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John in flight suit and Rodney in a blue dress shirt both looking intense while a jet fighter flames out behind them.
Artwork by Esteefee and Em-Kellesvig

Rodney was running late as usual. He'd always found the buildings at Peterson confusing—honestly, could they have striven for a tiny bit of originality in their street names?—so he was looking down at his PDA instead of where he was going, which explained why he ran full-tilt into the blue blur, sending himself bouncing backward.

Rodney clutched his pad with one hand and rubbed his nose with the other, saying, "Ow? I can't believe—would you watch where you're going?"

A familiar, gravel voice said, "Nice to see you too, Rodney. Need a hand?"

"Oh, hi. It's you." It was John Sheppard, Rodney's guide of eight months, in his dress blues, wearing dark sunglasses and an ironic smirk.

"Yup, me." Sheppard took his arm and started guiding him up the steps. "You know, for a sentinel, you're kind of oblivious."

"Don't start with me. I'm having a ridiculous day. First, Zelenka trashed my new aileron, calling it inelegant and wasteful of materials. Then I get a call to come in to review someone else's designs..."

"The new F-310s, yeah. I'm heading to the same meeting. C'mon."

"But you were going in the wrong direction."

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Nope."

"But my map—" Rodney waved his PDA.

"Hey, I'm the one who works here, remember?"

Rodney huffed a breath. "Fine, fine. Lead the way." He juggled his PDA and his briefcase for a bit until John shook his head and tucked Rodney's satchel under his arm with his hat, and went on ahead. He cut a fine figure in his uniform, Rodney noticed, hustling to catch up.

"You didn't text me you were coming. Tell me about Major Willems." Rodney had never met him.

"They just pulled me in," John said. "Willems is a good guy. It's the AeroTech reps you have to watch out for. They don't want to be here, and especially not to be audited by the Air Force's top liaison team." John hit the button to call the elevator.

"That's us? Of course, that's us. We are brilliant, after all."

John smiled at him as he punched their floor. "Do you doubt it?"

Rodney huffed. "It's my birthday tomorrow, you know."

"Yes, I do know," John said indulgently.

"Then, you know that as my guide, you owe me the most ridiculously indulgent steak dinner followed by a box of Ghirardelli chocolate," Rodney said.

"Oh, I do, do I?" John said. "And what if I don't want you to die of a myocardial infarction by age forty?"

"Please," Rodney said as the elevator opened on their floor. "That's why they invented stents."

"Hmm." John frowned and pushed open the door of C609.

Rodney immediately recognized two of the aeronautical engineers in the room. Edgel was absolutely useless. Rodney had known him back at AeroTech before Rodney left and started Atlantis Aerospace. LaCrosse, on the other hand, was a reasonably decent engineer. She leaned over a table computer and projected something onto the screen while jabbering away at a man in uniform. Rodney had to assume it was Major Willems.

"Willems," Sheppard said, and the major came to attention. He was young, with soft brown eyes and dark brown skin.

"Colonel. Thank you for coming."

Sheppard gave a brief smile. "Dr. McKay and I are pleased as punch," he said ironically as they sat down. "I assume we're all here?"

Everyone shuffled into their seats and pulled out various laptops and tablets. John gave Willems a nod. "Fill us in."

"Sorry, right. Ah, as you know, one of our pilots was injured during a test flight recently, leading to this review—"

"Yes, I know." John's jaw bulged a little, a sure sign he wasn't happy at all. Willems wasn't an idiot; he'd obviously been chosen because he had a background in aeronautics. But any carelessness that led to an injury among John's personnel couldn't score highly with him.

During the next painful hour, Rodney winced his way through the presentation, his sensitive nose stifled by the dusty old bomb-out shelter of a building, the constantly flickering florescent lights, and Edgel's fried-onion stink and tentative presentation style. John kept his eyes on the diagrams and tracked as LaCrosse's laser-pointer flew across the projection screen, and right about the same time Rodney got an itch, John said, "Wait. Stop."

"Yes, Colonel, you're right." Rodney stood up from where he'd been overly-patient in absorbing the minor design idiocies of the past hour, because now he had it, the meat of the real problem. Power flow that wasted resources, overly complicated control relays, these were all things that could be ironed out and argued over as details. But—"Right here," Rodney said, and John nodded, "You've got an invitation to disaster with this heat exchanger right here. It's set right under the relay to the horizontal stabilizer. Did the pilot complain about a sudden loss of elevation?"

"He was going Mach 4 when he took a dive, overcompensated, and went into a stall," Willems replied. "When that sent him into a spin, he cracked himself on the cockpit and barely pulled out of it, or he'd have hit the deck."

"Broken arm," Sheppard replied to Rodney's concerned glance. "He'll be fine."

"Well, he was damned lucky. Seriously." Rodney peered at the diagram and saw Edgel's initials in the corner. Rodney gave the man a hot glare, and Edgel cringed back in his seat. "I'll re-work the routing if someone sends me the files." Rodney snapped his fingers.

"Er," Willems started, probably to demand an NDA or such nonsense.

John crossed his arms and nodded. "Send the paperwork as well."

"Right away, sir."

"Please continue, Dr. LaCross," John said, smiling at her winningly, and Rodney scowled, not appreciating the way John's eyes appeared to be admiring her curves as she bent over the projector. Not that they weren't very nice curves.

Rodney cleared his throat, and John gave him a questioning look. Rodney tapped his pencil meaningfully on printout in front of him.

John picked up his copy and raised his left eyebrow mockingly.

Rodney resisted the urge to kick him in the shin.

"These next diagrams describe the interior of the combustion chamber," LaCrosse said, her slight lisp as charming as ever. Rodney directed his attention back to the projection.

They continued through the specs and found two more grievous hot spots and at least a dozen more cringe-worthy ones that Rodney made careful note of. For each of the bad ones, John's head craned forward like a bird dog on point, which was why Rodney loved working with him. They were the Air Force's best team for a reason.

He couldn't bear working with incompetents.

"Okay, that's enough for today," Rodney said, rubbing his forehead. "I can't stand another minute of these fluorescent lights."

"But we have four more design documents to go through," Willems protested.

Edgel muttered under his breath about Rodney being a prima donna. Rodney stopped rubbing his forehead long enough to glare, but before he could waste his breath, John stood up.

"If McKay says he's done, he's done. He requires better working conditions than this," John said. "Next time, book us in the main conference room in Building A." John gathered Rodney's laptop, slipping it into his briefcase and surreptitiously sliding out his emergency pill packet at the same time. He palmed it off to Rodney as he helped him to his feet.

"Thank you, gentlemen," Rodney said. "Get me those files, and I'll have them back to you by the weekend."

"So soon?" Willems asked.

"Of course."

"Bye," John said and nudged Rodney out the door.

"Heathens," Rodney said when they were clear. "You'd think they never met a sentinel before."

"You'd think they never designed a jet fighter before," John muttered, and Rodney laughed. He popped a couple of migraine melt-tabs, but his head already felt better with the steady pressure of John's arm around his waist.

John made everything better.

"So, dinner tonight? Turkey pot pie at your favorite place, my treat," Rodney said as they walked down the steps.

John affected surprise. "I thought it was your birthday; why am I getting treated?"

"Tomorrow is my birthday. Tonight..." Inspiration struck him. "It's our six-month anniversary!"

"Is it?" John's eyebrows wrinkled.

Actually, it was more like eight months. "Sure, it is. Turkey pot pie on me." Rodney hardly needed a reason beyond his head feeling better.

Mel's really did have the best turkey pot pie, renown throughout Colorado Springs, and only available on Wednesday evenings, which meant there was a little bit of a line. Rodney and John killed time by discussing the heat sink problem. In code, of course, since the design was top secret.

"Maybe put pad next to maker."

John tilted his head. "The coffee maker? Oh! Right. Wouldn't that make the...Labrador uncomfortable?"

"Labrador...I would have gone for 'K-Y.'"

John grinned suddenly. "Too obvious."

Rodney poked him. "You're too obvious."

"No, you're too obvious." John poked him back lightly, but Rodney started laughing anyway. So damned ticklish. He hated it.

John backed off, his grin lingering. "We did good today, huh?"

"Yes." Rodney shuffled forward in line. They were almost at the door. Turkey pot pie would soon be theirs.

"Your head doing okay?"

"Better, thanks. Much better, actually," Rodney said, relieved. Nothing worse than trying to go to sleep with a migraine.

"Good. Pills worked then."

"Or something," Rodney said quietly.

"What's that?"

"Nothing." Rodney took a deep breath, then another. Then he blurted. "I do better around you, all right? My head...and everything else."

Sheppard looked like Rodney hit him with a turbine. "You do?"

"Yes, dummy. You're my guide." How had this not come up? Oh, right. Rodney forgot he'd been avoiding the subject. His head hurt so much this past month, though, with John on training maneuvers for their previous jet and only having a few hours a week to hang out.

John scuffed at the sidewalk. "Geez, I'm sorry, Rodney. I didn't know."

"Well, now you do."

"Okay, so." John bit his lip. "We'll do something about it."

So, maybe John would start hanging out with him more now. Rodney didn't mind being a pity case.

Not at all.

Rodney wasn't sure how it happened, but John started bringing him dinner after he got off work.

"I got your favorites: Kung Pao chicken, beef and broccoli, a ton of potstickers, and enough rice to choke a moose," John said, sweeping in the door with two bulging takeout bags.

"Have you ever seen a moose, really?" Rodney said.

"I've seen pictures," John said solemnly. "And let the record show I'm never going to Canada."

"Don't tell Jeannie that."

John's lip curled. "She's been after you again, huh?" He stacked some of Rodney's journals—by order of absurdity, Rodney noticed, impressed—and moved them aside to make room on the kitchen table.

"If it's not my choice of career, it's the fact I'm still single. And childless. I need to pass on the ol' McKay genes, she says, or I'll die old and alone."

John frowned. "What am I, chopped liver?" He finished opening the containers and cracked a pair of chopsticks.

"You're slightly more attractive than liver."

"Gee, thanks."

Rodney got up to sit at the table and had to pause for a moment, slightly light-headed from hunger. He grabbed a chair and started stuffing his mouth with rice and chicken so he wouldn't have to point out how little a platonic guide mattered in Jeannie's eyes. It was nothing but pure prejudice on her part, as far as Rodney was concerned. Already, his relationship with John had outlasted any sexual partner he'd ever had, and that included his college roommate cum-fuckbuddy Freshman year.

Pun very much intended.

"This is really good. Did you get it at Wok In, Wok Out?"

"Nah, First Wok, on Academy. No MSG."

"Mmmm. It's good. Save the menu."

John grunted and kept chewing, chipmunk like, and looked pleased when Rodney went for another potsticker. Probably a guide thing, Rodney thought, blushing a little. He wasn't sure why. He ducked his head and tucked into his container of rice and Kung Pao chicken.

"That was fantastic," he said a while later, leaning back. His stomach twinged a little, and John frowned.

"You shouldn't skip lunch," John admonished. He looked uncomfortable.

"It's my stomach," Rodney griped. "If I want to stuff it full of Kung Pao—"

"You were so hungry you were dizzy earlier," John said abruptly.

"What?" Rodney peered at John. "You mean you felt that? Are you getting all guide-y on me?"

John shifted and looked way. "I'm not getting guide-y. I just...we're syncing more, all right? They told us it would happen in orientation. Well, it's happening."

"So, you know how I feel," Rodney said slowly.

"Not feel-feel. Only if you aren't doing so hot."

Rodney shrugged it off. "Well, I only get hungry once a day. I'm lucky if I have time to grab something—it's a very narrow window."

John relaxed. "You should make yourself eat something, buddy. Little meals are better than one big one."

"Yes, Mom."

John rolled his eyes and started gathering the leftovers. "I'll put these in your fridge for tomorrow."

"They'll just go bad. I never eat leftovers. It's like they're cursed."

"Or maybe you'll get hungry and be glad there's food around." John finished packing them up and tucking them in his empty fridge, giving him another look. "Maybe I should do some shopping for you."

"I can just imagine how that would turn out. Two six-packs of beer and a bag of baby carrots."

John smirked. "I like baby carrots. I feel bad they didn't get a chance to grow up, though."

"Ha-oh-ha. Just leave my fridge alone and come here and look at these specs."

John gave a mock groan and did as he was asked, peering over Rodney's shoulder at his screen to help flesh out his notes on their latest project. This was Rodney's favorite thing, how John knew just what he was talking about with a few words, and kept pointing him in exciting new directions with his quirky mindset. They were making some fantastic progress when John's phone went off.

"Damn it," Rodney said.

John looked at the phone screen and made a face.

"You have to take it?" Rodney said, disappointed. Sure, they were doing good work, but it didn't hurt that John smelled delicious, and he kept leaning warmly against Rodney's back, a comforting weight that made Rodney's internal sentinel happy.

"I don't want to, but I'd better," John said. "The old patriarch still has some clout with the brass."

Rodney wasn't sure why John cared. Sheppard Systems had taken a dive in the past few years and was hardly competition for Atlantis Aero.

"Hello, Dad," John said slowly into his phone, and then darted a look at Rodney. "Yes, of course, I am." He dropped his voice and started striding toward the bathroom. "I'm his guide." John closed the door and flipped on the fan as if that would make a difference. Rodney was tempted to focus in on the elder Sheppard, but he satisfied himself with listening in on John, a little hurt he was trying to block Rodney out.

"He's a terrific sentinel," John hissed. "A sentinel doesn't have to go military to do amazing work. He's saving lives with these designs. His new F-35 is amazing."

Rodney swallowed.

John's voice dropped even lower, but Rodney could hear still it clear as a bell when he said, "Maybe I would be, or maybe I'd be dead out there if I hadn't met him, did that ever occur to you? Anyway, I thought you hated me being deployed."

Rodney shoved his hand over his mouth and decided it might be a good time for a walk.

"That was never going to happen," John said viciously. "Get that right out of your head. It wouldn't have made a difference, anyway. Look, I've got to go. Call me on the weekend if you want to continue this pointless discussion."

The click of John hanging up somehow sounded louder than anything, and Rodney let it reverberate through him until it was all he heard, and it drowned out the words he imagined and the feelings he didn't want.


No. He didn't want to hear it.

"Hey, buddy, c'mon back to me." A gentle touch on his arm.

That felt nice, though, and John always smelled good. Rodney could sense him hovering close...

"Zelenka adopted a gerbil and named it Radley."

Rodney blinked. God, his eyes were so dry. Why on Earth would evolution favor a genetic trait that had him standing around with his eyeballs exposed to the elements?

"I need to buy some more eyedrops," Rodney said, and John chuckled, sounding relieved.

"I'll pick some up for you at the Exchange tomorrow."

"And not those disgusting cheap ones you got last time."

"I know, I know. The lubricating ones with the sentinel-safe stamp."

"You're learning." Rodney cracked a painful smile. "So. Apparently, your dad thinks I ruined your career."

John scrubbed the back of his neck in irritation and looked away. "My dad is an idiot. I'm lucky I made it to major. The up to lieutenant colonel was just General O'Neill's pat on the head for losing my flight command when I had to—when I joined the Air Force Test Center."

Rodney winced at the reminder. He prided himself on not being one of those sentinels who peeked in on people's bodily functions to see if they were lying, but he could plainly smell that John was anxious about something, as if the pulse in his neck wasn't a dead giveaway.

"But your dad still wanted you to come work for him afterward, and I ruined that," Rodney said tentatively.

"That was never going to happen," John said decisively. "I told him that when I was five, I kept telling him when I hit puberty, and I showed him permanently by joining up when I hit eighteen. If he's too stupid to catch a clue, that's not on either of us." John smiled and bumped Rodney with his elbow.

Rodney bumped back despite his continuing unease. It wasn't until John finished cleaning up and took off for the night that Rodney identified the guilty reminder as the source.

John lost his flight command, and it was all Rodney's fault.

Rodney wasn't fond of his courtesy office at Peterson, but it was a damned sight better than John's, which had lime green walls, dirty yellow blinds, and smelled like a combination of Pine-Sol, old cigar smoke, and burrito farts.

"Sorry about this," John said. "O'Neill never goes near the academy. Says the nuggets give him hairballs."

"I can't help it the sentinel facilities adjoin the academy building," Rodney said, disgruntled.

John shrugged. "He's a weird egg."

"Ah, my two favorite bird dogs," O'Neill said, appearing without warning despite Rodney's senses.

John stood up. "Sir! Don't do that." He gave Rodney an accusing look, and Rodney made a face.

"I'm not your motion detector," he said.

O'Neill smirked. "So, how goes it? How's my new AF-302?"

Rodney swiped his computer awake. "As you can see, despite my co-worker's unreasonable demand to re-engineer my aileron and your totally ridiculous request in re the fuselage design—"

"I just think it's high time we bring back the blimp," O'Neill said.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "We're on schedule to bring out the first drafts of a wing and fuselage design by next week."

"Outstanding." O'Neill rubbed his hands together. "You two always impress me." He paused. "As a team," he added with a weird emphasis, and Rodney looked John, who'd narrowed his eyes at O'Neill.

"Is there something you want to tell us, General?"

"No, nope, nada. Not a thing. Just...keep up the good work," O'Neill said and slipped his hat out from under his arm, giving it a twirl. "You never know what's coming down the pike." With that, he turned around and headed back out the door without another word.

"Well, that wasn't ominous at all," Rodney said.

John just stared after O'Neill, a frown on his face.

"Can we get out of here?" Rodney said.

"Yeah, sure. Smell getting to you?"

"A little. Honestly, you should get a better office."

John flashed a grin. "But then I wouldn't have an excuse to ditch Lorne and come hang out with you."

"In that case, you should ask for a desk in my office. I don't like to share."

"News to me," John said, and Rodney poked him with his laser pointer. "Fine, fine. I'll give the quartermaster a call." John looped an arm around his shoulders and ushered him out the door.

"Rodney, it's no good. I know you like the slim design, but you have not left the standard width for both the seat and pilot."

"Please. There's at least four inches clearance—"

"A pilot with a thirty-inch waist?" Radek stared at him over the rim of his glasses. "I think you are obsessed with only one pilot."

Rodney's face heated, and he snatched back the tablet. "I must have misplaced a digit."

"A digit, yes," Radek said, snorting unbecomingly. "Or your brain, perhaps."

"Excuse me, my brain is always perfectly in place." Rodney's phone rang just as he output the new figures and committed the file, and he selected Radek to review the code change before he answered.

"Yes, yes, what?" Rodney tucked the phone against his ear and sat back.

"Mer? It's Jeannie."

"Jeannie," Rodney dropped his voice low, "It's been thirty years since I chose 'Rodney'; could you cut me a break and remember to call me by my real name?"

"Fine, fine, Rodney. Don't get in a snit."

"Snit, sure." Rodney sighed. "What is it you require from me during my copious free time, Jeannie? Some gossip about your Canadian neighbors? Can I help you pick out curtains for your luxurious two-bedroom cottage?"

"Wow, you really are in a snit. What's the matter? I thought finding a guide would solve all your problems? Isn't that what you used to tell me when we were little?"

Oh, she would throw that in his face. "I'm quite happy with John, thank you very much."

"Right, your platonic guide. Who doesn't love you or take care of you, just...what? Guides you around like a sheepdog?"

