Chapter 08


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Big thanks and kudos to Emergency70 for the beta!

Chapter VIII

          Reaching their destination in Flagstaff, at the coordinates Odyssey had provided McKay, they found two people waiting for them.  One was Daniel, who smiled and waved at the group as everyone poured out of the SUVs.  The other was introduced as their escort to Colorado Springs – or more specifically, the Cheyenne Mountain AF base that housed most of the SGC’s personnel.

          “You must be Leyla.”  Daniel greeted their guest, smiling a little at the sleeping toddler in Gibbs’ arms.  “And Amira.  It is my pleasure to meet you.”  He said that last in perfect Arabic, and for a moment he went off in the same language with such effortlessness that it seemed like he’d been born speaking it.  Gibbs could only follow about a fifth of whatever he said, but a glance at Ziva reassured him that he wasn’t missing anything crucial.

          What Daniel told Leyla was that she and her daughter would be safe and in good company with her escort, a man he knew and trusted wholeheartedly with his own life many times in the past.  He added that his friend – and his wife – had graciously offered Leyla their home to her as a sanctuary until the mess was over with, so that she would not be completely alone.  He also assured her that anything she or Amira needed would be provided without any cost to herself – it was the least they could do for her.

          At that point, Daniel turned to Gibbs and relayed the same information.  “Oh, and I suppose a proper introduction is in order.  Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, this is Lieutenant Colonel Lou Ferretti, USAF, retired.”

          Ferretti laughed and clapped Daniel on the shoulder fondly.  “Thanks, Doc.  I wondered if maybe I was going to remain nameless, there, for a moment.”  Lou held out a hand to Gibbs, who shook it.  “Agent Gibbs.  Don’t worry about a thing.  The General briefed me on everything, and Amy – my wife – and I will take excellent care of our guests for you.”

          “I’ll hold you to that, Colonel.”  Gibbs replied.  It was both a warning and a promise, and Ferretti seemed to get that, because he nodded solemnly.

          “It’s just ‘Lou,’ these days, sir.”  He turned to Leyla, who was taking her daughter from Gibbs carefully, and gestured to the car parked not too far away.  “If you want to get the little one settled, ma’am?  It’s a long drive, and we should get started on it.”

          Leyla nodded, and Daniel took her over and opened the car door for her. Ziva went, too, carrying Leyla’s bags to stow in the trunk.

          Lou glanced over Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, and Ronon curiously.  “Hey!  So you’re the ah…Pegasus expedition, huh?  Nice to finally meet you.”  He shook hands with Sheppard, then McKay, continuing, “Well, you I know, Dr. McKay.  You’re rather infamous around the Mountain, after all.”

          McKay scowled at him, flushing a little.  “You’d better be talking about my great scientific genius, Ferretti, or I’ll sic Ronon on you.”  A frown replaced the scowl briefly.  “What have you heard, anyway?”

          “No you won’t.”  Sheppard nudged him in the side.  “And you’ll have to tell us about this infamy of yours later.”

          McKay sputtered and Lou laughed.

          “Nah.  You’re alright, Dr. McKay.”  Lou waved aside the story.  “Anyway, better hit the road.  And you all better get back to D.C. and get some rest.”  Lou offered a two-fingered salute and jogged over to his car.  A brief word with Daniel and a one-armed hug on both sides, and then he was gone.

          Daniel and Ziva rejoined them.  “Well, that’s a load off, at least.”  He shoved his hands in his pants’ pockets, tilting his head as he regarded Gibbs seriously.  “Lou is one of the people I trust most, Gibbs.  Of those of us who went on the original mission through the Gate almost twelve years ago, only myself, Jack, and Lou are left.  He knows the score exactly – and he’s the best person we have that can handle what could come his way from this.”

          Gibbs sighed and ran a hand through his hair agitatedly.  “It’s not like I can refute that or protest, Dr. Jackson.  At this point I have no other options but to trust you and your people.  I can accept that – but I don’t have to like it.”

          Daniel smiled, chuckling a little.  “You and Jack are a lot alike.  I think you’d get along quite well, under normal circumstances.”

          “But what’s normal for you people anyway?”  Tony wondered, with a hint of sarcasm.  “I mean, you go to other planets, fly around in spaceships, and battle aliens for gods’ sake.”

          Daniel shrugged and smirked.

          “Is Mitchell waiting?”  John asked.

          “Yes.”  Daniel sobered and reached for his ear.  “You’ve all got your things from the cars?”  At everyone’s nod, he called his teammate for transport.

~*~*~*~*~*~

          Gibbs was certain he would never get used to the strange sense of disconnection he experienced every time he was…beamed somewhere; he was, in fact, grateful this was a temporary thing and not going to be a regular occurrence – even if it was kind of handy.

          Colonel Mitchell had put them all back in Gibbs’ house – NCIS, that is.  Sheppard and his people (all of whom were bunking down at O’Neill’s rather than just using it as a base, as Gibbs had thought) were going to be put back at the General’s after checking in with…whoever and…whatever else it was they did.  Even being a Marine gave Gibbs no real hints as to what sort of protocols these Stargate folk probably had to deal with in their jobs and lives – and he had yet to even see an alien.

          He still didn’t quite believe that part, either.

          It was something of a relief to be home though, on his own territory.  He hadn’t allowed himself to show how truly unnerved and out of place he’d felt the entire time – for the sake of his team, as much as his own sanity.  At least he had the comfort of knowing Leyla and Amira were okay.  Now he could put all his focus on finding Mike, and ending this nightmare.

          “Come, McGee.”  Ziva tugged the young an toward the kitchen.  “We shall finish cleaning up before we leave, yes?”

          “Ah, yeah.  Let’s do that.”  McGee nodded, stopping to collect empty beer bottles, cans, and cups along the way.

          Tony, not one to consider being domestic at the best of times, eyed them for just a moment before taking on the lesser of evils and sinking down onto the couch beside his mentor and friend.

          “What do you think, boss?”  He asked quietly, no hint of his usual humour or smart-ass self in his tone.

          For once, Gibbs didn’t really know how to respond.  He shook his head tiredly, trying to clear it, but nothing became any less confusing.  “I don’t know, Tony.  This time…I just don’t know.”

          Tony didn’t look all that reassured by his answer, but there was nothing Gibbs could do about that.  There was a moment of silence, where only the sounds of McGee and Ziva cleaning in the kitchen were present.

          “Well, hopefully we’ll figure out a starting point tomorrow morning when we meet up with Sheppard and friends.”  The younger agent sighed.  “They all seemed relatively certain Mike was still alive somewhere.  Though how they figure that, I don’t know.”

          Gibbs snorted.  “I think there’s a lot they haven’t bothered to tell us.  Despite all the noises and gestures they’ve made about cooperation and ‘needing our help’ I get the feeling they still don’t trust us fully.  We’re an inconvenience to them, DiNozzo.”  Not that he believed them, but it irked.  He wasn’t used to being considered untrustworthy – especially when he had already shown an awful lot of trust in them.

          “Is it me or is the whole situation just a little too surreal?”  Tony leaned back against the cushions and closed his eyes.  “I mean, come on…aliens?  Travelling to other planets?  Spaceships?  It’s a bad science fiction show.”  He sat up immediately after that comment, blinking in shock.  “It is a bad TV show!  What was it called…Wormhole-something…”

          “Wormhole Extreme, Tony.”  McGee informed him helpfully as he walked into the room.  “Even I knew that, and I don’t own a TV.”

