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Beating Holidays

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December 22

There you are, is the first thing Jeannie Miller says to him, all but dragging him into her house, maybe you can get Mer to calm down. David has no idea why she might expect such an inconceivable thing of him, but the house is warm and there's a promise of tea after a ten-hour drive.

Do you think they'll be alright, Rodney frets when David gets into the kitchen. I mean, Radek's fairly competent and Sam is there, too, but who knows what could be happening there right now without us! Nothing is happening to them, John insists, all reasonable, getting up and putting a hand on David's arm in greeting. There's a minor twitch above his left eyelid that David has re-learned means he's worried as well.

Wouldn't they call you? he asks, fairly sure that Rodney hasn't even noticed yet that he's here, trying to ignore the fact that nobody is making introductions, feeling slightly better when the little girl puts a large cup of chai in his hands.

They'd tell us, they'd call us, John affirms, firmly pressing down on Rodney's shoulders, They'd even beam us right into space. It doesn't seem to calm Rodney down any, who looks up from his seat, trembling, agitated, seeming afraid of the staring contest John is trying to engage him in. She took my cell phone, he says in a small voice, to which Jeannie says, a little helplessly, You've got your radio, Mer, but you know the rules, no cell phones in the house.

Does that include my blackberry, David startles, remembering coming back from another galaxy and finding out Mrs Donovan had tried to reach him, suddenly relating all too well to Rodney's plight. Didn't Ronon and Teyla stay behind, he says instead, and I also found your Mr Woolsey a very competent man.

Fine, Rodney mumbles, some tension running out of him at last, resentful now instead of frightened. John pats his hand, looking too relaxed not to be stung tight underneath it all himself, the unease beneath his skin almost showing. This happens every time they're here, the little girl assures David, hi, I'm Madison. David Sheppard, David says, shaking her tiny hand, and settles to watch as Jeannie's husband hands Rodney a cup full of fruit tea, not flinching at all from the abuse Rodney screams at him until John smiles.

December 23

There's a, John says, and gulps, face heating up at Kaleb's look of surprise from his working space at the kitchen counter. Hand gripping the door frame, almost white, he can't even say the word, can only stand there in the doorway, frozen, and weakly point a finger in the direction of the thing that has no business being there.

It's not normally a problem. John can cope with being outside and surrounded by little critters just fine. If the team happens to be eating outdoors, Ronon and Teyla are aces at snatching away any and all that come too close. When a couple of mosquitoes took an unusual interest in Ronon, John didn't hesitate joining the others in decimating them. Hell, a swarm of alien bees once saved his and Rodney's lives.

And why is Rodney all the way down in the living room, when he could be here and just take care of it and then guess whether it would be okay or not to tease John?

It's, he manages to force out, with almost no hope of actually conveying anything. He should have just turned back, gone upstairs and taken a leak and then maybe the bug would have been gone, except that would just have meant it would have scurried out of sight, would still be elsewhere.

Kaleb's eyes search his face for a second, then look at the beetle that's currently living the good life on the table in a spot in the winter sun. John would feel mortally humiliated if he weren't so freaked out. It's an Earth bug, Rodney's voice whispers in his ear, It can't do anything to you, except it's a bug, and there's still a bug virus corrupting his blood-work, and they just don't know that.

Eventually, Kaleb reaches for an empty glass and walks over to the table very slowly, takes aim, and upturns it on top of the bug. A bit of cardboard is retrieved and shoved conscientiously under the bug's underside, its tiny legs John tries hard not to think about, before Kaleb swiftly picks the glass and its frightful prisoner up.

Only when Kaleb has thrown the thing out into the snow can John breathe again. There is no way it can survive the cold of Canadian December. Don't tell Dave, he says, because Rodney will understand. I won't, Kaleb vows, as earnest as any of John's own marines, and turns back to cutting vegetables.

December 24

I'll be going to the cemetery after lunch, Jeannie says, sipping a cup of hot cocoa while pointing out to the men where to store the mountains of groceries before her. Next to David, Rodney's fingers tighten around the lumps of cheese in his hands. Can I draw a picture? Madison asks, and Jeannie smiles at her daughter and says, you can write a whole letter, if you want.

