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A.W.O.L

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A.W.O.L. cover image featuring John Sheppard in center, ringed by, counter-clockwise,  Rodney McKay, Aiden Ford, Jack O'Neill, and an Egyptian hieroglyph of Atum

 

The observation booth was too cold, of course; these voodoo doctors seemed to have ice in their veins, but the hot mug of coffee in Rodney's hands ameliorated the chill somewhat, as did the horse pill of a painkiller Fraiser had dosed him with earlier for all his aches and pains from the rough treatment he'd received. He still didn't know what to think about the man responsible for most of his bruises—whether he'd really been saving Rodney's life at the time, or if he was in on it with those other assholes, as the crew at Stargate Command seemed to believe.

"Well, Major Sheppard," General O'Neill said over the tinny speakers, his voice wry, "I have to say you're looking pretty spry for a dead man."

Rodney watched the major's eyebrows twitch but otherwise, he didn't react. Rodney found it hard to tell from where he was sitting in the observation booth, but it appeared as if Sheppard were staring directly at the scuffed table top.

The general opened a folder. "Got nothing to say? About your completely contradictory alive state?"

"Just that you're wrong about that." Sheppard said, nodding at the folder, "I really am a dead man if that's what I think it is."

"Oh, really?" O'Neill leaned back. "Why's that, I wonder."

"Because you did a query on me, and I know I've been flagged to high heaven by that son of a bitch. He's already got someone on their way to finish me." Sheppard didn't sound particularly concerned about his pronouncement, just tired.

"I'm guessing you're talking about," O'Neill consulted the sheet in front of him, "Brigadier General Gustafson, retired. Your old C.O."

"You say 'retired' like that makes a goddamned bit of difference." The disheveled man raised his head finally from his examination of the table and met O'Neill's eyes directly. "But he'll kill everyone on this base to get to me, General. Starting with you if necessary.

"Like I said: no need to update my file. I'm already dead."

:::

[The previous day]

The attractive, scruffy-haired man was there again today at the coffee shop. Rodney didn't kid himself that their daily, mild flirtations at the condiment counter or sitting next to each other over their coffees would amount to anything—in spite of the vaguely funny quips and the slight intelligence the man had betrayed, his looks were far too appealing for him to be wasting time with a past-his-prime, albeit brilliant, scientist. Though, come to think of it, the dark-haired man did have a hungry look about him. Maybe he was just rough trade. Wrong neighborhood for it, but sadly, it wouldn't be the first time Rodney accidentally found himself on the 'paying' end of a date.

Just yesterday, the man had spilled some half-and-half on his wrist and then unselfconsciously licked it from the back of his hand, only afterward tilting Rodney a sheepish look as if to say, oh, I didn't mean to make a completely suggestive maneuver just then. When his eyelids crinkled in a smile, though, Rodney had found himself smiling back, a blush heating his neck at the avid look on the man's face, as if Rodney's mere smile were enchanting.

Today, though, Scruffy Man looked more nervous than hungry, and he kept shifting in his seat and glancing over at Rodney's table as if he wanted to come over and say something. There was a quality to his nervousness that didn't speak of come-on jitters but something else that put Rodney on a more paranoid alert. He hadn't spent three years at the SGC without picking up something of the base-wide caution toward security and a leeriness toward anything that smacked of a set-up.

And any situation where a handsome, fit-looking man kept trying to pick Rodney up in a coffee shop just begged closer scrutiny.

Rodney was just about to call him over for a whispered talking-to when the man cocked his head, his eyes narrowing, and he suddenly hustled over to Rodney's table and leaned over him.

"Say, Rodney. I thought that was you." The man's jaw was clenched. "Hey, what do you say we go inside for another cup of Joe? Do some catching up?" His eyes were pleading with Rodney to go along with it, and his hand was resting on Rodney's forearm. Not grabbing, just resting there. His fingernails were clean, not bitten off or dirty.

Rodney looked back up to his face. "It's—it's good to see you..."

"John." The man nodded approvingly. "You keep forgetting my name."

"John. How've you been?"

"Great. Tell you what, I'll buy you a fresh cup. Inside," John said too casually, nodding toward the door, and Rodney got up and went with him. There were plenty of people inside the little shop, so no real harm done, there. They went indoors, side by side, and then John seemed to be leading toward the back door, which—no. Rodney resisted a little, turning toward John, who cocked his head and whispered something Rodney didn't quite catch, "I don't know...these guys...they're organized, and they seem to want you pretty bad," and then the next instant Rodney was down on the ground, and there were people screaming, and there was glass flying and gunshots, Jesus, and John was on top of him, either keeping him hostage or sheltering him, but Rodney couldn't know for sure which, it could all be part of the set-up, so he reached for the chain under the neck of his shirt and squeezed his panic button.