          “Whatever, Mr. McSmarty-pants.”  Tony dismissed the young man with a wave of his hand.  “But yeah!  That stupid series only lasted a few episodes before it died.  Then a couple years later it came back as a movie!”

          “Tony, I couldn’t care less if I tried.”  Gibbs gave him a medium version of his ‘shut up, DiNozzo’ glare.

          “Well, I know, boss, but I just wondered – now – if maybe Sheppard’s people had anything to do with it.  You know…a cover story of some kind?”

          “DiNozzo, shut up.”  The glare went up a level to go with the vocalization.  “Abby is enough.  Don’t you dare start in on the conspiracy theories, too.”

          “And for all our sakes, Tony, don’t even mention such an idea to Abby!”  McGee pleaded.  “She’s already going to be crazy about this as it is.”

          Tony sighed.  “Right.”

          “Boss, did you want to keep any of the leftovers?  That’s what I’d come out to ask, originally.”  Tim looked sheepish and scratched at his cheek.

          “No.  You three can split it up among yourselves.”  Gibbs shook his head.  He pointed at Tony, then at the kitchen.  “Go, Tony.  You three need to get home and sleep.”

          “Yeah, boss.”  Tony agreed, stifling the yawn that came up with his hand.  Just before he stepped into the kitchen, he paused and turned to look at his mentor.  “What are you going to tell Vance, boss?”

          Gibbs grimaced and shook his head.  Tony nodded, understanding the unspoken message, and left him to his thoughts.

          Gibbs waited five minutes after his people left to pick up his phone and call Ducky.  The older man picked up after only two rings, and thankfully sounded awake and alert.

          “Jethro!  I do hope you’re calling with good news.”

          “Yes, and no, Duck.  Sorry to call so late.”

          “Oh no, don’t worry about that, my friend.  Mother just went back to bed after one of her late night ‘walks.’”  Ducky replied, exasperated and tired, but with a patience Gibbs often envied the man for.  “Abby and I were just finishing a nice mug of hot cocoa.”

          “Abby’s with you?”  Gibbs figured he should have known.  “Tell her we’re all fine and back home, so she’ll stop worrying.”

          “Certainly, Jethro.  Well, then…what have you to report?”  Ducky asked, getting down to business.  “Did you find Mike?”

          “No.  That’s the bad news.  It appears there was an altercation, and that he was taken away.  Sheppard seems to think he’s still alive though.”  Gibbs explained all they’d found, what McKay said about weapons fire, and how it all led them to the hotel where they found Leyla and Amira.  “The girls are on their way to…a very safe place, Ducky.  Other than that, we’re meeting up at the General’s house at 0930 tomorrow.”

          “I see.  And there were no other leads?”  Ducky asked, disappointed in the lack thereof.  “Perhaps if you worked the scene…”

          “Maybe.  I was going to bring that up tomorrow.  I’m not sure what else to do, in all honesty, Duck.  This is…so beyond anything I’ve ever had to investigate before.”  He really hated admitting that, but Ducky was one of the few people with whom he could ever be openly honest about his personal misgivings.

          Ducky clucked at him reassuringly.  “Now, Jethro, I know you too well to believe you can’t figure this out somehow.  You always find a way, and this shall be no different.”

          “For Mike’s sake, I really hope you’re right.”

          “Did you still want me to speak with Vance in the morning?”

          Gibbs sighed.  “No, that’s fine, Ducky.  I’ll come in first thing and…figure out what the hell to tell him.”  He grimaced.  “For now, I think it’s best if you and Abby stay out of it – at least until we need you for something.  Just go on about your business, and I promise to keep you both informed.”

          “Very well.  You will call on us if you need us though?”

          “In a heartbeat, Duck.”

          “Well, then, we should all go to bed.  Sleep will help you think better.”  Ducky said, winding up the call in his best no-nonsense tone.  “Good night, Jethro.”

          “Good night, Ducky.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

          Exhausted in pretty much every way, John trudged up the stairs after Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon.  They’d just finished debriefing with General O’Neill, who was busy waking up Very Important People in order to secure Gibbs and company’s temporary assignment to the mission – which would necessitate some fancy footwork with SecNav and Director Vance without telling them why or what they’d be doing, exactly.  Daniel was checking in with Ferretti.

          “Rest well.”  Teyla wished them as she and Ronon went into their room.  “Good night, John, Rodney.”

          “You, too.”  John returned, giving a small smile.  Ronon just grunted in response, and Rodney gave them a little wave and a huge yawn as he turned away.  “Good night.”

          Closing the door behind them, John released a huge sigh and leaned against it in exhausted relief.  Rodney was already changing into his sleepwear, and paused to study his friend critically in concern.

          “You look like crap.”  He declared bluntly, but sympathetically.  “Go to bed, John, before you fall over.”

          “Gee thanks, Rodney.”  John drawled sarcastically.  He was too wiped to really put any effort into a snappy comeback, however, and just did as he was told.  Changing quickly, he crawled under the covers and closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of McKay in the bathroom and then moving around the bedroom as he got himself ready for bed.  It was oddly comforting and had a lulling effect on John, so that by the time he dropped down next to John on the bed, the exhausted man had nearly fallen asleep.  The light went out and McKay settled in with a deep sigh.

          “Good night, John.”  Rodney said lowly, muffled slightly by his pillow.

          “Night, Rodney.”  John responded.  He thought for a moment, then said, “Rodney?”

          “Hmm?”

          “Did Jenny die for nothing?”

          For a long moment there was no response, then Rodney was sitting up and turning the lamp back on.  “Sit up, John.”  He waited until John obeyed, continuing, “Define ‘nothing’, please.”

          Frowning, John gave him a look.  “You know what I mean, Rodney.  Did she go through all the trouble of tracking down those documents and get shot to death because she was trying to protect herself?  Or someone else?  Something else?  Did she know about the Stargate programme and was doing what she could from outside it?”

          “Okay, first off, you’re over-thinking this.”  Rodney cut him off at the rush of questioning.  John closed up, tight-lipped, and listened.  “She was a federal agent, John – the Director of a military law enforcement agency.  Regardless of how much she knew, it was her job to deal with bad guys out to steal the government’s secrets, and she seemed to have been pretty good at it from what I’ve gleaned.  If you want my opinion,” like John had a choice, “then no, I don’t think she died for nothing.  It isn’t her fault that other things were going on that she had no knowledge of, or that the course of her job would end up taking her life.  That’s a hazard she knew and accepted when she started down that career path, not unlike yourself as a soldier.”  Rodney reasoned it out carefully for him, trying not to sound as if he thought John’s concerns were stupid.  He understood why John was so hung up on Jenny’s death in this way, different than how he reacted when they lost someone on Atlantis like Elizabeth or Carson.  Jenny likely hadn’t known a thing about the programme, and it made all the difference to John because of it.

          “I suppose, but…” John began, frowning even more deeply.  Rodney sighed.

          “Look, you’re grieving!  You’re trying to make sense of a senseless situation, and sometimes that just isn’t possible.  It’s natural to want a sudden death to have occurred for some really good reason – doing something noble and brave and heroic, for example.  All the times I thought you had died, I at least had that comfort, in knowing you died doing something crazy, stupid, and heroic to save the rest of us – no matter how mad at you I was for doing it, or how much it hurt.”  Rodney looked away and glared at the ceiling, feeling the heat crawl up his neck into his face at the surprised expression on John’s face at his words.  “But you’re a soldier and you expect to die that way, especially when we live in a place that holds a thousand different ways to kill us every single day!  You’re having a hard time with losing Jenny because she wasn’t, and she still died, and you want it to make sense.”