My parents are at my sisters' this year, Kaleb explains, sounding a little bit defensive, as if he needs to justify being the only not-orphaned adult among them. I saw to Mom and Dad's before I came here, David confides, catching John's eye over the kitchen table. I think Martha will light a candle for us today, but I can't be sure.

Later, when Jeannie and Madison debate what kind of flowers look best on the graves, Rodney is busy in the living room, setting the table for lunch. When Madison draws her card, surprising David with a Can you hold Curie for me so I can know how to paint her? Rodney is in the kitchen, playing chess with John.

Someone else will have to take care of dinner, Jeannie says, storing the card in her purse, making it clear that her guests are to give Kaleb a break. Vegetarian, please, we're making enough of a concession tomorrow. I know Kanaan gave you his recipe for marat fen, John suggests to David, maybe we could try something like that.

Remember how grandma loved graveyards, David volunteers later still, peering into the cupboards in search for ingredients. Calmest place to take walks in, John nods, although David gets the feeling his brother definitely wouldn't agree with that.

I'm going, Jeannie calls, and there is only the slightest hesitation before she closes the door and is gone. Madison is staring a little wide-eyed at everything the Sheppard brothers have laid out, and no-one says a word about Rodney being upstairs, immersed in gift-wrapping.

David doesn't want to imagine the words he'd use if they were spending Christmas in Phoenix and John were to refuse to visit their parents.

This sure looks interesting, Kaleb says, making John grin and fake-whisper into the man's ear, Dave also knows a way to have turkey not smell like meat. Really, Madison asks, sounding very much like her uncle. Really, David confirms, and suddenly, Kaleb Miller is his new best friend.

December 25

David thinks the last time he felt any kind of excitement at opening presents must have been 1982, but it's different this year, John's here, and Madison's elation has infected everyone.

On December 25th, they somehow manage to sleep in until after oh-eight-hundred, as John calls it, and then Jeannie glares at everyone until they've downed a decent breakfast before giving in, Okay, let's risk a peek into the living room.

There are civilian clothes and DVDs, a few audiobooks, framed pictures, Thank you, Jeannie, Kaleb, Madison; a necklace with tiny pebbles from a planet called MX5-411, and dried, Athosian herbs for both Kaleb and David, Those were a bitch to get cleared, with a strict prohibition of introduction to Terran plant life.

David has taken his brother's warning against intimidation by money to heart, and he feels apprehensive about a set of grandma's pearls for their hostess, even though he asked John's permission beforehand. There's another box with a set of Mom's earrings that won't get opened today, that he hasn't asked about, for John to give to Teyla.

This is something you should have had all along, he says, a bit uncomfortably, ignoring Rodney's incredulous One golf club? Seriously, just one? because John almost chokes and traces a finger over the shape of it, the wood Malcolm Sheppard used to teach his grandsons how to make the ball fly wide and long, one of a set of two.

These will really keep us warm, Rodney says, admiring the camouflage-colored mufflers his niece knitted for them, have you opened all your other presents? Then it's time for the best one.

It's the last among many, but clearly the most important, and everyone leans forward as Madison tears the paper off. Then there's a shriek, and proud and pleased looks from John and Rodney when she throws herself at them, one at a time. Kaleb, curious, pries the book out of his daughter's hands, and it dawns on David why Kaleb and Jeannie only bought Madison CDs and clothes; they had known that any and all other gifts would be overshadowed by this:

The Adventures of Curie in the Land of Improbable Math.

Concept by
Meredith McKay and John Sheppard

Story by
Teyla Emmagan and John Sheppard

Illustrations by
Ronon Dex and Evan Lorne

Mathematical advisors:
John Sheppard and Radek Zelenka

Probablility advisor:
Dr Rodney McKay.

December 26

I met Kaleb at the University of Toronto, Jeannie says, digging into the dough with both hands. That's not where I was getting my education, obviously, I had just finished my second semester at Cal Tech. I was so proud of myself, valued by my professors independently of Meredith for the first time. It was my first visit home that year, to celebrate my grandma turning eighty-one.

There I was, in a place where I barely knew anyone anymore, alone among relatives who could get... intense, needing to get away with no chance of going very far, and there was this... fair, you could call it, I think.

