Shit, John thought as he got to his feet. Rodney was not going to be happy about him being late, but he was probably going to be more upset about the decision John just made. "Uh, yeah. See you later," John said as he rushed out the door.

Rodney was waiting for John in the ship's garage with a frown on his face, arms crossed and tapping his foot impatiently. "Is it really too much to ask you to use your communicator to let me know when you're running late? For all I knew, you were killed by rogue droids or those crazy Sith hopefuls or one of those creepy Mandalorians who showed up a few days ago."

Before Rodney had a chance to get even more worked up than he already was, John gripped him by the shoulders and kissed him lightly on the lips. "I'm fine. I'm fine. On my way back to the ship, someone approached me about a job. That's all."

"Okay, okay," Rodney babbled. "It's just... it was never all that nice here. With the Sith and the mercenaries and the people I work for, but lately... I get the sense that things are going to get worse and I'm not a pessimistic man by nature... oh, don't give me that look. Fine, so I'm a bit pessimistic. But it doesn't mean that I'm wrong."

"Yeah, buddy," said John with a sigh. "You're not wrong. We'll be heading out soon. You're almost done with the repairs, right?"

Rodney actually looked affronted at being asked. "Well, you already know it's space-worthy. But there's a difference between space worthy and space-worthy as you know. There's a few things I'm modifying to make it go faster than the manufacturer's settings. And, well, my pragmatism led me to improve the shields and the ship's ability to withstand attack."

Smiling at the thought of his baby getting all fixed up and more awesome than it was already, John leaned forward again to give Rodney another kiss. And another. Making the Pegasus a work of art deserved a little bit of incentive.

"I'm pretty sure it's break time," John murmured against Rodney's lips. "What do you think?"

Rodney nodded and let John drag him off to his bunk. "Yes, yes. Due for a break right now."

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

John was drowsing lazily on top of Rodney when a noise startled him into a sitting position. He looked over his shoulder and saw Teyla and Ronon hovering in the doorway.

"I am sorry to intrude," Teyla said a bit breathlessly. "But it appears that plans have changed. We must leave as soon as possible. I will wait for you in the cockpit."

John's eyes widened at the implications, and he reached over the side of the bunk to his pants. "Get dressed," he said to Rodney. "It looks like we're taking off now."

"Hey," Rodney said, wide-eyed, but dressing anyhow. "Is that who you're transporting? How do you know you can trust them? They could be Sith! They could be... hmph."

John didn't remove the hand he placed on Rodney's mouth until after he said, "They're Jedi and I promised to fly them to Dantooine. Yes, I'm sure. I trust they're telling the truth. We don't have time to discuss it now, though. So why not make sure everything's ready for a quick flight out of here. I want to go to hyperspace as soon as possible. I have a feeling that it's not going to be easy to get out of here."

Looking like he sorely wanted to argue some more, Rodney scowled. "Fine, fine. But we'll discuss this habit you have of leaving out important details, like Jedi passengers, later. I think that it'd be best if we don't head to Dantooine in a straight shot, however. If they know these guys are Jedi, they might be expecting it. Though, I thought the Jedi Council was on Coruscant. Isn't Dantooine farm land? Doesn't really matter. Their enemies may know they're going that way regardless. There's a nearby planet we can land on to supply properly and finish working out a few kinks on Tandankin in the Gordian Reach."

"Okay, that's good. Why don't you start plotting the hyperspace coordinates, and I'll get us ready to go," John said, body thrumming in an entirely different way than it had only an hour prior.

Teyla was waiting for him as he sat down in the pilot's chair to prepare the Pegasus for flight. Rodney muscled by her and Ronon, muttering under his breath, and started punching in codes at his console. "The coordinates are all set. We're ready to go," he said breathlessly.

"Hey," John said to Teyla and Ronon, who had taken the two seats behind him and Rodney. "Since it looks like we'll have company sooner than later, we're going take a quick detour before heading to Dantooine."

"It's a waste of time," Ronon said gruffly, shocking John. He hadn't heard him speak before and his voice had an edge to it. "We don't need to waste any more than we already have."

"Patience," Teyla chided. "It is a sound plan, young Padawan. If we rush into things, we could find more trouble than we already have." She then addressed John. "I am sorry for the necessity of this abrupt departure. We have been discovered by at least one of the Sith hopefuls. I left him stunned in our quarters. It is my hope that we will be on our way before he is able to alert anyone else."

Ronon growled. "Shoulda just killed him."

"It is not the way of the Jedi to extinguish life unnecessarily," Teyla said, glancing at her Padawan.

Inclining his head, Ronon agreed. "Yes, Master."

"Sit back and relax," John said, trying to lighten the mood. "We'll be there soon enough."

Rodney shot him a sidelong glance, which he returned. John didn't think Rodney had spent much time with Jedi either, from the look of it.

"Now that we're not all worried about our lives," said John after he switched to autopilot. "Master Emmagan, Master Dex, this is Rodney McKay."

"It is nice to meet you," Teyla said warmly. "Please, address me informally. My feelings tell me our acquaintance will not be a passing one."

"Hey," Ronon said from behind her. "You can call me Ronon."

Rodney quirked a smile at Teyla. "Well, um. It's nice to meet you, too. And you," Rodney said nodding at Ronon. "Well, I've got to get back to..." Rodney added, pointing back to the console.

"If you will excuse us both," Teyla said, rising to her feet. "My Padawan and I will retire to meditate. It has been a tiring day and we need to refocus on what is to come."

~~

Dreshdae, Korriban, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

"So," Rodney said after looking around in thoroughly conspicuous manner. "Think they can hear us?"

John shook his head. "Nah. Why? Oh, it's the Jedi thing. You ever spend much time with one before?"

"Not really," Rodney said with a shrug. "I mean...I've known a couple. It's just weird. You know? This whole bit about the Force."

"I don't know. It seems real enough. Not that I understand what they're talking about most of the time."

Rodney snorted. "I don't even know if they know what they're talking about most of the time."

"Well, to be fair, it seems like a lot to deal with. Lot of responsibility."

"Please. Teyla and Ronon spend more time "meditating" than anything else." Rodney looked around again and then whispered loudly. "Think they're, yanno, doing it?"

"No!" John said, the laugh pulled from him so abruptly that he yelled. "Oh, can you imagine Ronon charging up her cargo ramp?"

"I try not to," Rodney said faintly. "It's not an image I want to think about."

"Yeah, buddy," John said with a nod. "I hear you there. I don't think so anyhow. I think Jedi aren't allowed to do all that."

"Do all that?" Rodney asked, "You mean marriage, date, sex? I wouldn't give up sex even if I could exchange it for killing people with my mind. Not that I thought about it much. Or want to. Kill people that is. With my mind or not."

"Ha," John said, shaking his head in amusement. "I bet you'd love that. Using the Force to cause the idiots you can't stand to jump off a tower or something."

"Hey," Rodney said feelingly. "You make me sound like a Dark Lord in the making. I'm sure I'd use my powers for good. And if the good happens to mean that I cause a few scum bags to space themselves, where's the harm in that?"

"You do realize that Jedi respect all life and cannot use their powers for personal gain."

Rodney practically jumped out of his chair. "Agh! Oh, hi, there, Teyla. Yes, of course. It was just a hypothetical conversation of hypotheticalness. Jokes. All of it. Yes."

John laughed at Rodney's bewildered flailing and hoped Teyla hadn't heard all that they'd been taking about. Some things he just didn't want to know.

~~

Coruscant, The Core, 3559 BBY
Taris, Outer Rim, 3559 BBY
Nar Shaddaa, Huttspace, Mid Rim, 3958 BBY

Two months after John resigned, he got a message from his brother, whom he hadn't heard from since his early days in the Academy.

"I heard you resigned. Perhaps now you've come to your senses and plan to do your family duty. Father will be pleased. The wayward son returns and all. I'd rather you stay away if you're not planning on doing what's right. He doesn't need any more stress. Least of all from you. Goodbye."

John stared as the hologram blinked out. A part of him wanted to go back and forget about the war, but not if he had to stay cooped up in some dumb office to do it. Every cell in him rebelled at the idea of being chained down to a desk. Even though he had retired from the Navy, that didn't mean he meant to give up flying. He simply needed to earn enough credits to pay for his own ship.

That was his final day on Coruscant. The next day he headed out on a cheap passage to the Outer Rim. He liked it better out there. John spent a few months on Taris, but quickly lost patience with the anti-alien sentiment. From there, he won passage on a smuggling ship headed for Nar Shaddaa.

Nar Shaddaa was a great place for getting lost. John quickly learned how to stay out of the hair of the Exchange by keeping himself limited to the Pazaak Den and the hole in the wall he was renting out of the Docks in the Refugee Sector.

After a few months he started feeling restless again. He earned enough to keep himself fed and housed, but not much beyond that. Endless days of Pazaak and avoiding the Exchange was wearing on him and he hadn't flown in what felt like ages. More than that, he'd been hearing rumors about the Jedi.

Being on the docks meant he generally heard all the news pilots brought with them. Scuttlebutt was that the Jedi were fighting against each other. The very Jedi who helped end the war with the Mandalorians were back from the Unknown Regions, turned, and some of the Republic soldiers were joining them.

John spent a few restless nights trying to figure out what to do. In the end, he decided he should go back home. He contacted the TSF and talked to Cam's uncle about working there and was pleased to hear he'd be welcome to join, no references needed. He was a retired soldier, after all, and he had trained with the best of them.

He spent the next two weeks in the Pazaak Den earning enough credits to pay passage on a ship heading back home.

~~

Tandankin, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

Once they arrived in Tandankin, Teyla and Ronon left the ship, off to wherever, John wasn't sure. He took a moment to be grateful there hadn't been anyone firing shots across his hull after they left Korriban. He didn't, however, take for granted that it meant they were in the clear. He hoped no one had simply followed them, but he didn't put much stock in their luck. Rodney immediately started doing scans and checking the diagnostics for how the ship performed in both realspace and hyperspace. He made noise under his breath about needing to fine-tune a few things.

"M1," Rodney yelled, and soon the small droid rolled over to where he was standing. "I'm going to feed you the data and I want to know what you think about the solutions I presented. I've got a feeling that we don't have much time before we need to fly off again. We need these repairs done in three days, tops."

Beeping at him in what seemed to be acknowledgment, M1 got to work, taking a panel off the wall a few feet away from where Rodney was working, and re-securing the connection.

"Um." John said, feeling like an idiot standing around.

Rodney turned and faced him. "Not that you don't look hot, leaning against the door frame, with the pants and the belt, and the blaster and all, but I need to concentrate. Why don't you go out and see if you can get me a few supplies and I dunno... see the sights."

Raising his eyes at the dismissal, John decided retreat was the better part of valor and left. The planet was fairly temperate, and it had a decent urban area, so it wasn't just a bunch of backwater yurts filled with the latest cast-off gear. He checked out the droid shop, but didn't find anything Rodney had been looking for. The rest of the shops were moderately overpriced and the Cantina was surprisingly free of any Pazaak players at the time. The bartender told him where to find the decent players, and then he left, disappointed.

"Ugh," a Twi'lek complained as he walked by with a friend. "Vala's shop is just too expensive for the drek they carry."

"That's why I scour the Chuuk's junk yard," the other Twi'lek replied. "He doesn't charge much and he gets a lot of things that only need a little repair work."

John smiled as he approached them and asked, hoping they knew Basic, "Where can I find the junk yard?"

They glanced at each other once, but deigned to give him directions anyhow. John thanked them and headed off towards the junk dealer.

He was impressed when he got there. There were late model speeders, a lot of spare ship parts, and two even later model starfighters. Then there were crate after crates of old, defunct droids. Some were models which had become discontinued and others looked like they just needed a new oil bath.

"Can I help you?" A Sullustan in coveralls stood there with tools in his belt. "I'm Chuuk."

"Yeah," John replied, glancing around. "This is a list of what I need." John handed over his datapad. "Also, is there a chance you have any Swoop bikes that aren't in too bad shape?"

"I'm sure we can find something to suit your needs nicely," Chuuk said, sounding very pleased indeed, like he knew what sort of credits John had planned on spending. "If you're willing to wait on the bike, I am due to get a new shipment any day now. There might be something special in that shipment, better than what I have here now."

John stared at all the things scattered around him. "Cool."

~~

Tandankin, Outer Rim, 3957 BBY

John huddled next to Rodney on his bunk. It had been a long day and Ronon and Teyla still had yet to return to the ship. Part of him wanted to just fly away and go to some Mid-Rim world and settle down, but he knew that wouldn't be right. The part of him that used to be a soldier—still was a soldier, honestly—was telling him quite loudly what the right thing to do was now.

"Rodney," John whispered into the dark room. "I know this isn't what you signed up for..."

Before he could continue, Rodney clamped a hand over his mouth and glared down at him, and John could just make out a grim expression. "Signed up for? What are you, a cruise ship? For the record, I originally bartered to fix this ship for passage to escape my own personal hell. I stayed to improve it because you're frightfully good in bed. I'm here because I want to be here. Don't think I'm martyring myself, either. I expect the orgasms to continue, and I'll be unbearably cranky if you fall down on the job."

John had to laugh at that, and he let the relief relax him as they settled down to sleep. It should have been a clue, now that he let himself think about, that in a berth with three bunks, Rodney had always, from the beginning, shared his. All the loud talk about not letting John hog the best bed for himself was just typical Rodney-bluster.

"So, since you're not going to sleep and are doing your very best to keep me awake with your very loud thinking, I'm going to have to insist on one of those orgasms right now. To keep me happy and well-maintained, if you will," said Rodney, with a tone of great amusement, right in John's ear.

He shifted so he could find Rodney's mouth, kissing a little before he pulled back and replied, "If you insist."

"I do." Rodney's hand had already started drifting down the length of John's torso, resting on the waistband of his sleep pants.

John magnanimously allowed Rodney to remove his pants and then he started kissing Rodney's neck, hoping he could convince Rodney that sucking John's cock would be the best way to encourage a sleepy, post-coital aftermath; and because John thought that getting a blow job while thinking about how fast his Swoop bike could go would give him an awesome orgasm.