          John was silent for a long, long time, staring at his friend in shock, amusement, and speculation.  When he finally spoke again, it was with a wry tone and a half-smile of fond affection.

          “So…you really are the smartest man in two galaxies.”  Was all he said with a shake of his head.

          “Of course I am.”  Rodney snorted, then flushed darker when John chuckled.  “Okay, I know I’m mostly socially stunted at the best of times, but I still get it, you know, up here.”  He tapped a finger against his temple.  “I just don’t know how to, you know, say it sometimes.”

          “I know that, Rodney, but you’re not socially stunted.  You just…don’t play the silly games most people play every day.  It’s just part of your personality.  You’re honest and genuine, and I wouldn’t change you for anything.”  It was just the truth as John saw it, though he would admit that it took a while for him to finally figure that out about the brash scientist.  John stared at his knees, admitting almost absently, “I like you when you’re ripping someone a new one for being stupid and existing in your universe.  It’s so damned fun to watch.”

          Rodney stared at him, eyes widening in surprise.  Then a small smile twitched at the corners of his mouth and he started to laugh.

          “What does that say about us, I wonder?”  He mused, grinning.

          John chuckled, too, but not as gleefully as his friend.  “I don’t know but it works for us, so why worry.”

          “Excellent point.”  Rare praise, coming from McKay.  “Can we go to bed now?”  He tried not to sound whiny about it.

          “Yeah.”  John agreed, lying back down.  The room went dark again, Rodney moved around until he was comfortable, and there was silence.  This time they both fell asleep easily.

          And Rodney was so not telling John how cuddly he got at some point during the night and woke Rodney briefly.  He was, after all, the smartest man in two galaxies.

~*~*~*~*~*~

NCIS Headquarters
Tuesday
0640 hours

          Gibbs stepped off the elevator, coffee cup from his favourite dealer of all things java in one hand, and headed for his desk.  If he was surprised to see DiNozzo asleep at his own desk, no one could have known from Gibbs’ demeanour.  Then again, it wasn’t unusual for the MCRT Agents to be found sleeping on or around their desks after an all-nighter on one of their cases.

          Shaking his head, Gibbs set his cup down and opened his desk drawer after shedding his overcoat, placing his badge and gun inside to lock them up, just as he always did, before going over to stand in front of Tony’s desk.

          “DiNozzo!”  He barked – through not as sharply or loudly as was typical.  Tony sat up in his chair immediately blinking slowly and blearily in confusion, still half-asleep.

          “Yes, boss!  Right away, boss!”  Tony replied automatically, looking around with a scowl and pair of sleep-reddened eyes that told Gibbs just how little rest his agent had been getting lately.  The bed-head of hair was cute, though.  “Uh…what did you say?”

          Gibbs thought about smacking him upside the head, but decided it wasn’t going to register when Tony’s brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders just yet.  “Tony, what are you doing here?  I thought I told you to go home and get some rest.”

          “I did, boss.”  Tony rubbed at his eyes and face, trying to wake up more.  “But I couldn’t sleep so I figured I might as well come in and…” he yawned widely, “…sorry, be productive.”

          “Only now you’ll be asleep on your feet and unproductive the rest of the day.”  Gibbs shook his head and sighed at the guilty, frustrated look his words produced on Tony’s face.  “Well it’s done.  So were you productive, DiNozzo?”

          “I worked very hard for no reward, boss.”  Tony pushed himself to his feet and began digging out the change of clothes and toiletries he kept on hand for just such occasions.  “I didn’t feel right not doing all I could think of to try and find a lead on Mike’s whereabouts, but everything I tried came up empty.  The last thing I could think of that might pull up a lead was to send out a missing persons APB.  Maybe someone will see him – or maybe someone saw him around Phoenix before he was taken.”  He closed the filing cabinet drawer a little harder than intended.  “A long-shot, but I had to do something, boss.”

          “The APB is a big risk you’re taking with Mike’s life, DiNozzo.”  Gibbs stated, his tone carefully neutral.  He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t say he wouldn’t have done the same thing if he wasn’t as close to Mike as he was.  Tony liked and respected Mike, considered him a part of the ‘family’ at NCIS as one of their own even though he was retired now, but he didn’t have the personal connections Gibbs had to the former agent.

          “Yes, it is.”  Tony stopped what he was doing to meet Gibbs gaze steadily, without fear, and explained himself calmly.  “A calculated one. Sure, there’s the possibility that the bad guys will decide he’s too much trouble and kill him because of it, but I figure they need him too badly so they’ll keep him alive.  I also think it’ll make it harder for them to move him if they have to worry about being seen – and I’m all about making life difficult for bad guys.”  He flashed a grin (all teeth) then made a frustrated sound and kicked at his desk with a snort.  “Besides, there isn’t much else I can do at this point.”

          “We will find him, Tony.”  Gibbs stated softly, touched that Tony cared this much (not even about Mike, but about Gibbs), and proud of the agent that Tony was becoming.  He also felt a little bit guilty that Tony was the frustrated one when, really, it should have been Gibbs feeling that way.  It was odd, but he was and he wasn’t frustrated.  For some reason, his gut wasn’t telling him bad things – at least not yet.  Or…maybe he was in denial about the kind of trouble Mike was in – in which case he really did need Tony to be able to step up and make hard decisions.

          “Of course we will, boss.”  Tony agreed, his tone only wavering a little bit from certainty.

          Gibbs looked up at MTAC and the arcade that led to the Director’s office.  Giving himself a mental shake, Gibbs went back to his desk to grab his coffee before moving purposefully to the stairs.

          “Go home, Tony.”  He suggested as he passed by.  “Have a shower, have breakfast, take a nap.  I’ll call when we have a plan and something to act on.”

          “What?  But boss!”  Tony protested, eyes widening and face falling at the dismissal.

          “DiNozzo!  Stop arguing and go.  You’re useless dead on your feet!  You worked hard all night, now shut up and do what I said.”  Gibbs didn’t even pause on his way up the stairs to give Tony a verbal smack-down only a Marine was capable of.  He heard his agent grumbling to himself but knew this time he would be obeyed.

          Putting Tony from his mind, Gibbs walked right in past Cynthia at her desk and went for the Director’s door.  For once, Cynthia didn’t even try to put up a fight, as she normally would when he just barged right in unannounced or uninvited.  The assistant just smiled faintly and murmured, “Good morning, Agent Gibbs.”

          “Good morning, Cynthia.”  He returned as he twisted the door handle and pushed his way inside.

          Vance looked up from the open files on his desk at the intrusion and scowled briefly.  “You do realize I’m your boss, right?”  He gave Gibbs a hard stare as the older man simply shrugged and fell into a stance that was almost parade rest in front of the desk.  “I wondered if you’d be gracing my office this morning.  In fact, I half expected to be getting a phone call from you telling me that you and your team wouldn’t be in for duty for some unspecified time.”  Vance leaned back in his chair and eyed Gibbs calculatingly.  Gibbs just stared back impassively, not intimidated at all by Leon Vance or his tactics.  A battle of wills fought in steely silence lasted for a few moments more before Vance rolled his eyes and gestured at one of the guest chairs.  “Oh for god’s sake sit down, Gibbs.  I’m not your enemy, no matter how any of you might feel about me taking this position.”  He waved his hand around the office.

          “It’s been difficult to tell, Leon, the way you’ve thrown your weight around the last week.”  Gibbs replied dryly, but no less bitingly.  Vance had the grace to give in on that point, however, and shrugged much as Gibbs had.

