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Playing Nice in the Sandbox

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The fourth time his brother called him in less than ten minutes, Sherlock Holmes considered turning off his phone. However, there was always the chance Lestrade would call with a really smashing double homicide, and if his phone was turned off, then he’d miss out. Even Mycroft’s pestering was worth the chance of a double homicide, seeing as he hadn’t had one of those in what seemed to be ages; therefore, the mobile stayed on. Besides, it would stop ringing soon enough, which it did…only to begin again two minutes later.

“Are you going to answer that?” John Watson asked from behind his laptop screen.

John didn’t bother to look up from where he sat at the table across from Sherlock, although Sherlock thought that had more to do with not wanting to see exactly what his consulting detective flatmate was up to at the moment than being engrossed in what he was writing. After all, it was only his blog, and seeing as they hadn’t had a truly interesting case in weeks, there was nothing very exciting John could be writing about.

“Sherlock, your phone,” John reminded when it continued to ring.

“Yes, it is my phone, and, no, I’m not going to answer it.” Sherlock went back to cataloging the mold spores he’d collected from the basement of St. Bart’s the night before. Ah, Cladosporium elatum. He already had a sample of this one, but the one he'd recently collected looked to be in much better condition than the other.

“It could be important,” John pointed out, although he didn’t really sound like he thought it would be. In fact, he didn’t stop typing in his blog.

Sherlock studied the glass slide in his hand. “I’m sure Mycroft thinks it is.”

“No doubt he does.” John exhaled resignedly, but didn’t push the matter further.

Sherlock’s lips curled at the response. John made no secret of how brilliant he found Sherlock, but the truth was, Sherlock found John quite brilliant in his own quiet, unassuming way. Who else, knowing what John did about Mycroft and his work with the government, would dismiss the man’s calls as easily as Sherlock had? Not that he would admit it out loud, but Sherlock really enjoyed these quiet days around the flat—John reading or blogging, Sherlock running experiments or writing in his own blog—although he wouldn’t turn down that double homicide if the opportunity were to present itself. Still, he had absolutely no desire to speak to his brother, as Mycroft would, no doubt, have some miserable government case involving boring microfilms to decode, or an international incident with lewd photographs to be recovered, or a royal summons involving misbehaving minor viscounts, all of which he needed Sherlock’s assistance to solve. Sherlock had much rather sit listening to the tap of John’s laptop while identifying mold than deal with Mycroft’s nonsense any day.

Although, really, would it kill someone to actually kill someone in the general vicinity of London today?

By the beep of his phone, Mycroft had apparently decided to forgo the calls and instead resorted to texting.

Call me straight away ~ MH

The only thing Sherlock did straight away was make a note: Aspergillus sojae. A bit odd to find in a hospital basement, but not all that uncommon.

BEEP. Call me now, Sherlock, or you can hold yourself responsible for what happens next ~ MH

The mold was commonly used in the fermentation of soy sauce, if he remembered correctly, which, of course, he always did. “What do you think of Chinese tonight?”

John looked up with a considering expression. “Dim sum or takeaway?”

“Either,” Sherlock dismissed with a wave of his hand as he turned back to his mold. “You decide.”

The front door buzzer put an end to their meal time plans, and it wasn’t long before Mrs. Hudson was walking a courier up the stairs. Sherlock stood, fully expecting that Mycroft had decided to have his request personally delivered, but Mrs. Hudson looked instead to John.

“This young man has a parcel for you. It’s certified”-- she practically whispered that last confidentially--“needs your personal signature.”

Sherlock stopped his subconscious evaluation of the messenger—male, early twenties, recent university dropout, from a wealthy family, currently cut off, most likely as a result of being a recent university dropout, fending for himself for the first time in his life, living with three roommates, sexually involved with one, was out at a club last night, still sporting the entrance stamp and the hangover—who was definitely privately hired and not one of Mycroft’s lackeys.

Still….

John rose and signed for the envelope—8 x 10, bright white, 80% recycled stock, government purchased, with Captain John Watson and their 221B Baker Street address printed directly onto the front. Sherlock would need a closer look to be sure, but it appeared to be from a standard government laser printer, the Ministry of Defence address and seal preprinted in the upper corner.

Sherlock walked to the far side of the room and dialed Mycroft.

Mycroft waited three rings before picking up, and Sherlock was sure that was the least of the ways his brother planned to punish him for his insolence today.

“Why, Sherlock, how nice of you to ring me.”

“What have you done?” Sherlock watched John open the envelope, watched the way his brow furrowed as he pulled out a stack of papers and read the first few lines of the cover letter, felt his own heart start to beat faster.

“I need your assistance on a matter of some urgency,” Mycroft explained in the same tone most people would use to invite you to tea. “There is an item that needs retrieving, a very delicate item in a very delicate location.”

“Bloody hell.” John blew out the words as if using the last puff of air in his lungs. He actually had to reach out to steady himself on the back of his chair only to stumble a step when he realized it wasn’t there.

“Where?” Sherlock demanded tensely, already having a very good idea what the answer was going to be.

“Is everything all right, dear?” Mrs. Hudson asked John in worry.

“I’ve been recalled into the Army,” John told her in a daze, before continuing to read the letter.

“Afghanistan,” Mycroft said through the sudden buzzing in Sherlock’s ears.

Sherlock turned his back on John and Mrs. Hudson and that horrible 80% recycled government stationary John clutched in his hand, and lowered his voice. “Don’t ask me to do this,” Sherlock begged into the mobile, and Sherlock never begged. But begging was nothing compared to what he had done for John in the past. “Don’t ask John to do this.”

“Come now, Sherlock,” Mycroft rationalized, “he would never have let you go without him. We both know that.”

“Which is precisely why I do not want to go.”

Sherlock had infiltrated a terrorist cell in Pakistan to save Irene Adler’s life; he’d traveled to some of the most dangerous hot spots in the world tracking down Moriarty’s network of assassins after faking his own death. And just like during those other situations, he wasn’t the least bit worried for himself.

“I’m to be assigned to special duty in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.” John’s voice had gone from bemused to stunned.

Sherlock had no qualms about going to Afghanistan, but the thought of John going back to the same area where he’d been shot…. “Retract the letter. I’ll go, slip away, he’ll never know.”

“The area I need you to visit is one of the last currently controlled by British troops,” Mycroft explained. “It will make sense to have a military attaché attached to the two men you will be escorting since Colonel Sheppard is United States Air Force.”

Two men, Air Force colonel, sensitive item…Sherlock filed all that information away as irrelevant. There was only one thing, one person of any relevance at the moment.

“Surely there is at least one active member of the British Army who can act in that capacity without having to reinstate John.”

“Yes, but they are all currently assigned to regiments that report up through the Ministry of Defence.”

“And you want your own private soldier,” Sherlock quickly surmised. “Why?”

“The item is of a very…sensitive nature.”

“So sensitive the Minister of Defence doesn’t know about it.”

“Nor will he ever know if things go according to plan, which they will if you and John are there to make sure they do, and that the Americans don’t overstep their bounds.”

John’s eyes widened as he finished the letter and skimmed over the other documents in the packet. “They’ve even included my deployment papers.”

“And when this is over?” Sherlock asked into the mobile.

“An immediate honorable discharge for John and appropriate commendations,” Mycroft assured.

Sherlock snorted derisively. “If I refuse, I assume his deployment will be considerably longer.”

“You should really answer when I ring, Sherlock.”

“And you should be aware, Mycroft, that if he so much as stubs his big toe, I am holding you personally responsible.”

“I’m to report to RAF Brize Norton on Thursday?” Now there was touch of anger in John’s voice, but there was still a hint of panic in his eyes when they met Sherlock’s. “I’m to deploy in two days!”

“No,” corrected Sherlock, the line still open with Mycroft, “we’re to deploy in two days.”

* * * * *

Ever since he first received word of the mission to Afghanistan, John Sheppard had tried to figure out how to keep Rodney McKay from accompanying him. Woolsey had been absolutely no help whatsoever, pointing out what John already knew to be the truth-- that of all the scientists who could go on the mission, Rodney was by far the most experienced in regards to both the potential equipment they might find and field experience. John had even contacted Sam Carter for advice on how to keep Rodney from going…at least Woolsey hadn’t laughed at him before apologizing and suggesting maybe Daniel Jackson could go instead. Like McKay would go for that idea. John might as well have carried Rodney’s bags through the gate right then if he had even suggested it, because there was no way Rodney would have let that happen. When it came to Jackson, Rodney was like the neighborhood kid terrified of being chosen last for the pickup game of baseball: he may be toward the bottom of the list, but he could hold his head high if he was at least selected before Daniel.

Teyla and Ronon hadn’t been any help either.

“Rodney has gone on dangerous missions before,” Teyla had pointed out. “Why is this so different?”

“Because it’s Afghanistan,” John had sighed, knowing that was no explanation for anyone but himself.

And that, right there, was the crux of why John couldn’t figure out how to keep McKay from going and why he’d so desperately wanted Rodney to stay behind. Afghanistan was that deep, dark, nightmare spot he pushed as far down in his subconscious as possible; not because he was worried about keeping himself safe, but because he’d shown how spectacularly bad he was at keeping others safe there. The thought of any of his team in that fucking country made John’s stomach clench tight in dread. The idea of just him and Rodney, who envisioned himself as some sort of love child of Einstein and Rambo, made him want to lose his lunch.

“Then take us with you, too,” Ronon had tried, yet again, to have him and Teyla join the mission.

“Believe me, I wish I could,” John admitted, knowing it was a lie even as he said it, and grateful for the restrictions placed on them by the British delegation of the IOA. “The Brits are sending two guys and we send two guys, or else we’ll draw too much attention to the mission. The absolute last thing we want is the Taliban getting their hands on some Ancient doohickey.”

At least that’s what they thought it was. Ends up, the SGC had picked up a kind of ping coming through at an ultrahigh-range frequency through the gate on Earth. They’d written it off as some sort of background static from solar winds for months before they started investigating it more closely once they'd realized it wasn’t so much transmitting through the gate as communicating with it. Over time, the communications had grown from a simple check to see if it would say hello back, to more elaborate "questions" from whatever was communicating with the gate, as if the device were testing the gate in Cheyenne Mountain. So far, it had been acing the exam, but what happened if it missed one?

That ongoing communication and the correlation between its appearance and the destruction of the Antarctic control chair by the Wraith had finally gotten someone off their ass and taking notice. They had triangulated the location to a remote mountainous region in Afghanistan within the sector controlled by British forces. Another few months of negotiating with some muckity muck in London to access the area had finally resulted in the need for a team to investigate. The fact that it was communicating with the gate on a rudimentary level, combined with the area where it was located being some of the earliest human settlements on Earth, suggested Ancient origins. Some thought it might be a sister outpost to the one in Antarctica. At the very least, it had power, and that could mean a ZPM. Either way, chances were no one would know more about the tech they found than McKay, and no one had experience in Afghanistan like Sheppard. Thus, the two of them were the natural choice for the mission.

Unfortunately, John’s natural choice had been to rack his brain trying to come up with a way to keep Rodney off the mission….

“Christ, this place makes a flight through the coronasphere of a sun seem like the walk-in cooler on Atlantis.” McKay squinted up into the pale blue, cloudless sky as soon as they stepped off the Black Hawk and onto the tarmac at Camp Bastion. “And I should know as I’ve been in both.”

Yeah, John had tried to keep Rodney off the mission; he’d also failed spectacularly. So here they were back in the Sandbox, as Afghanistan was less than affectionately known by those serving here. And there was no such thing as playing nice.

“So have I,” John reminded as he slid his sunglasses into place and scanned the surrounding area before turning back to Rodney and tapping his chest lightly. “Remember what I told you.”

“Yes, yes, the vest stays on, even in the chow hall. Be alert, trust no one, look both ways before crossing the street.” Rodney rolled his eyes. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Sheppard. Besides, we’re on Earth; we’ve faced much worse back in Pegasus.”

John made a pained face. “Don’t do that.”

“What? Blow off your orders?”

“Say things like ‘first rodeo.’ It’s embarrassing.”

John may have been giving McKay a hard time, but he’d meant what he’d said to Rodney… repeatedly… about being alert at all times while they were in Afghanistan. They were on an ally’s base of operations, but that didn’t mean shit in this country. Hell, they could be deep in the middle of Bagram Air Force Base and John still wouldn’t feel safe. At any damn second, mortars could start streaming in, or a car bomb might explode at the gate, or one of the supposedly friendly locals could blow themselves sky high, and that was why John hated McKay being here so damn much.

The Wraith? Hell, they were easy, predictable in their supervillain kind of way…bow before me as your Queen as I suck out your life on my creepy ass Hive ship lair. Yada yada yada. They were one laser beam to the crotch away from a Bond master criminal. Not like here, where the kid who sold you bootleg DVDs one week could have a bomb strapped to his chest the next. The scary thing was that during his stint here, John had gotten used to it. If he planned to keep Rodney alive, which was number one on his to-do list at the moment, he couldn’t let his guard down for a second, and neither could McKay.

“Oh, so now you’re the vernacular police,” McKay snipped. “Are all colloquialisms off the table, or just those related to cowboys?”

“Definitely the cowboy terms, and I hold veto power over any others.” John raised his hand before McKay could argue with him further. Normally, he wouldn’t mind it, would actually welcome their usual back and forth, but here nothing was normal. “Just…eyes open, Rodney. Please. I need you to be on your toes.”

“Always.” Rodney frowned slightly, less in irritation than what looked to be concern at the sincerity of John’s request. It didn’t stop him from raising his chin defensively and grumbling, “Apparently anatomical idioms are still allowed.”

“Veto power,” John reminded as he went back to scanning the area around them.

Although John had spent very little time on British bases during his stint in-country, Bastion was like pretty much every other base he’d seen in Afghanistan: helicopters, trucks, people in uniform everywhere going about their assigned duties…and then there were the two men standing near a hangar, one, shorter with light hair, regulation cut, wearing a British uniform like it was a second skin, and the other tall and lanky, dark hair long enough to curl, in khaki-colored civilian gear under a tactical vest, looking completely out of his element.

“So where do we check in to find the guys we’re supposed to meet?” Rodney asked, glancing around.

“That’s them there.” John motioned with a hitch of his chin to the two men.

McKay furrowed his brow. “How do you know?”

It was a legitimate question considering the very limited information they’d been given about their contacts. But as John watched the shorter man try to help the other with an Afghani-style scarf around his neck, he could see the tight set of the man’s lips, the rigidness of his shoulders, the way his eyes scanned the area even as he spoke with the taller one. John felt like he was looking in a mirror.

They’re friends, John thought to himself. They’re friends and he doesn’t want his buddy here any more than I do.

“That’s them,” John replied, avoiding answering McKay’s question, as he walked over toward them.

As he and Rodney got closer, John could hear bits of conversation between the two men.

“They’re here; you can stop fussing,” the taller man noted as soon as he caught sight of John and Rodney.

“I saw them get out of the Black Hawk,” the other noted as he worked to fasten the other’s vest. “You’ve done this up all wrong.”

“This is ridiculous,” the taller man complained. “Not to mention extremely heavy.”

“Yes, Sherlock, it is ridiculous that you are even here. But you insisted on coming; therefore, you will wear this bloody thing at all times, as we discussed before we left London.”

“I don’t recall any discussions on bulletproof vests.”

“It was while I was in my room packing.”

The taller man…Sherlock? And John had thought Pegasus had cornered the market on weird-ass names… straightened in indignation. “I never came in your room while you were packing.”

“Yes, I know; which was why it was a rather pleasant conversation and a very easy decision to reach.”

“It’s uncomfortable.” Sherlock shifted irritably.

The other man, a captain by his insignia, seemed unfazed by the complaint, and maybe even a little bit vindicated. “Yes, you’re right, it is. But you’re still wearing it.” A small grin crept onto his face as he said innocently, “I thought you might enjoy it seeing as it’s too hot to wear your coat.”

Sherlock’s frown deepened. “There’s no collar.”

“Yeah, but you still get a scarf.” The captain grinned wider as he tugged at the shemagh around the other man’s neck.

The captain was rewarded by an eye roll to rival the best of McKay’s, which was promptly ignored as he turned his attention to Sheppard.

“Colonel Sheppard, I presume?” When John nodded, he smiled. “Good. We weren’t provided any information other than your names, but with you coming off the American bird, I assumed it was you.”

“Well, you’re one up on us,” John admitted. “We weren’t even given names.”

He offered a hand in greeting. “Captain John Watson, previously of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.”

“Previously?” John questioned.

“Yes,” Watson said hesitantly. “I was recently returned to service after being out for a while.”

John raised a curious eyebrow. “Willingly returned?”

“A favor of sorts,” the captain evaded, glancing back at his friend. “I have certain…uhm… skills that were necessary for this mission that no one else has.” He quickly turned his attention to Rodney. “And Dr. McKay. It’s always a pleasure to meet another medical practitioner.”

John snorted and said, “Oh, he’s not a real doctor.”

At the same time Sherlock spoke up for the first time. “He’s not a physician. A doctorate in a theoretical science of some sort.” That last bit he dismissed as if the details weren’t important.

Rodney glared first at John. “Dammit, Sheppard, stop saying that. My degree is just as real as his, and a hell of lot more useful in the long run.” Then he turned his ire on Sherlock. “And what do you know about me?”

Watson rubbed at his eyebrow and mumbled, “Oh, dear.”

Sherlock ignored him and took one quick glance at McKay. “I know you hold your gun comfortably but not in a disciplined manner. It’s a very large gun to which civilians, even in America, have limited access which means you are, somehow, experienced in combat, and yet have no formal military experience. Trained by someone experienced, but not nearly as disciplined as your typical drill instructor…given your companion’s rank combined with his less than regulation haircut, I’d say he was the one who trained you. Your physique speaks to an entirely different lack of discipline, combined with the slight hunch to your shoulders suggesting you spend a great deal of time in a lab setting, bent over equipment and computers, but your hands show a myriad of scrapes and small scars. Unlikely that combat injuries would be so minor and limited to your hands, it suggests the use of soldering irons, wire cutters, pliers, and the like. The most likely science to apply those skills would be engineering, but there’s an air to you, an ego and pride in not only your work but your capabilities, a belief that you know things others don’t, which would suggest work of a theoretical nature, physics perhaps with an engineering background.”

Rodney’s mouth was slightly ajar in stunned silence.

“Astrophysics,” John clarified warily.

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Oh, yes, that whole Earth, moon, sun rotational nonsense.”

McKay’s shock turned quickly to outrage. “Nonsense?”

John ignored Rodney and asked Watson, “I thought you said you didn’t have any information about us other than our names?”

Watson let out what sounded to be a longsuffering sigh. “We don’t.”

Turning back to Sherlock, John demanded, “Then how did you just do that?”

“Simple observation,” Sherlock shrugged. “Shall I tell you about your authority issues that stem back to your father?”

Watson stepped in then and stopped Sherlock from following through with his threat by introducing him. “And this is Sherlock Holmes, governmental consultant.”

“Consulting detective,” Sherlock corrected with a smug rock back on his heels.

Watson gave him a sideways glance as he stressed, “Here you’re just a consultant.”

Sherlock tilted his head toward Watson. “Nowhere am I just a consultant.”

“Sherlock?” Rodney said the name with a sort of disgusted amazement. “Your name is actually Sherlock and you go by it?”