There was a shimmer of light, and then Rodney was on the Prometheus with John still on top of him and Captain Ellison yelling down at him about breaching security.

Well, but Rodney was safe. That was the thing.

:::

"Maybe you'd like to explain for starters how you happened to approach Dr. McKay."

Sheppard stared down at the table and shrugged a little. "He was...interesting." The tips of Sheppard's ears were slowly turning red, and Rodney couldn't help smiling to himself.

"Interesting," O'Neill drawled.

"Yeah." Sheppard sounded defensive. "I like 'em geeky."

Rodney scowled. Carson coughed next to him.

"So, it was just chance."

Sheppard shrugged again, his ears now flaming. "Look, I just noticed him. He kept mumbling science fiction stuff at his laptop. I thought he was working on a novel. Hell, I just liked hanging out with him. Then I realized he was being cased by those guys. I don't know who they were." Sheppard looked up and stared narrowly at O'Neill, "You think I like getting shot and waking up in the brig?"

Rodney turned to Carson and sputtered accusingly, "He got shot?"

"It was a minor wound in his thigh, Rodney."

Sheppard looked up and straight at him, almost as if he'd heard Rodney, which was patently impossible, since the observation room was soundproof. But O'Neill had looked up as well, and then he and Sheppard stared at each other, hard.

For a really long time.

Suddenly, O'Neill smiled, a toothy grin.

"Fuck," Sheppard said softly.

"Well, that just makes this much more interesting," O'Neill said. "So, you noticed those guys casing McKay. I believe that, now. Maybe now I can believe you weren't in on it with them. It didn't make sense you somehow just knew what was going on."

Oh, thought Rodney. He looked at Sheppard with new interest.

All the attitude seemed to seep right from the major's bones. He suddenly looked exhausted and washed out under the lights. "Fine. Yeah, you finally got me. Doesn't matter, anyway, since I'm already dead."

"Because of Gustafson."

Sheppard nodded.

O'Neill picked up the file. "Says here you disobeyed orders, stole a chopper and went in after your injured men, then disappeared and were assumed K.I.A. when you couldn't retrieve them from behind enemy lines after your bird went down. Of course, now that would make you A.W.O.L. all this time. But why should Gustafson give a rat's ass about you?"

No answer seemed forthcoming from Sheppard, no matter how much Rodney was urging him to say something. Rodney was surprised how much he wanted Sheppard to defend himself, to be a better man than he appeared on paper. Rodney didn't want Sheppard to be one of his kidnappers, he realized. He wanted their flirtation to have been real. It was so embarrassingly adolescent of him.

But, too, he wanted Sheppard to stop looking like a ragged, washed out caricature. He wanted that insouciant, sarcastic man back from the coffee-shop. The one who had dragged him away from his computer and beat him twice at chess. Twice, goddamn it. Rodney couldn't equate that mocking flirt with this vacant, dead-eyed man.

"How'm I supposed to do anything to protect you from Gustafson if you don't give me a reason, Major?" O'Neill was saying. He actually sounded sincere for once.

Sheppard must have thought so as well, because he lifted his head, frowning. "You won't believe me," he warned.

"Try me." O'Neill tipped back in his chair.

Sheppard's eyes went up as if were trying to remember something. "Gustafson was always a hard-case. But before the mission, before it went bad, he'd started to act really weird. Over the top busy-work to put people in their place, real asshole C.O. stuff. And he would disappear into his tent with this one informant, someone not on the list, and talk for hours with a white-noise generator on, planning something. Also," Sheppard's eyes shifted down, and he bit his lip, his voice dropping to a whisper, "There was...something different with him. I can't describe it, but he smelled like...like aluminum foil or rotting fish and he sounded wrong somehow inside his body."

O'Neill's chair thumped down, and Sheppard jumped. Suddenly the general was on his feet, and Sheppard cowed away as if O'Neill were about to shoot him.

"Hey, no," O'Neill said suddenly. "I believe you, kiddo. I just need to, you know, make a few calls. Be right back." Then O'Neill was out the door.

Sheppard blinked after him, and Rodney sat frozen in his seat, because of course. Of course.

"Sheppard was right, Carson. We're all dead."

"Now, hush, Rodney. I'd say we've killed a few System Lords in our day."

"Yeah, and we've just brought one right to us."

When Rodney looked down, Sheppard was staring right at him, a question in his eyes Rodney didn't want to answer.