In a motion almost too quick for David's eyes, she adds various different-colored spices to the dough and pounds the lump into the table. I was wandering around the stands, trying to see if I'd recognize anyone among the seniors, any of the people I'd gone to school with, and trying to see if I could get something to eat that had no resemblance to cake, because damned if grandma allowed anything on her table that wasn't sugary and sweet. The next thing I knew, I was eating the most delicious cucumber salad and discussing Poul Anderson.

Switching the oven to 95 °F, David screws up his face; it's distant, but he recognizes the name. People suddenly suffering from an increase of intelligence, he murmurs, and Jeannie beams at him, Yes, exactly. I couldn't get John to shut up about it for a months, he divulges, recalling a scrawny fifteen-year old talking a mile a minute, almost tripping over his words in excitement.

Chuckling to themselves, they form the dough into scones and arrange them on baking trays for leavening. The service was... different, David says, reeling slightly from the intimacy of what Jeannie just told him. I didn't want to go on the 24th, when all but the most adamant atheists turn into believers, Rodney's sister replies, and David hears what she doesn't say, Mer doesn't like it when there's too much of a crowd.

So what about you, Jeannie asks, unwilling to give in to David's segue, face just that short of sympathetic so as not to make his fists curl; compassionate enough to make him remember that she opened her home to Rodney and John and himself, make him help her put the trays in the oven and answer, It just never happened, instead.

December 27

We should have a snow fight, Madison declares, looking imperious enough that none of the adults has the heart to dissuade her. Kaleb fidgets like he wants to beg off, but Jeannie and Rodney eye one another outright speculatively, and the expression on Dave's face is about as gleeful as John has ever seen it.

The expression on Rodney's face when Madison picks him first for her team is a sight to behold. Naturally, you have the brains to asks the smartest man around for this operation, he blusters, and not even Jeannie opens her mouth to contradict that assertion, too awed by Rodney's all-too-obvious gratefulness and joy.

Go-o! Dave shouts while the rest of them are still psyching each other out, Impatient, John thinks, but his fingers are getting cold and it's been almost forty years since he last did this with his brother, and he wants. Premature, Davie, he mutters nonetheless, just as Madison echoes, Go!

And they're off, hurling chunks of cold and wetness and perfect angles and insults, the likes of which John has only ever heard while training his marines, or visiting the science labs. You're holding back, John, Rodney accuses once both sides have run out of their first batch of ammunition and there's a short détente, and it's true. So're you, John counters, causing Jeannie to look at her brother in shock, feeling somewhat guilty for reminding them all of the fact that while John has been in the Air Force since he was twenty-two, there are two on this battlefield with combat experience.

I'm the master of the shield, Sheppard, Rodney calls, and John is sure both Jeannie and Dave can feel it as something inside him relaxes. When the fight resumes, his balls are vicious, deadly and precise and terrifying enough to have Dave gulp, possibly thinking of real bullets.

None of the deadly missiles hit home. Every single one is intercepted by one of Rodney's, and the only snowballs hitting anyone are Madison's, Kaleb's, Dave's and Jeannie's.

What the hell happened, Dave wonders, next to him, not at all conscious of voicing the thought out loud, but John doesn't have the words to explain how this outlet became something he needs, opting instead to restock their ammo as Jeannie does her very best to soak both her daughter and her husband to their bones.

December 28

I hate flying, David mumbles after extensive prodding from Jeannie the morning he's bound for a trip to New York, not really ready to admit this kind of weakness in front of Madison. Don't you have personal pilots, Kaleb asks, a bit resentful but mostly intrigued, leaving David at a loss to explain being afraid and trusting his crew simultaneously. John could fly you, Rodney chimes in, setting his coffee cup down, and John turns and stares as if the possibility never occurred to him.

State of the art, this, John attests, running a hand over the instruments, and it will never be awe in his voice in face of what Sheppard money can buy, but David will take this, his brother's honest appreciation. Take your seat and let me see if I remember how this works, John instructs, causing David's seasoned co-pilot to look at him in alarm, but when he initiates the take-off protocol, it's with an ease that lets slip nothing of how he's gotten used to fly aircrafts with the sheer force of his mind.

You look rested, O'Hara comments upon entering the room, and David chooses to take it as a compliment to excellent holiday cooking and not a hint at his habit of exiting the jet with his face sporting every imaginable shade of white and green. You too, he allows, although it looks like the man could use a holiday away from his family sometime, reaches for a manila folder and plunges back into the world of business for a few hours.