          “I’ll apologize for that.  No excuse, but the reason for it has been the considerable pressure SecNav’s been loading on my head since this mess started.  Saying the man’s unhappy with the situation is an understatement.“  Vance started closing files and clearing a space on the desk in front of himself.  “He’s furious.  Ms. Sheppard’s leadership here is being called into question by other agency Directors, as well as other important high-level government officials.  The things she’s done, recently and in the past, have come back to haunt SecNav, and Davenport finds himself very shamefaced among his peers.”

          “And of course he takes out his bad temper on you, and you take it out on us.”  Gibbs drawled unsympathetically.  “Trickle-down ass reaming.  Fine.  As you said, it’s not an excuse, though I can sympathize.  A little.”  Gibbs stuffed his hands into the pockets of his blazer, staring at Vance as he contemplated the object he palmed in one hand.  “Just so we both understand where we’re coming from.”

          “Yeah.”  Vance agreed warily, frowning at the borderline insult in Gibbs neutral tone.  “So why do you look like you’re thinking really hard about something I probably don’t want to know?”

          “I’m trying to decide if I trust you with Jenny’s reputation.  Because if I can’t, then never mind.”  Gibbs waved away Vance’s obvious concerns when he frowned and narrowed his eyes at Gibbs.  “Don’t worry, it doesn’t affect the case or anything.”

          “If you’re withholding any information on this, Agent Gibbs…” Vance warned.

          “I’m not.  It’s just supposition I have, and even if I’m right, it isn’t likely to have changed the outcome anyway.  I know Jen.  She’d have done what she did anyway.”  Gibbs fingered the object in his pocket, still trying to assess Vance’s position.

          “Well of course I’m curious now.  If it’ll help, I have no interest in ruining the reputation of a dead woman who, when all is said and done, died for her country.”

          Gibbs narrowed his gaze.  “Off the record then?”

          “Between you and I, Gibbs.”  Vance agreed.

          “And Ducky.  He knows, too, though I haven’t had a chance to ask him about my theory.”  Vance gave him a half-intrigued, half-impatient look.  “Okay.”  Gibbs pulled out a pill bottle and set it on Vance’s desktop.

          “What’s this?”  The Director picked it up and read the label, a dark eyebrow raising at what he saw.  “Prescription meds for…?”

          Gibbs stared at the little bottle of pills he’d found in the box of Jenny’s things Cynthia had cleared out of the office before Vance moved in.  “A few weeks ago, after I smelled a rat and cornered Ducky, I found out Jen had a very serious medical…problem.  She’d only just found out herself, after she’d had Ducky check her out when she began to suspect something was wrong.  Only Ducky and myself – and her doctors – knew she was ill, Leon.”

          Vance slowly set the pills down and folded his hands, carefully.  “How ill?  What was wrong?  I don’t recognize the prescription.”

          “She was dying.  Brain cancer.”  Gibbs told him in a clipped voice.  “Jenny had an inoperable tumour in her brain that had already grown beyond any other possible treatments.  Even those,” he nodded at the pills, “were an experimental new drug.”

          “Jesus.”  Vance looked shocked, and angry, and even sad.  “When did she tell you?”

          “She didn’t, Leon.  She didn’t tell anyone but Ducky, and only then because she trusted him to figure out the problem discreetly.”  It was still a bitter taste she’d left him with.  By now, however, he’d begun to accept that when it came to Jenny Sheppard, he was going to live the rest of his life with a whole lot of regrets.  “Maybe she’d have told me eventually, I don’t know.  The point is that she was sick – a disease that could have caused impaired judgment.  Not to mention experimental drugs as a treatment that may have had unforeseen side-effects on her.”  Gibbs laid out his theory.  “All that plus her emotional state after finding out how ill she was, that she was dying…”

          “Okay, I get it.”  Vance sighed and shook his head.  “So she probably hadn’t reported her condition to SecNav, either.”  He stood and walked around his desk to go to the wet bar and pour himself a drink.  On duty or not, he figured it was owed him for all this messed up bullshit he was in the unenviable position to deal with.

          “No.  Which means telling him will either make him very understanding or very pissed off.”  Gibbs predicted.

          “Likely more pissed off.  For now, I’ll keep it to myself, though you should get Ducky’s medical opinion, too, just in case.”  Vance swallowed his scotch and grabbed a bottle of water from the bar fridge.

          Gibbs shrugged and waved off the offer of a bottle for himself.  “I’ll talk to him.  So you were saying something about expecting a phone call from me?”

          Vance snorted.  “You know I’m not stupid, Gibbs.  You gave me the run-around yesterday about Sheppard and his people.  If I didn’t already have suspicions, then I damn well did when SecNav himself woke me up after midnight last night banging on my front door.”  He nodded at Gibbs raised eyebrow.  “He invited me on a late-night stroll, during which he informed me that you and your team would be assisting on a very hush-hush mission even he wasn’t cleared to know about, and that if you called requesting leave I was to be gracious, and ignorant of why you wanted it, and if – ‘while on vacation’ – you made any requests of NCIS resources or personnel, then I was to remain gracious.  Magnanimous, even.”  Vance gave Gibbs a part wry, part annoyed glare.  Gibbs just stared back impassively.

          “I see.  Did he say anything else?”

          “Only that his orders came down directly from the President.  An Executive Order, Gibbs.  As much as I’m curious to know what you’ve gone and gotten yourself into now, I just as much don’t want to know.”  Vance dropped back into his chair and frowned.  “Just make sure you all come back alive.”

          “Well, we plan on it.”  Gibbs stood up.  “Ducky and Abby know what’s going on, too, though they couldn’t tell you or anyone else what they know even if they wanted to.  We’ll stay in touch through them.”

          “My Medical Examiner and my lab tech, too?”  Vance scowled deeply.  “Fine, whatever.  I’m gracious and ignorant, after all.”  A thought suddenly chased away the scowl.  “I assume Ms. David has permission from her father for this – or do I have to play nice with Director David?”

          Gibbs hesitated.  “Permission, no.  I doubt he has any idea, much like yourself.  She does have sanctioning from her government, however.”

          “Ah.  Well, if he calls to yell at me, I’m just as clueless as he is, then.”  Vance didn’t appear too happy about it, but he was very good at playing in the political and intelligence arenas.  If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t be in the office that he was.  “Get out of my office, Agent Gibbs.  I’ll file the ‘vacation’ paperwork – unspecified time frame.”  He shooed the older man away with a hand wave.

          “Yes, sir, Director.”  Gibbs smirked, which ruined the absolutely sincere tone and the subtle way he’d straightened up to attention.  He practically marched out the door, feeling pretty good about the whole meeting, all things considered.

          At the bullpen once more, he stopped to pick up his badge and weapon from his desk before he decided to drop in on Abby and Ducky to let them know what Vance had said.

          There was the typical loud, rhythmic, kind of strange music that was all Abby to greet him as he walked into her lab.  She looked productive, standing at her computer console and typing away at a keyboard.  And as the music wasn’t depressing or dark, he assumed she was in a fairly good mood.  He could always tell how she was feeling by the music she listened to as she worked.

          “Good morning, Abby.”  He said, smiling as she whirled in surprise and pressed a hand to her heart.