"What're you—" Rodney bit his lip and started toward the break room. "That's uncalled for," he hissed. "That's my guide you're talking about. He does take care of me, and I'll have you know he and I are the best liaison team in the Air Force. We recently produced the F-35, the best jet the aerospace industry has to offer, and we did so under budget and ahead of schedule, and he only joined us in the last eight months of the project. And...!" He took a breath. "We just finished reviewing the AeroTech's most recent jet design documents at the military's request." Crap, she always got him running off the mouth.

"Okay, okay. Jeez, Rodney. I'm not saying he's not a good platonic guide. But that's all he is, right? You're not together, are you?"

"So? So what?" Rodney crossed his arms and leaned against the refrigerator.

"So," Jeannie said in her favorite, condescending tone, "what are you going to do for real companionship down the line? What about the McKay family line?"

Rodney took a shocked breath. She'd graduated from hinting to a straight-out attack. "I assume you have that all taken care of with your spawn, not that it's any of your business." He charged over to the coffeemaker and punched the button for a double espresso. "I have to go. You've upset me, and I have a meeting later with the propulsion design team," he lied. He hung up without a goodbye and considered stuffing his phone in the garbage disposal, but he liked it too much. The lock screen was John's official AFTC photo in his green flight suit. It brought out the green in his eyes very nicely. And Rodney wasn't at all obsessed with his pilot guide.

After slamming the two espressos down, he stomped back to his desk and tried to get back to work, but Jeannie's words haunted him. What about companionship down the line? What about kids? Or what she was really trying to say: who's going to love you when you're old and gray and not thinking so straight, Rodney? What was holding John to him but their mutual respect and the platonic bond, which Rodney felt in his chest so keenly, but did John? After all, it was Rodney's fault John lost his flight command and was forced stateside to sit at a desk most of the time, only allowed to fly test flights and train other pilots.

It didn't bear thinking about, but Rodney couldn't stop.

"Rodney, it is time to quit. You are useless like this. Go home, and your friend will bring you dinner, ano?"

Rodney startled and looked at his watch. Five p.m. "Yes, quite." His friend, John. He'd promised to always be there at their official bonding ceremony, and Rodney believed him. "I'll be here tomorrow morning for meetings, Radek, and then at Peterson all afternoon."

"Good. Tomorrow, then." Radek waved him away.

"Thanks. Good night."

"Ew," Rodney said, looking at the bowls of steamed green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, and grilled chicken.

"Yum," John countered. "In the past two weeks we've eaten Chinese, pizza, Thai, Indian, burgers," he ticked off on his fingers, then started on the other hand, "Mexican, burgers again, and sushi from that place that has no business serving sushi. It's time for us to eat something that hasn't been fried, re-fried, shipped in a truck, or covered in cheese."

"Oh, speaks the guy who would live off Twizzlers if he could."

"And blow pops. Don't forget the blow-pops," John said, dashing a grin.

Rodney could not forget the blow-pops.

"Fine, I will eat this farmhand meal on one condition," Rodney said, and John nodded agreeably, already putting out the plates and forks.

"Name it, as long as it doesn't involve—"

"Hockey. Canadian hockey, none of that wussy American NHL crap."

John groaned loudly and sat down to serve while Rodney shot over to grab the remote and start flicking through the channels. News, news, more depressing news, ah, sports, but soccer, and how he loathed it. His childhood memories were filled with images of tripping over his feet and eating turf, and that was even before his senses came online early and confused his coordination even further. Why did he have to be such a prodigy? It was so darn frustrating, sometimes. He'd had to wait out his lonely childhood and adulthood until he found his compatible guide.

"...the research study, conducted by specialists at the Center for Sentinel and Guide Dynamics, found that platonic pairings resulted in higher percentages across the board of fractured pairing syndrome, fragile sentinel syndrome, guide endocrine response withdrawal, and..." the reporter paused and squinted, '...dopamine agonist resistance.' The Center is urging more research into the phenomenon." The blonde kewpie turned in her chair. "Steve?"

"Well, that certainly sounds scary," 'Steve' said.

John took the remote from Rodney's hand and flicked off the television.

"Pure bullshit," John said.

Rodney just sat, numb.

John knelt before him and put his hands on his knees. "Rodney, the Center doesn't like platonic bonds. You know that."

"Yes, yes." Rodney remembered. Ever since he hit puberty, they'd been pushing him to bond romantically with someone, anyone. 'A sentinel of your power shouldn't remain unbonded,' they'd told him. But he read underneath it, 'You need to be controlled.'

"I'll snag a copy and get it over to my personal physician, Carson Beckett. I'm smelling something bogus here." Rodney's heart started to slow down.

"They've pulled shit like this before. Remember the '90s when Ellison had to take them to court over their 'feral sentinel' bullshit so he could keep his job?"

"Right. Ellison got caught on tape killing that other sentinel, and the Center had to come up with a quick sound bite."

"As if killing in defense of someone being murdered isn't justification enough," John said, snorting. "But then the police department didn't want their sentinel to go berserker and start killing people indiscriminately. Think of the lawsuits."

"I remember. Ellison took them to court for defamation of character."

John grinned. "He won, too. Read them a ridiculous number of case reports where his goofy partner got into all sorts of absurd life-threatening situations, and guess what? No feral sentinel. Ellison just dusted his partner off and patted him on the head."

"That we saw," Rodney said. "I'm sure he gave him an earful when they got home."

John raised his eyebrows innocently. "Speaking of which, I have a training flight tomorrow. Gotta show those kids up from down."

"Uh-huh." Rodney thought a moment. "So, you think the study was BS."

"It smells like another play by the Center, but for what, I don't know." John rubbed his chin and yawned.

"It certainly explains why all our relatives are giving us such grief. This must have been making the news rounds for a while."

John pointed at him. "Got it in one. Jesus. What jerks."

"Genetics is an unplumbed mystery," Rodney said, making John snort. He yawned again, this time getting Rodney going. "Enough. Get out of here. Take a nap. I'll see you tomorrow at Atlantis."

Scowling, John said, "That place bugs me."

"What? Why?" This was the first Rodney had heard of it.

"Sorry," John mumbled. "There's just something weird about it. Can't put my finger on it."

"Another guide thing. Great."

"Sorry," John said again, getting up and grabbing his brown leather bomber jacket. "I'll get out of your hair. See you tomorrow." Then he leaned in and, after a breathless pause, bumped foreheads with Rodney.

John exited a moment later without a word, leaving Rodney staring after him.

John was late this morning. Granted, his attendance at the initial propulsion drafting meeting was optional, but Rodney was hoping John would show up a little early so they could talk first.

No such luck. Rodney gave up staring at his watch and went into the meeting. He finished his coffee and started in on John's with bitter satisfaction, blinking disingenuously at Radek's disapproving grunt.

"The fuel specs are in, and they're even better than we hoped for in terms of thrust/burn ratio. The only issue is an adequate sealing material, once again. This stuff burns hot."

"Again, you wish to play with new materials!" Radek threw up his hands. "We do not have time."

"Of course we do. We always put a buffer in the schedule."

"For unavoidable delays in the manufacturing process!"

"Eh. We'll get that Swedish guy again. Sven. He did it in no time."

"His name was Sten, and he was Norwegian," John said from the doorway. He leaned there, his arms crossed. "You couldn't get him on a dare."

"Why not?" Rodney pushed his chin up, his fingers closing around John's favorite V-22 Osprey 'Flew It—Didn't Die' coffee mug.

"Because last time you broke his spirit and I'm pretty sure his brain, Rodney," John said, pushing off and coming into the conference room. He nodded to Radek and tilted his head at Dr. Emmagan, their CAD designer, and narrowed his eyes at Mike, their latest information development engineer.

"What about—" Radek started.

"Not Kavanagh." Rodney glared.

"I would never," Radek said, clutching his chest theatrically. "No, I was going to suggest Grodin. He's excellent, and he just finished his contract at NASA. They are laying people off again. Such a shame."

"Would he want to relocate?" John said, doubtful.

"He has worked in the area before. I will give him a call."

"Then that's settled. We use the new fuel," Rodney said, grinning.

"You haven't added it to the budget line item sheet," Emmagan observed, and Rodney shot her a vicious look.

"Thank you very much. I will; I was just waiting to see if it was feasible."

"But shouldn't its cost be taken into consideration as well?" she said archly.

The meeting kind of went to hell after that.

John went ahead to Peterson while Rodney had a last-minute check-in with Woolsey, their CFO, about the latest cost estimates. So, again they didn't have a chance to talk, and at Peterson, they were too busy syncing up with their Air Force project leader, Major Davis, to take a breath.

But Rodney offered to drive John home and have dinner at his place for a change, and John didn't refuse, so that was something.

The moment Rodney walked in the door to John's place, he instinctively relaxed. Everything about the space spelled safety to him. He took a deep breath and lowered his laptop case to the floor, then took off his shoes and wiggled his socked feet on the wool rug. John came up behind him and took his jacket, and Rodney loosened his tie with a sigh.

"Nice to get out of there," Rodney said. He started to rub his temples but realized he didn't have to. "You know, it's funny—my headaches are getting better. I don't know why."

"You don't know, huh?" John hung up his jacket and moved toward the kitchen. "You want some stir fry?"

"Sounds good. Of course, when you have constant, grinding pain, it's somewhat startling to realize you haven't noticed it gradually getting better, but there you are."

John handed him a glass of water, just slightly cooler than room temperature. Rodney took a sip and smiled—it was his favorite kind.

"Do you have any chicken for the stir fry?"

"Yup. Free-range. Organic. Got it last night on the way home."

"Ah." Rodney sat down at the counter, suddenly reminded of why last night had so disturbed him. "What was that, anyway? Last night."

John shoved the cutting board in front of him and handed him a huge, sharp knife. He dropped a red pepper on top of the board and said, "Sliced. About so big." He held his fingers a centimeter apart.

"You didn't answer my question."

"What was what?" John frowned and pulled open the package of chicken, placing it on the counter.

"You know what. You, uh. Started to kiss me or something." Rodney ducked his head, blushing, and started to awkwardly slice the pepper. Its guts spilled out all over the cutting board, appropriate, really.

The silence was too loud. He heard John's heart pound and looked up.

John licked his lower lip. "That wasn't a—that was a head bump. A guide thing. Me checking in with you."

"Really." Rodney barely missed his thumb and hissed. Hopefully, a trip to the ER wasn't in his future.

"I know you don't want a relationship—with sex, I mean," John said hastily. "You already told me, remember?"

"Just as long as you remember," Rodney said cautiously. For both of them, perhaps, because despite the catastrophe that was his fractured bond with Jennifer, he sometimes had trouble keeping it straight in his own head that trying a romantic bond with John would end in disaster. That he'd likely spend weeks in the hospital yearning for what he couldn't have while his body strained against the restraints, and afterward enjoy months of depression and therapy.

No, not again.

John stared at him, his heart still beating fast, his face pale.

"Alrighty, then. That's sure clear," John said and went back to slicing chicken without a word.

Dinner was a dim affair, both of them quiet, and without the usual bumps and pats of affection Rodney had gotten used to so quickly.

Still, as Rodney prepared to leave, John held out his jacket and helped him into it, and when Rodney turned, John put his hands on Rodney's shoulders and tilted his head down in invitation.

After a moment's hesitation, Rodney leaned forward and did the same, making the circuit with his own hands and touching foreheads with John, and he immediately felt what John meant by 'checking in.' He could sense John, not only physically, but emotionally, as a cloud of cool blue energy surrounding them both with calm and something else that Rodney couldn't identify. He stepped back and let his arms drop.

"Good night," John said, a slight smile on his face, but Rodney felt how relieved he was.

"Yes, okay. Good night," Rodney said. He picked up his case and left, still tingling with the peaceful energy, his head for once mercifully quiet.

The peace didn't last. General O'Neill got called back to the Pentagon for something, and they got stuck with some uptight jerk just as the AF-302 project heated up, with both of them spending more time at both job sites arguing with incompetents. Well, on Rodney's part, anyway. John stood back and put in glaringly vital points with a sly bit of sarcasm that never ceased to shut arguments down. Rodney really wished he had the same talent since often he was reduced to ranting just short of yelling.

John would step next to him, then, and lean against his shoulder. "What Dr. McKay is trying to say is you're putting the pilot behind the plane. You want a barbequed pilot? Or do you want the propulsion system completed and tested, first, so we know all the heat and pressure tolerances before his team finalizes canopy design and sends you the pictures you want for PR?"

General Akron grunted something and settled back. "Fine. But we need more numbers and reassurance this new fuel won't damage our supply line. What you're proposing—"

"Isn't unprecedented. As I said before," Rodney said evenly. "JP-9 is easily more stable and less corrosive than Jet Petroleum 8. It's just a different refining process, that's all."

"Ah." Akron looked mollified, finally. The meeting ended with the usual sign-offs and digital signatures, Major Davis handling it all. Rodney realized after a while that John had never left his side, and Akron was giving them both a look Rodney had grown accustomed to—faint disgust and affront as if they doing something disgusting. They were queer but not queer enough to people's minds; that was the only way Rodney could interpret it, and his stomach turned at the acidic bite of Akron's scent.

Then John brushed the back of his hand against the side of Rodney's, and an echo of the same relaxed humor pushed between them. Rodney suppressed a grin because he could almost hear John saying, 'What a chump. Am I right?'

"Until next month, gentlemen," Akron said, sweeping out with Davis giving them both an apologetic smile as he left on the general's heels.

"Well, that was fun. Not," Rodney said.

"There's always one," John said with a nod. "You doing okay?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Because for a second there, I thought you were going to go over the table at a two-star."

"I could take him," Rodney muttered.

John burst out laughing, snickering like a Frenchman in his cups.

"Stop it," Rodney batted at him. "You sound like a bad laugh track."

"You're a bad laugh track," John said. "C'mon, it's time for lunch."

"Ugh. Commissary food."

"Free food is the best food," John said, shoving him toward the door. "By the way, my new desk is coming in tomorrow. It's going right across from yours."

"Great. I'll have to stare at your ugly mug all day long."

"A tragedy." John put on his hat and tucked on his sunglasses, then shot him a sideways grin. "Sorry about that."

Rodney ignored completely what that sly grin did to his insides and trotted to keep up. It was Turkey Tuesday, which was totally why John was dragging him to the commissary, no doubt.

"So, you seem pretty chipper today," Rodney said over their trays. "What's got you so disgustingly cheerful?"

"My brother Dave is coming out for a visit this week. I haven't seen him... God. For twenty years, I guess. He didn't approve of me signing up." John took a huge bite of his sandwich.

"I didn't even know you had a brother!"

John pointed to his mouth and chewed at him complacently.

"You did that on purpose," Rodney accused.

Eventually, John swallowed and took a sip of water. "Why should I talk about him? He wasn't around."

"Except now he will be," Rodney said thoughtfully. "Younger, older?"

"I'm older, but not by a lot. We were close until we really weren't."

"Why? You joining the Air Force shouldn't be enough for that."

John looked up from his sandwich to stare at him. "My dad made sure it was. He held the purse strings, so Davey followed along."

Rodney stared, aghast. "Your brother abandoned you for money?"

John shrugged one shoulder, his face caught in a wince. "It wasn't like that. You have to understand our father. He has a way of making it sound oh-so-reasonable that you do things his way. 'It's for John's own good, son.' I'm sure he put it like that, as if Davey was helping me by showing me the light or some bullshit."

"In the beginning! But what about when your career took off?"

John finished his sandwich and handed Rodney one of his pudding cups. "You like butterscotch, right? I like vanilla."

"Vanilla pudding! I learn more horrifying things about you every day, John Sheppard," Rodney said, giving him the out. For now.

Dave Sheppard would be arriving soon, and Rodney could direct his ire to a more appropriate target.

"Turn that radio off, Davidson," John said quickly as they came into the hangar. He needn't have bothered; Rodney had been hearing the awful radio show from various sources since he'd left his car in the parking lot. It seemed like half the people on base were listening to this jackdoodle rant about "fake pairings."

"And I'll tell you another thing," the Jackdoodle was saying, "if they're sucking on the government's teat getting special benefits when they're nothing but fakers, I hope they throw them in jail while they're at it."

The radio snapped off, and silence filled the hanger. John nudged Rodney forward with a reassuring touch to his elbow.

"Lorne," John said, his voice like steel. "What's on the docket?"

Major Lorne cleared his throat. "Review of feedback on the F-35. We have twenty-nine pilots from twenty-one different squadrons."

"Excellent," Rodney said. He sat down at the head of the room and cracked open his laptop. "They all filled out the forms?"

"Yes, sir."

"Don't call me 'sir,'" Rodney said. "I've got two PhDs."

"Yes, Doctor," Lorne said with a smirk, and John snorted.

"Then let's get started."

John gave a nod, his eyes still on Lorne, and Rodney knew he'd be getting an earful later.

Rodney grinned to himself and made a plan to listen in.

"You're worrying about nothing," John said as Rodney paced around John's cavernous, mostly empty apartment. Except for the single, red wool carpet that marked the living room, the floors were bare wood, making it sentinel-friendly, and the sparse furniture, high ceilings, and lack of knick-knacks also helped keep dust to a minimum.

"Just sit down and relax," John said as he finished setting out wine glasses and cracked open a bottle of what smelled like a very pricey red. "It doesn't matter if he likes you or not. He should be worrying about whether you like him."

"Damned right he should," Rodney said. "I'm just working on my speech."

"Your what, now?" John said, sounding amused. He handed Rodney a bottle of his favorite beer—Molson's—already open, and sat down next to him with a can of watery swill in hand. Rodney made a face when he read the label. Honestly. It was a good thing they weren't in a romantic relationship because Rodney couldn't imagine dating someone who thought Budweiser passed as beer in any universe.

"You drink that stuff just to piss your highfalutin father off, don't you?" Rodney said, having a sudden burst of insight, and John just smiled like Mona Lisa and took another swig of pisswater.

"What's this about a speech?" John said.

"Oh, I just want to have a word with your brother about proper sibling behavior."

"Like why it's in poor taste to crash your sibling's wedding to tell them domesticity is a waste of their great brain?"

"Hey! That's a different case entirely."

"Uh-huh. Just...let Dave talk, all right? Maybe he's going to..." John shrugged.

"You honestly think he's going to try to make nice after all this time?"

"I think I want to give him a chance, anyway." John finished his beer while Rodney absolutely did not watch his long throat bobbing as he swallowed. John was obviously more worried about this encounter than he was letting on. Rodney sighed and tuned his ears.

"He's coming."

"Great." John got up and straightened his uniform, the only concession Rodney had seen him make to his nervousness—not changing when they got to his place after work. Maybe John felt he needed the armor, or perhaps he wanted to remind Dave decisively that he hadn't swerved from the decision that parted them.

The doorbell rang, and John went to the door, Rodney trailing behind.

"Dave," John said to the blue-eyed, sandy-haired man standing on the doorstep.

"John. It's good to see you. You look, well... The same."

"Hmm," John grunted and stepped back to let Dave in.

Dave didn't appear fazed. "I brought you something," he said, offering a bulky paper bag to John.

"What's this?" John said suspiciously, opening it up to peer inside. "No way. You remembered."

Dave smiled slyly and took off his coat. Rodney wanted to punch him in his smug face.

"I can't believe you," John continued, opening the bag and pulling out a six-pack of what looked like really crappy beer, tall necks marked "Rolling Rock." The label was something ancient-looking.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to still find that stuff?" Dave nodded to Rodney. "Hi. Dave Sheppard."

"Christ, I'm sorry. Dave, this is Dr. Rodney McKay, my sentinel. Rodney, Dave Sheppard, my little brother and used-to-be pain in the ass."