:::

There was a reason why now eighty percent of the military's sparse population of Sentinels were stationed at Cheyenne, and why they were given the same privileges accorded regular servicemen and women, instead of being restricted to base or having their pay remitted to a comptroller and then trickled out in a weekly allowance. That reason was their peculiar ability to identify the Goa'uld, and the SGC's ongoing battle against the alien blight.

Sheppard couldn't know that, of course, or maybe he would have come in from the cold a lot sooner. Jack thought he was pretty damned lucky, himself; he'd almost given himself away countless times before his own retirement, and it was only after they'd met Teal'c and established SG-1 that he'd gone privately to General Hammond and come clean himself. Because Jack knew they would need more Sentinels to fight these demons.

He'd trusted George. A lot. But it was still the single scariest goddamned thing he'd ever done in his life, standing in front of Hammond and putting his freedom in the man's hands. All because Sentinels were too "dangerous" to the common good. Or was that too "useful"?

Jack was pretty sure if Sheppard hadn't been exhausted, wounded, trapped and already sure he was a dead man walking, he wouldn't have given himself away in interrogation with such a nugget move.

But Jack was glad he had, because otherwise they'd never have learned about Gustafson. But if Gustafson was a Goa'uld, then Sheppard was in serious trouble, because he was a threat to the snake. Even if he didn't understand the real reason why.

"Daniel. We got incoming. I need everything you can get me on...Brigadier General Gregory Gustafson. Looks like he got snaked somewhere near Beshud, 2002."

"Huh?" Daniel looked up from his pile of books and lifted his glasses to rub his eyes.

"Snake. Gustafson. Beshud. 2002."

"Oh. That's bad, right?"

"Right, Danny. Baaad. Especially since it looks like he's on his way here to pillage and maim and all that fun Goa'uldy stuff."

Jack's next stop was the armory, where he loaded up, because when it came down to it, he always seemed to run out of ammo with these guys. Then he swung by and gave a heads up to Teal'c and Carter and the SentOps crew, putting them on perimeter alert.

Finally, he headed back to interrogation, but not before stopping by the canteen for two pieces of blueberry cobbler.

"Here," he said, dumping the cartons of milk from under his elbow so they fell to the table. He placed the smaller piece of cobbler in front of Sheppard, then reached into his pocket and handed Sheppard a plastic spork. "Sorry, you can't be trusted not to make a shiv just yet."

Sheppard's eyebrows contorted at him. It was kind of amusing. Up in the observation room, McKay's snort was distinctly audible. Jack hid a smile at Sheppard's confusion.

"You brought me cobbler."

"Yeah, I know, but they were all out of pie."

Sheppard blinked.

"So—Gustafson. Tell me the rest."

Sheppard put down the sporkful before even taking a bite, which was too bad; it was good cobbler. Then he took a breath and said, "Gustafson sent Dex and Mitch out with the reconstruction funds. It was a big deal—another chopper flew escort, two hundred million dollars in U.S. funds being transferred to the construction site." Sheppard bit his lip. "I told those guys something fishy was up—to keep their eyes open. It didn't help. The escort got shot down before they could radio a warning; Mitch radioed the mayday and I heard it from my tent, went running to the general's, asked to be in on the rescue mission. His eyes—" Sheppard stopped dead, stared down at the table top.

"Yeah?"

Sheppard shook his head. "I—he ordered me to stand down. I walked out of there and straight to my chopper. By the time he figured out what I was up to I was in the air. I put down south of the crash site and went in by foot. They were hauling the money out by truck. Mitch and Dex were—they'd been—" Sheppard bowed his head. "That fucker, the informant, he was there. It was all a set-up. I high-tailed it back to my bird—I was going to fly back and execute my C.O. just like they'd done to Dex and Mitch, right in the back of the head, but someone got in a lucky shot to my tail-rotor and I went down outside of Beshud."

Jack blew out a sigh. "You were lucky, actually. You probably wouldn't have gotten near him."

Sheppard looked up at that. His eyes were red-rimmed. "What do you mean?"

"If I'm right, he's got weapons. State of the art." Jack nudged the paper plate toward him. "Eat your cobbler."

Sheppard's mouth twisted, but he took a bite of his cobbler and a sip of his milk, resting his head on his fist afterward as if he wanted to fall asleep right there at the table.

"You make it back to base?"

"Almost. Got close enough to hear radio chatter that I was persona non grata, to be taken into custody if I came in. I was pretty sure he could arrange for an accident before I could get anyone to hear my story. I thought if I could get to the press or something first, I'd have a chance. But he's got people everywhere. Two hundred million buys a lot of loyalty, I guess. I've been running ever since. Every time I think it's safe, I find out I'm wrong. The one time I tried to talk to the press, this embedded correspondent from the London Times, he ended up dead. But Gustafson hasn't gotten me yet, and he's tried. He's tried."