          “Gibbs!  You really have to stop doing that!  I’m going to have to put a bell on you or something.”  She scolded, though the relieved grin spoiled it.  Then she leapt at him and hugged him hard.  “I’m so glad you’re okay!  Ducky promised you were, but I had to see for myself, you know…”

          Hugging her back and just holding her for a long moment, he pressed a kiss to her hair and chuckled, “I know, Abs.  It’s been a rough year.  You’re good though?”

          She nodded into his chest, then reluctantly pulled away.  “I’m fine.  Don’t worry about me, Gibbs!  Besides, Ducky offered me a bed at his place if I wanted company until this was over.”  Abby flashed a tiny grin.

          Gibbs nodded and lay a hand on her shoulder reassuringly.  “You should take him up on it.  He’d probably enjoy the company – someone who doesn’t require special treatment.”  He referred to Ducky’s mother, the…unique Mrs. Mallard, whose Alzheimer’s was getting steadily worse day by day and made her even more eccentric than Gibbs suspected she’d always been when perfectly healthy.

          “Yeah.  I really feel for the Duck-man, Gibbs.  He really loves her, but…”

          “It’s not easy, no.  You should stay over a couple of nights at least.”

          “I will.”  She gave him a serious look.  “So any leads on Mike yet?”

          “Not yet.  I’m heading to General O’Neill’s house after I talk to Ducky.  Hopefully, they’ve found something.”  Gibbs looked at her computer screen.  “What are you working on?”

          A sheepish expression crossed her face.  “Well, actually, I’m trying to find Mike.  Um, Tony came by a little while ago and asked me to see if there were any security cameras in the area that I could get footage from.  He said maybe we’d get lucky and spot a suspicious looking vehicle.”  She shrugged.  “It could be a long-shot, since we really don’t know what sort of vehicle to look for, but…” Abby held up a finger then clicked a few keys.  “I’m running these pictures Ziva sent me of the tire tread marks she took at the scene.  That could help me narrow it down.”

          Gibbs blinked, fighting the urge to tear up over how proud of his team he was, for how on-the-ball they were even now.  He did however, lean in and give Abby another kiss on the cheek.

          “Thank you.  Good work, Abs.”

          She smiled, pleased, and understanding everything else that little phrase contained that Gibbs couldn’t say.  “I’ll call when I have something so go!  Check in with Ducky and go find Mike!”

          “Yes, ma’am.”  Gibbs gave her a final, reassuring pat, then walked out.  It was a short walk and an elevator ride to the morgue, and as the doors wooshed open he strode in to find his old friend cleaning instruments with the help of his assistant, the young and sometimes naive Jimmy Palmer.

          “Spring cleaning, Ducky?”  Gibbs asked, picking up the bone saw and inspecting the tool, currently missing its blade.

          “Ah, Jethro, I hoped you’d drop in this morning – and no, just the usual cleaning.  These are the spares we usually keep for emergencies.  We’re doing an inventory.”  Ducky waved a pair of forceps in the air.  “Mr. Palmer, if you would be so kind, take these to the loading bay, and start on the van?  I will join you shortly.”  He pointed at a large box of body bags.

          “Of course, Doctor.”  Jimmy nodded, smiling cheerfully at both men.  It may be that, on occasion, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box but Gibbs kind of liked the kid.  He was good at his job, quick to learn, and the perfect assistant to the eccentric old Medical Examiner – being more than a little odd himself.  Gibbs supposed eccentricity came with the career.

          Ducky walked away, moving to the sink to wash his hands.  When Jimmy was safely gone, Ducky turned and said, “I assume you’ve been to Vance’s office already?” while drying off his hands.

          “Yep.”  Gibbs said, folding his arms over his chest.  “Abby’s lab, too.”

          “Ah.  Good.  I barely managed to convince her to go to bed last night for worrying about all of you.”  Ducky shook his head.

          “Well, she’s processing photos from Ziva of the scene, so maybe she’ll be too busy to worry.”  Gibbs sighed, running fingers through his silvered hair.  He absently noted that he needed a cut; it was getting long.  “Better yet, she finds something for us to go on.”

          “Hmm, yes.  That would be ideal.  And did our esteemed new Director give you a difficult time?”

          “Surprisingly, no.  I guess SecNav dropped by late last night and basically told him to let us do what we had to and keep his nose out of it.”  Gibbs still found the whole idea amazing and amusing.  “Neither of them, apparently, know a thing.  O’Neill’s got some pull with the shiniest brass, Duck, to be yanking on the chains of a federal, military agency like NCIS.”

          “I would imagine so, given the secrecy and importance of that programme.  Just be glad he’s letting us stay involved, Jethro.  I get the impression that being on his bad side is an extremely bad idea.”  Ducky warned.

          “I don’t doubt it, Ducky.”  Gibbs sighed and stared across the room.  “Listen, I have a question for you about Jen.  A medical question.”

          “What is it?  You know as much as I do about her condition at the time.”  The doctor studied his old friend quizzically.

          “Do I? I’m not so sure.  I have a thought.”  Gibbs repeated his theory to Ducky.  “I want your medical opinion, Ducky, even though I realize you’re not an Oncologist.”

          “I honestly couldn’t say for certain, Jethro.  I know it’s not what you want to hear, but truthfully the brain is still such a mystery to us – the tumour very well could have impacted her ability to make rational, reasonable decisions at times.  As for her medication, as you said, it’s highly experimental and as such the side-effects are largely unknown.”  Ducky shook his head apologetically.  “There’s no way to know for certain now.”

          “Okay, it’s just that…her decision to hold a show down in that diner doesn’t seem like what she’d normally have done.  When she found out that Sasha Decker was dead, no matter if she thought I was going to rip her a new one or if she wanted to protect me – she would have called me.  Even with Mike as back-up, she would have called me, Duck.”  It was this that stuck with him most.  She was too good an agent to not have realized how dangerous the situation was getting, and to have not called for more help was unlike her.

          “Ah, Jethro.”  Ducky lay a commiserating hand on the other man’s forearm, patting in understanding sympathy.  “Please don’t toil over this any longer.  It is simply something you can’t ever know, now, and it does nothing for you to continue to try and figure it out.  You’ll only drive yourself crazy.”

          Gibbs closed his eyes, swallowing back the sharpness he knew would be in his tone.  Ducky didn’t deserve it.  After a moment, he nodded slowly.  “It’s not easy letting go, Duck.”

          “No, it isn’t.  And it shouldn’t be.”

          The agent straightened, smoothing out his jacket in a rare moment of self-consciousness.  “Well, better get going.  I’ll keep in touch, Ducky.”

          “Yes, yes, Jethro – go find Mike and bring that old scoundrel home.”  Ducky shooed him away from the morgue.  “And Jethro, please be careful.”

          “Always, Duck.  Always.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

General O’Neill’s
0800 hrs.

          It was a rare day when Rodney was awake and up before John Sheppard – whose internal alarm operated with the precision of an atomic clock, much to McKay’s disgust and amazement.  This particular day was totally understandable, however, and Rodney promised himself he’d refrain from the teasing and gloating he would normally have inflicted on his friend (all good-naturedly, of course) when John did finally rouse.

          A bleary, pre-coffee glare-squint at his watch informed him it was just after 0800, and he rubbed at his eyes and face awkwardly as he tried pushing himself up to roll out of the bed.  It’s a tad difficult to do when there’s a heavy arm pinning one down to the mattress by the mid-section of one’s back.  Frowning, Rodney managed to get an arm under himself, giving him enough of a boost that when he turned his head he could see John lying sprawled out next to him on his stomach, face turned away.