However, Rodney had a different idea in mind. He crowded as close to John as he could without actually sharing the same space and grabbed both their cocks with his wide, slick hand and stroked them both.

"Oh, god," John said, closing his eyes. This was a good idea. A very good idea. It wasn't a blow job, but the way the little calluses on Rodney's hand caught every sensitive spot on his cock made his brain go from functional to mush in less time than it took for him to do something that suspiciously sounded like a whimper but totally wasn't.

"Give it up to me, John," Rodney demanded, biting along his collar bone. "I want to feel you fall apart for me."

He thrust up into Rodney's hand, alongside Rodney's dick, and shuddered. It felt good, too good. And Rodney's voice was insistent his ear, demanding he come, now, damn it, John, I want to see you, now. And John turned his face to the side only to leave his neck vulnerable to Rodney's mouth, his teeth, tongue.

"John," Rodney said, and he looked back at him, kissing him messily, wetly, and pulled back, only to just pant against his mouth, staring at him with such concentration that John either had to look away or give in.

"Unh." John bit at Rodney's lip, hard, and came.

Rodney slicked his cock with John's come, and stroked himself until he shot all over John's belly. It was hot enough for his cock to give a hopeful twitch.

"You broke me," Rodney complained, flopping down next to him. John raised his eyebrows at that.

"I think that's my line, buddy," John said. Rodney had a sated glow, but John was positive he himself looked wrecked, and it was all Rodney's fault.

Seeming to consider it for a moment, Rodney conceded the point to him. "You're probably right. If I had a holorecorder right now, I could probably make a lot of credits."

John figured he'd threaten to kill Rodney for that wise-ass remark as soon as he stopped laughing.

~~

Nar Shaddaa, Huttspace, Mid Rim, 3958 BBY

"Hey," Cam said, his hologram flickering a bit. "I hear you're heading back this way. Got room for you in my bunk. I know you'd rather not have to room with strangers. And, really, I'd like to have a roommate again. There's been this strange little Sullustan's been following me around. Keeps making noise about the cost of renting."

John grinned. The idea of bunking with Cam gave him a thrill of excitement. It'd been a long few years of separation sans the few weeks of leave he'd spent with Cam over the years, and none of those had been on Telos. "Yeah, buddy. That doesn't sound like a bad idea."

"Good." Cam paused, looked at something John couldn't see, and then turned back. "I was gonna wait to ask later, but seeing as we might be busy, I'll ask now. Is it true that some of the Republic turned to the Dark Side?"

There was a moment when John didn't know what to say. "I don't know that much. After... after things were over, I resigned my commission. A third of the fleet went to the Unknown Regions, and when they came back, this whole mess started. Something even worse than... something bad happened there, something must have turned them."

Cam visibly shuddered. "Yeah, I can still remember some horror stories my dad told me about the Sith Wars, but that's nothing to what I heard about Malachor V."

That, John didn't want to talk about. There were other things he never wanted to talk about, but that one took the top of the list. He'd be getting on the transport in a few hours and then he'd be back home. He hadn't been on the surface of Telos in years.

"What the kriff is that?" Cam's head turned toward the center of the room, and John could hear the alarm sound.

John swallowed. "Cam? What's going on?"

And then all of a sudden, Cam yelled out and the hologram went out with a blink. John only had a moment to process this before the Holonet popped on and started broadcasting the news that Telos IV had been attacked.

It was hours before John moved again. This was some of the worst news he'd heard since the Jedi Civil War began. Telos was in ruins. Bombed. The fucking Leviathan, a former Republic ship he once worked on during the Mandalorian Wars, decimated the entire planet.

Millions dead, millions still dying, and there was nothing that could be done. No way to reverse what had been done. Cam... Cam was gone.

And then it hit him, like a punch to his gut. Dav. His mother. His father. They were gone, too. He had never replied to Dav's message. He hadn't once contacted them after he left for the war. And now he'd never get a chance to fix things, to make it right again.

Filled with a furious helplessness, John bartered passage aboard the nearest ship and let the less than reputable smugglers take him wherever they were going—he didn't ask. He just wanted to get away. He really didn't care where.

~~

Tandankin, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

On their third day on Tandankin, John had just heard back from the junk dealer that the swoop bike was available, and he wasn't going to miss an opportunity to get one. Racing the bike was a bit riskier than (at least most of the time) a game of Pazaak, but it was a quick way of earning some credits without resorting to bounty hunting. Considering he didn't really have a reputation in the Swoop circuits, there would be long odds on him to win. A percentage of that, even the usual pitiful percentages that Swoop owners gave racers, was a fairly decent sum.

He was headed toward the exit ramp when he heard Teyla and Ronon arguing.

"Do you think it does not affect me?" Teyla asked, voice calm even though John thought he could sense a little anger despite her best efforts. "I assure you that it does. However, we cannot abandon our mission to seek revenge. The Code forbids it."

"Those Mandalorians destroyed my family. My home. It's nothing but a crater and debris," Ronon growled out. "They need to pay."

"No, they do not." Teyla's voice was firm. "If you cannot let go of your hate, it will lead you to the Dark Side. This much I do know. You are at risk so long as you hold this hatred and anger in your heart. Your family, they have not disappeared. They are one with the Force. And that is not to be mourned, it is not to be railed against. You, I, everyone will one day leave our bodies behind and become one with the Force once more. It is the way of things."

"But..."

Teyla stopped him. "There is no emotion..."

"There is peace," Ronon echoed back.

There was a shift of fabric, and then Teyla continued, "There is no ignorance..."

A deep breath and then, "There is knowledge."

The words poured of Teyla easily. "There is no passion..."

"There is serenity." Ronon did sound more relaxed now.

"There is no chaos..."

Ronon breathed deep again. "There is harmony."

There was the sound of someone getting to their feet. "There is no death."

"There is the Force."

Teyla spoke again. "Yes, Padawan, there is the Force. We must let the Force guide us. We must trust in the Force, as it is our ally. We must not pervert the Force to achieve our own ends. That leads to the Dark Side."

With calmer tone, Ronon replied. "Yes, my Master."

It was then that John strode into the garage of the ship, pretending that he hadn't just eavesdropped on the lesson. A half-smile on Teyla's lips told him that she knew he had been there and had probably let him hear the lesson for a reason.

"Well, there's a swoop bike with my name on it in town. I'm going to go fetch it."

Teyla nodded. "If you require assistance, do let us know. Otherwise, we will be training."

"Nah," John said with a wave of his hand. "I've got it covered."

~~

Tandankin, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

"What is this?" Rodney asked as he peered down at the droid John had placed in the corner of the storage area. "Spare parts?"

"It's a droid, Rodney," John said, a little affronted. Sure, it wasn't the newest model or anything, but it was a droid. A protocol droid, which Rodney mentioned wanting at least ten times a day. "I thought you wanted a protocol droid." His voice wasn't sullen, not at all.

Rodney had a pained expression on his face, but then waved his arms airily. "Yes, yes. It's brilliant. I can even rebuild it myself and avoid all those annoying habits some of those annoying C1 units had. This is a Z3 model, yes?"

Smiling a little, John nodded. "Yeah, its numbers are Z3L3. Got it when I got my swoop bike."

"Great!" Rodney answered heartily. "That's all we need. You spilling your brains out on a swoop track."

"C'mon, Rodney," John not-whined. "I'm sure you can make sure it's safe and everything. We need the credits anyhow. Plus, it's not just any swoop bike. It's a KV Swoop. It can go over six hundred kilometers an hour. And it's not one of those flimsy deals you get in the Core. It's built to last. Doesn't fire any weapons, but that doesn't matter when it's just st heat versus heat. It's a thing of beauty. Just like my ship."

John reached over to where his bike was stored and rubbed his hand over the hood. It needed to get cleaned, maybe add a little design on the front, a couple of parts, and it'd be ready to beat anything else on the tracks.

"Can't you ever do something safe like... Divorian Holochess?"

There was a little defiance in John's tone when he replied, "I know at least ten people who were shot after being accused of cheating when they won that game." That wasn't entirely the truth. It was more like scuttlebutt he'd heard when he was still with the Republic, and was about as reliable as ore from Tatooine.

"Fine," Rodney bit out, crossing his arms. "I'll fix up the bike and the droid and the ship and all the millions of other things that require my attention, but we're not doing the Manaan track. It's bad enough you've got to do the riskiest things ever, we're not adding thousands of galleons of ocean water to the mix."

John agreed readily enough with that. He used to race on the Swoop tracks during his teens and then during the few bits of leave he had during his service. Even when he couldn't race himself, John used to watch one whenever he got the chance. Despite Rodney's worries, John had never had an accident on the tracks. Still, he didn't feel like arguing this point with Rodney. The Manaan track was a bitch, anyhow. The people there had that weird neutral position with the Sith, and John would rather avoid them whenever possible. Rodney was apparently done with the conversation; he had already opened the canister which held some of his spare droid parts.

"Come on, M1K0," Rodney called out to his utility droid. "We've got work to do. This asshole seems to think we don't need to sleep.... yeah, yeah, I know you don't. But I do and I don't want you off and doing who knows what when I'm out. Oh, shut up. Droids aren't better."

Watching as Rodney and M1 started accessing the droid, John started thinking about where they'd fly off to next. They should probably fly out to Dantooine the next day. Ronon and Teyla probably should meet with their Jedi Master before anyone else got tangled up in the mess that was going to be on Korriban, especially since the Sith there probably were more on guard after the incident that led to them leaving. When John was in the local Cantina earlier, he'd heard a holonet newscast talking about a recent attack by the dark Jedi leading the Sith against the Republic. Things were really going to shit.

Soon, the only sounds were that of the metal of the droid parts being reassembled and the soldering of a laser, with the occasional comment from either Rodney or M1. Even though John had plenty to do, he stood and watched Rodney work for a long time, unintentionally impressed as the protocol droid went from a pile of spare parts to something which stood on two mechanical feet in less time than he'd expect.

An hour after that, Rodney said, "Well, let's turn this baby on."

"Baby?" John asked with a cheeky grin causing Rodney to scowl in his direction.

The droid came online in a flash, its eyes blinking to life. "Master," Z3 said in a strange accent John couldn't identify.

Rodney beamed at it, getting to his feet. "Z3L3, how are your functions? Are you fully operational? Do a self-diagnosis."

"Yes, Master..." Z3 trailed off. Rodney grinned in John's direction and answered, "I'm Rodney, this is John. That," Rodney pointed down to M1, "is M1K0, and the two Jedi who are not currently on the ship are Master Teyla Emmagan and Master Ronon Dex."

"Noted, Master Rodney," Z3 said, and was still as it completed the request for self-diagnosis. "All systems are online, all programs are functioning, although my vocabulator is a little loose and my chassis may need replacing shortly."

"Good, good," Rodney said, mostly to himself. He fluttered around a little more with the specs and diagnostics, then he stood back, hands on his hips and utterly pleased with himself, and said, "Yes, well, you're great. Really, really great."

Z3 perked up a bit and said, "It is nice for you to say as much, Master Rodney."

"Yes," Rodney said, "M1, give Z3 the grand tour and all."

M1 beeped at Rodney twice then led Z3 from the garage, beeping and blooping at him all the while. Every so often, John got curious about the droidspeak, but then, recalling some of the half-conversations he'd overheard with Rodney, he thought it for the best that he remain ignorant.

Rodney crowded him before John even realized he'd moved; all of a sudden, John was pressed up against the metal wall of the ship. "So you like your gift..."

"Yes, shut up," Rodney said, pressing little kisses against the side of his neck. "I forgive you for only giving me gifts I have to fix first."

John grinned. "I never realized how magnanimous you could be."

"I'll show you magnanimous." Rodney dropped down to his knees, and tugged at the waistband of John's pants. Rodney's hot breath panted against his skin, making him even harder than the sight of Rodney kneeling already had.

After a few teasing licks at the head of John's cock, Rodney's mouth engulfed him, swallowing him to the root with single-minded intensity. John cupped the back of Rodney's head gently, trying his best not to thrust, and let Rodney slowly work his mouth up and down his length.

Rodney gripped his hips, pushing them painfully against the wall. He swallowed thickly around John, eyes closed and practically vibrating with pleasure. John tried not to moan too loudly, as the sound echoed back at him in the garage, embarrassing him despite the fact they were alone.

"Rodney," John said, wanting to come but not wanting the blow job to end. He shut his eyes against the sight of Rodney's wide mouth, stretched around him, and tried to focus on the wetness, the heat, the need.

Seconds, minutes, a life time later, Rodney's hand curled around his ass, fingers pressing against his hole, and that was all it took. John thrust once into Rodney's mouth, coming before he could even choke out a warning.

He breathed heavily, almost all his body weight held up by the wall and Rodney's hands, and opened his eyes only to see Rodney's face pressed against his thigh and the heavy outline of his cock pressing up against his pants. He almost got coordinated enough to motion for Rodney to stand so he could at least jerk him off or let him rub against his thigh when he heard the quiet shuffle of Jedi feet.

"Oh, sorry," Teyla said as she walked into the garage. Rodney had only just pulled up John's boxers, but his pants were still undone, and Rodney was still on his knees, resting his forehead against John's thigh. "I hope we're not interrupting anything."

John looked down at Rodney and noticed the grin on Rodney's face and the laugh he tried to smother against John's leg. He was vaguely horrified to realize Rodney was still hard. Whether it was a testament to how attractive Rodney found John or if it was due to an exhibitionist streak he didn't know about, John wasn't quite prepared to ask, and definitely not with their current company. "Uh."

"If we weren't here," Ronon said, smirking, "they'd only stop to eat occasionally and pass out."

Teyla was too busy smiling to chide him, and John was intent on counting how many rivets were on the work bench nearby.

"We'll leave you to sort yourselves out a bit," Teyla said after a moment, and she and Ronon left the room for their quarters.

John helped Rodney get to his feet and huffed out a laugh. "Well, uh, that was interesting."

"Interesting, yes, that's exactly how I'd describe having two Jedi walk in on me performing fellatio upon your person."

"Performing fellatio upon my person? And here I thought you were just sucking my dick." John rolled his eyes at Rodney's affronted expression. "Would you like to go back to our quarters and allow me to reciprocate performing fellatio upon your person."