"Makes me wonder why you stuck your neck out for McKay."

Sheppard raised his head. "They were going to—I heard them. These guys were serious, they were organized, and there were a lot of them. Who were they?"

It was on Jack's lips to tell Sheppard about the Trust, which was plain wrong—not just a security breach, but even as regular SGC Sheppard wouldn't have clearance. There was just something likable about the guy—his loyalty to his friends, for one thing. And the fact he stuck his neck out for someone he hardly even knew.

"They're trouble," Jack admitted. "But we're on the look-out for 'em. Thanks for the assist." Jack got up, and Sheppard stood as well, then seemed surprised at his automatic response.

Jack grinned. "I'll have an airman show you to your quarters. You're stuck with us for a while. Sorry about that."

Sheppard shook his head. "They'll be coming for me. General, I don't care how tight you have things locked up here—"

"Major, you have no idea. Seriously, get some rest tonight. We got it covered."

Sheppard stared at him, his head cocked, and a faint smile finally graced his mouth.

"Sure you do," he said. But his eyes told another story.

:::

John lay on the bed they'd provided, his ears stretched to the sounds of the base around him.

His quarters were pretty comfortable for a prison; more like a hotel room, really. The general must really have believed him. John wasn't sure if it was because he was also a Sentinel, or because he recognized what John was telling him about Gustafson. O'Neill's reaction to that had been...strange. Like he recognized the fish-smell thing. And then he'd gone running out. And the doctor who'd stitched him up had said something about a lord of the system.

And now John was hearing shit that was making him wonder if he was losing his mind.

"Unscheduled off-world activation."

How could 'off-world' mean what he thought it meant? Off this world? And what was that sound past the alarm, like a giant churning waterfall, cutting off so suddenly? And then he could hear these distinct plops, and before each one, an attenuated zing, so it went zing-plop. Zing-plop. Like someone was dropping water down a guitar string.

It stopped after a while, and then things got a little too quiet, and John became too aware he was locked in a cell far below the earth, trapped away from the sky. The pressure was heavy against his chest, in his ears, and he stirred restlessly, shifting onto his side, and then onto his stomach to bury his head under his pillow, the muffling somehow helping to ease the worst of his claustrophobia.

He could still hear, though, and suddenly he picked up a familiar voice—McKay, bitching about something to another, softer voice with rounded vowels and an Eastern European accent. They were arguing about math, and John smiled to himself. McKay. In spite of the situation John now found himself in, he was glad he'd stopped the kidnapping attempt. McKay didn't deserve to be snapped up in some power game and used by stern-faced assholes.

For a second, there, John hadn't been sure McKay would take his lead, but then Rodney had stood up and followed him, trusting him, and for the first time since Holland died John had felt a connection light through him.

It was inevitable, really, that he'd be thoroughly fucked by it.

Rodney's voice rose a little, enough for John to catch, "...wormhole destabilizes and kills us all!" and John's eyebrows crunched against the pillowcase.

He fell asleep still puzzling it out, and woke to the sounds of gunfire far, far above him.

John went scrambling for his pack, only to realize of course they would have taken his weapon. Except they hadn't. Or they'd given it back to him, which made no sense at all, but they had, because here it was, his trusty old M9 with two full magazines, and they didn't look tampered with. He loaded one and stuffed the other in his pocket, then jammed his feet in his dusty boots and went up to the door and knocked, holding the gun out of sight.

The marine on the other side came up to the window and opened the door, his weapon at the ready. His name patch said 'Lt. Ford.'

"Hey, so hear me out, Lieutenant, because this is going to sound wacky, but I'm—I'm a Sentinel." It was the first time in his life he'd ever said it out loud, and his heart thumped hard in his throat.

The lieutenant didn't even bat an eye. "I know you are, sir."

"Oh, you—huh. Well, I just heard shots fired way up top."

Ford blinked. "I'll sound the alarm right away," he said. "But I have to ask you to stay in your room."

"Can you—" it felt a lot like begging, but he said it anyway, "I feel like a sitting duck in here; can you leave the door unlocked if I promise not to leave unless my life's at risk?"

Ford flashed a grin, suddenly looking like a gleeful little kid. "It wasn't locked, sir. I'm just here to keep you from wandering around. The general thinks you might get into trouble."

John couldn't help smirking back. "I wonder where he'd get that idea?"

"No clue, sir." Ford dashed off, and a few seconds later an intolerably loud alarm sounded, almost sending John to his knees. He had to dial his hearing down, and tone his vision some, too, when orange and red lights started flashing in the hallways. Once he had the spiking under control, his thoughts strayed to worry about McKay, but he couldn't stretch to listen for him over the harsh klaxons.

