Mathématique: Chapter 75

“Oh god,” Jackson muttered. “Do we think Nick Rush owns even one ‘wearable gemstone’?”

Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Grief. Physical injuries. Mental health challenges.

Text iteration: Witchingest hour.

Additional notes: …this is the coffee-shop AU.

Chapter 75

Four days after he’d brought home a wayward pianist, three days after Jackson survived his brush with a higher plane, two days after Lam had released Vala from quarantine, and one day after Landry had ripped Young a new one for surrendering his gun and ID to facilitate a questionably lawful breach of medical quarantine—

Young finally got Jackson off the base.

It was a cold, gray Saturday in early November. They were both in civvies, prepping for a transgalactic departure less than a week away. 

“Soooooooo,” the archeologist said, one hand braced on either side of the open door leading to Nick Rush’s bedroom. “We’re thinking he’s gone through none of this. At all. Except that one.” Jackson pointed to a half-open box with a twisted blazer half draped over the cardboard, like it’d tried to crawl away and been caught in the act.

“Yup.” Young leaned into his cane. “You sure you’re up for this? Seventy-two hours ago you died a little bit.”

“Eh.” Jackson waded forward, stepping over a stack of books, a pile of smaller boxes, and a sheaf of loose paper. “If I let that stop me I’d never get anything done.”

Young edged into the room and found a bare patch of floor near the door where he could put his back to the wall. “Jackson,” he said, through a tight throat, trying not to think of that heartstopping moment when the glass window of the isolation room had blazed with the white light of ascension. “Glad you found your way back.”

The other man looked up with a small smile. “Me too.”

“We’ve got about a thousand things to sort out, y’know.”

“Oh I know.” Jackson passed through narrow spaces between unlabeled boxes, touching them with a hand, as though he could read their contents through the cardboard. Hell, maybe he could. The man stopped at a box near the wall that looked exactly like all the other boxes. He slid it a few inches, so it was flush with the wall. He hefted a neighboring box atop it. “Books,” he grunted. He cleared a small space around the stack, then looked at Young. “You should sit.”

“Thanks.” Young eased himself atop the boxes.

“How’s the physical therapy going?”

“Not as well as I’d like.”

“Vala told you her plan yet?”

“Uh, nope.” Young leaned the cane against the wall. “Should I be worried?”

“Probably.” Jackson started picking his way into the maze of closely stacked boxes. “But it’s her idea. I’ll let her present it to you. She’s, I think, experimenting with adopting the whole SGC into her, um, I don’t wanna say ‘sense of self,’ but she’s on a little bit of an organizational optimization kick?”

“Okay.” Young drew his jacket a little tighter around him and listened to the heat coming on in the surrounding walls. “Not sure what that means.”

“It means she’s adopted the United States Air Force and all it’s employees. Expect chaos.” Jackson caught his shoe on the edge of a box. He caught himself on a floor lamp wedged between a box-covered desk and a box-covered chair.

Young snorted. “You wanna clear a path?”

“No.” Jackson got his feet under him. “That would be against archeological best practices. Placement is important. Strip an artifact from it’s appropriate strata and you’ve lost valuable context.”

“If you say so.”

Jackson’s voice softened. “We should leave as much of this untouched as we can.” 

Young hesitated. Then, just as softly, he said, “You think?”

Jackson turned, his face full of wordless question, his eyes burning heart-of-flame blue in the cold apartment.

Young held his gaze. “If he gets his memories back, I’m not sure he’s ever gonna be able to tackle this. And if he doesn’t—he’ll be the one stripping artifacts out of context. Seems like either way we’re his best option.”

“Maybe.” Jackson lifted the flap of the only open box in the room. “In some ways you’re right. But even if he unpacks without his personal memories, there are still things to be learned from a room like this. Organizational structure. Groupings. Placement. Observation of what kinds of things surround other kinds of things. We unpack his apartment and that metadata becomes inaccessible.” He eased the crumpled blazer aside and peered beneath it.

“I’m not gonna argue when you put it like that,” Young said, “but Vala’s gonna be disappointed.”

Jackson gave him a quizzical glance.

“She put together a list,” Young reached into the inner pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a folded piece of paper, stamped as CLASSIFIED.

Jackson tried not to smile. “Let’s hear it.”

“One: stand mixer, parentheses, ‘for the colonel’s apartment’.” Young snorted. “Nice of her.”

Jackson ducked his head to hide the grin that got away from him. “That’s the top priority, huh?”

“Two: chef’s knives. Three: blowtorch. Four: sous vide machine. Five: kitchen scale. Six: Dutch oven. Seven: mandoline slicer. All of those are also tagged as being for my apartment.”