Raising an eyebrow, Sherlock asked, “Would you prefer I use my middle name the same as you?”

Rodney looked to John. “Seriously, how the hell is he doing that?”

“No,” Watson ordered with a firm shake of his head. “No middle name. That would be…not good. Possibly even insulting to anyone who speaks Pashto. No, I think it’s time we showed Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay to their quarters.”

“Look, I’m not much for formalities, and we’re going to be working together, so you can call me John if you like,” Sheppard offered.

“Oh, the hell you will,” Rodney interjected. “I’ve already gone through the whole ‘here a colonel, there a colonel, everywhere a colonel, colonel’ nightmare when you were promoted. I’m not about to do it again with your name. You can be Colonel, Sheppard, or Colonel Sheppard, but you are not going to go by John when there is another one around.”

“Perhaps he’s right,” Watson conceded before asking, “How would you prefer to be addressed?”

Rodney raised his chin. “Dr. McKay will be fine.”

“Rodney…,” John chastised.

“Or Rodney, if you prefer,” McKay grumbled.

“Very well. You can call me Watson, I suppose.”

Sherlock frowned deeply at that. “Why should they need to do that? If Colonel Sheppard is not using John, then there is no reason you can’t.”

“It’s just easier,” Watson tried to reason.

“How is changing how I call you any easier?”

“Less confusion all around,” Watson tried again.

“The only thing that is confusing is why we would even need to change anything with your name,” Sherlock argued. “Dr. McKay doesn’t even call Colonel Sheppard by his given name most of the time. Given his fragile masculinity associated with his own given name’s feminine nature, he rarely calls anyone by their first name.”

“Oh, come on!” Rodney exclaimed. “You cannot tell me he hasn’t read our files.”

“It makes perfect sense for everyone to call you and me by our first names,” Sherlock continued, “Dr. McKay by his middle name, and Colonel Sheppard by his last.”

Watson pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. Is everyone in agreement then?”

Rodney looked Sherlock straight in the eyes. “You can call Watson anything you like, but I’m not calling him John.” Then he turned on his heels and started across the tarmac.

Sherlock glared after him before turning accusingly to Sheppard. “He’s a very petty man.” Then he turned on his heels and stormed off in the opposite direction.

Sheppard and Watson watched them go before John turned to the British captain. “And what exactly are those special skills you have that got you stuck on this mission?” Because putting up with that on a daily basis made working with McKay look like a walk in the goddamn park.

“Managing Sherlock,” Watson admitted.

“Ah. Having any luck with that?” John asked.

“Unfortunately, yes, I am.” He sighed. “For your sake and the sake of the entire country, let’s pray I continue to keep him in check.”

Great. As if being in Afghanistan wasn’t bad enough.

* * * * *

John Watson had been a brilliant field surgeon during his time with the Army. That was not bragging, just like Sherlock claiming to be a brilliant consulting detective was not bragging; it was simply fact. And the fact was, if he had not been bloody well shot in the shoulder and lost some of the more delicate nerve activity in his fingers, and thus been prone to minor hand tremors, he would still be a brilliant field surgeon stationed in Afghanistan.

Fortunately for the poor bloke he was currently working on behind the burning remains of a Foxhound military vehicle, the more delicate nerve functions in his hands weren’t necessary to stop the sergeant from bleeding out.

“Find the Celox gauze in my field kit!” he yelled to Sherlock to be heard over the gunfire that was continuing around them. “And for God’s sake, keep your fucking head down!”

Sherlock, for his part, was wide-eyed in a way that reminded John of a kid on a thrill ride at a theme park— grey eyes bright with equal parts terror and exhilaration. At least he was wearing his bloody vest properly, although John had had to fix it again this morning. He was starting to think Sherlock was just testing his resolve by not fastening it correctly. As if John would finally give in and say, “Fine, suit yourself, don’t wear it.” Not bloody likely, especially after a roadside bomb just blew up the two lead vehicles in their convoy.

Not surprisingly, it had been Sherlock who had actually been the one to first notice the man with the detonator. Unfortunately, he hadn’t realized it until it was too late to do anything.

They had been riding in a Panther, midway in a line of various armored and transport vehicles traveling east to Gereshk. As their destination was apparently about forty miles north of that area, it had seemed the safest and least conspicuous way to travel until their detour to the caves Sheppard and McKay had shown them on the map. When the two Americans had found out that he and Sherlock knew almost nothing about their mission, they had become very hush hush about the details, simply telling them there was a potentially important archeological site that was under threat from the Taliban, and vital information might be lost if it was not recovered.

Actually, they were one American and one Canadian, as Dr. McKay had pointed out, to which Sherlock had noted, “That explains a great deal,” promptly pissing off the Canadian even further. Sherlock, obviously, had a knack for that, but the secrecy was even starting to play on John’s nerves. First Mycroft and now these Yanks were obviously not telling them the whole story, and if Sherlock had figured out the truth of it all, he wasn’t sharing either.

Sheppard had volunteered to drive, which meant Watson was in the back seat with Sherlock, because the only thing Watson could think of being worse than riding with Sherlock was riding with Dr. McKay.

After about an hour of dusty roads, Rodney had told Sheppard, “We should have brought our own transportation.”

“That really wouldn’t have been a good idea,” the colonel noted with a meaningful hitch of his head toward John and Sherlock.

“You honestly don’t think we can keep this mission a secret from two people who will be with us when we reach the Ancient base, do you?”

“I think we have our orders, and they have theirs,” Sheppard stressed. “If the British representative of the IOA wanted them to know, he would have told them.”

“If there is one thing my brother loves more than keeping secrets,” Sherlock noted, casually staring out the window at the brown and tan countryside, “it’s attempting to keep secrets from me.”

Rodney had turned around at that. “Your brother is a member of the IOA?”

Sherlock shrugged. “He’s a member of a great many three letter organizations. As he was the one to recruit us for this particular mission, I can only deduce he is a member of the one you mentioned.”

John stopped himself from asking what the IOA was. Sherlock would think the actually letter designations were extraneous, and Sheppard and McKay would probably consider the information classified.

Besides, the convoy was entering a village, which meant they had more important things to consider than secret governmental organizations.

“Heads up,” Sheppard warned, slowing their transport to a crawl as the trucks in front of him did the same.

“What’s happening?” Rodney asked, scanning the area before them through the windscreen.

“Goat herd in the road,” Sheppard replied when they came to a complete stop, even as he tapped at the P-90 strapped to McKay’s vest.

John tightened his grip on his own gun, which had Sherlock frowning at him.

“It’s a common ploy for the insurgents,” John explained, even as he looked out his window for any signs of pending attack. “They block the road as a means to set up an ambush.”

“I don’t see anything,” Sherlock told him confidently.

The truck started moving slowly again as John shook his head. “That’s the problem with an ambush, Sherlock, you rarely do see anything.”

“There are goats, children playing football, two women with their washing, another carrying a chicken, two men on the street watching us as closely as we are watching them, another placing a call, a dog—“

“Shit!” Sheppard exclaimed, looking out the window.

John skipped the expletive he was thinking and instead grabbed Sherlock’s arm. “The man with the mobile, where?”

“That building, third floor, second window to the left,” Sherlock told them.

“On it,” John said, only this time he was speaking to Sheppard who was already on the radio calling in the location of the bomber. He was opening his door, gun at the ready, when he told Sherlock firmly, “Stay here; stay down.”

John’s boots hit the dirt of the road with a crunch of gravel. Funny how his senses became almost hyperaware of the most irrelevant little details at a time like this, but they always did. He held the window Sherlock had noted in the sights of his rifle, but couldn’t see anyone. Maybe Sherlock had been mistaken. Not bloody likely considering Sherlock was Sherlock.

Sheppard opened his own door as John reached the bonnet of their truck.

“See him?” the colonel asked a split second before the blast hit.

John struck the ground flat on his back, which, it turned out, was an amazing spot from which to watch the lead Foxhound rise several feet in the air and land in a burning heap. The truck behind that one didn’t go flying, as it wasn’t directly over the charge, but it still buckled violently before being engulfed in flames.

“John!” It was yelled in stereo, one voice with a decidedly British accent and the other, John surmised, was Canadian. Although, to be honest, it was rather hard to hear anything through the ringing in his ears.

“Stay in the damn truck!” That was definitely Sheppard, who was positioned just above his head and firing at the friends of whoever planted the bomb. “Watson?” He yelled to be heard.

“Alive,” John asserted, and as best he could tell, in one piece.

He rolled to his belly with a grunt, using his elbows to prop himself up enough to fire in the direction where he could see several men behind a partially stripped car. The wheels were gone and one door, but it provided enough cover that John couldn’t get a clear shot. Of course, the way the world still wasn’t completely in focus wasn’t helping matters. In those situations, quantity usually won out over quality of shots taken, and John did his best to return as many as possible.

“Move!” Sheppard ordered when he seemed convinced that if John could shoot he could make his way behind their truck.

John prepared to push himself up from the ground when a hand hooked under his arm and yanked him up. It wasn’t until he was on his feet that he realized it was Sherlock beside him. He didn’t even have time to yell at his flatmate for getting out of the Panther before Sherlock was thrown backwards, taking a hit.

For one horrifying split second, John felt a sickening déjà vu watching Sherlock fall to the ground. This time it wasn’t from the top of a building, but he could be dead, really dead, this time, all the same. The last thing John wanted was to mourn Sherlock a second time, especially if this time being dead stuck.

Then one word rang out in his still slightly addled brain: Vest.

Vest, John thought desperately as he dove to the ground beside Sherlock. He’s wearing his vest.

Sherlock was gasping for air from the hit, but there was no blood. Thank God for small miracles. Chances were good Sherlock had a cracked rib, but he’d live…if they could get under cover before the next shot hit him in the head. John hooked both hands in the armholes of Sherlock’s vest, stood with a grunt, and practically dragged Sherlock behind the truck while Sheppard provided cover.

“What in bloody hell were you thinking?” John started in as soon as he had Sherlock propped against the front wheel of the truck and his vest unfastened enough to confirm it had done its job. Sherlock’s heart was pounding hard against John’s palm, but at least that palm came back free of blood. “When I tell you to stay in the truck, you stay in the fucking truck! When Colonel Sheppard tells you to stay in the truck, you stay in the fucking truck!”

At that moment, McKay opened the passenger door and stuck out his head. “Is he okay?”

“Stay in the fucking truck!” both John and Sheppard yelled at the same time.

The door closed, but not without an angry glare from Rodney. John exchanged a look with Sheppard that spoke to the unfortunate similarities of their lives with McKay and Sherlock in them.

Refastening Sherlock’s vest, John patted it, only feeling the tiniest twinge of guilt at the way Sherlock winced in pain. “And don’t you dare give me crap about this vest again.”

“Never…give…you crap,” Sherlock protested. “Unless…you’re being ridiculous.”

“You always give me crap,” John countered.

“And what…do you deduce from…that?” Sherlock’s lips quirked slightly; more than they should on a man who was just shot in a war zone.

He was breathing easier already, which had John doing the same. He hadn’t realized his hand was shaking slightly where it rested on the vest until Sherlock’s long fingers looped around his wrist and squeezed minutely.

“What now, Captain Watson?” Remarkably, there was no sarcasm in Sherlock’s voice.

That was a good question considering they weren’t attached to the unit with whom they were currently traveling. As a result, John had no idea if reinforcements were on their way or they were on their own. Not to mention, he was a surgeon, not a platoon leader.

John waited for Sheppard to stop firing for a second. “Colonel, what do you recommend?”

Before Sheppard could answer his question, John heard someone calling for a medic. There was a medic with the unit, John had noticed him when they loaded up today, but he wouldn’t be able to do much more than basic first aid. By the bright red hands waving the young man over to the burning shell of the first Foxhound, John knew they needed more help than the field medic would be able to deliver.

Sheppard gave John a quick hitch of his head, indicating he’d cover him. John nodded in return, but Sherlock grabbed his arm before he could leave.

“This isn’t your responsibility.”

Sherlock could be a heartless bastard, no doubt. But this time there was more in his face than simply being disinterested in the people around him. It was interest in the one person he did care about that had him trying to keep John at his side.

“Sherlock, I’m a surgeon with the British Army—“ John tried to reason.

With a shake of his head, Sherlock argued, “Not on this mission. You’re a military attaché, and I’m just a government consultant.”

Leave it to Sherlock to use his own logic against him. Well, turn about was fair play. “You are never just a consultant, and I am always an Army surgeon.”

Sherlock’s lips quirked as he glanced down at John’s hand, which had gone stone still in his grasp. “Then I’m going with you.”

Which was how John had ended up working on a kid who couldn’t be much past twenty years old with Sherlock looking on and apparently having the time of his life. John wondered if this is what he had looked like that day he and Sherlock had chased down a cab outside of Angelo’s, and John had ended up at Baker Street without his cane but with his heart racing as much from the adrenaline as the run. Given how that one night had changed his life completely, he hoped the rush of war wasn’t having the same effect on Sherlock. John made a mental note to make sure Sherlock didn’t off and enlist in Her Majesty’s Service once they were back in London.

Unfortunately, by the time the shooting had stopped and they had the wounded man loaded in the Chinook, Sherlock’s excitement had turned to brooding.

“You did well with that injured man,” Sherlock said, his tone a bit of an accusation.

“Yes.” John nodded, feeling a sense of pride in his work. “Well, it’s what I do.”

“You are doing very well overall,” Sherlock noted, a thoughtful crease forming between his eyes, before he turned and walked back toward their Panther.

Sherlock completely ignored Sheppard when they passed each other. Sheppard turned and watched him go before coming to stand beside John.

“I’d ask what’s bugging him, but that seems to be his normal state,” Sheppard said, arm hanging casually on the weapon slung on his vest.

John gave him an amicable nod, because the only thing predictable about Sherlock’s moods were their unpredictability. This, however, was a bit unexpected even for him.

“I think he’s worried I’m planning on staying,” John noted in dawning amazement.

“Do you need to?” Sheppard asked, misunderstanding John’s statement. “We need to get going if we’re going to make those caves before nightfall. Any other day, I might say let’s call it a bust and try again tomorrow, but we received word this morning that things have escalated back at our HQ and the sooner we reach these caves, the better. So if you need to head back to base with your patient—“

“Oh, no, no,” John assured him. “He’s in much better hands with the surgical unit back at Bastion.”

“It sure didn’t look that way today,” Sheppard noted. “You did a hell of a job, with the wounded man and in the firefight.”

John gave a small laugh. “Old habit, I guess. Although, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been under fire like that. The last time….” John’s smile faded and he shook his head.

“Yeah, those last times can be a bitch,” Sheppard consoled as if he had had a bad last time, too. “Look, it’s none of my business what happened,” Sheppard started, “and I’m the last person to judge—“

John squared his shoulders. “During my last tour, I was shot; invalided out of the medical corps with nerve damage. That sort of thing pretty much puts an end to a surgical career.” Although as John flexed his fingers, they seemed as steady as they had ever been before his injury. The tremors came and went, which had been one of the biggest problems.

John had gone to the therapist he’d been assigned by the Veterans Mental Health Programme, but he hadn’t needed her to know why he had developed his psychosomatic limp. It was much easier to explain why he wasn’t in the Army any longer when he had a cane to lean on, necessary or not. A shoulder wound that had healed with the end result being occasional shakes was much harder to explain. Of course, there was the whole PTSD rigmarole, but John considered that more a result of withdrawal from the life he’d been living than trauma from that life. In fact, he had thought his life was over…until he met Sherlock.

“After I was out, I had a rough time of it.” John laughed again, this time with a touch of bitterness. “Hard to believe being in a city where people weren’t shooting at me could be worse than being here, but it was. That’s a bit off, isn’t it?”

“Actually, I don’t find it strange at all,” Sheppard assured, like he knew exactly what John was talking about.

“Things were quiet…too quiet, too bland, like the world had become devoid of color. White, everything seemed white and monotonous and unchanging.”

“Like Antarctica,” Sheppard mumbled.

“Exactly!” John had never thought of it like that, but the analogy seemed appropriate. “Like an ice field going on forever.” He shrugged with a sigh. “And then I met Sherlock. He was this arrogant, verbose, and absolutely brilliant bastard, and he changed everything. Any normal person would have immediately run in the opposite direction upon meeting him. Instead, I became his flatmate.” With a shake of his head, John laughed again. “You probably think I’m completely mental.”

Sheppard slapped him on the shoulder. “I think we may have been separated at birth.”

Sheppard was looking over at the Panther where Sherlock and McKay stood, apparently discussing the P-90 Rodney carried.

“I didn’t exactly leave Afghanistan on a high note of my military career,” Sheppard confessed. “I thought it was dead in the water. Ironically, once I hit the water, it came back to life.” When John frowned in confusion, Sheppard shook his head. “The water part doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I met McKay and some others who didn’t give a rat’s ass about what I’d done here. They gave me a second chance, and I took it, and as insane and unpredictable as my life is now, I’d never give it up…even if it means putting up with Rodney.”

The way Sheppard was watching his friend with a look of fond exasperation, John had a feeling Sheppard really enjoyed his work because of McKay, not despite him.

When McKay looked to be unclipping the weapon from his vest to hand it over to Sherlock, John’s eyes widened.

“Oh, that is not good,” he stated emphatically, already heading back toward their vehicle to make sure Sherlock didn’t start trick shooting smiley faces with an automatic weapon, or worse, decide to use it as a backscratcher. “Sherlock has no respect for guns. If we were anywhere but here, I would never have given him even his sidearm.”

Sheppard fell into step beside him. “I have to admit, McKay’s aim really hasn’t improved much over the years. Sometimes it’s best just to play the odds with a P-90, stay out of his line of fire, and hope at least a few of the bullets hit their intended target.”

Watson gave him a small grin. “You see quite a bit of action in your current position?”

“More than our fair share,” Sheppard admitted.

“Would you think I was totally mental if I told you I kind of miss this?” John asked a bit sheepishly.

“I should…but I don’t,” Sheppard told him, then asked, “So if you could, would you extend this temporary gig into a permanent one?”

John blinked at the question. “You know, I never considered that a possibility, so I honestly never thought about it.”

“The organization we work for, it’s actually a multinational taskforce,” Sheppard explained. “We could always use a good man.”

“Honestly?” John asked in surprise. “You’re offering me a job?”

“You handle yourself well under fire, you’re experienced, you’re a real doctor, you know how to handle megalomaniacal geniuses… you’d fit right in.”

John raised eyebrows. “And what about Sherlock?” He had meant it more as what would Sherlock do back in London without him if he was working for this IOA organization, but Sheppard took it differently.

Sheppard shrugged. “Eh, what’s one more MENSA member with an attitude?”

John couldn’t help but laugh at that. Even when they took a case, Sherlock was working more for his insatiable curiosity than the client. John couldn’t even imagine Sherlock working for, well, anyone really, much less some quasi-military organization.

“You really haven’t seen him in full form,” John warned.

Sheppard just grinned. “And you haven’t seen Rodney in his.”

Considering what he had seen so far from both Sherlock and McKay, John decided, that couldn’t be a good sign.

* * * * *

Despite the delay, they made it to the caves well before nightfall.

