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Freedom's Chance

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Rodney banged his wrench against the intake valve and sighed. There was nothing more he could do, not without new parts they didn't have and couldn't really afford. Just another patch job and he'd be right back here next week doing it all again. Without the intake system, the gasdivers couldn't offload their hauls, and without the gas, Six wouldn't have any money at all. Then he'd just be even more stuck here than he already was.

Rodney put the wrench back into his toolbox and looked out at the horizon, standing and stretching as much as he could in his suit. Big Mama was over the ice cliffs, her swirling red and blue storms dominating the sky, Four was approaching the zenith, and the Milky Way was sinking behind him. There wasn't much else to look at, other than the cracked and ragged ice sheet that covered the whole moon. He frowned at the large blue storm he knew the divers preferred. He'd better tell Carolyn to expect more injuries, it looked even rougher than usual.

"McKay!" Director Langford's voice rang out through his radio.

He slapped the button on his wrist that activated his helmet's microphone. "What?"

"I need you in my office. Now," Catherine said.

"I'm on the surface. I'll be there in an hour, unless you want me to die of radiation poisoning on your floor," Rodney said, picking up his toolbox and hopping up onto the landing platform.

"Dammit. You have 45 minutes. Hustle. And please tell me it's not the intake valve," Catherine said, frustration bleeding into her normally calm voice.

"Take it out of Tanaka's haul, he's the moron who broke the thing," Rodney said, opening the airlock and stepping back into the base.

"It's not his fault his diver didn't make the connection. You should know, you maintain them. Maybe I'll take it out of your haul," Catherine said, and Rodney could hear the smile in her voice.

"I don't have one, remember? I'm one of the only people on this rock sane enough not to throw myself out of a spaceship in the middle of a gas giant." Rodney made his way out the airlock and into decontam and waited as the mist neutralized anything he might have brought in with him. Not that they'd ever found a single living microbe on Six's surface, but it only took one.

Catherine sighed. "I'll find the money in the operation budget somewhere. Get the order out in the next databurst."

"I'm not kidding about Tanaka breaking it, Catherine. He's an idiot who doesn't know how to fly his own ship." Rodney took off his helmet and switched to his normal radio. He grabbed two of the anti-radiation pills from the dispenser and swallowed them dry. "You're too nice for your own good."

"I won't be if your ass isn't in my office in 40 minutes, McKay. Move it." The radio went quiet

Rodney twisted off the safety cap and pressed the release that relaxed all the compression at once and shrugged off his now limp and formless suit. He hung it up in the sterilizer and walked naked to the showers, rolling his shoulders. The skin-tight activity suits had a lot of advantages over the bulky suits still used in deep space work, but they left all of his muscles feeling like rocks.

He punched in his water code and scrubbed off the sweat and the grit that always felt like it was stuck to his skin after going outside, even though he knew the grit was just in his head. He took a few extra minutes from his ration and let the heat beat down on the knots in his shoulders before the water shut off with a beep.

Rodney got dressed in a hurry. He hated trying to get from the far side of the hanger all the way back to Catherine's office in living with a time limit on his hands, and Catherine knew it. Even though he'd grown up in Big Mama's shadow, the run/jump that was the most efficient way to move in Six's natural gravity had never come very easily to him, and they'd never bothered to put gravity plating down in the hanger to bring it up to Earth Standard. Too expensive.

He ran awkwardly and sighed in relief when he started feeling heavier as the gravity slowly increased in the tunnel connecting the two parts of the base. He slowed to a walk as he entered the living dome, and continued straight through the public areas to Catherine's office. Carolyn Lam was already sitting in one of the chairs when he went in.

"Nice of you to join us, McKay," Catherine said, looking at him. "You're late."

"By three minutes!" Rodney protested.

"Yeah, well, we're on the clock here," Catherine said.

"Are we waiting on Katie?" Carolyn asked, glancing at the third still empty chair.

"Not today." Catherine looked slightly guilty, but didn't elaborate. "We have an independent spacer coming in for emergency repairs. Says his hyper is damaged."

"This required a meeting? I have things I need to be doing!" Rodney crossed his arms and glared.

"What's so special about him?" Carolyn asked, looking just as annoyed as Rodney felt.

Catherine sighed. "This." She pressed a button and a picture of a man popped up on the screen behind her. Rodney stared at him. The disheveled hair and cocky smile gave him a kind of rogueish charm, if you liked that sort of thing. There was something about the eyes, though. They seemed almost haunted.

"What did he do?" Carolyn asked. Rodney flushed and tore his eyes away from the man's face. It was a standard Fleet and Core wanted poster, nothing else on it but name and bounty. John Sheppard, 100 million. Rodney stared. The largest bounty he'd ever seen before was 50 million, and that had been for a man who'd single-handedly killed an entire base of over 5000 people in the middle of the Core. Why were the pretty ones always crazy?

"That's just it," Catherine said. "I have no idea. The attached information code says theft, but with that bounty?"

"And this is our spacer?" Carolyn asked, frowning.

Catherine nodded. "Personal ID number and ship registration match those in the description."

"Wait," Rodney said, "he has a bounty that big on his head, and he's hasn't changed his registration or ID? He's either completely insane or there is something very not right here."

"My thoughts exactly," Catherine said. "Which is why I want this to stay between the three of us for now and this poster is not going on the public server. I'd like the two of you to try and figure out what our spacer did to make F&C so mad at him, and if he even knows they are. I'm not turning someone over to those bastards if I don't think they deserve it."

Rodney and Carolyn nodded. That explained why Katie wasn't there, at least. Katie was probably going back to the Core as soon as her research was finished, and Catherine would never trust something like this to someone who believed in the image F&C projected. Not after what they'd done to her husband. Rodney wasn't sure he would either, if he was honest with himself. Not since Jeannie had vanished without a trace after she started working for them. He couldn't prove anything, but you never could with Fleet and Core.

"What's his ETA?" Rodney asked.

"About an hour." Catherine stood up. "Rodney, Carolyn, you need to promise me you'll tread lightly and not spook Mr. Sheppard into running. We could be walking into a giant pile of shit here that none of us wants."

"So you want me to do the actual investigating, then?" Carolyn grinned. Rodney opened his mouth to protest, then closed it and shrugged. He was a brilliant man of many talents, but treading lightly wasn't one of them.

Catherine glared. "Medic Lam, Engineer McKay, I want your word that you'll be cautious and not get yourselves or this base into anything we can't get out of again, do you hear me?"

Carolyn glanced at Rodney and he nodded. She spoke for both of them. "You have our word, Director Langford."

***

Rodney circled Sheppard's ship in the hanger and waited as Carolyn did the standard interior bug screening. They couldn't risk any viruses getting into the base, and Rodney wasn't willing to endanger himself until Carolyn promised him it was safe. Sheppard's ship was a Jumper, an older but serviceable model beloved by independent spacers throughout the galactic cluster for their general reliability and adaptability, and their ridiculous number of hiding spots. This Jumper looked like she'd seen better days, but her hull was well maintained. That didn't mean there wouldn't be any evidence of a problem on the outside, though, and Rodney liked to know what he was getting himself into. Sheppard said it was his hyper, but a malfunctioning hyper was often just a symptom of a deeper problem.

Rodney stared up at the back of the ship and frowned. There were dark marks near the top that looked like the Jumper had been fired on, probably recently. He'd need to get up and take a closer look to be sure, but if they were fresh, odds were good Sheppard knew he'd pissed off F&C. He spotted the ladder and hopped up to reach the first rung when a voice called out behind him.

"Hey! What are you doing to my ship?" Rodney turned and saw John Sheppard trying to run towards him but tripping from the gravity. His hair looked even more disheveled in the light gravity, and Rodney tried hard not be charmed.

"I'm sabotaging your already broken ship. What do you think? I couldn't possibly be trying to find out what you did to her," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. He hopped back down and glanced at Carolyn, who nodded. No bugs here. He held out his hand. "Rodney McKay, base engineer."

Sheppard shook it. His hand was oddly smooth, not rough and callused like those of the other spacers Rodney had met. "John Sheppard. I'm surprised the base engineer can be bothered with a minor fix to an old Jumper." Sheppard smiled. Rodney blinked at him.

"This is a small base, Sheppard. I'm the only engineer. Well, and Catherine, but she has other things to do. Besides, I'm much better than she is," Rodney said.

"You're the only engineer," Sheppard repeated. "Where the hell am I?"

"Welcome to the sixth moon of G-49327e, a Jupiter-class planet orbiting a G-type star with no common name," Carolyn said, grinning.

"Otherwise known as the ass-end of nowhere," Rodney said, sourly.

Sheppard stared at them. "Why is this place even here?"

"We're an independent gas mining station," Carolyn said.

"You're gasdivers?" Sheppard looked disbelievingly at the two of them.

"No," Rodney said. "I'm an engineer. She lays on hands. Now do you want me to look at your ship or not?"

Sheppard sighed. "Yeah, come on."

"I'm going to have to beg off, I have work to get back to," Carolyn said. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sheppard. Stop by medical if you need anything."

Sheppard smiled charmingly. "Thanks, I will." Carolyn smiled back and left the hanger with a wave. Rodney resisted the urge to roll his eyes. At least now he knew not to get his hopes up, even if Sheppard was dense enough to be flirting with Carolyn. Carolyn had never looked at a man in her life. He knew. He'd gotten her drunk once and asked. Her drunken ramble about perfect breasts had almost been worth the slap that preceded it.

Rodney turned to Sheppard, who was staring at something near Rodney's feet. "What? Do I have something on my shoes?"

Sheppard's head shot up and he looked vaguely guilty. "No! I was just wondering about the lack of gravity plating."

Rodney shrugged. "Too expensive, and the reduced gravity is useful for heavy lifting. Now, shall we?"

Sheppard nodded and started up into the ship. Rodney followed and stumbled under his sudden increased weight as he crossed the threshold. "If I'm going to be doing a lot of work in here, you're going to have to turn your gravity down."

Sheppard smirked and reached out a hand to steady him. "I figured." Rodney took in the ship's interior as Sheppard led him to engineering. They'd walked into a large, empty room. It was so clean it sparkled, like she'd only come out of drydock yesterday. The floor lacked the wear and tear a ship that was lived in should have and there was a striking lack of possessions. Rodney craned his neck and peeked up the spiral staircase that led to the living area and the bridge, but he couldn't make out enough of it to see if things were any different there. He was starting to put a picture together, but he wasn't sure what to make of it.

Sheppard reached the back wall and palmed open a door. "Engineering," he said, waving Rodney in. "She won't stay hyper for more than an hour. I had to hop here."

Rodney grimaced. No wonder Sheppard had come here instead of taking her to someplace larger. At one hour jumps that would've taken him weeks. Six must've been the nearest place spit out by Sheppard's nav computer that could take her. He walked over to the hyperdrive and knelt, taking off the cover that let him at the crystals. He glanced at Sheppard. "This could take awhile."

Sheppard nodded and sat down, his back against the wall. Rodney hadn't really expected him to leave, spacers almost never did - if someone else had to touch their baby, they wanted to watch. But given everything else that was just slightly off about him, Rodney wouldn't have been surprised if he had.

He lost himself in the work, pulling out each crystal one by one to test them, and let his mind wander. Sheppard wasn't like any spacer he'd ever met. He didn't have have the rough and tumble look of someone who scraped by from job to job with no home but their ship. His hands were too smooth and his ship was too clean, and now that Rodney thought about it, Sheppard himself was too clean. Jumpers didn't exactly have huge water tanks. And this hyper was old, at least 40 years old if Rodney knew his hypers (and he did), but judging by the wear on it, it had almost never been used. It didn't make any sense, given how worn the hull looked. Had she just been sitting closed up planetside for decades? Rodney's tablet beeped and he checked the last crystal again, then took it out completely and frowned. It was cracked clean through, but the break had been fused back together in such a way that it would give Sheppard just enough power to get into hyperspace, but not enough to stay there. The fuse was perfectly done and almost invisible; he'd have never noticed it just by looking at it.