“Are we sure he has all these things?”

Young snorted. “I’m guessing this list is a little bit of a reach on her part.”

“Keep going.” Jackson grinned down into the box he examined. “No mandoline slicers in here.”

“Eight: differential equations textbook. Nine: linear algebra textbook. Ten: any wearable gemstones or precious metals, parentheses ‘for bartering’.”

“Oh god,” Jackson muttered. “Do we think Nick Rush owns even one ‘wearable gemstone’?”

“I’m guessing no,” Young said. “Eleven: all clothes/shoes, parentheses ‘store in the colonel’s apartment’.”

Jackson straightened, a mix of amusement and speculation on his face. “I’m developing a theory.”

“Wanna share?”

“Not yet. Keep going. Be sure you read all parentheticals.”

“Twelve: NO toiletries, parentheses ‘I will arrange’. Thirteen: sheet music. Fourteen: markers and paint, parentheses ‘store in the colonel’s apartment.” Young rolled his eyes.

“Markers and—” Jackson furrowed his brow, his head cocked.

“Paint,” Young repeated. “He’s got a habit of writing on walls.”

Jackson made a small, touched sound in the back of his throat.

“Fifteen: Any sheets with 300+ thread count—” Young trailed off.

“And now I suspect you’ve arrived at my theory,” Jackson said.

“This isn’t a packing list for Atlantis.”

“Nope.” Jackson eyed Young appraisingly. “She’s moving him into your apartment.”

Young opened his mouth to push back against the idea, but, scanning down the rest of the list, it was pretty damn difficult to do. “Shit,” he said, annoyed and pleased and worried and impressed. All kinds of concrete conflict filled his mental shoes as he sank beneath an ocean of trouble. 

“Sooooo,” Jackson said. “I guess now’s when we decide if that’s a bad idea or not.”

Already before he’d gotten two real thoughts off the ground, Young was hopelessly tangled in complexity, lost in arguments, counter arguments, and the memory of Nick Rush in a candlelit restaurant, ordering wine with style. “You gotta tell me, Jackson.” He leaned into the wall at his back. “Not sure I’ve been thinking straight since David pulled me off that mountain.”

“He didn’t, though,” Jackson said, soft and sober.

“I know that.” In the back of his mind, ash fell like snow.

Jackson took a seat on a stack of boxes.

“Oh boy,” Young muttered.

“Yeah,” Jackson said. “This—this is a little overdue.”

“Hit me with your best shot,” Young said, bracing himself for the David Telford Talk, the one he’d been wanting, been dreading for weeks now. Already weighing how much of his suspicion he should share about Telford throwing the op at Au Coeur, knowing he didn’t have any evidence, knowing that his desire to believe the best about the man despite all he’d done could very well still be the echoes of an LA drug—

“Was there anything going on between you and Nick?” Jackson said solemnly. “Before he lost his memories, I mean?

Wait. What?

“Uh,” Young said. “No.”

Jackson looked at him.

“Yes,” Young said.

Jackson looked at him.

“Maybe? I don’t think so. Shit if I know, Jackson. I didn’t think—thought you were going somewhere else with this.”

Jackson smiled faintly. “Nope. You gave me about six answers. You wanna settle on one?”

“Does it matter?” Young countered.

Jackson slid from box to floor, like he was settling in for the long haul. “Yeah.”

“Only an idiot would get involved with someone with no personal memories,” he hedged.

“I did, once,” Jackson admitted.

“How’d that turn out?”

“She was, surprise,” Jackson gave him half-hearted jazz hands, “a genocidal maniac. At least you won’t have that problem with Nick.”

“You got a real flair for putting things perspective, Jackson.”

“Seriously. Tell me. All of it. You have to, because he can’t.”

And that? That was true. Young stared at the ceiling and tried to work past the seven-layer bad-idea dip smeared over his brain. “I need a beer.”

“No you don’t,” Jackson said. “C’mon.”

Young shrugged, not looking at him. “It started building from the beginning, little bit. I didn’t pay it much attention. All kinds of people get under my skin and he was so obviously off the table. Outta the park. Whatever metaphor you wanna use.”

Jackson cocked his head and lifted his eyebrows.

“C’mon Jackson. His wife had just died. That aside, no math professor is ever gonna go for someone like me.”

Jackson compressed his lips and looked studiously down at his hands, like he was trying not to smile.


“Nothing,” Jackson said, with studied neutrality. “Go on.”