Delay. Rodney almost laughed to think how spectacularly understated that term was for what had happened. Cars being blown up, Watson being blown up, Sherlock being shot, and, as usual, Sheppard running out into the middle of it all. It was disturbing how routine that last had become with Sheppard diving head first into any life or death situation that sprang up around them. It happened so often, he was starting to understand how blasé SG-1 had become about Jackson dying. He’d seen John Sheppard’s self-sacrificing side so many times that if it weren’t for the vast assortment of ways he found to do it, it would become monotonous. The colonel was the Baskin Robbins of altruistic acts, thirty-one flavors of death-defying feats. Today’s had been Jamoca Almond IED with a healthy sprinkling of well-armed insurgents on top.

Rodney wasn’t stupid; quite the opposite, in fact. He knew Sheppard didn’t want him on this mission and he knew why. He and Sheppard talked about a lot of stuff while they were racing RC cars or playing video games… family, childhood friends, college high jinks…Sheppard even talked about his early career in the Air Force, but Afghanistan was something he never mentioned. If Rodney brought it up, for whatever reason, Sheppard would give a vague answer then promptly change the subject. Afghanistan was off limits for a simple conversation, and now they were here on a mission? Of course Sheppard was going to do something stupidly heroic like jump out of a perfectly safe SUV in the middle of a gunfight.

It wasn’t some Pegasus-type firefight either with villagers firing arrows…not that those couldn’t hurt like hell, as Rodney knew from close, personal experience…or at best crude firearms that got off a few shots before needing reloading. The weapons the enemy used on Earth were basically the same as what they were carrying, and unlike Wraith stunners, the bullets could kill as soon as they hit you. So, when Sheppard told him to stay in their truck, Rodney had stayed. For one, Sheppard could do without the distraction of keeping Rodney safe. For another, Rodney, as stated before, wasn’t stupid. Getting killed before they even reached the Ancient base wouldn’t do anyone any good and would promptly end the mission. The last thing Sheppard needed was to have yet another failed mission in Afghanistan ending with another dead friend.

All that was behind them now, however, and it was time for Dr. Rodney McKay to step up and show why he was the most valuable member of the scientific team on Atlantis, if not the entire SGC. The only drawback was Sheppard insisting on maintaining the classified nature of the mission, because it meant he couldn’t prove just how brilliant he was to the two Brits who were needlessly assigned as their babysitters. Sure, Watson had been handy in getting through the various British Army checkpoints along the way, and yes, they had to play nice in the sandbox with the IOA, especially in a British controlled area. Honestly, Watson would have remained "nameless British soldier number one" in his mind if not for the fact that Sheppard seemed to respect him--not just give lip service to an ally nation’s representative for diplomatic reasons, but he genuinely respected the man.

Still, "British soldier named John Watson" struck Rodney as the type to be easily impressed. He obviously thought the other one, Sherlock Holmes, was remarkable, which he was in the way a con artist or children’s birthday party magicians were remarkable. Rodney still hadn’t figured out how Holmes had come up with all the things he had about them, but he vaguely remembered Heightmeyer and Carson discussing body language and microexpressions and other touchy feely crap like that in one of the seminars he'd had to attend after yet another whiny staff member complained about a hostile work environment. They lived in an alien city, were being hunted by the Wraith, and were hated by several other races for Christ’s sake! You want to experience a hostile work environment, go on an away team, you big cry baby. Of course, that argument had been what had landed him in the seminar in the first place.

Bottom line, however Holmes was doing it, it was nothing more than parlor tricks, which was nothing compared to the ability to keep an alien city-ship habitable, and getting a ten thousand-year-old facility up and running again. That was if he could figure out what the hell this place was to begin with.

Rodney had tried to brief their escorts during the drive to the caves while remaining as vague as possible.

“Around ten thousand years ago, there were two dominant tribes in the area. The first we call the Ancients because they settled the area generations before anyone else did.” The area being Earth, and generations being millions of years. “Then, for what are thought to be environmental reasons,” like a plague, “they left,” took their flying city and returned to Pegasus. “When they left, the Goa’uld tribe moved into the area. The Goa’uld were a very aggressive race and enslaved much of the local population.” They took many of the humans through the stargate and enslaved them to mine for naquadah. “When the Ancients eventually returned to this area, they decided the Goa’uld weren’t worth the trouble to deal with.” Mainly because most of the Ancients said, screw this galaxy, we’re ascending. “But there’s a chance a few of the Ancients chose to reclaim some of the area they had once held, or maybe they were reclaiming something valuable to them that the Goa’uld had taken.” Such as a dangerous piece of Ancient technology the Goa’uld had stolen and never figured out how to use but that is now trying to signal us of our imminent doom. “This particular location could be proof that this happened.” Because why else would an Ancient device start pinging from an area that had never been known to have Ancient technology before? Even Jackson couldn’t answer that one.

More than that, the communications and tests coming from the Afghan caves were getting so elaborate that as of this morning, the SGC was considering shutting down the gate for fear that whatever was communicating with it would gain control. Rodney had argued that he might not be able to find what was talking if it didn’t have anything to talk to, which meant this whole trip would be a big old waste of time. It also meant that when they turned the gate back on, they would probably be right back where they started. As a result, they were now working under a time limit. The SGC would shut the gate down in twenty-four hours unless Sheppard and McKay could locate and disable whatever was in the caves.

The fact that it hadn’t started trying to communicate with a stargate until after the Antarctic control chair was destroyed suggested it was Ancient technology, although the Ancients weren’t known to have spent time in this area. As far as anyone knew about their time here on Earth, which was admittedly not a lot, the Ancients had stuck pretty close to Antarctica. Those who hadn’t ascended spread out throughout the Milky Way when they returned from having their butts kicked by the Wraith, although some had stayed and gotten their groove on with the locals in order to spread the ATA gene amongst the Earth human population, hence Sheppard and his wonder gene. The Goa’uld, however, had spent a great deal of time in this area. In particular, Ra had claimed most of what was now Northern Africa and the Middle East during his reign as Supreme Goa’uld badass. Either way, Rodney was finally in his comfort zone of being the resident expert on what happened next.

“Okay, people,” Rodney announced as they climbed out of the SUV, “listen up. We’re not sure exactly what we’re walking into here, but there are a few rules that need to be followed.”

Sheppard rolled his eyes at Watson, who was looking at him with an "are you serious?" expression, but didn’t interrupt. Holmes tried to turn up a non-existent collar on his vest, but settled for adjusting the scarf draped around his neck.

“In all probability, this will be a highly sensitive facility with some very delicate…items. So rule number one, don’t touch anything.” Rodney pointed at Sheppard. “That goes doubly so for you, Colonel. The last thing we need is for you to activate a self-destruct or something ridiculous like that just because you can’t keep your hands to yourself. Rule number two—“

Rodney had barely ticked up his second finger, before Sheppard cut him off. He should have known Sheppard would get pissy about the no touching rule and saved it for last.

“All right, Rodney, that’s enough rules.” Turning to the Brits, Sheppard did advise, “All grandstanding aside, McKay is right about not knowing what we’re getting into, but we have a lot more experience with these things than you do. So stay tight, but let us take the lead. Any questions?”

“Yes, what sort of energy is being measured by that meter you’re using?” Sherlock asked of the life signs detector Rodney held in his hand. “And more importantly, why would there be energy to read at an archeological site? For that matter, why would an astrophysicist and pilot be sent to an archeological site instead of, say, an archeologist? Not to mention in the vast research I performed on this area prior to our departure from London, I never once came across any tribe called Ancients or Goa’uld.”

Son of a bitch.

Rodney looked between Sherlock, who was waiting patiently for an answer, and Sheppard who seemed to be struggling to come up with a lie that was at least halfway believable.

Screw it, Rodney decided.

“The Ancients were an alien race that came to Earth millions of years ago, left because of a plague, then returned about ten thousand years ago because they lost a war in the Pegasus Galaxy. They developed some of the most advanced technology the universe has ever seen, such as this handy-dandy gizmo right here. More than that, they actually seeded life throughout the Milky Way. The Goa’uld are another alien race that showed up a few thousand years before the Ancients returned, and stole most of what the Ancients left laying around, including the humans they created and the Ancient technology. They enslaved the local human population and were eventually overthrown in Egypt by a slave revolt thousands of years ago. This facility contains some sort of original Ancient tech.” Rodney waggled the life signs detector to indicate how he knew that. “But we don’t know if it was left by the Ancients or was being used or studied by the Goa’uld.”

Rodney crossed his arms, daring Sherlock to challenge his explanation, waiting for the outrage and exclamation that "aliens don’t exist," and "don’t be preposterous," that would eventually be followed at the end of the day with "how did I ever doubt your brilliance, Dr. McKay?" That would make this whole dusty, miserably hot trip through a war zone worth it.

Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see Sheppard was glaring at him. Watson was staring at him in wide-eyed shock. Rodney wasn’t sure if Watson was going to call him a smartass liar or load Sherlock back in the transport and drive away from the crazy man as fast as possible. Sherlock, however, waved a hand toward the cave entrance up above them.

“Why didn’t you just tell us that to begin with?” With that, he started up the goat trail that led up the side of the mountain.

Now it was Rodney’s turn stare in surprise.

“Did you use your confidentiality agreement for toilet paper during the shortage that first year, McKay?” Sheppard demanded as he followed Sherlock up the hill.

“What…wait? Is that true?”

Finally, Rodney was getting the response he had hoped for. Unfortunately it was Soldier Number One.

“All that alien business? You can’t be…that was just a pile of…aliens?” Watson snorted in derision. “Aliens?”

“Well, obviously, you’re impressed,” Rodney grumbled, then turned his attention to the readings on his monitor. The power levels seemed to be growing, as if the facility could sense their presence.

“Come along, John,” Sherlock called, already approaching the mouth of the cave.

“Whoa! Hey!” Rodney yelled, racing up the trail. “Remember rule number one. That means not entering the cave. I’m getting some strange readings. There could be booby-traps or it could trigger some self-destruct—“

Sherlock, of course, ignored the warnings and stepped through the mouth of the cave and into a cool bath of blue light.

“Sheppard?” Rodney asked, hopeful his teammate, who was just a few steps behind Sherlock, had been the one to activate the facility.

“Wasn’t me,” Sheppard responded.

“Oh, sure. Of course.” Rodney threw up his arms in frustration. “Why wouldn’t the arrogant Brit with the James Bond accent and abundance of hair also have the gene?”

“Are you suggesting this facility is somehow reading Sherlock’s genetic makeup?” Watson asked incredulously.

“No more than any other motion detector would have,” Sherlock reassured his friend with a knowing smile.

Rodney had no idea what Holmes thought he knew, but if he wanted to ignore what McKay had said, that was fine by him.

“What about those strange readings you mentioned?” Sheppard asked, looking over Rodney’s shoulder.

Rodney studied the readings once more. “They seem to have leveled out now. But that could be due to the fact that the entire facility activated once Blackadder here crossed the threshold.”

Sheppard frowned in that way that said he didn’t like it, but he didn’t have enough evidence not to continue on. “All right, we go back to the original plan. I’ll take point; Rodney will keep an eye on the detector. Watson, you have our sixes.”

They made their way down the corridor that changed from the rough stone of a natural cave to manmade walls. The question was, were they made by Ancients or Goa’uld slaves? None of the architecture looked like any Ancient outpost Rodney had seen, and while his experience in Goa’uld facilities was limited, it didn’t really resemble any of those either.

“The readings are splitting,” Rodney told Sheppard when they reached a fork in their path. “The stronger readings are coming from the left, but there is still a faint reading to the right.”

Sheppard considered for a moment before nodding. “Okay, I’ll check out the weaker reading. You three go on to the stronger one; that has to be the control room.”

“You aren’t going off by yourself,” Rodney argued. “We still don’t know what this place is.”

“Well you aren’t going to the control room without some firepower to watch your back,” Sheppard countered.

“I’ll go with Colonel Sheppard,” Sherlock volunteered.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” Watson immediately chimed in. “Dr. McKay is right; we have no clue what this place is.”

“Weapons research facility,” Sherlock announced confidently. “Long abandoned. We’re the first people to be in here in decades, probably since the Soviet era.”

Regardless of the ease with which Sherlock had accepted Rodney’s alien explanation, and despite how it was absolute truth, it was quite obvious Sherlock hadn’t believed a word of it. Rodney wasn’t sure if he was happy or annoyed by that fact.

“I’d be worried if the radiation readings were excessively high, no doubt from the degradation of the nuclear warheads our North American brethren are here to recover. However, Dr. McKay is not the type to run headfirst into a radioactive deathtrap. Whereas Colonel Sheppard is the type to do just that, he wouldn’t allow Dr. McKay to do such a thing. So while there is, obviously, some residual radiation present, it is clearly below any limits for concern.”

“Sherlock’s right,” Rodney agreed, doing his best to look sincere, because, technically, it was the truth. “There’s no risk from the current radiation levels.”

What Rodney really wanted to do, however, was gloat that Holmes was wrong, wrong, wrong in his conclusions. Seriously, what is the point of knowing something if you can’t lord it over everyone else’s heads?

“You see, John, nothing to concern yourself about,” Sherlock assured before motioning toward the corridor leading to the smaller energy reading. “Colonel?”

Sheppard tapped his radio earpiece. “Call if you find anything interesting.”

“You do the same,” Rodney replied as he watched the two men disappear around a corner, leaving him with Watson.

“Do you really think it’s safe for them to go off like that?” Watson asked with a concerned frown.

“Probably not,” Rodney conceded. “But if it’s any consolation, where we’re going probably isn’t any safer.”

Watson’s frown stayed firmly in place. “Oh, well, in that case, lead on, Dr. McKay.”

The location of the power source, when he and Watson found it, looked to be more of a large laboratory than true control room. And if Rodney had wondered whether or not the facility was Goa’uld or Ancient before, he was even more thrown off by the mixture of Ancient consoles intermixed with distinctly Goa’uld technology strewn around the room; the most impressive being the sarcophagus sitting in the corner.

“You look confused, Dr. McKay,” Watson noted as Rodney made his second circuit through the room.

“Ancient controls,” Rodney noted, hands spreading to take in the entire room, “with Goa’uld technology. I don’t think the SGC has ever seen anything quite like this before.” At least Rodney had never heard of Ancients and Goa’uld working together in the past.

“I thought this was an old Soviet weapons research facility?” Watson challenged.

“Yes,” Rodney agreed adamantly as he hooked his laptop into the primary control panel. “You should definitely keep believing that.”

Watson, however, didn’t seem inclined to do that. Looking over Rodney’s shoulder, he watched the Ancient text scroll across the screen. “That doesn’t look like the Cyrillic alphabet to me. In fact, it doesn’t look like any alphabet I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s an old Cold War code the Kremlin used in the seventies,” Rodney lied as he waited for the translation program to run. “It was cracked years ago.”

He wasn’t fluent in reading Ancient…why did he need to be when his computer could translate it just as quickly?...but he did pick up a few words that he saw regularly on Atlantis. Words like: laboratory, research, and dangerous. Of course. When did the Ancients ever do research in a laboratory that wasn’t dangerous?

Watson looked on the verge of arguing about the lack of anything remotely Russian in the room, so Rodney decided now would be a good time to check in with Sheppard.

Keying his radio, he called, “Sheppard, I found something.”

“So did we,” Sheppard responded. “A door. It’s locked, though. Think you can override it?”

“Think you really need to ask that question?” Rodney snorted. “Let me set up my wireless so I can receive the data I’m downloading and we’ll meet you there.”

A few minutes later, Rodney was swapping out control crystals and the door slid open. This room appeared to be a storeroom, with shelves of both Ancient and Goa’uld artifacts.

Sheppard pointed to a Goa’uld zat on one of the shelves. “Is that…?”

“Yeah,” Rodney confirmed, then pointed to what looked like one of Janus’ control keys to the Attero device. “Right next to a…”

“Okay,” Sheppard said, “we shouldn’t touch that.”

“We shouldn’t touch anything,” Rodney stressed. “Nobody should touch anything.”

He’d meant it for Watson and Holmes, but the two of them were conversing quietly by the door.

Rodney could just make out Watson saying, “It’s not Russian, it’s not Afghan. It looks like bad Egyptian knock-offs and knick-knacks from a new age shop.”

McKay was just as baffled by the combination, but for very different reasons. He found the tune One of These Things Is Not Like the Others playing through his head.

Sheppard apparently felt the same way, because he took Rodney by the arm and dragged him farther from the other two men so they wouldn’t be heard. “Rodney, what is this place?”

Rodney was already pulling up the feed from the control room on his tablet and reading the data entries. “As best I can tell, it was a storage facility for confiscated and contraband tech set up by the Ancients after they returned to the Milky Way.”

“Ancient and Goa’uld?” Sheppard asked.

“Well, we know Janus continued some of his work that was prohibited on Atlantis once he came to this galaxy. And Ra had been entrenched in this region for several centuries by the time the Lanteans returned.”

“You think they were working together? Ancient and Goa’uld?”

Rodney shrugged at Sheppard’s question. “No one has ever reported anything like this before. It’s commonly believed the Ancients didn’t find the Goa’uld a threat given their own technological superiority, plus most were in the middle of their ascension plans, so it’s assumed they just ignored each other.”

“Well, obviously that assumption is wrong,” Sheppard noted as he scanned the shelves in the room.

Rodney continued to read then groaned when he came across a particular name. “Great, they have some of Telchak’s inventions, or should I say manipulations.”

“Okay, you’ll have to remind me which one that was,” Sheppard told him. “Was he the one who liked turtlenecks?”

“No, that was Ba’al,” Rodney corrected. “I don’t know much about Telchak’s fashion sense, but I do know he was the one who modified the Ancient healing device to create the sarcophagus. He was quite the whiz when it came to customizing Ancient tech for Goa’uld use, kind of like Dr. Frankenstein was a whiz at medicine. Anubis thought he was so dangerous he tried to kill him off, which would be the equivalent of Darth Vader shutting down operations on the Death Star for safety violations.” Rodney shook his head. “Nobody knows what happened to Telchak after that, but apparently the Ancients in this facility did because they found some more of his greatest hits and decided to lock them away for the common good.”

A map popped up on the screen showing multiple levels with at least a dozen labs and storerooms on each one. “There’s no telling what has been squirreled away in here,” Rodney told him with as much anticipation as apprehension. “Probably tech from both races that no one has ever seen before.”

Checking his detector once more, Rodney said, “Something in this room is trying to communicate with the gate. I’m picking up the same frequency they are at the SGC.”

“All right, let’s see what we can find,” John ordered, although Rodney was already searching the shelves.

“May we be of assistance?” Sherlock asked, apparently having finished his conversation with Watson.

Rodney didn’t know what conclusion they had come to about the facility, but he really didn’t care. Right now he needed to find whatever it was that was talking to the gate in Cheyenne Mountain. Given the nature of what was stored in this place, he didn’t think they would be lucky enough for it to be benign.

“Look for something that might be turned on,” Rodney ordered. “Just try not to touch anything while you’re looking.”

“Bit of a challenge, there, isn’t it?” Watson pointed out, but stuffed his hands in his pocket and started peeking at items on the shelves.

Sherlock locked his hands behind his back, which Rodney had found to be a common enough stance for him, as he perused the items with the air of a collector in an antique store.

After several minutes, Sheppard called Rodney over to a small elongated device that looked similar to a remote control for a television, only the buttons were recessed series of lights with one pulsing periodically in time with the signal the SGC was receiving.

