Mathématique: Chapter 62
“There was a day,” Young whispered, because this had to be true. It had to be. “There was a day that you woke alone, beside a river.”
Chapter Warnings: Stressors of all kinds.
Additional notes: With all my love, kids. I know how long you’ve waited. I did my best.
Young hated this.
He leaned against a cold brick wall, positioned at the midpoint between the NID vans blocking one cross street and the NYPD cars blocking the other. He was still wearing his academic Boston outfit from earlier in the day—tweed over kevlar.
Right. Like he could pull that one off.
Young belonged in fatigues under alien skies, watching his people while they coaxed miracles out of lonely foreign tech and asked questions that got them into trouble. He belonged with a gun in his hand and a plan in his mind, helping rare kinds of good find their way in the world.
But here he was, on a back street of New York City, staring at a fire escape because John Sheppard had told him he should.
Yup, so, turned out Sheppard was running this thing.
Was that a good idea?
John Sheppard had an incredible track record when it came to evading or coopting alien tech. He was the best pilot the SGC had ever seen. He knew enough about controlled demolition to bring down most buildings. He had the math and physics chops to stick with McKay the majority of the time. He had an even temperament and cool hair and everyone who didn’t have to supervise him liked the guy.
Sheppard had no undercover experience to speak of. The man hadn’t spent significant time planetside in half a decade. He had a stubborn streak a mile wide. And, most importantly in Young’s book, he’d never gone up against the LA.
Once Young had been formally benched by Lam and Landry, given that the extraction would include, for sure, a close-quarters firefight at a civilian location, Sheppard had asked to run the operation. In fact, it had gone well beyond “asking.” The guy had more or less demanded the job, which was a one-eighty from his usual style. McKay had backed him. Then Carter had backed him. And so, of course, Mitchell had given in.
Hopefully, Sheppard’s insistence on running this thing meant he had some kind of plan.
Because the perfect guy, the perfect guy to be running something like this? Was David Telford. And he probably was running it. From the other side. And when it came down to Sheppard versus Telford in a Manhattan restaurant infiltrated by the LA?
Well, Young knew where the smart money fell.
He shivered in the cold wind.
If Jackson had been up and around, this thing would be going a hell of a lot differently.
SG-1 wasn’t the same without the man. The balance was off. Mitchell didn’t have anyone to harass. Vala was worried. Carter kept trying to bounce ideas off thin air. And Teal’c—Teal’c had been wearing a pained, preoccupied look all day. And as for the mission itself? Well, Jackson’d had something in the works. He was the one who’d gotten Rush classified as a Planetary Asset. He was the one who’d gotten Vala out, put her back together. Jackson would’ve, at a minimum, argued that Young should be coordinating things remotely even if he couldn’t be in the field.
But Jackson was in bad shape, it seemed.
And Young was running half this operation by default anyway.
Sheppard had spent half an hour locked in a room with Eli Wallace, Carter, and McKay, hashing through details and going over building schematics. Mitchell and Teal’c had briefed SG-18 and SG-19, who would be coming in from the roof. Vala had outfitted the nine going up in the elevator with some input from Young, Camile Wray, and Walter Harriman. James had given Ginn a crash course in minimizing civilian casualties and restaurant etiquette (in that order). Young and Greer had spent what time they had liaising with New York law enforcement.
Young had given himself the job of coordinating with New York’s finest, as well as the federal agencies in the mix, primarily because Sheppard had forgotten it needed to happen.
Young didn’t blame the guy; they’d had no time and Sheppard lived in a futuristic alien city without crime, surrounded by the best scientists humanity had to offer and some outstanding Pegasus natives who’d spent generations evading the Wraith.
It was easy to forget about the NYPD. And the NID. And the FBI. And Homeland Security. And the National Guard.
Sheppard had a team that could pick up the slack. Young wasn’t concerned about that. What he was concerned about was that Sheppard’s entire approach had taken shape around what the man knew of Rush, which was based on one, extremely atypical day. And, fine. Maybe it was also built around some weird Ancient-tech dream connection that Sheppard didn’t seem to like talking about.
Bottom line? It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
As far as Young could tell, Sheppard had no specific plan for dealing with Telford. At least, not one he’d had the time or inclination to share. Their best hope was that Telford’s rigid methodology wouldn’t cope very well with whatever inventive, barely-believable bullshit Sheppard had up his sleeve.
The last time Young had seen Sheppard had been right here, at the base of this fire escape, minutes before the raid on the building began. The guy had come to find him, weaving through the police line, beckoning at Young to follow. He'd led him straight to this spot, across from the fire escape, smack between the two law enforcement agencies.
“Fall back to the NID line if the LA decide to use this as an egress point,” he’d said, and then sprinted back to the front of the building before Young’d had time to explain that it made no sense to station a single, injured soldier immediately adjacent to a double-covered building exit.
Storming NYC restaurants wasn’t exactly Sheppard’s wheelhouse.
“Damn it, John,” Young whispered, toying with the sleeve of his Harvard Professor outfit, listening to the mess of radio chatter in his earpiece. The almost constant zat fire caused hisses and crackles in the signal. It was hard to make out anything interpretable. “I hope you have an actual plan.”
Because from where he was standing, it sure seemed like the whole extraction was in the middle of going straight to hell. Maybe if Young hadn’t given up his physical therapy for weeks out of pure depression, he’d have been in the kind of shape to lead this thing. Then he could have been up there, doing some good, instead of down here, nonsensically watching a fire escape in the middle of a double-blockaded back alley.
Whatever Jackson would have done with this op was gonna haunt him, after everything went to shit.