While Rodney and Dave stared at each other awkwardly, John went to the kitchen to put the beer in the fridge. He came back with three bottles in hand, handing one to Dave. "You want one?" he asked Rodney.

Rodney eyed it before taking it. "Sure, why not. We'll make a toast to your long-lost little brother," he said wryly.

John raised an eyebrow. "To Dave," he said.

The lager actually wasn't that bad, considering the source. John grinned happily, looking sappy as hell. Rodney feared very much he was in for a disappointment, considering the calculating expression on Dave's face. No one could hurt like family.

"What's the story behind the beer," Rodney said, trying to delay the inevitable.

"Bub." "Bub." The brothers looked at each other and laughed.

"You tell it," Dave said.

"This drop-out, Bub Mulroney, used to hang out in front of the Shell station on Acre where we'd fill up our mini-bikes. And one of the ways Bub used to make a little extra cash was by going into the Smitty's next door and buying beer for any of the underaged kids who'd ask him. So, one day, this is after like two years, okay, I asked Bub to get me the cheapest six-pack going, and he brings me this stuff. I drank three of them before Dave caught me and insisted he get his share. Jerk."

"You miscreants," Rodney said.

"Nah, c'mon. I was seventeen!"

"And driving drunk!"

"No way," Dave said. "John never drove drunk. Said it would mess up his chance to fly."

John stared at Dave, a strange expression on his face. "You remember?"

"Of course, I remember. It was all you wanted," Dave said. "I guess you got it."

"Yeah, I sure did." John sipped his beer.

"For a while, anyway," Dave murmured, and Rodney's ears pricked.

John swallowed hard. "What was that?"


John carefully set his beer down on the counter. "Sure didn't sound like nothing."

Rodney wanted to say something, but he bit his tongue, hard. This was all John.

"Come on, John," Dave said coaxingly. "Do I have to spell it out? You were moving straight up the ladder when your guide abilities manifested. If you'd made a real bond with a military sentinel, you'd still be out there."

John breathed through his clenched teeth, and Rodney moved closer, trying to do what John had done for him, pushing as much support as he could through their connection.

"Fuck you, Dave. First of all, Rodney and I do have a real bond. I know the media's been spouting a lot of crap lately, but that's what it is: crap. Take it from someone who's actually in it."

"If you say so," Dave said doubtfully.

"I goddamn do, Dave. And if Sheppard Systems treats any of your platonically bonded employees with less than a hundred percent respect for their bond, you'll get rained on by a shitstorm of lawsuits, so keep that in mind."

Dave raised his hands. "All right, all right."

"Secondly, you can't control who you bond with. From all the sentinel and guide movies out there, I'd think you'd know that. Nancy could have triggered me, or I could have triggered her, since we were both latent when we got married. We were kind of expecting it."

"Romantic nonsense."

"True, anyway. It happened with Rodney. Deal with it." John took a deep breath. "Did the old man put you up to this?"

Dave looked away, his eyes shifty as all get out.

Rodney gave a sniff and said, "That's affirmative."

"Not like you think, John," Dave said. "Dad has mellowed, okay? He wants you around. He's..." Dave flicked a glance Rodney's way. "He's lined up a group of really smart, really approachable—"

"If you say 'sentinels,' I swear to God I will kick you in the nuts," John growled, immediately taking Rodney's hand as if he sensed his trembling. A threat to the bond was intolerable.

"I was going to say 'candidates,'" Dave said primly.

"The answer is still 'no fucking way.' Thanks for the beer, but get the hell out, Dave. Maybe we can talk when you aren't a tool for the old man."

Dave rubbed his forehead. "I'm sorry. I was glad to come, you know. I wanted to see you. I've missed you."

"Maybe you should have said that instead," Rodney said, still shaking with anger.

"I'm sorry, Dr. McKay. No offense meant."

"Plenty taken."

Dave nodded warily and went to pick up his coat. Rodney kept a careful eye on him, staying by John's side as he walked his brother to the door.

"'Bye, John."

"'Bye, Dave."

John closed the door and turned toward Rodney, but Rodney was already leaning toward him, hands coming up, head tilting to rest against John's.

"It's okay," John said. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm all yours. I made a promise, remember? I'm your guide—your guide forever."

Rodney nodded, saying breathlessly, "You're my guide, and I'm your sentinel. Forever."

After a long moment, John stepped back, ducking his head to say, "Sorry about that. This was all my fault."

Rodney frowned. "I don't see how your brother being a prick is your fault."

John winced and shook his head. "There are things you don't know about when we were kids. I mean, my dad has a thing about guides..."

Rodney bit back a caustic comment.

John lifted his empty with an eyebrow, and when Rodney shook his head, went to the fridge to get a fresh one.

"C'mon," he said, and sat down at the counter. "I had some snacks for Dave, but he didn't deserve them."

"Cookies?" Rodney said, leaning over the counter.

"The ones you like from Freddies."

Rodney clawed at the box until it was close enough to open. "Don't think you've distracted me."

John sighed and said, "My mom was a Utility Guide, back when they were a thing."

"Wow, okay."

"Dad manifested as a sentinel just before he got out of the service. Jeep accident," John said wryly. "He never saw any action. But he still has a nice limp he calls his war wound."


"So, he gets home and finds himself a nice Utility Guide until he can settle in, except he starts sleeping with her and, whoops, here's Johnny. Dad drafts up a short-term marriage contract so I can get born, but in the meantime, he starts courting a 'real guide,' as he calls it, while she's still pregnant with me."


"He meets Dave's mom, Cheryl, a high society gal, and they get married when I'm two months old. She's his really real and true guide, he always says. My mom takes off right after I'm born, and Dad never speaks of her again except for whispers I hear about. It's like she's a ghost."

"What's her name?" Rodney said, his chest hurting.

"Ciara." John contemplated his beer. "I don't even have a picture."

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah. Me, too." John shoved off his stool and went to chuck his empty. "How're the cookies?"

"Great. Peanut butter chocolate is my favorite."

"I know, you weirdo," John said fondly. He squeezed Rodney's shoulder as he passed. "Want to catch the game?"

"Sounds good." Rodney hugged the box to the fury in his chest, and they left talk of guides, real or not, at the counter.

The project deadline drew closer, and tempers got hotter. The Atlantis offices started feeling like a cock-fighting ring.

"Did you come in here just to swing your dick around, Hemant, or do you have something useful to add to the discussion?" Rodney said. "Because I actually have work to accomplish."

"As if the rest of us don't," Simpson said resentfully, and Emmagan pressed her lips together in a way Rodney just knew meant she was rolling her eyes at him.

"Forgive me, we all have important work to accomplish."

"And my projected test coverage isn't important?" Hemant huffed. "I'm merely saying there isn't adequate time in the schedule to accommodate what I believe will be the necessary regimen."

"We haven't even completed the device function spreadsheet. Stop anticipating and do what you have on your plate," the project manager said. "Now, any updates from information development?" Kate looked over at Mike.

Mike cleared his throat. "We have the rough draft of the sim doc about three-quarters complete. It should be done in time for when I start work with Colonel Sheppard next week with the simulator."

"What day is that?" John said, poking at his phone.

"Ah, um. I have us down for Wednesday, 8 a.m. at Peterson, Hangar 133."

"Cool." John put down his phone, his expression anything but happy. Rodney started to lean over to ask him what was up, but a pat on his leg warned him off.

"With that, can we all get back to some useful work?" Rodney said, and Kate sighed and waved the meeting adjourned.

"I'm surprised at you, Rodney," Carson said, putting down his stethoscope. "Usually, it takes six reminders from my assistant and a personal bribe to get you to come in for your check-up."

Rodney rolled his sleeve back down and buttoned up his shirt. "Speaking of which, where's the Belgian chocolate you promised me?" He deserved a reward for all the prodding.

Carson sighed and reached into his drawer. "The AMA would have my license for this," he said.

"Cacao is good for the heart," Rodney protested.

"I'm not sure you read beyond the subject line of that study."

"Oh! Oh! Speaking of which, the real reason I stopped by: can you get me an unexpurgated copy of the platonic bond clinical trial report done by the Centers for Sentinel and Guide Development?"

"I should have known you weren't here for your health," Carson said, shaking his head.

"But this is for my health, Carson. The media is portraying our type of pairing as being harmful." Rodney nibbled on his chocolate fretfully. "It's not! I'm not hurting I?"

"No, Rodney. If his numbers are as good as yours, he must be in fine fettle. You haven't had a major anaphylactic incident in almost a year. Your blood pressure has dropped, your migraines seem to be getting better, your contact rashes have cleared up, and you appear to be sleeping regularly and eating better."

"That's all John's fault," Rodney said. "He makes me eat multiple times a day! And even sleep when I'm tired."

"He's a terrible person," Carson agreed. "I can see this platonic bond thing is a real trial."

"It is," Rodney said, picking at his thumbnail. "Especially since I'm not entirely sure I want to keep it platonic?"

Carson's eyebrows went up an unflattering amount. "What's this, then?"

"Can you blame me? He's extremely hot, all right? And he cares about me, and he doesn't say there's something wrong with me, he's just there, all right? With food, jokes, and pats. And did I mention the hard-ass, swivel-hipped, scruffy-haired thing he has going on? It's a ridiculously attractive combination. He should patent it."

Carson chuckled. "You have mentioned it a time or two, yes."

Rodney groaned. "Then I'm doomed. I'm going to fall in love, and he'll break the bond, and I'll end up in bond withdrawal and heart failure with you hovering by my bedside, pushing me dopamine and feeding me anti-depressants."

"Now, now." Carson patted his leg. "How do you know he wouldn't bond right back? That's how it happens ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of the time."

"Well, I am accustomed to being in the top .01 percentile."

Carson shook his head and went back to his computer. "You won't know unless you ask. You can always ask before bonding, you know. Don't stick your head in your shell. Now, how are you on prescriptions?"

"Fine for now. Thanks, Carson," Rodney said, feeling oddly relieved.

"Good. And as long as I'm logged in, let's find that study." Carson clicked around. "Interesting; they published it without review."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Uh-huh. What a surprise. Email it to me?"

"It's on its way."

"Who is that, Lorne?" Rodney asked, narrowing his eyes at the tall hunk talking to his guide.

"Oh, that's Master Sergeant Dex. The new hotshot crew chief O'Neill brought into the TC."

"Someone should tell him he's standing too close to my guide."

"Tell him yourself," Lorne said.

Now, maybe Rodney hadn't been the most cordial when he and Lorne first met, but that was no reason to invite Rodney to get his cranium smashed. On the other hand, John was now leaning his hips forward for no godforsaken reason, as if good conversation required doing the Time Warp.

"Don't mind if I do," Rodney said and stomped forward to Lorne's laugh track.

"Sheppard," Rodney said sharply. "How goes the simulator training?"

"It's good," John said, his face brightening into a grin when he saw Rodney approaching. "Hey, I want you to meet a new friend. This is MSgt. Ronon Dex. Dex, this is my sentinel, Rodney."

"Yes! And he's my guide," Rodney said.

Dex's eyebrows rose in amusement. "Good to know."

"Good to know you know it."

John coughed and looped an arm around Rodney's shoulders. He hummed with reassurance through the link, and Rodney relaxed. "Thanks for your time, Dex. I'll see you at the walkthrough." He started to pull Rodney away.

"Looking forward to it."

"I thought we were meeting at the commissary?" John said after they'd walked for a bit.

"Parking lot D was filled. Sorry about the..." Rodney waved his hand. "Actually, I don't know what that was about. You can do what you want, I guess? If you see some pretty gal or guy who...except not with another sentinel—you'd better stay away from any sentinels."

"What the—what the hell are you talking about?"

"You and Dex."

"Who is married to another one of the crew, Sgt. Banks. Anyway, who said I wanted to date?"

"You were flirting! Plain as day!"

"I was being friendly!" John's face was red. "I can't help if the guy is hot. Doesn't mean I want anything."

"You should tell that to your hips."

John scowled. "Well, we were just talking, so calm your ass."

"Not that I have any right to—"

"Shut up." John turned him and coaxed him along toward the commissary. "If I say you do, you do."

"All right." Rodney wasn't sure what they'd settled, but he felt better about the whole thing, anyway.

"Gentlemen," General O'Neill said. "Have you had the pie today? It's outstanding."

"General. Thanks, we'll keep that in mind," John said, ever the diplomat.

"I try to avoid anything that might kill me, and that includes citrus foods," Rodney said. "But thanks anyway."

"It's peach."

"Can't be too careful," Rodney said.

"I'll get you some pudding," John said and made himself scarce, the coward.

"You're a unique one, I'll give you that," O'Neill said.

"Thank you." Rodney leaned over his meatloaf in case O'Neill got any ideas. "What can I help you with?"

"Oh, just saying hi, checking in with my favorite team."


"I suppose you've been hearing all the scuttlebutt about the platonic bond thingie." O'Neill draped his hat on his knee.

"You mean that bogus report that reads like a NY Post article?"

O'Neill pointed at him. "Yeah, that. Well, last I heard, they might be drafting something up in Washington that would make a lot of pairs unhappy if it goes through."

Rodney's stomach dropped. "Do tell."

"Might be useful to have a high-profile pairing do a little damage control."

"Great. So now you want us to be show ponies."

"What I want, McKay, is for jackasses in Washington to stop being jackasses, but that isn't going to happen any time soon. The next best thing would be you two showing up to give them what for."

"What's this?" John arrived holding two dishes, one with peach pie and the other a big bowl of chocolate pudding.

"Thanks," O'Neill said, rising to his feet and taking the pie. "McKay will fill you in." He strode off with the pie, leaving John staring after him.

"Did he just?" John said, sitting down and stealing a spoonful of Rodney's pudding.

"Hey! That's just...fine."

"So, what did O'Neill say?"

"Oh, bad news. What else is new?"

"Eh. We'll kick ass. What else is new?" John smiled at him with pudding on his lip.

Rodney couldn't bring himself to disagree.

Atlantis' flight simulator was Rodney's proudest design. Well, with Zelenka and Emmagan's help, of course, and John's invaluable feedback. But watching the test pilots crowd around it like kids in a toy store made Rodney flush with pride.

"And with a single macro, it reconfigures from the F-35 to the brand-new AF-302," Mike said as he demonstrated. The screen flashed, and the high-def image of the cockpit changed, the controls and flight instruments settling into their new configurations instantly.

Rodney bounced on his toes.

"Obviously," John said, "this console is under Need to Know. All of you have been cleared, and the keypad only responds to your biometrics, another feature courtesy of Atlantis Aero. Do not, under any circumstances, try to show this to any of your buddies. I know how cool it is, but resist the temptation or get booted off the project."

"Yes, sir." "Of course, sir."

"All right. I'll do the touch-and-go demo. Mike is here to take notes on any shortcomings with the documentation, so please approach him and give him guff if there's anything you find unclear."

John started taking off in the simulation. Rodney zoomed his vision in and observed from his perch on his personal drafting stool. He saw some glitches and lag where the sim didn't perform as expected and felt John's displeasure in each instance.

Rodney grimaced and took note. He also noticed the looks John kept flicking over his shoulder at Mike for some reason Rodney couldn't perceive. Rodney focused his senses on Mike and only picked up the usual: an iron scent Rodney assumed was his deodorant or aftershave, and a subnote that smelled like salt or some other mineral. Puzzling, but not threatening.

"Okay, Toshiro. Your turn," John said, handing over the controls to the next pilot and walking over to Rodney. "Did you catch all that?"

"My notes," Rodney said, handing them over. John took a look and handed them back with a nod.

"You missed the flicker on the landing gear deploy."

"Got it."

"Also, what the heck is up with that Mike character? He feels like bad news all day."

"Really? He doesn't smell like anything but bad deodorant. The kind the hippies wear."

"Rodney." John squeezed his elbow and tugged him out of hearing distance. "Covert agents have been known to use mineral salts to disguise their scent cues from sentinels. It's an old trick they discovered in the 60s during the anti-Vietnam War movement when they couldn't get a read on those 'infernal hippies.'"

"Oh, come on. Mikey? A government agent?"

"He could just be an industrial spy."

"Someone's trying to steal from me?" Rodney's face went hot. "I'll burn him. I'll burn him and his children down to his great-great-grandchildren! His testicles will wish he never met me!" Rodney seethed.

"Hey, hey, calm down. We don't know anything for sure yet." John pulled him closer. "We'll find out what he's up to."

"I'll yank his spine and turn him into an invertebrate. He'll have to crawl his way to the prison yard."

"All right, Terminator. Time to get you some pudding."

"Pudding, yes. Then vengeance."

John started sticking to Rodney like a tall and pleasantly attractive tick.

"You don't have to follow me around, you know. Even if Mike is up to espionage, there's no indication he's coming after me for some reason," Rodney said, quite reasonably, he thought.

"Not taking any chances," John said gruffly. He'd taken to picking Rodney up for work in his appalling tribute to his teenhood, a plum-colored Z28 Camaro that had definitely seen better days. The inside had seen some maintenance, at least; the engine purred like a big cat when John started it up, and Rodney felt vaguely reassured that his life wasn't in immediate peril.

That was until John started driving. Rodney now realized why his instincts had warned him away from hitching a ride with John in the past.

"I want to live! I want to live," Rodney shouted as they merged with traffic going seventy-five miles an hour. "I thought guides were supposed to cherish their sentinels!"

"Oh, I do," John said. "I just love going really, really fast while I do."

"If you want to continue to drive me to the office, you'll slow down to a reasonable speed," Rodney said, hoping he adequately conveyed his determination with the steely grip he had on John's thigh.

John eased his brick foot off the gas pedal and gave Rodney a quick smile. "I had it under control."

"Of course you did," Rodney said, breathing again. "Just remember, I'm fragile."

"That's bullshit. You're plenty strong. You've just been through a lot. First, with your early awakening and the crap training you got because of your parents, and then...well."

"You can say her name, you know."

"Jennifer." John sighed gustily. "And yeah, I have a right to stick close by when someone might want to mess with you."

"I thought sentinels were the protective ones."

"There's nothing in the books says a guide can't be protective, too." John turned the corner onto Platte. "I heard a rumor Sandburg punched a CIA guide right in the kisser for messing with his sentinel. And Sandburg's a pacifist." John smirked.

"That was different. Brackett was a spy—"

John raised an eyebrow.

"And he wanted to use Ellison's abilities to steal a plane prototype...huh."

"The only thing missing is a stolen bioweapon."

"I can't believe Mikey, clumsy Mike, who can't figure out the espresso machine, is a spy." Rodney gathered his briefcase as they pulled into the parking lot at Atlantis Aero.

John shook his head and shut off the engine. "I'm not taking a chance with you. We stick together until your hacker employee—"


"—checks this guy out. Now tell me about Miko. Is she trustworthy?" John took Rodney's case and slung the strap over his back, then led as they walked toward the building.

"Miko? I've known her since MIT. She's had a crush on me ever since we were dorm mates."

"Hmm. A crush, huh?"

"Now you sound jealous," Rodney said, delighted.

"Maybe." The back of John's neck turned red.

"Ha! Maybe you're right about guides being territorial."

"And why not?" John shoved the front door open a little harder than necessary and led him into the lobby.

Rodney wanted to dance with glee. "You like me."

"How did you get that impression?" John said wryly. "Was it the cookies? The home-cooked meals? The water I filter for you because you hate bottled water?"

"Well, yeah, that, and also, because you like me. Not just as my guide."