“And we have a winner,” Rodney declared.

“What is it?” Sheppard asked, looking cautiously over Rodney’s shoulder.

“It’s a self-destruct device that will send the molten core of the Earth ejecting into the stratosphere,” Rodney told him.

Sheppard grimaced. “Seriously?”

Rodney wasn’t sure which was more disturbing, that Sheppard actually believed that could be the case, or that he took the news so calmly.

Rolling his eyes, Rodney spared Sheppard the barest of glances before turning back to his readings. “Seeing as I just laid eyes on it? No, not seriously.”

“It appears this item is also powered up,” Sherlock said from the opposite side of the room, leaning in closer to the circular object.

Before Rodney could yell for him to step back, the disc expanded and emitted a golden stream of light that looked horrifically like it came from a Goa’uld hand device.

“Shit!” Rodney exclaimed as the light encompassed Sherlock’s head.

His cursing was drowned out by Watson yelling, “What the fu…Sherlock!”

That last came as Holmes staggered back a few steps when the light vanished, then promptly crumpled to the floor in a heap.

Watson was already on his knees beside the fallen man by the time Rodney and Sheppard reached him.

“He’s breathing,” Watson announced with sharp relief as he placed fingers to Sherlock’s neck. “His pulse is strong but elevated.” Patting pale cheeks, Watson called, “Sherlock? Sherlock, can you hear me?” When he got no response, he turned angrily to Rodney. “What the hell was that thing? What did it do to him?”

Rodney had scanned it as best he could from the good five feet he kept between himself and the device. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “The beam looked—“

“Goa’uld,” Sheppard finished for him. “But the device is Ancient.”

“Telchak,” Rodney surmised. “It must be one of his.”

“I don’t care who or what created the bloody thing,” Watson snapped. “I want to know what the fuck it did to Sherlock!”

“I don’t know!” Rodney stressed again, starting to reason through what he did know. “The beam of the hand device was used primarily for torture. It can cause excruciating pain, completely scramble the brain of the recipient. This could have done the same thing.”

Watson’s mouth pressed into a thin line at the news. “You are going to tell me what this place is right now. I can appreciate your need for discretion; I’ve worked in classified situations myself. But this isn’t some archeological site or even a Soviet weapons depot. Whatever that thing did to Sherlock, I intend to fix, and I can’t do that without better information. “

Sheppard knelt beside Watson. “The alien story was true,” he confessed. “All of it.”

Watson snorted bitterly. “You expect me to believe some little creatures like E.T. are responsible for this?”

“No,” Rodney corrected, “those are more like the Asgards, who were actually one of the races of good guys.”

“Although totally nude,” Sheppard stressed.

Sheppard really was fixated on the Asgards’ lack of clothing. Although, truthfully? Rodney found the idea of them in clothes almost more disturbing. It had something to do with the thought of them wearing underwear, he decided.

“What?” Watson demanded in confusion.

“The Goa’uld are more of these snake, fluke-like creatures.” Rodney used his hands to demonstrate the size and shape. “They attach to the base of the skull and take over a person’s body.”

“What?” Watson’s voice actually went up half an octave.

“The Ancients, however, looked like normal people,” Sheppard chimed in. “At least when they weren’t all glowy and ascended.”

“And the Furlings,” Rodney snorted. “Don’t even get me started on them.”

The slightest shudder passed through Watson, but he took a deep breath, pushing down whatever turmoil learning that aliens really did exist and what they looked like might have caused in his own brain. Instead, he concentrated on Sherlock’s. “So is the damage caused by this beam permanent?”

“Not always,” Sheppard promised. “Hell, we don’t even know if that’s what the beam did. Apparently, similar equipment could be used to heal a person.”

“He didn’t need to be healed,” Watson growled. “And if he had, I wouldn’t expect him to be lying unconscious on the floor.”

“Look, as bad as the Goa’uld beam is, the Ancient apparatus it came out of could be worse,” Rodney pointed out.

Now it was Sheppard’s turn to grumble. “You are not helping, McKay.”

Ignoring him, Rodney continued. “That device? It looks remarkably like the interface for the Repository of Knowledge.”

“You mean the thing that downloaded all the Ancient knowledge into O’Neill’s brain?” Sheppard asked.

“And nearly killed him from the overload? Yes, that thing,” Rodney confirmed. “And seeing as the Asgards all crossed the great rainbow bridge in the sky, that only leaves the 'ascend or die' option.”

“Ascend?” Watson demanded. “Ascend what?”

“Ascension,” Sheppard explained. “It’s a higher level of existence where you transcend the physical boundaries of this world and exist as pure energy in a different dimension.”

Watson’s eyes widened in alarm. “How is that better, or even different, than dying?”

“You can come back sometimes…if the others allow it,” Sheppard told him.

Rodney leaned closer. “Does Sherlock like waffles?” Because from what Jackson had said, that’s all they served in that ascension diner.

“Rodney!” Sheppard snapped.

“He’s not… ascending,” Watson insisted, “and he’s not dying. Sherlock has a brilliant brain capable of accomplishing things I would have never thought possible. If anyone can handle all this supposed information, he can.”

As if to prove the point, Sherlock groaned and his eyes fluttered open.

“Sherlock?” Watson called hopefully.

Sherlock looked between the faces hovering above him with a bewildered expression, before settling on Watson’s. His lips curled as they formed the name, “John.”

Watson smiled back in return. “Yes. Good.” He exhaled in relief and repeated, “Good. How are you feeling?”

“Don’t be ridiculous; I’m fine.” At least that’s what his tone sounded like as he sat up.

His words, however, had all been spoken in Goa’uld.

* * * * *

Over the years, Sherlock had grown accustomed to people not understanding half of what he said. Even John, the person who understood him better than anyone had since… well, ever, often looked at him as if he were speaking a foreign language. He’d just never, literally, been speaking one at the time; and if he had been, he definitely would have been able to switch to proper English at any time. Now, however, he couldn’t seem to stop his tongue from forming the alien words, no matter how hard he tried.

Aliens. Apparently Dr. McKay hadn’t been lying earlier about these so-called Ancients and Goa’uld.

Interesting.

If he survived this ordeal, which there seemed to be a great deal of concern that he might not, the concept of alien life would be something new to contemplate in the downtime between cases. Perhaps he’d have to relearn some of that ridiculous information he’d deleted about the stars and planets.

Earth’s equatorial rotation velocity is 1,674.4 km/h. Its axis of rotation is tilted 23.4° away from the perpendicular of its orbital plane.

Well, it appeared he hadn’t deleted that information after all. It was stored away in Room 1395 of the mind palace; he hadn’t accessed that room in years and years. Not that any of that was relevant at the moment.

What was relevant to the situation at hand was that he was a descendent of one of these Ancients, which was why the object that had come to life and attacked him had done whatever it was that was causing this current language barrier.

On a side note, Colonel Sheppard was also a descendent of the Ancients… a distant cousin of his, perhaps. As with the rest of his family members, Sherlock couldn’t say he was exactly impressed with their shared genealogy. Well, he could say it, it would just sound like so much gibberish to the others in the room.

It was becoming rather annoying, and he wished he could stop, if for no other reason than John kept speaking slowly and enunciating his words like a middle-schooler reciting a soliloquy from Macbeth, as if Sherlock couldn’t understand him and not the other way round.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Room 423. Not surprisingly, The Bard was frequently important to a case.

Only instead of poetic stanzas, John was saying things like, “How are you feeling?” and “Would you like a lie down?” and “It’s been over an hour, haven’t you found anything in that bloody database of yours yet?”

Idiotic, yes. Full of sound and fury, most definitely. Still, signifying nothing. Sherlock, however, would choose John over the other two any day.

John takes his coffee black, but his tea with sugar and cream until it is the shade of his third favorite jumper. It’s his newest, so he saves it for dates, although he prefers the navy one with the fray two inches below his left elbow.

Room 12-- John’s room. It was amazing how much he’d stored away in that room in such a short amount of time, and yet continued to add to it on almost a daily basis.

“It looks like Talchek may have actually been working with the Ancients in this facility, at least for a while. Although something happened and they didn’t part on good terms.” Dr. McKay was reading the data from his laptop while simultaneously pushing buttons on the consoles. They had all returned to the control room McKay and Watson had originally discovered. McKay snorted derisively. “A double-crossing Goa’uld; imagine that.”

McKay tended to speak like Sherlock wasn’t even in the room. Then again, he tended to do that even when Sherlock had been able to communicate in English, so he couldn’t blame that annoyance on his current predicament. Despite the fact they had climbed down from the same evolutionary tree, Sheppard couldn’t understand him either.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Charles Darwin.

Room 26. The scientific method was the backbone of Sherlock’s world. And if Sherlock intended to solve this problem, because obviously these other three weren’t making any progress, he needed to be responsive to the change that had occurred while still applying all the skills he had honed over the years.

Although, he supposed he couldn’t completely blame Colonel Sheppard for not understanding him, since he was speaking the language of the other alien race. That had caused all sorts of unnecessary panic when he’d first spoken in Goa’uld when he regained consciousness. Sheppard and McKay had both pulled guns on him, John had responded by stepping between them all with his own gun trained on McKay. John really was quite brilliant when it came to handling himself in these sorts of situations; he knew exactly which man to threaten that would have them both setting aside their weapons.

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.

Sun Tzu in Room 125 was a brilliant strategist, but of no real consequence for the time being.

Then there had been a great deal of insisting a parasitic worm had taken up residence at the base of his skull, which was ludicrous since one would think Sherlock would have known if such a thing had happened. Eventually, Dr. McKay used his detector to scan Sherlock and determine no such creature was present. While that had put Sheppard and McKay more at ease, it had done nothing to alleviate John’s distress. It also had raised more questions than answers for the other two.

If he wasn’t infected with a Goa’uld, why was he speaking their language? If the machine were of Ancient design, why wasn’t he speaking Ancient? If it were an interface, what purpose could it have with downloading Goa’uld into his brain? Furthermore, did he now have all the known intelligence of the Goa’uld?

The only bright spot was that they had a rudimentary program on the computer that could translate what he was saying, so he could tell them definitively he did not know any more about the Goa’uld as a species than he had learned from Dr. McKay. It didn’t mean he couldn’t take that information and make further deductions.

The device was obviously a joint effort between the two races, Sherlock surmised mentally. Working together or not, it had an original purpose for the Ancients and subsequent purpose for the Goa’uld. Therefore, he only needed to determine what the Goa’uld would want with such a device to determine what it was doing. The Goa’uld were technological, as well as physical, parasites and the only motivation a parasite has is self-preservation. This device was to benefit the Goa’uld exclusively, more than likely the specific Goa’uld who had modified it. If it had taken over the language center, then it must be because the Goa’uld wanted the person under the influence of the device to speak their language. Since Sherlock had no control over the language he was speaking, it would seem they wanted the person to speak the language whether said person wanted to or not. Gaining information against a person’s will for personal gain could only mean one thing.

Interrogation techniques exploit certain weaknesses in human nature. These weaknesses typically rely on the stress that results when people experience contrasting extremes, like dominance and submission, control and dependence, and the maximization and minimization of consequences.

Room 91, but Sherlock didn’t have any of those weaknesses so that information was completely irrelevant, which just begged the question as to why he was even thinking about it in the first place. Other memories in another room started rattling around, but Sherlock quickly reinforced that door. No need to go there for the time being.

In a world of locked rooms, the man with the key is king. And, honey, you should see me in a crown.

No. That particular door was to stay locked nice and tight.

Sherlock didn’t realize he’d closed his eyes to concentrate on reinforcing the door until he felt John’s hand on his arm and a worried, “Sherlock?”

He forced a smile and shook his head to indicate nothing was the matter.

“Perhaps it is an interrogation device, then,” Sherlock said aloud.

Sherlock had minimized his verbalization as much as possible. For one thing, John’s frown deepened, as it did now, every time Sherlock spoke. For another, the translation program was incredibly slow to work, but this would hopefully distract John from his current concern.

Dr. McKay looked up from his computer to see three impatient faces watching him. “I told you, I haven’t updated the program in several years. It’s not like we have much need for it in Pegasus.”

Once the words translated, Rodney’s eyebrows rose in consideration. “Interrogation? Well, the original Ancient device was used to download data into the recipient’s brain. If this one were somehow reversed by Talchek, then maybe they were using it to extract data. I guess it would make sense to have the subject speak their language if that were the case.”

“It would also explain why the Ancients gave Talchek the boot from their facility,” Sheppard agreed. “I can’t imagine the Ancients would take too kindly to having their secrets sucked out of their brains.”

No such thing as secrecy. I own secrecy.

Okay, that wasn’t good. Not in the least. Sherlock found that he was mentally picturing himself holding that particular door closed, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good. What it did do was explain why all these seemingly random thoughts kept popping into his head.

“Sherlock!” John snapped when he noticed the strain on Sherlock’s face. “What’s happening?”

“My mind palace is under attack,” he ground out, placing his hands on the side of his head and concentrating with all his might. The device was accessing his memories one by one, and if it was interested in finding secrets, it would hone in on a locked room over all the others.

We’re just alike, you and I.

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? He and Moriarty were very much alike, and it was only by locking those thoughts away in a room he had mentally labeled "Not Good" that he was able to fight on the side of the angels.

I may be on the side of the angels…but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.

He’d said that, right? Not Moriarty, but Sherlock. It was getting harder and harder to remember which were his thoughts and which were Moriarty’s. It was all the more reason he had to hold that door closed.

“What is he saying?” John demanded of McKay before shaking Sherlock by the shoulders. “Sherlock, look at me!”

As much as he might have wanted to open his eyes and look at John, Sherlock couldn’t risk it. Instead, he repeated, “My mind palace.”

“The translation doesn’t make any sense,” McKay was saying. “Something is attacking his…identity sanctuary? Does that mean anything to you?”

Oh, they were idiots! John was an idiot, but maybe he could understand. Gripping John’s vest with one hand, Sherlock’s eyes came wide open and he said very slowly, “Mind palace!” while tapping his temple.

“Sanctuary…” John mumbled before realization dawned on his face. “His mind palace! Something is attacking his mind palace!”

“Okay, that makes even less sense than the translation did,” McKay stated.

Sherlock ignored him, holding tight to John. “Moriarty,” he told him desperately. “It’s accessing Moriarty’s room.”

“The program doesn’t recognize the word Moriarty,” McKay complained. “That doesn’t even sound Goa’uld.”

“It’s not,” John told them. “It’s a person. A very bad person.”

Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain.

No, no, no, no. He would not be the villain in this story. He would not.

Sherlock closed his eyes again, focusing his will on keeping the door closed, but the lock was weakening. “John…” he croaked desperately.

John turned back to Sherlock. “Lock the door. All right? Lock the door and keep him in.”

Sherlock would have glared at his flatmate if he’d been willing to risk opening his eyes again. What did he think he’d been trying to do? But he threw himself into the effort full force.

No one ever gets to me…and no one ever will.

No. Those were his words, not Sherlock’s. He couldn’t be thinking them. He wouldn’t think them. For John’s sake, he would keep Moriarty locked tight away.

I can see why you like having him around. But then, people do get so sentimental about their pets….

No. NO.

The door bowed inward a tiny bit more.

“What door?” Sheppard asked. “What are you talking about?”

“His mind palace,” John explained. “It’s a way to organize his memories for maximum recall, kind of like a mnemonic device, only on a much grander scale. Each room a category of memories, all elaborately cross referenced. Only there’s a room with memories of a man, a criminal mastermind, Jim Moriarty, and now this bloody device is trying to open it.”

“If they’re just memories, what’s the big deal?” Rodney demanded. “Let it access them.”

“You don’t understand,” John continued. “In order to beat Moriarty, Sherlock had to think like him. In essence, he had to become Moriarty. It was a very dark place and it took him months to come back.”

Sherlock had hunted down Moriarty’s men, and he had dealt with them in a manner befitting their former employer. There was no other way to make sure John and Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade would be safe. It had been a slippery slope between protecting his friends and vengeance against a man who had taken away everything that mattered in Sherlock’s life. Without his moral compass by his side, Sherlock had lost his footing more than once during his time away from Baker Street.

Falling is a lot like flying…except there’s a more permanent destination.

Sherlock had fallen, just not in the sense Moriarty had thought he would… or maybe that was exactly what Jim had planned all along. Regardless, his compass was by his side now, and Sherlock concentrated on the sound of his voice and keeping the door soundly shut.

“If those memories are allowed out, he may not be able to stop them from taking over; which is why you need to find a way to get this thing to stop fucking about with his brain!” John snapped.

Yes, that would be a grand thing if they could somehow reverse the effects of this contraption, because he was doing everything he could think to do and the door was weakening by the second.

Everything I have to say has already crossed your mind…or is it my mind?

Sherlock honestly didn’t know whose thoughts were whose any longer, and somehow, John must have seen he was losing the battle taking place in his subconscious.

I’ll burn you. I’ll burn…the heart out of you.

Sherlock could feel his lips curling at the thought of the flames engulfing it all, engulfing him. It didn’t seem to matter which him it was.

John gave him a firm shake that had Sherlock’s eyes flying open to lock with his friend’s.

“Sherlock,” John ordered with calm conviction, “hide.”

Sherlock gave one sharp nod of his head before retreating inside his mind to the safest room he could think to use as his sanctuary. He bolted the door behind him before turning at the sound of a familiar voice.

John stepped out of their Baker Street kitchen into the sitting room. “So now what do we do?”

It wasn’t his John, not really, just as it wasn’t their flat back in London, just as there wasn’t a real castle in his mind. It was all an illusion, but reality was little more than an illusion in and of itself. The world, the cosmos, and everything in it, was made up primarily of empty space. Only one one-billionth of an atom was actually solid, which meant most things were, in reality, nothing. The secret of reality came from how things were arranged—atoms became molecules that became crystals that became granite or iron. Arrange the iron with carbon and few other things and it became steel, arrange the steel and the granite and add some glass and you had a castle. Arrange the molecules a different way and they became cells that became things like trees. Arrange the trees and you had forests; cut the trees and arrange the wood and it became a bookshelf to sit in your castle. Arrange the cells another way and they became humans, arrange them in a very special way and they became very remarkable humans who determined that we see things because of the way light reflects off our arrangement of atoms, or we hear things because of the way sound waves bounce off of the arrangement of atoms, or that the world can be broken down and defined by a series of ones and zeros.

The entire cosmos could be built up or broken down by little more than empty space and the simplest of numerical orders, and if you understood that, truly understood it like Sherlock did, the concept of building mind palaces to store the critical knowledge of the world was a simple undertaking. After all, a mind palace was nothing more than an arrangement of data in the most logical way possible in the human brain. Furthermore, if he could understand how to use his brain in the most logical way possible, it was really a simple feat to turn that around and remove those items that shouldn’t be there. If he could create a bookshelf in his mind for storage, one that was even less solid than the one in his flat that was only one one-billionth solid, it wasn’t much of a leap to turn the effects of the device that was running havoc through his brain into something solid, as well. Anything solid, Sherlock knew, could be broken down again, only this time it would be on his terms.

Sherlock stepped away from the door toward John. No, it wasn’t his John Watson, but Sherlock had cataloged every nuance of the real John, every reflection of light and reverberation of sound wave, every one and zero related to John Watson, so this one was the next best thing to the one currently dealing with a Moriarty-possessed Sherlock in a cave in Afghanistan.