See you Monday, Mrs Donovan says, thankfully climbing into her cab and leaving before David needs to acknowledge that he's given her a Christmas bonus and a box of cookies for as long as she's worked for him, but they never have been self-made before this year.

How was Manhattan, John asks when he returns to the airport, and David can hear what John isn't saying, that even though they had a deal and set a specific time for their return, to some degree his brother hasn't been sure David would be back at all. Unlike you, I don't run out on people, he doesn't say, knowing that however much of their childhood closeness may prove salvageable, part of John will always see their father when he looks at him, and all of David's love can't deny that Patrick gave both his sons plenty of reasons to doubt he would ever spend a full holiday with them.

December 29

This is all your fault, John sighs with badly concealed amusement, peering into the living room where the McKay siblings have covered every inch with miles of paper and incomprehensible lines of symbols. No cell phone, no Internet connection, he was being a good boy until I had to let him out of my sight for you.

Have you ever been to Atlantis, David asks when his brother has located a safe spot to curl up with Madison and watch Jeannie and Rodney work, voicing the question he's been wondering about ever since he came here, and Kaleb shakes his head No, not even seen pictures, because Jeannie hadn't been allowed to take any and As much as we pretend to read each other's minds, we can't actually do that, don't tell Madison.

How can you live with a wife who talks like this, David doesn't ask, wincing at what they can hear of the conversation, meaning how can Kaleb share his life with someone clearly so much smarter than himself? Technically, he supposes John must be in the same situation, but he's in there understanding an admirable third of what comes out of his boyfriends's mouth, and David can admit in the privacy of his mind that it actually helps that Rodney is a man, in this particular case. It's chauvinistic, and he's ashamed of it, but that doesn't mean he possesses the perseverance to overcome the sentiment.

It's... incredible, he tells Kaleb instead of his own experience, the inadequate description the only one he can think of, and how can the man be that bound to earth, that content with whatever actual space travelers choose to tell him, how can he be this damn just not curious? It's all good as long as no-one gets it in their heads to kidnap Madison or Jeannie, Kaleb says, and David doesn't know what to say to that.

Don't you ever wish you could see it, he asks, remembering how he felt in the Atlantis labs. My students, I teach them the truth, that the world may be larger than they might ever be able to dream of, and I try to give them the words to describe it, Kaleb says, and suddenly David sees it, that the man is doing exactly the same with words that Jeannie and Rodney and even John are doing with equations and numbers.

December 30

How many stars do you think there are, Madison says, and of course she would wait to ambush him until Kaleb is out of the house. It's been thirty-four years since David had a brother her age, and he feels unqualified and a bit panicked, but he can see why she didn't go interrupt her Mom or her Uncle Mer or John. Never wanted the meaning of Dad's red-pink face confirmed, he thinks, Rodney murmuring top-secret explanations into John's ear just short of not suited for the living room, urging him to give John's sort-of niece all his attention. I don't know, he says, following her to the window to watch the lit-up sky along with her, but it seems kind of too many to count, doesn't it?

You were visiting Uncle John and Uncle Mer in space, she tells him, and David's not surprised Jeannie's daughter has picked up that thing she shouldn't know. Confidentiality has no life-span around here, but it's not his problem, and he's not going to lie to an eleven-year-old girl, not about a truth she knows already. I did, he confirms, and John took me up in a ship, and there were many more stars to see from there in all directions. What kind of number would you put above the ten, she asks in a tone of voice that tells David she's understood the term 'exponent' since she was eight and heard it lots and lots of times before then, but has learned to not expect the same mathematical fluency in others.

I'm not sure, perhaps your Uncle Mer does, he hedges, thinking any guess Rodney might make will likely be as close to the truth as humanly possible. But Madison looks up at him, annoyed, in the same way Rodney had looked at him, What are you doing here, the same way Jeannie had looked at him, A blackberry counts as a cell phone, and she doesn't want the the answer Dr Rodney McKay could give her, she asked him.

Feeling a bit ridiculous, he closes his eyes and remembers the view from the Jumper, the constellations visible from Midway Station. At least a billion, he declares, hoping the others are too pre-occupied with groundbreaking real science to hear, and huffs out a breath when Madison giggles, pleased when the whole little girl dissolves into laughter as he strives to defend himself, Well, there's a lot of universe.