"Did you do this?" Rodney asked, turning around to wave the crystal at Sheppard. He'd apparently been watching Rodney intently as he worked and his face looked a little flushed. Rodney almost grinned. He knew what all that jumping did to his ass. Maybe he had a chance after all.

"Did I do what?" Sheppard blinked lazily, as if coming back to himself.

"This!" Rodney waved the fused crystal in front of Sheppard's face. "This wasn't an accident. Someone broke this, cleanly, and then fused it together and put it back, when any idiot knows that crystals can't be repaired. When they're broken, they're done. So did you do this?"

Sheppard's eyes flickered, and for a moment Rodney thought he saw fear in them before it was pushed down and covered up. "No. I... no."

Rodney sat back and stared at him. "Do you know who did? Or even when or why?"

Sheppard shook his head mutely. Rodney sighed. It wasn't like he'd expected Sheppard to just say he was on the run from F&C, but it would've made things a lot easier. He stood up. "Well, if you have a full spare crystal set, this'll be an easy fix and you can be back on your way before dinner. So, crystal set, where?"

"I, ah, it's," Sheppard hedged. Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Okay, let's just hope whomever you stole her from was smart enough to keep a set on board and start hunting," Rodney said, and started randomly opening maintenance storage doors.

Sheppard's eyes widened and he scrambled to his feet. "I did not steal her!"

Rodney just looked at him. "Do you even know her name?"

Sheppard sighed. "Blue Rose."

"Seriously?" Rodney stopped digging through a drawer and looked at him. "Don't take this the wrong way, but that doesn't seem like your kind of name."

"It's not." Sheppard ran a hand through his hair. "Look, the ship's not mine, but I didn't steal her, okay? I borrowed her. From my ex-wife."

Rodney frowned at a mostly empty cabinet and slammed it shut. "Does your ex-wife know you borrowed her ship?"

"Not exactly," Sheppard said, sheepishly.

"So, stole." Rodney opened the last cabinet. It was completely empty except for an old box of rivets.

"Stolen with the intent to give back," Sheppard clarified. "Are you going to do anything about it?"

"About what?" Rodney said absently, trying to find a catch in the floor to see if they'd missed any storage spots.

Sheppard stared at him. "About the fact that I'm flying a stolen ship."

"No, why would I? It's not like I haven't fixed up stolen ships before." Rodney was beginning to think there was nothing useful on this Jumper at all and that Sheppard's ex-wife was a moron.

"You, what?" Sheppard sounded oddly shocked.

Rodney looked at him and snorted. "You haven't spent much time outside the Core, have you? We're an independent base, Sheppard. That means we're not F&C, even though we sell to them and depend on them to bring our supplies. It also means F&C shorts us on the gas haul, and we have to pull in extra money somewhere in order to afford those supplies, which they fleece us for. The minute we can't pay our bills, F&C gets to waltz in and lay claim and nobody here wants that." He shrugged. "I do a lot of work for smugglers. We're the last independent base before the void between the Milky Way and Pegasus, and they pay well. Also, I don't think your ex-wife kept a crystal set on board, and that's a problem."

"What?" Sheppard was calming down, but his muscles were still tense. "Why?"

"Because we don't keep spare Jumper crystals around, and that means your short afternoon visit has just turned into a minimum of two weeks while we wait for the parts. You're going to end up paying about four times the normal rate for them plus a freight fee, by the way." Rodney wasn't sure what he thought about this. On the one hand, now he might have a real shot at getting in Sheppard's pants. On the other, Catherine was going to absolutely hate it and take her anger out on him. Now their spacer on the run from the F&C had to wait on an F&C supply ship before he could leave. Rodney had a headache already.

"Crap." Sheppard leaned his head against the wall, and Rodney could see the same haunted look in his eyes that had been on the poster before he closed them. When he opened them again a moment a later it was like it had never been there.

***

Rodney laughed as Sheppard stumbled in the gravity tunnel and offered him a hand. "You are never going to pass for a spacer. It's obvious you've never dealt with anything but Earth standard."

Sheppard took his hand and stood up. He pressed his lips together and looked pained. "It's just... been awhile." He dropped Rodney's hand and leaned against the wall.

"I've heard walking is like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget." Rodney paused. "Not that I've ever ridden a bicycle or seen one outside the holos, but the theory is sound."

Sheppard almost smiled. "Yeah, well, I think my muscles have lost their memory."

Rodney snorted. "Do you want me to prop you up or can you manage not to trip over your own feet?"

"I'll do my best," Sheppard said dryly. "Where are you taking me, anyway?"

"Mmm, to see Director Langford. All purchases have to go through her, and she'll want to meet you anyway, since you're stuck here. She can set you up with some temporary quarters, too, unless you want to stay in your ship, which, I notice, seems to be stocked with nothing." Rodney settled into the return of Earth standard gravity and walked calmly into living. There were actually people in the common areas, which meant some of the diving teams were back in base. He thought back, and no, he hadn't missed the siren. No deaths this week. Carolyn would be happy.

"You have rooms to give?" Sheppard asked, surprised.

Rodney shrugged, leading Sheppard past hydroponics and giving an absent-minded wave to Katie, who smiled back. "This place was built to hold about 1500 people, but we only have around 400 residents. On any given day, at least two thirds of the base is out on week-long dives. We have quarters. You're not in the Core anymore, Sheppard. Things are different out here."

"Yeah, I get that." Sheppard sighed. Rodney glanced at him, but he was staring out at nothing, like he was lost in thought. Whatever was going on in Sheppard's head would have to wait.

Rodney knocked on Catherine's door and opened it. "I need a minute."

She glanced up. "Come in, McKay. Close the door."

Rodney sat down and waved at Sheppard to do the same. "We need to order some parts and get him settled until they get here," he said, pointing at Sheppard.

Catherine raised an eyebrow at him and stood up, turning to Sheppard and holding out her hand. "I'm Catherine Langford, director of this base." Oh, right. Rodney always forgot to do that part.

"John Sheppard." Sheppard shook her hand and cocked his head. "Are you the same Catherine Langford who used to work with Jack O'Neill?"

Catherine looked non-pulsed. "I worked with Jack, yes, a long time ago. It was right before...." She paused, her eyes distant. "Well, right before I came out here to take over my father's base. How do you know Jack?" Rodney bit his cheek to keep from saying anything. Catherine had told him the story of how she'd ended up out here more than once. She'd been working on a secret F&C project and they'd killed her husband, but she'd never mentioned anyone named Jack.

"We lived together for awhile. He mentioned you a few times." Sheppard sat down, looking oddly relieved.

"Well. I don't know why he'd be mentioning me, but I guess it's nice to know not everyone back there has forgotten me," Catherine said, looking like she really rather wished they had. "Now, you need parts?"

"The moron he stole the ship from didn't have a spare crystal set on board, Catherine. He's going to have to order one and he's not going anywhere until it gets here," Rodney said. Sheppard stared at him, shocked, and then turned to look at Catherine, who was shaking her head and smiling.

"Well, that was rather remiss of them. What class?" Catherine called up the order form.

"A Jumper 92N," Rodney replied and frowned at Sheppard. Was the man trying to out himself as obviously having no idea what he was doing?

Catherine winced. "Oh, that's going to cost you. 1000, including the freight fees. You're lucky though. The databurst goes out tonight, so it should come with the next hauler." She looked up at Sheppard. "If you have the credits, I can take your chit now. If you don't, there should be a couple of diving teams leaving tomorrow and you can always try your luck. I'm not placing the order until you've paid, though, so you'll be here longer."

Sheppard shook his head. "I have the credits." He pulled his chit out of his pocket and handed it over. Rodney eyed it. He really hoped that wasn't tied to Sheppard's inevitably flagged accounts. Catherine took it and slid it into the chit reader, handing Sheppard the touchscreen so he could enter his passcodes. The transaction complete, Catherine sat back and stared at Sheppard. To Rodney, it seemed like she was trying to peer inside his head and figure out just who John Sheppard was.

"Hello?" Rodney snapped his fingers. "Room!"

Catherine shook herself. "Right, sorry." She pressed a few buttons on her tablet and then held it out to Sheppard. "Hand." Sheppard placed his palm on the tablet and looked into the retinal scanner she handed him next. "I've put you in 254. Your hand and your eye are your keys, don't lose them." She smiled and stood. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Sheppard. Now, if you could wait in the hall for a moment, I need to speak to McKay privately."

"Sure." Sheppard stood and nodded at Catherine. "See you in a few, McKay." He left the room and closed the door behind him.

"Well?" Catherine stared at Rodney.

"Well what?" Rodney searched his brain for some repair or upgrade she'd need updates on.

"McKay," Catherine said slowly, "have you found out anything about why F&C wants him?"

Rodney frowned. "No. He's obviously scared of something, but I have no idea what. He's definitely never spent much time outside the Core, though. He seemed to think I'd turn him in just because his ship is stolen - and he insists he's just borrowing it from his ex-wife. Without her permission."

Catherine rubbed her temples. "There's no way F&C is after him for an old stolen Jumper."

Rodney nodded. "From the way he reacted, I don't think he would've stolen it if he wasn't already on the run from something."

"God damnit." Catherine closed her eyes. "With his casual name-dropping of Jack, I think I might have a vague idea what from."

"...and?" If this was connected to something from Catherine's days in F&C, they were all fucked.

Catherine sighed. "Jack O'Neill was a lieutenant in the Fleet when I met him. He was one of the first members of a program involving some very advanced weapons that we shouldn't have had. Ernest and I were on the reverse engineering committee. There...." She stopped for a long moment. "I really can't tell you everything, Rodney. But suffice to say that they needed people who possessed certain characteristics, and even though they hadn't found any yet when... when I left, they were willing to do almost anything to get them."

"Catherine, that was over 30 years ago. How could John Sheppard be tied into your project?"

"F&C has long arms and a longer memory, Rodney. I hope I'm wrong, I really do, but if this is a coincidence, it's a terrifying one."

Rodney leaned back against the chair and stared at the ceiling. "There's not much we can do about it if you're right, anyway. We're stuck with him until those crystals get here."

Catherine nodded grimly. "We'd best be prepared for the fact that the next visit we get from F&C might not be the gas hauler."

Rodney pushed himself up from the chair slowly. "Just in case."

"Just in case," Catherine repeated.

***

"So what do you do for fun around here?" Sheppard asked. He'd insisted Rodney lead him to his quarters, even after Rodney pointed out that it was a dome, and therefore a circle, and all the quarters were on the outer wall. Sheppard could just follow the signs.

"I do upgrades to the base systems, mostly. Sometimes I do upgrades to the gasdivers." Rodney hated the backside of the quarters hallway. It was so empty and creepy and always gave him the heebie-jeebies. He blamed Jeannie for all the ghost stories she used to make up. He really missed her, sometimes.

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Okay, but what you do when you stop working?"

Rodney shrugged. "Honestly? I plan more upgrades. But we have a decent library, and there's the bowling alley and the gym, if you're into that sort of thing."

"Gym?" Sheppard perked up.

"Oh god, you're one of those. It's just a weight room and racquetball court, don't get your hopes up." Rodney glanced at the nearest door: 422. He probably should've led Sheppard back up the front and gone the other way around. Too late now.

Sheppard pouted. It was oddly adorable. "That's all you have for entertainment?"

"Pretty much. Those of us who stay on base have to entertain ourselves." Rodney supposed it probably did sound fairly boring to someone who'd grown up in the Core.

"How many of you do stay on base?" Sheppard sounded sincerely curious.

"Ah, not many. There's ten of us who never do any diving and work on the base and about thirty kids under fifteen." 312, getting closer.