“Hello, boys,” echoed all around him. He recognized it as his own voice mimicking Jim’s as he spoke to the men outside.

For the time being, Sherlock, the real Sherlock, was safely ensconced in this room with his fake John. For the time being, that was the best he could accomplish, but that was going to change.

Turning to his mind’s John, Sherlock stuffed his hands into the pocket of his favorite long, black coat. “Simple; we take down Moriarty.”

John sighed. “So just like old times.”

“The more things change…” Sherlock agreed.

“Do you have a plan or are we just going to wing it?” John asked.

“I always have a plan,” Sherlock sniffed, lifting the collar on his coat.

“Since when?” John challenged.

“Since I realized the best way to fight fire is with fire.” Sherlock smiled dangerously. “I plan to burn my mind palace down around him.”

If there were no memories to access, there would be nothing for the program currently running amok in his brain to read. Therefore, it was only reasonable to assume it would stop functioning.

“What?” Imaginary John demanded. “Sherlock, that will destroy all your memories, your ability to reason, your…you!”

“Not if I can retrieve my backup files.”

John blinked in surprise. “You have a backup file?”

“Room 943,” Sherlock informed him with a tap to his head.

“You have an entire mind palace full of data with a seemingly endless number of rooms,” John snorted, “and you have your entire backup file in one single room?”

Sherlock was already heading toward their stairs. “Honestly, John, haven’t you ever heard of a zip file?”

It would take time to recover all the data…and to be truthful, Sherlock had no idea how long that process would take…but if it meant recovering his mind, it would be worth it.

“But first, I need to regain control of my language center.” If he had any chance of communicating with the real John outside, he needed to be able to speak his native tongue and not some ridiculously crude alien one.

He just had to trust that the real John would buy him enough time to do what needed to be done.

* * * * *

If Rodney hadn’t sworn there wasn’t a snake in Sherlock’s head, Sheppard wouldn’t have believed it. Considering the way the man was pointing his sidearm at them while speaking in Goa’uld, he was starting to question McKay’s results. Sheppard had no idea what Sherlock was saying, but he didn’t need the SGC’s translator program to recognize the taunting and equally threatening tone. Of course, that could be a consequence of the language he was speaking; a Goa’uld could be singing Happy Birthday and it would sound like he was laying out how he planned to eviscerate you and your entire family.

“Why don’t you just put down the gun, Sherlock,” Sheppard tried to reason. “We’re going to find a way to fix this. I promise.”

Sherlock’s lips twisted into a conceited smile and looked right at Watson as he responded.

Sheppard didn’t take his eyes from Sherlock, but a few seconds later, Rodney translated what he said.

“He says, ‘Sherlock has left the building, and he isn’t coming back.’”

Great. Nothing like having someone you’re working with pull a gun and go Sybil on your ass.

Watson shook his head. “He’s in there. He just needs to figure out how to put Moriarty back in his room.”

Sherlock laughed. “If he could have done that, why would he have let me out at all?” the translation said. Sherlock’s eyes widened in a scandalized expression. “Maybe he wanted me out all along. I’m much more fun than Sherlock when he’s with boring old John, and this place is much more interesting than boring old London.” His eyes flicked toward the door. “So many new toys to play with.”

“The storeroom,” Rodney noted in dread. “He has the gene; he can operate most of the stuff in there.”

“Bet they do a lot worse than a vest full of explosives,” Sherlock gloated with a waggle of eyebrows at Watson. “Don’t you, Johnny boy?”

After reading the translation, Watson turned back to Sherlock, his own Browning in his hand. “I can’t let you do that. Sherlock, I know you’re still in there, and you know what he’ll do with those devices if he gets his hands on them. Now would be a good time to stop him.”

Sherlock said something else in Goa’uld before adjusting his gun down and to the left and pulling the trigger.

Sheppard barely had time to register the thought, shit, he’s pointing that thing at me, before the fire ripped through his leg.

Things got a little jumbled after that. He was on the ground, Rodney yelling his name, while Watson was yelling at McKay to move out of the way so he could work. He was vaguely aware of Sherlock strolling leisurely from the room.

“Stop him,” Sheppard grit out as he pushed up to his elbows.

Watson ignored him. “Dr. McKay, fetch my field kit.”

Rodney’s face vanished from above him, and so did Watson’s, but for a completely different reason. That had more to do with the room going dark as the physician pressed into his leg.

Watson came back into focus when he spoke again. “Colonel Sheppard, I need you to stay awake, please.” Despite his polite words, it was a sharp order and Sheppard did what he could to comply.

Sheppard was flat on his back again, staring up at the stone roof above them; that was until Rodney’s face blocked it when he returned with the medical kit.

“You’re still bleeding,” Rodney accused, his skin a sickly ashen color as he glanced down at Sheppard’s leg. “You’re still bleeding a lot.”

Christ, McKay looked like he was on the verge of passing out or puking. As if this day hadn’t taken a shitty enough turn already, the last thing Sheppard needed was Rodney doing either of those, since both would end up landing on him.

“Was shot,” Sheppard justified, even those couple words slurring.

“Dr. McKay, I need you to apply pressure for me,” Watson ordered in that same polite, no nonsense tone he’d heard Carson use many times before. It was never a good sign to hear that tone, especially when you were the one shot.

“Watson…need to stop Sherlock,” Sheppard told him. He couldn’t see the doctor, but he could hear him rummaging through his supplies.

“Colonel, he hit your femoral artery.” As if to prove that point, Watson tightened a tourniquet around Sheppard’s upper thigh.

Sheppard tried his best to bite off a groan of pain, but given the way Rodney paled even further, he wasn’t very successful.

“If I leave you now, chances are you will bleed out in a matter of minutes.” Watson shook his head in frustration. “I didn’t restock my kit with clotting agents after the ambush earlier. I’m going to have to clamp off the bleeder the old fashioned way.”

“Sherlock--” Sheppard tried again.

“Knew exactly what he was doing,” Watson finished, pulling a vile of morphine from the kit and injecting it into Sheppard’s leg. “By shooting you, he took us all out of play. You’re wounded, McKay won’t go after him alone, and I won’t leave a patient who’s on the verge of bleeding to death.”

Watson was right, just like Sherlock had been right in choosing Sheppard to be the one to shoot, although at the moment, Sheppard was too busy exhaling in relief as the warm wave of morphine spread through his leg, bringing the pain down from blinding to excruciating.

Rodney confirmed it was true when he read the translation of what Sherlock had said before he shot. “He said, ‘you can’t stop me, but I can stop you.'”

“Fucking pain in the ass geniuses,” Sheppard cursed, before remembering something Watson had said earlier. “I thought you said he wasn’t any good with a gun.”

“I said he wasn’t safe with a gun,” Watson clarified as he continued to work on Sheppard’s leg. “He’s a crack shot.”

“Well, both of those statements are fairly obvious now,” Rodney grumbled. “I can only imagine what he’ll do if he gets out of here with those devices.”

“As much damage as possible,” Watson told him simply.

Sheppard turned to Rodney. “We can’t let him out.”

Rodney nodded. “I’ll see if I can seal the exits.”

“No, we need to get Colonel Sheppard out and call in a medevac. Even with what I’m doing, you need emergency surgery if you have any chance of saving this leg.”

McKay looked torn. Rodney had to know how important it was to keep the situation with Sherlock and the various devices contained to this facility, but Sheppard also knew McKay would do everything in his power to keep Sheppard alive.

Sheppard reached out and gripped Rodney’s arm. “We can’t risk him leaving the facility,” he told McKay. “That’s the most important thing right now, Rodney.”

“I don’t think you understand how serious your injury is,” Watson argued.

Sheppard knew exactly how serious his injury was. He’d seen men die from similar wounds when he was the one flying them to help. The wide-eyed expression on McKay’s face said he knew how serious this was, too. Sheppard squeezed his arm, silently pleading with Rodney to go along with him on this. McKay knew what the right thing was to do; he just needed to know it was okay to do it. Sheppard squeezed again.

It finally worked.

“And I don’t think you realize how serious the damage would be if he got out of this facility,” Rodney maintained. He stood, wiping Sheppard’s blood from his hands onto his pants, and moved quickly to the control panel.

“Of course I realize it. I also know that if he gets away from us, there is a very good chance he’ll be gone forever, and this time I won’t get him back.” Watson clinched his jaw tight before continuing. “But unless you have some alien gadget that can stop this bleeding, Colonel Sheppard will die.”

Rodney didn’t even look up from the controls he was working on. If Sheppard hadn’t known him as well as he did, he would have missed the slight stutter in his typing, as if something had thrown him off for a second. Whatever it was, though, he quickly recovered.

“I do have a device that can heal him,” McKay stated with a touch of smugness. “I have a sarcophagus.”

“Isn’t a sarcophagus used to bury a corpse?” Watson challenged.

“This one can actually revive the recently dead.” Rodney waved a hand toward the stone box in the corner. “And keep injured people from reaching that state.”

“Are you serious?” Watson asked with guarded optimism.

Sheppard liked to think part of that hope was for his well-being, but he had a feeling most of it was that he would be able to finally go after Sherlock.

“He’ll be good as new in a few minutes.” Rodney assured as he typed in a few more commands. “Okay, we’re on lockdown. No one is coming in or out until I say so.”

Watson turned to Sheppard. “Are you sure about this sarcophagus gizmo?”

“Go,” Sheppard told him, pointedly not answering his question. “Find Sherlock; we’ll catch up once we take care of my leg.”

Checking his sidearm, Watson nodded, and jogged out into the corridor.

As soon as he was gone, Rodney’s confident posture slumped and he rushed back to Sheppard’s side. “Holy shit, I’d completely forgotten about the sarcophagus.”

Sheppard wrapped an arm around Rodney’s shoulder to try to stand. “Know how to operate it?”

“From everything I’ve read at the SGC, you just climb in and it does the rest automatically.” Rodney slid an arm under his back. “It’s like the Easy Bake Oven of medical facilities.”

“Have a lot of experience with Easy Bake Ovens, Meredith?” Sheppard joked, but McKay had his revenge soon enough. The room went hazy when Rodney pulled him to his feet.

“I do, actually.” Rodney told him snootily. “For your information, they work great to dry out homemade C-4.”

Sheppard leaned hard against McKay to stay upright as they made their way slowly across the room. “Not going to mummify me, is it?”

“Ever seen a Goa’uld in need of moisturizer, Sheppard?” Rodney shook his head. “If anything, it might actually take a few years off of your appearance.”

Sheppard grinned hazily as the room went in and out of focus. Even through the morphine haze, his leg was throbbing as Rodney lowered him into the sarcophagus. “In that case, you might want to take a go after I’m through.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny, Colonel. I’ll have you know I earned every one of these crow’s feet and frown lines and am proud of them….wait; do you think it could regrow hair?”

“Rodney?” Sheppard said in confusion as nothing seemed to be happening with the sarcophagus. The lid hadn’t even closed yet, and he was pretty sure it was supposed to do that on its own.

“Just a little on top, is all,” McKay continued. “I’m not being greedy or anything, but the last few years have been unfairly rough on me.”

“Rodney!” Sheppard tried again. It was hard enough to concentrate what with the drugs and the blood loss without McKay having his own personal midlife crisis in the middle of this real life crisis.

McKay crossed his arms defensively. “You were the one who suggested it, so obviously I could use a little work.”

“Do you think you can stop worrying about the Goa’uld Hair Club for Men for maybe one minute, and tell me why nothing’s happening? I mean, shouldn’t this thing be doing something by now?”

Rodney frowned deeper, only this time in concern. “I thought it should.” He disappeared from view as he dropped down to study the sarcophagus more closely.

“Is it turned on?” Sheppard asked. It seemed simple, but he’d been through enough troubleshooting sessions with his laptop that he knew that was the first question the computer tech would ask.

McKay’s head reappeared over the edge of the opening, just so Sheppard could see him roll his eyes. “Should I jiggle the cord, too? Maybe whack it with my boot?”

“If it makes it work, yes!” Sheppard insisted.

“Well, there is no cord, and there is no particular place to kick this piece of shit!”

There was more than just the general snippiness in McKay’s voice; there was also a hint of panic.

“So I suppose I’ll just die here, then,” Sheppard said matter of factly. Of course, he knew Rodney wasn’t going let that happen, but the best way to motivate McKay was to tell him he couldn’t do something.

“Look, this thing is just a glorified naquadah generator. All right? And if I learned anything during my time with the SGC, it’s that Siberians don’t find Moose and Squirrel jokes funny, and how to fix a naquedah generator. I can build one in my goddamn sleep, Sheppard. So you aren’t going to die. Got it?”

“If you say so.” Sheppard forced as much patronization into his tone as he could, but it was getting harder to do with his words slurring.

“I do say so. I most definitely—well, fuck.”

For the first time, Sheppard felt a sense of dread. “That’s not exactly ‘not going to die’ talk, McKay.”

“The naquedah source is depleted,” Rodney told him. “It needs a refill.”

“Then get to filling.”

“With what, Sheppard? I can’t exactly piss naquadah.”

“I don’t know,” Sheppard admitted. “Can’t you siphon some off another Goa’uld device?”

Rodney’s head popped up like a whack-a-mole. “A staff weapon. They use the same liquid naquadah source and there was one in the storeroom.”

“You mean the storeroom where Sherlock, the armed and dangerously possessed maniacal genius, is holed up with an arsenal of various alien weapons?” Sheppard didn’t like where this was going at all.

“That would be a fair assessment on the storeroom in question,” Rodney admitted. Although he maintained an all-too-familiar haughty expression, his eyes shifted guiltily to even be considering facing down Sherlock.

“Not only no, but hell no,” Sheppard stressed, attempting to sit up, which just caused his head to swim. He dropped back, heart racing, trying to catch his breath. Jesus, he felt like he’d just run five miles. “You…you are not… going in there, McKay. That is an order.”

"Sheppard, I need to go," Rodney protested with a worried frown. "If I don't get this sarcophagus refueled, you'll die."

"If you get yourself killed… no one will be around to fix it," Sheppard reasoned, trying his damnedest to control his breathing. "Then we both die."

"You know, Butch and Sundance didn't have these sorts of arguments."

"Damn it, Rodney… that was a movie night…not a fucking suicide pact." Sheppard shivered against a sudden chill. That shouldn’t be possible in the desert, should it?

“John, we really don’t have time for this.” Rodney protested with a worried frown. "You know, I am capable of taking care of myself. It's not like I've never risked my life to save yours before."

Sheppard sighed, blinking to keep his friend in focus. "Rodney…you cannot die…in Afghanistan… Okay? You just… you can't." Because if he did, John didn’t think he would survive either, and it would have nothing to do with the gunshot wound in his leg.

"Look, I know what this place means to you, what this country represents in that oversized martyr center of your brain. I get it, Sheppard, I really do. Afghanistan is loss and failure and just shitty bad luck all wrapped up into one big, black, terrible memory. But, guess what? It didn’t kill you. It had its chance once and failed, which is exactly why I can’t let you die here, either.” Rodney leaned in a little closer, gripping the edge of the sarcophagus. “I can get that staff weapon; I know I can."

“How?” Sheppard demanded.

“I’m still working out the exact details,” Rodney mumbled before straightening and speaking more confidently, “but that’s the norm for us. I’ve saved both our asses, not to mention the collective asses of all of Atlantis, more than once by pulling a plan out of mine at the last minute. Why should this be any different?”

Sheppard’s head was spinning, and it was getting harder to focus, much less argue with McKay, especially when he knew he was going to lose this one. Still, he had one more thing to make clear to Rodney.

“I know they have the accents.” Sheppard licked at dry lips. “But they aren’t the Doctor … and they won’t regenerate… if you kill them.” The room was rocking sickeningly, so he closed his eyes, but he grabbed blindly onto Rodney’s arm. “Promise me… they won’t die to save me.”

“You’re kind of tying my hands here,” McKay grumbled. “Besides, when I get the sarcophagus up and run—“

Sheppard cut off that train of thought immediately; he could just imagine Rodney packing them in the sarcophagus like sardines. Forcing his eyes open and tightening his hold on McKay, Sheppard stressed, “I’m serious….no harming the Brits. Got it?”

Rodney frowned but finally snapped, “Fine, fine, whatever. I’m a real genius; I don’t need to shoot people to get what I need.”

Sheppard was starting to think McKay would have liked an excuse to shoot Sherlock regardless of whose life it might or might not save.

“Don’t let them… shoot you…either,” Sheppard chastised, letting his hand drop weakly.

“Christ, make up your mind!” With that declaration, Rodney gently patted Sheppard’s chest. As he disappeared from Sheppard’s line of sight, he gave one final, “I’ll be back soon, so don’t go anywhere,” and then he was gone.

Sheppard let his eyes slide closed as the sound of Rodney’s boots vanished down the hallway. It helped, a little, against the dizziness, and the dark was actually kind of soothing. McKay had been right about Afghanistan, except for one thing—it wasn’t black. Afghanistan would always burn hot and white in Sheppard’s mind, like the pale, bleached blue of the sky with the sun hovering like a phosphorus illumination flare overhead. You couldn’t hide in a place like Afghanistan, Sheppard knew, and the memories never faded into some dark recess of the mind. That’s why he liked Atlantis so much; everything there had a filtered, translucent quality to it. There was cool shade overlain with the warm glow of the stained glass. He could be the man he wanted to be without the sun burning him away to expose the core of who he had ended up being here in Afghanistan.

Sheppard did his best to block out that blinding glare of Afghanistan and picture Atlantis instead, to feel the breeze, to find a shadowed corridor and hide from his worry about McKay, the pain in his leg, the nausea, the throbbing in his head, the dizziness, the racing of his heart, all of it. It was nice here, in the dark, if a little chilly, but his jacket would help with that. He thought of going back to his quarters to retrieve it, but decided he’d just sit down and rest for now. He was tired and wasn’t really sure why. Given the way his heart was pounding and it was hard to breathe, maybe he’d been for a run. He liked to do that in the city, just open up and run until he thought his lungs would explode and his heart would beat out of his chest, and all the bad things in his memories fell away and crumbled like the desert sand.

Leaning back against the wall helped, though; his heart rate was slowing down and so was his breathing. That was good, it was all good. He’d just sit here for a little bit and relax. Seemed he never got to do that very much; just relax. Maybe later he’d see if Rodney wanted to play a little Call of Duty, or if Ronon and Teyla wanted to join them for a movie. A few beers, some popcorn with his friends… it didn’t get much better than that.

Somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard McKay…singing?

“Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? MCKAY! Can you dig it? Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about? MCKAY! Right On! They say this cat McKay is a bad mother SHUT YOUR MOUTH! I'm talkin' 'bout McKay. THEN WE CAN DIG IT!” The voice grew closer. “Sheppard, you should have been there. I totally kicked ass! I… Sheppard?”

“John?”

Sheppard thought he felt a brush of calloused fingers against his neck, but it was nice there in the dark, and he didn’t think he could open his eyes even if he wanted to.

“No no no no no! You were supposed to wait for me to get back. John!”

Sheppard was vaguely aware of being shaken, and yet it was so so far away he barely felt it at all.

“I got the staff weapon, you bastard! I got the weapon so I could save you! You son of a bitch, you were supposed to wait!”