"I'd rather," Rodney said, already walking ahead of him. "you just come in here and suck my dick."

~~

Dantooine, Jedi Enclave, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

Dantooine sort of reminded John of the way parts of Telos used to look. There were lush, fertile fields of grass, wild animals, and not much else. He landed in the starport and got to his feet. John was hoping they'd at least spend a night or two here. He needed some time off the ship, as much as he liked it, and a little sunshine wouldn't hurt either.

"Hey," John said as he wandered into the Main Hold. Teyla and Ronon were standing around the holoprojector, looking at a map of a sector of the Galaxy he didn't recognize immediately. "We're here. Do you need Rodney or me for anything?"

"Thank you, John," Teyla said. "I believe that Ronon and I should first see our Jedi Masters first. I shall send word if there's a need for your attendance. However, there may not be a need, and you will be free to leave at your leisure. There are rooms for guests at the enclave. It would be an honor if you and Rodney stayed for your duration on the planet."

"That'd be great. It's not like this place is a tourist trap," John replied, thinking about his dislike of having to find a place to stay far too away from the ship. "See you around."

After Teyla hurried off with Ronon, John went to find where Rodney had disappeared to. He found him in the garage with M1 and Z3, poking at circuits on the side panel of John's bike.

"Hey, buddy."

Rodney glanced at him over his shoulder for a moment and then turned back to the bike.

John took a step closer and said, "Teyla said we can stay at the enclave. It'll be nice to have a night or two off the ship. Wanna stretch your legs, look around?"

"Sure, sure," Rodney replied. "Let me just finish this."

"Come find me when you're done," said John as made his way for his bunk. He found his datapad and went around the ship, adding things he needed to replenish to the supply list as he checked the stores. He was getting low on food and medipacs, but he was all set with grenades and other weapons. There was the list of spare parts and droid bits that Rodney updated for him. He probably couldn't afford to get all of it, but if he saw a decent deal, he'd take it.

"Master John," Z3L3 said as soon as Rodney left the room, M1K0 following after him. John looked in the droid's direction. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Yeah," John said, after he thought about it for a moment. "You can make sure Rodney hurries up a bit and actually leaves the ship with me."

"I see." Z3 paused a moment and then nodded at him. "I know just the thing."

John watched as the droid shuffled out of the room and to where Rodney was currently arguing with M1 again.

"Master Rodney," Z3L3 said, "Leave these projects to me and join Master John outside. I can keep M1K0 in line for an hour."

"And come back to the ship in ruins?" Rodney asked, incredulous. "You two get up to no good."

"Not true, Master Rodney. We are droids and therefore incapable of mischief-making."

Rodney raised an eye at that and Z3 quickly prevaricated. "Nothing malicious at least."

"Fine," Rodney capitulated. "You two can handle my to-do list on my third favorite datapad."

~~

Dantooine, Jedi Enclave, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

"I think I forgot what the sun looked like," Rodney grumbled as he trudged off the ship. John got what he meant, even though it hadn't been that long since they were last planetside. Their ratio of time spent on the ship to off was so out of balance even John wanted a few days of a break.

Rodney stood looking at the entrance to the enclave, glancing to the right where there was a small group of attached buildings off to the side, and brightened when he noticed the droid shop.

An Ithorian and a Twi'lek were inside and a few droids bustled about. Rodney got into a long, heartfelt rant about both the evil horribleness of both Czerka and Mandalorians with one of them. John tuned them out and looked around, happy to see a fair number of items on his list. He half-listened to Rodney tell the story of his heroic flounce out of the Czerka corp, but John decided not to comment on the ridiculous embellishments to the tale he'd heard just after it had happened.

"And that's why they should all be fed to a Rancor. Alive," Rodney finished with a triumphant grin.

The Ithorian laughed. "Yes, I like you, human. For that, I will give you a discount on your purchases today. So few of your kind stand up to them."

Rodney smiled happily and snapped his fingers in John's direction. "Datapad. Give it."

With a bemused expression, John handed it over. Rodney pored over the list and showed it to the Ithorian, who had more of the things on the list than John had realized. Altogether, it cost a few thousand credits, which was half of what he'd originally priced it out to cost. John silently vowed to never dismiss Rodney's bitching out of hand again, since it earned them a fair discount.

After stowing their newly acquired purchases on the ship, he and Rodney made their way to the enclave.

"Hello, Captain Sheppard, Mister McKay," a protocol droid greeted. "If you would follow me, I will show you to where you will be staying for the duration of your visit."

The droid brought them to a nice room with a wide bed. "I was informed by Master Emmagan that you preferred to share a room. If this is not to your liking, I can find other accommodation."

"No," John said. "This is great. Perfect. Thank you."

"If you no longer require my services, I need to go back to my rounds."

Rodney piped up then. "Nope. We're all set. Thanks. We'll find you if we need you."

"Have a good day, sirs, and enjoy your stay." The droid left them and the door closed behind it.

"So," Rodney said, bouncing on the souls of his feet. "Um. There's a bed over there. It's not on a ship or lumpy. But it is empty."

John grinned at him. "Yeah. I guess that is a bed. And it is empty."

"Fix that," Rodney commanded, and John obeyed. Rodney took something out of his pocket and tossed it near the head of the bed, but John was quickly distracted by the look of open desire on Rodney's face. Their clothes went this way and that, and John could honestly say he didn't care if they landed in the incinerator. All he wanted right then was Rodney naked and on the bed which wasn't on a ship or lumpy.

Pushing Rodney down, John crawled over him, licking at any bit of skin he felt inclined to taste. "Bed's not empty now."

"No," Rodney said, nodding awkwardly. "It isn't. So, why isn't sex happening yet?"

"Impatient," John chided, kissing Rodney's lips lightly only to be drawn into a much longer, deeper kiss than he'd anticipated. "Greedy, too."

"Uhuh," Rodney agreed, absently, too focused on sucking on the skin behind John's ear, delighting when it caused him to squirm against Rodney. "You like that."

He most definitely liked that. He also liked the way Rodney's fingers trailed up and down his back with no discernible path or goal, and he liked the small half-laugh, half-moans Rodney made when John said something stupid the same time he touched one of Rodney's good spots.

"I was thinking," John said, looking down at Rodney. "Maybe we could..."

Rodney stopped him before he could make a fool of himself, stumbling over his request. "You want to fuck me?"

John nodded. He did. He really, really wanted that. With his adult life consisting primarily of the Service, war, and then living on a planet where he really didn't trust anyone further than he could throw them, John hadn't spent a lot of time doing more than handjobs and the occasional blow job. His sole experience was with Cam on those short bits of leave that he had had, and that was it.

"Good," Rodney said, as if that decided things. "I was wondering if I was going to have to give you a navigational chart. Flight paths and all."

"Shut up," John said, hitting Rodney with the pillow. "It's not like you were bent over every available surface while I whistled as I walked on by, oblivious."

"That would be because we're currently sharing our ship with a couple of what I'm guessing are celibate Jedi. And two droids who are strange and resistant to memory wipes and would no doubt spend a great deal of time discussing the situation. In Droidspeak. Which I understand, but it'd be filled with weird droid euphemisms that would make it impossible for me to repair any circuitry without blushing and wishing there were a trash compactor for me to hide inside. But, if it'd put your crazy little head to rest, if all of those things weren't issues, I would have bent myself over every available surface of your ship and set up a bunch of holographic arrow signs for you to follow."

John couldn't help himself; he started laughing. Rodney had gotten off on such a tangent, he didn't even seem to register they were both naked. It was hilarious. He was discussing all the anal sex they weren't having with the same enthusiasm he had when he discussed the texture of various brands of protein bars.

"Well," John said, pinching one of Rodney's nipples to get his attention. "We could rectify my oversight in that department."

Pointing his finger at John, Rodney exclaimed. "Yes! That's exactly what we should do. You've been lax on this orgasm duty I assigned you to, and you clearly are obliged to fuck me. Now, would be good, by the way, in case you weren't sure."

Amused, John nodded gravely. "Yes, Rodney. I wouldn't want to disappoint you further."

"That would be a bad idea." Rodney smiled then, and let John kiss him in apology. "I might be able to see it in me to forgive you."

"Good," John said, and just as abruptly as their discussion started, it was over and the mood in the room changed. The need that had taken a back seat to his amusement was now at the forefront. All he could think about was how good Rodney felt underneath him, how hot he looked all spread out on the bed, demanding and unashamed and muttering about how very much John needed to be fucking Rodney ten minutes ago.

He rolled Rodney over on his front and stared at the broad expanse of his back. "On your knees," he said, gripping Rodney's hips.

Rodney clambered on all fours, not even bothering to hide his eagerness for whatever John planned to give him.

John knelt between Rodney's legs, forcing them further apart, then he pushed down on Rodney's shoulders, so only his head was on the bed, still kneeling, ass up and wanton-looking.

He bit at one of Rodney's ass cheeks, watching as Rodney struggled not to squirm too much. John brushed his thumb along the inside curve. He gripped each cheek, spreading Rodney open to his gaze.

"John," Rodney said, muffled by the mattress. He said John's name like a demand, not even a note of question or hesitation.

John leaned forward, licking just above Rodney's hole, which earned him a muffled protest. John grinned a little, but relented. Rodney moved in his grip, trying to push back against his tongue as he licked around his hole, pressing in as much as he could before peppering Rodney with large, open mouthed kisses against his ass cheeks, his hole, his balls, and then back again.

"Oh." Rodney's knees shifted further apart and he arched his back a little, "Just... I need."

John bit at the sensitive skin of Rodney's anus. "I know. Let me. Just let me do what I want."

Rodney moved forward again, causing John to frown in protest, but it was quickly replaced by a smile when Rodney blindly tossed back a familiar, newly re-filled bottle of oil.

Taking the not-so-subtle hint for what it was, John opened it up and poured some into his hand. He pressed one finger inside Rodney, and watched the way Rodney just sort of shuddered and moved with it.

"You like that," John said, voice thick. "You like having something in your ass."

Rodney moaned. "Yes, god, yes. I love it. I want more."

"I'll give you more," John promised, pushing the finger back inside. He liked watching as Rodney shivered, especially when he rubbed over Rodney's prostate with unerring accuracy.

It didn't take long for Rodney to get impatient. "John, for fuck's sake. I want more. Now."

John pushed a second finger in and watched as Rodney didn't even wait before shoving down on his fingers, wanting more and wanting it right then, and what the hell was wrong with John, was he the wrong sort of sadist, not the fun kind?

"You in some kind of a hurry, Rodney?" John asked, gripping Rodney's hip with one hand to still him, and pressing his fingers back in Rodney's ass with deliberate slowness.

Rodney lifted himself up enough that he could glare at John from over his shoulder. He opened his mouth to no-doubt curse him, but John rubbed his prostate again, so all that came out was a needy moan.

John's cock throbbed as he watched the way Rodney stared at him, eyes glassy, demanding he just do something. John slicked his cock up quickly, and shifted Rodney's hips up again. As his cock slowly inched inside Rodney, John decided it felt better than he remembered. He didn't know if his memory was dim with age or if it really was better because this was Rodney, and everything always felt so right with him, so damned perfect, but John wasn't sure if the reason even mattered as much as the pleasure.

"Yes," Rodney hissed, "finally. Now, move."

John placed his hands next to Rodney's head, over Rodney's hands, threading their fingers together. Rodney bucked underneath him as he reacted to John holding him down physically with his hands, his body, his cock.

He pounded into Rodney, hard as he could, reveling in every grunt, every moan, every sound Rodney gave up to him.

"Yes," John growled, biting at the back of Rodney's neck, his shoulders. "Fuck, Rodney."

The sounds of their sweat-slick skin slapping together echoed in the room, in his ears, and a part of him got a quiet thrill to know that at least some of the Jedi were aware of what they were doing, of how much Rodney wanted this and him.

"We should have," John panted out in Rodney's ear, "taken those stims before doing this. Then," John felt the effect his words had on Rodney around his cock. "I'd fuck you for hours. My cock in your ass hour after hour until you were begging me to let you come. And I wouldn't."

"No?" Rodney asked, tightening his fingers around John's.

"No," John repeated. "I'd make you take it some more. Take my cock for a while longer. You'd have to earn the right to beg. Then, if you were good, I'd let you beg me to come."

Rodney didn't say anything this time, gone on John's words, his cock, so John leaned forward again and whispered in Rodney's ear. "I'd let you come. If you could do it with a single touch. If you could do it from my cock in your ass alone. Then I'd let you."
"Oh, John," Rodney moaned. "That's all I'd need."

"Really? I don't think so," John argued. "I think you'd be desperate, needing release, but unable to get it. I'd come in you and you'd be lying there, hard and needy. I'd make you kneel in front of me, my come dripping down your legs, and then," John breathed harshly as he spoke. "I'd walk behind you, bite the back of your neck, shove my fingers up your ass, and demand you come for me."

"I would," Rodney agreed. "I'd do anything."

"I know you would," John said. "You'd do anything to please me as long as I promised to fuck you again. As long as you knew that if you behaved, I'd shove my dick up your greedy asshole the next night. And I would. If you were good."

Rodney's knees trembled, his hands twitching in John's as he came. John fucked him through it, too far gone to speak any more.

When John came, he slumped down on top of Rodney, not wanting to move for a couple of decades at least. He didn't look too closely at what drove him to say all those things he did, as he'd never even come close to talking dirty to anyone before. Rodney seemed to like it as much as he did and that was all that mattered to him. The only thing he didn't want was a heart-to-heart discussing the nether recesses of his psyche.

"Uhn," Rodney said, and John would nod in agreement if any of his body parts could move.

After a while, he rolled off to the side, and closed his eyes. Every square inch of his body was still tingling. "Hmmm."

"That," Rodney said, dazed, "needs to happen as often as possible."

John lifted his head up about two centimeters. "I think it'd kill me if we did that too often."

"And that would at least be a life worth living," Rodney said, with that still-hazy voice.

"Sounds good to me," John agreed and lifted himself enough to sprawl half over Rodney.

"Is this when we have one of those conversations discussing our feelings and stuff and exchange heart-felt emotional declarations of whatever."

John glanced at Rodney, trying to gauge the seriousness of that statement. "Um. I certainly hope not."