John stopped and stared at him with his finger over the elevator panel. "Rodney, what?—you don't—"

The elevator door opened, and an elderly woman shuffled out, taking the time to glare at them both for semi-blocking the doorway. They stepped back to let her pass and then got in. As the doors closed, a messenger jumped in, forcing the doors to rebound.

She snapped her gum at them, her tight curls bouncing. "Sorry 'bout that," she said and leaned across to punch in a floor. John did the same and joined Rodney in the back.

"To be continued," Rodney murmured, and John grunted.

There was no time, though. Just meetings, and more meetings, and then Rodney attacking his keyboard to get some actual work done instead of the fake work that was meetings. John met up with Mike again to go over the simulator manual, and then again with Radek to discuss the instrument panel. As happy as Rodney was to have such a brilliant and versatile guide, he wished they could spend a little more time together instead of split apart.

Then Rodney got the call from Miko.

"Mike is definitely a spy, Rodney. And guess what? He used to work for Sheppard Systems."

John sat in front of O'Neill's desk with his arms crossed like a little kid in the principal's office. Rodney could tell him that wouldn't earn him any brownie points with the general, who looked like he was about to blow his stack because John wasn't being forthcoming enough, as far as O'Neill was concerned.

Rodney knew how he felt.

"What do you mean you don't talk to your father? Ever?" O'Neill pressed both palms on his desk.

"That's not true," Rodney muttered, and O'Neill lifted a lethally sharp pencil and jabbed it at John.

"See? Even he knows you're talking bullshit, and his bullshit meter is busted."

"Hey!" Rodney said weakly. O'Neill raised a sardonic eyebrow, and Rodney subsided.

"Okay," John said wearily. "I pick up the phone long enough to get criticized for my life choices every other month. But it's not like I talk to him long enough to chew the fat over top-secret Air Force design specs."

"Not even a casual mention of what a kick-ass piece of shit you've got in the works?" There went O'Neill's eyebrow again.

Rodney swallowed guiltily when he remembered his recent conversation with Jeannie. "Jack, we came to you about this," he said. "Leave him alone."

"I'm not accusing you, Sheppard," O'Neill said, his manner going soft. "But before I go in front of the brass, I need to get all my duckies in a row. So, nothing that could get those pesky JAGs all up in arms about the NDA."

"Not a word; I swear, sir."

"All right." O'Neill sat back. "So, tell me about this Mike character."

"Michael Kenmore, purportedly a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Engineering, turns out his resume is only six inches deep. We're going to have to fire whoever does our background checks."

"That would be us," O'Neill said, a grim smile on his face. "He know we're onto him?"

"Of course not. John and I were very subtle."

John snorted.

"I might have yelled a bit, but maybe he thought I was jealous of John getting too close to him."

O'Neill waggled his hand. "Could work. Try to use it."

"Oh, terrific," John said.

"What? I'm the one who has to act," Rodney said.

"The guy feels wrong, that's all. Okay, so, what are we trying to do? Why can't we just fire him?" John said.

"Because we'd rather find out what he's been up to," O'Neill said evenly. "It could possibly be something worse than espionage."

"You can't be serious. Why would Patrick want to...ohhhhh," Rodney said, giving John a sideways glance.

"There's no way my dad would sabotage an Air Force jet," John said stolidly. "He's an ass, but he's still Air Force."

O'Neill shrugged noncommittally. "It doesn't hurt to cover our bets. Put surveillance on Kenmore. Record his keystrokes. We're letting you handle it in-house to keep him from getting suspicious."

"And my dad?" John actually sounded worried.

"Not your concern. Sorry, Sheppard, but it's now in the FBI's hands."

"Well, great," John said, and Rodney couldn't agree more.

Rodney liked the plan even less when he saw how much Mike lurked over John's shoulder all the time. Even though he knew the guy was a spy and thus utterly nefarious and up to no good, the creep didn't have to do it six inches from his guide's shoulder, pointing at things and smiling his creepy, dead-eyed smile, or bringing John coffee and patting him on the back.

It was unacceptable.

Rodney made it clear through subtle gestures and a decisive head nod that a private conference in the unisex bathroom was in order. Rodney waited impatiently for John to slouch over and then locked the door firmly once John was inside.

"What?" John definitely sounded irked. And he didn't have to smell the smells in there. "That didn't look suspicious at all."

"You're my guide! I might need a check."

"Do you?" John leaned in, his face breathtakingly close. His eyes...his eyes really were extraordinary, multicolored, fractured blues and greens ringed with brown and gray...

"Rodney. Rodney. Hey..."

"Sorry, I, um."

"Have you been eating the lunches I put out for you?" John put a hand on his wrist.

"Yes, yes, of course!" Rodney cleared his throat. "We could spend a little more time together, though."

"I know, I know." John let him go and shoved his hand through his hair. "They don't ask much from us, do they? But if this is interfering with our bond, you just let me know, and I'll tell O'Neill to shove it. Well, I'll tell Davis to tell O'Neill, which is the same thing—"

"No, that's okay," Rodney said, sighing. "It can wait."

"We're going to get this guy, buddy. Then he won't be a threat to you or Atlantis any longer."

Rodney smiled wistfully. "Okay."



John bumped heads with him briefly, sending reassurance and confidence through the bond, and Rodney responded with his belief and every ounce of fury at the asshole for ruining his plans.

John reared back for a second, looking startled. "You really want to get this guy."

"Fuck yeah."

"Then let's go." John patted him on the arm and led him out the door.

While John went back to his desk, Rodney caught Miko's eye, and she gathered her laptop and met him at his office.

He looked down at the sticker-laden brick in her arms and shook his head. It might look cute, with its Bad Badtz Maru chasing Hello Kitties all over the front. Still, the thing was hardened and encrypted six ways from Sunday and had every penetration testing software package known to mankind, and many known only to Miko.

"What's the status?" Rodney said.

"I have swept all the files in his account. Obviously, he anticipated being checked; there is nothing there that shouldn't be. I also attempted to clone his cell, but he has shut down all ports and has a firewall he dials through. I will continue to try to break through, but short of having the physical chip, I cannot guarantee I will crack it." Miko shrugged.

"That's fine. We might let the FBI confiscate it. What else?"

"I scanned all his outgoing traffic and found two very suspect IPs. One to a Sheppard Systems-owned subnet and the other was very surprising." Miko crinkled her nose teasingly.

"Well? You know I hate not knowing things."

"The other was to an AeroTech shell corporation, AteroCorp."

"You are fucking kidding me!" Rodney looked out through his office window at where goddamn Mikey was drooling over John's shoulder at the latest simulator. Thank Keppler for soundproof glass, because neither of them responded to his disgusted shout.

"The simulator. That's what Kenmore's after," Rodney said.

"I believe so, yes. He was endeavoring to set up a tunnel, but our firewall rules prohibited it."

Rodney conceded Miko's demands for tighter security had been worth it, even if they made it a pain in the ass for him at times. "And we don't allow USB drives to be plugged into staff computers, either. How do you suppose he's going to transfer the files?"

"He will have to open a port on his phone," Miko said and added slyly. "That will be our opportunity, as well."

"I like the way you think," Rodney said. "Pure evil."

Miko nodded. "Thank you."

"Let the games begin."

In the end, it was way too easy.

Miko waltzed into Rodney's office the moment Mike made his shifty move.

"This is it?" Rodney said, and Miko just nodded and got to typing.

"Oh, he's so stupid," she said them hummed under her breath. "He's going straight for the CAD files. Dr. Emmagan is very careful with her security, so he must also plan to go for the admin server and the encryption keys." Miko shook her head. "We will have plenty of time."

"Don't get cocky," Rodney warned. "I want him."

"Please. His phone is already mine. I'm downloading all files and logging his traffic." After a few tense moments, Miko sat back. "Done."


"Yes. And I have given him a puzzling throttle to work with. Call security and the FBI."

"Done," Rodney said, picking up the phone. Then it was all over except for the security tackle—amusing—and John pacing angrily until the FBI showed up, and Miko burning DVDs of the evidence from her unique, 'I don't follow my own rules; I can have an optical drive if I want to,' laptop.

Rodney did concede that in this case, she had a compelling argument.

But this whole spy thing really was overrated, as far as Rodney was concerned. He watched with Miko as the FBI hauled Mikey Mike away in handcuffs.

"You'll regret messing with me," Mikey ranted at him. John stood between them with crossed arms and a jutted jaw as if he were going to tackle Mikey right there if he tried to make a break for it.

"And you!" Mikey said from the elevator, growling at John. "Tell your dad I said 'hi,' why don't you?"

"Have fun in federal prison, butthead," Rodney said, taking hold of John's arm.

The elevator doors closed, and folks started buzzing with talk.

"Karaoke on me," Rodney said to Miko, "whenever you want. Thank you."

"It took hardly any effort. But I will take you up on it if only to see your rendition of 'Roxanne' once again."

"Oh, God," Rodney said, slapping a palm over his face. Then John pulled him into his office.

"I can't believe this," John said. "How the hell is my dad involved in this? He hates AeroTech with a passion. Those guys always screwed him out of the best contracts using the shittiest tricks. He despises them." John sat down and rubbed his face.

"I don't know," Rodney said, putting a hand on John's shoulder. "But we'll find out, okay?"

"I want to check up on Dave."

"You know you can't. What if he's involved?"

"He's not," John said fiercely.

"All right! All right," Rodney said, raising his hands. "Let's get on the phone to that FBI guy, Bates?"

"Yeah, Special Agent Eugene Bates."

"I don't think this was a terrorist plot, though," Rodney said. "I think this was pure espionage. They wanted to steal my tech, the bastards. They wanted my Simulator 2000!"

John chuckled. "I still think that sounds like the name of a vibrator."

"You shut up."

Bates was willing to meet with them the next day, which Rodney would have found suspicious if it weren't for the fact an evil terrorist just tried to steal his technology. Miko was already doing a hard sweep of systems and backups to confirm that no data had been tampered with. With the prototype just about to come off the production line, it would be a disaster if their production documents were messed with in any way.

"Special Agent Bates," the agent, a pretty boy with a saturnine expression, offered his hand to Rodney but not to John, setting Rodney's back up. It was an old-timey custom not to shake hands with the guide. Although the sentinel could appreciate the gesture, the partner was offended on John's behalf.

From John's reaction, he hadn't missed the maneuver.

"A pleasure," John drawled. "Colonel John Sheppard, USAF. This is my sentinel, Dr. Rodney McKay, Ph.D., Ph.D."

Rodney nodded regally. "Thanks for meeting with us," he said. "We'd like to understand a little more clearly the connection between the spy we captured yesterday at Atlantis Aero and Sheppard Systems."

"Specifically, whether my younger brother is in any way involved, and whether it's safe to contact him at this point," John said.

Bates looked between the two of them, his eyebrow going up. "That's an active investigation. I can't really divulge any details at this time," he said loftily.

"What?" Rodney said. "Then why did you meet with us?" He flapped his arms. "We want to know what's going on!"

"Obviously, Rodney," John said, looking carefully at Bates, "he's here to get information from us, and not the other way around. In fact, he probably suspects my involvement in this whole crapfest. Or am I wrong, Agent?"

"Right on the nose, Sheppard."

"That's Colonel to you," Rodney said. "And I call bullshit. We were the ones who came to you."

"Because your people found out about Kenmore," Bates said. "Not Sheppard."

"What? He's my guide!"

"Platonic guide."

Rodney stared at him, dumbfounded with rage. "You peon! You lackey of an incompetent agency! You dare to sit there and tell me my guide is somehow lacking in your estimation when he's the one who pointed me toward Kenmore in the first place? Because of some bigoted assumption you read in a yellow rag based on a falsified medical study?"

"Hey, now," John said, touching his arm and easing him closer. Rodney realized his senses were starting to spike out of his heightened emotions, and he leaned into John for stability.

"That wasn't in the reports," Bates said, looking discomfited. "About Sheppard, here, raising the flag on Kenmore."

"Because we didn't think it a necessary detail," Rodney said, still miffed.

"And I still don't understand the connection between Sheppard Systems and AeroTech," John grated. "I want to know if my kid brother is messed up in this. If he isn't, I don't want him to get hurt."

Bates raised a hand. "All right. I'll look into it, okay? Let you know if I spot anything."

"Thanks," John said gruffly.

"Anything else you can tell me that wasn't in the report?"

John nudged Rodney and said softly, 'F-310.'

"Oh, right. John and I audited AeroTech's F-310 designs a while back. To their evident shame."

"They weren't happy with the audit?" Bates flipped out a pad and took notes.

"Not even a little."

"Okay, so that's motive."

"For stealing my creation? As if."

"Motive isn't the same as justification, Dr. McKay," Bates said patiently.

Rodney nodded grudgingly.

"Thanks for your time," John said.

"I'll be in touch." This time Bates offered his hand for a shake. John took it, being a bigger man than Rodney, who would have shunned him unto his great-grandchildren for being a putz.

But maybe that was why John was the guide and Rodney the sentinel.

If things were busy before, the last weeks toward roll-out were crazed. Rodney did paperwork, paperwork, more paperwork, and made constant revisions of both the flight sim configuration and the software itself, as well as the documentation.

John spent most of his time at the hangar with their new information developer, Chuck Campbell, a too-friendly Canadian with very highly-rated technical chops. He'd been vetted so hard, Rodney imagined his underwear had been checked for thin spots.

Most importantly, he passed John's amorphous "vibe" test.

John's hours didn't quite mesh with Rodney's, so he took to leaving fresh food on Rodney's counter or at the office for him, marked with bright fuchsia sticky notes that read, 'RMM – DO NOT TOUCH – ON PAIN OF DEATH.'

Somehow, Rodney's staff believed it and stayed the heck away from his frijoles, roast beef sandwiches, and, ugh, green beans.

The day the prototype plane finally rolled into Hangar 133, Rodney went out to go see it, practically dancing with excitement. He saw her sleek lines as they backed her in, and his heart gave a shimmy of pure happiness. John and Ronon stood together, watching the ground crew direct the tow.

All of a sudden, John's back went straight. Ronon took a step forward, and John grabbed his arm.

Rodney tuned in and heard, "...fucking fake pairing and a spy in the family. He's probably a traitor."

"Shut up, man, the colonel can hear you."

"What do I care? They're going to arrest him any day now."

Oh, this was not happening. Not on Rodney's watch. He charged over just as the AF-302 came to a stop in its space, and Ronon walked toward it.

"Who said that?" Rodney hissed when he reached John. "Who was it?"

"Oh, hey, Rodney," John said amiably, a storm of steel gray pushing across the connection, chaos and biting sleet where usually there was pure, blue calm.

"Don't 'hey' me," Rodney said, putting his arm around John's waist and squeezing. John went taut for a moment before relaxing into Rodney's side.

"Thanks," John said. "Don't worry about it. You can't sue people for their opinions. It will all come out in the wash."

"But he hurt you," Rodney said plaintively.

"Eh." John gave him a squeeze and stepped away. "Come look at our toy."

"She's not a toy. She's a multi-billion-dollar piece of highly advanced technological equipment."

"And my toy. That I get to fly."

"Oh, my God."

Rodney held on as John yanked him toward their toy. God, she was beautiful, all sleek, flat lines, lethal-looking, made for speed.

"She's straight out of Star Wars," John said, his voice hushed. "Or maybe Battlestar Galactica."

"Stop it! You keep saying that. All through the design phase, all through CADs. She's 100% original!"


"Aerodynamically engineered to the nth degree."

"Yup." John bounced. "My own personal Cylon fighter."

"She can do very real high-speed maneuvers that will make your eyeballs pop out," Rodney said, exasperated.

"I'm looking forward to it."

Rodney sighed and laughed a little. "You're incorrigible."

John winked. "I can't help it; they drew me that way."


John laughed and went jogging toward the plane. He ran his hands along it like it was a living thing, and Rodney couldn't help it.

He was jealous of his own plane.

When Bates showed up at Atlantis with O'Neill in tow, Rodney knew it couldn't be a good thing. Woolsey let them both into his office, giving him an arch look.

"Can I get you gentlemen anything?" Woolsey said to them. "Coffee? Tea?"

"Coffee for me, thanks," O'Neill said.

Bates waved away the offer. Rodney gave Richard a warning glare, but he still came back a few minutes later with a cappuccino from Rodney's personal machine.

"Ooh, fancy," O'Neill said. "Thanks."

"Unless you need me?" Woolsey said.

"Nah, just us is good," O'Neill said.

"John is at the hangar today," Rodney said after Woolsey closed the door behind him. "What's this about?"

O'Neill sighed a little. "It's about Sheppard. Or rather, his family."

Bates broke in. "We've nailed down the financial trail between Patrick Sheppard and Michael Kenmore. He was paying Kenmore off the books, we don't know for what."

"Something John would have appreciated hearing about," Rodney said with exaggerated patience.

"And," Bates said pointedly, "we've found contact between Patrick and John."

Rodney looked at O'Neill. "Which he'd already told you about."

"Once a month. Like clockwork," Bates said as if laying out devastating evidence.

"Riiight. And I've been privy to those phone calls, being a sentinel and everything, even when John tries to shield me from the assholish things his father is saying. They always come down to the same thing. 'Your sentinel is bad for your career. You could have so much better than him. He's not a military sentinel.'" Rodney gave O'Neill a sardonic look. "If we'd known these were calls to the Dark Side, I'm sure John would have blocked his number."

"So you were listening in," Bates said, sounding disappointed. He rallied, "Don't you trust him?"

"Of course, I trust him! I just can't stand not knowing anything and everything! I'm sure you're familiar with the concept, you paranoid bastard."

O'Neill laughed. "Well, there you have it, Gene. Are we done?"

"Wait, that's all you came here for? Because John gets regular calls from his dad? You already knew that. He told you that! What about AteroCorp? What about AeroTech? What's the connection to Sheppard?"

"We're working on it. We just can't seem to find any."

"Great. Super. So you go after my bo—guide."

O'Neill's eyebrows perked up.

Rodney's face heated. "Woolsey will show you out. Our first test flight is coming up way too soon."

"I'm aware. I'll see you there, McKay."

"See you there."

Because Bates had now made him utterly paranoid, Rodney installed some wireless cams that absolutely no one else knew about in both Atlantis' offices and the hanger around the plane.

God, she was pretty. He admired her lines all over again. It was hard to be jealous of all the time John was spending with her and not with him, although the plan was to spend the last night together having a home-cooked meal and planning the final checklist.

The only thing better than finishing a significant project was finishing it with someone you loved.

Rodney almost swallowed his mini-screwdriver. He quickly stepped down off the ladder and gathered the trash from his camera installation, stuffing back in the bag so he could dispose of it somewhere away from prying eyes.

By the time he got back to his car and drove away, he'd managed to forget any controversial thoughts in favor of trying to guess what John had left him for dinner.

Testing Day minus one. John arrived smelling like jet fuel and engine oil, his hair sticking straight up, and his face flushed. His vibe was exhilarated.

Rodney shook his head. "Calm down and eat. I made tacos. No beans because bean farts in a flight"

"Hang on, roll back—you, Dr. Rodney McKay, cooked." John came over to the counter and leaned his cheek on his palm in wonder. "Actual food. Not from a freezer."

"Well, the corn tortillas came out of a bag."

"Not marking you down for that; tortillas are like bread."

"Excellent. Then within the parameters of your definition of cooking, I cooked," Rodney said proudly, holding up his fingers. "More than 2 ingredients, more than 3 steps."