Wait? Wait for what? He was going to see Rodney later for movies, right now he just wanted to rest. Didn’t he of all people deserve to take a fucking break for once in his life?

“I got the staff weapon!” The anger in McKay’s voice turned to realization. “I got the staff weapon and a sarcophagus can bring people back… Sheppard, you better fucking turn back from the light.”

Light? There was no light; only dark, nice soothing darkness. It was wrapped all around him, cocooning him like a warm sleeping bag. Even the chill he’d had earlier had vanished.

“Do you hear me? You turn around and come the fuck back!”

Leave it to McKay to ruin everything, because sure as shit, there was his light. It looked like a pinprick, a golden ember spinning slowly, then without warning it expanded and rushed toward him like a wormhole forming in the Gate. He was engulfed in light and heat and a roaring sound compressing tight around him, squeezing him until he realized he wasn’t breathing. He tried and tried, but nothing would fill his lungs. Then the press of light and sound vanished as quickly as it had appeared to be replaced by the sound of stone scraping against stone, and a tentative voice.

“John?”

Sheppard’s eyes flew open and he sucked in a deep, ragged breath, fighting to fill his lungs, like he’d just surfaced after having been held underwater by a wave while surfing.

“I’m alive?” Sheppard asked warily, reaching down to find his leg whole and healed. He sat up and removed the unnecessary tourniquet.

Rodney exhaled like he’d been holding his breath just as long as Sheppard had been fighting to breathe in. He dropped to his knees beside the edge of the sarcophagus and rested his forehead against his forearm there.

“Yes, you’re alive,” he ascertained a little breathlessly before pulling himself back to his feet. “Although that’s more than I could say about you when I came back from the storeroom.”

Sheppard saw the punch coming a mile away, but if what Rodney was insinuating about Sheppard’s physical state when McKay had returned with the staff weapon was true, then he deserved it.

Sheppard rubbed at his jaw as Rodney winced and shook out his hand.

“Feel better?” he asked.

“A little, yeah,” Rodney admitted, testing his fingers gingerly.

“Holmes and Watson alive?”

McKay shrugged. “Last I saw them they were.”

Sheppard climbed out of the sarcophagus using Rodney’s shoulder to steady himself even though he really didn’t need to. What he did need to do was give it a squeeze of thanks.

“Then we better go find them before Sherlock does something to reverse all of your hard work.”

Rodney grinned smugly. “You should have seen it. I was amazing.”

Sheppard retrieved his gun and they walked side by side out into the hall. “Yeah? So what did you end up doing?”

“Well, first, I threw them completely off guard with a spray of bullets into the ceiling….”

* * * * *

John wasn’t sure which was more disconcerting: the way Sherlock was pointing a gun at him while spouting an alien language with the unnerving cadence and tone of Jim Moriarty, or the way McKay raced into the room in a spray of bullets only to reenact a montage of some of the most violent movie scenes of modern cinema.

“Say hello to my little friend!” McKay yelled before shooting repeatedly into the ceiling.

John immediately dove for cover, as did Sherlock on the opposite side of the room.

“Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!” With that exclamation, Rodney darted into the room, still randomly releasing bursts of fire from his P-90 while simultaneously bobbing and weaving against a nonexistent response.

“You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to? You talking to me? Well I'm the only one here.” McKay made a drunken beeline to a long metal staff leaning against one of the shelves in the room. “Who the fuck do you think you're talking to? You said I'm funny. How the fuck am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what's funny!” Grabbing the staff, he ran back across the room, sprayed another burst of bullets from the doorway, before proclaiming, “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!”

And like Keyser Soze…poof… he was gone.

Sherlock’s head appeared from behind a storage shelf. He smiled broadly. “I like him!” he exclaimed. “Not the most original fellow, but he gets bonus points for style.”

It took John a second to realize he’d understood everything Sherlock had said. “Wait, you’re speaking English.”

“I am,” Sherlock stated with the same dawning realization. “Curious.” He, however, didn’t look very pleased as he noted, “Someone’s being a very clever boy. But the thing about clever boys is they often find themselves in a great deal of trouble.”

“Sherlock’s still in there hiding.” John’s lip curled at the thought. If he was still there, then there was a chance he would be able to come back.

Sherlock shook his head with a devious grin. “Not hiding. Not anymore. He’s out causing mischief, which means I can catch him.” His mouth twisted into a snarl. “I can catch him and destroy him.”

John shook his head. “No, you won’t. Every time you think you’ve beaten him, Sherlock finds a way to outsmart you.”

If there was one thing Jim Moriarty liked to do, it was to have the last word. If John could keep him distracted, gloating and threatening to destroy Sherlock, the better chance Sherlock had of finding a way to boot the alien influence out of his head and take control once more.

Sherlock laughed in a very Moriarty-like manner. “He has never outsmarted me. Everything he’s done, every move he’s made, has been orchestrated by me. He left London, he left his work, he left the people who called him friend, convinced them all he was dead, let you think you were all alone in the world again.”

“He took down your entire network of thugs and criminals, that’s what he did,” John argued.

Sherlock lowered his gun, knowing full well his words were more hurtful than any bullets would ever be. “He abandoned you, John. Showed you what life could be for you then took it all away. He hurt you when he could have just as easily told you his plans so you knew he was still alive.”

“No.” John shook his head adamantly. “No, he couldn’t tell me. It was too dangerous. He kept it all a secret to protect me and Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade.”

With a roll of his eyes, Sherlock took a few steps forward as he let out a low disappointed chuckle. “Is that what he told you?”

“Stop right there,” John ordered, tightening his grip on his gun and squaring his stance.

“Or you’ll shoot? Risk damaging this body? I don’t think so. You won’t hurt him, but I can’t say the reverse is true.” Sherlock kept walking with a tsk and tapped his temple. “I’m in here; I see it all. Do you want to know the real story of why he left? He was bored with you. He was bored with all of you.”

“No, he wasn’t,” John stated confidently.

“He was bored and saw his chance to get away from you and have a little fun without Jiminy Cricket screeching in his ear about doing what’s right, telling him when his responses were a bit not good, and calling him a machine.”

John blocked out the emotions, all the doubts he’d had while Sherlock was gone, and even those that had lingered when he’d returned. “That’s not why he left.”

“No?” Sherlock asked. “How can you be so certain?”

He couldn’t be certain, which was a bit of a problem, but one he’d been slowly and steadily dealing with since Sherlock’s return. Trust was not something John gave easily, and learning to trust Sherlock again after such a huge lie was not an easy task. Still, it was none of Moriarty’s concern. “I just am.”

“You thought he was dead for…how long?” Sherlock tilted his head sympathetically. “You haven’t had the best track record in determining exactly what Sherlock is up to, now, have you?”

“If he did leave because he was bored, then why did he come back?” John challenged.

“Because he got bored again!” Sherlock yelled like John was the stupidest man alive. “God, whatever did he see in you? A baboon would have made a better companion. At least it would have realized that Sherlock has the attention span of an incontinent cocker spaniel—any and every shrub will do until another one catches his eye.”

While that could be true at times, there was always something on the horizon that would pull Sherlock out of his funk and back into the fray. “Sherlock loves his work.”

“His work, yes. You?” Sherlock gave an apologetic shrug. “You hold him back, suffocate him, chastise him like you are his mummy.”

“I am his friend!” John snapped.

Sherlock leaned in closer and said softly. “He doesn’t have friends.”

The first time Sherlock had said that to him, it had felt like a slap in the face. Sherlock had only said it then because he was under the influence of a government produced hallucinogenic…that and being a major prat was second nature to the man… but the hallucinogenic hadn’t helped matters in the least. Now, however, John knew better.

“Do you want to know a secret about Sherlock? One he doesn’t even know about himself?” John asked. “Even when he doesn’t think he has friends or even wants them, we’re here… I’m here… watching his back. He knows that, subconsciously he depends on the truth of it.”

“Is that what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night, John?” Sherlock’s lower lip turned down in a pout. “You really are a pathetic little sad sack, aren’t you? No wonder Sherlock couldn’t wait to get away from you. Your loyalty however, that is something to behold.” Sherlock shrugged. “Although, really, what’s the point of that loyalty now? Sherlock is gone; and this time he is never, ever coming back.”

The arrogant expression faltered as Sherlock staggered and gave a shake of his head, as if to clear it. John took that as a good sign.

“You were saying?” John asked innocently, although he couldn’t hide the quirk of his lips. “He knows I’m out here doing everything in my power to help him.” John’s smile widened. “It’s not so much that he can outsmart you, Jim; it’s that he has a reason to do it.”

Sherlock rubbed at his temple, let out a growl of frustration. “What do you think you’re doing, Sherlock?”

John continued to press the advantage he saw forming. “You want to know the point of my loyalty? It was to distract you long enough for Sherlock to do what he needed to do, you arrogant prick.”

John’s gloating grin vanished, however, with Sherlock’s next words.

“If you do that, you’ll destroy us both.”

“Sherlock?” John asked warily. “What are you doing?” When Sherlock grabbed both sides of his head with a harsh gasp, John ordered, “Sherlock, stop it! Whatever you’re doing, stop it!”

“John…” Sherlock ground out between his teeth. “It’s…fine….”

“No, it’s not,” John countered, finally hearing his friend’s voice, strangled as it was. “What are you doing?”

“Destroying…him…it,” Sherlock managed to say as he dropped to his knees.

John dropped beside him. “Moriarty said you’d destroy both of you. Whatever you’re doing, stop it. Do you hear me? Stop it!”

“Only…way….”

“What’s the only way?” John grabbed him by the shoulders. “Sherlock, tell me what you’re doing?”

“Purging…the demons…from the system.”

“Purge? Purging how?” John demanded desperately.

He smiled again, only this time the expression was pure Sherlock. “Fire,” he said, blue eyes blazing with their own fierce flames of pride, until they rolled back in Sherlock’s head and he tumbled forward limply into John’s arms.

“No!” John yelled, shaking the nonresponsive form leaning into him.

There was no way Sherlock would have really done what he was implying. No way would he burn down the mind palace with him still in it. No way would Sherlock destroy everything that he was.

Easing him back onto the floor, John checked Sherlock’s pulse. Nothing. The memory of that day he’d done the same on the street outside of St. Bart’s hospital was strong enough that John could smell the copper stench of blood, although Sherlock didn’t have a wound on him.

Pushing the nightmare aside, John set to work doing what he was trained to do: keep his patient alive. Two breaths followed by fifteen chest compressions, then repeat. So simple they trained primary school children how to do it; for a man with his training and experience, surely John could keep enough oxygen flowing to Sherlock’s brain to keep him alive. Although, he also had enough training and experience to ask the follow up question-- then what?

If Sherlock had truly destroyed everything in his mind, what was the point in keeping him alive? He may be delivering oxygen to Sherlock’s brain, but it was now a brain potentially devoid of anything remotely Sherlock. Was he doing this just so he could put Sherlock on a ventilator in a coma or persistent vegetative state? Not to mention he couldn’t keep the CPR up forever, and they were nearly a hundred miles from the nearest medical facility.

Unless…

Giving two more rescue breaths, John took the time to compress the button on his radio instead of Sherlock’s chest. “Dr. McKay, do you read me?”

The voice that answered gave him more hope than hearing Rodney’s voice would have.

“Watson, it’s Sheppard. We’re on our way to you now.”

“It worked?” John asked in disbelief, even though Sheppard being alive, much less mobile, was all the answer he really needed. “The alien machine really worked?”

“It did,” Sheppard promised.

“Just like I said it would,” McKay interjected smugly.

“Good, then we need to get Sherlock into it immediately.” Having made that announcement, he delivered two more rescue breaths and resumed chest compressions.

It seemed like an eternity before Sheppard and McKay rushed into the room, but John knew it had only been a few minutes. Still, his shoulders were screaming and he was dripping sweat from his exertion by the time Sheppard dropped to his knees and took over the CPR.

John sank back on his haunches, breathing heavily and staring in open amazement at the colonel. Not only was he healed, he looked better than he had when they first met.

“It actually worked,” John said in a huff of breath. “That’s…amazing. We need to move Sherlock now.”

“Wait, what happened to him?” Rodney asked, then his eyes widened in worry. “Oh, God, I didn’t shoot him, did I?”

“No, he burned down his mind palace.” John pushed himself to his feet. “Help me get him up.”

“His mind castle?” Rodney demanded. “You mean that memory trick he has? How could doing that stop his heart?”

“He must have destroyed those basic controls, as well,” John snapped. “What difference does it make how this happened? If that bloody box can fix him, then we’re wasting time talking about why he needs to be fixed!”

“Because depending on what caused it, it might not work,” McKay told him.

“His heart has stopped beating!” John jabbed a finger at Sherlock on the floor. “If there is a chance it will work, we’re using it!”

If McKay argued with him anymore, John was ready to punch him in the face. After the day he’d had, he was ready to punch anyone in the face, and Rodney would make a perfect target no matter what he said next.

His urge to hit someone, however, vanished when Sheppard sat back.

“He’s breathing again,” Sheppard said, sounding a bit winded himself.

John was completely caught off guard by that statement, because it was almost impossible that someone who had no heartbeat would suddenly start up again without some more extensive medical intervention than CPR alone.

“You’re sure?” John asked, kneeling down to check for a pulse.

“I’m not a doctor,” Sheppard admitted, “but I can usually tell the basics like that.”

Sure enough, Sherlock was breathing, and his pulse was not only there, but steady and growing stronger by the second.

“I…I don’t understand,” John said, a smile breaking across his face. “But right now I really don’t think I care.”

John certainly did care when, after two hours of anxiously waiting for some sign of improvement, there had been no additional change in Sherlock’s condition.

John checked Sherlock’s motor responses once more. As with all previous checks, including the eye and verbal checks, there was no response at all.

“He’s in a coma… a very deep coma,” John said in growing fear that Sherlock really had done irreparable damage to himself.

The sudden restoration of his respiratory functions had raised John’s hopes that whatever Sherlock had done was repairing itself, but with no improvement after so long, he was starting to think maybe the involuntary systems had restored but the rest was gone.

“I think we should try the sarcophagus,” John told the other two men.

“Look, Watson,” Rodney started, a distinct note of sympathy in his voice, “I don’t think it will fix what’s wrong with Sherlock.”

“It healed Colonel Sheppard’s leg,” John noted.

Sheppard put his hands on his hips and shrugged. “Worth a try, isn’t it?”

“You don’t understand,” Rodney tried to explain. “Even if it did work, there could be some very serious side effects.”

“Side effects?” Sheppard crossed his arms. “Why the hell didn’t you worry about side effects with me?”

“For one,” McKay said, ticking off items on his fingers, “you were dead. It’s not like the side effects could be worse than that. For another, your wounds were physical. If destroying this brain fort of his is the cause, then it’s mental, and pretty damn severe. The sarcophagus won’t work on brain injuries.”

“Being clinically dead can cause some severe brain damage,” John pointed out. “And Colonel Sheppard doesn’t seem to have any residual problems.”

Rodney shook his head. “It’s not the same. The sarcophagus can cause all sorts of problems which were common in the Goa’uld; the most predominant being acute megalomania and an intense belief in your own superiority.”

John threw his arms wide. “So in other words, Sherlock would be back to normal.”

“Watson, I don’t think you understand—“ Sheppard tried to explain further.

John, however, was having none of it. “You’re right; there are a ridiculous number of things I don’t understand about any of this. I do, however, understand that Sherlock is totally unresponsive. I also understand that, if he has done what he said he was going to do, traditional medicine won’t do anything for him. But it seems if this was caused by an alien device, then the best chance to reverse the effects is to use another alien device.”

Sheppard looked to McKay and shrugged. “At this point, we really don’t have anything to lose.”

Rodney held his hands up. “Fine, we’ll put him in the sarcophagus. But if he wakes up with an unnatural desire to dress like a drag queen, it’s all on you.”

At this point, John didn’t care if he came back wanting to wear tutus and tiaras, as long as he would open his bloody eyes and recognize John as his friend.

When they went to lift him, however, Sherlock surprised them all by groaning ever so lightly. John immediately checked his pain reflexes and was rewarded with a twitch of toes.

“I take it that’s good?” Sheppard asked.

“That’s very good,” John told him. “It means if he keeps improving, he may come out of this on his own.”

They decided not to put Sherlock in the sarcophagus just yet, taking a wait and see approach for the time being. Luckily, they didn’t have to wait long. Over the next half hour, Sherlock steadily showed signs of more elevated consciousness, until he finally fluttered his eyes open.

“Sherlock?” Just because he was awake didn’t mean Sherlock had been successful in purging the Moriarty persona.

As if realizing he was lying on the ground, Sherlock’s awareness went from drowsy to alert. So much so, that John had to put a halting hand on Sherlock’s chest to keep him from sitting up.

“John, where are we?” Sherlock asked warily. “What happened?”

John’s relief at being recognized waned slightly at the question. “How much do you remember?”

“I remember the attack on the road, you treating the wounded soldier, arriving at the caves….” Sherlock shook his head as if that might knock something loose. “We’re in the cave now, obviously, but….”

“But nothing since we’ve been here?” Sheppard asked. “Nothing about what we found? The unusual nature of what we found?"

“Other than it being a Soviet research bunker?” Sherlock raised a rather condescending eyebrow, as if the Americans were still claiming this was an archaeological site and not a Cold War facility.

“Exactly,” Sheppard agreed. “Soviet Era facility.”

“Of course it is,” Rodney grumbled, sounding almost disappointed that Sherlock didn’t remember anything about the alien origins of the bunker.

Sheppard hitched his head, indicating John should join him out of earshot of Sherlock.

John patted Sherlock’s chest. “I’ll be right back so don’t move. You… took a serious fall that has obviously affected your memory. I need to check you over first.”

When Sherlock rolled his eyes at the concern but nodded, John stood and went to talk to Sheppard and McKay.

“I think it might be best if we didn’t tell him exactly what happened,” the colonel suggested. “If he’s somehow rebuilt this mind palace thing of his, he may have locked those memories away for a reason.”

John had been thinking the same thing. “Agreed; and the sooner we get out of here, the less chance there is of something triggering them and bringing them back.”

“So I can’t tell him he was completely and totally wrong about this being a Russian weapons facility?” Rodney practically whined.

John gave him a sympathetic pat to the shoulder. “Trust me; I know how enjoyable it can be to prove him wrong, but I’m not going to risk it.”

Sheppard turned and spoke louder then. “All right, I think we’ve seen everything we need to see. We’ll call in a full team to deal with the cleanup of the facility, but as soon as the doc here checks out Sherlock, we can head out.”

Sherlock lay staring at the stone ceiling above him in a repose John had seen a thousand times on the sofa in their flat, with his ankles casually crossed and fingers tented comfortably on his chest. “So I take it you dealt with your mysterious ping at some point I can’t recall, then?”

John, Sheppard, and McKay all exchanged a look that reflected what Rodney verbalized.

“Oh, shit.”

* * * * *

Somehow, this was all Sherlock’s fault.

If he hadn’t gotten himself attacked by that stupid lovechild of Ancient and Goa’uld technology, Rodney would have been able to deal with the self-destruct device that was threatening the imminent destruction of a good quarter of the planet before it became so…well…imminent.

“They can’t shut down the gate,” Rodney told the room in general as he read more about the device.

“Well, they’re going to in less than an hour,” Sheppard reminded. “Unless you can shut that thing off.”