Sheppard stopped. "You have kids here?"

Rodney snorted. "A good half of this base grew up here, Sheppard. Gasdiving isn't really something most people choose as a career."

"I always thought gasdivers were grisly fortune hunters, not kids." Sheppard looked disturbed.

"The holos have a lot to answer for." Ah, 254. Rodney gestured. "Your room awaits."

Sheppard palmed it open stepped inside. "Huh. Somehow I was expecting a tiny bunk, not an apartment."

Rodney followed him in. "We don't tend to use the smaller quarters. We don't need them."

Sheppard nodded and walked up to the window that ran across the back wall, staring out at the ice field and Big Mama hovering above it. "Wow."

Rodney came up and stood beside him. He looked out at the world he'd woken up to for as long as he could remember and tried to see it through the eyes of someone who'd been raised planetside. He guessed it would be pretty impressive. To him it just looked like his own personal prison. "Your watercode is the last four of your personal ID," he said. Sheppard nodded absently. "Now, I have work to do and I don't need any more distractions." Rodney turned and started towards the door.

Sheppard reached out and grabbed his arm. Rodney stopped, startled. "Wait, McKay."

Rodney stared at the hand on his arm and then up at Sheppard's face. He looked massively embarrassed, like he couldn't believe he was doing this.

"I. Could you stay?" Sheppard grimaced. "I'd really like company right now."

"Uh, sure," Rodney said, confused. Sheppard dropped his arm.

"Is work and racquetball really all there is to do around here?" Sheppard asked, plaintively.

"There's always taking a suit and going for a walk outside. Sometimes I take out a gasdiver and visit some of the other planets and moons in the system. I'm taking Katie out to her research station tomorrow. You could come along, if you wanted," Rodney offered. "It's amazingly boring and a complete waste of my talents, but it gets me off the base."

"I'd like that," Sheppard said, looking at him.

"And there's always the old standards of getting drunk and having sex, of course." Rodney smiled.

"Sex, huh?" Sheppard's eyes darkened.

"Always a classic." Rodney didn't take his eyes off Sheppard's face. He was terrible at reading people, but he was pretty sure that was interest.

Sheppard licked his lips. He suddenly looked ridiculously awkward, like he hadn't done this in ages and had forgotten how. "Wanna?"

It was a terrible idea. Sheppard was on the run from Fleet and Core for some unknown reason and Rodney did not want to get any more entangled in that then he already was. Not even for Sheppard's disheveled hair and haunted eyes and inexplicably awkward charm. Really, an amazingly terrible idea. "How is that even a question?"

Rodney closed the distance between them and kissed him.

***

Rodney curled into the warmth next to him and stretched his arm out over the nice, warm, and hairy bed. Hairy? His eyes shot open and he stared at Sheppard. Sheppard was already awake, and he was watching Rodney with a small smile on his face. Smiles were good, Rodney decided. He'd learned it was hard to run from an awkward one night stand in a group of less than 50 people.

"Morning, Rodney," Sheppard said, reaching out to ruffle his hair. "You may not have much hair, but it sure stands up a lot."

"Mmph," Rodney replied, and batted Sheppard's hand away. "Look who's talking, with your roguishly disheveled hair and... things."

Sheppard grinned. "Roguishly disheveled?"

Rodney pointed at him without getting up. "No questions before coffee."

"Not even 'where do I find coffee'?" Sheppard asked, running a hand down Rodney's side as he stood up.

Rodney waved a hand in the direction of the kitchenette and buried his head in Sheppard's pillow.

"I hate to break it to you, buddy, but I don't think you prestocked the guest cabin." Sheppard walked over to the kitchenette anyway. Rodney watched him go. Sheppard hadn't bothered to put on pants, and it was just as nice a view now as it had been last night.

"Press the red button and then open the little door on the counter," Rodney said and stretched.

"Whoa. Neat. Where'd this come from?" Sheppard pulled out the breakfast tray and brought it to the small table.

"Mmm, it's dispensed from the cafeteria." Rodney sat up and scratched his chest. He really needed a shower.

Sheppard looked at him. "Okay, but how did it get here?"

Rodney stood, grabbing his boxers and slipping them on before he padded over to the table. Sheppard looked disappointed. "Sensors detect how many people are in each set of quarters and tell that to a computer in the cafeteria and then food is automatically dispensed and sent to each room through," Rodney yawned, "a miniaturized rings system."

Sheppard stared at him. "I've never even heard of a miniaturized rings system."

Rodney inhaled his coffee. "Oh, they're mine."

"Yours," Sheppard repeated.

"I got bored one year and tinkered with the set of rings we have on base until I could reverse engineer them, shrunk them down, and now, hot coffee every morning." Rodney grabbed some raspberries.

"You reverse engineered transportation rings because you were bored?" Sheppard looked at him like he'd just grown a tail.

"What? I am a genius. Catherine and I debated selling them to F&C, but they're really a novelty item more than anything else. Not much use for rings that can't transport anything larger than a meal tray. The only reason we could even make them is there are a couple of plutoids in this system's debris disk that are almost pure naquadah." Rodney gulped down the rest of his coffee and waved vaguely at the window.

"Wow, that's... really incredibly hot," Sheppard said, still staring at Rodney.

"Really?" Rodney knew his brain was a turn-on, of course, but no one had ever actually told him so before.

Sheppard smiled slowly. "Really." He stood and walked towards Rodney, grabbed the coffee mug out of his hands and put it on the table. "I think I need to prove it to you."

Sheppard leaned down and covered Rodney's mouth with his own. Rodney grasped the back of his head and pulled him closer, enjoying the soft morning and the taste of coffee. When the kiss started to grow more heated, Rodney pulled back reluctantly. "Sheppard, I need to shower so I can go meet Katie. So do you, if you're coming along."

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Rodney, I just ate breakfast with you naked and am offering you a blowjob. You can call me John. Also, I know a great way to save water." He smiled and held out his hand.

"Oh, I. Right. John." Rodney took it and stood up, slipped out of his boxers, and dragged John to the bathroom.

***

Katie was waiting in the gasdiver hanger when they got there. She smiled at them as they walked towards her, and Rodney privately noted that John was doing better in the lower gravity today.

"Morning, Rodney. Who's your friend?" Katie held out her hand to John, who shook it.

"Katie, this is John Sheppard, a spacer who's stuck with us for a bit while we wait on parts. John, this is Katie Brown, our hydroponics expert."

"Pleasure," John said.

"I thought we might bring him with us today, get him off the base a bit," Rodney said.

"Oh, sure!" Katie said. "You can meet my stromatolites. Well, they're not actually stromatolites, of course, but they're so similar that it's just fascinating."

"Yes, won't that be fun." Rodney sighed and walked up into the gasdiver, through the line of bunks and up onto the flight deck. John and Katie followed him.

"So the gasdivers do other things than just dive for gas?" John asked, looking around in interest.

"Oh, they're good for pretty much anything in-system. They have great little sublight engines and can can deal with more caustic gases and heavier gravity on their hulls than most small sublight craft," Rodney replied as he checked the fuel gauges.

"I guess they'd have to." John sat down in one of the two seats in front of the forward window.

Katie leaned over to John. "Don't mind him. He's just taught so many science classes to the kids over the years that if you ask him a question he'll just start lecturing."

"Aw, Rodney, you teach the kids science? That's adorable." John turned to him and grinned.

Rodney flushed. "Someone has to make sure they're not complete morons."

"Uh-huh," John said, still grinning.

Rodney frowned at him. "You have everything you need, Katie?"

"I'm all set, Rodney. Let's go visit my stromatolites." Katie was practically bouncing in her seat.

Rodney opened the radio. "This is Diver 28, requesting lowering of the inner shield."

"Shield lowering, 28. McKay, you got that spacer with you?"

"Yes, Martinez, Sheppard's with me." Rodney thought that felt a little too good to say, especially since he'd only known John for a day. "Did Catherine need him for something?"

"Nah, I was just hoping to get a new racquetball partner. I'll find him when you get back. Shield is down, 28, you're free to rise."

"You're just tired of me beating you. 28 out." Rodney cut off the radio before Martinez could reply and carefully put the gasdiver into a direct vertical rise until he got above the inner shield line. The shield automatically reinstated once it registered they were past it, and the outer shield lowered. He flew the gasdiver up out of the base and watched Six sink below them as they set out towards the rocky planet where Katie did her research.

He settled into a course and let his mind drift, listening to Katie tell John all about her stromatolites. He had no idea what he was doing. He'd had affairs with spacers before, of course. It was easier than facing old sex partners every day, as proved by his brief but disastrous affair with Katie when she'd first come to the base. They'd settled into a casual friendship now, but things had been rocky for months until Katie had fallen in with Carolyn. They'd been together for over two years now, and Rodney just hoped that if that ever fell apart, they'd keep him well out of it.

This thing with John, though, felt different. He didn't know why, but even though they'd just met, what he was doing with John felt less casual than pretty much any relationship he'd ever had, other than those few months with Katie. It was insane. For all he knew, John was just looking for some comfort in a warm body. On top of that, John was a fugitive from F&C and Rodney had no clue why, and he was a spacer. No matter what happened, soon he'd leave and Rodney wouldn't and that would be that. It would just be a short and bizarre interlude in his past. Rodney wasn't looking forward to it.

"Okay, that's it," John said. "Move, McKay."

"What? What did I do?" Rodney said, startled.

"Just get out of the pilot's chair. I don't know who taught you to fly, but they were an idiot." John gently pulled Rodney up.

"Hey, I am an excellent pilot!" Rodney protested, but let John push him into the copilot's seat.

"Rodney, you can't even fly in a straight line. If I got motion sick, I'd be looking for a sickbag right now from all the wandering the stars are doing." John sat down in the pilot's seat and made a few adjustments to the controls.

"We're in space! It's not like I'm going to hit anything. I'm fine once we're near a planet or a moon." Rodney knew he wasn't a fantastic pilot, but he still felt like he should defend himself.

John cocked an eyebrow at him. "Just keep telling yourself that, McKay." Katie started laughing.

Rodney turned to look at her. "What are you laughing at? You never even tried to get certified!"

Katie held up her hands and smiled. "That's because I know my weaknesses, Rodney. You should try it sometime."

Rodney glared at her. John reached over and lightly hit the back of his head. "Be good, Rodney. If you are, maybe I'll teach you to fly like a real pilot someday."

Katie completely lost it. Rodney just sighed and leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes. He drifted off, safe in John's hands.

***

"...live on a moon if there's a human habitable planet?" John's voice cut through Rodney's nap.

"Oh, it's not. I know it looks like it should be, but there's not enough oxygen in the atmosphere," Katie said cheerfully. Rodney opened his eyes and saw the shining blue planet filling most of the window. He reached over John's arms and flicked a switch on the pilot's console.

John glared at him. "No touching the controls, McKay."

Rodney crossed his arms. "I just turned on the tracker so you'd know where on that giant planet in front of us you're supposed to be going, oh touchy one."

"Go back to sleep, Rodney. It was much nicer in here when you were quiet." Katie patted his arm and smiled at him.

"I hate you," Rodney said.

"I know, that's why you fly me out here and back every month."

"Now kids, behave or I'll turn this ship right around," John said. The planet filled the whole of the window now. Rodney always liked taking Katie out to her research station, if only because of how different the view was from Six. This planet just looked so much more inviting than Big Mama. It looked less like one day, it was going to kill him.

John began the descent through the atmosphere and Rodney turned to look at him. The jittery edge he'd had since he landed on Six had eased and he looked completely at home and somehow just right in the pilot's chair. Rodney wanted to see this side of John again, wanted John to look calm and centered all the time. He wanted whatever it was that John was running from to just let him be. Rodney was getting in way over his head.