"Wow. Just, wow." John sat down and dropped a napkin on his lap. "Serve it up."

Rodney put the tortillas on John's plate and piled them high with the cooked meat, the salsa, the cheese, and the lettuce, then passed them over with the jar of green salsa John kept on hand. Rodney's senses protested angrily when he tried it, but John absolutely adored the spicy stuff.

Rodney made up a plate for himself, cracked open two root beers and put them down, then waited for John's reaction.

John had already rolled up his first taco and taken a big bite. He made muffled sounds of happiness while chewing.

"Good, I take it," Rodney said, amused.

"Mmmph, mmm," John said. He wiped his generous lips and took a sip of root beer, then looked at the label in surprise.

"I knew you couldn't drink tonight, so..." Rodney waved his hand and took a bite of his own taco.

"Yeah, no, this is great root beer. I've never had this brand."

"It's my favorite," Rodney said. "That dash of vanilla." He could see John sticking the brand name in his guide file-o-fax and grinned to himself.

"This is fantastic, Rodney, thanks." John smiled at him warmly.

It was times like this that Rodney got confused as hell–when John was smiling and smelling so warm and sexy and happy, and Rodney knew, just knew, that John felt the same way as him, but nothing happened. Absolutely nothing.

And then he remembered that they were platonic, and supposed to be.

"Rodney, what is it?" John said, touching his wrist anxiously.

"Nothing. Just worried about tomorrow."

"Hey, it's going to be fine. Let's go over the checklist. That will help."

So, after dinner, they went over each item, John close by his side, and Rodney thought, well, at least he had this.

He would always have this.

On Testing Day, Rodney arrived in his best suit and favorite NASA astronaut tie and wearing the tiniest splash of sentinel-friendly cologne. He knew he looked good as he parked in his reserved spot close to Hangar 133 and strode over the tarmac, waving his badge at the SFs and ignoring the gathering crowds.

John was already in the cockpit doing some final tests. Ronon was, as always, checking her over, his eagle eye missing nothing. Rodney's nose complained at the fried onions one of the flight crew must have had with breakfast. It messed with his stomach, unsettling him.

"Everything look good?" he said anxiously to John, who stepped onto the ladder and slid down to the ground with a ridiculous flourish. "You'll break a leg doing that someday."

"Not today," John said, bouncing, an absolutely brilliant grin on his face. "She's perfect in answer to your question. Passed all ground tests. Ronon is happy."

"Well, as long as Ronon is happy." Rodney was still uneasy. "I don't care how many people are here; if you see the slightest thing wrong, we cancel."

John's smile flickered. "There's nothing wrong so far. It's all golden. Why?"

"I don't know." Rodney bit the edge of his thumb. "It's you! You aren't just any test pilot, you know. You are more than a little special to me. In case that hadn't occurred to you."

"Rodney." John's eyes went soft. "You designed this plane from top to bottom. Every single component is yours."

"Yes, and if I had any assurance the manufacturers took my tolerances as seriously as I do..."

"They do! It's their job, too. And you manually tested the first components to come off the line."

"But not every one!" Rodney went back to nibbling.

"Rodney, you can't test every component on the plane. That's their job. And they do it well."

"It looks like it," Rodney said, going over to her. Ronon looked up, his eyes questioning, and John waved him away. "Ronon appears to have done a good job going over her."

"That's his job. He's really good at it," John said patiently.

"And you've been training hard in the sim."

John smiled.

"Yes, yes, it's your job, too, I know."

"Also, I love your toys. I'd play with them for free," John said, pulling him closer in the shadow of the wing. "What's this about? You were fine last night."

"I just feel this amorphous, generalized terror that you will perish in a fiery crash, and I will never see you again."

"Oh, buddy." John leaned in, and their foreheads touched. Rodney felt John's utter confidence suffuse him. "I'm a pretty good pilot, you know. Remember how we met?"

"Yes, but..."

"Unless your senses are telling you something?" John leaned back and frowned.

But Rodney wasn't sure if it was his senses or his usual anxiety flaring up because John meant so much to him now. He shrugged. "I feel better, now."

"Okay. Because the same goes for you. I don't care how many of the brass are watching. You say the word, and we cancel."


"Fine, okay." John gave him a last squeeze and pulled away. "Let's go, trooper."

"Ugh. Reminds me of the boy scouts."

John laughed, his good mood restored, and tugged him toward the small crowd to release him with a pat.

"Go get 'em," John said, and then he was gone before Rodney could say another word.

Shoving away his lingering anxiety, Rodney turned toward the crowd. This wasn't the big unveiling, which would come later, but a lot of people were invested in the success of this new product line and the new fuel which accompanied it—more cost-efficient all around, more ecologically sound.

Rodney reached into his inner pocket for his notes as the pushback tractor started tugging their gorgeous jet clear of the hangar. The delighted gasps from the crowd made Rodney straighten his jacket and preen.

They obviously weren't listening to him as he went over the specifications of the AF-302 and its increased payload, maneuvering speed, and shortened runway requirements, not to mention the fuel improvements. They were watching Ronon pull down the built-in ladder and John Sheppard jogging out in all his flyboy glory, helmet in hand.

Hastily, Rodney put his uncomfortable earpiece in so he could listen in on the comms.

"Control this is Alpha-Tango-Foxtrot-511 commencing departure check list."

Rodney waited impatiently during the call and response, knowing the final check was necessary but hating the wait. The engines whined while John checked his flaps and closed up his canopy. Ronon folded up the ladder and removed the blocks then signed the all-clear.

John must have completed his check because he said, "Alpha-Foxtrot-511, ready for takeoff on runway 8R." Rodney zoomed in his vision and caught it as John gave him a grin and a salute.

It made Rodney smile back even though John couldn't see him.

"Copy that, ATF-511 at 8R, clear takeoff, change to departure."

Rodney held his breath and crossed his fingers as John prepared to take off, the engines rising in pitch as they prepared to ignite, and then they punched into flame, and the plane shot down the runway, a short burst on the ground before the plane lifted into the sky.

The crowd cheered.

"Climb maintain 7100, turn right heading 030, traffic eleven o'clock, five miles, F-16 southwest bound, descending out of 6500."

"Copy that, Control. ATF-511, climbing maintain 7100, turn right heading 030."

Rodney's stomach started to settle.

"ATF-511, proceed heading 040 to testing area."

At least a few of the watchers had their binoculars out, but Rodney had no need. He had John in his sight as John began the first of the test maneuvers scheduled.

A shadow on Rodney's face had him turning to find O'Neill at his elbow.

"So far, so good, eh?" O'Neill said.

"Shut up," Rodney said tensely. "You'll jinx us."

O'Neill pushed back his cap to scratch his head. "You're kind of superstitious for a scientist."

"I can be both." Rodney turned back and caught the first of John's climbing maneuvers. His eye caught on the afterburn; he didn't like the color. He didn't like it at all. Just as he opened his mouth, the burn flared white on the left engine and flamed, fire creeping up the fuselage.

The crowd yelled. The plane jerked into a turn, and Rodney heard John grunt. John never grunted. John never made any noise, not even when he dropped a cast iron frying pan on his foot that time. He just made a face and said, 'Ow?'

"What am I seeing?" O'Neill said. Sometimes, Rodney forgot the man was a sentinel.

"Fire where there shouldn't be. This is very bad," Rodney said. "Very, very bad."

Sure enough, John started rattling out even-voiced requests to the tower for emergency landing instructions.

"ATF-511, reduce speed 210, then descend and maintain 6000."

"That's a negative, Tower," John said, his voice strained, and Rodney watched, horrified, as the plane descended rapidly into a corkscrew. "I am fighting a spin. Repeat, in a spin."

"Fuck," O'Neill said.

Something bit at Rodney's fingers, and he saw he'd crushed his thick wad of index cards in half. He rolled them into a tube and clutched them tighter as he watched John fight the spin, the jet plummeting rapidly toward the ground.

"Oh, God, oh, God," Rodney chanted.

The whole time, John relayed what he was attempting to do to control the spin, his voice smooth and disciplined, even as time rapidly ran out, until, at the very last moment, the plane righted itself and swooped upward, almost brushing the dirt with its belly. A cloud of dust rose in its wake.

"Jesus Christ," Rodney said, his heart almost stopping.

"Way to pull it out, Sheppard," O'Neill said. The crowd applauded, but Rodney felt faint.

"Tower this is ATF-511, have corrected and shutdown engine one, ready for approach."

"Yeah, we, uh, saw. You can descend at your own discretion and proceed via the runway 22L transition."

"ATF-511 to descend and proceed via runway 22L transition. Please have firetrucks standing by."

"No kidding," Rodney said, turning to O'Neill. "Now, where is runway 22L?"

"Just over thataway," O'Neill said. "Dex! Dex, bring that jeep. We're heading over to 22L."

Dex went running. O'Neill turned on Rodney.

"So, what the hell happened with my plane, McKay? You almost lost me my best pilot and a fifty-million-dollar aircraft!"

"You think I know? You think I care right now? That's my guide who almost died." Rodney stomped over to wait for the jeep, his brain already spinning with possible explanations. But first, he had to see if John was okay. Nothing else mattered.

Nothing else on Earth mattered at all.

Ronon was first out of the jeep and dashed over to the plane. Rodney scrambled after him, heart choking his throat, appalled by what he could see at first glance. The skin of the aircraft still had steam dancing over it, but the fire appeared to be out. Still, the stink of burnt jet fuel was in the air, and Rodney's eyes stung. He felt O'Neill's hand on his arm, holding him back, and almost punched the man.

"Easy. Dex has him."

The firetrucks rolled up and waited on standby. Rodney watched anxiously while the canopy opened, and Ronon pulled out some heavy-duty gloves and unfolded the ladder. Then he hauled himself up to the cockpit and turned to yell down.

"We're gonna need a medic."

Rodney had a stroke.

"I don't need a medic," John said grumpily, his voice muffled by his oxygen gear.

"Did he say he doesn't want a medic?" O'Neill said. "He should definitely have one. It's procedure."

"Take off his helmet," Rodney yelled. "He can't breathe."

"He might have a neck injury," Ronon said.

"I don't have a neck injury," John said. "Stop it. Coupla cracked ribs is all. And a broken arm."

"Oh, if that's all," Rodney muttered.

"Oh, is that all?" Ronon said, tossing John's helmet onto the wing and proceeding to haul him up from his seat to his protesting grunt. More grunting from John was never a good thing.

"Be careful with him!" Rodney said, and John started laughing.

"What in blazes are you laughing about, you idiot?" O'Neill said. "You almost died!"

"That's why I'm laughing. Hey, Rodney, déjà vu, am I right?"

"You nincompoop! Stop laughing when you have broken ribs."

"They're only cracked."

"What am I going to do with you," Rodney said as Ronon helped John down the ladder. "You'll give me a heart attack."

O'Neill gave him a strange smile.

The medics rolled up just then, halting any further conversation, although Rodney could tell O'Neill wanted to question John about what happened up there. All Rodney wanted to do was take John home and feed him tacos.

When they got John on a gurney, though, Rodney could see that was a pipe dream.

"Straight to the infirmary with you," O'Neill said. "No passing Go, no collecting two hundred dollars."

"Aw, jeez," John said. "It's superficial."

"Your face is one huge bruise!" Rodney said, horrified. "You're in shock!"

"I don't know how that happened," John said sardonically.

"Maybe when the engine exploded?" Ronon offered.

"You! You're no help at all. Go away."

"Sure. I'm going to take a look at the plane. That shouldn't have happened."

"No, it really shouldn't have. We were well within tolerances with the new sealant."

"Huh." Ronon gave him a look. "You think...?"

"Yes. I do think." Rodney leaned in close and whispered in Ronon's ear. "I have some cameras up around the hangar. You should be able to locate them, grab the hard drives, and check the footage for anything hinky."

Ronon arched an eyebrow at him. "Pretty smart, McKay."

"They don't pay me to be stupid." Rodney gave him a push. "Now go. And thank you. For...everything."

Ronon grinned. "He'll be okay. John's tough for a little guy," he said too loudly.

"Hey!" John said feelingly.

Ronon laughed and trotted off toward the plane, and Rodney turned back to the drama happening on the gurney.

"What's in that? What are you giving me?" John said, craning his head toward the IV line.

"Just a little something for the pain."

"I'm not in pain. Who said I'm in pain?" John said.

The medic raised his eyebrows and nodded toward John's free arm, which he'd wrapped around his ribs. His other arm was being splinted by the woman on his other side.

"I can't believe I broke my arm," John said, tilting his head back with a groan. "I'm grounded for how long?"

"At least eight weeks," O'Neill said. He patted John on the shoulder. "But way to save the plane, Sheppard."

"Oh, you're welcome. It wasn't like I could eject or anything."

"What?" Rodney's mouth went dry, and he knelt down. "What are you talking about, John?"

John looked up at him woozily. "Oh, hey, there you are. Hey, Rodney."

"You doofus."

"Remember how we met?"

"Of course I do." Rodney winced. "But say again about the seat eject?"

"Something was wrong with the eject mechanism. Tampered with." John yawned.

"That's...not good." O'Neill, understating it rather a lot. "Any ideas by who?"

"Who else!" Rodney said, jabbing his arm. "AeroTech! It can't be Sheppard Systems. They couldn't begin to compete with us in this arena. Bates is making a mistake focusing on them."

"But the connection is still there." O'Neil sure was a stubborn cuss.

"Who cares! Look into...oh! The onions! The onions!"

"The what?"

"Hey, guys?" John said muzzily. "I think these stinkers gave me something."

"Don't worry, John. We've got this covered," Rodney said. He raised a finger. "Fried onions!"

"Okay...that probably would make sense if I weren't hopped up." John rolled his head back and forth. "The pillow is really crinkly."

"I'll be right here with you, John," Rodney said. He frowned at the medics. What the hell was taking so long?

"Ready to transport?" Guy medic said.

Gal medic nodded and started pushing the gurney away, making Rodney hyperventilate a little.

"We'll follow in the jeep," O'Neill said, looking at Rodney carefully. And, okay, maybe he was panicking just a bit. He just didn't want anyone getting to John when he was in such a vulnerable state. Especially with fried onions out there. Tampering. "Come on," O'Neill said. "It's a short hop to the on-base hospital."

Rodney nodded and let himself get pulled to the jeep.

"Call Ronon," Rodney said to O'Neill once they were on the road. "I'm having him gather footage from the hanger. I think all will be made clear at that point."

"So... I can tell the brass you didn't just fuck up a fifty-million-dollar project?"

"What? Not only did I not fuck it up, I think John saved it despite someone's best efforts to sabotage it."

O'Neill whistled, his face going grim. "See, now that's something I'll be interested to report."

They took John away to put screws in his arm. Also, his face looked like an eggplant.

Rodney was displeased, and he let his displeasure be known.

"He's my guide! You can't just haul him away from me. I have rights!"

The Air Force Nurse, Captain Avery, gave O'Neill an alarmed look, but he just shrugged. "He's all yours."

"Dr. McKay..."

"Sentinel McKay," Rodney said.

"Your guide..."

"My platonic guide, yes."

Her eyebrows went up even further. "Lt. Colonel Sheppard has to be prepped for surgery, which means an aseptic environment."

"So? Prep me too! Put me in scrubs or whatever. I want to observe."

"Sheppard's life has already been at risk once today," O'Neill put in. "His sentinel is justifiably upset."

"I'm upset, sure." Rodney wasn't upset. He was on edge and likely to grab a scalpel and do some damage if they didn't let him near John soon.

"Right this way, sir," the nurse said, obviously deciding to err on the side of caution like a smart person, despite the fact Rodney wasn't military. When would these people realize that scientists were ever so much more dangerous than grunts and that platonic bonds were equally as compelling?

"Thank you," Rodney said, nodding to O'Neill before following her past the doors to the surgical suite.

He went through the routine, washing up and changing into clean scrubs, putting on a clingy shower cap, gloves, and booties. Once he completed the ritual, the nurse finally, finally, let him into the room where John was already laid out, his arm bare and painted with rust-colored antiseptic. Rodney could see the deformed lump where the bone break had occurred, probably a nasty one if they had to pin it in place.

John's face was tranquil; he was already out. It pained Rodney to see him so vulnerable and absent his usual sarcastic smirk. Rodney took the stool the nurse provided and didn't say a word while the doctors got to work, but he kept one ear toward the door and both eyes on the doctors to make sure they were doing their very best.

The nurse said the procedure should only take an hour, but it was more like seventy-five minutes by Rodney's count before they finished bandaging John up and bringing him out of his twilight sleep.

Rodney followed the gurney as they pushed John to recovery, the surgeon saying, "It was quite successful, as you saw. His recovery will actually be a lot faster with the screws in. I'd say five weeks before he can start mild physical therapy."

"That's good news. He'll be psyched."

"I'll be by Recovery in about a half an hour to check up on him."

"Thank you, Doctor. And sorry about intruding..."

"Not a problem, Sentinel McKay."

Some respect at last. Rodney jogged to catch up with John's gurney and then stood back while they moved him into his curtained-off cubicle. The nurses there gave him the side-eye, but he stood stolidly until they departed and left him in peace with his guide.

His annoying, pointy-headed, idiotic, adrenaline junkie of a guide. John's face had lost some swelling in favor of a dark purple bruise developing across his forehead and two deep, blue circles appearing beneath his eyes. If John could open his eyes in the morning, it would be a miracle.

Rodney dragged a rolling stool over and sat down beside him to take his hand, careful of the IV taped to the back of his wrist. John's other arm was bound in a blocky sling to his stomach.

"You utter doofus," Rodney said, squeezing John's hand. He could barely feel John underneath the heavy blanket of sedatives. But he was there; Rodney felt his murky pain and puzzled resistance. John was trying to break free of the anesthetic, Rodney realized.

"You'd tell me to chill out if our places were reversed," Rodney whispered. "You don't have to wake up right away. Wait a while, and the nurse will stop by with the good stuff."

But after only fifteen minutes or so, John moved his head with a small groan. "Ice," he said, or at least, that was what it sounded like.

"You need ice?"

"No...there's ice in my arm, hot ice."

"Hot ice, huh?" Rodney smiled. "You dork. I told you to sleep until the nurse came with the good stuff."

John wrinkled his nose. "Hey, Rodney. Hey." John shifted and tried to open his eyes, failing miserably. "This was just like the first time, huh?"

Rodney bit his lip. "I still don't know what you mean."

John moved his hand in Rodney's. "When we first met, when you saved my life the first time."

"What're you talking about?" Rodney leaned closer and rubbed his lips against John's fingers. At some level, he was appalled by his behavior, but his inner sentinel needed this badly. John kept talking about dying. It was unacceptable.

"Hey, hey, hey." John flipped his hand over to curve against Rodney's cheek, and that was much better, so much better. "'S okay. Everything's okay."

"No, it's not. You almost died, John. And now you're talking about—"

"Afghanistan. Before we met. You can't get upset about that."

"Oh, can't I?" Rodney muttered.

John sighed and seemed to gather himself, blinking his eyes open to focus on Rodney. "I got hit by that SAM, and I should have bought it, and if it had been an AeroTech piece of crap, I would've, but it was your F-15, and she and I had been through a lot. I knew every screw, every hidden feature, how you built her beyond standards. She was the best jet I'd ever flown in."

Rodney glowed.

"And so I lost the left engine and went into a tailspin—and you read the article in Stars and Stripes and came to talk to me about how I pulled out of it."