“We were friends,” Young continued, “but, yeah, there was maybe been a hint of something more, here and there. I didn’t discourage anything. But I wasn’t pining over the guy. Mostly I was worried. I was worried about what the house arrest was doing to his sanity, I was worried about the Lucian Alliance, about whatever the hell happened to him on Altera, about the war with the Ori taking the kind of turn where he’d be asked to step up.”

Jackson nodded.

“But four days ago, the whole damn game changed.” Young paused, staring up at the ceiling. “It shouldn’t have. But it did. You hear what happened?”

“A little,” Jackson said. “He escaped the firefight. Sheppard let him go. You brought him in.”

Young snorted. “Shep didn’t ‘let’ him anything. Nick Rush disarmed the guy, stole his sidearm, and walked into the New York sunset. He climbed down a fire escape into the alley where I was stationed. And despite the fact he didn’t have a shred of personal memory, somehow, he recognized me.”

“Like, spiritually?” Jackson asked.

Young squinted at the man. “Uh, not sure what that means, but no. Literally. He walked right up to me like he knew me. He said—hell I can’t even remember what he said it was so weird. It was something like: ‘I know you’re subject to metaphysical restrictions, but I really need you to take this gun’.”

Jackson’s eyebrows made a break for his hairline. “What.”

“Yeah. And that wasn’t all.” Young furrowed his brow, trying to recreate the moment in his mind. “He gave me a really good hug and said, ‘Rough day in the quantum multiverse.’ Like a question.”

“Oough.” Jackson winced. “I don’t love that.”

“Yeah. He kept going on with the quantum mechanics until he seemed to realize I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he asked to see my ID. He asked me if the name on my ID was real. Asked me if the word ‘superposition’ meant anything to me. I said no, and he dropped it all. Like flipping a switch. Never said another word about it. And he won’t. I’ve asked again.”

“Superposition,” Jackson whispered, as though tasting the term. His eyes turned vague, as though he were searching his memory. “That’s—something. Maybe. It feels familiar. I can’t place it. We’ll ask Sam.”

“I thought he was gonna bolt on me. Would’ve bet a million bucks he’d do just that. Instead, he offered to take me out to dinner.”

“In the middle of his extraction?”

Young sighed. He tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. “Yeah. It was his extraction. Turned into his. Full stop. He owned the hell out of the night, the conversation, me…”

“For some reason,” Jackson said, and, even though Young was staring at the ceiling, he heard the smile in his voice. “I have no problem picturing this.”

“Our chemistry is off the charts,” Young confessed.

“I don’t know that’s as new as you seem to think it is,” Jackson said, scooping words like ice cream.

“You met this version of him yet?”

“No,” Jackson admitted.

“Okay, well. Good luck.”

“This quantum mechanics thing seems like a problem.”

“Yep. I have no idea what happened to the guy that he’s talking about the quantum multiverse. I practically begged him to talk to you about—any of it. All of it. Told him you were the authority on metaphysical weirdness.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

Young tipped his head up to find Jackson looking at him, wistful and fond. “I hope he does talk to you. I’m worried about his—hell, I’m just worried.”

“I know the feeling,” Jackson leaned into the wall of boxes at his back and crossed his feet at the ankles. “I—” He stopped himself. “Everett. I’m not sure I can wholly—I’m not sure I should be wholly candid here, but I—”

“You know more about him than you’ve ever spoken aloud.” Young guessed.

“Yes. That’s still true. But, beyond what I ‘know,’ there’s what I feel. It’s hard to articulate.” Jackson gave Young the specter of a smile. “But I’ll tell you this. If Sam Carter lost all her personal memories I wouldn’t send her home to her empty house. And this—Jackson waved a hand to encompass the whole of Rush’s apartment, “—this is…”

“Depressing,” Young helped him out.

“Yep. And for what it’s worth, I’m betting Vala knows that. I’m betting she’s been here. I’m guessing that’s the motivation behind her list.”

“You’re probably right,” Young said.

“So if you can handle making your apartment a staging hub for a chunk of Nick Rush’s personal effects, my official take is that it’s not a bad idea.”

“It’s not clear to me he’s ever gonna be allowed to leave SGC property anyway,” Young said.

Jackson grimaced. “Good point. But it’s hard to know how things might change with the news that Dale Volker is out there cracking cyphers that lead to the nine-chevron address.”

“Fair point.”

They were quiet for a moment, and Jackson fixed Young with eyes the color of thermal springs in the American West. “For what it’s worth, I can see it.”

“See what?”

“You and Nick.”

Young wasn’t sure what to do with his face. He cleared his throat. Couldn’t find any words to follow it up with.

Jackson got to his feet. “C’mon. Let’s make Vala’s dreams come true.”

“Those two are gonna get along like a house on fire.”