December 31

Is that really safe? Dave asks, eying Rodney bent over the pyrotechnics to let loose around midnight, and John can't help the grin that spreads over his face as Dave doesn't shy away more than a fraction when Rodney turns to ream him out. You should go help Dad, Madison pipes up, cutting short her uncle's tirade before it goes on too long, We're having chocolate fondue; making Dave bow to her and retreat inside, As you wish, Ma'am.

Smooth, Mads, John compliments her, and she beams, distracting John from how weird this is, expecting his brother to go where food is being made. Dave never used to cook before, and John's convinced that as much as they both adored Martha, young Dave also resented her for the low status of her job.

We should have a chess tournament, Rodney decides when everyone has overdosed on chocolate sauce, glancing around to include all of them in the suggestion, flushing at the kiss John plants on him for being magnanimous. They use three chess sets at once, and Kaleb makes his first move against John with a laugh, knowing he'll lose, although he manages to win against Dave in the second round. John suspects that if they hadn't added the pressure of the clock to it, Jeannie might have won.

Let us thank the Ancestors for their guidance during the last year, he says, lighting a candle and trying to remember more of the ceremony so often conducted by Teyla. You know the Ancients are a bunch of idiots, Rodney scoffs, but it's not about that, and John smiles as Rodney teaches Madison to hum the Regeneration Song.

Is it strange that Lantean New Year isn't before another two months, Jeannie asks when it's almost midnight and they're putting on their coats, and John has to think about it, A bit, but the party is a lot less stressful here. All our neighbors will be so jealous, Madison squeals, dancing around her uncle excitedly, before ducking inside and telling Curie, It's okay, you don't need to be scared.

Three, two, one, HAPPY NEW YEAR! they chant together, glasses of champagne in their hands, and John leans in to kiss Rodney like Kaleb is kissing Jeannie, but it's him and Rodney who have to hold their arms up for protection, spluttering against the shower of rice Madison and Dave are throwing at them.

Is that really safe? David asks upon seeing Rodney bent over the pyrotechnics to let loose around midnight, opting for vindication at the grin spreading over John's face instead of offense as Rodney spits vitriol in his direction. You should go help Dad, Madison pipes up, cutting short her uncle's tirade before David has to give in, We're having chocolate fondue; so he bows to her and retreats to the kitchen, As you wish, Ma'am.

We should have a chess tournament, Rodney decides when David cannot take one more drop of chocolate sauce, glancing around to include all of them in the suggestion, flushing at the kiss John plants on him, fast and warm. Do you think they'll kiss at midnight, David whispers to Madison as Jeannie locates three chess sets, and Rodney's niece tilts her head, eying the two of them in speculation.

This should be quick, Kaleb laughs when he moves a knight, expecting to lose as he lost against John, and they're not evenly matched, but David isn't too surprised when Kaleb moves in on his king. Check mate, Rodney declares next to them, but David suspects that if they'd had more time on their hands, it's far from clear who would have won.

Let us thank the Ancestors for their guidance during the last year, John says, lighting a candle in imitation of some sort of ceremony he must have learned from Teyla. You know the Ancients are a bunch of idiots, Rodney scoffs, but David doubts this is about any ancestor or even God, and he finds himself rubbing his left arm as Rodney and Madison hum something called the Regeneration Song.

All our neighbors will be so jealous, Madison squeals while her parents watch the clock, dancing around her uncle excitedly, before ducking inside and telling Curie, It's okay, you don't need to be scared. Do you have it, David whispers when she rejoins them back at the porch, trying to look harmless and inconspicuous as she sneaks a small packet into his hand.

Three, two, one, HAPPY NEW YEAR! they chant together, glasses of champagne in their hands, and David takes aim as John leans in to kiss Rodney like Kaleb is kissing Jeannie, not letting up as they break apart and hold their hands up for protection, hoping John gets everything he means to say, throwing handful after handful of rice at them.

January 1st

That was extraordinary, David breathes when the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonics calls an end to the New Year's Concert, I should have caught one of these before. Not once? Jeannie asks, speaking quietly to avoid waking Kaleb, who fell asleep during the last ballet rendition, head pillowed on her shoulder, We try to wake up for it every year. Never had the time, David admits, while she looks over at her brother and reveals, Actually, it's Mer's fault I started watching, he made me tune in the very first time in 1985.