And to Rodney's guilt, they bonded right there, and John got yanked from his flight command.

"But I would've come to you anyway," John slurred, his eyes closing. " thank you for saving my life by designing the best damned plane ever. So, there's that."


John smiled at him, his puffy eyes squinting into slits. "Thanks, buddy. I'm glad you're my sentinel."

"You, you, unbelievable you, sometimes."

John snored softly.

"John, you son of a bitch," Rodney said with soft wonder. He grinned into the palm of John's hand and placed a furtive kiss there before carefully laying it back on the bed.

They were meant to be.

Rodney helped John from the Prius, supporting him until he was steady and then closing the door behind him.

"You don't have to do this," John said for the third time, shuffling toward his front door. "I can order in groceries, and Lorne can bring me my laptop and paperwork."

"It's no problem at all," Rodney said breezily as he unlocked the door. "What's a partner for? I'll just settle in on the couch. You won't even notice I'm here!" He dumped his handcart next to the kitchen table and put his hands on his hips.

John looked at him doubtfully.

Rodney went to the kitchen to see the contents of John's refrigerator. "Don't you have anything except beer and baby carrots?"

"There's some canned food," John said. "But usually, I eat the same thing I pick up for you."

"I'm going to have to stock up." Rodney fetched his laptop and sat down at the counter. "Let's order some groceries."

"I think I'll take a nap first."

"You go right ahead. You need your sleep."

"Thanks for, uh." John waved his hand, looking flushed. "Being a partner."

Rodney beamed.

John disappeared into the bedroom, and Rodney got to work.

Six hours later, he was deep into the flight data report from the AF-302 when a polite knock sounded at the door. Since the groceries had already been delivered and stored, Rodney tuned his ear before approaching.

"It's me, McKay," O'Neill said. "I can hear you in there being suspicious."

"Fine. Hold your horses." Rodney went over and opened the door. "John's asleep." Rodney put up his hand. "Does he know his boss knows where he lives?"

"We're the military, McKay. We pay for his housing. We pay for his goddamn socks. So yeah, we know where he lives."

"It just seems mighty intrusive," Rodney said and went to knock on John's bedroom door.

John's voice rusted at him. "Yeah?"

"General O'Neill is here. Without an invitation."

"He can hear you, you know," O'Neill said, munching on something in the kitchen.

"Those better not be my Freddies!" Rodney yelled.

"Jeez, Rodney," John said, opening the door. His face looked like a raccoon's, eyes ringed with dark, puffy circles. "I hope you bought enough for everyone."

"I got you some of your favorites—coconut chocolate chip."


"Let me just get you an ice pack first," Rodney said. "Your face looks painful."

"Your face looks painful," John said, snickering. He wandered into the bathroom and came out with a damp towel that he pressed to his eyes.

"Jesus," O'Neill said. "And I trust you two with my money?"

"Actually, the Air Force trusts us. You just stand around bitching," Rodney said, and John muffled his snickers into his towel.

"I can still hear you!" O'Neil yelled.

"Shit. There go my cookies," John said. "C'mon, let's get out there before they're all gone."

They went back into the living room where, sure enough, Jack had made himself comfortable at the kitchen table with the pink box of Freddies cookies and a giant glass of Grade A milk. He smirked at them, the picture of contentment, and dunked half a peanut butter and chocolate cookie in his milk before taking a bite. How he knew those were Rodney's favorite was a mystery; even sentinels weren't mind-readers.

"Hello, boys," O'Neill said. He pressed a napkin to his lips. "How's it going, Sheppard?"

"Better, sir." John went to the freezer and dropped some ice cubes into his towel. "How're the cookies?"

"None better."

"Okay, can we end this charade and talk about the fart bomb in the room? Specifically, what, if anything, did Ronon find on the tapes?"

"Good man, Dex. He spent hours going over the security footage from those cams."

"And...? Was Fried Onions on there?" Rodney asked anxiously.

"If by 'Fried Onions' you mean Edgar Edgel, and what a name, poor guy, then yes. We have footage of him very clearly tampering with both the combustion chamber and ejection seat." O'Neill tapped the folder in front of him. "Also, we have calls logged between him and creepy Kenmore."

"Jesus Christ on a mini-bike," Rodney said.

"So, they were in it together," John said, his voice still rusty. "They tried to kill me and the project." He sounded winded at the idea.

Rodney got up and brought him a root beer. O'Neill eyed it jealously, so Rodney sighed and brought him one, as well.

"Yeah. But we still don't know the connection to Patrick Sheppard."

"Why don't you just ask him?" John said wearily. "He might be a schmuck, but he tends to be pretty upfront about it. I'm almost sure he's not trying to kill me. He would have done that a long time ago if that were the case."

O'Neill tapped the folder a couple more times, then nodded. "Why don't you ask him with us?"

"What?" Rodney yelped. "He's just out of the hospital!"

"Why?" John asked.

O'Neill shrugged. "Pity factor. If he's responsible for any of it, seeing you like that should shake him up."

"He's not; I told you."

"Then seeing you will piss him off enough to help us."

John shook his head, a slow smile spreading his lips. "See, now that's crafty."

Rodney should have insisted on meeting John's father long ago. Maybe then he wouldn't have the heebie-jeebies about it. It wasn't that Rodney was worried Patrick would disapprove of him; on the contrary, it seemed the more Patrick badmouthed him, the higher it raised Rodney in John's estimation. No, the issue was, at this point, Patrick had so many marks against him, Rodney was likely to punch him in his superior snoot.

But after they entered the oh-so-modest mansion John had grown up in and were shown to Patrick's study by the butler Patrick kept in-house, Rodney started to realize why O'Neill wanted every advantage he could get. In fact, Rodney wondered why O'Neill simply didn't have Bates arrest Sheppard first and haul him down in handcuffs to bring the guy down a peg or two.

But it was hardly necessary. The instant Patrick Sheppard saw John's beat-up face and shaky walk, every ounce of elite cool went out of tall, salt-and-pepper haired gentleman of the manor. He turned into a frail old man.

"Johnny! Dear God, what happened!"

"Hi, Dad," John said, lifting his free hand in a wave. "You remember General O'Neill, of course. And this is Dr. Rodney McKay." John turned with a smile just for Rodney. "My sentinel."

"But your face, your arm!" Patrick started to move forward, only to have Rodney step between them. Sure, Patrick was taller, with that lanky Sheppard look, all concerned green eyes and casual grace, but Rodney had viciousness and a total lack of social niceties on his side.

"He's not feeling well," Rodney said flatly.

"No, of course not," Patrick said. "I wasn't going to—"

"I almost crashed during a test flight the other day. I'm lucky I'm not dead," John said bluntly.

"Dear God," Patrick said again. "When did this happen? How did I not hear about it?"

"Maybe your cronies aren't talking to you since they heard about you being in cahoots with a spy," O'Neill said casually.

Patrick's expression froze up, his eyes narrowing.

"What is your deal with Michael Kenmore, Dad?" John said. "Seeing as he was working with the guy that sabotaged my jet, I'd kind of like to know."

"What? Your plane was sabotaged? And Kenmore was in on it?" Patrick reached out and found an armchair. He sat heavily. "John. Johnny, I never would have been party to such an act. Kenmore was just a... I only wanted to keep tabs on you, hear what you were up to, and see if you were vulnerable to—"

"Vulnerable to what," John said flatly. Oh, Rodney saw the resemblance clearly, now.

"To an offer," Patrick finished weakly, raising a trembling hand to his forehead. "But I suppose he used my connections to get the job at Atlantis. I made you vulnerable to him, instead."

"Then you weren't after my designs," Rodney said. Despite his relief, he felt slightly offended.

"Please. If I tried to market your designs, they would stand out like a wolf among the sheep," Sheppard said ruefully. "I was trying to get my son back."

John looked startled. After a moment, he said. "You better not have involved Davey in this."

"John, of course not! Please..."


"Whatever you meant to do, you'll face charges of industrial espionage..." O'Neill said. "The FBI is willing to offer a deal if you come clean on all your communications with Kenmore, including anyone you contacted to help ease the way, including any transcripts or emails."

"I can do that," Patrick said. "Anything else?" He looked at John and then at Rodney when John looked away.

"Special Agent Eugene Bates will be in touch," Rodney said. "Cooperate with him fully."

"I will. Of course, I will."

John nodded jerkily and looked to O'Neill, who cued them all to leave.

"John, please. I hope we can talk about this," Patrick said.

John said nothing, just turned away. Rodney kept a hand under John's uninjured elbow on the shallow steps up from the living room to the foyer, and then again as they walked outside and stepped down onto the walkway. The butler closed the door behind them with a decisive clunk, and John turned to O'Neill with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, yes, you told me so. But now we have more information, and you at least heard it from the horse's mouth."

"Donkey is more like it," Rodney said.

"What in crap was he thinking?" John started toward their vehicle, where an airman waited to drive them back to John's house.

"He told you, Sheppard. He wanted his son back." O'Neill sounded somewhat exasperated.

"And he thought espionage was the way to accomplish that?" Rodney said in outraged disbelief.

"Well, he might have tried apologizing," John said, nodding his thanks to the airman, Pasteur, who held the door open for him. "He's never tried that."

Rodney went around the car and slid in next to John in the back seat.

"You don't owe him forgiveness, anyway," Rodney said. "He was an adult. You were a teenager. He's the one who acted like an asshole and never apologized. He didn't today, either, I noticed."

John leaned against Rodney. "Thanks, buddy."

O'Neill said, "Hey, I didn't say he wasn't a schmuck. Like Bates likes to say, motive ain't an excuse."

"It's true," Rodney said solemnly. "Bates does like to say it."

That earned him a laugh and a groan, John curling around his ribs.

"Be careful, you dork! You broke those, remember?"

"I really do. I remember," John gasped, still laughing, the idiot. He squeezed Rodney's hand in thanks, and Rodney settled back, content.

Rodney waited until John was visiting the doctor for a follow up before picking up the phone and making an urgent call. Because longing glances, hand squeezes, and drugged cheek touches aside, Rodney remained utterly at a loss. It was time to bring in a romantic specialist. Which meant either calling Carson and getting laughed at forever or calling Jeannie and getting laughed at but having childhood blackmail material to make the teasing stop.

"I need your help," he said as soon as Jeannie picked up.

"Hi, hello, how are you," Jeannie said. "Why, I'm fine, Rodney, how are you?"

"I'm fine, except I'm in romantic limbo with my platonic partner, whom I believe might possibly feel the same way? I'm constantly lusting after him, but I'm not sure if it's reciprocated. But I can't imagine why else he's holding back when we could be having constant, death-defying sex."

"Uh-huh." Muffled snorts came over the line, easily detected even though sentinel senses didn't really work with phone calls.

"You'd better not be laughing."


"Because otherwise, I'd have to bring up that time with Julie Rabinowitz when you asked me if when the two of you—"

Jeannie screamed into the phone.

"—talked about sex did it mean you'd had 'oral sex,'" Rodney finished victoriously.

"That never happened! That didn't happen! I never had oral sex with Julie Rabinowitz."

"Well, no, technically you didn't, since you have to actually have oral to genital contact in order to call it—"

Jeannie screamed with laughter. "Okay, okay, you win. God, she was so hot, though."

"Yeah. Her hair was really neat."

"Hey! You're not allowed to move in on my orally-not-sexual-girlfriend!"

"Right. It's part of the sibling code." Rodney smiled. He'd forgotten how much fun Jeannie could be.

"So. You think you love John."

"Who said anything about love?" Rodney said, deeply betrayed. "Also, no fair."

"Come on. You don't have sex unless you're in love. I know you, bro. That's why..." She sighed heavily.

"What? That's why what?"


"Don't you dare—"

"Seriously. You thought Jennifer was your guide? You wanted to have sex with her, so you fell in love with her. It was all backward, Mer. Sorry, Rodney. She was never your guide. Your dick carried you all the way into that mess. Your guide instinct never entered into it."

"I don't think... I can't believe... You... Huh."


"But I went through withdrawal."

"Sure. If you live with anyone long enough, you start to use them as a focus. You went through withdrawal when you went away to college and left me behind, too."

"I did...I remember now."

"You were younger then, so you bounced back faster. But you used to call me almost every night."

"And Dad told me to buck up and get a guide of my own," Rodney said, remembrance filling his voice. How could he have forgotten?

"Well, you have one, now," Jeannie said, exasperated. "You told me he was your guide from the first moment. And he seems to make you really happy. I'm sorry I was such a putz about it before. Truth be told, I was a little jealous."

"Jealous? Why?"

"Because he's real. Because you love him. Because you're meant for each other in a way that Kaleb and I have trouble with."

"Jesus, Jeannie. You think John and I don't struggle? For one, he's an ass and an adrenaline junkie. He almost got killed last week! And we fight about my designs all the time... Plus he makes me eat real food! Cooked fresh! He won't let me order out more than three times a week!"

"Horrible," Jeannie said, laughing.

"Oh, sure, laugh it up, but wait until he makes you eat green beans."

"Ugh! Really?"

"Yes. Really."

"So, he's not a prince, I get it," Jeannie said. "But you still want him."

"God help me, yeah. But how do I know? I think he does, but when we first started, I demanded we keep it platonic. Because of her. And he flirts with me all the time, but now I don't think he wants to change it. Maybe I don't think I deserve to change it."

"Rodney..." Jeannie said, pity in her voice.

"I didn't deserve her," Rodney said slowly. "Jennifer, I mean."

"What? What the hell are you talking about? Of course you did. Maybe she didn't deserve you."

"What do you mean? You said I was in it for the sex..."

"You always treated her with love, Rodney. She should be so lucky to have a sentinel of your caliber or a great guy like you. And you gave it your all. Didn't you?"

"Yeah, I did. I tried really hard. I loved her."

"I know you did. So just because you weren't compatible, what makes you think you don't deserve John? You two are compatible. You know that. You deserve each other. That's the point."

"God, you make it sound so reasonable, but then I look at him, and he's so smart and beautiful, Jeannie. I'm not talking about the way he looks, I'm saying, my inner sentinel looks at him and sees this gorgeous blue shine as if he's the sky and I could just fly into him and keep flying forever..."

"Wow. Big brother, you are gone."

"Yeah," Rodney said sadly. "Exactly."

Rodney hadn't made any progress on the Sheppard Paradox, as he called it mentally, and his back was reaching the state of no return sleeping on John's couch when O'Neill called them both into the FBI for a briefing.

"Not without a shower," John said. "My hair is revolting."

"Individually, or as a collective?"

"Funny guy," John said, putting a hand up to his head. "No jokes about the hair. And I really do need to wash it."

Rodney was skeptical. "The surgeon said not to get your cast wet for a week, and it's only been six days."

"I've got a plastic bag to put over it."

"Okay, well. Be careful. I'll bring you a fresh shirt and sweats."

"Thanks." John gave him an affectionate look, and Rodney shook his head.

"Don't get used to this. I'm not your wife."

John smiled wistfully. "Nah. You're much nicer than she was. Bring me the red plaid, would you? The sleeves are wide on that one."

Rodney swallowed back his surprise. "I can't believe we're going to the FBI and you're dressing like a lumberjack."

The FBI field office in Colorado Springs, like most US government buildings, was pale brown and tasteless. So was their coffee.

"I should have brought my own," Rodney mourned, staring into the Styrofoam—Styrofoam!—cup that had been provided to him upon their arrival. "How long do we have to wait?"

"The general should be here shortly; Major Davis said he was running late thanks to another meeting in advance of this one," Bates said, striding into the waiting area carrying a laptop. "If you'll join me in the conference room, we can get started with some housekeeping."

"I don't like the sound of that," John said to Rodney under his breath.

Rodney agreed. He wasn't talking to the FBI without a lawyer or O'Neill as protection.

"What's this about, anyway?" John said.

"O'Neill can fill you in on the particulars. I understand you went to see your father?"

John looked at Rodney. Rodney shrugged uncertainly.

"I did, with O'Neill. I understood it was under your authority."

"Yes. O'Neill claimed you could get more out of him. And it appears that was the case."

"And my father affirmed my brother had nothing to do with it," John said fiercely.

Bates nodded grudgingly.

John smiled, all teeth. "So, I assume that means neither the FBI or the Air Force would object if I stopped ignoring his calls."

"Yes, that's fine. In exchange, we'd like a report of your encounter with your father."

"Even though O'Neill was also there and gave his own report." John's jaw started twitching again.

"You can probably grant a unique insight into your father's motives."

"Fine. Fine."

"Good." Bates looked up. "Ah. General O'Neill."

"Gentlemen, good to see you," O'Neill said, waltzing in with a thermos cup. Bastard! He obviously had pre-knowledge of how wretched the coffee was.

"Nice to see you, General," John said, standing to greet him.

Rodney grunted a hello.

"Sorry I'm late, but I was having the most fascinating conversation with President Ellis about a bill being raised in Congress called the Defense of True Pairings Act."

"The defense of what, sir?"

"Are you shitting me?" Rodney yelled. "Are you pulling my dick right now?"

O'Neill arched an eyebrow. "McKay, I think you can safely say I would never pull your dick. Mainly because Sheppard over there would come for me, and he's got much younger knees than I do."

"Sir, I promise I wouldn't hurt you too badly. We have to go murder Congress first."

"Thanks for your consideration, Sheppard."

"You're welcome, sir."

"Oh my God, you two with the comedy," Rodney said.

"And," O'Neill rolled over him, "in answer to your question, I have a plan. One that we probably shouldn't discuss in front of the officially neutral FBI agent."

Bates cleared his throat. "To continue our earlier conversation, General..."

"Yeah, let's do that," O'Neill said jovially.

"With Edgar Edgel arrested and under federal indictment—"

"Wait, what? When did this happen," John yelped. "You guys never tell us anything good."

"Yes. Edgel has been indicted, and with him, AeroTech Industries and subsidiary AteroCorp, Inc., for economic espionage and treason."

John whooped.

"Edgel, of course, has also been indicted for terrorism and attempted murder."

"Yes!" Rodney pumped his fist.

Bates sighed. "We also discovered, after going through his computer, confidential records from an anonymized survey funded by the Air Force on their F-34 fighter jet."

John made a sound of recognition.

"The F-34, designed by Edgel and manufactured by AeroTech, was their so-called smart-jet, but it required so much costly maintenance and had so much negative feedback from pilots and ground crews that it was decommissioned by the Air Force within three years. Kenmore broke into the survey company and acquired the respondent data, then sent it to Edgel so he could determine who..."

"Flamed him?" O'Neill offered. He turned to John, who sighed.

"I might have said a thing or two. Or a page or three. But sir! Flap switch on the stick grip? Dangerous lag on the yoke? I almost killed myself twice on undocumented glitches my first time out, and it had already been in the field for six months."

"Yeah, it was Sheppard who was at the top of Edgel's hate list, with Rodney McKay a close number two. What a gift it must've been for him when the two of you landed together in a pairing."

"And then we show up and shitcan his latest design," Rodney said, bowing his forehead down to the desk.

"Hey. That's not our fault," John said, putting his hand in the center of Rodney's back. John exuded warmth and comfort.

"Right. Motive..."

"Not justification," Bates said with satisfaction. "We have everything we need if you'll just sign the earlier statements you sent me." He slid them across the table and a pen to go along with. Rodney signed his first and then put John's in front of him.

"How long until you get the prototype fixed?" Bates asked as he gathered back their statements.