John set the gasdiver down gently next to the small outpost and activated the docking mechanism. Rodney heard the tunnel connect with a thump and stood up. Katie was already opening the side door and stepping into the small airlock. Rodney followed her and checked the outpost's oxygen levels to make sure they were in the green.

"We're good to go, Katie," he said. Katie opened the door and dashed straight through the outpost, grabbed an airtank, and went straight out the airlock the on the other side. Rodney rolled his eyes and walked into the outpost. The sun was shining through the windows and he could see the sea battering the rocks outside.

"Eager, isn't she," John said, stepping up beside him.

"No one gets between Katie and her stromatolites," Rodney agreed.

"So what is a stromatolite, anyway?" John asked.

"You know, I honestly have no idea? Some primitive plant-related... thing. They just look like rocks to me." Rodney shrugged.

John bumped his shoulder. "I thought you were a genius."

"My mind is far too valuable to fill it with knowledge about rock-plant-things." Rodney grabbed the toolbox and headed towards the airlock. John followed him.

"So what are we doing?" John asked, grabbing an air tank.

"I'm going to make sure nothing's going to catastrophically fail and kill Katie in the next week. I don't know what you're doing." Rodney grabbed his own air tank and fitted it on his shoulders. He hated these things. "Not that any of it will, because I've done so many upgrades to this place it might as well be my design, but Carolyn would kill me if I didn't."

"Well, we wouldn't want that," John said.

They put on their masks and walked into the airlock and then out onto the bare reddish rock. The work was tedious but fast, and the distant sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs past the shallow sheltered lagoon almost made up for the fact that Rodney couldn't talk to John with his mask on. After awhile John apparently grew tired of watching Rodney work and wandered off, and Rodney lost himself in the small repairs the mechanics needed from being exposed to the elements. That was the best part about a vacuum, he thought. Technical equipment lasted so much longer in it.

Rodney finished just as the light was getting too dim to work. He stretched and walked towards the beach. Katie was still wading in the lagoon, doing whatever it was she did. Rodney couldn't even try to understand her fascination with the thousands of formations in the water. John was standing a bit further up the beach, staring at nothing. Rodney came up next to him and looked out. The sun was setting over the water. He'd never get used to the sun being that large and bright in the sky. He knew, in principle, that for most people that was normal. That's just how big and bright a system's sun was in the Goldilocks zone. But he was too used to the sun being barely more than another star in the sky, just a little bigger and a little brighter than all the rest.

Rodney stood for a while with John. They watched the sun sink below the horizon and turn the sky brilliant pinks and purples. The first stars of the night peeked out in the growing twilight and Rodney tapped John on the arm and pointed. That was Big Mama, that brilliant pinprick of light in the sky. That was the only home he'd ever known. John grabbed his hand and squeezed, as if he could tell what Rodney was thinking. Rodney pointed his other hand towards the outpost, and John nodded. They walked back up the beach and headed inside, holding hands the whole way. If Katie noticed, she didn't say a word.

After doing a few more maintenance checks inside, Rodney stood and cracked his neck. That was all he could do. If anything failed during the week, leaving Katie by herself without a way off this planet, it wouldn't be his fault.

"That's everything," he said, turning to Katie. "You're set for food?"

Katie nodded. "My little hydroponic garden is doing wonderfully in all the natural sunlight. You two should get going."

John was staring out the window at the beach. The planet's two moons were reflecting brilliantly off the water and John seemed mesmerized by the sight. Rodney walked up behind him and lightly touched his arm. "John, it's time to go."

John grabbed his arm and whirled around. Rodney stepped back, startled. John's eyes focused on him and widened, and he dropped Rodney's arm like it was on fire. "You. You startled me."

"I can see that," Rodney said slowly. Katie was watching them with interest. "Are you okay?"

John flushed. "I'm fine. Really."

Rodney nodded, though he was reluctant to drop it. "Well, it's time to go."

John latched onto the excuse like a lifeline. "Right! I'll go start the prep. It was nice to meet you, Katie," He said and gave a ghost of his charming smile before dashing into the airlock.

"It was nice to meet you, too!" Katie called after him, shaking her head. She turned to Rodney and gave him a light hug. He patted her back awkwardly, feeling relieved when she let go. "Thanks again for flying me out here and back every month."

"I'll, ah, see you in a week then?"

Katie nodded. "Give my love to Carolyn."

"Give it to her yourself, it's only a 50 minute radio lag," Rodney said, rolling his eyes.

Katie laughed and patted him on the cheek. "Have a safe flight, Rodney."

"Have fun with your stromatolites." Rodney turned and walked towards the airlock.

"Rodney," Katie said. He looked back. "Be careful with John. I don't know what's going on there, but it's... not good."

Rodney nodded slowly and looked her straight in the eyes. "I will."

***

John had been completely silent for the first hour of the flight. He was so obviously on edge that even Rodney could see it, and after a few failed attempts at starting a conversation, he just shrugged and got out his tablet, using the time to model some new modifications for the gasdivers. There wasn't much left he could change on them to squeak out any more efficiency, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to try.

"Rodney," John said quietly.

"Hmm?" Maybe if he bypassed that crystal he'd be able to get a bigger boost on the radio.

"This is the smoothest sublight ship I've ever flown." John turned to him.

Rodney looked up. "Oh, ah, thank you?"

"This isn't a standard gasdiver," John said, very definitely not a question.

"Of course not. Gasdivers are ridiculously inefficient normally, and my modifications save us thousands of credits every month. Not to mention more than a few lives." Rodney sighed. "The way these things come standard, you'd think the divers themselves were worthless."

John nodded. "Rodney, why the hell are you working at a backwater gas mining station?"

Rodney blinked. "What? I grew up here."

"Right. But why did you come back after you got your engineering degree? Anywhere would've been lucky to have you," John said, glancing at him.

Rodney looked at his hands. This wasn't something he liked to talk about and definitely not something he liked to talk about with people who were used to life inside the Core. He didn't even know how many people on Six knew the whole story anymore. It was difficult to think about and even more difficult to tell, but maybe if he opened up, John would do the same.

When he finally spoke, the words were so soft he wasn't sure John would be able to hear them. "I don't have an engineering degree."

John stared at him. "What?"

Rodney sighed. "I don't have an engineering degree," he said louder.

John was still staring. "But. You. Why the fuck not? You could've gotten into any school you wanted. It takes years of training to be able to do what you do, where did you learn if...."

Rodney cut him off. "I know. Believe me, I know." He stared out at the starfield in front of them. "I have a sister."

"...okay?" John said, clearly thrown by the nonsequitor.

Rodney held up a hand. "Just let me get through this."

John nodded, his mouth tight.

"I have a sister," Rodney repeated and grimaced. "Or at least, I'm still going with 'have' until I get proof otherwise."

John opened his mouth to say something. Rodney glared at him and he shut it again.

"She's four years younger than me. She was born on Six. I wasn't. Our parents somehow got into a ridiculous amount of debt and for some insane reason thought they'd make their fortune and pay it back by gasdiving. Idiots." Rodney shook his head and stared back out at the stars. "Jeannie is... well, she's not as brilliant as I am, obviously, but close. The sheer genius must've skipped a generation.

"Our parents died in a diving accident when I was 14. They didn't leave us much. They'd never been able to save a lot of money, not with the amounts they were sending back to the Core. Wexler had already tapped me for engineer's assistant, so we had a little money coming in, enough that I didn't have to start diving, but nowhere near enough to buy passage back to the Core.

"A bit after Jeannie's twelfth birthday, Catherine came to me and said she'd gotten a message from our maternal grandparents. They'd finally heard about Mum's death and they wanted to bring us back to the Core. Of course, like most people in the Core, they had no idea how much that actually cost. They could only afford to buy passage for one." Rodney paused for a long time, watching Big Mama get bigger in the window. John just continued to look at him, saying nothing.

"You have to understand that where I'm good with machines, Jeannie is good with numbers. Not that I'm bad with numbers, of course. Math comes to me as easy to breathing. But Jeannie... Jeannie could pull a complex equation out of thin air or make up a new one to solve a problem on the spot. She used to taunt me about that all the time, going in at night to simplify the equations on blueprints I was drawing. Of course, put her in front a machine she wasn't already intimately familiar with and it took her hours to figure out what was wrong with it." Rodney smiled faintly.

"So there really wasn't any contest about which of us should go. I already had a job, one that I was good at, and there was nothing for Jeannie on Six but diving. Not that I wasn't bitter about it. I screamed at everyone for months. But Jeannie deserved that chance and we packed her up and sent her out with the monthly hauler." She'd clung to him and cried and it's entirely possible he'd gotten a little weepy himself. That night had been the first time Catherine ever got him drunk.

"Jeannie and I kept in contact, of course. Letters sent in the monthly databursts, blueprints sent out that she'd send back with new math. We probably knew each other better then than we ever had before. She excelled at school. She graduated at 16 and got into one of the top universities in the Core, won a bunch of prizes. Got married. Got whisked into a dream job.

"She sent me money when she could, hoping I could find a way back to join her, but there was always something. Catherine, Wexler, and I had to dig into our own pockets for parts for repairs. Wexler died and I was suddenly elevated to base engineer. Our last medic ran off with a smuggler and I couldn't leave Catherine without two members of the senior staff. It was just one thing after another, and then...." Rodney fell silent. They were almost back at the base, now.

"And then?" John asked, softly.

"Jeannie was just... gone. She hadn't died. She just vanished. Completely without a trace, like she never even existed. Our grandparents insisted they'd never heard of her. Her schools had no record of her. The prizes she'd won were recorded as being given to other people. Honestly, if not for Catherine and all the pictures and correspondence I have from Jeannie, I'd think I was crazy. I spent all the money I had saved trying to find her from a distance. Nothing. I couldn't even find her husband.

"Now there's just no point, really. There's nothing for me in the Core. I'm a 35 year-old man who dropped out of school at 14 because I had to take care of my little sister, who according to F&C never existed. My schooling was entirely apprenticeship, which, even though I know for a fact I know more than half the Core-trained clowns out there who call themselves engineers, is not actually an accepted method of accreditation anywhere in F&C. I'd be a laughing stock if I ever tried to leave Six." Rodney knew his smile looked twisted and bitter. "And that's why I work at a backwater mining station."

John grabbed him before Rodney even realized he was moving. His lips crashed into Rodney's. It was a terrible kiss, but Rodney could feel everything John was trying to say with it and found himself pulling John closer. Rodney changed the kiss into something sweeter but no less urgent, taking the comfort John was trying to offer. They broke apart gasping, and John buried his face in Rodney's shoulder.

"Come with me." John's voice was muffled in Rodney's shirt.

"What?" Rodney stared at him.

John lifted his head and put his hands on Rodney's shoulders, looking him in the eyes. "Come with me. When the parts come in, when my ship is fixed, come with me."

Rodney just stared at him, his eyes wide. He wanted to. He wanted to more than anything, but John was a fugitive on the run from F&C and leaving with him would be insane. Not to mention that Catherine needed him and the divers needed him and he didn't know who he'd be if he wasn't on a little moon in the back of nowhere. But every part of him was screaming yes, take me with you, yes, please. "I...."

John kissed him again lightly, barely brushing his lips against Rodney's. "Come with me. We'll look for your sister and you can breathe fresh air for the first time in your life. Just, come with me."

"I want to," Rodney said. "I really do, John, but I... I need some time to think about this." He let his head fall onto John's chest. "Just a little time."

Rodney felt John's hand fall onto his head. "Well, you have two weeks."

He nodded against John's chest. "I do." Unless Fleet and Core came for John first and took the choice away from him.