Finally a New Year's tradition worth having, Rodney explains gruffly, letting go of John in his arms and heaving himself out of the couch to stretch his spine. Neither David nor John miss Jeannie's wince at those words, but apart from racing the horses in competition against their mother for as long as she was up for it, they also don't have any traditions worth thinking about. Remember when we all went skiing and Grandpa built a driving range in the snow? John says suddenly, and Rodney drops his hands to his sides and scowls at his sister, Oh, wonderful, you've done it now.

I sense the need for a birthday present, Jeannie comments drily, stamping her feet for warmth as John prods her daughter's body into the right stance. The repeat of their grandfather's words makes David smile even though, Should have thought of this while there was still more light. Perfect angle, he shouts when Madison swings, snow spraying everywhere, and he believes the shot would have been perfect as well, had he thought to bring any balls with him.

So I might do you a favor, Rodney starts up when he joins them, a steaming mug of hot chocolate in his hands. Of course, someone less foresighted than me might misinterpret the situation and believe you would be doing me a favor, but really, if it comes to that, it'll be the other way around. What, David says, wondering why Rodney waited until the last day to bring it up, wishing he could imitate Jeannie and steal the mug for a sip.

One of my scientists, or, one of Novak's, but – anyway, one of mine. We're trying to find her a different place within the program, but it was – I doubt she can ever let herself work with alien technology again. Not using her brain would be a crime, you'll make millions even though she can only make use of a fraction of her knowledge, and some random university just isn't safe enough.

Mom, Mom, you've gotta try, too, Madison yells, and David turns the offer over in his mind as John shows Jeannie where to put her hands on the golf club. He needs to ask further questions about mental stability and security issues if he agrees, but Rodney is right, there's really only one thing he can say in the end, Not getting to read her full resume is going to drive O'Hara nuts.

January 2nd

We could probably beam up your whole car, Rodney offers, sounding sceptical, and David can't tell if it's not technically probable or if the Captain of the star ship orbiting around Earth will object to transporting a civilian. Nah, I like driving, he waves it off, because he does, althouh he's not enthusiastic about the state the roads will be in. Drive safely, Kaleb says, and David shakes the man's hand, weirdly wishing he could just fly in sometimes to have a beer with this high school teacher with whom he should have nothing in common.

Is there actually something dangerous about these, he asks when Jeannie returns his blackberry, and feels himself flushing when Jeannie laughs, not all that confident in his own research department when John quips, I should have given you an upgrade for Christmas.

Curie will miss you, Madison claims, lower lip trembling a little, and while it's mostly directed at John and Rodney, she means David, too, at least a little bit. One of these days, I'll smuggle her through the gate with me, Rodney tells her, ruffling his niece's hair, possibly fully conscious of the fact she'll take those words as a promise.

Take care, Jeannie tells John, and David thinks that even if he hadn't just spent twelve days in her home, he'd know all he needed to know about her from the fact that John lets her hug him. When Jeannie gives Rodney back his cell phone and the McKay siblings hug each other harder than John and David ever will, David's eyes meet John's.

Jeannie and Rodney have had their problems, too, David remembers, they've simply had a few years to sort everything out between them. For David and John, the Millers' house in far-away from Phoenix Canada has been perfect neutral ground, and maybe there's no need any more, to know if It was all because I wasn't at the airport; maybe this, this something way better than a truce they have reached now is enough of a stepping stone to build on.

I'll expect someone to give me a call, he turns to Rodney when the man's sister finally releases him, and Rodney nods, taking a hesitant step towards him, arms spread out half-heartedly, then stops himself short, Okay, no, remember that thing Teyla does that isn't actually all that awkward?

You going to Manhattan now, or home, John asks, straightening up and lifting his hands from David's shoulders. Phoenix, David says, although it still means Manhattan first and a nap in his favorite hotel before braving the jet, because driving all the way to Arizona would simply take too long. Be safe, John demands, eyes not leaving David's until David nods, You, too; then touches a hand to his radio, Okay, Major, hit it.

David and the Millers stare at the empty spot for a minute before Jeannie kisses his cheek, On you go, and David climbs into his Mercedes. If he's lucky, he'll be in Manhattan in eight hours.