Hotshot, he thought, letting the radio chatter run through his earpiece like water, if the LA gets you tonight I swear to god I will track you down if I have to build a damn tel’tak to do it.
Cam’s voice, hard and loud, broke through the chaos in Young’s earpiece.
“Who has eyes on Telford?”
He worked on deepening his breathing. Keeping it even. Keeping it slow.
I came to get you out.
Maybe it was better that Young wasn’t up there.
So much of what Young remembered on that ash covered mountain had been real. The way David could push through pain, the way he could turn it to humor, to little jokes about the best parts of life. The way he bent the smallest of things into the service of the greatest of plans—with finesse, with respect, without losing sight of what they were. Why they mattered.
It would be almost impossible to gun David down. Even in the middle of a firefight. Even knowing everything he’d done. He wasn’t sure Cam would be able to do it either.
Sheppard had the best odds, if only because he had the best nerves. And the guy was sharp enough to know it.
It should be me, Sheppard had said, his voice hard, his eyes cold, facing down Landry and Lam and the roomful of skeptics around him. The things on my head aren’t going to interfere. They might even help, if I can get close enough to Rush to talk to him. It has to be me. The guy had stared at Lam like he could write his thoughts straight into her head. And maybe he had. Because, before she’d nodded, her eyes had flicked to Cam Mitchell.
“Is that why you wanted to lead this thing so badly?” Young murmured, looking at the upper floors. He ran a hand over his jaw, his nerves stretched tight, his bones bolted together, his heart already aching with the coming aftermath of whatever was happening on the top floor of Au Coeur.
“Colonel Sheppard has engaged Colonel Telford.” This time it was Teal’c, cutting through the static on the open channel.
“Damn it, Shep,” Young whispered.
The time ticked by as the firefight intensified.
“Man down,” he heard Cam roar over the chaos. “Carter, where are you with those signal scramblers?”
Her answer, if it came at all, was lost in a haze of electronic interference.
Several floors up, someone levered open a window.
Young, jerked, startled, and felt the movement ricochet up and down his spine. He forced his heart out of his throat, his thoughts out of the radio chatter, and shifted his hand to his weapon. He cocked his head, squinting up into the light. A man slipped fluidly through a window, turned to shut it, then paused, looking out over the city.
It was his neighbor.
He was wearing a blazer over a crisp, white shirt, bright against the darkening sky. A dramatic wind blew through his perfectly styled hair. He was eyeing the New York City twilight with an air of concerned appraisal, like he was thinking of buying the damn place. He lifted something he was holding, inspecting it carefully, shifting his grip on—
So the guy was holding what looked to be an Air Force standard-issue 9 mm sidearm. Young watched him study the weapon and then reapply its safety. He tucked it into the back of his pants like he’d been doing it all his life.
Young felt a raw smile crack its way through the strain of the past months. “Holy shit,” he whispered to the brick walls of the alley.
He’d spent weeks trying not to picture the man tortured to insanity by the Lucian Alliance. He’d spent days trying not to picture what it would be like to scrape an underfed, exhausted, sick, and semi-homeless guy off the streets of Boston—but this?
This was not gonna be either of those things.
This was gonna be much, much harder.
Because the man descending the fire escape right now had his shit together. It was obvious from the way he moved. The way he carried himself. Hell, he'd just escaped competing sting operations, centered on him, with an Air Force issued sidearm. He had the ability to run. And Young—
Young didn’t have the ability to chase him down.
Someone had tried. Someone had tried minutes ago. And Rush had done exactly what Sheppard had said he’d do. Liberated the sidearm of whatever idiot had ignored the primary mission directive and tried to tag him by force.
Rush was intensely capable. He was intensely vulnerable. He was, in this moment, exactly as vulnerable as he was capable. And damn if that wasn’t something that cut straight to the heart of the man. Everything he’d been doing all this time. Unlocking the cypher set. Getting it to give. Giving too much of himself in the process.
Jackson had known. Jackson had seen it. Jackson had said it.
He might give off some energy and become something else.
“Damn it, hotshot,” Young whispered.
Everything depended on Young convincing him.
Unfortunately, Young was pretty sure he’d never successfully convinced the guy of a single thing in the entire time they’d known one another.
He watched Rush’s contained athleticism. The dynamism in his movements. The square set of his shoulders. The wind in his hair. He understood, now, the faint note of awe in Eli Wallace’s voice when he’d given them the ten-minute version of the past two months. The guy’d had nothing but a wallet and he’d somehow turned himself into this incredible, half-mythic thing that had dialed another galaxy through firewalls on his head and beneath Cheyenne Mountain.
Young felt his throat close. His eyes were burning. Was he up to this? What had Jackson been thinking, dragging him back to this life, hand over hand, inch by inch? It should be Jackson here right now. Jackson. Sheppard. Vala. Anyone but him.
Young took a deep breath, trying not to remember the upslope of an ash covered mountain, the lie of his best success plastered over the truth of his worst failure.
I came to get you out.
And you will.
He clenched his jaw, and, resolutely, angled his head up, taking in the brick, the light, the strip of sky between buildings. The air had been washed clean by a cold front, swinging in from the Atlantic. He could hear the sound of traffic and feel the vibration of the subway. He was on his feet. His bones were healing. The memories he was laying down right now were coming clear and clean. He’d paid for that clarity.
Jackson, too, had paid for it.
Young settled back against the brick, trying to force the tension out of his muscles. He pressed the earpiece of his radio, his hand moving slowly, his heart pounding. When he spoke, his voice was quiet.
“This is Young. I’ve got eyes on Rush,” he said, into the chaos on the channel.
No one responded.
Not a good sign.
“About to go dark.” Slowly, Young pulled his earpiece out of his ear and switched it off.