"Good." Rodney sounded relieved. "I love you. You love me. We both love each other. Anything beyond that and I'll be writing for those wretched holodramas I tease you for watching."

Rodney said it so matter of factually that John was momentarily stunned. It wasn't that it wasn't true. Or that he wanted to deny it. It was just strange to hear it in the same tone Rodney used to declare the sky blue or the grass allergen-ridden.

Not wanting Rodney to take John's silence as some sort of denial of the last statement, John simply kissed the nearest bit of Rodney's skin, which turned out to be his nipple.

"I sincerely hope that was a, good-night, Rodney, let me kiss your nipple before we both crash in a sex-induced sleep kiss and not a Rodney, ride my cock until we both come messily all over this Jedi-made bed which probably hasn't seen sex in like forever kiss."

John sniggered into Rodney's shoulder. "I don't think I could get it up even with stims at this point, Rodney. So, yes, it was a good night, Rodney's nipple, kiss and not a prelude to anything."

"Ah," Rodney said, sounding relieved. "Not that I'd turn down a chance to ride you or defile this bed a little more. But I'm fairly sure everything I'm saying only makes sense in my head. I'm in that weird space where it's like being lucid in my dreams, but probably am really just saying random words like ewok, holodisc, and bantha fodder which make no sense to anyone else who's listening."

"Go to sleep, Rodney," John said, with more than a hint of pleading. Not that he wasn't enjoying the rambling, but it was the sort of rambling that ended up giving you strange dreams about holograms popping out of the refresher when you're trying to take a leak.

"Yes," Rodney said, "sleeping now."

John curled a little more firmly around Rodney, and let himself drift. His limbs were heavy, and he felt like he just ran the Manaan Swoop race course barefoot and drunk, but he felt safe and happy and he let that carry him to sleep.

~~

Dantooine, Jedi Enclave, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

Late the next morning John finally let go of Rodney long enough to clean up and get dressed. Rodney was wearing a dopey grin John had no doubt that he mirrored.

"Anything you want to today?" John asked, getting his boots on his feet.

Rodney gave him a speculative expression. "I think... I think I want you to teach me how to use a blaster."

"What?" John was surprised. He figured that Rodney either already knew how to use a blaster or he'd never touch one unless forced. "Why?"

"It's not like I've never picked one up before," Rodney said, annoyed. "It's that I want to actually get the hang of shooting one."

"Sure, we can go now. The plains must have something to aim at." John privately thought it was actually a good idea. He had no idea what lay ahead, but he was betting it wasn't going to be easy.

There was a second droid at the exit of the enclave toward the plains. It let them pass and wished them a pleasant day.

There were a few people hanging out on the other side, each of them deeply engrossed in whatever brought them to see the Jedi there.

"Hey," a man said as they approached a small bridge. "Where you two heading?"

"Out on the plains," John answered vaguely. The guy didn't seem to be the sort to cause trouble, but John's gut hadn't always been right in the past.

The guy gave him an alarmed look. "Hey, don't want to scare you or nothing, but the Kath Hounds are none too friendly and the Iriaz aren't much nicer anymore, either."

"Hey," John said easily. "Don't worry about us. I was a solider. I can handle myself."

Rodney didn't seem as assuaged by the comment as the man who stopped them, but it didn't stop him from following John the rest of the way.

An excitable Rodian was standing in front of a speeder just on the edge of the plains, boasting about his weaponry, sounding as if he was doing glorious work. Rodney rolled his eyes, and John nudged him with an elbow, smiling back.

"Okay," John said when they came upon two Kath hounds, which always seemed calm and friendly until they tried to gore you. They had broken off from the rest of the pack who were a fair way away, down in the valley. He handed Rodney a blaster. "I want you to learn how to sight things, first."

Rodney twitched anxiously, but his grip was steady and he followed John's instructions to the letter.

"And just shoot."

There was no hesitation. Rodney depressed the trigger and fired five blaster shots in the direction of the smaller of the Kath hounds. Three of those hit the mark. The Kath hound, wounded, but not dead, started charging in their direction. Rodney's eyes widened, his face pale with fear, but he stood his ground and fired another round of five shots.

"You can help any time now, Captain," Rodney said peevishly. John hadn't wanted to intervene unless he needed to, because Rodney needed to be able to do this on his own. He aimed his own blaster at the Kath hound, but it fell before he had a chance to fire a shot.

"Good job, Rodney," said John, who watched as Rodney flushed under the praise. "Not bad. Next time, we'll focus on the weak spots. It'll go down with fewer shots that way."

John then aimed his blaster at the second Kath hound, who was still eating the grass, seemingly unconcerned with the entire ruckus. He let off four precise shots and the animal dropped. Rodney watched it all avidly, taking in every nuance of his stance, aim, and steady hands.

"Okay," Rodney said. "Let's try again."

They continued walking through the plains, and John could readily admit that it was a surprise to him every time Rodney raised his weapon. It made him think back to Rodney's confession about his family and wonder if there was more to the story than Rodney had originally explained. Neither he nor Rodney had been injured and no one had threatened their lives recently beyond the threat that existed for just about everyone. Something was driving this need in Rodney, and John didn't know what it was. He didn't even feel comfortable asking because the last thing he wanted was to have to explain any of his life back in exchange.

It was late when they trudged back to their room. After they had finished hunting, John had spent a few hours racing his Swoop bike on the empty plains while Rodney timed him and generally made noise about improving everything from speed to maneuverability.

They both tiredly washed up in the refresher and crawled between the sheets, curling up together without doing more than kissing a little.

"It feels like the fighting will never be over," Rodney said into the darkening room. "I mean... take out one Sith Master and another one takes his place. I don't even remember when there wasn't a war."

Holding Rodney closer, John kissed the side of his neck. "I know."

"When I was a kid," Rodney said a little wistfully, "I wanted to create my own line of starships. I wanted them to go faster and farther than any ship ever made. But the war happened and my dad came home injured and I needed to earn credits because everyone heard horror stories about those who got in over their heads with the Exchange," Rodney snorted bitterly, "and then..."

John kissed Rodney again when he stopped speaking, and felt the heaviness of whatever was burdening Rodney sink between them.

"I had a niece," Rodney said all at once. "She was a smart little girl. Always taking things apart to see how they worked."

Stunned, John asked, "Was she...?"

"In the house that night?" Rodney asked in a small, angry tone. "No. She was with her other grandparents."

"Then what happened?"

Rodney sighed miserably. "I left her with them because I thought they could take care of her better. I'm not all that patient, and I worked all these long hours. I sent them credits and visited her whenever I had time. Which wasn't all that often, to be honest..."

Hoping to offer some comfort, John didn't say anything, just rubbed soothing circles on Rodney's back.

"I should have just figured out something else. Those morons... I should have known they were... the son they raised... I went to visit her one day after work got out early. Someone had been shot in the office and the security sent everyone who got cleared home. And they said she was out playing with friends. They were acting weird. Well, weird enough even I noticed. So I pushed my way in and called out her name as I went to where her room was. It was empty."

"What?"

"Those kriffing sithspawn sold her to the Exchange!" Rodney was practically vibrating. "And it was my fault. She was the only family I had left, and I couldn't even protect her."

Before John could even offer to help, Rodney added in a small, trembling voice, "She tried to escape. The Gamorreans guarding her killed her the second night she was there. She fought when they tried to bring her back." Rodney paused, anger rolling off him. "Gamorreans aren't known for their patience. I went to try and buy her back, but it was already too late."

John kissed Rodney on the lips, arms tight around his waist, and waited 'til the shuddering breaths slowed and turned to a steady rhythm.

It took John longer to fall asleep. Rodney's story reminded him of his own, the way everyone had disappeared from his life in a flash, leaving him without even pieces to pick up.

~~

Dantooine, Jedi Enclave, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

When Revan fell, John had small hopes that it meant the end of the war. John knew of him from the Mandalorian Wars. He was the Jedi who led the other Jedi who decided to fight. He was strong, charismatic, and had a mind for battle. He figured that with Revan out of the picture, the rest of the Sith fleet would soon follow.

When Malak took over, worse and more devastating, John felt something in the pit of his gut. It's not that he thought he could have single-handedly taken down the Sith forces. But he did feel guilty about his resignation, which he wasn't sure he would have gone through with if he had known what was to come.

It was a stupid thing to work himself up about, as there was nothing he could do, nothing he could change. And the honest part of his head which refused to cave into guilt and self-recrimination told him over and over that leaving was the best thing he could have done. John wouldn't want to have turned. He might have done it if he followed Revan as so many others did. He wouldn't want to betray the
Republic, his family, his friends. And leaving when he did was what allowed him to stray true to his beliefs.

John often wondered what would have happened if Revan had just listened to the Jedi. It seemed like Revan had the right idea at the time. The Republic was worn from all the fighting and the Mandalorians were relentless. But, John decided, if it had been the right choice to make, they wouldn't have fallen. More than that, they wouldn't be embroiled in this new, more deadly war. A Republic loss seemed all but inevitable.

Late the next morning, he and Rodney stumbled out of bed, both exhausted despite the long time spent under the covers. For John, nightmares of Cam and Telos and a thousand other mistakes he made over the course of his life haunted him. He was willing to bet it was the same for Rodney, who whimpered in distress 'til John woke up and soothed him back into a deeper, more restful sleep.

Not only did they have a good deal of Jedi and even former Republic soldiers against them, the Sith had a seemingly unending fleet. For every destroyed starfighter or vessel or battle, the Sith came back with more. It felt three hundred kinds of futile and John hated that even he was one of the soldiers who had thought the Jedi had been dragging their feet about the Mandalorian Wars.

But another side of him wondered if it even mattered. If the Jedi hadn't joined the fight, would the Republic have won? Would they all be under the thumb of the Mandalorians? Would the war have even ended?

John couldn't answer those things. He suspected no one could. And if anyone were capable, it really wouldn't matter anyhow. What was done was done, and now the entire Galaxy had to suffer the consequences.

He was angry, too. He was angry at the Republic for letting things get too far before acting. He was angry at the Mandalorians for their stupid code and stupid battlelust. He was angry at the Jedi for training these obviously unstable sentient beings in the force, only to have them turn and have the tools to be as deadly and soulless as they wanted to be. He was angry at himself for not doing something or saying something that could have prevented anything at all anywhere. He hated the way this anger made him feel. Hopeless, useless, guilty. He tried not to focus on it too much because it made things worse.

There were things he could do, things that didn't include rejoining the Republic, which would be tantamount to accepting all the mistakes they made, costing millions of lives, in his eyes. He could help these Jedi on their mission. He had a freedom that he hadn't had before, when he was just following orders. John could follow his instincts and do what he thought was right.

It might not matter in the end. It might just be a worthwhile gesture. But, John thought, he'd at least be able to look himself in the mirror and not cringe. He would at least know in his gut that he was a loyal soldier of the Republic, even if it was in spirit only. He would at least know that his actions wouldn't lead to anyone else's death but his own.

The door chimed, and John answered it as Rodney busied himself in the refresher and dressed. Teyla stood before him, with a grave expression.

"Morning, Teyla," John said, allowing her to enter. "Where's Ronon?"

"Ronon is receiving instruction from a Master, which may aid him. If you wish to know more, you must ask him yourself. I am here on another matter. Where is Rodney?"

"Here," Rodney said, coming into the room, dressed and looking better than he had last night. "Morning."

"I sense there is something troubling you," Teyla said, held tilted. The words were said kindly, but Rodney blanched anyhow. "Now is not the time, I see. Perhaps, when you are feeling up to it, you will relay your story to me."

"Ah, thanks," Rodney said, fluttering his hands at his sides. "You said you were here about something?"

"Yes," Teyla turned back to John, her face serious. "As you know, the fighting between the Jedi is not going well for us. There are enemies on many fronts, and more are turning to the dark side as we speak. Last night, a horrific thing occurred. The Sith completely destroyed Taris. The city is nothing but rubble. There are survivors in the lower levels, but not in any significant numbers. Jedi have already been assigned to deal with the situation that caused and arose from that. However, I was asked to track down an old Master from the Order. One of our number senses that he has important information necessary to the cause."

John looked at Rodney for a moment while Teyla let them digest what she had told them. Taris. Gone. Worse than Telos. Just like his family, Rodney's. All gone. He felt the weight of the seriousness of everything come down on his shoulders all at once.

"What can we do to help?" Rodney asked, surprising him. John hadn't even got to that point, though he would be lying if he said he wasn't intending to offer the same. "What do you need from us?"

"I am glad that you asked, Rodney," Teyla said and she sounded sincere, as if Rodney had released a burden from her by his offer. "Ronon and I need transportation and secrecy. All of the starships the Jedi have are likely known by the enemy, given that many of our number have joined them. We need to fly swiftly under the radar to find where my former Master is currently residing. It may be chasing shadows. Therefore, it is also your time that we need."

"Anything," John said. "Whatever you need."

Rodney nodded at her. "Yes, of course we'll help. Not that tangling with the Sith and doing anything dangerous and life-threatening is on my daily-goal list, but it's important. To everyone. Yes, yes, we'll help."

"Thank you," Teyla said with such obvious feeling that John felt inadequate in the face of what he'd actually be doing for her. "I will let my Masters know of this, and I will arrange for supplies for our journey."

"Supplies?" John asked. Rodney was already busy within his datapad, working out calculations for fuel and food.

Teyla looked at him as if he had missed something obvious. "The Jedi Council will provide us with fuel for our ship, food for our journey, as well as some clothing and blankets. It will be impossible for them to continue supplying our mission as it progresses, but they will aid the start of our journey."

"That's good," John said, pleased. "Thanks. It'll be helpful."

Rodney continued to punch things into his datapad, no doubt adding the Jedi donations into his current calculations and supply list.

"Very well," Teyla said. "We shall leave first thing tomorrow morning."

John nodded and sat down on the bed once the door closed behind her. "I guess we'll put off settling down somewhere for a while."

That pulled a laugh out of Rodney, who flopped down next to him. "Pretty much. At least this way we can check out the local real estate."

"And figure out which planets to avoid right off?" John asked, thinking of the likelihood that someone, invariably, would want to kill them.