          As it registered just how cozy the situation was, Rodney hung his head and groaned mentally, savouring the weight of that arm now and wishing it had occurred in a much more conscious, willing situation.  It was odd, but Rodney realized that John actually touched him quite a lot – outside of saving-his-life-type touches, that is.  Casual patting, arm squeezes, friendly shoulder punches, an arm occasionally slung over his shoulders…  Rodney blinked as he catalogued them all, wondering why he’d never realized it before when he normally knew every time someone touched him, because his entire life had been pretty lacking in the basic human contact department, so John getting under his radar so easily was startling.  And telling.  This time Rodney groaned aloud and with a shiver of disappointment, he forced himself to shimmy out from under John’s arm and sit up on the edge of the bed.

          Unfortunately, both woke up John and after an adorable little snuffle and a huge yawn, the officer rolled onto his back and scrubbed at his stubble covered face with both hands.  “Rodney?”

          “Wake up.  It’s after eight.”  Rodney informed him, his tone a bit sharp thanks to his embarrassment and annoyance at himself for his lack of control when it came to the other man.  “You have time for a short run before breakfast, you masochist.”

          John blinked at him, then at his own wrist as he checked the time for himself.  “Uh huh.  Right.”  He sat up and watched his friend stomp around the room, gathering up clothes and his towel before heading for the bathroom.  Frowning slightly, he asked, “You okay?  You seem…out of sorts.”

          “Fine!  I’m fine!  Need coffee.”  Rodney hastily replied, not entirely untruthful.  “Showering now!”  He closed the bathroom door so he wouldn’t have to face John and turned on the water.

          Shrugging, John got out of bed and pulled on his running clothes before leaving the room to find Ronon for their morning jog.

          Rodney emerged twenty minutes later, showered, shaved, dressed, and – much more alert – grabbed his laptop to take downstairs.  Halfway down, he smelled coffee and followed his nose to the kitchen where he found Daniel polishing off a mug already and pouring himself another.

          “Hey.”  Daniel greeted him, looking at about par with Rodney’s state of wakefulness, but still in a pair of sleep pants and an old, faded USAF t-shirt.  The linguist smothered a yawn with one hand and held up the coffee pot with the other in silent question.  Rodney nodded quickly, and in short order had a steaming hot mug cradled in his hands.

          The two worshipful, relived sighs of pleasure from the two java junkies echoed slightly in the silence.  They looked at each other over the rims of their mugs and grinned foolishly.

          “Wow, we’ve got it bad.”  Daniel chuckled.

          “Whatever.  Everyone has a vice.  At least ours isn’t illegal.”  Rodney snorted dismissively and took a big gulp of his coffee, heedless of its temperature.  “Nectar of the gods.”

          “No argument here.”  Daniel wandered to the refrigerator, hunting for breakfast-making materials.  “Waffles, pancakes, or French toast?”

          “Whichever – as long as there’s bacon.”

          A large package of Canadian back-bacon dropped in front of him on the counter top.

          “Excellent.”  Rodney was certain he was drooling, but didn’t really care.

          “Did you and John sleep well?  I saw him leaving with Ronon and Teyla for a run earlier.”  Daniel bustled around the kitchen, getting everything he needed out of the cupboards and fridge.  If it was strange that he seemed to know his way around awfully well, Rodney didn’t let on.

          “I think so.”  Rodney hid the flush creeping up his neck behind his mug and hands, resting his elbows on the counter’s edge.  “He seemed better this morning.”

          “That’s good.  I know it’s hard to sleep when there’s so
much going on, but he seemed to really need the rest last night.  He looked exhausted.”

          “He was.”  Rodney watched Daniel whisk pancake batter in a bowl.  “We all were, I think.”

          “Yeah.”  Daniel, of all people, certainly got that.  “Jack was up way past a reasonable hour kicking political asses last night after you all went to bed.”

          “So he’s still asleep, then?”

          “I figured I’d let him get a few extras in, yeah.  He doesn’t have to be up until 0900, technically.”  Daniel glanced at the digital clock on the stove.  “Which is about now.”

          Rodney frowned, although it was at himself more than anything.  He refilled his coffee mug.  “I should have told John to go back to sleep.”

          “He looked eager for his run, Rodney.  He reminds me of Cameron.”  Daniel smiled and shook his head, thinking of Mitchell and his lack of ability to sit still for long.  “I think it’s a prerequisite for flyboys to have mild ADD or something.”

          “Ha! Probably.  Was O’Neill ever like that?”  Rodney couldn’t picture that, really.  His experiences with the General were few and far between, and the older man seemed so laid back and lazy that he made John look hyperactive.

          “As long as I’ve known him, he hasn’t been a runner, no.  But he made use of the gym frequently.”  Daniel ripped open the bacon package and started frying.  “Sam, neither.  I’m not really certain how she ever chose to exercise – beyond the whole ‘running for our lives’ thing.”

          Grimacing, Rodney nodded and sniffed hungrily at the delicious scent of fried bacon.  “God, yeah, the running for your life regime sucks.  It works, but it sucks.”

          “I’d noticed you’d buffed up in the last couple years.”  Daniel observed, grabbing a flipper to turn over the bacon slices.

          “Carrying an extra 15-20 pounds of equipment on missions, usually strapped to my back, will do that.”  Rodney thought of his pack and the gear he typically bought with him.  “Especially on missions that we don’t take a jumper.  Besides which, both Teyla and Ronon seem to think that it’s their duty to ‘train’ me.”  He made air quotes, obviously thinking they were crazy.  “John probably put them up to it.”

          Daniel shrugged, putting the first few slices on a plate and setting it in front of Rodney.  “Help yourself.  Waffles are next.”  He grinned in amusement as the scientist snatched one up immediately and folded it into his mouth, making sex-noises as the taste exploded on his tongue.

          “Oh god that’s so good.”  Rodney moaned between bites, munching happily.  “The not-pig we found just isn’t the same.”

          Daniel laughed, and went on with the waffle making.  “So how’s everything working out with Sam in charge?  Has the change-over been more difficult than expected?”

          Rodney swallowed, paused, and eyed Daniel.  “Than expected?  He inquired.  “As in…?”

          “Losing Elizabeth, going from a civilian-led expedition to a military one…” Daniel closed the lid on the waffle iron after pouring in batter.

          “Ah.  No, very much as expected, actually.  Even though she’s military, Sam’s still…” Rodney waved a hand, “one of us, you know.  Besides, she came to us with a huge reputation as part of SG1.  I think everyone was pretty much relieved to have her and not some unknown pencil-pusher from the Pentagon or wherever.”

          “That’s really good to hear.  I’ve worried about her a lot these last few months.  This is her first real command, and even though we know she’s capable…” Commanding SG1 for less than a year really didn’t count, in Daniel’s book.

          “Sure.  That’s understandable.  Even though I wanted the job, looking back now, I’m not so sure I could handle some of the stuff Sam deals with – Elizabeth, too.  I’m not very good at all the double-speak those IOA politicians are so fond of.”  Rodney licked his fingers, a tiny frown marring his forehead.  “I think if I’d been in charge, I would have lost John’s friendship altogether.  We’d have butted heads too often over too many things.”

          “So you don’t mind Sam being your boss?”  Daniel gave him a wary raised eyebrow.  Sam’s letters home had told how upset Rodney seemed to be about being passed over and his reactions to the first few times she’d had to tell him ‘no.’