He stood motionless, trying to blend into the shadow of the wall as Rush lowered himself to street level, dropping to land on his feet. He stood, getting his bearings, shaking his hair back, straightening his shoulders. He pulled the sidearm out from where he’d tucked it at the small of his back.
Young pulled in a slow breath, ready for the man’s inevitable startle response, already shifting his weight away from his cane, preparing to raise his hands.
Rush looked directly at him and the world blazed with its own reality.
“I realize,” the mathematician said, “that you have certain metaphysical laws by which you’re forced to abide—but would it be too much to ask for a practical suggestion regarding where I might responsibly leave this thing?”
He held up the weapon, but he didn’t point it at Young.
Young stood in silence. Every glass bone in his broken body wished it belonged to Daniel Jackson.
“Are you all right?”
There was nothing Young’s head.
Nothing except Nick Rush with a sidearm in the sun.
Slowly, Rush approached. There was no mistaking the concern on his face. There was no mistaking the familiarity, where no familiarity should be.
The effect was devastating. Otherworldly.
Rush stepped closer, into shadow.
And, god, even if Young had tried—even if he’d spent days preparing himself—never, never in a million years would he have been ready for this dynamic pianist with his undiluted Scottish accent who could disarm Air Force personnel and who could escape firefights and who could take college dropouts and turn them into interns and who, for some inexplicable reason, looked just as relieved to see Young as Young was to see him.
Unable to help himself, he pulled the man into a hug. Spectral to solid. Hard and tight and long.
Rush wrapped his arms around Young’s shoulders. “Rough day in the quantum multiverse?”
“God, hotshot,” Young said, choking on the words, burying his face in Rush’s shoulder. “I forgot how weird you are. But it’s coming back to me. Real quick.”
“Y’know that means fuck all coming from you, correct?” the man whispered gently, running the flat of one hand over Young’s back. “What’s wrong?”
The whole thing was spiraling. The situation, his emotions, Sheppard’s ridiculous, brilliant backup plan, presuming that’s what this was. Maybe, if Sheppard had told him anything Young would have been a little more emotionally prepared for whatever this was—but no. And so, of course, Young’s damn neighbor with his damn hair in the damn twilight was, again, taking the brunt of a situation he couldn’t possibly understand as the weight of the whole summer—of everything Telford had done, to both of them—eroded what remained of Young’s self control.
What a string of slender chances had led to this golden hour moment—and what a terrifyingly slender chance remained of bringing the man home safely.
How do you know me? Young wanted to ask. How do you think you know me? What happened to you, hotshot? With your put-together look and your coming-apart questions?
Rush ran the flat of his hand over the spasming muscles of Young’s back.
“You okay?” Young asked, the words cracking as they came.
“I’m fine,” Rush replied, and the subtle emphasis was not lost on Young.
You’re not. You can’t be. No way in hell. Young tightened his grip on the other man, then pulled back, both hands on Rush’s biceps. The mathematician stared straight at him in obvious concern. Sensitive. Intense. Unguarded. All of it. Just. Right. There. On his damn face.
There was no question about it. Rush was staring at Young like he knew him.
And it wasn’t possible. Was it?
Should he ask the man, and risk upsetting whatever delicate balance was in play?
No. Too risky. Way too risky.
Young looked up, at the fire escape he should have been watching this entire time. His team was up there. James. Greer. Ginn. In the middle of a firefight. Sheppard was up there, facing down Telford. Vala was up there, trying to look out for her terrestrial BFF. Someone was down. Someone Cam cared about. And he was going to leave them to fight it out with the Lucian Alliance?
Turned out, yeah.
Because Vala, months ago, on a tel’tak, her memory fading to darkness, had given him this chance. Jackson, weeks ago, his icy hands wrapped around Young’s throat, his eyes on Teal’c’s candle, had given him this chance. Sheppard, minutes ago, dressed in a suit over Kevlar, about to storm a building so Cam wouldn’t have to, had given him this chance. Rush himself, right now, for no reason Young could understand, was giving him this chance.
Young wasn’t sure he believed in destiny, but he could read a cue card from the universe when it came his way.
“Hey,” Young said, his voice low. “We should get you out of here. What d’you think? You want to take a walk?”
Rush glanced meaningfully at either end of the alley. “Not sure there’s anywhere to go.”
“We’ll be fine.” With difficulty, Young released his grip on the other man. He wiped his face, then turned in the direction of the NYPD line.
“Oh yes?” Rush asked. “And why is that?”
“Because,” Young said. “You’re with me.”
“Mmm. And you’re certain this won’t violate some quantum mechanical prime directive?” Rush asked, the bizarre question delivered with a crushing amount of kindness.
Young felt his tenuous control starbursting. Again. He kept his eyes fixed on the end of the alley and fought to keep his hold on his expression. On his breathing. Because what the hell kind of question was that? Quantum mechanical prime directive? What the hell had been in this poor guy’s head all this time? What the hell was in there now?
“We’ll be fine,” Young said quietly, scrubbing again at his face. “Come on.” He glanced at Rush. “You wanna give me that sidearm?” His voice was a ragged mess. It didn’t seem to matter.
Rush offered him the gun, no hesitation.
Unhurriedly, Young reached for it. He pulled it from Rush’s grip, inspected the weapon, then tucked it into his belt, concealing it beneath his blazer.
“They’re—going to be able to see you, correct?”
Rush, still wielding kindness like scalpel, had a note of unease in his voice, and Young, still walking the knife-edge of control, looked over at him. Bad move. Because god, he was so. Heartbreakingly. Easy. To read. Like this.
“Yeah,” Young said, his voice a ragged whisper. “They’ll be able to see me. You’ll be okay, hotshot.”