A moment later Ford reappeared at his doorway, and John gestured him in. The gunfire sounded closer—down three levels, maybe four; it was hard to judge.

"I wonder what's going on," Ford said. His weapon was pointed down and away. He had another, strange-looking thing hooked to his belt that curved like a snake. John wondered if it was a weapon as well.

"Actually, I think they're here for me."

Ford's eyebrows went up.

"I did warn the general," John said, raising his hands helplessly. He had his M9 tucked in the back of his pants; he wasn't sure if Ford knew he had it or not. "It's my old C.O. I witnessed him stealing war funds and he wants to shut me up."

Ford looked totally disbelieving. "And he'd take on the entire SGC just to get to you? I don't think so, sir. There has to be more to it than that."

"You don't know him," John said grimly. "And we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars, here."

"Still..." Ford's radio squawked. "Excuse me, sir."

John waved his hand and went back to pacing, his hand rubbing nervously over the extra magazine in his pocket. He was a sitting duck here, he hadn't been kidding about that. If it were anywhere in the system what room he was in, Gustafson's people would find it even easier to get to him. John hoped O'Neill hadn't been that stupid. He hoped they'd at least disguised his whereabouts.

The klaxons suddenly went silent, though the lights kept flashing.

"Come on, sir. We're moving. Everyone else is in lock-down."

"What? Where?"

"I've been instructed to take you to a more secure location."

"Right. Sure." John didn't voice his doubts, he just followed the young lieutenant out the door. Ford took point, using familiar hand gestures that sent a pang through John's chest.

"We have to get you down three levels..."

And just like that John's hearing jumped, seeking out—there, there was McKay's voice, muffled through the concrete, but saying something about, "don't be stupid, you'll only be feeding the shield if you don't interrupt it with a different frequency—"

And a woman's voice, responding, "Duh, Rodney, I'm not an idiot. Here, look, I'm going with—" and Rodney saying, surprised, "Oh, well. That's quite good, really. I'll get to work on the power source—" and Ford was shaking John's arm, saying, "Don't zone out on me, man. We have to stay frosty."

"Sorry. McKay," John said in explanation, "he's kind of distracting."

Ford grinned in understanding.

John reached back and pulled his weapon, not caring at this point if Ford saw it, because he'd also picked up on more gunfire, getting closer. Ford just looked down and nodded, then led the way past two corridors and to a T-junction, where he crept up and peeked around the corner, then gestured John to have a look over his shoulder.

There were two guys in black uniforms working on the mechanism in front of some blast doors. And hell if John didn't recognize the one leaning against the wall giving instructions.

John pulled back and said, low, "I know that guy from my old unit. Clemmons. Now what is he doing here?"

"He's have to be with them. They're trying to break through without a key card."

At least John knew what uniform the bad guys were wearing now.

Ford pulled the S-shaped weapon from his belt and aimed around the corner. There was a zapping sound that sang through the bones of John's skull; he almost couldn't hear the second one, but he did hear the second body hit the floor.

"That kill them?"

"Nah. Just stuns 'em. Twice in a row is kill." Ford hooked the thing back on his belt, and together they went over and zip-tied the mercenaries. John took Clemmons, roughly binding his wrists and ankles with double-ties and then hauling him out of the way by his feet, gun still at the ready in his right hand. The stretch made the stitches in his thigh pull.

"Fucker," John muttered, and then heard the creak of boot leather creasing, and was already turning and yelling a warning when he heard the ratchet of a weapon being primed, and he zeroed in on the black-clad merc aiming at him and fired.

The air filled with sound and bullets, all echoing within the narrow cement and metal corridor. When it was finished, John's head was roaring and he was crouched by the wall, Ford on his back beside him. All three of the other guys were dead, or at least not moving.

"Ford! How bad?"

"I'm good. I'm okay. Vest caught it," Ford said, but his voice was strained, and John pushed his shoulder back down, keeping one eye on the junction.

"You don't sound okay."

Ford ignored him and rolled over, then pushed up to his knees. "Cracked a rib, I think. I'm good to go."

"Riiiight. You're in great shape."

They both grinned crazily, then John bent down and got an arm around Ford's hips to help him to his feet.

"Thanks." Ford looked at the blast doors. "Swipe my card while I watch our six. We go through here, then down through the hatch three levels to the meet-up."

John took the card and swiped it, his ears on the conversation going on downstairs. He could hear McKay again, this time talking about the power source. "It should be enough to take the field out for no more than ten seconds. Sorry, but I can't arrange anything portable that will last longer. You'll have to move fast, Teal'c." McKay sounded nervous for some reason.