***

The next week seemed to go by in a haze. Rodney was stuck in a mish-mash of joy, doubt, certainty, and indecision, all tied together with a bow made of warning bells screaming 'danger, danger, get out while you still can'. He hated it. The further he got from John asking him to come, the more his brain reminded him that John had never told him he was on the run. That John was asking Rodney to come and risk his life without even letting him know that that's what he was doing. Of course, there was still the possibility John didn't know himself, but it still made Rodney doubt John and his reasons for asking him along (emergency repairs while being shot at, maybe, or selling him and his skills to the Lucian Alliance for shelter and safe passage to someplace outside F&C's reach).

Not that he remembered his doubts when he was actually with John. Then it was like his guts were chanting go, go, go, and the more time he spent in John's company, the more he wanted to. It wasn't just the amazing sex, though that was definitely part of it. He felt comfortable with John, safe. John made him laugh, made him feel more alive than he had in years. They shared a love of ships and bad holos, and John could even beat him at chess, something only Jeannie and Catherine had ever been able to do before. Rodney wanted to keep John, any way he could. He just didn't know that he could risk leaving with him, not with F&C on his trail. Not with John not telling him about being on the run. But he was going to get everything he could out of these two weeks so he'd have something to keep close when he was back to being alone again, stuck on his forgotten moon.

That was what prompted Rodney, when Catherine radioed him, resigned, to tell him the intake valve was broken again, to ask John, "You haven't been outside yet. Want to come along?"

John hastily put down his book and stood up. "I've been going out of my mind cooped up in here. I don't know how you can stand it."

Rodney shrugged. "If it gets too bad, you can always borrow one of the gasdivers and go moon hopping. Eight has some really impressive geysers, and if you're feeling suicidal, you can actually fly through a lot of Twelve. It has these giant tunnels criss-crossing it."

John looked disturbingly intrigued.

Rodney sighed. "Just tell me before you go, so I can worry about you in peace?"

John leaned into his side. "Sure, buddy."

Rodney led John to decontam and stepped inside. He pulled his shirt off as he walked to the lockers and sat down to take off his shoes.

John blinked at him. "This is a naked thing?"

"You've never worn an activity suit before? They're not like the deep space suits. You can't wear anything underneath them. At all," Rodney said, leering at John.

John swatted him on the head and started stripping. "Just, please tell me you clean them."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "They're stored in a sterilizer." He walked over, feeling John's eyes on his naked back, and grabbed two of the suits, throwing one to John.

"They're... limp," John said, poking it.

"I refuse to make the obvious joke. Just put it on, Sheppard, then press the red button." He slipped into his own suit and activated the compression, wincing as it immediately formed itself tight to his body, then slid into his boots.

"Okay, ow." Rodney turned to look and saw John had activated his own compression. Rodney cocked his head. Skin tight was a very nice look on him.

"Sorry, I should've warned you," Rodney said, putting his gloved hand on John's shoulder. "It's almost worse when you take it off."

John winced and took the helmet Rodney handed him, fastening it to the top of his suit as Rodney did the same.

"Ready to go?" Rodney asked through the radio, heading towards the airlock without waiting for a reply.

"I think it was easier to just look out the window," John said, following him.

"I didn't take you for a looking out the window kind of guy," Rodney said, walking outside.

"I'm not."

Rodney jumped off the landing pad onto Six's surface. He walked over to the intake system and got out his tools. John followed him, looking around at the scenery.

"Is this... ice?" John knelt down and touched the cracked ground.

"It's why this site was chosen," Rodney said, opening the access panel and getting to work. "The whole moon is covered in thick sheets of it." He waved a hand at a small dome he thankfully rarely had to enter. "We can extract both water and oxygen from the planet instead of having it shipped in. The gasdivers bring back nitrogen along with their hauls and we're all set." He swore quietly at the connection. "Since I modified the gasdivers to run on hydrogen instead of the modern ship fuels, we're almost completely self-sufficient there. We've actually been pulling in a slight profit the past few years."

"Cool." John started walking towards the cliffs.

"The sheet's full of fissures and canyons. Don't fall and break your neck." Rodney glared at John's back. The suit clung to his ass nicely. Rodney was suddenly struck with a vision of that ass naked under his hands and shook his head. "Not now, idiot," he told himself quietly.

He sat back and stared at the connection. The fix would last a couple of days if he was lucky. The new parts had better be on the next hauler or they were in a lot of trouble.

"McKay?" Catherine's voice came through the radio.

"Catherine?" He stood up.

"I need to talk to you," she said softly.

"What, again?" Rodney started packing up his tools.

Catherine sighed. "Yes, again. And McKay?"

"Yes?"

"Bring Sheppard with you." Catherine signed off before he could reply. If she needed to talk to both him and John, that... couldn't be good. He closed his eyes. F&C must be on to him. They were fucked.

"John," he said, "Catherine needs to talk to us. We need to head back in."

"Aw." Rodney could hear the pout in John's voice. "But we just got here."

"When Catherine says jump, I ask how high," Rodney said and watched as John bounded back to him. He took in his fill of the suit clinging to John's muscles and John's unruly hair brushing against the top of his helmet. If this was about what he thought it was, he'd better enjoy the sight while he still could.

***

Rodney walked into Catherine's office and John followed him, closing the door behind them. Catherine sat, staring at nothing. Rodney and John sat down.

"Catherine?" Rodney asked.

She visibly shook herself. "McKay. Mr. Sheppard. I just received a courtesy call."

"Courtesy call?" John asked.

Rodney frowned. "But the hauler's not due for another week."

"Whenever F&C sends a ship out to a base that smugglers use as a safehaven, certain sympathizers in the shipping lanes send out a covert courtesy call ahead of time to give them a chance to clear out," Catherine explained to John. "And it's not the hauler."

If Rodney hadn't already been sitting, he would've collapsed into his chair. "Oh, crap."

Catherine nodded grimly. "It's a Fleet Cruiser. I think this is the time, Mr. Sheppard, to tell you we know you're on the run from Fleet and Core."

John stiffened. "I'm not...." Catherine called up the wanted poster and John went white as a sheet.

Rodney reached over and gripped his arm. "We're not going to turn you over, John. Not if we can help it."

John turned to him. "You knew? This whole time you knew and you still...." He took a deep breath. "Why not? I know you need the credits."

"Nobody ends up out here if they're on the good side of Fleet and Core, kid," Catherine said. "Most of us wouldn't give them the time of day, and we definitely don't do them any favors. We give good people to those bastards over my dead body."

Rodney gripped John's arm harder. He couldn't see it, but he could feel John's muscles tightening and quivering, like he was doing everything he could not to get up and run. He didn't try to move, though. If anything he seemed to be pressing into Rodney's hand.

"We do need to know one thing, Mr. Sheppard." Catherine leaned forward and looked John in the eye. "We just want to make sure that you are good people, though we're fairly well convinced already. The information code says you're wanted for theft. What, exactly, did you steal?"

Rodney didn't think it was possible, but John's muscles got even tighter under his hand. "Theft?" John's voice cracked, and if Rodney didn't know better, he'd think John was about to cry. John closed his eyes. "Myself. I stole myself." John tore his arm from Rodney's grip and practically ran out the door.

Catherine and Rodney stared after him, eyes wide. "I'm going to...." Rodney pointed to the door, still watching where John had left.

Catherine nodded. Her face was pale. "Go, McKay."

He ran out the door, following John. John didn't run to his ship, like Rodney thought he might, but to the quarters he and Rodney had been sharing for the past week. When Rodney got there and let himself in, John was sitting on the bed in the dark, his hands clenched in the sheets.

Rodney sat down next to him and carefully put his hand on John's back, ready to remove it if John flinched away. Instead John sank into the touch and relaxed his hands, his head falling onto Rodney's shoulder. Rodney patted him awkwardly.

"Have you ever heard of stargates, Rodney?" John asked suddenly after a long silence.

Stargates? They were going to talk about history now? "Of course I've heard of them. They were wormholes used to go instantly from planet to planet, which is fascinating in a brain-breaking sort of way. We have no idea how they worked. They were all destroyed hundreds of years ago in a last ditch effort to destroy the Wraith-Goa'uld alliance. It worked." Rodney carded his fingers through John's hair.

"It turns out the Goa'uld weren't the ones who built them." John's voice was flat and expressionless.

Rodney's hand stilled as he processed that. "The Wraith weren't advanced enough."

"No," John agreed. "They weren't."

"The Asgard, then? You'd think they would've told us before they all killed themselves."

John shook his head. "Not them either. They were built by a race called the Alterans."

Rodney filed the name away. "I've never heard of them before."

"Almost no one has," John said. "Stargates weren't the only things they built, either. They left a lot of junk lying around."

"Weapons," Rodney said, thinking of the secret project that killed Catherine's husband.

"Among other things," John agreed. "There's a catch. The Alterans designed almost everything to respond to a gene only they had."

Rodney frowned. "Well, that would make them pretty useless for us, then."

John snorted. "You'd think so."

Rodney ran John's cowlicks through his fingers. "Why aren't they?"

John paused for a long time. "I used to be in the Fleet."

"Uh, okay," Rodney said, brain switching tracks. He remembered John's joy and competence in the gasdiver and wasn't particularly surprised. "Pilot, right?"

"Yeah. After I was promoted to major, they had everyone come in for some blood tests. They said there was a new version of Langaran Flu going around."

"I take it there wasn't," Rodney said.

"No, there was. It just wasn't all they were testing for." John sighed. "About a month afterwards I was reassigned out of the blue. My CO was as shocked as I was."

Rodney made an encouraging noise.

"It... wasn't a normal assignment." John stopped again.

Rodney wished he could see his face clearly. "Why not?"

"Well, for one, my roommate was a colonel," John said bitterly. "There were five of us: Jack, Evan, Carson, Miko, and me."

Rodney had a bad feeling he knew where this was going. "The gene?"

"Yeah. Turns out I have some Alterans in the family tree." John stood up and walked towards the window, looking out at the ice sheet. "I was informed I was no longer a part of the Fleet. I had been permanently reassigned to the Alteran Project."

"Did you try to leave?" Rodney asked, quietly.

"We couldn't. We weren't prisoners, of course. False imprisonment is illegal. We were just restricted to an area of the base that had no exit." John leaned his forehead against the window.

Rodney got up and and stood next to him. "What happened?"

"We got a note from an old friend of Jack's. An actual note, on paper, so it wouldn't be traceable. They could get one of us out. We thought it should be Jack, but...." John's voice faded away.

"But what, John?"

John shook his head. "Jack refused, and since the note said it had to be someone who could fly a ship, that left me or Evan. We flipped for it."

"You won?" Rodney stared at John's face. The planetlight was making his tight mouth look even tighter and he looked suddenly old.

"I lost," John replied.

Rodney stared at him, but John didn't say anything else. Rodney reached for him and he stiffened, but Rodney pulled him closer and kissed his forehead the way he used to do with Jeannie. "Yes," he said.

John pulled back. "What?"

"Yes," Rodney said again. "Yes, I'll come with you."

John choked and sat down on the floor. Rodney knelt next to him, lifted his chin, and gently kissed him. John pulled back, not letting it become anything more. "Come with me where, Rodney? Back to my prison in the middle of the Core? Come on." John looked away from him.

Rodney pulled his head back and stared him in the eyes. "I am going to come with you, and we are going to find my sister and free your friends."

"How are we going to do that, McKay?" John asked, resigned. "The Fleet's already on their way."

"I," Rodney said confidently, "have a plan."

***

Rodney gave Catherine a brief summary of John's story. John sat next to him and steadfastly looked anywhere in the room but at the two of them.

Catherine sat back. "So, they finally found it."

John whipped his head to face her.

Catherine smiled wryly. "I was one of the original members of the Alteran Project, Mr. Sheppard. At that point, we were mostly trying to reverse-engineer their weapons. When that failed, they started doing experiments, trying to modify those of us already in the program so that the Alteran's devices would recognize us. Their experiments killed my husband. Fortunately, my family had enough power within the Core that when I left, no one tried to stop me."