“All right,” Rush said, uncertainty and trust warring in his expression, and, unbelievably, trust winning the day. He nodded. “All right.”.
“That surprise you?” Young asked, fighting for casual, missing it by the width of the Milky Way. His voice was shot to hell, and it was hard to speak around the lump in his throat. “That they can see me?”
“Just—modifying some assumptions,” Rush said cautiously. “You’ve only ever appeared when I’m alone.”
Young felt the slow seep of building certainty, the way ships took on water or lost atmosphere. The eerie cooperation and sympathy he was currently getting from Rush was built on the shakiest possible ground—some kind of mental misfiring, centered on Young himself, arising from the things on Rush’s head, or from the drug he’d gotten from the LA, or maybe the combination of both. To make matters worse, not only was the ground shaky, it was invisible to Young. He couldn’t see the terrain. Because the terrain wasn’t real. It wasn’t knowable. Rush had some kind of handle on who he thought Young was. A handle that wasn’t attached to anything Young could pick up.
“What’s your relationship to time?” Rush asked. Polite. Hesitant. Totally unaware of the complete shatterjob he was doing on Young’s self control.
“What’s my relationship to time?” Young looked away, rubbing his jaw, his voice cracking, his eyes burning. He thought of David Telford, crawling up that ash-covered mountain. The way that manufactured memory stuck, deep and sharp in his mind, and probably always would. He thought of Vala, the full horror and tragedy and promise of her life slamming into her over the span of a day. He thought of the guy right in front of him, who had lost everything but the past nine weeks and who’d managed to crystalize into the best and broken parts of himself anyway.
“Loaded question I see,” Rush said, his brows furrowed. “Sorry.”
“C’mon, hotshot,” Young whispered. “We can play ring around the metaphysics later. Let’s get you out of here, yeah? Away from that firefight.”
“It’s about me,” Rush murmured, looking over his shoulder at Au Coeur, still lit with the setting sun. “The firefight, I mean. Did you know?”
“Yeah,” Young whispered. “I know.”
“You don’t think I should go back there—choose a side, end the thing? This isn’t a sustainable way to live. And they’re killing each other up there.”
“They are,” Young confirmed, his chest aching. “And maybe, if you walked into the middle of that dining room, you could hit pause on things for the night. But this is a war, hotshot, and it’s not gonna end with you. So I think you should come with me right now. Put a little space between you and all those guns.”
Rush nodded slowly. “So I’m a means, then? Not an end?”
“Jesus, hotshot.” Young’s voice was nothing but gravel and fray. “Is that supposed to be a question?”
Rush shrugged philosophically. “It was a purposefully vague formulation designed to allow latitude in your response.”
“Thanks,” Young said dryly. “Means versus end? You’re neither.”
“You can tell me I’m a means,” Rush said, flashing him a quick smile. “I won’t hold it against you.”
“You’re a lotta work is what you are,” Young growled, as they approached the police line.
“Hmm,” Rush said, slowing.
“It’ll be fine,” Young said, stepping in front of Rush. He pulled his wallet out of his pocket, holding his ID aloft as he approached the front line of NYPD personnel. They looked edgily at Rush, having, no doubt, seen the guy climb down out of a fire escape. He nodded at them reassuringly, then handed his ID to the nearest officer.
The woman nodded, then looked questioningly at Rush.
“He’s with me,” Young ground out, lifting the yellow tape, motioning Rush through ahead of him.
Rush shot him an impressed look, then slipped beneath the tape. Young followed him with less grace and a slight wrench in his back. He had to flash his ID several more times as they moved through the NYPD line. Finally, they cleared the last rank of cars and emerged onto the sidewalk.
Before Young could pocket his wallet, Rush reached out, his hand closing around Young’s wrist.
They stared at one another in the fading light of the day, the rising light of the city night, the crowd flowing past them on either side. Rush’s gaze was cautious and clear-eyed, as though he were the one worried that Young was going to vanish. Rush lifted Young’s hand, and, carefully, placed his fingers over Young’s wallet.
Young didn’t move. Didn’t say a word.
Slowly, so slowly that there’d have been more than enough time to stop him, Rush drew Young’s wallet out of his grip.
Young gave him a small nod, letting the thing go.
The man dropped his eyes from Young’s face, scanning over the contents of the wallet, studying his USAF ID. “Everett Young?” His voice was quiet, his expression concerned, confused, relieved, and complicated as hell. Young had no idea what was happening in the man’s head.
“Yeah,” Young managed. “Hi.”
“Is this your real name? You’re with the Air Force?”
“Yup,” Young replied, keeping the thousand questions he wanted to ask behind the wall of his teeth.
“Y’know, the ‘Air Force’ seems to have a fair bit more range than I’d been prepared to expect,” Rush murmured. He cocked his head, smiling faintly at Young.
“Oh yeah?” Young replied, his mouth dry, his thoughts racing.
Rush glanced back the way they had come, looking toward the barriers, the flashing lights, the thin fringe of the crowd that watched the Au Coeur. His eyes flicked from the wallet to Young several times in rapid succession, his expression turning faintly rueful. “Something occurs.”
“Something occurs?” Young echoed.
“Sorry. Something occurs to me, I mean. In this moment. I’ve—realized something.”
“Okay,” Young said, trying not to sound as lost as he felt.
Rush smiled at him, and the expression was—fond. Resigned. Almost sad. “You’ve absolutely no idea what it might mean to be in superposition, do you?”
“Superposition?” Young repeated.
“Yes,” Rush said. “To be in a state of quantum superposition. Does it mean anything to you?”
The sun had set, but the western sky still glowed red and gold. Above them, shadowed brick. Beyond them, the rise of Midtown. Glass towers. Colored lights.