“I can only imagine.” Jackson pulled out a pocket knife and sliced into a box. 

Young sat back against the wall and did his best not to think about the way his neighbor had offered up his forearm, hadn’t so much as flinched as Young pressed a pneumatic gun against his skin. Fired the trigger. The way he’d leaned into Young on the transport pad. He cleared his throat. “You said something about losing your memory.” Young shifted to ease the building strain off his hip. “About how it rips you open. Puts everything on display.”

Jackson stopped halfway through his slicing. “Yeah.”

“You think it might actually change who you are? He’s so different.”

Jackson completed the swipe of the knife. “Not sure about ‘change.’ it doesn’t alter neural structure, though it may alter firing patterns. Neurochemical balances. The bigger the divide between the inner self and the persona one presents to the world the more dramatic it’ll seem. Nick works incredibly hard to keep people at arm’s length. You strip the decades of trauma that built that armor—” Jackson trailed off.

“That feels right.”

“I’m also guessing,” Jackson dug through an open box without looking at Young, “the longer he goes without his memories, the more he different he’ll seem.”

“How does that follow?”

“The first day he woke up after Vala dropped him off in Cambridge,” Jackson grinned down at his hands, “still can’t believe that happened. But, that first day, his brain chemistry wouldn’t be much different from the day before. When he was miserable. Weighed down by grief and by a cypher set that he was beating himself to death against. Hunted by the Lucian Alliance. But without that context reinforcing itself, the next day, the day after that—the coffee’s nice, the sunsets are pretty, the Cambridge barista life isn’t so bad, maybe. The human mind is tremendously adaptable. His neurochemistry normalizes. And, slowly, he feels better.”

Young felt a sinking sensation in his chest. “You think he’ll be able to hang onto any of that when we get his memories back?”

“Maybe,” Jackson whispered, staring sightlessly into the box he’d opened. “As crushing as we find this version of him now, it’ll be just as rough on us when he goes.” The archeologist shook himself and looked up at Young. “But we all change with time.” He smiled ruefully. “Become different people. It’s inescapable.” He pulled a navy blue T-shirt out of the box. “What would five-years-ago you think if he could see you now? Pining after the local math professor.”

“Jackson. I’m not pining. I said that. Very clearly.”

“Tell that to your face,” Jackson said mildly. He held the T-shirt up for Young’s inspection. “What do we think?”

The shirt was blue with gold lettering that read Berkeley Mathematics next to what was, presumably, UC Berkeley’s crest.

“That thing still has tags on it,” Young growled.

Jackson smiled faintly. “Ah. Good eye.” He tucked the shirt back in the box. “This one’s full of clothes. I’ll put it by the front door.”

“One down, only about eighty to go,” Young said, watching the man step carefully around the tightly stacked boxes.

It took the entire day, three video calls to Vala, four ibuprofen, and two beers to get everything squared away. But they did it. On the way back to Cheyenne Mountain they drove through the first snow flurry of the year. Tiny flakes hit the windshield of the Charger and showered over the dark hood of the car. Jackson sank back into the heated seat and wrapped his arms around himself, watching the weather.

When they reached the base, Young trailed Jackson to the infirmary, intending to say a quick hi to Vala before heading back to VIP Suite #4. The medic working the front desk waved them back as soon as he saw Jackson, and Young followed the archeologist toward a semi-private room off the main triage bay.

Jackson stopped short as he rounded the doorframe.

Young edged around the archeologist.

John Sheppard was passed out on one bed, curled on his side, wearing black fatigues and too many knives. Beneath the other bed was a sea of small silver scraps. Tin foil, maybe? The air smelled like acetone. Vala reclined against the pillows, a Goa’uld healing device on the table beside her. She held her phone in one hand; its glittering rhinestone case caught the fluorescent lights in sparkling chips of blue and green. The other hand was inside a glowing box that emitted a low hum. Nick Rush sat cross-legged at the foot of her bed in military-issue black pants, and a black Henly shirt that probably belonged to Shep, and black socks. His military-issue boots were on the floor. The bedside table was set up next to him, and a collection of toothpicks, tipped with white and silver, were strewn across its surface. He had a small bottle of something in his hand, and he was bent over—

Vala’s toes.

“Carolyn Lam,” Vala said, reading the name from the screen of her phone.

“Physician.” Rush didn’t look up from whatever detail-work he was doing on the blue polish on Vala’s injured foot.

“Very good. Dating Colonel Mitchell, missing both kidneys because she gave herself heavy metal poisoning to save Colonel Carter. Daughter of—” Vala paused expectantly.