They decided without saying as much to take the day off from work. Rodney headed out before him and played Pazaak with a local guy in another room. John chose to ride his Swoop bike again and then snuck off afterward to see the Rodian in the courtyard. He bought a few higher-grade weapons from him out of his secret stockpile of credits.

John wasn't sure what was out there, exactly, but the feeling he had more than anything else was that something would want them all dead sooner than later.

Teyla and Ronon showed up in the evening, and they shared a quiet meal together. John didn't need the Force to tell him that Ronon wasn't happy about something, and John wondered if it would be a faux pas to ask about it.

"So what's eating you?" Rodney asked, master of tact that he was. "You're too quiet. It's unnerving."

Teyla was torn between amusement and incredulity. John was resigned to Rodney's bad manners, and Ronon didn't seem like it fazed him at all.

"Just a lot to think about," Ronon answered. "My family was murdered by Mandalorians."

Teyla looked at Ronon, surprised he was talking, but gave him her rapt attention despite already knowing his situation.

"I need to let go of my hate," Ronon said simply. "It's not easy for me."

"Yeah," John said, nodding in understanding. "It's not easy. When you figure it out, let me know the secret."

And then Ronon grinned at them and John felt a ping in his heart, because Ronon was a kid and he had to deal with the same type of shit he and Rodney did, but he had the pressure of being a Jedi on top of that.

"Woulda thought an old man like you would have all the answers." Ronon's change in mood brightened the room; even Teyla seemed delighted at it.

"Old? I just turned thirty," John protested.

Rodney was nodding profusely beside him. "I'm twenty nine and far, far younger, smarter, and attractive."

"Who's been lying to you?" John asked, nudging Rodney's side.

Teyla shook her head. "I am twenty-five, but I am far more attractive, intelligent and wise than the two of you combined."

"I'm eighteen," Ronon offered. "And I could beat you two old men any day in anything."

John started laughing first, followed by the rest of them. It seemed so strange, hearing their laughter echo in the corridors of the ever-solemn Jedi enclave. But it felt good, like he was a normal guy for just a moment.

Ronon left the table first, grumbling about some sort of training he needed to attend, and Rodney and John sat about while Teyla finished her drink.

"I would like to thank you," she said after a moment. "That was the first time I've heard him laugh in a long time. He does not trust those outside of the order easily. I tell you this only because our journey requires a deep trust amongst us and an understanding of our situations. Ronon struggles, yes, but he has the potential to become a great Jedi. It is not an easy life, but most of us find it incredibly worthwhile. I am hoping our journey provides lessons that cannot be learned through words alone."

John didn't really have anything to say, and Rodney was busy staring at the ground. Teyla bid them goodnight and left them to their thoughts.

A little while after, he and Rodney slowly made their way back to the room for their last night on Dantooine, and slept curled up together, not even bothering with the pretense of sex. There would be time for that later. Now, they each needed something else.

~~

Pegasus, Dantooine, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY
Anchorhead, Tatooine, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

"All right, everybody," John said, smiling broadly at everyone standing around the astronavigation hub. Teyla, Ronon, Rodney, M1, and Z3 were all giving him their attention. He hoped they had an idea of where to start because it was a big galaxy, and wild stabs in the dark really wasn't his navigational style. "Where we headed?"

Rodney pulled up a map of the sectors surrounding them. Teyla touched Ronon's wrist, and he nodded to her. He pulled up a map further out and pointed towards the Arkanis Sector.

"Cool. Tatooine, has a good Swoop track," John said, causing Rodney to roll his eyes.

Ronon tapped at one of the planets. "Last known location was in Anchorhead on Tatooine. He was planning on searching for something important in the East Dune Sea."

"Okay, let's get Pegasus up in the black," John said as Rodney punched in the hyperspace coordinates.

Teyla and Ronon went off to meditate and seek guidance through the Force. Rodney was dealing with figuring out the best hyperspace routes to avoid some of the locations of the Sith. John went into the cockpit and waited for Rodney to come over and copilot.

"I had to reroute the most expedient hyperspace trail, as the Sith have strongholds in two sections. The other trail went straight through Huttspace, and this one necessitated going through the Core, which would add at least three days on the trip. So, I had to do some altering, and now it'll take a little more than three days."

"Good," John said as he exited the atmosphere of Dantooine and went into hyperspace. "I'd rather not give the turrets a workout unless I have to."

The trip to Tatooine was strangely quiet. Teyla and Ronon spent a great deal of time meditating. Rodney holed up in the engine room with M1 and Z3, and John watched some of the past Swoop races on the Tatooine track, hoping to scope out the competition. Their credit situation wasn't dire yet, but John couldn't foresee a time when they'd have the time or the freedom to work. Swoop racing, fortunately, was instant gratification.

The spaceport in Anchorhead was fairly busy, considering how depressed the local economy was. They paid the docking fee and headed into town.

"We need to see about travel into the desert," Teyla said after they disembarked.

Rodney beckoned Z3 to follow him. "I want to check if anyone I know is working at the local Czerka office. They usually have fairly decent information. I also want to have a look at the droid shop and see if I can get a few replacement parts for Z3."

John headed towards the local Swoop office and decided to see if he could get in on any of the day's races. There was a Hutt sitting in the corner of the room, and John figured he was in charge of this track.

He signed up for a race and went out to find Rodney, who had just finished haggling for some parts with the Ithorian who was running the droid shop.

"Hey," John said in greeting. "I'm going to be in a race in twenty minutes. Have you seen Teyla and Ronon?"

"We are here," Teyla said. John turned to find them standing right behind him. They were too damned quiet, and it was unnerving. "Ronon and I were unable to gain access to the desert at this time. We did not have the proper paperwork."

"Oh," Rodney said, absently. "It's because you need a hunting license, that's right. My friend at Czerka mentioned that I might need one. Here," Rodney handed Teyla the license. "That should be sufficient. We can't go right away, though. It takes some time for it to get processed. We can probably go right after John's race."

Within minutes, John was out on the Swoop track, revving up his bike. What followed were twenty-two seconds of trap-avoiding terror and exhilaration. He managed to hit all but five of the speed-boost panels and avoided all the speed traps, beating the best speed record of the current racers.

He came back in after finishing to scant applause. Rodney clutched his chest, and a Rodian handed him a nice little stack of racing bonds. And even better, Teyla had convinced the Hutt in charge to pay him extra if he managed to win, so he got an extra ten percent on the original winnings.

After they traded in the racing bonds for credits, they all headed out for the Dune Sea, which they'd been warned wasn't the most pleasant of places on the planet.

"It's something," Rodney said, as John stared out at the endless mounds of sand. "I never came out here unless I could help it. There are markers along the edges, but if they get buried, you could get lost and never find your way back before dying of thirst."

"Aren't you a little ray of sunshine," John mumbled as they trudged along toward a large, towering piece of machinery. He would have rather used a speeder, but the sand was hell on engines. He hoped Teyla could use her senses to find him, so they wouldn't be wandering around forever.

Ronon stared at the sand crawler, finally asking, "What the hell is that?"

"Oh," Rodney said as they neared. "Czerka made the futile attempt to mine for ore here."

"It tends to degrade pretty damn fast," John added. "And they're still at it?"

"Not for long, according to my friend," Rodney said. "I guess it hasn't been very profitable for them."

They were almost near the path for the Eastern Dune Sea when a small group of very angry sentient beings popped out of what seemed like nowhere and started firing at them as they charged.

"Sith's blood," Rodney cursed, pulling out his blaster. "Sand People."

Teyla had yet to pull out her lightsaber, though Ronon was already in a defensive stance with his.

Firing a few shots, John hoped to scare them off, but it was quickly obvious that wasn't going to work. "These guys just don't give up, do they?"

"There is not a chance at coming to a peaceful solution?" Teyla asked.

Rodney fired at one of them, actually hitting the shoulder, and shook his head. "Not a chance unless you want to be dead or carried off to their settlement for a round or two of torture. They don't speak Basic, don't want to, and would rather you'd die anyhow."

"Very well," Teyla said as she finally drew her own lightsaber when a blaster shot nearly missed her face. In a few elegant movements, she slew all three Sand People, and rebelted her lightsaber. "I do not wish to take the lives of other sentient beings, but it could not be helped. Come, we must not linger. I do not wish to cause further harm to their people unless absolutely necessary."

They found the path and followed it until they reached yet another few miles of sand. There was a cave further out, but Teyla stilled as soon as they spotted it.

"That place is strong with the Dark Side. It is not of our concern. Let us focus on the job at hand."

They went on for a bit, dodging a small herd of Banthas, and then came to a spot which looked no different than the other piles of sand except that Teyla stopped walking and knelt. She hovered her hands over the spot and slowly raised something from beneath the sand.

It was a small tent, and a few other amenities. It looked like it had been buried for some time, though it was hard to tell. The desert was harsh.

"These belonged to Master Halling," Teyla stated plainly. "He left here under his own power. There was no bloodshed. He simply got what he came here for and decided to move on. However, he left these here because he wanted to throw someone who might have been following him off his trail."

"That's just great," Rodney said, crossing his arms. "How are we supposed to track him now if he doesn't want to be tracked? There's no shortage of planets we could try."

"It is true that we are facing a bit of a conundrum. Where, then, would you go if you were new to a planet and wanted to ask someone who might have the information you seek?"

"A bartender, or a Pazaak player," John said, "They usually know the local rumors and gossip because people either talk to them or talk near them, without even noticing that they're there."

"That is a good idea," Teyla got to her feet and they started to head back to Anchorhead. "And a place to start."

The local Cantina was a dank little room, nestled between a few buildings near the starport. It had a few hologramatic Twi'lek dancers, but little else. The bartender was a slight man, whose eyes flickered over to them as soon as they entered.

"I was wondering," John said amiably. "If you knew of a Miraluka man, about my height, wearing robes, named Halling? He maybe stopped by the Cantina for a drink, a game a Pazaak, to take in a show?"

The man behind the bar eyed him suspiciously. "I don't know if I remember that."

"Something might spark it, though?" John asked, casually shuffling his deck of cards.

Then Rodney stopped his arm, and said, "This Jawa said not to bother asking him. He doesn't have any information. The Jawa, has, however, a message to be given to friends of the Jedi."

John raised an eyebrow. Rodney waved his hand and explained, "I picked up Jawa Trade Language."

"Ask him if we're worthy of hearing the information."

Rodney spoke again to the Jawa, fluttering his hands as he spoke. Then, rolling his eyes, he pulled a few things out of his pocket and handed them to the Jawa, who replied.

"Oh, he says that the Jedi we are searching for found something here in the sand and then went off to find more answers on Kashyyyk," Rodney said in a quiet voice. John glanced around for anyone who might be listening, but between the din of the music and the low jumble of many conversations, no one appeared to be paying them any attention.

Teyla's brow furrowed, clearly not seeing a connection or why Halling would go there. "Will you thank him for the information, Rodney. This news is most confusing. I wish to go back to the ship and meditate on it."

Rodney thanked the Jawa and pulled a second item out of his other pocket and handed it to the Jawa as well.

"It's a sign of respect to offer something they can either use or sell for the service he just provided," Rodney said afterward, with a shrug. "I know that I'm fairly arrogant and tend not to pull punches when I should, but I do figure out quickly who I should respect and who I can tell to space themselves. Most humans get it wrong. I, however, am far too intelligent to dismiss a chance at getting insider knowledge by being too good for the native species of a planet."

John smiled. "Yeah, you're the smartest guy in the Outer Rim."

"Just the Outer Rim?" Rodney actually looked affronted.

"I didn't want to feed your ego by including the entire galaxy."

Rodney scoffed. "Having a healthy ego isn't a crime. And I know that I'm not the smartest sentient in the entire galaxy. However, I will settle for being the best technician ever."

"I didn't know you could be gracious as well," John said, deadpan. Rodney, however, beamed at him, which made John want to laugh and kiss him at the same time.

They got back on board the ship, and John fired the Pegasus up as soon as Rodney worked out their hyperspace route. Thankfully, Kashyyyk wasn't going to be a long trip.

~~

Near Rwookrrorro, Kashyyyk, Mid Rim, 3956 BBY

"I do not believe Master Halling will be on Kashyyyk when we arrive," Teyla said by way of greeting. Rodney was sacked out in the co-pilot chair and John was reading when she came to him.

"Oh," he said, wondering if he should pull out of hyperspace or keep going.

Teyla seemed to sense the question. "We will still go, of course. The Force is guiding us there for a reason, but my feelings tell me that it shall only be a minor stop on our journey. However, nothing experienced is without purpose."

"Okay," John said, looking up at her. She seemed concerned about something, but John figured she'd share her troubles if she wanted to without his assistance.

It wasn't until they landed that Rodney gave them all shifty glances as they started to get ready to disembark.

"Well," Rodney said, shifting his weight to the other foot. "I think you should all stay here. I have a few contacts here, but they don't trust off-worlders. I worked here for few years and know a few of the locals."

"I don't know if that's a good idea, Rodney," John said, uneasy about Rodney disappearing off on his own for a while. It just seemed like the height of unsafe decisions. Teyla, however, gave a thoughtful nod.

"Don't piss anyone off," Ronon said, wisely. "You don't want to get beaten to death with your own arm."

"Hardly," Rodney scoffed. "I happen to understand Shryiiwook and can communicate with them better than any of you."

"Still," John felt that no one was thinking about all those Sith out there and the possibility Rodney might just piss off someone really dangerous.

"If I can't find out what we need to know, you can do your manly soldier thing while the Jedi figure stuff out. Just give me a chance," Rodney was talking to the room, but looking at John specifically.

"Fine, but if you get yourself killed, I'll never forgive you," John said, relenting. The chance that Rodney could find information more easily without them was too important to pass up, and it could save them precious time.

Rodney waggled his fingers in a wave as he walked down the ramp, and John listened as he paid the local Czerka employee for docking there. It was then that he heard the annoyance in Rodney's tone when he talked.

He edged down the ramp enough so he could hear better, but not so much that he got noticed.

"I hope you don't go starting trouble, Wookiee-lover," the man said in a haughty tone.

Rodney was probably rolling his eyes, if John had to bet. "Please. I just came here because Kali is finally going to play me the credits he owes me."