Rodney shook his head, then lowered his voice so Watson and Sherlock couldn’t hear what he was saying. “You don’t understand, if they shut down the gate, this thing is going to blow…this naquadah-powered explosive designed to take out an entire Ancient facility is going to blow…and it is going to take out a huge area.”

“So, like the cave?” Sheppard asked hopefully.

“Yes, the cave and every other cave within fifty million square miles,” McKay told him. Hopefully now, Sheppard would understand how critical this really was.

“That’s a lot of caves,” Sheppard said with a frown.

“And a lot of other stuff in between,” Rodney stressed. “Us included.”

“I thought you said you weren’t serious about the whole self-destruct thing,” Sheppard bitched.

Rodney threw his arms wide. “I said I didn’t know what it was. Can I help it if my intuitions about dangerous Ancient technology are so accurate?”

Sheppard scowled at the rebuke. “So can’t you just turn it off so it doesn’t detonate?”

“I could if we still had a control chair.” McKay pointed at the piece of equipment that looked deceptively like an innocent if elaborate universal remote for a flat-screen TV. “Consider that part of a three piece set. There’s the gate, the control chair, and the self-destruct. If one piece is gone, like the original Ancient Antarctic gate that was destroyed by Anubis, it doesn’t seem to be too concerned, since the control chair was still there. If both of the other two pieces are gone, however, it apparently assumes the worst.”

“That the base has been destroyed,” Sheppard concluded.

“Or taken permanently offline,” Rodney modified, “which evidently triggered the self-destruct sequence.”

“So why hasn’t it blown yet?”

Sheppard’s question was valid, and had stumped Rodney for a while, too.

“Best I can come up with is that when it loses contact with both, it goes looking for one or both of the other components, just in case it was a temporary shutdown. When the control chair was destroyed, it started looking for the gate, but instead of the Ancient gate, it found the gate Ra brought to Earth.”

“Which was made by the Goa’uld,” Sheppard concluded.

“Very similar to the Ancient gate, but still different enough that it will eventually realize it’s not the gate it's looking for.” Rodney shook his head. “It’s been testing the SGC gate for weeks now, running it through more and more elaborate tests, like it’s suspicious of what it’s found. Apparently, the SGC isn’t giving it exactly what it wants to hear. I think we’ve been lucky, like it thinks it might be damaged and is trying to repair it, running diagnostics or something, so that it will give it the answer it wants. But if they turn it off and it completely loses contact with the only gate it can find….”

“They can’t turn off the gate,” Sheppard reiterated.

McKay spun his finger in the air. “Aaaand we’ve come full circle.”

Watson appeared beside Sheppard. “The two of you are being a bit loud regarding some of the details of this mission.” He looked back at Sherlock warily and lowered his voice even further. “Details it would probably be best that were not discussed within earshot of Sherlock.”

Sometimes, the universe just wasn’t fair, like when it dropped a self-destructive TV remote in your lap. And sometimes the universe just crapped on everything, like when it dropped a self-destructive TV remote in your lap and you couldn’t even use it to prove your brilliance to an arrogant, conceited ass who had had all his previous memory of your brilliance erased by another device. Not to mention, shot your best friend and then nearly died himself, thus distracting you from the critical job of stopping the destruction of the planet you were currently occupying.

See? It really was all Sherlock’s fault.

Sheppard nodded. “Go back to the transport. I need you to convey a message to our people anyway. Maybe buy us a little more time.”

As Sheppard relayed instruction to call the SGC and contact Sam Carter with a message not to shut down the gate, Rodney continued to scour the database looking for any way to stop the device they had.

Once the other two men were gone, Sheppard took up his normal position hovering over Rodney’s shoulder. “Any luck?”

“The British invasion has withdrawn, so that has to count for something,” McKay grumbled.

“Rodney…,” Sheppard chastised.

“Hey, I have to find good news somewhere, because the rest of it just sucks.”

Sheppard grimaced. “No luck then?”

Rodney’s shoulders slumped. “At this point it’s not a matter of if this thing is going to blow; it’s a matter of when.”

“Okay.” Sheppard started to pace. He usually did that when he was brainstorming. “We get it off the planet.”

Rodney did what he usually did when Sheppard brainstormed—he told him why none of his ideas would work.

“How? The Daedalus isn’t in orbit to beam it out of here.”

“We have them fly in the jumper from the SGC,” Sheppard suggested. “We’ll take it into space.”

“And when the range is too far for it to communicate with the device and it blows?” Rodney shook his head as soon as he saw the look on Sheppard’s face. “Look, I know how much you love a good suicide run, but chances are you wouldn’t make it far enough to make a difference anyway.”

“Even with the shields on?” Sheppard asked.

That’s when Rodney remembered something, something about Goa’uld technology that was a little different than the Ancients.

“The Goa’uld had personal shields that actually worked!”

“I think the Ancients did, too, Rodney. Any problems were related to user errors.”

Rodney ignored the comment about his own use of the Ancient personal shield and instead scoured the shelves looking for the Goa’uld shield he remembered seeing earlier.

“But an Ancient shield didn’t use the kinetic energy of the threat to make itself stronger.” Rodney squatted to get a better look at one of the shelves. “They can stop bullets or plasma blasts, but a simple arrow or thrown knife can pass right through them.”

“Explosions have a shitload of kinetic energy,” Sheppard pointed out, catching on to what Rodney had in mind and searching a shelf himself. “But can it contain a blast this big?”

“Oh, not a chance,” Rodney scoffed. “But it doesn’t have to; it just has to muffle it. Kind of like someone throwing himself on a grenade; it doesn’t stop the explosion but it contains the initial force, thus lessening the overall damage by the blast.”

“So we take out the Persian Gulf region but save the rest of the planet?” Sheppard asked.

Rodney snorted. “A blast that size will impact the entire planet.”

“How bad of an impact?”

“Extinction of the dinosaurs bad,” Rodney told him. “But explosions typically show exponential growth, so the longer we contain it, the smaller it will be.”

“How long do we need to contain it?”

“A naquadah-powered blast releases all its energy in the first microsecond. After that, the destruction is all a chain reaction of that initial release. Minimize the initial release and we minimize the destruction.”

“A microsecond isn’t that long to have to hold,” Sheppard noted hopefully.

“We’ll be lucky to get a tenth of that,” Rodney told him. “But the facility has shielding as well. If I can boost that, we might be able to contain it to say a few square miles of destruction, most of which will be underground.”

“Blow up a nice chunk of Afghanistan,” Sheppard seemed to consider. “I might actually find that cathartic.”

“As long as we’re outside the blast zone,” Rodney reminded before smiling in triumph when he found the shield. “Come to papa.”

Watson’s voice came through the radio calling Sheppard. “Colonel Carter says they were testing shutdown procedures when the gate at the SGC opened on its own and has now been open forty-three minutes. Given the way it’s behaving, she says the gate will overload in less than twenty minutes if you don’t shut down the apparatus. Does that make sense to you?”

“Shit!” Rodney exclaimed, rushing into action.

“Unfortunately, it does,” Sheppard told Watson.

McKay was already working to manipulate the shield’s field. “Tell them to leave it active for as long as possible. We’ll call when it’s safe to shutdown.”

“Did you copy that, Watson?” Sheppard asked.

After confirming he’d passed on the message, Watson asked, “What should we do?”

“Clear out,” Sheppard ordered grimly. “Even if we contain this explosion, it’s going to be big.”

The look Sheppard gave Rodney stopped the argument forming on McKay’s lips.

“What about the two of you?” Watson asked.

“We’ll manage,” Sheppard lied.

“There is no way we can make it out of the blast zone on foot in fifteen minutes!” Rodney snapped.

Sheppard let go of his radio. “Chances are the blast is going to kill us before we even leave the building.”

“Oh, thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Am I wrong?” Sheppard challenged.

“Probably not,” Rodney mumbled.

“You’ll save the planet,” Sheppard reminded. “That has to count for something.”

“Posthumous awards for valor aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” Rodney activated the shield, narrowing the range so that it would just envelop the self-destruct device.

The silence on the other end of the radio ended as Watson came back on. “If it’s all the same with you, we’ll wait a few minutes before taking off.”

Sheppard sighed but told Watson, “Don’t wait too long.”

Rodney didn’t look up from the readings on his laptop as he said, “You could go with them, you know.”

“And be stuck with them alone?” Sheppard looked disgusted. “Watson’s a good guy, but Sherlock?” He shook his head. “He’s the only person I’ve ever met who makes me a liar about all the times I bitched about you being the most egotistical person I ever met.”

“Was that supposed to be a compliment?”

“Seeing as we’ll be dead within the hour…sure, it’s a compliment.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “It’s not like you’re doing anything anyway.”

“Moral support.” Sheppard shrugged.

“I’m not the most annoying person you’ve met and we’re all going to die anyway….I’m not sure you understand the meaning of either compliment or moral support.”

“I like you more than Sherlock and I’m still here because I believe you’ll find a way to stop this thing from killing us all. How’s that?”

“Touching. Too bad you’ll be dead and can’t deliver my eulogy.” Rodney tried again. “Unless you leave now. John, seriously, go.” Time to be the self-sacrificing one on the team.

Sheppard shook his head no, because God forbid Rodney steal his martyr act. “I’m not leaving anyone behind in this desert again, Rodney.”

Rodney thought he did a pretty good job of hiding his relief that Sheppard was staying. “Fine. Then at least make yourself useful. No use dying just lounging around.”

Sheppard straightened from where he was leaning against a table. “What do you need me to do?”

Honestly, there wasn’t much to do other than maybe make out a last will and testament. “Do you know what a Jaffa wrist guard looks like? There’s one on the third shelf to the right.” Rodney deactivated the shield around the detonator.

“This?” Sheppard asked as he held it up.

McKay nodded that he’d found the right piece. “Help me move these things. The deeper in the complex we go, the better chance we have of containing some of the blast when the cave collapses.”

Sheppard quickly checked over the map of the facility McKay had pulled up on the console. “Looks like it goes down another two levels.”

Rodney closed his laptop and cradled it under his arm as he hitched his backpack on his shoulder and held up the Jaffa guard. “There are transporter rings at the end of the hall this should activate.” He handed the blinking self-destruct and shield combination to Sheppard. “We activate the shield, transport it, and run like hell.”

Sheppard nodded and turned for the door. “Bet you wished you’d gone jogging with me a few more times.”

Fast on his heels, Rodney snorted. “I think you’ll find my desire to live is greater motivation to haul ass than seeing a sunrise on Atlantis.”

Sheppard broke into a jog. “I don’t know. Those sunrises are pretty damn amazing.”

“Here’s hoping we get another chance to see one.” Rodney shifted his laptop to a more secure position as he started trotting beside Sheppard. “I’ll take that as consolation over what we’re never going to get to see in this facility.”

“Well, look at it this way,” Sheppard suggested, “no one else will get to take the credit for studying what you found after you’re dead.”

The couple of rooms they had found were full of a mouth-dropping array of both Ancient and Goa’uld technology, most of which Rodney had never seen before. He could only imagine what was on the other levels because he’d never get to see them. In a few minutes, no one would, as they would be lost forever. The injustice of that fact ranked up there with one of the top ten ways the universe could suck out loud at times. And yet, it somehow seemed appropriate that he would be lost along with all that was stored in the complex; just one more amazing creation among hundreds if not thousands.

“I shouldn’t find that as comforting as I do,” Rodney admitted.

“You’re welcome.” Sheppard shot a quick grin his direction.

Knowing that was probably one of the last of those smartass smirks Rodney would ever see was an even greater injustice in the grand scheme of things, and even more of an inexplicable comfort than his words.

Fine, there would be two more amazing creations lost to the world among all the nifty tech.

Rodney activated the transport rings as soon as they reached them. Wonder of wonders, they actually worked. Squatting, McKay once again activated the shield. “How much time before they shut down the gate?”

“Less than ten minutes, maybe,” Sheppard told him.

“Think we can make it out of the facility in that time?” McKay asked hopefully.

“It’ll be tight,” Sheppard admitted.

“We need to lockdown the facility to help contain the blast. If we do it while we’re inside…”

“We don’t get out,” Sheppard finished, then said simply. “Lock her down. I’ll tell Watson they need to go.”

Rodney finished up with the self-destruct and stepped out of the rings before activating them. The rings dropped into place, lifted, and the device was gone. Then he used his laptop to set the lockdown of the facility; the shielding on the doors would help a little, but every little bit counted at this point.

Rodney expected to hear Sheppard calling to Watson and Sherlock outside, but instead he asked, “Don’t these rings usually lead to someplace outside, as well?”

Rodney blinked. They had in the Ancient facility in Antarctica, and in most Goa’uld facilities, too. He stood and shoved Sheppard toward the center of the rings. “I can set a timer on the lockdown from my laptop.”

“Sooner rather than later,” Sheppard warned.

Rodney’s fingers flew across the keyboard. “Working on it.”

“Watson, are you still out there?” Sheppard called into the radio.

“We are, Colonel,” came the reply.

“Well, you damn well shouldn’t be,” Sheppard grumped. “We think we’ve found a quicker way out but we’re not sure where it will drop us. I don’t think it will put us near the entrance we used, though.”

“Call us when you’re clear and we’ll find you,” Watson told him. “We have another way out, as well.”

Before Sheppard could ask what Watson meant, Rodney stood, leaving the laptop on the floor. “Okay, the facility will lock down in two minutes. So if these rings don’t take us outside, we’ll be trapped wherever it transports us.”

“Will it be worse than sitting here?” Sheppard asked.

“Good point.” Rodney joined Sheppard inside the rings and the colonel activated the controls. A few seconds later, they were standing outside, on top of a mountain with only the pale lavender haze of the coming dawn to provide illumination.

As if suddenly appearing on a mountain in the middle of a strange desert wasn’t disorienting enough, he now had the darkness and a whistling wind to contend with. Flicking on the light to his P-90 the same time Sheppard did his, Rodney scanned the rocky crag. “Where are we?”

“No clue,” Sheppard admitted.

Behind them was an outcropping of limestone that stepped up another thirty feet or so to the peak of the mountain. In front of them was a rocky ridge that led down and over to a lower peak.

“Why do I feel like we just left the frying pan behind?”

It wasn’t going to be an easy climb down and it sure wasn’t going to be fast. Unless they happened to be on a mountain several miles away from the facility, they had done nothing more than traded one vantage point for the destruction and their subsequent deaths for another.

Before Rodney could tell Sheppard to call Watson and tell him never mind, they were dying anyway, Sheppard lifted his head. “You hear that?”

McKay listened, but he couldn’t hear much of anything over the wind. Then, just as he was about to say no, he did hear something: a steady thrumming, and it was growing louder by the second, coming up behind him. He turned, only to have a blinding light shining in his face, causing him to close his eyes. The wind grew stronger, blowing grit against his face and he closed his eyes tighter.

Sheppard squeezed his shoulder and spoke close to his ears to be heard. “Keep your head down and watch the rotors.”

Rotors? What rotors?

Prying his eyes open as much as he dared, Rodney looked up to see a helicopter hovering above them. It seemed that had been Watson’s other way out. Sheppard pulled Rodney back against the outcrop of rock behind them, giving the chopper as much room as possible to set down, then took McKay by the bicep and led him to the side door Watson opened for them.

“Need a lift?” Watson asked with a grin.

Sheppard smiled broadly in return as he pushed Rodney into the helicopter then climbed in behind him. “Best pick up line I’ve heard in a long time.”

“Well, that’s a rather sad statement,” Sherlock noted.

McKay wasn’t sure if that was meant as an insult to Watson or Sheppard. Maybe he’d meant it for both; Rodney could appreciate the efficiency. Although now was not the time.

“Flirt later, fly now,” Rodney ordered spinning his hand over his head as soon as he sat down. “We still have a blast zone to clear.”

The chopper lifted back into the air and Watson explained their current ride. “We saw them flying out on maneuvers so I called into base and requested an evac. It seemed the most prudent course considering our time constraints.”

“Damn straight,” Sheppard agreed. “But how did you find us?”

“Your torches.” Watson tapped the P-90s. “Sherlock noticed them flickering as we lifted off to take a go around to look for you.”

Rodney looked anxiously at his watch. “Fascinating. Remind me to thank you for saving our lives once we actually survive.” He turned to Sheppard. “Seriously? Doesn’t this thing fly any faster?”

“It’s not a jumper, McKay,” Sheppard noted with a roll of his eyes.

“Believe me, I’m painfully aware.” Leaning toward the cockpit, Rodney said. “You, English flyboy, pedal to the metal. Chop chop.”

Rodney felt Sheppard jerking him back into his seat. He thought he heard Watson saying something along the lines of, “I believe he’s Welsh, Dr. McKay.”

All of it, however, was drowned out by an ominous rumbling sound. Looking down, Rodney could see the shock wave from the explosion propagating out, buckling the ground below them as it raced outward from the mountain they had just left, like a pebble dropped in a previously calm pond. The wave quickly outpaced them, causing an updraft that pushed the helicopter forward in an onslaught of warning alarms. The pilot was able to quickly regain control of the craft, lifting them higher to avoid the rising cloud of dust and debris from the desert floor threatening to swallow them whole.

Watson was wide-eyed across from McKay. Sherlock had a puzzled expression on his face but no more. Rodney didn’t realize he was white-knuckling Sheppard’s arm until the pilot had turned the helicopter around to look back at what had caused the blast.

“He’s got it under control,” Sheppard told him reassuringly.

“No! It’s not done!” Rodney warned at the same time as the entire mountainside collapsed in on itself. Rodney found the whole image sickeningly exhilarating until the second shock wave hit them.

The explosion had vaporized everything underground for miles probably, which meant there was nothing but empty space beneath it now; empty space that was quickly filled in by the millions of tons of rock above the newly formed void. The second shock wave had the alarms sounding again as the nose of the helicopter was pushed skyward, tilting the chopper up and back so far Rodney felt like he was lying back in a chair at the dentist office. At that moment, he would have taken a root canal without anesthesia over the sinking sensation in his stomach as the helicopter started to drop.

“Don’t stall, don’t stall, don’t stall….” Rodney found himself chanting under his breath, eyes shut tight.

The helicopter tilted forward and McKay dared to crack one eye open as the alarms silenced once more.

“Any more explosions?” Sheppard asked warily.

“No, that should be it,” Rodney assured with an exhalation of breath. As if those two hadn’t been enough.

“Think you could let some blood flow to my hand?” Sheppard raised eyebrows and looked down at the grip McKay still had on his arm. “I’m starting to lose feeling in my fingers.”

“At least you still have fingers to losing feeling in,” Rodney snapped to cover his embarrassment.

Sheppard shrugged. “Ten fingers, ten toes, a nice chunk of Afghanistan gone…sounds like a fair trade to me.”

Rodney looked out the window at the decimated landscape below them. “Christ, how are we going to explain this?”

“Hell, McKay, you blew up an entire solar system. What’s a mountain compared to that?”

Rodney considered for a moment before bobbling his head. “True. I suppose I could just plagiarize that mission report.”

Sherlock was watching them with a curious expression on his face. “So this sort of thing is the norm for you two?”

“This? The norm? Nah,” Sheppard drawled. “It’s actually been kind of a slow day.” Sheppard’s gaze slid to Watson. “That job offer still stands, if you’re interested.”

McKay was vaguely aware of Sherlock sitting up and demanding, “Job?”