"Why weapons?" Rodney asked. "F&C has no real enemies. The Goa'uld, Wraith, and Asgard are all gone; the replicators are nothing more than a pest problem; and spending that much time and energy on weapons to fight the smugglers or the Lucian Alliance would be like using a naquadah enhanced warhead to kill flies."

Catherine shook her head. "They never told us."

"They're convinced there's going to be a war," John said. "Old enemies of the Alterans who are apparently still out there."

Rodney frowned. "Why would enemies of the Alterans automatically be enemies of Fleet and Core?"

John shrugged. "Hell if I know."

"No matter who those enemies are, we are not letting Fleet and Core take you back, Mr. Sheppard." Catherine leaned forward. "McKay, you mentioned a plan?"

"We just need to make sure John isn't here, right? So we remove him and any trace of him, tell them he was just here for a quick stop over. Easy."

"Wait, what?" John turned to him. "They're not just going to take 'he's not here', for an answer, McKay."

"Why not?" Rodney looked at him. "It'll be the truth."

"You think just giving his Jumper a standard smuggler package and getting him off base will be enough?" Catherine frowned.

"See!" John pointed.

"No," Catherine said, "that... might actually work. They'd never expect that you'd still be around. From their perspective, if you knew they were coming, you wouldn't do anything but run."

"Exactly," Rodney said, "and since we know they sabotaged your Jumper they'll assume they can just follow to you to your next stop and pick you up there."

"Wait," John said, holding up a hand. "Wait. My Jumper will still be here. Everyone on this base knows I'm here. Not to mention you accessed my damn accounts."

Rodney stared at him. "You were actually stupid enough to use your own accounts?"

"No, Rodney, but if they sabotaged Nancy's Jumper on the off-chance I might take it, I'm pretty sure they found my hidden accounts!" John glared at him.

"Don't worry about that, Mr. Sheppard," Catherine said. "I paid for the parts out of our operating budget, keeping your account info to pay ourselves back after you're gone. As for everyone knowing you're here, don't worry about it. We have done things like this before, you know."

John put his head in his hands. "Fine. It's not going to work, but fine. We'll go with your stupid plan, McKay. It's not like I have anything else."

"My plan is not stupid, my plan is going to save your life, you ass." Rodney crossed his arms. John waved an arm at him and didn't lift his head.

"Right then," Catherine said, looking pleased. "How do we want to do this?"

"We need to move his Jumper off the base. I propose that we take it to Katie's research station. Do a quick and dirty standard smuggler package when I go pick her up, leave it there for a week." Rodney held up a hand. "I know you don't trust her, Catherine. I don't either, not entirely. But I think we can trust her to keep that secret. She's known about our work with the smugglers for years and hasn't said anything yet."

Catherine nodded slowly. "What about Mr. Sheppard himself? Should we leave him there as well?"

"No, I don't think so. He'd still be too easy to find." Any human lifesign readings on the planet would be ridiculously easy to pick up.

"Ah," Catherine said. "A dive team."

Rodney nodded. "A dive team."

"Do I get any say in this?" John asked, his voice muffled.

"No," Rodney and Catherine said together.

"If we're doing this, we'd better get started now," Rodney said, standing up.

"I agree." Catherine smiled. "Good luck, Mr. Sheppard."

Rodney pulled John up by his arm and dragged him out the door.

"This is an amazingly bad idea, McKay." John's voice was quiet.

"It's really not. If there's one thing we know on this base, it's how to hide smugglers." Rodney paused. "Well, no, if there's one thing we know it's gasdiving, but if there's two things, it's gasdiving and how to hide smugglers."

John sighed. Rodney dragged him to the hanger and they stopped in front of John's Jumper.

"You're going to follow me in your Jumper to Katie's research station," Rodney said, pointing at John's chest. "You are not going to run. You are not going to do anything else."

"I'll follow every wobble in your flight path, Rodney," John said with a faint smile.

"No running!"

John held up his hands. "No running, I swear."

"Good." Rodney glared at him, hoping to drive the point home.

John stepped closer and put his hands on Rodney's cheeks. He leaned in and gave Rodney a light kiss. "Thank you. Even if this fails massively, thank you."

"It's not going to fail!" Rodney protested. John just smiled and patted his face, before letting go and walking up the ramp into the Jumper.

Rodney sighed as he walked to his gasdiver. It had better not fail. He didn't know what he'd do with himself if it did.

***

Rodney set the gasdiver down lightly and heard the thump of the docking tunnel. Katie waved at him from the beach. He gestured her inside and she gave him a sign for two minutes. He nodded at her and stretched, walking through the airlock and into the outpost. He stood by the window and let the sunlight warm him. John landed a moment later, his big Jumper taking up most of the flat space on the beach.

Katie walked into the outpost and took off her air tank, hanging it up carefully before turning to Rodney. "What's going on?"

Rodney waved an arm at her. "We just need someplace to stash John's Jumper for a few days, that's all."

Katie walked over to him. "Standard smuggler package?"

Rodney glared at her. "Yes."

She put her hand on his arm. "Rodney, what's really going on? I've met enough smugglers these past few years to know John isn't one."

Rodney shook his head. "Ask me later."

"Rodney...."

"Just ask me later, Katie."

She nodded reluctantly. "All right."

"So, ah, how was your week?" Rodney didn't actually care, but it was better than dancing around the topic of John. She was halfway through a story about something that was undoubtedly riveting to botanists but he hoped she wasn't going to ask him about later when John walked in.

"Now what?" John asked, taking off his air tank and giving a wave to Katie.

"Now, we start on the standard smuggler package. Do you have any preferences for the new name of your ship?" Rodney asked.

"Uh, new name?" John blinked at him. Behind his back, Katie narrowed her eyes at Rodney. Rodney narrowed his back and shook his head.

"New name," Rodney agreed. "Also, new registration number, owner, and history."

"I take it I'm not giving Nancy her ship back," John said dryly.

"Not right now, you're not." Rodney went to grab an air tank.

"Freedom's Chance," John said.

"What?" Rodney looked at him.

"The new name. Freedom's Chance."

Rodney nodded slowly. "Freedom's Chance it is."

Katie sighed. "I'll go get the paint."

"Katie, you don't have to help," Rodney protested.

"I'll get the paint," she repeated, and patted him on the cheek as she went back to storage.

"Okay," Rodney said when Katie returned. "Katie, you paint over the name on the outside. I'll fix the computer records and the automatic broadcast signal. John, you get to clean the scoring off the top of the hull."

John started. "What?"

"The ship's obviously been fired on. It was the first thing I noticed." Rodney handed him a bucket.

"Nobody fired on me," John said, confused.

"Well, somebody fired on your ex-wife, then. Clean it anyway, it's noticeable." Rodney headed towards the door. "Move it, people."

Katie hit him. "Stop ordering people around, Rodney."

"Oh, just. Go do it?" Rodney said, rubbing his arm. "Please?"

"That's better," Katie said, smiling at him, fitting her own air tank. They walked out of the outpost and got to work.

Changing a ship's information was easy, but massively finicky. It was only meant to be changed with a sale, so it was hidden deep and impossible to do accidentally. They'd tried to make it so the smugglers couldn't change things themselves, but the smugglers, and therefore Rodney, stayed one step ahead of them. A few hours later Blue Rose had become Freedom's Chance, registered to one Jonathan Shepherd. It was probably a bit too close to John's name, but it would be easy for John to remember and both names were common enough for it not to be more than a coincidence. He hoped. After that it was a simple matter of turning off the automatic registration broadcast, which required removing exactly one crystal, and he was done.

Rodney stretched and put his air tank back on, closing the Jumper up behind him. John and Katie had gone inside the outpost already. The side of the ship read Freedom's Chance in Katie's clear script, with a small die painted underneath it. It was something Rodney wouldn't have thought of, but it was a nice touch.

"We all set?" he asked, walking into the outpost. John and Katie were sitting at the small table near the window having lunch. He walked over and stole half of John's sandwich.

"Hey!" John swatted him.

"Mine now," Rodney said cheerfully and took a bite. He sat down. "We're set?"

Katie nodded. "We're done. You?"

"Mmm, Freedom's Chance is now good to go. Ready to leave your stromatolites, Katie?"

"Never, but I am ready to see Carolyn." She smiled and got up to gather her things.

Rodney looked at John. "Are you set to go?"

"I guess." John tapped the table. "What now?"

"Now we fly back to the base and send you out with a dive team for a week," Rodney said.

"Yeah, about that." John stood up. "I don't know the first thing about gasdiving."

Rodney waved it off. "Don't worry about it. Spacers and smugglers end up having to dive for a few weeks to buy parts all the time. The veteran teams are used to it." He smiled. "Maybe if you're really lucky you'll hit a big pocket and strike it rich."

John snorted. "Yeah, my luck is really holding out lately."

"I don't know," Rodney said, bumping his shoulder. "I don't think you're doing so bad."

John's face softened. "The past few days might've been okay."

Katie cleared her throat. "Ready to go, guys?"

John sighed. "Let's get his show on the road."

***

Catherine was waiting for them when the got back to the base. "Mr. Sheppard?"

"Yeah?" John stopped, and Rodney did too, worried. Katie kept going and left the hanger with a wave.

"There's a dive team leaving in half an hour who could use a spare," Catherine said.

"Who'd you stick him with?" Rodney asked.

"Ahmed," Catherine replied. Rodney nodded, relieved. Ahmed's team was one of the best with inexperienced divers and had an excellent safety record. They'd never lost a diver.

"Where do I meet them?" John asked, looking apprehensive.

"Ahmed uses Diver 12," Rodney said and gestured to the far side of the hanger.

Catherine nodded. "Just meet them there, they'll be waiting for you. And McKay, I need you in the rings room in an hour."

Rodney sighed and nodded.

"Good diving, Mr. Sheppard. May the winds lift you safely home." Catherine smiled at them and left the hanger.

"May the what?" John asked, staring at her back.

Rodney waved a hand. "It's a gasdiving thing."

"Right." John looked even more apprehensive than before.

Rodney put his hand on John's back. "You'll be fine, John. You might even enjoy it, a lot of the divers do. I think they're crazy, personally."

"You're not helping," John said with a faint smile.

"How about this, then?" Rodney tugged John into a kiss that quickly turned heated.

"Oh yeah, that's much better," John said, pulling away. He was flushed and his lips were slightly swollen and Rodney didn't think he'd ever seen anything more attractive in his life. He took John's hand and pushed him back into the gasdiver. Shut the door behind them, he proceeded to relax John the best way he knew how.

Not nearly enough time later, his skin still tingling, Rodney led John over to Diver 12. "John, Ahmed. Ahmed, John."

Ahmed smiled. "Nice to meet you, John. We're always glad to have an extra hand. The others are already here, and if you'd just join us on board I'll introduce you after we're underway." Ahmed nodded at Rodney and stepped inside.

Rodney kissed John again lightly. "Go. When you get back, F&C will be gone and we'll be set to leave."

John nodded tightly. "Good luck, Rodney."

"May the winds lift you safely home, John."

John walked into the gasdiver and closed the door. Rodney watched it rise off the ground and he stood there, not taking his eyes off it, until he couldn't see it any longer.

***

Katie and Carolyn were waiting for Rodney outside the hanger. Carolyn grabbed his arm, dragged him into a small storage room, and shut the door.

"Let go of me!" Rodney shook off Carolyn's hand. "What the hell?"

Katie crossed her arms. "It's later, Rodney."

"What's going on, McKay?" Carolyn asked. "We need to know."

Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. "Katie...."

"Oh for crying out loud, Rodney. I've lived here for four years and I haven't reported anything that goes on here yet. What do I have to do to get you and Catherine to trust me?" Katie threw her arms up in the air.