"I'm too busy for this. Move along," the man said, turning his back to Rodney, who left right away. John was surprised, as he'd never seen Rodney lie successfully before. He was impressed.

John felt anxious and decided that maybe he wouldn't go far, but he needed to get off the ship. He promised himself to stay in the starport and not venture off to find Rodney. There was a Rodian off near a few supply crates who called him over for a game of Pazaak, for which John was grateful. It kept him occupied for the next hour and it also allowed him to win a tidy sum of credits while he was at it.

"You're too good," the Rodian complained at last. "No more betting."

"Republic Senate Rules?" John asked hopefully. Anything was better than pacing the ship uselessly while someone else was doing the risk-taking.

"No. No more playing."

Sighing, John stowed his cards and slowly walked back up the ramp to the ship. He avoided the eye of the Czerka worker who had had words with Rodney and instead focused his attention on a quarrel M1 and Z3 were having, apparently about the best oil for their joints. John still didn't know any droidspeak, but he could figure out the conversation through context and Z3's responses. Apparently, M1 was fairly rude. John wondered if it was a quirk having to do with the model, or if Rodney programmed it that way.

John was up on his feet the moment Rodney's footsteps echoed on the ramp leading into the ship. Teyla and Ronon appeared by John's side, and they all focused their attention on Rodney, who was currently complaining about the assholes who worked on the planet.

"Oh," Rodney said when he looked up and noticed everyone. "Yeah, okay. So, this Halling Jedi person was here a while ago. It seemed he wanted to have a chat with some other former Jedi who lives here? I don't know why anyone would want to live in the forest. It's a death trap. All sorts of nasty creatures who most definitely want to eat you and all. Anyhow, he came here, stayed for about a week, talked to this former Jedi, and then left, and in somewhat of a hurry, according to the Wookiee I talked to."

"You sure you can trust this Wookiee?" John asked, feeling the slightest bit skeptical.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, of course. Grarbyyr doesn't lie. Besides, we're friends...of a sort."

"This is a strange development," Teyla said, "Perhaps we should speak to this former Jedi."

"Ah," Rodney said, holding up his finger and wincing a little. "Seems that it's not going to be a possibility. There's a fair bit of political turmoil here. No off-worlders are being allowed down to the planet's surface. This Wookiee I spoke to suggested there have been a few dark Jedi cavorting with the new leader of the Wookiees. It's probably not even worth trying to ask. And," Rodney said, looking quite proud of himself, "I found out where Halling was headed anyhow."

"Oh," Teyla said, surprised. She didn't mask the emotion well, because Rodney's happy smile soon turned to affronted grimace. "No," she hastened to say. "It is not your ingenuity in finding out that surprises me. It is that Halling was not more careful of others discovering his movements."

Mollified, Rodney quirked a small grin at her. "Well, he's apparently gone off to Dxun, a jungle moon of Onderon. God knows why anyone would want to go there. Still, it seemed like it was important to him that he get there, whatever the reason."

Teyla's face fell at this news, though she didn't say what bothered her about this information. Ronon, too, tensed up, and stormed from the room, growling, "Meditating," as he went.

"Please, we must go there as soon as possible. Do we need to refuel?" Teyla asked.

"We're fine on fuel," John said, eying the diagnostics. "We'll get ready for the trip. You go do what you need. We'll get you where you need to go."

"Thank you," Teyla said, inclining her head, and then she set off after Ronon.

"That can't be good," Rodney bitched as he punched in the hyperspace coordinates. "The last thing we need is to be associating with a Jedi who looks one bad day away from falling to the dark side."

"Hey, now," John said, but secretly he agreed. If going to this place was going to do bad things to Ronon, he thought they'd all be better off, Ronon included, taking the remainder of the mission without him. "Everything will work out. You'll see."

"As long as we have Captain Optimism leading the way," Rodney groused, but his heart wasn't in it. Actually, Rodney sounded tired, as if he was worried about something other than the current situation.

"At least it won't be a long trip," John said, eying the distance between Kashyyyk and Onderon. "Shouldn't be more than eighteen hours or so."

"Yes," Rodney said, mouth turned down. "That's about right."

"Rodney?" John asked, and Rodney seemed to realize he was behaving oddly because he grinned, a bit manically, and faked being fine really poorly. He buzzed out of the room, calling to his droids, and left John to take off by himself.

He shifted in the pilot's seat, and busied himself with take off. That was when he felt something against the side of his ship. Looking at the monitors, he noticed a few small Sith fighters, heading in his direction. "Rodney!"

"Yes, yes," Rodney yelled, not coming to the cockpit. "I'm heading up to the turrets. You keep flying. I'll hopefully hold them off long enough that you can jump into hyperspace."

Another hit impacted against the hull, but the damage was deflected by the shield. Still, the ship was losing power with each hit, and John didn't want to wait to see how bad it would be when the shields were gone.

"Yes!" Rodney yelled down to him. "Got one of the huttspawn."

"Keep it up," John yelled back, "I'm almost there."

"And another!"

There were a few tense moments when there were two shots which hit his ship, one right after another, and then John was finally ready to shift into hyperspace. Rodney bounded into the room, red-faced and pleased with himself. "I nailed all those kriffing huttspawns."

"Great," John said, willing the surprise out of his voice. It wasn't that Rodney was incompetent with a blaster or anything, but hitting any moving object with a turret laser took skill and practice.

"To be fair," Rodney added after a moment, "I did program an auto-track booster into the turret sighting. Still! It wouldn't have worked on its own and I did make the program, so it was just like doing it all by myself."

John laughed at Rodney's seemingly unwilling bout of honesty. "Yeah, you did it. We're in hyperspace and my baby's still flying like it's brand new."

"Yes," Rodney said, preening. "I did try to anticipate all these things and made a few alterations here and there."

John held Rodney's face between his hands and gave him a deep kiss. "Thank you."

"Uh," Rodney said, dazed when John finally pulled back. "Any... any time. At all. For you."

~~

Dxun, Inner Rim, 3956 BBY

When they finally arrived at Dxun, John discovered getting there was only half the issue. The moon didn't really have a starport, and there wasn't any travel between Onderon and that particular moon anymore. Not since the Mandalorian Wars, anyhow.

It took some searching, but John finally found a clearing large enough to land his ship. Dxun wasn't a settled place, and he killed a few trees bringing Pegasus down, but the space he found was functional. He figured their need outranked any problems landing in the rough landing would cause.

John exited the cockpit after he landed and found Rodney in the central hub.

"It looks like the jungle is pretty dense," Rodney said, taking a look at some old maps of the moon, which probably were from when the Republic last fought there. "Though after the war, we can pretty much bet that it probably isn't the same as it used to be."

"I never thought I'd ever come back here, that's for sure." John scanned the area, frowning. It felt like a decade had passed instead of just a handful of years.

Rodney grimaced in response. There was no helping it, though, as they had both agreed to see this mission through. Teyla and Ronon joined them after a moment. Teyla seemed more steady than she had been, though Ronon still seemed as angry as before.

"I must speak with everyone before we leave the ship," Teyla said. "My senses tell me that this will not be as easy as our previous trips. The good news is that I do sense Master Halling on this planet. However, I also can sense our enemies. It is not clear. I believe the Dark Side is obfuscating them. When I was allowed the time to clear my mind and meditate, I could then sense them. It is, therefore, imperative that you all listen to me and follow my instructions."

"So, what you're saying is although you are capable of sensing our enemies, you can only do it if you're concentrating only on that?" Rodney said, his voice pitching higher as he spoke.

Teyla nodded. "Yes. If I put all my effort into it, I can get a read on them. The Dark Side is clouding their presence. Once we are on the move and searching, I will not be able to devote my full attention, and I'll need you three to do as I say. This is not a matter of distrust in your abilities or dismissal of your talent. It is about the safety of this mission. I am almost positive that these Sith are looking for my former Master as well. And we cannot allow this to happen if the will of the Force can prevent it."

"If that's what needs to happen," John said, still doubtful. It wasn't that he thought Teyla was incapable. Far from it, actually. But he was a soldier, and he was used to relying on his instincts. He wasn't sure whether, in the heat of necessity, he could follow her orders if his gut told him to do something different.

"Whatever," Rodney said, waving his hand in the air. "Just don't get me killed."

"I will do everything in my power to prevent such a thing from occurring."

"Yeah," Ronon said, speaking at last. "You'd probably figure out some way to use the Force to bitch at me from beyond the grave."

Rodney grinned, pointing his finger at Ronon. "You bet your ass I would. Captain," Rodney said, addressing John formerly again. "I'd feel better if I had a second blaster on me, even if I am leaving the decision making up to the Jedi."

Surreptitiously, John darted a glance at Teyla, who nodded approvingly. John clapped Rodney on the shoulder, as he opened the weapons storage unit with his other hand, and said, "Sure thing, buddy. Got just the thing. I bought a few pieces from that Rodian we saw on Dantooine."

"Good," Rodney said, taking the blaster John offered him and putting it in a second thigh holster he also bought.

They exited the ship and set off into the lush jungle. Even though it had grown tremendously, the trees and vines still weren't enough to hide the scars from the battle that had been fought there years ago. As they trooped through the trees, they found the wreckage of ships, old degraded blasters, mangled droids, and mossy-green skeletons littering the landscape. Every once in a while, Rodney would tag some of the debris he found, telecomming M1 and Z3 to recover it.

"Is it much farther?" Rodney complained after another large leaf thwacked him in the face. "I'm rapidly developing an acute allergy to nature."

It is not much farther, I believe. We need to take this trail," Teyla said, leading them up a dark, winding, dirt path.

When they emerged at the end of the path, they could see a large temple in the distance. John felt a curl of dread in the pit of his stomach, and Rodney had an equally uneasy expression on his face.

"Is that where we're heading?" Rodney asked, a fine tremor in his voice that John would have missed if he wasn't listening for it.

Teyla shook he head. "No, not unless that was the only option left us. That is the tomb of Freedon Nadd. He was a powerful Jedi who allowed his anger and hatred to corrupt him, causing him to fall to the Dark Side. Even after his death, his spirit lived on to corrupt even more Jedi. Even though now his spirit is with us no longer, its imprint remains on the tomb. The Dark Side is strong on this moon, and we need not seek out temptation heedlessly."

Swallowing thickly, John nodded and followed Teyla in the opposite direction. Another twenty minutes of trudging through thick terrain passed, when Rodney sighed loudly.

"I know you guys are used to endless suffering and whatnot, but some of us, namely me, would like to rest for a moment if it's allowed."

"I think, perhaps, that it is a good idea," Teyla said, looking around. "We shall rest briefly, nourish our bodies, and then continue."

"Thanks," Rodney said, and he busied himself doling out some food to the group. "Starting a fire's too risky, so these protein bars will have to suffice."

It seemed like no time at all before they had to get back to their hike. Even John was getting tired of walking, though he refused to say anything lest it egg Rodney on to some more dedicated bitching about the situation.

"Stop," Teyla said, as they neared another path. "There are life forms up ahead."

Beside her, Ronon tensed. "Who do you sense, my Master?"

"There is a group of four Mandalorians," Teyla said shortly. "They are salvaging equipment. If we detour here, we can avoid them."

Even though John had been half expecting it since they landed there, it was still a shock when Ronon drew his lightsaber and snarled. "They are from the clan who slew my family. I can sense it."

"Can you, young Padawan?" Teyla asked sharply, "Is it not just your desire for revenge blinding you?"

There was a flurry of movement, and Teyla moved to block Ronon's path, lightsaber still on her belt as she stood before Ronon, who now had his lightsaber pointed at her chest. "I will do what it takes to honor the memory of my people."

"Is this how you honor them?" Teyla asked. "You would slay those innocent of the crimes of which you accuse? This is nothing more than your anger clouding your thoughts."

Ronon pointed his lightsaber more forcefully toward her, anger etched on his face. "The monsters who killed my entire people are over there and you lie to me? You are telling me you don't sense their guilt as I do?"

"The only lie I sense is the one you tell to yourself." Teyla didn't budge an inch, even as Ronon's control looked like it was slipping by the second. "There is no emotion," she said after a moment. "There is peace."

While he didn't sheath his weapon, Ronon also didn't run ahead, either. His muscles were tensed, ready to move. "They deserve to pay for what they did. They're evil. Monsters. They deserve it and more."

"It is time to let go of this base passion," Teyla said calmly. "Anger will lead you to the Dark Side. And that will make a monster of you. You will become a servant of the dark and cause as much death and destruction as did the men who slaughtered your family."

 

"So I should do nothing?" Ronon asked through gritted teeth, as if his non-action would pain him more than any physical wound.

There was an aborted movement, but then Ronon stilled again, looking confused, angry, and desperate.

"There is no chaos," Teyla said gently, looking up at Ronon with a great deal of love, sympathy, and pleading.

"There is harmony," Ronon answered grudgingly. "But how... I just... How can I just let them go?"

Teyla knelt on the ground. "You need to let go of your anger, young Padawan. You should not let it fester in your heart. Though your people were violently taken from this form, they still live on. There is no death. They are one with the Force, and it should comfort you to know this. They are with you now, always. They live in your heart as long as your heart is willing to bear them. Let not your feelings corrupt you. Let not your compassion turn to hate. Those who die corrupted fall into Chaos, forever separated from those who accept death as a natural part of life."

With an anguished sound, Ronon put away his lightsaber and dropped to the ground, kneeling across from Teyla. "Tell me what must I do."

"Kneel with us," Teyla said, looking up at John, and then Rodney. "Please."

Rodney immediately knelt, and John followed suit, across from him.

"Clear your minds," Teyla instructed. "Let go of the fear, the anger, the guilt. Let the Force fill you with peace."

John tried to do as she instructed, but felt the burden of everyone he had ever let down sit heavily on his shoulders. He opened his eyes and looked across the small space to Rodney, whose lips were quirked in a frown.

"Close your eyes," Teyla said, chiding. "And imagine every thing for which you blame yourself floating away. If it happened, it is because the Force willed it so. There is no blame. There is no changing the past. There is nothing to be gained from keeping this shame, heavy in our hearts."