Rodney was too busy demanding, “What?” He actually wanted to spend more time with these two?

Sheppard ignored them both, simply watching as Watson shook his head with a chuckle of disbelief. “Is this how all your interviews go for prospective employees?”

Sheppard nodded. “Something along these lines, yeah.”

With a glance at Sherlock, Watson confessed, “I think the classified nature of your work would be more than I am willing to take on. There’s too much I’d have to give up.”

“Fair enough,” Sheppard conceded.

If Sherlock couldn’t know about the whole alien possession thing without risking his sanity, Rodney could understand why he wouldn’t want to take Sheppard up on his offer. Why Sheppard would make such an offer in the first place was another story entirely.

“But the next time you’re in London,” Watson offered, “give us a ring and we’ll show how we do things across the pond.”

Sherlock started to protest, but Watson silenced him with a look. Instead, Holmes crossed his arms and gave a dangerous smile. “Yes, do pop by for a visit. I’ll make sure you have quite the memorable experience.”

Sheppard raised his eyebrows at the backhanded threat. “I’m kind of afraid that may be more than I’m willing to take on.”

Watson gave an exasperated sigh.

Rodney rolled his eyes with a snort. “Please. I just blew up a mountain. How can you top that?”

Sherlock leaned forward, teeth bared in what Rodney assumed was meant to pass as a smile. “Challenge,” Sherlock practically purred, “accepted.”

Rodney made a mental note never to step foot in England again.

* * * * *

“A Soviet Era research bunker?” Mycroft set down his tea cup with a frustrated sigh. “That is what you found in Afghanistan?”

“Yes,” Sherlock assured him with a quick glance at John who was studying his shoes and specifically not making eye contact with Mycroft.

“You’re sure that’s all you found?” Mycroft pushed.

John, as Sherlock had always known, was much too decent a person for his own good. As a result, his skills at lying were sorely lacking. It appeared this was all on Sherlock then. “It seems I took a fall, bumped my head, don’t remember more than arriving at the site before leaving. Well, that and the immense explosion that destroyed the entire mountainside and the facility within it. That I do remember quite clearly.”

“I’m quite sure you do,” Mycroft noted dryly, no doubt having been briefed about the destruction caused by the explosion.

“Yes, regrettably it’s all gone; the bunker and every last secret it held. And what small bit more I saw is little more than a blur. Head injuries are like that, I’m afraid. Isn’t that right, John?”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed as he studied his flatmate more closely—shoulders tense, fingers kneading into the palm of his hands trying to keep from forming a true fist, toe tapping against the Persian rug under his foot. He wasn’t avoiding eye contact with Mycroft to escape having to lie; he was attempting to contain his anger.

“Yes,” John agreed tightly. “We’re fortunate your injuries weren’t more serious or of a more permanent nature.” He leaned back into the soft leather of Mycroft’s sofa in a seething funk locked behind crossed arms.

Mycroft’s eyes narrowed at John for an entirely different reason, and Sherlock wasn’t about to let his brother carry through with the threat already forming on his lips.

“It was a minor injury in the end,” Sherlock dismissed. He spoke to John, but kept his eyes locked on Mycroft’s. “I’m just glad you didn’t fall victim to an insurgent’s bullet during the ambush we were caught up in. That would have been far, far worse…for everyone involved.”

Sherlock had done things of which John would surely not approve when he’d been hunting down Moriarty’s ring of devotees, all because John’s life had been at risk. God have mercy on the man who actually succeeded in killing John, because Sherlock would not. If he happened to be Sherlock’s brother, well, then, so be it.

“Fortunately,” Sherlock continued pointedly, “we no longer have to worry about that. Do we, brother dear?”

Mycroft took a few seconds to measure Sherlock’s meddle before reaching into the attaché case resting beside his ankle and pulling out an envelope--8 x 10, bright white, 80% recycled stock, government purchased, with Captain John Watson and their 221B Baker Street address printed directly on the front by a standard government laser printer, the Ministry of Defence address and seal preprinted in the upper corner.

“Her Majesty’s government thanks you, once again, Captain Watson, for your service and bravery in protecting the realm,” Mycroft said as he handed the package across to John.

John wasted no time in tearing it open and reading the discharge papers. He exhaled as he nodded his head. “I’m out.”

Sherlock let out a sigh of relief, covering it by standing abruptly and buttoning his jacket. “Well, then, it appears our business here is completed.” He started for the door, calling casually, “John?”

“Might I have a word with John before you go?” Mycroft asked. “In private, if you please, as it regards his compensation for this particular military service.”

John nodded to let Sherlock know it was okay.

“I’ll just gather our coats and meet you at the front door,” Sherlock offered. Of course, he had no intention of going farther than right outside Mycroft’s study.

As soon as Sherlock was gone, Mycroft stated firmly, “It was not a Russian weapon depot that you found in that desert.”

“No,” John agreed simply. “It was not.”

“Does Sherlock really not remember what happened?” Mycroft asked suspiciously.

John gave a small bitter laugh. “God, I really do hope he doesn’t remember. And even if you find out from the report you will no doubt receive from the IOA, you will not tell Sherlock. Because if he does remember, it could destroy him.”

“Would you like to tell me what you did find?” Mycroft tried. “So I can truly understand what happened.”

“You mean debrief you with the same detail you briefed us about what we would find?” John challenged angrily.

“John, there are certain protocols that must be followed when dealing with IOA business—“

“Fuck your protocols, Mycroft!” John snapped. “Sherlock is your brother. He is not some bloody tool you can use whenever you need to pry open a particularly hard nut of a case you can’t solve. You can’t keep doing this; you can’t just keep manipulating him into doing what you want him to do, you can’t keep using him to get what you want. And you sure the hell can’t keep using me to get to him.”

“I don’t expect you to understand, but like it or not, my responsibilities are bigger than just one man, even if he is my brother.” Mycroft sighed. “I have responsibilities that go beyond even Queen and country, as you have seen, John. I have to look to the greater good of the entire world, of Earth and this entire galaxy.”

“Yeah? Well, my world doesn’t extend much farther than Baker Street, and that’s where my responsibilities lie.”

John lowered his voice until Sherlock could barely make out what he said. “We nearly lost him, again, and once more, it was all because you wanted something you couldn’t get on your own. But, hey, you can rest easy knowing Earth and the galaxy are once more safe.”

“John, you’re obviously upset now.”

By the way Mycroft’s voice rose, Sherlock knew John was walking toward the door, so he darted down the hall to fetch their coats. He heard what he thought was Mycroft calling.

“We can talk later.”

“No, we cannot,” John said, nowhere near loud enough for Mycroft to hear as he exited the study and turned with military precision into the hallway.

Sherlock didn’t think it mattered if his brother heard it or not; John had made up his mind and that was the end of that. John had also gotten the better of Mycroft. The whole conversation had cheered him endlessly.

Handing over his coat, Sherlock took John’s precious discharge papers as he asked happily, “Did you get everything worked out with Mycroft?”

John, still agitated, jerked his coat onto his arms. “I think I had a better time nearly being blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan than I have during any conversation with your brother.”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock considered as he wrapped his scarf around his neck, “Mycroft didn’t get what he wanted. That always qualifies as a pleasant conversation in my book.”

Sherlock opened the door for John, a self-satisfied grin on his face. A quizzical expression flicked across John’s face as he stepped out into the brisk autumn night and down the steps of Mycroft’s house.

Sherlock waited… one, two, three steps down the street…before John stopped and shook his head. “You remembered the ping.”

“Hmm?” Sherlock tried to seem more interested in hailing a cab than what John had just said.

As much as Sherlock found John brilliant in his many unassuming ways, like putting one of the most powerful men in the British government in his place while sipping tea in his own drawing room, no less, he could be remarkably slow sometimes.

“You bastard! You remembered the ping from the device in the bunker. That didn’t happen until after we had been in the facility for a while, a time period of which you claim to have no recollection.”

Sherlock shrugged. “Perhaps it’s not that much of a blur, after all.”

“How much?” John sighed. “How much do you remember?”

“All of it,” Sherlock admitted.

“How?” John asked in confusion. “For that matter, how do you remember anything if you burned it all down?”

“As I told you at the time, I keep a back up file in one of the rooms.”

“A single room backup for an entire mind palace?” John challenged.

“Zip drive, John,” Sherlock reminded. “Really, don’t you pay attention to anything I tell you?”

“You didn’t tell me anything,” John pointed out with a concerned furrow to his brow that perhaps Sherlock was having some sort of relapse.

Sherlock could have sworn he’d told John…. Ah, of course!

“It wasn’t this version of you,” Sherlock dismissed with a flick of his hand. “It was the mental you I keep in the mind palace. I simply confused whom I had told what precisely.”

John’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You keep a mental version of me in the mind palace? What? To tidy up around the place?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “That’s what the mental Mrs. Hudson is for.”

“And why didn’t you tell anyone?” John demanded.

“That there’s an imaginary you in my head?” Sherlock deflected.

John sighed in frustration. “No, not that…although, we may need to have a future discussion about the fact that you seem to consider the imaginary me just as valid a version as the real me… but about remembering the facility, the alien technology, all of that.”

“Mycroft didn’t tell us everything before we left for Afghanistan. He doesn’t deserve to know what we saw there.” Sherlock raised his hand to catch the attention of a passing cabbie. “He definitely doesn’t deserve to have one of those devices for his own.”

“Oh, God, no,” John agreed adamantly as the cab pulled up to the curb. “So, why are you telling me now?”

Sherlock opened the door. “Because I also remember what my memories of Moriarty said to you when they took over.” When John paused getting into the cab, Sherlock continued, “What he said…what I said….”

“It wasn’t you,” John told him confidently.

“And it wasn’t true,” Sherlock assured, “any of it. But I knew how to hurt you, and it used that knowledge to do just that.”

“It wasn’t you,” John repeated. “And even if it was…well, you insult me on nearly a daily basis and it hasn’t run me off yet.” John gave Sherlock one of those self-deprecating grins that just went to show how brilliant he truly was precisely because he didn’t think he was brilliant at all. Sherlock liked them because it went to show how much smarter Sherlock really was because he knew the truth of the matter; that John was the most amazing person he’d ever met in his life. “I’m just glad you found a way to come back.”

John’s phone beeped, indicating he had a text message. He pulled it out of his pocket as he climbed into the backseat of the cab and laughed.

“It’s Sheppard. He and McKay are about to go back to…” John looked warily to the cabbie, changing his words. “…back to their normal work location. He’s checking one last time to see if I’m interested in a job.”

Sherlock waited, not wanting to say anything that might sway John one way or the other. Actually, that wasn’t true; he desperately wanted to sway John into staying here in London with him. John, however, deserved to make the choice all on his own.

Starting to type, John continued to grin broadly. “One mission with those two is more than anyone needs in a lifetime.”

Sherlock relaxed back into his seat as the cab pulled away, heading to Baker Street, heading home. “I’m glad you came back, too.” He’d barely spoke above a whisper, but he could tell John had heard him.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t?” John snorted in disbelief.

Sherlock shifted uncomfortably. “It was a war zone.”

“Yes, but you could have died just as easily in that war zone as me,” John pointed out, then blinked in understanding. “You weren’t worried about me dying there.”

“You are more than capable of taking care of yourself, John,” Sherlock told him; although, yes, he had been worried about exactly that before they left London. Once they arrived in Afghanistan, however, and Sherlock had seen how well John handled himself under fire, he had become worried about losing him another way.

“You thought I’d want to stay,” John realized.

“It was a war zone,” Sherlock repeated, as if that would explain it all.

John laughed again. “Sherlock, you know…” He seemed to struggle with how to put his thoughts into words. “… you know I don’t shy away from the dangerous side of what we do.”

Sherlock knew that was John’s way of saying he thrived on it—the rush of the adrenaline, the thrill of the danger.

“But I really, really like what we do, here, in London, together,” John told him. “Afghanistan might have the danger, but it doesn’t have of the rest of it.”

“What about what Colonel Sheppard offered you?” Sherlock asked.

“It doesn’t have it either,” John assured him. “It does, however, have Dr. Rodney McKay, which in itself is reason enough not to take Sheppard up on his offer.” John chuckled once more. “I never thought I’d meet a man who was as abrasive, as condescending, or as egocentric as you, much less all three.”

“He’s the one who doesn’t play nice in the sandpit.” Sherlock could hear the sulking tone in his own voice, although it was true.

“Says the man sitting next to him throwing sand,” John snorted. “And they would say sandbox, not sandpit. That’s also what the Americans call Afghanistan—the Sandbox.”

Sherlock considered. “Ah, well, in that case no one plays nice in the sandbox.”

“No,” John agreed, his gaze as far away as that miserably hot desert. “No, they don’t.”

Sherlock didn’t like the idea of John spending one second more in that country than he needed to. “Not to mention McKay is Canadian.”

John gave him a sideways glance. “I think that may be the least of his offenses.”

“Still, it’s enough to be well and done with them,” Sherlock noted pointedly. When John didn’t answer immediately, he asked, “Am I right, John?”

“I suppose you’re right.”

Which, of course, meant just the opposite, but Sherlock was going to take it as gospel. That was until John prevaricated.

“Although…now that I know you remember and there’s no risk of you going more mental than you already are….”

Sherlock started to argue, started to point out all the reasons why John should stay right here in London. Sherlock was a selfish person. He, more than anyone, knew that to be true. He, more than anyone, also knew he deserved to be that way. No one was half as intelligent, resourceful, or capable as he. He also knew that he deserved someone like John. Seeing as there was no one else like John Watson, he was exactly the person Sherlock deserved to have around to tell him he was an arrogant git in one breath followed immediately by how brilliant Sherlock was with the next.

No, no one deserved John Watson more than Sherlock, which was why he couldn’t be as selfish as he really wanted to at the moment.

“We should go,” Sherlock said simply.

Of course, he had no idea if he was invited or not, but Sherlock’s altruism only went so far.

“Seriously?” John asked in surprise.

“We’re not talking about anything permanent, and London will always be here when we return.” Sherlock watched the city pass by outside the cab’s window. “Although in a much more detrimental state than we left it, I have no doubt.”

“You’re serious?” John asked in disbelief. “I should say yes?”

Sherlock waved a hand. “Text away.”

His own mobile beeped, indicating he had a text of his own. He read the text from Lestrade and frowned. Damnable man always had the worst timing.

“What’s it say?” John asked.

“It’s nothing,” Sherlock lied.

“Sherlock….” John wasn’t buying it.

Sherlock sighed dramatically. “If you must know, there’s been a murder….three murders actually.”

“And….” John prompted, knowing there was more.

“Three women, each staged like a mannequin, in three separate window front displays.”

Why the hell couldn’t this have happened a few weeks ago? Of course, the Yard wouldn’t be able to solve the case before they returned from…well, somewhere in outer space, apparently. Nevertheless, the crime scenes would be all but worthless by the time Anderson dragged his useless knuckles across them.

“I see.” John pulled out his mobile and began typing. “Thanks, but no thanks,” he dictated as he texted. “Important case. Can’t leave London at the moment.”

Sherlock did his best to control the smile threatening to break across his face as he stared at John in amazement.

John put away his phone. “Where are we meeting Lestrade?”

Sherlock gave the cabbie the new address, then leaned back in his seat, barely containing his anticipation of what they would find at the first crime scene. Still, he supposed he should probably say something to alleviate John’s disappointment…although, really, how could anyone be disappointed with a triple homicide?

“Perhaps, the next time they return to Earth, they will make the offer once more. With a bit of notice, I’m sure we could find an opening in our schedule that will allow for a trip to another galaxy.”

John should have known Sherlock wouldn’t have the same concerns about the cabbie overhearing any classified information. With any luck, the cabbie would think they were a couple of loons. After their trip to Afghanistan, John wasn’t sure he would disagree with that assessment.

John looked at Sherlock for a few seconds before bursting into laughter. “You know you can’t say a word of this to Lestrade, don’t you?”

Sherlock couldn’t contain his own chuckle. “And give him the excuse to finally lock me away for psychological evaluation? No, I assure you, this will remain strictly between the two of us.”

John laughed again when he read the return text from Sheppard. “It may be too late for that; Sheppard and McKay are in on your little secret. McKay wants to know if your head has exploded yet. He realized you remembered the ‘ping’ back in the cave, as well.”

“Oh, I think Dr. McKay has cornered the market on explosions,” Sherlock quipped with a smirk.

John grinned. “Should I text that back?”

“I suppose that depends how far away they are from London. I believe his head might be the one exploding if he read that, and I suspect his ego would fuel a chain reaction the likes of which we have rarely seen.”

“Sherlock still intact,” John texted back. “All is right with the universe, although his knowledge of it is still sorely lacking.” John grinned mischievously at Sherlock as he typed. “Give us a ring when you’re back in the Milky Way and we’ll see what we can do to educate him.”

“My knowledge of the universe is exactly what is required,” Sherlock grumped.

“Earth, moon, sun,” John challenged. “Describe their rotation in relation to each other.”

Sherlock waved a hand. “Irrelevant.”

John rolled his eyes and read another text. “It appears Dr. McKay took over the texting. He says, he knows you know what happened and he knows you know he knows you know how brilliant he is.”

Sherlock frowned at the convoluted statement. “Did he take a blow to the head since returning to the States?”

“He was close to being the smartest person I ever met,” John confessed.

Sherlock sighed dramatically. “I suppose, in the very limited field involving alien technology, he could be considered an expert.”

“That could almost be construed as a compliment,” John said.

Sherlock adjusted his scarf. “Let’s not get carried away now, shall we, John.”

“Ah, it appears Colonel Sheppard reclaimed his mobile. He says they look forward to working with us again someday.”

“Of course they do,” Sherlock sniffed haughtily. “Why wouldn’t they?”

“Shall I compile the list alphabetically or chronologically from the time you first laid eyes on them?” John held up a hand to stop Sherlock’s argument. “I know you were on your best behavior; I can attest to that. But you have to admit; even your best behavior can be trying for the uninitiated.”

“You never seemed to have a problem with it.”

“Yes, but I’m special.”

Sherlock didn’t think John actually realized how true that statement was, but he agreed with it wholeheartedly. So, he gave a disinterested shrug. John was special enough to understand exactly what that really meant.

Leaning a little closer, John said, “And Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay are special, too. They are the only two people I’ve ever met who have a more dysfunctional life than we do and seem to enjoy it just as much.”

Sherlock’s lips curled in pleasure. Not so much at what John had to say about those other two, but because of what he had said about the life they led.

“They’re good blokes,” John told him. “Well, Sheppard is at any rate, and if nothing else, McKay makes me realize how much worse I could have had it.”

“I suppose, one mission the next time they are on Earth wouldn’t be too much of an imposition.”

“Yeah?” John asked, looked very pleased with himself.

“As long as we aren’t too busy with a case,” Sherlock amended.

“Of course,” John agreed with a very serious expression. But Sherlock could see the reflection of his grin in the window as he turned his attention to the view outside.

Sherlock settled back with a self-satisfied expression of his own. They were on their way to a triple homicide, he’d driven Mycroft to a near convulsive state of frustration, and John was sitting beside him alive and happy just because Sherlock had agreed to the potential for more dangerous adventures with aliens. All in all, it wasn’t a bad trade.

Ends up he wasn’t so bad at playing nice in the sandbox after all.

The End