Carolyn glared at Rodney and put her arm around Katie and squeezed.

Rodney sighed. "I can't tell you everything."

"McKay," Carolyn said, threateningly.

"No, really, I can't. This involves something from Catherine's past, and I'm not breaking that trust."

Carolyn nodded slowly. "Okay, I can accept that."

"So can I," Katie said, "but I need something."

Rodney shrugged. "Long story short, John's on the run from F&C. He was an unwilling participant in some secret experiments and escaped, and they really, really want him back."

"Fleet and Core wouldn't...." Katie started.

Rodney cut her off. "They would and they did, Katie," he said gently.

Carolyn nodded. "It's not even the first story I've heard like it."

Katie sighed. "I know. I guess. I just don't want to believe that they could do that to someone. John is so nice."

"That's why we're protecting him, Katie," Rodney said. "F&C can't know where he is or where his ship is. If they ask you directly, lie. Do you understand me?"

Katie nodded. "I do. I really do, Rodney. I can lie to them. I just hate it."

Carolyn gave her another squeeze. "We all do."

"Is that all? Can we go now?" Rodney asked, gesturing towards the door.

Katie looked embarrassed. "Yes, I'm sorry. Thank you, Rodney, for trusting me." She gave him a quick hug.

"Yes, well, it was a long time coming."

"I have another question," Carolyn said as she opened the door and stepped outside.

"What?" Rodney asked warily, following her.

"Is John any good in bed?" Carolyn grinned at him and Katie started laughing.

"Carolyn! I'm not answering that!"

"You're never any fun, Rodney." Carolyn sighed dramatically "You never give me any good gossip."

"I hate you so much," Rodney said.

"I can tell." Carolyn looked far too cheerful.

The three of them bickered and teased each other until they reached the rings room. They quieted as they entered. Rodney took in Catherine's worried face and felt himself start to tense. They needed to pull this off, and if they couldn't, there was no telling what might happen.

"We have a Fleet general coming to visit," Catherine said tightly.

Rodney sagged against the wall. "We are completely screwed."

"Breathe, Rodney," Catherine said. "We can handle this."

Rodney straightened and nodded, pulling down his shirt. "We are calm and collected and completely innocent."

"Like anyone's ever going to believe that," Carolyn said under her breath.

Rodney pointed at her, opening his mouth to retort, when the rings activated. He turned to them and stood behind Catherine, taking a few deep breaths. He had to do this. John was depending on him.

A man and a woman stood there. Carolyn started, and Rodney looked sideways at her. She shook her head. Catherine walked up to the new arrivals. "I'm Director Catherine Langford and I'd like to welcome you to our gas mining station. How can we help Fleet and Core?"

The woman shook Catherine's hand and smiled. "My name is Elizabeth Weir, Director Langford. I've heard a lot about you. Your work with F&C hasn't been forgotten and a lot of the old hands still talk about winning you back."

Catherine smiled politely (though Rodney wasn't sure if Weir's small talk was a veiled threat). "I'm happy to hear that, but this mining station was my father's legacy and my focus is here these days."

"Of course," Weir said, equally polite. "May I introduce General Henry Landry?"

Catherine took his hand, murmuring pleasantries. Carolyn seemed to be trying to hide behind Rodney and Katie. That was... odd. Rodney mouthed "What?" at her, but Carolyn just shook her head, her mouth tight.

Catherine led Weir over to where Rodney, Katie, and Carolyn were standing. "I'd like to introduce my senior staff. This is Katie Brown, head of hydroponics." Catherine gestured at Katie, and Weir shook her hand. "Rodney McKay, base engineer." Weir took his hand and frowned for a moment at his face before her calm and polite facade descended again. "And Car...."

General Landry cut her off. "Carolyn!?"

Carolyn sighed, resigned. "Hi, Dad. Long time no see."

"Carolyn Lam, our medic," Catherine finished faintly. Rodney stared at Carolyn. So did everyone else. Katie reached out and took her hand. Rodney had known Carolyn came to Six to get away from something in the Core, but he'd never expected this.

"You work at a gas mining station?" Landry was staring at Carolyn in disbelief.

"Yes, Dad," Carolyn said calmly. "I work at a gas mining station and have for the past seven years."

"Well," Weir said before Landry could reply, "this is certainly a pleasant surprise, but if we could hold off on the family reunion until later, we have business we need to discuss. Do you have someplace we can go, Director Langford?"

"Of course," Catherine said, collecting herself. "Follow me, please." Catherine gestured and led the way out of the rings room.

Rodney waited until Weir and Landry left and then turned to Carolyn. "Are you...."

She sighed. "I'm fine, McKay. Go. We can't leave Catherine alone with them for too long. Katie and I'll be right behind you."

Rodney nodded reluctantly and headed out, catching a glimpse of Katie leaning her forehead against Carolyn's before the door shut. He jogged to catch up with the group, and followed them into one of the base's small, rarely used conference rooms. Catherine and Weir were exchanging meaningless small talk and Landry seemed to be quietly fuming.

"Can I offer you something to drink?" Catherine asked, sitting down at the conference table.

"Please," Weir said. Catherine nodded at Rodney and he walked over to the small transportation rings box and got coffee for everyone. Weir raised an eyebrow. "What technology is that? I've never seen it before."

"Miniaturized transportation rings," Catherine said simply. Rodney glanced at her. Hadn't they agreed to never bring those to attention of F&C? What was she doing?

Landry looked up. "Where did you get them? I've never heard of that before."

"I designed them," Rodney said, forcing himself to remain calm. He sat down next to Catherine.

"Oh?" Landry asked, intrigued. "Where did you study?"

Rodney grimaced. "Nowhere." Landry's eyes flashed with surprise and disgust. Weir looked at him speculatively, as if she was weighing something in her mind and hadn't come to any conclusions yet, which was almost worse than Landry's reaction.

Carolyn and Katie slipped quietly into the room, sitting down at the far end of the table.

"So," Catherine said. "What exactly does Fleet and Core want with my mining station?"

"Getting straight to the point," Landry said, "I like that. Simply put, Director Langford, we have evidence that a very dangerous criminal stopped here and it's possible he may still be hiding on your station." Landry smiled at them, almost smirking. Rodney clenched his fists below the table and bit his cheek, forcing himself to remain calm.

Catherine frowned. "We've only had one spacer stop here in the past week, and he left after just a few hours."

Landry nodded as if he'd expected that. "It's unlikely he'd stay in one spot for long, but it's still a possibility we need to take into account. I'd like permission to interview anyone who interacted with him, see if he told them anything that might be of use to us."

"Of course," Catherine said. "Most spacers who don't stay for long are only here for a quick resupply or emergency repairs, and most likely he only spoke with Engineer McKay, Medic Lam, Mr. Martinez, and myself." Landry flinched at Carolyn's name, but didn't say anything.

Weir clasped her hands on top of the table and looked at Catherine. "We'll need to speak to each person separately, including yourself, Director Langford. May we use this room?"

Catherine nodded and started to say something when the sirens stared blaring. She tapped her radio instead. "Martinez, report."

Rodney tensed. It couldn't be John. They hadn't been gone long enough, and Ahmed wouldn't let John take the first dive, but his heart hammered anyway until Catherine said "Damn. It's Brian Anderson's team, Carolyn. Leesha had a bad dive. She's still alive but fading fast." Carolyn nodded grimly and left the room at a run. Katie followed her.

"Is there anything we can do to help, Director Langford?" Weir asked.

Catherine shook her head. "Not much anyone can do for a bad dive. We'll be lucky if we can keep her alive until her son's dive team is back in base." Catherine sighed. "If you'll excuse me?"

"Of course," Weir said. Catherine looked at Rodney and gave him a slight nod that Rodney knew meant stay here, answer their questions, we'll talk later, and left the room. "Well, Mr. McKay, shall we begin?"

Rodney sighed. "Hit me."

Weir and Landry questioned Rodney for hours, making him repeat himself over and over again. Rodney kept to his story. He'd met Sheppard, spoken to him for a few minutes, and fixed his ship. Rodney found a crystal that had been broken and badly repaired, and replaced it (he made sure to complain about Sheppard using their last spare set). Sheppard left shortly afterwards. Landry grimaced every time Rodney mentioned replacing the crystal.

Rodney sighed. "What are you trying to get me to say? That's the fifth time you've asked that question. My answer isn't going to change."

Weir and Landry looked at each other. "Mr. McKay," Weir said, "did you notice anything particularly unusual about John Sheppard?"

Rodney frowned. "He was too clean for a spacer and he had a weird amount of trouble with our hanger's gravity, but that's all." There was no way he was telling any of these people about John's hair, smile, fondness for flying and terrible holos, and the way he touched Rodney like Rodney was the best thing that had happened to John in years.

Landry scowled more and Weir sat back and sighed.

"I take it that's not the answer you were hoping for," Rodney said.

"Frankly, no, Mr. McKay. The crystal you removed was our only hope of tracking Mr. Sheppard and nothing about the behavior you're reporting tells us anything about where he might've gone from here."

Rodney scowled. "Maybe if you'd marked your sabotage with a little sticker that said 'do not remove, broken on purpose', he'd still be here for you to take... wherever." Rodney waved a hand in the air. "Look, are we done? I have work to do."

"Not quite," Weir said, clasping her hands in front of her. "Mr. McKay, I want to know where those miniaturized rings really came from."

Rodney stared at her, confused and apprehensive. "I designed them. I reverse-engineered them from our rings set."

"You have no training, Mr. McKay," Landry said.

"No formal training, no, but I learned from Catherine and the base's previous engineer, and honestly, I have a lot of time to tinker with things out there." Rodney started to panic. What did they want?

"Mr. McKay, I once saw blueprints for a similar idea once that looked remarkably like the set-up you have here. Tell me again, where did they come from?" Weir raised her eyebrow at him.

"I designed them! I can give you copies of my old notes and blueprints if you really want them, though I'm going to want assurances you're not just out to steal my design. But they're mine." Rodney crossed his arms to keep himself from shaking and glared at Weir and Landry. "The only other people who've ever seen the blueprints for them are Catherine and," Rodney paused, his eyes widening, "my sister." They had Jeannie. They must have Jeannie. Oh god.

Weir looked scarily satisfied, but said only, "I'm sorry to have bothered you about them then, Mr. McKay. It must've just been a coincidence. I understand these things happen, sometimes." She stood up and offered Rodney her hand. "Thank you for your time, Mr. McKay."

"Uh, sure," Rodney said, his heart still pounding.

Landry shook his hand as well. "If you could find and send in one of the others, we'd appreciate it."

"If it doesn't interfere with the treatment of your diver, of course," Weir said smoothly.

Rodney nodded. He walked to the door and passed through it as quickly as he could without looking like he was running away. He dashed into the nearest room and slammed the door behind him. He sunk to the floor, back against the wall, and put his head in his hands. John would be fine. They'd completely bought Rodney's story and John was going to be fine. But Jeannie... Jeannie might not. He stayed in the room, breathing deeply, until his hands stopped shaking.

***

Rodney slipped into Catherine's office. She had the feed from the conference room up on the main viewing screen.

"How's Leesha?" He asked quietly, settling into one of the chairs.

"She's stable," Catherine said, tired. "You did well in there, Rodney."

Rodney nodded. "I think they bought it."

"So do I," Catherine agreed. "We just might be able to pull this off."

"God, I hope so," Rodney said, looking at his hands. On the screen, Weir and Landry were trying to find any hints in Martinez's brief conversations with John as head of the tower. Martinez didn't know the whole story, but he'd grown up on Six just as Rodney had and knew how to spin a lie to save a smuggler.

"I think they're going to call in Carolyn soon," Catherine said. "They can't get much more out of Martinez."

"Catherine," Rodney said, then stopped.

"Hmm?" Catherine replied, still watching the screen.