Rush was looking at him. Steady. Calm. As though the the fate of galaxies turned on Young’s answer.
And here it was. The moment when Rush realized that whatever has been going on in that uniquely glorious brain of his—didn’t, couldn’t mesh with the real Everett Young. He dug through everything he’d ever heard of quantum mechanics—crystals and computing and Rush’s zero knowledge protocol—tried to think of anything he could say to make Rush stay. To keep this going a little longer. To delay the moment the guy decided to turn on his heel and bolt into the anonymous, nighttime crowd.
But he had nothing. And he figured it was best not to lie about math. Not to Nick Rush.
Young shook his head.
Rush gently shut Young’s wallet and offered it back to him.
Young took it. He could feel his expression break, reform, break again.
“Now now,” Rush said quietly, reaching out to grip Young’s shoulder “There’s no need for that. It, was, after all, something of an esoteric question. Can I take you to dinner?”
“What?” Young’s voice was a raw smear.
Rush led Young through illuminated streets. They ended up seated across from one another in a small, dimly lit restaurant. The place was a half-full Hell’s Kitchen hole-in-the-wall with a long wine list, reasonable acoustics, lots of candles, and a sound system playing dreamy electronica.
The only thing Young could say for sure about this night was that it had all the hallmarks of a John Sheppard Plan B: ballsy, heartstopping, and ridiculous to the point that maybe it was taking place in an alternate dimension.
“Coral told me about this place,” Rush said, as they were seated in the half-light. “It’s our major competition. Just opened weeks ago.”
“Um,” Young said, barely able to string a thought together, let alone a sentence. “Who’s Coral?”
“A more or less irrepressible character who thinks she taught me to be British,” Rush said. “She’s the maître d’ at Au Coeur. I’m—assuming you know that’s the restaurant where I work?”
“Yeah,” Young said, trying not to let his disorientation make it into his tone. “I did know that.”
One of the waitstaff approached their table, told them about specials, offered them a wine list. Young stared at it without moving. Rush took it, scanned it, chose something, gave it back, then looked at Young.
“Everett,” Rush said, quiet in a haze of candlelight.
“Everett?” Young repeated.
“You told me that was your name,” Rush said, quirking his brows.
“No, it is. Sorry. It’s my name. You should call me that. It’s nice. I like it.”
Rush gave him a long, intensely concerned look. “Pardon the observation,” he said, delicately, “but y’don’t seem—you don’t fit my preconceptions of—ah fuck. You don’t actually seem like a person employed by the United States Air Force. How certain are you that—that’s what you are?”
“How certain am I that I work for the Air Force?” And all he could think of was Jackson. Jackson staring at that candle flame, Jackson’s hands shaking, icy, wrapped around Young’s neck, his expression twisting, cracking, reforming—
Shai kek nem ron shai kek nem ron shai kek nem ron has it been long enough you have to tell me if it’s been long enough how do I know how do I know how am I supposed to know—
Rush’s hand closed around Young’s forearm, his gaze snapping Young back into the room, back into the present. “Sorry. Sorry. What I’m trying to ask is—do you always understand your own nature?”
Right. As though that follow-up clarified anything.
“Oh my god, hotshot” Young whispered, his voice raw. “What the hell happened to you? Where is this stuff coming from?”
“Everett, do y’not understand that I’m very concerned about you?” Rush said, his brows furrowing, his expression tight. “You’re obviously injured. You’re obviously upset. At times you seem disoriented. You aren’t even responding consistently to your own name. I’m trying to figure out how I can best help you, but you’re not making it easy.”
“I’m not making it easy,” Young said, one hand pressed to his face, trying to hold his expression in place. “I’m not.”
“All irony based on past context is going to categorically go over my head,” Rush snapped. “Say something to convince me that you’re not having some kind of physical or metaphysical crisis.”
The semi-hysterical weeping/laughing split Young had been trying to hold back finally made its break, escaping into laughter. Young turned his face away, one hand pressed against his forehead, and laughed. Mostly, he kept it quiet. Mostly, he kept the simultaneous weeping under control. Mostly.
“Oh my god,” he whispered. “I really have missed you, hotshot.”
Young kept his head down as the sommelier brought their wine, opened the bottle, splashed a sample of it into Rush’s glass. He listened to the other man’s quiet words of approval, followed by the sound of liquid being slow-poured into delicate glassware.
When he finally gathered himself enough to look up at Rush, he found the man holding his wine, eyeing him with equal parts warm exasperation and cool-burning analytic fire, as though Young himself were a cypher. Something that might be unlocked. “I am, in no way, reassured,” the mathematician said, and pointedly took a sip of his wine.
“You’re concerned about me?” Young asked raggedly. “I’m concerned about you. So concerned, in fact, that I can barely even figure out what to say to you. I—you—how do you—god.”
Young took a deep breath, trying to remember that—despite the conflagration of unbelievable bullshit that had burned though the past few months—he wasn’t the one who needed help. It was the guy across from him, effortlessly unbalancing Young at every damn turn.
So Rush had been able to throw him. Rush had always been able to throw him. Hell, he should have expected something like this.
“I suspect,” Rush said slowly, still giving Young his mathematical side-eye, “that we’ll likely be able to work some of this out with nothing more than persistence.”
“In the meantime, what would you like to eat?”
“You pick, hotshot,” Young said, his voice cracking. “You usually do.”
“You realize that, when it comes to your tastes, Everett, I haven’t the fucking faintest. “Or—” Rush broke off, frowning, like a guy who was reexamining his premises on the fly. “Do you realize that? Do you understand that I don’t know you? Or at least—not in the way you seem to know me?”