          Rodney flushed, embarrassed.  It wasn’t like Daniel didn’t know about his once-upon-a-time crush on Sam Carter.  “Nah.  She’s good at it.  More, she gets it.  All of it.  She understands both the military stuff and the scientific stuff, and she’s actually really good at balancing the two.  Plus, she gets all the weirdness that comes out of our lives everyday living in another galaxy and dealing with scary aliens.  There aren’t many people with those qualifications, you know.  Even Elizabeth didn’t always get it.”

          Daniel nodded, eyes wide behind the glasses in surprise.  It was high praise coming from McKay.  “Good.  I’m glad.”  Then he gave Rodney an evil grin.  “Are you still trying to get her to go out with you?”  He knew he wasn’t, but couldn’t resist teasing.

          Rodney sputtered into his coffee.  “What?!  No!  And what the hell is this?  High school?”

          Daniel rolled his eyes.  “Oh relax.  You know what I meant.”  He peeked under the waffle iron lid, then opened it up when satisfied they were ready.  Getting them onto Rodney’s plate, he continued, “And why not?  She’s not seeing anyone, and I know how much you like her.”

          Rodney blinked, reaching for the syrup Daniel set down nearby.  “She’s not?  But I thought…” he stared at the linguist for a moment in confusion, shook his head, and waved a hand dismissively.  “I’m not in her league, anyway.  Even if I was, I try not to date people who are technically in my employ or under whom I am employed.”

          Daniel winced a smile, apologetic.  “I’m sorry, Rodney.”

          “Whatever.  No big deal. I get why you asked.”  Rodney dug into the waffles.  “These are great.  Aren’t you having some?”

          “I ate earlier.”  Daniel refilled his mug and gave Rodney a curious look.  “Um, you sounded surprised that Sam’s available.  Why’s that?”

          “Huh?  Oh.”  Rodney shrugged.  “It’s hard to believe she would ever be single.  She’s smart, beautiful, all that.”  He was making short work out of his waffles and eyeing up the bacon covetously again.  “But I sort of thought she and, you know,” Rodney jabbed at the air with his fork in the direction of the ceiling above them, “might have started something.”

          Daniel’s face was comical for about two seconds before it went carefully neutral and Rodney suddenly wondered if he should seek cover.  Swallowing his last bite of waffle, he watched Daniel’s eyes darken and glint with budding temper – something Rodney had never seen of the mild-mannered linguist before.

          “What exactly gave you this idea?”  He finally asked in a tightly controlled, quiet voice.

          “Um, well,” Rodney debated the wisdom of continuing, now that he’d obviously opened a can of worms he hadn’t known about, “there’s been rumours for years, you know.”

          “Rumours and gossip?  You don’t pay attention to that stuff, McKay.”  Daniel dismissed that outright.  “What else?”

          For a brief moment, Rodney thought he understood what was going on.  “Are you the one Sam’s seeing?”  He asked, shocked.  There’s been rumours there, too, but Rodney could never really see the two getting together.  Not seriously.  They were too different in their ways of thinking about pretty much everything.

          “What? No!  Absolutely not!”  Daniel nearly choked he denied it so fast.  “She’s practically my sister!”

          “Right, so then…what’s with the freak-” Rodney stopped as the light bulb went off.  “Oh!  Oh my god, seriously!?  You and…”  He jabbed a finger at the ceiling again, eyes going enormous. “Holy shit!”

          Daniel flushed bright red and his eyes glittered dangerously.  “Rodney!  Don’t…”

          “Hey, don’t mind me.”  The scientist hastily waved his hands defensively, backpedaling quickly to reassure the other man.  “No problems whatsoever with it, just, you know, wow.  Never saw that one coming.”  Even if that, too, had rumours – strong ones that were much more believable than others.  “Oh, and I won’t tell a soul.  I swear.”

          All the energy just seemed to drain out of Daniel, and he actually seemed to sag.  “Fuck.”  He swore uncharacteristically.  “Jack’s gonna kill me.  We hadn’t told anyone but Teal’c and Vala – and only then because there’s no keeping a secret from either one of those two when they suspect something.”

          Rodney winced.  “I’m sorry, Daniel.  You’re in a tough spot, I know.  I swear…” He silently cursed the bigotry and stupidity of the US military.

          “It’s alright, Rodney.”  Daniel shook his head and poured another cup of coffee for himself, then kept his slightly shaking hands busy getting another pot started.  “I was careless.  At least it’s you.  I know I can trust you.  So does Jack.”  Daniel would make sure of that.

          “Well, I wouldn’t go that far.  I only figured it out because you got so…excited over an assumption I made.  Seriously, though, what do I know about relationships?”  Rodney made a sound of disgust, directed at himself.  “No one’s interested in me like that, and I absolutely suck at trying to figure it out, obviously, since everyone I’ve ever tried to date ends up pretty much hating me.”

          “What?  That’s not true, Rodney.”  Daniel frowned, disliking the very low self-esteem and blatant loneliness in Rodney’s tone and expression.  “I still want to know about why you think Sam was…” he frowned deeper, “but in a moment.  How can you think no one wants to be with you?  I thought you were going to start something with that new CMO on Atlantis?”

          “Keller.  Jennifer Keller.”  Rodney stared morosely into his mug.  “I tried.  Stuff happened, and I came to the conclusion that I don’t like her as much as I thought I did.  I had impossible competition anyway.  I mean, competing with Ronon?  Or Major Lorne?”

          Daniel’s eyebrows danced in confusion as he tried to get it all straight.  “Uh…so Ronon’s not with Teyla?”  The fact that the conversation resembled a bad soap opera wasn’t lost on Daniel.

          “Not that I was aware, but then, like I said, what do I know?”  Rodney shrugged.  “Doesn’t matter.  I get the feeling she – Keller – couldn’t deal with me on a long term basis, anyway.  Doesn’t seem to be anyone who can, really.  Well, other than John.”  At the thought of the officer, he actually brightened considerably.  “I’m his best friend!  He actually told me that.  I’ve never been someone’s best friend before.  Oh god, what if I screw that up, too?”

          Daniel was torn between moving around the counter to hug the stuffing out of Rodney from sympathetic sadness and simply smiling at how pleased and innocently awed Rodney was by Sheppard’s friendship – and Rodney’s uncertainty about his abilities in the position of best friend.  Daniel sipped his coffee instead.  “I didn’t have one either, until Jack.  Not right at first we weren’t, of course, but it came, and it grew.  Boy did it grow.”

          Rodney pointed at Daniel.  “See! That’s what I want!  Exactly that!”

          “You want your very own Colonel?”  Daniel asked casually, carefully, but with a hint of teasing curiosity.  He got scowled at for it, but then Rodney’s expression morphed into something wistful and kind of sweet.

          “I hold no illusions on that score.  John ‘Kirk’ Sheppard would never be interested in me that way in a light year.” Rodney sadly poked at the last bite of his waffle, appetite suddenly disappearing.  “Can we not talk about it anymore?”  He hated how whiny he sounded, but thinking about this topic just made him depressed.

          “Yeah, sorry, Rodney.”  Daniel apologized.  It wasn’t so long ago he felt the same about Jack.  That, and as much as he wanted to, he wasn’t going to give Rodney hope that could be false by telling him he thought John might be receptive.  It was something they’d have to figure out for themselves.

          “’s okay.”  Rodney mumbled.

          “Um, so…Sam?”  Daniel asked again, determined to keep his cool.  It wasn’t Rodney’s fault, after all.

          “Oh, ah, it isn’t like she said anything or whatever.  I just…” Rodney sighed, wondering if saying something was really a good idea.  “When she first came to Atlantis, I stopped by her quarters to welcome her and she was still unpacking her things, and…pictures.”  Rodney fiddled with his empty mug.