Incrementally, John felt better as each face of someone he loved, he cared for, or just knew floated across his mind as he tried to forgive himself. He tried to feel peace, but it was difficult.

"Anger, hatred, revenge," Teyla said, voice like a soothing hum in the background. "Unnecessary in the face of the Force, which is all encompassing. It guides us. It frees us. It connects us. We are never alone."

He could hear the deep shuddering breaths of Ronon and Rodney, and the soft, whisper of Teyla's calmness radiating outward. John relaxed another fraction, palms damp against the fabric of his pants. His chest felt a little lighter, his shoulders not as heavy as they were even five minutes prior.

"The first part of the code is often misunderstood," Teyla said. "Emotions are natural and normal, but the way we deal with them that is important. Feel what you feel, know what you feel, understand it, process it, and let it go. That is how one achieves peace. We do not drown ourselves in emotion. We acknowledge it and do not let it control how we act. We do not let it become the sole guide for our being. There is peace in understanding and acceptance."

It was only when John was no longer thinking, just focusing on each breath and exhalation, that Teyla said, "Good. Now, we are ready to move on."

John opened his eyes and took in the faces in front of him. Rodney was subdued, but no longer strained. Teyla was pleased and relieved in equal measures. Ronon had undergone the biggest change of all: his face was peaceful for the first time since they'd met, and there was a distinct lack of rage from behind his eyes.

Teyla got to her feet and stood before Ronon, who was still kneeling. "You passed the final test, my former Padawan. You are now a Jedi Knight."

Surprise colored Ronon's face before he got to his feet and bowed slightly in deference to his Master. "Thank you," he said, voice filled with emotion. He then hugged her quickly, before darting back to a casual stance.

"It is not I who you should thank," Teyla said "You who did the work. You are the one who learned the lessons you needed to learn."

Ronon inclined his head, and they spoke of it no more. "We need to get going before nightfall."

"Yes, indeed we do," Teyla agreed. "Come, this way."

They came upon a small yurt a few hundred yards away, and John felt a jolt of relief to see the signs of someone currently living there. He hoped it meant they'd actually found the guy Halling and didn't need to go planet hopping again, with only the faintest of clues.

"Master Halling," Teyla called out, and a man emerged from the tent wearing worn robes and a headband across his eyes similar to Teyla's.

He glanced at the four of them and smiled. "It is good that you have arrived. Come, we have much to discuss and little time to waste."

They all circled around the small fire that was slowly cooking a broth of some sort. It smelled vaguely of cooked gizka.

"Allow me to offer you a place to sit, some sustenance, if you require it." Halling glanced around at them.

"Ah," Rodney said, eying the food with distrust. "We ate recently. Thank you, anyhow."

John figured if Rodney turned food down, then it was probably best he do the same.

Ronon sniffed at the broth, but shook his head at the offer of a bowl.

"I thank you for your hospitality, but it is not necessary." Teyla said kindly, then gave Halling her full attention. "I admit that I was puzzled when we were guided here of all places to find you."

"Coming here was not my first choice. I originally sensed a tremor in the Force. Something that led me to believe that the Mandalorian Wars were close to an end, but not the conflict. I sought out the cause of this disturbance and found the trails of the Dark Side on many planets. I located where they were, but did not investigate fully, fearing the knowledge would corrupt me." Halling sighed heavily. "I was also aware that my Padawan, who had followed the Jedi who fought in the Mandalorian Wars, had fallen. If I stretched out my mind, I could feel him on the periphery. I dared not lead him closer to the taint of the Dark Side than I had to. It weighs on me greatly."

"Is there something of the Dark Side on the worlds we followed you to?" Teyla asked, concerned. "Something specific, not just remnants of those who came before?"

Halling nodded. "I noticed it first on Manaan, when I traveled there for another purpose. I was confused by what I sensed and even more so when I went back to Dantooine, and sensed the same there. I reached out with my senses and was led first to Tatooine, then Kashyyyk. I dared not travel to Korriban. My Padawan's curiosity was almost a physical manifestation, but he still can be saved. Being on Korriban would be too much, too soon."

"That is understandable," Teyla said. "It was nearly impossible to stay centered in such a place. It took great time and attention. For someone who has already fallen, it would only drive them further away from the Force."

"Yes," Halling agreed. "I then cleared my mind and let the Force speak to me again. Through it, I sensed another disturbance. Different than what led me to those other planets, but connected all the same. It led me here. More important than dealing with my former Padawan was discovering the knowledge to be gained from completing my mission. This was a difficult decision. The needs of the galaxy are more important than anything else. So, I came here, knowing he might follow, though I tried to mislead him. Once I came here, I was nearly overwhelmed, but I mastered my senses quickly. Despite the great deal of Dark Force energy found on this moon, I was able to see more clearly than ever the distant threat against us."

"Threat?" Ronon asked, tensing as if this threat was going to suddenly pop out of Halling's yurt, angry and ready to kill. "What threat?"

"Not something physical," Halling said. "Not yet, anyhow. It began with the Sith Wars, and maybe even before then. The Mandalorian Wars came after, but there was still something guiding it all. This war between Jedi was unavoidable, inevitable. The fallout from Malachor V has not even begun to fully show itself. It caused an echo, and all those who were able felt it."

Teyla nodded, not saying a word. John wondered if it was because she was a Jedi or because she was a Miraluka like Halling, which made this echo they spoke of something they both knew, felt. Then, he recalled how he felt after the battle of Malachor V, the way his insides were churning, and the deep unsettling fear that rose up at the thought of the Unknown Regions, and instantly knew that Halling was right. Something that happened that day, far beyond just the loss of life and the end of battle; it was something far more insidious and long-lasting.

"There are holes in the Force, wounds if you will. It is the cause of much debate, but when something terrible happens, so many lives unnaturally snuffed out in a blink, the Force feels it like you or I'd feel losing an arm or a leg. Perhaps that's why the taint of the Dark Side does not die when those who wield it do. It lives on, a cancerous growth on the Force, tainting those who come after for centuries to follow. This is what happened in the aftermath of Malachor V and to those Jedi who survived it. More than that, there is something corrupting the Jedi, something in the Unknown Regions that is greater and more devastating than anything we have ever known, ever seen."

"If this is true," Teyla said, getting to her feet, with Ronon following suit. "We must return to the Jedi enclave on Dantooine and discuss this matter with our Masters."

"It is you who must go," Halling stated, calmly. "I however, must stay."

"Why?" Ronon asked, eyebrows raised. "If this threat's as bad as you say it is, then it's better for you to come and tell Master Vrook and the others all that you know."

"I agree," Halling stated, "that it is important that my fellow Masters are informed as soon as possible. However, I sense that I am needed here. The tomb of Freedon Nadd is filled with the taint of the Dark Side, and I fear that soon those who dare will come and seek the knowledge found within. I sense that would be a dangerous occurrence. I will remain."

"I understand," Teyla said, inclining her head. "We shall leave at once. I am grateful, once again, for the knowledge you've entrusted with me with. May the Force be with you."

"And with you," Halling replied. "It was a respite just to speak with my fellow Jedi once again, however briefly."

"And now you will lead me to the tomb and aid me in gaining entrance," a voice came from the side. John turned and saw a tall male Zabrak, standing there. Thick black tattoos stood out on his stark white face, anger radiating from him as he glared at them.

"Mikkal," Halling greeted him pleasantly, as he rose to face the man who was apparently the former Padawan he'd been discussing. "You did manage to follow me here."

Scowling and brandishing a bright-red lightsaber, Mikkal growled,. "I do not wish to engage in a battle of petty retorts with you, Master. I want you to lead me to the tomb of Freedon Nadd. If I gain the secrets within, I will be rewarded above all other acolytes of the Sith."

"It is not too late, Mikkal," Halling said, voice holding a touch of pleading. "Redemption is always possible, even after death."

"Why would I shackle myself to the constrictions of the Jedi?" Mikkal asked., "Through power, my chains are broken."

"You speak of the Sith Code with such reverence," Halling said sadly, "when it is only a bastardization of the truth of the Force."

"Enough!" Mikkal yelled, and he raised his lightsaber to strike at Halling, who simply stood there, waiting, accepting the blow, and then faded into nothing as he was hit, leaving his robes and lightsaber behind. "Coward!"

Ronon and Teyla sprang into action, both activating their lightsabers as they advanced on an enraged Mikkal.

John didn't have time to watch or even think of helping, because Teyla yelled to them. "Back to the ship, both of you."

They had promised to do as Teyla said, but John felt the need to stay. Rodney, however, was glaring at him fiercely, tugging at his arm, trying to get him to follow Teyla's instructions.

"No," John said, stubborn and defiant. "I should stay."

"Charming as your ridiculous belief that you, and only you, could defeat an unstable Zabrak with a lightsaber, we have more pressing issues to deal with."

"Like what?" John still refused to budge, but Rodney had already turned away from him, blaster drawn and fully tensed.

"Well," Rodney said, firing a few shots into the trees. "There's those guys."

John opened his mouth to ask Rodney what in kriff he was talking about when he saw what Rodney meant. There were at least ten men in Sith armor heading their way. One more was on the ground. He paused a second to cheer for Rodney, who apparently wasn't too bad a shot after all, and then pulled out his own blaster rifle and started firing.

It only took a second for them to figure out the direction the enemy fire was coming from, and soon he and Rodney were dodging blaster fire as they tried to get in a few more shots of their own.

He could still hear the woosh of lightsabers from behind, letting him know that Teyla and Ronon were still alive, still fighting.

The heaviness of the attack from the front meant he was only able to get off a few shots before having to dodge behind another tree.

"Draw their fire and we will take care of the rest," came a voice next to him. John almost jumped when a Mandalorian in full battle gear appeared as if out of thin air. "This is our home, and we don't wish to share it with Sith scum."

John nodded. Despite the years of fighting against Mandalorians, he knew that it was against the Mandalorian Warrior code to use trickery to kill an enemy. He went into a crouch, nodding to the Mandalorian, as well as to the other two who appeared—fucking stealth field generators—and hurried as fast as he could across the line of fire to where Rodney was currently positioned, firing randomly every few seconds.

"Are you out of your mind?" Rodney asked in a furious whisper. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"Those guys," John said, pointing at the Mandalorian fighters who now had taken out half the Sith soldiers, "decided to help us a bit."

Rodney's eyes widened in disbelief, but he nodded abruptly and peered out around the tree. "What now?"

There were shots being fired between the Mandalorians and the Sith, so they were no longer even paying attention to John and Rodney at all. He motioned for Rodney to follow him closer to the battle. They got near enough that they could shoot the remaining Sith, taking them out while they were busy trying to hold down the Mandalorians.

"One, two," John mouthed, pointing at their targets. Rodney looked frightened, but determined. He nodded as John counted, visibly girding up for the firefight ahead. "Three."

At once, he and Rodney jumped out into the open, firing upon the last of the Sith troops. They weren't expecting the attack, and John and Rodney as well as the Mandalorians bore down on them until they were all on the ground.

"Sith scum," spat one of the Mandalorians. "This is the last of them."

John was relieved, even if he was uneasy about his ready alliance with his former enemy. Part of him wanted to turn back and find out what happened to Teyla and Ronon, but he didn't know if it was a bright idea to put Ronon and a Mandalorian within killing distance of each other, even if Ronon had passed his test.

The Mandalorian whom John assumed was the senior of the group addressed him. "For aiding us in destroying these pieces of trash, we will guide you back to your ship. This is our territory, and we don't wish to have outsiders here."

"Fair enough," John said. The other two disappeared in a blink, and the one remaining just turned around and started walking.

All John's previous desire to go chasing after his Jedi friends evaporated in a second when a deep, pervasive sense of peace fell upon him. He didn't need to see it with his own two eyes to know that they were safe; victorious. He wasn't sure if he was going to be transporting just the four of them back to Dantooine, or also a Jedi prisoner, but he knew, at least, that they were currently safe and, alive. A glance at Rodney told him that he wasn't the only one to feel what he did. Rodney even shot a grin in his direction.

They walked a few feet before Rodney returned to being came back to the man John knew and recognized, sending furtive glances at their self-appointed guide.

"Is is safe?" Rodney asked as they walked, indicating the Mandalorian in front of them. "I hate when they wear that get up. Full body armor, helmet. Can never tell if they're shifty- looking or giving you the stink eye."

John laughed, despite himself. "Well, put it this way. They don't want us here and do you want to find out the hard way if there are more of these guys, hiding in the jungle?"

"Considering the fact that they most assuredly know it far better than I could ever hope to, and I hate to admit it, but his blaster is bigger than mine, maybe it's for the best to just follow his advice." Rodney gave John a sly look and laughed. "His blaster's bigger than yours, too."

"Hey, now," John said, affronted. "Well, at least mine's bigger than yours."

"It's not the size of the blaster that matters," Rodney was quick to say when the insult was turned back on him. "It's how you wield it."

"That's a myth. Like free time." John laughed at his own joke and then again at Rodney's pained expression.

"You'll wake all the cannoks," the Mandalorian grumped ahead of them, causing Rodney to snigger at him.

"I can't believe you're afraid of a cannok or two," John said, fingering his blaster idly.

The Mandalorian shook his head. "Nope. They're just pests. A waste of time and ammo."

That was fair, so John quieted down and was pleased when they entered the clearing where he had landed the Pegasus.

"Here you are," the Mandalorian said needlessly. "Do not stray into the jungle again."

"Sure thing," John said easily. "We'll be taking off as soon as our friends get back."

Rodney was already stalking up the ramp, shouting for his droids. "M1, Z3, did you get the salvage? Yes, yes! Let me see. Anything good?"

"Yes, Master Rodney," Z3 said in a happy tone. "We hope you do not mind, but we also brought back several other items you had not marked that M1K0 picked up with her scanner."

"Great," Rodney said, rubbing his hands with near-maniacal glee. "Oh, let me see that diagnostic."

John just sat out in the grass, eyes toward the trees, and waited as Rodney chirped happily in the background.

"M1, on the hull with me. We can do some spot repairs while we wait. Z3, tell me more about this salvage."

About ten minutes later Ronon and Teyla emerged from the jungle, alone, but carrying a great deal of items.