A deep voice responded, "My speed will be adequate to the task, Dr. McKay."

"Damn it, where is Ford, anyway? That kid drives me nuts sometimes." That was O'Neill, John realized with surprise. Then John had to snap his attention to the creaky hatch Ford was directing him to.

Except five of those assholes suddenly appeared down the hall, and one of those zappers sang right past John's face and hit Ford, who went down hard behind him.

There was no time. John spun and grabbed the loop at the back of Ford's vest and, firing back as he went, pulled Ford back around the corner and swiped the card to shut the blast doors again.

He kept up some warning fire, angled toward the corridor, until the doors closed completely, and then stopped and assessed the situation. His position was indefensible. He needed to get Ford hidden somewhere so he could recover from the stun. God, John hoped it was only a stun. He bent down and checked Ford's pulse to confirm.

A quick reconnoiter revealed a storage room that opened to Ford's key card and also, more importantly, didn't require one to get out. John dragged Ford inside and closed the door behind him when he left.

Next step was to find a way down that didn't involve the door those guys were munging the controls on. John could hear them from here, and it wasn't pleasant, thinking about going up five against one, when he only had a little over a magazine left. He went over to the downed mercs at the T-junction and stripped them of some of their ordinance, feeling much better for it afterward.

Then he headed to the other end of the 'T', figuring he could find another ladder-hatch on the other side. The military didn't build anything without redundancies.

"O'Neill," John said, "If you're listening, I've been cut off from the access point Ford showed me. Ford has been stunned and I'm on my own. I'm trying to find another way down. I'm on level 14. Repeat, I'm on level 14, trying to find my way down to you."

He felt kind of weird doing it, but he gave a quick listen, worried about trying to split his attention when there was no one around to pull him out of a zone. He got nothing from O'Neill, but McKay was still babbling.

John kept walking, on high alert. The hair on the back of his neck kept wanting to rise. There was something wrong. Something he was missing. He kept listening, but he was picking up nothing on this level. Did people vacate this floor during lock down? Whatever the reason, it was creepy, and now the hair on his arms was in on the action.

Definitely something was up.

:::

Rodney worked as quickly as he could, his fingers steady and precise over the joins, and he bent low to blow over the solder to make it cool more quickly. Beside him, Sam was watching avidly, her part of the work compete. He didn't begrudge her, knowing she was checking his circuit paths, and he supposed a second set of eyes didn't hurt.

He couldn't get this wrong. As far as they knew, John was cut off from reaching them, and in all likelihood they would have to get to John, instead. They might very well be too late.

The mere idea was enough to make Rodney's hands shake, and he couldn't afford it. Ever since he'd heard John's story and realized John was exactly who he appeared to be, that the lie was just that, and the truth was more than he'd realized, Rodney had nurtured a single, terribly rosy image in his mind that he couldn't quite shake, no matter how hard he tried.

And now the present situation threatened to blot it out like so many of his pathetic dreams. Take Colonel Samantha Carter as a case in point, peering over his shoulder, now a mutually respected colleague but certainly not a romantic partner.

And John—Rodney hissed as the soldering iron wavered too close to his bare knuckle—John could very well be dead before Rodney even had a chance to hold his hand.

:::

The fish smell was the first thing John noticed. In retrospect, he should have been expecting it—he should have known that bastard would insist on coming himself, would want to see John dead at his feet. Or that his men would be in communication, and would be herding him toward this confrontation.

John managed to take down the two guys in front before careening off into a side room. It looked like an infirmary of some kind, but it wasn't the one they'd treated him in. There was a chair with a freaky-looking headrest and a screen above it; John took it all in before finding a bunker of a sort behind a row of solid metal container units.

He squeezed off a perfect shot at the next head that made an appearance. The splatter was impressive. The sick spot in his gut was subsumed by the despairing rage that kept growing and growing in his chest. This was it. He was going to fucking die in this weird little room. Just like he'd said.

"I'm fucked, I'm fucked," he muttered. "I fucking told you, O'Neill."

"Just hang in there, Sheppard. We're coming."

John jerked and almost wasted a round. He swung the AKS-74U he'd pulled from one of the mercs to the front of his chest and primed it, then waited.

:::

"He's trapped on the fourteenth floor. They've got him cornered," Jack said. "We've got to move."

"I'm ready. I'm ready," McKay said. "Um. I'm going with you."

"You're going? Really?" That was Sam, who looked about as surprised as Jack felt.

"Yes, really." McKay's jaw firmed up. "He's only in this mess because of me. I might as well help get him out of it."