"A couple of weeks. We have to go over the entire thing, make sure there aren't any other little surprises," Rodney said.

"Well, be sure to invite me to the big unveiling," Bates said, surprising him. He even cracked a smile as he left.

"I'm not sure I trust that guy," John said.

"He left his pen behind," Rodney said, picking it up. "You think...?"

John shared his look, and Rodney quickly stripped it, disappointed when it didn't reveal any micro-transmitters or listening devices. He cursed as he got ink on his fingers trying to put it back together.

"Are you two finished playing I, Spy?" O'Neill said. "Because there was another matter I wanted to discuss with you."

"Oh, right." Rodney's stomach sank, and he put the pen back down. "Congress hates us."

"Well, we hate them back," John said fiercely. "There's nothing wrong with our pairing."

"No, there's not," O'Neill said. "Nor is there anything wrong with the approximately 22,000 servicepeople in the active military presently in platonic pairings who would lose all their spousal benefits if this piece of shit act goes through. Not to mention the folks in the reserves and the national guard."

"Well, what the hell are we supposed to do about it?" Rodney said. He looked over at John, who had a look on his face as if he already knew where O'Neill was going, and he didn't like it one tiny bit. "What?" Rodney said to him, then turned to O'Neill. "What?"

"Right now, well, by the time this indictment hits the national media along with the very carefully selected group of photographs of Rodney assisting John from the hospital, the whole world is going to know about the Air Force and aerospace industry's top platonic pairing. And you two," O'Neill pointed, "are going to ride that fame and national acclaim right in front of Congress and give them something to chew on."

"You want us to appear before Congress. You weren't kidding." John looked way too pale.

"Not only that, at a properly timed moment during the deposition, you are going to reveal this pretty little nugget." O'Neill pulled a folded piece of paper from his inner pocket and slid it across the table.

Awkwardly, John unfolded it between his cast and his hand and gave it a read. He looked up at O'Neill and groaned.

"You stinker."

"What? What? You know I can't stand not knowing things."

John held the paper so Rodney could read it.

"Holy fuck. You stinker!"

Washington, D.C. was the sweltering armpit of a monstrously hairy ape. Rodney hated it on sight. He showered immediately when they got to their rooms, and lounged in his dress shirt and pants, no shoes, making himself iced coffees in the air-conditioned suite he'd insisted on paying for. The Air Force was too cheap for its own good.

"What about your uniform?" Rodney asked John, suddenly seeing a glitch.

"O'Neill found me a special one with a Velcro sleeve; it's in the closet. If you want to help me get my ribbons and insignias on it, they're in my bag. I'm taking a shower."

"They shouldn't be making you do this before you're fully healed," Rodney griped, getting up to make his point. "It's only been two weeks. You still need rest."

"You're kind of sweet, you know that? I don't know what Radek was going on about." John grinned and closed the bathroom door in Rodney's face.

"What? What're you talking about?" Rodney pounded on the door. "What did Zelenka say about me, that slimy little weasel!"

He heard nothing but the sound of the shower coming on and, underneath that, John's laughter.

"Hmmph." The doorbell rang and, surprise, surprise, it was John's squirrely XO, Lorne.

"Dr. McKay," Lorne said. "General O'Neill told me to come assist. The limo will be here in two hours."

"We know."

"I'm here to put Sheppard's medals on his temporary uniform."

"Ah. He'll probably be glad for the help," Rodney said, a trifle disappointed to be excluded. "The uniform is in the closet."

"No problem." Lorne found the uniform and draped the jacket over the bed.

"I'll get you his medals," Rodney said. He dug into John's bag and found the box then handed it to Lorne.

Lorne got to work pinning the rack to John's uniform.

"You want a cup of coffee or something?" Rodney said.

"Yeah, sure," Lorne said, sounding surprised.

Rodney went to the kitchenette and brought him a cup. The batch was still fresh, and he considered having another cup himself, except he'd already had a bunch before the flight, and he was still jittering. He brought Lorne his coffee, setting it on the side table next to the bed. Rodney hovered there, watching Lorne meticulously pin on John's insignias. There were a lot of them. Someday, Rodney would get John to tell him what they all meant.

"What's on your mind, McKay?" Lorne said.

"Quite a lot; what makes you think I'd share it with you?"

Lorne sighed. "You brought me coffee; that's what."

He had him there. "I suppose everyone on base is very confused about what's happened. Or they think the plane is a lemon."

Lorne chuckled softly. "No, they're pretty clear. Ronon told us about the surveillance you put up. He said AeroTech fucked with the plane, and John pulled a clean landing out of his ass." Lorne craned around to look Rodney in the face. "Everyone wants to kill that AeroTech motherfucker, and not just because he almost murdered our training officer. The AF-302 is a work of art. You don't mess with art."

Lorne's heart was beating truth-truth-truth at him, and Rodney relaxed. Maybe the recent media coverage of AeroTech and Edgel had done some good after all.

"That's good to hear. Thanks." Rodney let Lorne get back to work. Just as he finished, the bathroom door cracked open, and John stepped out with a towel tucked around his waist.

Rodney swallowed. Even with faded bruising from his harness straps, John's bare chest and shoulders were a pretty sight.

"Hey, Lorne. How was the flight?"

"Just fine, sir. You're still looking pretty dinged up, though."

"Eh, I'm fine. Say, Rodney. Can you give me a hand getting my clothes on?"

"Of course," Rodney said casually, his heart beating fast. Thank the Pleiades neither Lorne nor John were sentinels.

Rodney went into the large bathroom, where John had hung up a white T-shirt and a light blue dress shirt that was already missing a left sleeve.

"Thanks," John said, his eyes flickering as Rodney pulled the T-shirt off the hook and held it open for him. John smelled terrific, like the sun on skin and summer grass, and Rodney wanted badly to just bury his nose in John's armpit and inhale. He helped John into the right sleeve first, then popped it over his head before very carefully easing the other sleeve over his cast.

"Nice job," John said, sounding breathless.

Rodney hoped it hadn't been too painful. "This one should be easier," he said, pulling down the dress shirt. He opened all the buttons then held it up. John got one arm in then turned, sliding the other one in. He stood with his chin up while Rodney adjusted the collar and buttoned up the front.

John cleared his throat as Rodney lifted his collar and tugged his tie off the hanger. "You've been a big help; thanks, Rodney."

"Not a problem." And Rodney definitely wasn't sniffing John's neck as he pulled the tie around and started the knot, around-around, up, over, down, and through, trying not to blush under John's steady stare, fingers wobbling a little on the second time around, while John started to smile.

"You do know how to do this, right? I want to look good before I sit before the United States Congress..."

"Oh, shut up."

John chuckled, and Rodney felt the ghost of a touch on his waist.

Rodney finished straightening his collar and stepped back. "Looks good," he said and went back to the main suite to find his own tie and maybe dig up his shoes.

Major Lorne had already left, thank Perdition, John's uniform jacket resting neatly on the bed. Really, Rodney should stop flirting with his handsome, very platonic partner. Weren't they here to reaffirm the very purpose of their pairing before the entire United States of America? Well, if that wasn't enough to deflate one's...everything, Rodney didn't know what.

But John called him back to the restroom, saying, "Can you give me a hand with my dress pants?" Rodney turned to find John had pulled his pants up but was unable to manipulate the fastener and zipper with his casted fingers just yet.

"No sweatpants this time, huh?" Rodney joked weakly and went over to join him. "Keep holding them up and I'll, uh, tuck in your shirt," Rodney said and reached around John in a hug to slide his hands down his back, tucking his shirt down into his pants and over his butt. His perfectly round little butt that fit into the palms of Rodney's hands like ripe cantaloupes. Which was a stupid comparison because cantaloupes were rough, and John's bottom was smooth and firm. And that was enough; it was time to come around to the front and meet John's hands right at his belly.

"Perfect," Rodney said, "I've got it, you can let go."

John stared into his eyes and licked his lips, "Yeah, okay."

Rodney fastened the front and very carefully made sure everything was tucked in properly before zipping him up.

"Belt?" Rodney said, voice a little rough.

"I can...I'll take care of that."

"Oh, sure, of course." Rodney thumbed over his shoulder. "I should go put on my tie and jacket."

"Wear your Apollo 11 tie," John said abruptly.


"Yeah. I love that one," John said. "The blue matches your eyes." He froze and then walked out of the bathroom.

"I am absolutely not imagining this," Rodney said to no one.

"Okay, all right," O'Neill said in the limo as they headed toward Capitol Hill. "Remember, be nice to Senator Greenday, he's the one who got us a seat at the table. The lobbyists had to work hard to get us a mic for even one of you. I know you both practiced your speeches, but Sheppard, you're our guy today." O'Neill shot Rodney an apologetic look.

"What? Screw you! I'm far more articulate than this lunkhead."

"Hey," John said mildly.

"But possibly less hot-headed," O'Neill said, eyebrows raised.

"A fair point," Rodney said, defeated.

"You just sit there looking pretty," O'Neill said. "And...sentinel-like. John and I will book-end you, and my guide, Sam, will be showing up if I can get her away from her blackboard."

"Your guide is a teacher?" Rodney asked, surprised. John muffled a snort.

"An Air Force pilot," O'Neill said dryly. "She likes to design planes in her free time."

"I...see. Well, I look forward to meeting her."

John growled something under his breath, and O'Neill gave him a narrow glance.

"Just hold on until after this fiasco, Sheppard."

"I don't know what you're talking about, sir. Are we there yet?"

O'Neill laughed.

It wasn't even that funny a joke.

The joint bill was being debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Rodney had to admit even he found a little intimidating, and he'd spoken at plenary sessions in front of 4,000 rabid scientists ready to tear his throat out at the tiniest logistical flaw in his theories.

He shared a look with John as they walked down the marble corridor toward the rotunda. The hallways echoed strangely, and Rodney lifted his head, looking for the cause. He held his breath momentarily in awe of the dome's interior.

"Kind of cool, ain't it?" O'Neill said, his head tilting back as he took in the view along with John and Rodney. Rodney zoomed in on the exacting repetition of the bays and the craquelure of the art and almost zoned.

"Hey, buddy. Don't get lost," John said softly. "We have an appointment."

"Right...but wow."

"Yup. Come on." O'Neill led the way. "Beckett is already there waiting."

"Are you sure he's up to this?" Rodney said nervously. "He's a little..."

"A little what, Rodney?" Carson said, rolling the 'r' particularly hard. He pushed up from the wall and came over to meet them.

"Sneaky," O'Neill said approvingly.

"Yes! Sneaky," Rodney said, snapping his fingers.

"I'm quite capable of giving testimony. I've done it for court cases before, you know," Carson said testily.

"Okay, okay. But this is Congress!"

John touched Rodney's hand, and he subsided.

"All right, people," O'Neill said. "Game faces. Stick to the script. In there, you will find the biggest group of snakes and slimeballs this side of the Poconos. Oh, hey, Sam!" he said, waving to someone. Rodney turned and saw a woman in dress blues approaching, short blond hair accentuating her vibrant blue eyes.

"That's O'Neill's guide?" Rodney whispered to John.

"Yes," John said, his voice tight for some reason.

"Rodney McKay." He offered her a wave. "Multiple PhDs. I design planes."

"Major Samantha Carter. One Ph.D. I fly them."

"She designs them, too," O'Neill said proudly. "Pretty ones. That go into space."

Carter laughed, bright and brilliant. "Someday. I hope."

"And Sam, this is Dr. Carson Beckett," O'Neill said, introducing the two, and Rodney turned to John.

"Wow, she's a knock-out. I'd like to see her designs."

"Maybe you can offer her a job," John snapped, and Rodney stared at him.

"What's your problem?"

John rolled his eyes pointedly.

"Oh, for Pete's sake." Rodney frowned. "She's someone else's guide. More importantly, I already have one, remember?"

"Yeah, well. Stop her."

"I didn't mean to," Rodney said.

John shook his head with a rueful smile. "Yeah, I get that. Hey, is my tie on straight?"

"Let me." Rodney adjusted it a bit, smoothing out the knot. "Now, it's perfect." He brushed off his own jacket and straightened his Apollo 11 tie.

Leaning in, John said, "You look like a million bucks."

Rodney's face heated. He looked at his watch. "Hey, O'Neill, it's time."

"Right. Okay, people, it's showtime."

Rodney lifted his chin. "Let's go," he said, leading the way through the big double doors.

The floor of the Senate smelled like mothballs.

"The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Colorado, Dr. Carson Beckett, for 15 minutes."

Carson leaned toward his microphone. "Madam Speaker, thank you for your time. In pursuant to the Act, and its implied legitimacy of platonic pairings, I can only speak as a medical doctor, not as one of a bonded pair.

"I reviewed the Center's study and found the results were directly contradicted by those I recorded in my daily practice of treating fragile and hyper-allergic sentinels suffering from long-term bond-deficit. As you can see from the anonymized patient charts and data comparisons submitted to record, patient R went from an average blood pressure of one-sixty over one-ten to one-twenty over eighty in just eight months and has stayed stable in the year since. Before his platonic bond, he was well on the way to developing hypertrophic pulmonary syndrome from his repeated anaphylactic attacks. I had to refill his prescription of natural steroids and migraine medication regularly."

John squeezed Rodney's hand in alarm. Rodney regretted he never told John how bad it had been before they found each other. He'd forgotten himself; somehow, he hadn't realized how much better things were getting.

"Post-bonding, as you can see from the chart, he hasn’t had a single attack. I haven't needed to refill his prescriptions, and at last check, his HPS antibodies have dropped to near insignificance." Carson smiled. "The results are almost identical for my other platonically-bonded patient, a guide in her mid-twenties, who also came online prematurely. Because of the sharp contrast between the empirical evidence and the study's reported findings, upon which the Pairing Act relies so strongly for its basis," Carson looked up at the panel from beneath his brows, "I looked deeper into the study and its authors."

"Dr. Beckett, that seems beyond your purview," Senator Kinsey said, and Rodney elbowed John, who hissed at him.

"The Chair does not recognize Senator Kinsey of Florida. Dr. Beckett still has the floor."

Rodney watched as Kinsey's pulse beat a frenzy in his temple.

"Thank you, Madam Speaker." Carson cleared his throat and held up a sheet to read it. "First of all, I was able to determine no peer reviewers of this study. The results were published unreviewed by anyone in the scientific community. I don't think I need to tell the esteemed Senators of this Committee how little validity a study of this type would be granted in the medical community, especially considering the paper itself was not co-authored." Carson paused for effect. "Dr. Melvin Ottman, who ran the study, is the only author of record, and he worked solely with research assistants, no other professors or medical doctors when conducting his study."

Rodney heard the senators muttering amongst themselves and grinned quietly.

Carson spread his hands. "Obviously, without funding, I can't run a full study of my own, but the data I do have indicates at least one more peer-reviewed study should be conducted before we pass any federal bills on one, obviously flawed, work. Thank you, gentlemen, ladies." Carson sat back.

"The Chair recognizes Senator Robert Kinsey of Florida."

"Thank you, Madam Speaker," Kinsey said, overly polite, and Rodney dug his nails into John's cast. "Dr. Beckett, what is your specialty?"

"Internal medicine, with a focus on sentinel and guide diseases."

"So, you don't have a specialty in pair bonding, specifically," Kinsey said, his voice oozing over the mic. Rodney wanted to hurl. "It isn't your field at all."

"No, it is not," Carson said firmly. Kinsey started to look smug. Carson continued, "And neither is it Dr. Ottman's, whose specialty is dermatology."

Laughter rippled around the room. Kinsey looked like he wished he could hit rewind.

"Senator?" The Chair said, mirth in her voice. "Four minutes remaining."

Kinsey waved his hand.

"Let it be noted Senator Kinsey yields his remaining time. The Chair recognizes the distinguished gentleman from Colorado, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, for 15 minutes."

Rodney schooled his face into bland politeness.

John adjusted the microphone in front of his mouth and licked his lips. "Madam Speaker, thank you for listening to me today." He cleared his throat. "I am a guide. I am a pilot. I am a military man. But before all of these, I am a bondmate." He looked at Rodney, and John's eyes were...oh. Rodney held his breath. "When I met my mate, it turned my life upside-down; pulled me from my posting, my life, my team, and yes, I regretted losing those things, but anything, everything was worth becoming one half of what we are now." John smiled tremulously before setting his jaw and turning back to the panel. Rodney's heart squeezed so hard he was worried he'd keel over.

"When Rodney told me our pairing had to be platonic, I understood why. He'd been through a terrible trauma, one that very few sentinels recover from." John ducked his head. "A platonic pairing wasn't at all my inclination, but I think only bonded partners can understand just how little the difference matters. Within the bond, we are together, fully together." John's voice cracked. "I love him." He took a sip of water while Rodney's heart jumpstarted itself. "It is unthinkable to me, as an American and a military man, for Congress to deny platonic bondmates their rights. It is especially abhorrent to me that my government would deny the twenty-two thousand people presently in service to this country and the countless others in the Reserves and the National Guard their rights as bonded pairs simply out of ignorance and prejudice. It's incomprehensible." John licked his lips again. "Or, it was, until I was nearly killed last week in an act of treason."

John paused just long enough, and Kinsey jumped in. "I fail to see the relevance, Colonel Sheppard."

"The Chair does not recognize Senator Kinsey," the Speaker started wearily.

"That's all right. I'll answer," John said. "By referring you to pages H5234/5 as submitted by FBI Special Agent Eugene Bates, uncovered in pursuit of the saboteur of test flight AF-511 on August 1st of this year..." Pages started rustling amidst the rumble of surprise. Everyone started craning their necks to stare. " which Senator Robert Kinsey is implicated in treason by ownership of the shell corporation, EnTrust, Inc, which is responsible for funding the fake study run by the Center for Sentinel and Guide Dynamics, and also for using an industrial spy, Michael Kenmore, to try to discredit a high-profile platonic bondpair: me and my partner, Dr. Rodney McKay. See page two for the money trail."

The noise had grown enough to make hearing John almost impossible, and the Speaker started banging her gavel on the podium.

"Point of order!" one senator cried.

"Lies and mendacity," Kinsey screamed.

"Order! I will have order!" the speaker yelled louder than anyone.

"I'm almost done, Madam Speaker," John said grimly. "We were all mystified as to the Senator's motive when Rodney pointed out how money was always a terrific one, and just a little bit of research into the Senator's holdings revealed just how much of them were dug into the health insurance industry; specifically, military health insurance contracts, and how the numbers might bounce up if quote-unquote fragile sentinels and guides were struck from the books. Not that the science bears out on that score. But according to public records, he has stocks in the millions in military health insurance companies. So, you can extrapolate from there where the bright idea for his Act came from.

"Thank you all for listening," John said sardonically, and the room erupted in chaos.

"Not bad," O'Neill said to John. "You didn't even raise your voice."

"No, but Kinsey did," John said.

"Yeah, I thought he was going to have a stroke right there. Too bad."

"Can this thing go any faster?" Rodney said. He had one hand clamped on John's thigh. It was irrational, but he thought he'd lose his mind if anything else came between him and John before they had a chance to talk.

John loved him. He'd said so, in fact, he'd testified to it. And he still thought Rodney wanted a platonic relationship. Rodney's heart felt like it was burning. Maybe it was heart burn. Maybe he was having a heart attack.

"By the way," Rodney said, "you're the best partner ever."

John turned toward him with a smile. "No, you are."

"No, you are." Sweet Newton, someone wipe this stupid grin off his face.