“Yeah,” Young said quietly. “I know about the memory thing. I still trust your taste more than mine when it comes to fine dining.”
Rush shot him a look of dry approval over the tops of his glasses. “How discerning. In that case, I’ll decide on dinner. You decide on your opening interrogative.”
“I get to go first?” Young asked.
“I think you’d better,” Rush said dryly. “I can’t help but note that my questions haven’t been going over very well.”
Young watched his neighbor shake his hair out of his eyes and scan the menu. He tried to ground himself in his body, in its physicality, including the familiar ache in his back and hip and leg. Rush had been yanking him off balance all night. The only way for that to stop was for Young to get a sense of where the guy was coming from. What the hell had happened to him. The when and the where and the how of all of it. And then, maybe, he could get himself to a place where he could help the guy.
Because I do want to help you, Young thought, watching Rush summon a server with nothing more than personal magnetism and eye contact. I want to make things easier for you, hotshot. I’ve wanted that always. Right from day one.
Life was so hard. The things that happened and the things that didn’t. The endless falling away and the work to stop it. He’d taken it on, that work. Somewhere along the way. It had consumed him. The SGC had torn through his body, his marriage, his certainty, and a whole mess of his friends. And, still, he loved it. He loved it in the way that Jackson had to love it, to keep doing it after all this time, under all this pressure, having lost so much.
And this, right here, was a part of Jackson’s magic. It had to be. Knowing the pain. Letting it in. Using it for something. Turning everything he’d been into the service of what might still be.
So, when Rush had ordered, when he turned to Young expectantly—he knew where to start.
“There was a day,” Young whispered, because this had to be true. It had to be. “There was a day that you woke alone, beside a river.”
“Start from that day,” Young said. “Just. Tell me everything. From then. Until now.”
The story, told against a sonic backdrop of muted conversation and ethereal electronica in a candlelit restaurant, mostly made sense. Young listened, eating cassoulet, drinking bad-idea wine, and watching his ridiculous neighbor with his expressive eyes and his fluid hand gestures and his square-framed glasses.
He tried to keep a list things that would need some kind of follow up—personal or professional. The seventeen-year old MIT instructor who’d seen Ancient code. The video footage of Gloria. The dreams of Atlantis. What had happened when Rush had taken off the cortical suppressors. Dr. Dale Volker.
“—and that would bring us to now, I suppose.” Rush took a bite of his risotto. “Hopefully that was helpful. You’re looking less unnerved, I must say.”
“You left something out,” Young said mildly.
“Did I?” Rush smiled faintly at him. “You sound so sure.”
“Tell me about us, hotshot. You and me. Where do you know me from?”
Rush sliced into a scallop with his fork. “After some consideration, I don’t think I know you from anywhere. But, I’ll admit,” he said, cocking his head, “that I could be wrong. My own personal continuity has certainly been compromised. It stands to reason that the same could be true of yours. So.” He looked at Young appraisingly in the candlelight. “I’ll tell you where I know you from if you can tell me what I mean by the Grand Monte Carlo.”
They looked at one another.
Young put down his fork.
“So,” Rush said, eating a bite of scallop. “No luck in the here and now, I take it. I suppose we’ll have to wait for our spacetime coordinates to change.”
“Hotshot, you gotta tell me where you know me from. It’s important.”
“Of that,” Rush said, smiling at him, “I have absolutely no doubt.” He took a sip of his wine.
“You’re actually going to drive me outta my mind,” Young whispered. “It’s gonna happen. If it hasn’t happened already.”
“I can’t be sure, but this may be one of my special talents,” Rush said lightly, giving a rakish smile.
“You know, presumably, quite a bit more about me than I do about you,” Rush said, deliberately interrupting. “Perhaps you’d like to tell me how that happened, before you go digging for details I’m not sure you’re supposed to know. So. Start at the beginning, if you can. If you move through time in a linear fashion. Or—start at whatever seems like the beginning to you.”
“If I move through time in a linear fashion?” Young echoed.
“Well, one never knows,” Rush replied, like the most reasonable guy on the Eastern Seaboard.
Okay. He could do that.
“Last year,” Young began quietly, “on a mission for the Air Force, I broke my back. My hip. I was in rehab for a long time. I got divorced. I moved into an apartment building in Colorado Springs. Your building. Your floor. We were a few doors down from one another.”
“We’re—neighbors?” Rush asked, surprised. “That’s how we met? Proximity?” He shot Young a grin, equal parts delight and chaos.
“Yeah,” Young said, finding it impossible to keep a straight face. “Spacetime coordinates coming up in our favor, I guess. Anyway, at the time I moved in, I couldn’t do any heavy lifting. So, some friends helped me out. Cameron Mitchell. Daniel Jackson. Vala Mal Doran.”
Rush lifted his eyebrows and held up a finger. Then he pulled out his wallet, flipped it open, and slid a set of three business cards over to Young.
Dr. Daniel Jackson
Col. David Telford
Vala Mal Doran
Young stared at the three cards, his eyes lingering on Telford’s name. He nodded silently.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice hoarse. He tapped Jackson’s card. “This guy, you already knew. Vala you met the day I moved in. We’d finished getting everything out of the truck when Jackson decided he’d go knock on your door. Check on you. You’d been working too hard.”
“Hmm,” Rush said, dryly.
“Turned out,” Young said, smiling at him, “you’d gotten so wrapped up in the math that you gave yourself heat exhaustion. You passed out in the middle of talking to him. Jackson had to carry you into my apartment.”
“No,” Rush said, shaking his head, taking a sip of his wine. “I’m sure that can’t be true.”