"All right, McKay. Strap on a vest and let's go." Jack didn't wait, just led the way out the door, sure that Teal'c would have his back. He heard a crash behind him but didn't bother looking. Carter already had the Interrupter, as McKay had insisted on naming it, and all Jack needed was his team and the element of surprise.

He was pretty certain, thanks to Sheppard, they would have that.

:::

The bodies were so thick by the door John was amazed they were even bothering to try anymore. Turned out he'd picked a pretty good location after all, a veritable Thermopylae, and as long as his machine gun rounds held out and they didn't find a back door, he was pretty set.

But then that metallic, fishy smell crept in, and John set the machine gun on the floor and pulled his M9. This was personal.

Old Gusty appeared in the doorway wearing, of all things, a robe. White, with golden panels.

John blinked.

Gusty sighed down at the bodies of all his men and waved a hand, "Good help is so hard to find, don't you agree, Major? All I wanted to do was get rid of a pain in my ass. And you always were that—a pain in my ass from the very beginning, hardly a threat at all, even if you tried to be. And you never could follow a simple fucking order. Even before we became what we are."

John blinked again. Then he aimed carefully and said, "Any other last words? Because those sounded pretty stupid."

From far away, at least two levels down, John heard O'Neill saying, "No, damn it! Sheppard, keep him talking. Buy us some more time!" Which made no goddamn sense at all, because John had the motherfucker right there in his sights.

"...killed your friends, don't you think?"

"What?" John did a replay, and felt the heat rise straight from his chest until it threatened to blow his brain. It would be nice to know, before you die, why it was I chose to kill your friends, don't you think?

"Yeah, that would be super," John said through gritted teeth. "Educate me."

Gustafson waved a hand and took a step closer. "Those clowns didn't deserve to be Air Force. Neither did you, of course, but at least when it came to flying you knew what you were doing. I knew just which jack-offs to pick when I planned that mission." Gustafson smiled, and his eyes glowed strangely. He raised his hand and John saw something glitter on his palm. "We so enjoyed seeing your face when their chopper went down."

There was something wrong with Gustafson's voice; not to mention the eye thing, but John couldn't care, because—Mitch. Dex. Their bodies sprawled in the sand like a couple of busted action toys, broken, brains leaking into the dust.

John fired.

"No, damn it!" O'Neill yelled, closer now, but John was staring numbly at the glow of energy surrounding Gustafson, who just smiled strangely and shoved out his hand. John ducked instinctively behind the shelf, and most of whatever it was—the lightning, the raw power that stripped John's skin and ran through his nerves like fire—washed harmlessly against the metal.

The rest, though, left John shaking and jerking, his gun useless by his side.

"John? We're almost there! Try to buy us a little more time!"

"What are you?" John gasped, and heaved himself back up to his knees. Gustafson was too close, a mere ten feet away now. John scrabbled for the AKS, but it only made Gustafson smile.

"We are more than you, tiny human, ant. You should worship us. You are right to kneel before us—"

John choked on a laugh. "You know, I've had a lot of asshole C.O.s in my day, but you really take the cake—"

He caught more of the second blast, and this time his senses were overwhelmed by the flaring light show, the overpowering pain that thrummed like electricity, that rattled his ear bones, that sent his spine into an arch and had him clawing at the floor.

The aftershocks left him twitching blindly, staring at the ceiling, his hearing cutting in and out. As he rolled onto his side he heard Gustafson's grating voice say, "You thought you could hide from Atum, and we shall admit you gave us some trouble, insect, but now we have you. Now, you are ours. There is nowhere we cannot walk—even here, in the belly of N.O.R.A.D.—"

"Actually, this isn't N.O.R.A.D.," O'Neill said suddenly. "Big mistake, there, Atum." And then there was a hum, and a swishing sound, and a scream, and a severed hand landed in front of John's face, a jewelled device clutched in its twitching palm.

John shuddered and closed his eyes.

:::

The voice was pulling at him. It was an annoying voice, but familiar. John kind of liked it, so he let it pull him from the pain place, where his nerves were still jittering, still fizzing so he had to follow each snap and sizzle, but no, the voice was very annoyed, saying, "Are you sure about this, Carson? I'm really not—I can't even take care of a goldfish, and yes, okay my cat, but cats are more than a little self-sufficient—"

"Keep talking, Rodney. He needs a Guide. And he seems taken with you."

"No, but—how do you know?" That was Rodney, John realized, and was he—yes, Rodney was holding his hand.

"Lieutenant Ford said he kept zoning on your voice."

"Oh. Oh! Well. That's rather flattering, isn't it?"

John smiled and opened his eyes. "Hey." John squeezed the hand holding his.

"Hey! You're awake."

"Was awake. Just zoned."