"Ugh, stop it, you too. Thank God we got Congress taken care of." O'Neill tapped the dividing glass, and it rolled down. "Lorne, drop me by the nearest bar. I need a cold beer and a crossword."

"Yes, sir."

Rodney released his hold on John's leg. "I meant to ask: how come your XO is driving around your boss?"

"Davis is getting married."

"Oh, yeah? Tell Davis I said mazel tov, O'Neill."

"Will do." The limo pulled over, and O'Neill started to get out. He paused in the doorway, sunglasses on, hat in hand. "I don’t want to hear from either of you until Sheppard is out of PT in three weeks."

"Yes, sir," John said. "Thanks for everything, sir."

O'Neill grinned briefly and slammed the door, hard.

"What was that about?" Rodney said as the limo peeled out.

"Maybe he's sick of us."

"Who could be sick of us? We're charming. Debonair, even," Rodney said, running his finger over his tie bar.

"I'm with you on that one," John said, sliding a little closer and laying his arm along the top of the seat. "I wonder if this thing goes any faster?"

"That's what I said!"

Lorne dropped them at their hotel and took off with a cheery salute. They walked through the glitzy lobby and caught the elevator to their suite.

"You kicked ass today. Sorry if I didn't say so earlier." Rodney shuffled sideways in the elevator and leaned against John's shoulder.

"I was nervous as hell," John said.

"You handled it great. I would have frozen like a grad student during one of my pop quizzes."

"No way. With that mouth?" John's tone was admiring, and that was it, Rodney was going to pin him and his stupid, slouchy hips against the wall of the elevator, right here.

The elevator dinged.

"Come on," John said, starting down the hall. "I'm dying to get out of my blues."

"I'll help you with that," Rodney said, and John did a double-take at his tone, then smiled uncertainly.

"Oh, yeah?"


"That's a change of tune." John frowned a little, still smiling, and pulled out one of the keycards to the suite, letting them in. He kicked off his shoes as soon as he got in the door, and Rodney imitated him, glad to get out of the pinchy things.

"Hang on a sec," John said. He took off his sling, then tugged the Velcro on his sleeve and yanked open his jacket like a stripper, sighing with relief when he could slide the whole thing off. He handed it to Rodney. "Would you mind hanging that up? Man, I'm parched. Who knew talking for ten minutes could feel like walking in the desert?"

"And I know you know what that feels like," Rodney said, hanging up the jacket. It was quite a nifty trick to have a Velcro front and sleeves for injured servicemen to wear their uniforms comfortably. Rodney hung his own coat next to John's. "I'll get your ribbons and things off later."

"Thanks." John returned with his tie loose and shirt unbuttoned, his hair ruffled disreputably. Except for the cast, he looked like he'd just had a businessman's lunch. Rodney wanted to drop him onto the bed and rumple him all over again.

"So," John said awkwardly, playing with the cap on his water bottle. "I just wanted to say, don't feel, you know, like my speech was supposed to change anything. I don't want you to feel pressured, okay? My dad was a total asshole to my mom, and I don't ever want you to feel like I'm going to be that kind of an asshole. I'm in this with you for good. I don't need sex to, uh..."

Rodney started stripping off his tie. God, this explained so much. "To?"

John's eyes followed Rodney's hands. "What I mean is, you wanted platonic, and maybe I've been pushing at that a little bit, but only because you've been doing really great lately, buddy. You're not pale anymore, you're looking so strong and healthy, and I didn't feel like I had to..."

"Go easy on me?"

"Yeah." John looked relieved.

"Great. Good information to have. Don't go easy on me," Rodney said, finishing with his cuffs and walking into John's arms, which opened automatically as soon as he got close.

"What, uh...hey, there," John said, as Rodney leaned in and breathed deeply, inhaling John's scent. Rodney trembled a little with nervousness, and with how badly he needed this, and John immediately hugged him, his uncasted arm touching Rodney's back. "You okay?"

Rodney raised his head. "I will be," he said and kissed John's generous, full lips. John's mouth slid against his, and he kissed Rodney back, making a soft noise of happy surprise.

"Oh, jeez," John said, pulling back. "What are you-are you sure about this?" and his hand roamed up Rodney's neck and behind his head as if he didn't want to give Rodney a chance to refuse.

"Hey, I kissed you, didn't I? So, let the record show that I was the one to break this ridiculous deadlock between ufffmmf." He lost the use of his tongue, because John took possession of it, sucking it in and sucking on it and groaning into Rodney's mouth. God, John could kiss. And what's more, he seemed to really want to.

"God, yes, do you have any freaking idea how long I have wanted you?" John said between kisses. "Since you came into my RLB in Bagram and said, 'This place smells like you wiped your ass with a gym sock.'"

Rodney snickered as John started kissing him toward the bed. God, John kissed him so hungrily, like Rodney was food, life, his breath. Rodney felt dizzy with John's yearning, and stroked his hands over John's sides, his back, trying to calm him, pushing through, I'm here. We're together.

"What about your cast?" Rodney said after a while, tilting his head so John could get at his neck.

"Mmm. We'll think of something."

What John thought of was lying on his back under Rodney like an untouchable banquet, playing with Rodney's sensitive nipples until they were teased and swollen, his thumb rubbing just under the head of Rodney's cock, then having Rodney coat John's fingers with lube so he could stroke them slowly, one by aching one, into Rodney's ass, pushing them deep inside and touching that white-hot tingling spot, circling around it again and again until Rodney's dick spurted little bubbles of precome, not quite there yet, but "Jesus Fuck, Sheppard, put your dick in me, right the fuck now."

John laughed and waved his casted arm. "That's your job. I'm just a dick stick, remember?"

Rodney sighed, grabbed the lube, and squeezed out a generous amount. He was well aware, from furtive glances, that John sported an excellent package, but he was a grower too, apparently, and Rodney didn't fancy walking with a limp for the next week. He got a good grip on John's shaft and gave it a nice slather of lube.

John groaned and almost clocked Rodney with his cast.

"Don't come," Rodney warned. "If you come right now, Sheppard, I swear I will give your jet fighter to someone else."

John dropped his arm and stared at him, appalled. "You wouldn't."

"I would, too. I want your cock."

"You're not making this easy." John threw his head back and settled his shoulders. "Okay, fuck yourself on my dick."

Rodney shivered, then leaned forward on his knees and reached back. John's hand was already there, guiding his thick cock right into Rodney's hole. All Rodney had to do was sit back and take it.

"That's it," John said. "Take it, Rodney. Open up for me, gorgeous." John's gripped Rodney's ass with his hand. Rodney could feel John's thick shaft spreading him wide. And with it, he could feel John's love for him, John's devotion and care. They filled Rodney's heart until he was almost overwhelmed.

John rested his cast on Rodney's thigh and said, "Easy, babe. Easy." He licked his lower lip, and Rodney wanted desperately to kiss him, but he wanted John's cock inside him more. He leaned back and started moving his hips, rocking a little, bouncing himself on John's dick, and John started shifting with him, shoving up, hitting Rodney right where it counted.

"Good," Rodney crooned. "Your cock is magnificent, Sheppard." He felt himself flushing.

"Thanks. You can have it as much as you want." John shoved a little harder, and Rodney whimpered. He wanted to reach for his own dick, but it all felt so good, he wasn't sure he was ready to come. His skin had dialed up to eleven, every inch had turned erogenous, and when he bit his own lip, Rodney came close to coming. He gently swept his fingers over his ribs, his chest, his nipples, and shuddered hard.

"You look incredible," John said. "You're all pink except where you're purple, right here." John brushed his finger over the shaft of Rodney's cock, and that was it. Rodney arched his back and came, whimpers choking the back of his throat, the pleasure too much to bear. John rubbed his other hand over Rodney's thigh, a rough counterbalance that helped, and beneath it was that same care and love. Rodney groaned and slammed down hard, fucking himself on John's cock, and John shouted and gripped his thigh, coming himself, the two of them in sync.

"Rodney, fuck," John planted a forearm on his thighs and held him down for a few last thrusts, his face turning red as he stared into Rodney's eyes, and then he threw his head back. "Jesus. Wow."

"Mmm." Rodney crawled off him and disposed of the condom so he could crawl beside John, his body still humming. When Rodney leaned his head against John's, he saw the glorious blue shine surrounding him.

Rodney relaxed and dove in.

"I still can't believe you let Lorne fly my plane," John said, looking crisp in his flight suit, his helmet tucked under one arm, his ridiculous hair flapping in the wind.

"Only for the second test flight. This is the most important deal," Rodney said with his mouth set on a smile, waving at all the brass, friends, and the Atlantis Aero family here to see the big unveiling of the AF-302. "Besides, you had a broken arm, remember?"

"You could have waited."

"And held back production a month?" Rodney said in disbelief.

"You were too busy worshipping my dick to care," John said smugly.

"It's not worship," Rodney said defensively. "If you've gone without cock for a while, finally having access to a nice—"


"A hefty-sized—"

John burst out laughing, scaring the pigeons. "It sounds like you're talking garbage bags, buddy."

"Or condom sizes..."

"What conversation have I walked in on, now?" Carson said.

"We're discussing Hefty bags," John said, straight-faced.

"Ah, well, I prefer to use compostables, myself," Carson said, "better for the environment," and Rodney almost lost John to an aneurysm.

"Let's get you some water," Rodney said, dragging him off.

"I am a doctor; I can help," Carson called out.

"We'll be fine," Rodney said. "Honestly!" He shoved John against a tree next to the buffet table. "Do you want to miss another flight because you choked on your own spit?"

"But-but. Compostable condoms! Think of it, Rodney! We'll make a bundle."

"Oh, my God. Your brain sometimes."

John gave a quick look around and then leaned in for a quick kiss. "A hefty...bundle." He shoved his hips against Rodney's.

"You're disturbed," Rodney said breathlessly.

"Shit," John said, staring over his shoulder. "Great. Now I want a beer."

"What?" Rodney sneaked a quick look. "Oh." Dave and Patrick Sheppard approached slowly from across the tarmac. Patrick was in Bond villain mode, black cane and crisp bowtie in evidence.

"Do me a favor and don't mention the thing," John said, patting Rodney's cheek, "and I'll buy you some Freddies after the shindig."

"That thing where your dad is sporting new jewelry?"

John's dimple made an appearance. "That he's wearing an ankle monitor, yeah. He's probably a little sensitive about being on probation."

"Well, he should try not to be a criminal next time."

John snickered outright, making Rodney smile.

"Dave," John said, his face smoothing into polite interest. "Good to see you."

Rodney turned to face Dave, and John reached out for a handshake. He might look aloof, but Rodney could smell John's nervousness.

"John. I'm so thrilled for you, really. I've heard incredible things about your project. You guys must be over the moon."

"Yeah, we're pretty proud. Rodney did the bulk of the work, of course." John inclined his head toward Rodney, and Dave's face went guilty.

"Yes, of course. Dr. McKay." Dave bit his lip, then straightened his shoulders and said, "I apologize for not saying it earlier, but welcome to the family." He stuck out his hand. "We're lucky to have you."

"Damned straight," John said, smiling.

Rodney sighed begrudgingly and shook Dave's hand. "John tells me you're starting an aerospace company with Sam Carter."


"Well, it's a tough business. If you need any advice, let me know."

"Thanks! Thanks a lot," Dave said, sounding pleased.

John's energy fairly glowed with happiness, and Rodney knew he'd done the right thing.

"There you are," a gruff voice said. "You didn't wait for me." Patrick Sheppard inserted himself next to Dave, looking disgruntled. He was wearing a suit that probably cost a week's pay, and that was on Rodney's salary. Also, he was sweating, despite the somewhat chilly weather. He must have hustled to make sure they weren't talking about him. Rodney grinned.

"Mr. Sheppard," Rodney said. "Dave just mentioned his new company. You must be proud."

Rodney heard John stifle an amused snort, then he stepped on Rodney's foot. Rodney bit back a curse and poked John with his elbow.

"Of course I'm proud," Patrick said resentfully. "I'm proud of both my sons."

"Uh-huh." John's disbelief prickled like a spiny cactus. Rodney ran a soothing hand down his arm to capture his free hand. He saw Patrick catching the motion and raised his chin defiantly. Patrick smiled for some reason.

"Yes, John, I am proud," Patrick said. "You've done very well for yourself."

John choked a little and started coughing.

"Hello, Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard."

"Teyla! How goes it?" John said, sounding relieved. He coughed a little more.

"I think you might need this more than I," she said, handing him an unopened bottle of water. He thanked her and cracked it open. "I take it all is ready for the big flight?"

"Everything is perfect," Rodney said.

"Five by five," John affirmed. "Dr. Teyla Emmagan, my father and brother, Patrick and Dave Sheppard."

"A pleasure," Teyla said, her tone polite.

"Teyla was responsible for a great portion of the CAD design on the aircraft," Rodney said pointedly.

"Yes, and I'm looking forward to seeing the flight. I have my partner, Kanaan, joining me, since I've been unable to speak of what has dragged me away from his side for an unconscionable amount of overtime this past year."

"Oh, I'm sure he won't be disappointed. You've done incredible work, Teyla," John said. "The new flap design is seriously brilliant. And I'm in love with the new latch you invented for the canopy. I kind of want it for car door, the refrigerator..."

"Sounds like a patent," Patrick said, and John frowned.

"Hey, I invented—" Rodney started, then subsided at Teyla's glare. "Right, that one was yours. Sorry."

"Thank you, John," Teyla said graciously. "It was a pleasure working with you on this. You have a keen eye. Almost as keen as your sentinel's."

"Bah," Rodney said, suddenly itching with impatience. "Where's Radek? It's almost time."

"There's still a half-hour to go, Rodney. You should be schmoozing with the brass. And, crap: it's my turn to take pictures with our baby."

"You look very well, son," Patrick said, and John turned to say something to him that Rodney thought, perhaps, he shouldn't hear.

"I hate schmoozing," he said to Teyla, accepting a sparkling apple juice from a passing waiter. "I should make Radek do it."

"Oh, I see. For you all the tiny mushroom canapes; for me, the terrible schmoozing."

"Gah!" Rodney jumped. "Where did you come from, you wretched gnome?"

"From the buffet table, obviously. Which I can see you have already decimated." Radek sniffed.

"I have very particular tastes," Rodney protested.

"And now you must pay with schmoozing the brass!" Radek said triumphantly.

"Fine, fine! I'll go schmooze." Rodney nodded to the others, and John gave him an encouraging smile.

"I'll come with you," Teyla said sympathetically, and with a tug of her elegant hand, she escorted Rodney to the base of the bandstand. There was no band, just a bunch of chairs and a podium. The AF-302 sat out on the runway already, looking like new, her clean lines shining in the noon sun. Rodney spoke a little to Senator Greenday, thanking him for his assistance with the Pairing Act, and General O'Neill came up to them.

"So, want to hear the latest?"

"Always," Rodney said.

"The unholy trio, Kinsey, Edgel, and Kenmore, are presently vacationing in a very deep, very dank federal penitentiary. Bates says the cases against them look nice and tight."

"So, the three stooges are done for?"

"Yep." O'Neill tilted back his hat and grinned at the sky.

"I'm very pleased, as well, if only because that monstrous set of bills has been laid to rest," Greenday said. He leveled a look at O'Neill. "You do realize what we've nipped in the bud, here."

"Oh, yeah. They'd be coming after all the sentinels and guides, next."

"What?" Rodney almost shouted.

"It was a trial balloon," O'Neill said patiently. "To see how vulnerable the sentinel and guide PAC is. The answer? Not very." He grinned smugly.

Rodney smiled back, gladdened to the pit of his dark little heart that the three stooges were paying for their plot.

"Here we go," O'Neill said, nodding his chin, and Rodney followed his gaze.

John came out and stood next to the AF-302's left wing, his legs apart, helmet tucked under one arm, and the photographer started circling him and taking photographs. Rodney couldn't stop staring at the sight, in awe of what they had achieved, both the plane and with their partnership. His heart swelled for a moment, and he reached up to rub his eyes.

"Are you all right?" Teyla asked by his elbow.

"Yes, yes, of course. It's just a little windy."

O'Neill snorted.

Teyla offered him a tissue, and he accepted it a little sheepishly. "Go," she said quietly. "The crew has arrived to prepare the plane, and soon you will have to speak."

"Right, right. Excuse me, gentlemen," Rodney said. "Thank you, Teyla." He walked across the tarmac and joined John where he chatted with Ronon. Ronon gave John a parting comment and a back slap that rocked him where he stood. Then Dex turned to Rodney.

"Dex," Rodney said, raising his chin and smoothing his lapel.

"McKay. Good to see you." Ronon offered his hand, and when he took it, swept Rodney into a back-pounding hug.

"Ow! Ow! Easy on the...okay. Nice to see you, too."

"Big day, huh?"

"Yes. It's been a long time coming. Nice job with the plane." Rodney looked around. "Where's Lorne?"

"I think he's over there flirting with your camera guy."

"My what?" Rodney turned. "That's my videographer, Parrish. The weasel! Ronon, tell him to get back to work and stop monopolizing my paid help."

"Sure thing, boss," Ronon said with heavy irony. John smirked at him, and Ronon strode off.

"Well, I guess this is it," Rodney said, clenching his hands nervously.

"Hey, it's going to be fine. You designed her, remember?" John said

"Yes, I know, I know. Just...please, be careful with you, all right? You're the only you I've got."

John's face creased in understanding. "Yeah, okay."

Rodney grabbed him into a hug. "Fly safe," Rodney said fiercely, squeezing John hard then releasing him. "I love you," Rodney said firmly.

John's eyes widened, and he smiled broadly. "You do, huh?"

"Yes. I suppose I should have mentioned."

"No time like the present," John said breathlessly. He took a step back and saluted, his grin bright, then made a perfect about-face and strode over to the AF-302.

"Oh, he is so getting laid tonight," Rodney said, and walked to the bleachers, already reaching for his cue cards. As he stepped up to his seat, he saw Bates schmoozing with Miko and frowned. FBI man had better not have designs on poaching his best programmer. Rodney caught Bates' eye and gave him a nod. Miko grinned and waved at him with both hands, and Rodney sighed and gave her a thumbs-up as he took his seat.

The crowd settled on Lorne's cue, and General O'Neill started his speech, blah-blah, every iteration of the Air Force's finest effort came down to teamwork and grit; no mention of late-night genius and brain grease, but whatever. Much polite applause. Then Rodney stepped up and started giving them the whammy on the specs while the pushmepullyou, or whatever Ronon called it, started maneuvering their AF-302 clear of the bandstand and onto the runway so Ronon and John could do their flight checks.

"At Atlantis, we are a team of individual thinkers, brilliant minds, and steady hands working in concert with the Air Force's very finest," Rodney said. "If it weren't for this incredible partnership, none of what you see today could have been accomplished. So, thank you all for the support, brilliance, courage, heart, and the caring you have shown this project. We are all the better for it."

He'd timed it perfectly. Behind him, the jet's whine rose in pitch, and he tapped his earpiece just in time to hear John say, "Alpha-Tango-Foxtrot-511 to Tower, runway 10R, cleared for takeoff. We are go."

Rodney turned his head and managed to catch John's salute, and then the powerful engines flamed bright as their beautiful plane jetted down the runway. Rodney tuned his sight, zooming in and zooming in again, jumping with her as she sped faster and faster. And then his heart soared, lifting in his chest as she rose up, up, up.

Gliding into the endless possibilities of the blue.


April 12, 2020
San Francisco, CA