"We have robes for both Master Halling and young Mikkal. We also found some important Jedi artifacts in Master Halling's yurt. We must bring all these things back to the enclave. Master Halling will receive a proper funeral, and the Masters there will be able to decide the fate of these artifacts."

"Sure," John said, not really having anything to contribute to the discussion. Ronon and Teyla walked onto the ship and presumably went to place the items in their quarters.

"How's it looking up there?" John called up to Rodney, who was still talking in delighted tones with his droids.

"Hmm," Rodney said absently. "Oh, yes. Well, give me another ten minutes and we'll be good to go. Actually, we're good to go now. But, I want to reinforce our shield generator, make it sure it lasts. There was a steep drain in the power after each successive hit the last time. This should lessen the drain, if it works like I expect it to. M1, right there, right... yes, there. Good. Thanks."

It was closer to twenty minutes before Rodney descended the ladder back to the interior of the ship. "Hey, Captain," Rodney said a bit crossly. "I know you don't have that strong of a work ethic, but don't you think you should be flying us away from this dank, nature-filled planet?"

John, who had just come inside from doing a routine inspection of the underside of the ship, glared at the insinuation, especially as Rodney had been tinkering a full ten minutes longer than he'd predicted. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that it'd been far too long since he'd last fucked Rodney into their bunk, and grinned winningly. "Just punch in the coordinates, and we'll be on our way."

Not missing a beat, Rodney was already at the astronavigation computer before he finished speaking, and was busy getting a hyperspace route to Dantooine. "Yes, yes. Jeez, I want some real food and a bed and a shower, and some brain-melting sex, not necessarily in that order."

"Master Teyla and Master Ronon bid me inform you that they will be in deep meditation for the remainder of the journey and to pardon their rudeness in not aiding you with the return trip," Z3 said when Rodney had finished and was following John to the cockpit.

"Oh, all right," John said, focusing on getting back to Dantooine. He had other things on his mind, like where he and Rodney were going to go next and what they should do for credits.

Rodney sat down in the seat and said, bemused, "What's up with that? It's not as if they didn't meditate almost every other chance they got. Making such a big production of it is like they're asking us to interrupt or something. If not us, someone else."

Laughing, John took off, enjoying the feel of the Pegasus humming under his hands. It felt even smoother than the last time he flew her. He gave Rodney a sidelong glance. He was tapping his fingers impatiently against his thighs. John almost decided to see how long it took before Rodney jumped out of his chair and did something, but he was feeling a bit dopey in love with the ass instead.

"It's," John said, stumbling over how to put into words how Rodney had fixed his ship, made it better, made it beautiful. "Thanks. You know... for... stuff."

"Yeah," Rodney said, rolling his hand awkwardly. "It's... that is... the ship. And for you. I kinda. Feel and stuff."

John grinned. Rodney spoke the same language he did, apparently. He reached over and grabbed Rodney's hand, squeezing it. "Good. Me, too."

~~

Dantooine, Jedi Enclave, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

When they landed on Dantooine, Ronon and Teyla emerged with their bundles from their quarters. They thanked Rodney and John both for the respect for their wishes, causing John to shoot Rodney a look of shared bemusement. Jedi were a strange bunch, that was for sure.

Ronon and Teyla bustled off to speak with their Masters, and he and Rodney were herded by a droid to the same room they stayed in last time.

"How long do you think they'll be?" John asked, looking over at Rodney who was busy shucking off his clothes at top speed.

Rodney looked over at him, and gave a sort of surprised huff when he realized John hadn't followed suit with the speed-of-light stripping, and said. "Long enough. Now get naked and join me in the shower or I'll use all the hot water and not sleep with you for a week."

As far as threats went, it was fairly effective. John tossed his dirty clothes on top of Rodney's, and was ducking into the shower before Rodney had a chance to yell at him for being too slow.

When they emerged and walked back into their room, it was to find an amused Teyla sitting on their bed. John hastily backed back into the refresher and grabbed a towel to wrap around his waist, tossing one to Rodney, who was blushing behind him.

"It was not my intention to disturb you," Teyla commented. "It is important when you are finished dressing that you join Ronon and me for a meeting with the Masters who reside here."

"Sure thing," John said, agreeing. Though he'd have probably agreed to anything to get Teyla to leave so he could be less naked in front of her.

Rodney nodded hastily. "Yes. Yes. Whatever you want. We'll be right there, bright-eyed and all that. See you. You know. After. When we're not standing here with towels covering our nether regions."

John sighed. Rodney had a way with words, almost poetic at times. Teyla grinned at them and let herself out.

"What do you think?" John asked, putting on fresh clothes. He had a feeling that these Jedi weren't going to give them a pat on the back, a handful of credits, and wish them a long, happy, and event-free life.

Sitting down on the bed, Rodney fell back, tossing the towel on the growing pile of dirty clothes. "Oh, you know what's going to happen. They're going to say blah, blah, blah, the Force, blah, blah, blah, mission, blah blah blah. Long, boring discussion of peace and harmony later, they'll get around to saying something like, oh, by the way, here's this dangerous mission which will no doubt end in your untimely demise, but we'd like you to do it anyhow. The Force sent me a holodisc with explicit instructions for you two to sacrifice yourselves to the cause in some useless, pointless way."

John stared at Rodney for a moment, for once not distracted by his utter nakedness. "So..."

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, heaving himself back up. He pulled a shirt over his head. "We'll do whatever stupid plan they have in store for us. It's not like we can argue with all that blah blah blah."

It was stupid to feel happy that Rodney was on the same page as him, but John couldn't help it. He reached over to Rodney, who almost stumbled as he tugged on his pants, and kissed him long and deep.

"Let's go listen to what they have to say."

They trudged out to find themselves facing two men, a Twi'lek, and a sentient from a species John'd never seen before.

"I am Master Lamar, these are Masters Tokare, Dorak, and Lestin. We are pleased with your success and willingness to aid us in this great time of need in our Galaxy. We are hoping, once more, that you will put your trust in the Force and our wisdom and continue to help us as we face continued and varying threats."

There were a few exchanged glances between the Jedi and then Master Lamar spoke again, cautiously. "I know that it must seem strange that we should choose to rely on you so heavily. The Force is alive within you as it is alive within all life. You both have what we call Force sensitivity. No," Lamar said, reading the expressions on their faces. "You are not meant to be Jedi. There are many sentient beings who are closer than the average being to the Force, yet who will never undergo training."

"What it means to you," Master Dorak said, gruffly, "is you should trust your instincts. They'll be better than most. Your physical and mental reflexes, your talents and skills, are better, more honed. But don't let that make you cocky. Knowledge is key."

Rodney shot him a glance, but said nothing as Master Tokare—who kind of looked like a short, wrinkled green elf-like being—began to speak. John didn't know how to tell them that they'd already agreed to help them, but it felt strangely wrong to interrupt a Jedi who was intent on speaking at great length about the Force, necessity, missions, and whatnot. Which made him grin a little when he thought of how accurate Rodney had been just ten minutes ago, when they were alone in their room. He tried not to think too much on his better-than-average-Force-sensitivity. Which, he figured, was what they were trying to tell him.

It took him a moment to realize that they were all looking at him expectantly, waiting for a reply. He gave his most charming grin and said, "Sure, sounds like fun."

Rolling his eyes, Rodney pointed at him. "What he means is that, yes, we agree to your insanely risky, nay, suicidal, mission. I think..." Rodney paused, suddenly serious. "I get it now. All that babble about the Force and stuff. The past is the past. I get it."

John looked at him and realized it was true. He could miss his family, his friends, his loved ones, without being suffocated. He felt freer then than he ever had in his entire life. It hadn't hit him until he saw Master Halling just evaporate into the Force in front of him that what Teyla was saying was true. He had wanted to argue with her, to tell her there was, in fact, death. It had been shoved in his face for as long as he could remember.

But, when he saw Halling back on Dxun, he really understood for the first time that death wasn't the end. It wasn't a punishment, not even for John. It just was. He felt peace, what it meant to actually be at peace, and it soothed him. Thinking of going to the Unknown regions no longer made him uneasy. He knew he was meant to go. Just like he knew that Rodney would be by his side. Just like he knew that Ronon and Teyla would be his friends for as long as he lived.

"It is good to hear you say so," Teyla said, coming up from behind. "Now, let us focus on the future and what is to come."

Ronon edged in between Rodney and John. "Yeah, I've got a few blasters I want you to have. A specialty of my people. You two deserve to carry them more than anyone."

"Thanks," Rodney mumbled, quietly, yet looking pleased despite his humble reply. "Thanks," he repeated, and smiled nervously.

John clapped Ronon on the arm. "Yeah, buddy. Thank you."

"Will you attend Master Halling's funeral?" Teyla asked. "It would honor his memory if all those who saw his sacrifice attended."

Not being able to deny a request from Teyla, he said, "Sure, we'll come."

Rodney tried to smile, but it was strained. John wasn't sure if it was because he felt awkward or because he genuinely didn't want to go. Regardless, he didn't complain, even when he was left in privacy with John.

There was a great pyre built near the enclave. John didn't understand why they'd burn the robes despite not having a body, but he had noticed the Jedi were big on weird symbolism.

The robes burned quickly, but the service lasted longer, as many Jedi spoke about their relationship with Master Halling and how he affected their lives and how they looked forward to the day when they could join the Force and be one with him again.

They spoke of the lessons which could be learned from his life and, his death, and the lesson of what he did to try to redeem his fallen Padawan.

Then someone came out bearing the robes of Mikkal, the fallen Padawan, and he placed the robes defiantly on the same pyre. No one stopped him, but it was clear from everyone's reactions that this wasn't a popular decision.

This young Jedi, called Jinto according to Teyla, spoke as soon as he stepped back about a vision he had of Master Halling, and how he had wanted this because he hoped one day for his former Padawan to come back from Chaos, and into the Force proper.

John wasn't sure if this was the truth or just a dream, but the rest of the Jedi seemed to accept it at face value.

It was late when the service ended, and John and Rodney tried not to meet anyone's eyes or encourage conversation, which everyone was intent on having. John had never met anyone more talkative than Rodney, and he was surprised that they had found his match amongst the Jedi. However, he got the sense that it probably wasn't normally like this.

They retreated back to their room, for what felt like the last time, and stripped without a word. John touched Rodney, kissing him, and made love to him for the first time without the past between them, without guilt for feeling happy, without anything but the sort of quiet affection that was so strong between them that it was tangible.

"John," Rodney whispered into his neck, and John heard a million things, things he was now ready to hear and, reciprocate.

He kissed Rodney again, rocking his hips slowly as he lost himself inside Rodney's warmth. "Rodney."

~~

Dantooine, Jedi Enclave, Outer Rim, 3956 BBY

The next morning came quickly, too quickly, but John made a point of dragging Rodney into the shower for sex and bathing.

The Sith were still causing trouble and the Republic was still fighting back, despite how hopeless everything seemed. There was talk amongst the Jedi about a secret mission, and more about the devastation of Taris.

John walked around the grounds by himself for a while, taking in the peaceful atmosphere he'd never experienced on another planet, figuring the lack of Czerka and the Exchange, not to mention the Sith and Mandalorians, probably had something to do with it.

"I wished to speak with you," Master Tokare said, approaching him with intent.

John nodded. "Of course. Whatever you want."

"This mission I send you on will be dangerous. It will be fraught with peril. It may be one you will never return from."

All these things had crossed John's mind already, so he said nothing.

"I sense that you had been wary of going to the Unknown Region in the past."

"Yeah," John said thickly. "I was there. At Malachor V. If I had been closer, I'd be dead, too. My vessel... the one I came on, was supposed to leave on. I couldn't. It felt so wrong. I joined the crew on another vessel and returned to the Core with them."

"Will you let me feel what you felt?" Master Tokare said. "Will you give me access to your mind?"

John knelt down before Tokare, and bowed his head. He knew that this was important. More important than he could guess. "Yes."

Tokare held his clawed hand out, hovering it over John's forehead and closed his eyes in concentration. "Yes, yes. I see," he mumbled, but did not explain further than that. It was another five minutes before Tokare stepped back, shook his head, and lowered his hand. "Thank you, Captain Sheppard."

"Of course," John said. He wanted to ask what Tokare saw, what he understood that John didn't, but Tokare looked up at him with a frown.

"I know you wish to understand why I requested that of you and what I learned. I will not tell you, not because I do not trust you with the information, but because I am not sure as to what it is that I have discovered. I must share this with the Order and hopefully it will shed light enough for us to learn from it."

"Okay," John said, more confused than ever. "Is there anything else?"

Tokare paused a moment and then said, "Yes. I know you are not a Jedi and you are not bound by the Code, but if you ever feel lost, it will guide you. There is so much that we do not know. The Dark Side clouds our vision. But I can sense a longer battle ahead than any of us will be prepared for."

"The same threat or something new?"

"Ah, you sense it, too." Tokare said approvingly. "Yes. That is difficult to answer. It is the same threat as it always has been. The Dark Side will rise and fall again. Each time in a new incarnation, but the same in its essence."

That made... an odd sort of sense to John.

"I must leave you now, as I have other duties to attend. I did enjoy meeting you, Captain Sheppard. And I thank you for your candor and willingness to share with me."

"You're welcome." John watched him go, staring after him for a few minutes, then he went back on his walk, looking at the bright blue sky and wondering if this trip would be his last.

A part of him wanted to stay on Dantooine a little while longer. It wouldn't hurt to be more prepared for the mission ahead, but every other part of him screamed at him to get back in the black of space.

Rodney was apparently one step ahead, because he had spoken to Master Dorak and had a great deal of information downloaded to his datapad.

"For a bit of light reading," he said, as he waved his burst of intuition off as common sense. It was one of the things John liked best about Rodney. Ego when it wasn't justified and modest when it was. John chuckled whenever he thought about it.

Once they restocked, the four of them walked up the ramp to the Pegasus together. Rodney punched in new hyperspace coordinates. Ronon and Teyla carried crates into the storage area, and John checked their fuel and reserves once more, just in case. Somehow, they all found their way to the cockpit when John took off and exited the atmosphere of Dantooine. He looked around at these people who were his team now, his friends, and grinned at them. "Next stop, the Unknown Regions."

The End!