Rodney took a deep breath. "Catherine, if this works, I'm leaving with John."

Catherine turned to look at him. "I know, kid."

Rodney jerked his head up and looked at her. "What? How did you know? I haven't told anyone!"

"I'm not blind, Rodney. He's different for you, isn't he?" She smiled sadly. "I remember what that was like with my Ernest. You'd be a fool not to leave with him, and you've never been a fool, Rodney."

Rodney stared at her.

"Just promise me you'll come back and visit sometime. You know I think of you like family," Catherine said, "and family keeps in touch."

Rodney nodded. He did know that. "I... you're family to me too, Catherine."

"And I'm probably leaving this base to you, so you should be prepared for that," Catherine said, cheerfully.

"What!?"

"Who else am I going to leave it to, Rodney? No one else knows this bucket of bolts better than you and me. Besides, it'll give you and John an excuse to settle down when you're done exploring the universe." Catherine reached out and patted his arm. "You'll thank me for it someday."

Rodney wasn't so sure about that. "Thanks, I think."

"...well maybe if you'd ever given a damn about me, I would've told you!" Carolyn's voice suddenly came screaming through the feed. Rodney and Catherine turned to watch it, fascinated.

"Did she ever tell you about...." Rodney gestured.

"No," Catherine said. "You?"

"No." Rodney stared as Carolyn crossed her arms and looked for all the world like a sulking teenager.

"Still, it rather works to our advantage. General Landry doesn't seem to be asking Carolyn any questions about Mr. Sheppard at all," Catherine said, smiling.

Rodney laughed and watched as Weir obviously tried to drag the interview back on track and failed.

***

"Thank you for your time, Director Langford," Weir said, shaking Catherine's hand.

Rodney stood with his back to the wall in the rings room, impatient for Weir and Landry to leave. He was still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to say they knew exactly where John was, but they really seemed to have bought the story Catherine, Rodney, and the others had told. Rodney couldn't believe it.

Carolyn stood next to him, glaring at Landry. Katie was gripping Carolyn's hand so tightly Carolyn's fingers were losing color. "Carolyn, are you sure you won't come back with me?" Landry asked.

"Yes!" Carolyn said, clearly frustrated. "I like it here! I like my life and I have an amazing girlfriend who loves me. Would you please just leave and let me get back to it?" Carolyn ripped her hand from Katie's grasp and stormed out the door.

Katie pointed at the door. "I'm sorry, it was very nice to meet you, but I need to...."

Landry nodded, resigned. "Take care of my daughter, Ms. Brown." Katie dashed out the door.

Catherine stared after them. "I'm sorry about that."

"Nothing gets the blood boiling like family," Weir said wryly. "Don't worry about it."

"I'm sorry we couldn't be of more help," Catherine said sincerely. Rodney had to force himself not to laugh.

"Oh no," Weir said, "you were a big help, thank you."

Landry turned to shake Catherine's hand and Weir came over to Rodney. Rodney blinked at her.

"You were very informative, Mr. McKay, thank you," Weir said, holding out her hand.

Rodney shook, reminding himself that these people made bad enemies. "Uh, no problem." His eyes widened as he felt Weir slip something into his palm.

She leaned forward and whispered in his ear "Don't read that until John gets back."

He stared at her, shocked. She winked at him and walked back towards Landry, stepping into the circle.

"If you'll wait here for a moment after we're gone, I believe we have some supplies for you," Weir said.

Catherine nodded. "Thank you."

"It was our pleasure," Weir said and vanished in a flash of white light as the rings activated.

Rodney stared at what Weir had given him. It was a data chip, the type used for transporting small files. She knew about John. She knew Rodney was going to see John again, soon. She'd called him John. Was she playing with him? Were they going to come back and arrest him any second now? Were they going to do to him what they'd done to Jeannie?

The rings activated again and Rodney started, sure he'd see people with guns ready to take him into custody, but it was just boxes.

"Oh thank god, our new intake valve," Catherine said, relieved. "And Mr. Sheppard's crystal set."

***

The rest of the week seemed to pass in a blur. Rodney spent most of his time writing up notes for his successor, whoever that turned out to be. He fixed the intake valve, finally, completely. He packed up the few belongings he had. And he kept staring at Weir's data chip. His curiosity was killing him, but it wasn't for him. It was for John. Rodney could wait.

Waiting for John was harder. Now that the stress of hiding him from Fleet and Core was gone, Rodney spent hours worrying about him. He knew how dangerous gasdiving was. Why had he ever suggested they put John on a team? They could've found someplace else to hide him. John could have a bad dive, miss his wind currents and not make it back to the gasdiver, or even just hit his head on a bunk. There were any number of ways John could be hurt and Rodney wouldn't be there to help him. He hadn't worried this much about anyone since Jeannie was little.

He paced the hanger when Ahmed's team was due back, absolutely sure John would be hurt. Diver 12 set down gently and Rodney forced himself not to rush up to it and demand to be let in. The ramp lowered and Rodney watched the team stream out of the gasdiver. John came out second to last, chatting with MeiLyn and smiling. He spotted Rodney and ran over, sweeping Rodney up and kissing him. Distantly, Rodney heard someone whistle.

John pulled away. "That was amazing, Rodney. You're flying without a ship or even a parachute, just riding the winds and letting them take you where you need to go. I think that was the best thing I've ever done."

Rodney stared at him. "You are completely and totally crazy. Why am I running away with you?"

John just smiled and kissed him again "So?"

Rodney grinned and bounced on his heels. "They completely bought it." He paused. "Well, I think. I need to talk to you."

John's smile faded. "Talk, McKay."

Rodney shook his head. "In private. Also, you need to shower."

Rodney took John back to his quarters. John looked at all the boxes and smiled at him softly. "You're really coming with me."

Rodney frowned. "Of course I am. I said I was, didn't I?"

"People don't always mean what they say, Rodney." John looked tired.

"Well, I mean it. I'm coming with you." Rodney looked away. "Unless you don't want me to, of course."

John put his hand on Rodney's cheek and brought him back to face John. Then he leaned in and gave Rodney the sweetest kiss he'd ever had, long and slow and tender. "I want you to come with me, Rodney."

"Good," Rodney said, smiling. "Now go shower."

Rodney sat on the bed while John showered, staring out at the moon he'd called home for as long as he could remember. Soon, Big Mama wouldn't hang over his head and the ice sheets wouldn't reflect her brilliance at him. Rodney wondered if he'd miss it.

John put his hands on Rodney's shoulders, and Rodney leaned back into him. "So," John said. "You think?"

"Landry bought it completely," Rodney said.

John grimaced. "They sent Landry?"

Rodney nodded. "It actually worked out great for us, because it turns out Carolyn is his long-estranged daughter. He was so concerned with her that I think he kind of forgot about you."

John stared at him. "Carolyn is General Landry's daughter? That's... wow."

Rodney laughed. "None of us knew, either. Katie's been holed up for the past week trying to convince Carolyn she doesn't have to run someplace even more isolated just because her father knows where she lives now."

John snorted. "So where does the 'you think' part come from?"

"I really have no idea what to make of Elizabeth Weir," Rodney said, shaking his head.

John sat down. "They sent Elizabeth?"

Rodney nodded. "Is that a good thing?"

"Elizabeth was the one person on the project who really seemed to be on our side," John said quietly.

"Well, I think she still is, then. As they were leaving, she handed me a data chip and told me to wait to read it until I saw you again." Rodney said, holding it out.

John took the chip gingerly and stared at it. "What's on it?"

"I don't know," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "I was waiting for you."

John got up and reached for one of Rodney's unpacked tablets, slipping the chip in the side. Rodney peered over John's shoulder. There were six files labeled 'sheppard1-6', and one file labeled 'mckay'.

Rodney frowned. "Flick that one over to me, would you?" He picked up the other tablet and waited as John complied, opening the file as soon as it appeared on his screen.

It was a video. Rodney hadn't seen one in years. Most people had switched completely to holos.

"Hi, Mer," Jeannie said. Rodney paused the video, shocked. She looked good. She was alive. He pressed play again. She waved. "I'm alive!" She laughed. "I heard you've been looking for me. I miss you too." Her face grew grave. "But I need you to stop, Mer. I'll find you if I can, but you need to stop looking for me. It's too dangerous. For both us. I don't know if this video will ever reach you, but Elizabeth promised she'd try." She looked at someone off screen and waved them over. A toddler came into the screen and Rodney gripped the tablet harder. "But since I don't know when I'll see you, I want you to meet someone. This is your niece, Madison. Can you say 'hi' to your Uncle Mer, Maddy?" The little girl shook her head and buried it in Jeannie's shoulder. Jeannie laughed again. "I love you, Mer. I'm so sorry. Please don't try to find me."

The video stopped and Rodney wasn't sure how long he sat staring at the tablet before John came and took it out of his hands.

"Rodney?" John sat down next to him, bumping his shoulder.

"I have a niece," Rodney said, dully.

"I heard," John said, quietly. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. No. I don't know. My sister's alive and I have a niece." He started smiling. Jeannie was alive. Jeannie was really alive.

John smiled at him. "Yeah, buddy. You do."

***

Two days later, John flew a gasdiver to Katie's planet. It was filled to capacity with boxes: Rodney's possessions, supplies, and things people on base had just wanted him or John to have. Rodney had no idea so many people on Six actually liked him. Catherine, Carolyn, and Katie came along, unwilling to let Rodney go without a proper send-off. Catherine said it was good for Martinez to get a chance at running the base himself for once.

They transferred the cargo into Freedom's Chance quickly, filling the empty hold. Katie brought over a small hydroponic garden she'd created for them and carefully set it up in one of the empty bedrooms. Carolyn stocked their small infirmary. And then finally, everything was done, and it was time to go.

Katie reached out for Rodney first, pulling him into a hug. "I'll miss you, Rodney. Take care of yourself."

Rodney patted her back awkwardly. "You too, Katie. Keep Carolyn around, she's good for you."

Katie smiled. "I'm going to, believe me." She kissed Rodney on the cheek and let go, turning to give John a hug. John immediately stiffened and didn't even manage the back pat before Katie let him go, kissing him on the cheek as well. John touched his cheek like he wasn't sure what to do with that and Rodney laughed. John was even worse with all of this sentiment than he was.

Carolyn smiled at Rodney. "You'll teach him to be better at that, right?" She asked, grinning, and gave him a quick squeeze.

"I wouldn't bet on it," Rodney said. Carolyn moved on to John, and Rodney turned to Catherine.

"You'd better keep in touch," Catherine said. "You know the smuggler data routes. Use them, or I am going to fly to wherever you are and kick your ass."

"I will, Catherine," Rodney said, moving in to give her a quick hug.

She squeezed him back tightly and whispered in his ear. "I love you, kid. Take care of yourself." He nodded and squeezed her tighter, hoping she got what he meant. By her smile when he let go, he thought she did. "It's time for you to go and live your life, Rodney. Enjoy it. And may the winds lift you safely home."

The three of them put their air tanks on and walked out the airlock, giving Rodney one last wave. He waved back, not just to them, but to everything he'd ever known.

John came up behind him. "Ready to go, buddy?"

"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, I am." They walked up the spiral staircase, past the living area, and onto the bridge. The view of the sea through the window was breathtaking.

John sat down in the pilot's chair and started his preflight. Rodney walked over to him and tilted John's chin up and kissed him.

"What was that for?" John asked, as Rodney settled himself in the co-pilot's chair.

"Do I need a reason?" Rodney smiled.

John smiled back. "No. No, you don't."

"So where are we going? Elizabeth's letter gave you a contact, didn't it?" Rodney asked, not taking his eyes away from John's.

John nodded. "New Athos. We're going to go find a woman named Teyla Emmagan."

Rodney sat back as John lifted off and he closed his eyes, trusting John to fly him wherever he needed to go.