          Daniel stared at him, echoing faintly, “Pictures.”  All sorts of things were running through his imagination.

          “Um, like team pictures, family…and, ah, one of the General in his uniform standing at a podium, maybe, in the Gate room in the SGC?  I didn’t get that good a look at it, really…” Rodney babbled, trying to mitigate the damage and wincing at the growing thundercloud that Daniel’s face was becoming.  “Which I know doesn’t mean anything, really, so I’m not sure why I thought that…”

          “Excuse me.”  Daniel abruptly started moving around the counter.  In the distance, Rodney heard the front door open and close, followed by three sets of footsteps and the low voices of his team returning from their run.  All Rodney could think was, ‘thank god!’  Daniel was very determinedly striding toward the hallway and the stairs.  He watched the archaeologist take the stairs two at a time as John, Ronon, and Teyla came into the kitchen.

          “Uh, hey, Rodney.”  John glanced at the stairs over his shoulder then looked back at his friend suspiciously. “What’s going on?  Daniel looked like he was on the warpath.”

          Rodney just looked miserable.

          Ronon grunted and raised an eyebrow, seeming to know Rodney had likely done something wrong.  “Not our business.  Smells really good in here.  Breakfast?”  He sniffed the air hungrily, eyeing Rodney’s plate.

          “You have time to shower first, Ronon.”  Rodney told him, waving him away.  “Please.”

          “I don’t smell that bad!”  Ronon protested, looking very offended.  Teyla, however, took pity on Rodney and ushered the big guy away.

          John waited until they were upstairs, helping himself to the fresh pot of coffee, and eyed his friend.  “No really, Rodney.  What’d you do?”

          “I…” Rodney didn’t even try to deny it was his fault – much to John’s surprise – until he realized that the scientist typically didn’t try to place blame elsewhere whenever he did something that hurt someone he truly cared about.  Obviously he considered Daniel Jackson to be in that category.  “I think I just stuck both feet in my mouth.”

          “Uh huh.  That’s a given.  But how, exactly?  What did you say?”

          Rodney gave him a withering glare for that, but it quickly changed to nervousness.  “Don’t be mad for my asking this, but…you’re not one of those homophobic military types, are you?”

          John spluttered, very nearly spitting his coffee out all over the place.  “What?!”  He demanded, shocked and nonplussed since he certainly had urges in Rodney’s direction that went against the UCMJ regulations.  “Where the hell did that come from?  And no, I’m not!”  Rodney seemed to relax and look relieved at his answer, though, and he just felt more and more confused.

          There was a very loud THUMP from above, muffled somewhat but still distinctive enough to be recognized as a body hitting the floor.  John stared, blinking, wondering if they should go up there and…

          “Give me your solemn word and oath as an officer and a gentleman – on Atlantis herself! – that you won’t say a word to anyone about what I tell you, John.” Rodney half-demanded, half-plead, his eyes so blue and wide in abject misery that John had to do it just to take that horrified look off his face.

          “I swear, Rodney.  Whatever it is, just tell me!”

          “I’m serious, John!  This could ruin people’s lives.”

          “I am being serious!  Now what the fuck is going on?”  John wanted to reach out and shake Rodney, but grit his teeth to hold back.

          “Daniel and O’Neill are together and I may have hinted that there were still some issues yet unresolved between the General and Carter because I saw this picture she had of him in her quarters and she’s always got this look when she talks about him and I told Daniel about the pictures, and…”

          John listened to the long string of babble out of Rodney’s non-stop sentence with maybe two breaths for the entire thing, only hearing the part about Jackson and O’Neill – holy shit, really?! Wow – and the fact that Rodney apparently inadvertently just caused a couple’s spat over Sam Carter.  The officer shook his head, trying to clear it and puzzle through the idea of it all, but ended up reaching out to shove Rodney down into his seat at the counter and bend to put his head between his knees to stop the on-coming hyperventilation his panic attack was going to cause.

          “Okay, okay, I get it, Rodney.  Calm down, now.”  John sighed and awkwardly patted him on the back shoulder while Rodney breathed.  At least now he knew why Rodney was freaking out about telling him.  The relationship really did have the potential to ruin both Daniel’s and O’Neill’s lives.  Even if John had been against same-sex relationships, he wouldn’t have said anything.  He had too much respect for General O’Neill and Dr. Jackson both.  “Stop freaking out.  You couldn’t have known seeing a picture was such a bad thing.”

          “I don’t know, exactly, why Daniel got so upset, but…I’m afraid I caused a problem between them and that is the absolute last thing I wanted to do…” Rodney sat up again.  “It’s hard enough keeping things a secret from everyone for fear of the repercussions, but to have a rift develop between them, too?  And it’s my fault because I can’t keep my big mouth shut.”

          “They’ll figure it out, Rodney.  It wasn’t…there’s no ‘fault’ here for you to claim.  Just stay out of it from now on.  Let them deal with their own problems.”  John dropped an arm around Rodney’s drooping shoulders.  He managed to hide his surprise when the other man actually turned into the embrace and buried his nose in John’s sweaty t-shirt, right in the vicinity of his collarbone, arms coming up to wind around John’s waist tightly.  John wondered briefly if they were both losing their minds, when Rodney suddenly tensed up and pushed himself away, wiping furiously at his eyes and face, grimacing at the world in general.

          “Sorry.  I just…I didn’t mean to…”

          “Hey, it’s alright, buddy.”  John was staring to get emotional whiplash.  “I’ve had my moments, too, right?  We’re cool.”

          “Good.  Good…I’ll just…breakfast.”  Rodney sniffed and moved around the counter to start making more waffles and bacon, avoiding looking at John altogether.  John sighed.

          “For a moment, I thought you were going to tell me you were gay or bi or something, and that you’d just tried to hit on Daniel!”  He tried to make things a little lighter, hoping to distract Rodney from his guilt-complex long enough to snap him out of the funk he was settling into.

          To his utter shock and amazement, Rodney actually turned bright lobster red and muttered, “I am bi but no, I wasn’t coming on to Daniel!  He’s a friend.  A good friend.  Like Carson was.”

          John’s jaw dropped open (luckily, Rodney didn’t see the pole axed, fish-out-of-water expression) and he quickly closed it.  Stunned, with the budding sense of hope that began to rush in his veins like adrenaline, John decided he couldn’t deal with the new information just then.  Not…yet.

          He had to get out of there.

          “Um, I’m going to shower and get dressed.  Don’t let Ronon eat all the bacon!”  He called over his shoulder, making a hasty retreat.

          Unfortunately, he had no idea how it looked to Rodney.  The red flush of embarrassment bled away until he was pale.  Ghostly pale.  His blue eyes welled up with tears, and his face was the picture of devastation.  Because to Rodney it looked like John had just run away from his no-longer-best-friend (maybe any kind of friend?) because said ex-friend just confessed to playing both sides of the gender fence.  It hurt.  A lot.  John hadn’t even acknowledged what Rodney had done.

          The tears slipped out and Rodney angrily swiped at them.  “Well, Meredith, you knew it was impossible and too good to be true.  There’s nothing to be done.  You aren’t allowed to love anyone; they’ll just break you in the end.”  It was agony of the worst sort having to admit that, but he did it anyway.  “Get over it and do what you came here to do.”  He scolded himself, wishing he’d never woken up that morning.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Next Chapter: https://kalichaos.wordpress.com/stargate/veritas/chapter-09/

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