“Yeah,” Young said. “It definitely happened. You came to on my couch. You met me. We hit it off. Immediately. You met Vala. She gave you Gatorade. I tried to order food. You insisted on cooking.”
“I can cook?” Rush frowned, looking at his mostly-eaten dinner, critically.
“Oh no,” Young said, shaking his head, sipping his wine. “You definitely don’t ‘cook.’ You craft elaborate works of culinary genius when you feel like it. Which, most of the time, you did.”
Rush continued regard his dinner speculatively. “I don’t think I think about food very much. Could I have made this?” He eyed a scallop with narrowed eyes. “Yes, actually. And. This is overdone. Only slightly. Interesting.” He looked at Young. “It’s harder than one would think to identify skillsets. Was I good at it?”
“Good at it?” Young echoed. “You were incredible. You are incredible. I’ve probably lost fifteen pounds over the past two months and change.”
Well, to be fair, most of that was from the time he’d spent in a holding cell, followed by the subsequent weeks of solid despair. But Rush’s cooking, had it been around, would have definitely made a dent.
Rush gave him a subtle lift of the eyebrows. “I must have employed my skills on your behalf with some regularity.”
“Yup,” Young said quietly. “Pretty much every night, right from that first day. My wife had just left me. I was injured. I think it started because you felt sorry for me. Not that you’d ever have copped to that.”
“My wife died in April,” Rush said, the words startlingly matter of fact. “I found her obituary online. When did you and I meet?”
Young winced. “July,” he said.
“That’s it?” Rush asked, his brow furrowed as he did some back calculation. “We knew each other for what—something like six weeks before I woke up in Cambridge?”
“Six weeks,” Young said. “And some change. Yeah. I guess. Seems like about six years. We spent a lot of time together. At work and outside of work. Our jobs intersected. You were trying to crack a set of cyphers.”
“Trying?” Rush said, frowning at him. “Trying to crack cyphers?”
Young snorted. “Yeah, I admit, you were lining ‘em up and knocking ‘em down pretty regularly. You met John Sheppard, who’s stationed off-planet most of the time. You were also teaching Vala Mal Doran calculus.”
“Why?” Rush asked.
“I think because she asked you,” Young said, smiling faintly. “You two were close. I’m guessing that’s why you’re carrying her completely ridiculous business card.”
“Hmm,” Rush said. “What about the other two?”
“Jackson and Telford,” Young said. “Jackson—well, Jackson is like—Jackson is—completely unexplainable in a public venue. He’s one of the good guys. Best one we’ve got.”
Rush nodded and sipped his wine, his expression politely neutral.
God this was weird.
“But Telford—Telford—Telford recruited you—” his throat closed. And then, like a bastard, it didn’t open.
“He joined the Space Pirates, I hear,” Rush said, quietly.
“Yeah.” The word came rough, ripping itself free. “He was the one who abducted you. You and Vala were both taken the same night.”
“Vala,” Rush repeated, surprised.
“Yeah, and, hotshot, it was a good thing too. Because she saved you. You were on Dale Volker’s path, sounds like. But she pulled off this incredible save. You were both on a ship in Earth orbit. You’d both been given a drug that erases personal memory. In the middle of that, she was able to transport you down to the surface. While she was actively losing her memory. She did that. For you.”
Rush nodded. “And then—what happened to her?”
“She ended up managing to get herself free as well,” Young said. “She was living, like you, without personal memories. She was working as a waitress. We just got her back a few days ago. She’s gonna be excited to see you.”
“She remembers me?”
“Yeah,” Young said quietly. “We managed to get her memories back.”
Rush looked at him, picking up on the subtle note of contingency in Young’s voice. “Will the same process work on me?”
“I don’t think so, hotshot,” Young admitted quietly. “We’re gonna try like hell to figure something out—but your technoswag is going to complicate things. We either need a different method, or we need to get those things off your head first.”
Rush nodded, finishing the last of his dinner. “You’ve crossed paths with Eli, I see. I presume these things have an actual name, other than ‘technoswag’?” Rush gestured at his temple.
“Cortical suppressants. From my very limited understanding, their purpose is to prevent your brain from writing symphonies in the key of D-minor at the expense of your entire consciousness. That’s how McKay described it when he pitched the thing a few months back.”
“D-minor?” Rush asked absently, his gaze lost in the middle distance. “That’s a good one, as key signatures go.”
“Maybe don’t think too hard about it right now,” Young said quietly, as the waitress took their plates.
They ordered coffee.
Rush was quiet, the gears in his head cranking away.
Young tried not to think of Sheppard. Of Cam. Of Jackson. Of James and Greer, who’d been expecting two days of guard duty and instead had ended up on the SGC’s first counter-insurgency team. Of Ginn, who would, come hell or high water, be getting a burning cake before this night was over.
“So,” Young said, sipping his cappuccino. “What are we gonna do, hotshot? You gonna to let me take you back?”
Rush reached into his pocket and pulled out an SGC-issued pneumatic gun. “John Sheppard gave me this.”
Young held out a hand. Rush passed him the device. Young gave it a once-over, confirming it was SGC issue and still loaded. “Yup,” he said, handing it back. “He tell you know how to use it?”
“The instructions were sketchy at best,” Rush said dryly. “Do you know what happens once I tag myself with an Air Force transponder?”
“Yeah,” Young said quietly. “The signal would go live. It would probably take about ten seconds. You’d see a slow-building blue-white flash, which would clear. And then you’d find yourself on a ship. The Odyssey. Currently parked in Earth orbit. Not sure who would be there to meet you. But someone would.”
“Then what?” Rush whispered.