"Right, right." Rodney released his hand and patted it nervously. "So, that means?"

"You don't know much about Sentinels, do you?" John stretched a little and was pleased by the way Rodney's eyes dropped to watch him.

"No, I really don't. People in general aren't really my area of expertise." Rodney blushed faintly, his chin coming up.

A slow smile took over John's face. "Well, I'd be happy to teach you the Sentinel parts."

Rodney blushed even harder.

Dr. Beckett chimed in, "Sorry to interrupt, but if you're feeling up to it, General O'Neill would like a word, Major Sheppard." Beckett didn't sound particularly sorry, but John felt pretty forgiving at that moment, especially considering the way Rodney couldn't seem to take his eyes off him.

John waved a hand, and a few moments later O'Neill strode in. He was wearing plain green fatigues, no stars on his shoulders at all. John realized with surprise that O'Neill must still go out in the field sometimes.

With some bitterness, John found himself wishing he'd been lucky enough to have O'Neill for a C.O.

"So, how're you feeling? And, by the way—I don't recommend getting hit with a zat, either. They're just as bad for Sentinels."

"A zat, sir?"

"Those things—" O'Neill made an S-shape, "that look like snakes?"

"Snakes. Right."

"Right." O'Neill rocked forward and back. "So? Feeling okay?"

"Never better," John said dryly. "Uh, what happened?"

Rodney leaned in. "Well, thanks to me—"

"And Colonel Carter," O'Neill interrupted heavily.

"Yes, and Colonel Carter, we created a device called the Interrupter that took out Atum's shield. Now, I know what you're going to ask—"

"Who gave it such a stupid name?" John lifted an eyebrow.

"What? It's a perfect name! Describes its function—"

"It sounds like a Star Trek episode!"

"Oh, now who's the geek!"

"Gentlemen, gentlemen. If we might proceed with the re-hash? There's pie in the canteen today." O'Neill made a get-on-with-it gesture.

"Right. So, Atum—"

"Why was he calling himself that? And what was with the royal 'we'?"

"Ah. I think I'll field that one, McKay. You know how you said he smelled fishy, Sheppard?"

John nodded warily.

"Well, that's because he had this fish-snake thing in his brain. Part of an old race of aliens who take over people's bodies. This one was an ancient Egyptian god named Atum. The killer is, he didn't realize our base isn't part of N.O.R.A.D, but a secret installation where we go around destroying these beasties wherever we find them. And he came right to us! Heck, his buddy Apophis died right here in this room. At this rate, we can call ourselves a snake motel."

John stared at him.

O'Neill coughed. "You'll have to sign an NDA about all of this, of course. Big NDA. We're talking, oh, yea thick." He held out his hands about a foot apart.

"Okaaaay. So Gusty had a fish-snake in his brain. I mean, he always was a hard-nosed bastard, but this thing made him a sell-out, murdering bastard to boot. That what you're saying?"

"Yep."

"And you killed him?"

"Well, no. We extracted the snake. And his hand. The snake will get interrogated. The hand got incinerated."

John felt a little queasy.

"So," O'Neill clapped his hands together, "who's for pie?"

McKay raised his hand.

John shrugged and rolled off the bed. "Is there peach? I haven't had peach pie in a really, really long time."

"Yep, there's peach."

"And vanilla ice cream," Rodney added, and John gave him a smile, because it was good to know Rodney understood about the importance of vanilla ice cream when it came to à la mode.

Stepping away from his bed, John stumbled a little, and Rodney caught his arm, surreptitiously wrapping the other around his waist to support him as they walked toward the elevators.

O'Neill was still talking. "And while we're at it, I can tell you a little something about the special Sentinel program we have here, and we can maybe discuss your status."

"Oh, yeah? What about it?"

"Well, I had a closer look at your records, and turns out you weren't so much A.W.O.L. as M.I.A."

John stopped dead and stared at O'Neill, at the smug grin on his face and the way his eyes were saying something John was almost afraid to hear.

"Really?" John's voice sounded small.

"You betcha. Crazy how we could have made a mistake like that." O'Neill clapped him on the back and pushed him into the elevator. McKay stabbed a button, and John watched the levels ding, his brain whirling with the possibility of a future. A real future.

As they stepped into the canteen, he saw Lieutenant Ford waving at them from one of the tables.

"Oh, hey, there's Ford. He's looking for a team, you know," O'Neill said as they stepped into line. "It's really too bad. He and Cadman are both odd man out. Need one more, and a scientist. What a tragedy."

"Very subtle, General," Rodney said next to John, who was staring at the row of dishes, slice after slice of peach pie, crusty and golden and good.

What the hell, thought John, and he reached for the biggest one.

 

End.



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