“Not sure, hotshot. You’d definitely get a thorough check-over from medical before anything else. That would take some time. Then they’d figure out security for you. You’re a high risk abduction target, so it would be a low-key version of protective custody, likely within Cheyenne Mountain, at least at first. You’d have a really tiring set of days, where a bunch of strangers would tell you how relieved they are to see you.”
Rush nodded. “And if I go back with you, instead of using the transponder? Does that look different?”
“Not by much,” Young said, trying to keep his voice even and controlled. “I’d call the Odyssey. Ask them to beam us out together. They’d probably still want you to inject the transponder. Mostly for safety and to narrow the beam radius.”
“And if I don’t go back with you?”
“Sorry about this, hotshot, but with everything I know is out there—I don’t have it in me to just let you walk away. If you don’t want to go back with me, I’m gonna have to follow you around until I convince you. Probably the Air Force would send in my team to back me up. So you’d have three other people also following you around, providing security, low key annoying the hell out of you until you agreed to come back with us.”
Rush raised his eyebrows. “You wouldn’t just take me?”
“Nope,” Young said. “We’d let you play the piano and email with Shep and McKay until they convinced you. That was the initial plan, until Eli lost his phone to the LA.”
“Sorry. The Lucian Alliance. Space Pirates.”
“Ah.” Rush sipped his coffee, considering. “Eli’s with you? What’s his status?”
“Interesting kid,” Young said. “Our running theory about him is that he was being watched by the LA independently of you, because he’s been cranking through a cypher set buried in a video game. It’s not clear if they knew you two had linked up before today.”
Rush sighed, aggrieved. “I told him it was a bad idea to play with an unconcealed IP address. How many times.”
“Yeah,” Young said, trying not to smile. “He may have mentioned that. In any case, he’s now a high-profile abduction target, and currently in the Air Force’s protective custody. So you and he are gonna be in the same shoes if you come back.”
“I got him into this mess,” Rush murmured, staring at his coffee. “Does his mother know where he is?”
“He got himself into this mess by churning through an in-game cypher set. And yeah. His mom knows. He told her he’s interviewing for a job with the Air Force, as a civilian consultant.”
Rush sighed, pressing two fingers against the space between his eyebrows. “I shouldn’t have involved him in this.”
“Well, he seems pretty happy to be involved, if that makes you feel any better,” Young offered, smiling at him.
“I should fire him,” Rush said.
“From his fake internship?” Young snorted. “Invite me. I’d like to watch you try. Y’know,” he said, speculatively, “we probably could hire him as your intern. It would solve a few problems. Give the kid an income, keep him out of trouble, while we figure out what to do with him.”
“He needs to go back to MIT.” Rush frowned, staring at his espresso.
“Well, unfortunately, hotshot, that can’t happen in the short term.”
“Could it, possibly, happen in the intermediate term? Or is this ‘abduction risk’ a nebulous, indefinite classification with no definable stop date?” Rush narrowed his eyes.
Young lifted a hand. “His odds of a good outcome probably go up if you come back and advocate for him.”
“Oh very subtle.” Rush rolled his eyes, downing the dregs of his coffee.
“Pretty sure that had already occurred to you,” Young said mildly. “But figured I’d put it out there, just in case.” He tried to put off finishing his cappuccino for as long as possible, sipping it slowly, watching Rush in the candlelight.
“Yes well,” Rush said finally, “when even the Space Pirates tell you to join the Air Force, the writing on the wall seems fairly clear.”
Young felt something in his chest uncoil. Something that had been hard and tight and tangled ever since the night he and Jackson had rounded a bend on the road to Cheyenne Mountain to find Telford’s car, lights on, doors open, askew across two lanes of road. “So is that a yes, then, hotshot?” he whispered. “You’re gonna come back with me?”
“Yes,” Rush said.
“Good,” Young replied, the word nearly without sound.
Young finished his coffee.
Rush paid for the meal.
Together, they left the restaurant, stepping out into the crisp autumn night. Young guided them away from the heart of Manhattan, choosing streets with fewer people at each turn. Rush walked beside him, solid and unbelievable in the bright light of a New York night. They walked west and south, toward the Hudson River, until they’d made their way to the edge of Manhattan. Along the water was a green space, full of trees, benches, pedestrian walkways.
The park was quiet.
“You’re sure about this?” Young whispered.
“Yes,” Rush said, looking up at the few stars that were bright enough to outshine the ambient light of the surrounding city. “I’m sure.”
Young extended his hand in the darkness.
Rush pulled out Sheppard’s pneumatic gun and dropped it into his waiting palm.
Young watched the man shrug out of his blazer, then, slowly, deliberately, unbutton the cuff of his dress shirt and drag the sleeve up, exposing his forearm. “Second time I’ve done this today,” he whispered.
Young nodded. He slipped his phone out of his pocket, ignoring hundreds of unread messages, and texted Colonel Emerson. Confirmation was immediate.
He looked at Rush. “They’re gonna initiate transport for both of us as soon as they get a lock on this thing.” He held up the pneumatic gun.
Rush swung his blazer over his shoulder, shivering faintly in the night air. He offered Young his arm.
Gently, Young closed his fingers over Rush’s wrist. The feel of the ground under his feet and the chill of the night air intensified. Carefully, slowly, he pressed the waiting transponder against Rush’s exposed skin.
They locked eyes.
“Let’s go,” Rush said.
“You got it, hotshot.” Young depressed the trigger. He pocked the device, then pressed his thumb over the implanted transponder, feeling its delicate outline beneath Rush’s skin.
The night was quiet. No one was in sight. Rush looked up at him, stepping closer, unsettled by the way the edges of the world were beginning to fade to a blue-white.
“You’ll be fine,” Young said quietly, pulling him in. “You’re with me.”