“Hank Landry.” Rush picked up a clean toothpick, dipped it into silver polish, and drew it along the blue expanse of Vala’s nail.

“Right, gorgeous, but we don’t call him ‘Hank’.”

“No?” Rush asked, laying on the innocence a little thick.

“His first name is ‘General’ to the likes of us.”

“Noted.” Rush set the toothpick aside.

“It’s adorable their names sit right together in my contact list,” Vala said. “Don’t you think? Lam and Landry.”

“You have General Landry’s personal number?” Rush asked.

“One never knows, gorgeous. It’s best to be prepared.” Vala scrolled down her list. “Ah.” She grinned. “This is a good one. Dr. Levant. Ring any bells?”

“No.” Rush screwed the cap back on the silver polish and set it aside. “Give us the light box, will you? I need t’fix this Taylor polynomial before—” He paused as he caught sight of Young and Jackson standing in the door.

Vala followed his gaze and turned in bed to give them an electric smile. “Speak of the devil. Hello boys.”

“Dr. Levant, I presume?” Rush eyed Jackson.

Young snorted.

“I—” was all Jackson seemed to be able to get out.

This is ‘Daniel Jackson’,” Vala said, putting the guy’s name in air quotes before passing the glowing box to Rush. “Dr. Levant is, technically speaking, a fictional character in the very popular TV series known as Wormhole X-treme. Daniel,” she did a Vanna White inspired sweep and pose, “is his real-world inspiration.”

“Oh. Hello. I have your business card.” Rush eased the light box over Vala’s toes.

“Um,” Jackson said.

“Told you,” Young muttered.

“You did,” Jackson said, just as quiet.

Young leaned into his cane and approached the bed. Vala held out her hand for inspection, palm down, like a queen. Young took it, studying her nails. They were a sapphire blue, like the deep sea. Mathematically inspired silver lines traced patterns across each nail. “Nice,” he said.

“Nice?” Rush shot him a smoke and spark look from the foot of the bed. “Fuckin’ ‘nice’?”

“This,” Vala informed Young, “is art of the highest order.” She withdrew her hand from Young’s grip and extended it toward Jackson. “Darling. Please comment.”

Jackson took her hand in both of his. examining each nail. “A fusion of natural beauty and calculated design. The color suggests the ocean, the non-repeating waveform detail work in white and silver suggests sea foam. Waves and tides. As a form, nail art could be considered a modern heir of lithography or Mesopotamian cylinder seals. I’ll have to pull in a physicist for formal commentary on the depicted curves, but I suspect them to have symbolic meaning.”

Vala withdrew her hand from Jackson’s grip. “They’ll match the sea,” she said simply.

“That they will,” Jackson agreed.

Young locked eyes with Rush.

“‘Nice’?” Rush quirked a brow, hit a button on his box of light, and set it aside.

“What do you want from me, hotshot?” Young pointed at Jackson with his thumb. “He’s the linguist.”

Jackson turned to Rush. “Hi. I’m Daniel Jackson.” He extended his hand.

Rush gave Jackson a ten outta ten Skeptical Math Professor Visual Shakedown. “I was given to understand we were, at a minimum, acquaintances?”

Young, about to step in and straighten things out, stopped himself. Jackson was, maybe, fishing for information. For strains of whatever had influenced Rush’s initial response to Young in that alley behind Au Coeur. It was a good idea.

Jackson raised his eyebrows. “I’ve been known to transcend a memory wipe here and there.”

Slowly, Rush took the man’s hand. They shook. “Terribly sorry to disappoint,” the mathematician said.

Jackson gave him a small smile and moved to study Vala’s toes.

“You done this before, you think?” Young asked, looking again at the delicate artwork on Vala’s nails.

“No,” Rush and Vala said simultaneously.

Young raised his eyebrows.

“There was a bit of a learning curve,” Rush admitted, while Vala gestured to the aluminum foil littered floor.

“Something of a perfectionist, this one,” Vala stage whispered.

“Yes well.”

“Still. You’re one hell of a quick study, hotshot.”

“That does seem to be true across the board.” Rush shook his hair out of his eyes and swapped the silver polish for white.

Young eyed Vala’s injured leg. The bandages and dried blood were gone, but her foot was elevated with blue yellow bruising visible around the knee, where her hospital gown hit. “How’s that titanium rod treating you?”

“I’m against it.” Vala flipped her hair over her shoulders. “It heats up, it resonates, I can’t get a session in that lasts longer than ten minutes without doing more damage than I’m repairing.”

“Sounds right.”

“That being said,” she continued, “I’m making some progress.” She pulled the healing device off the bedside table and settled it in her palm. It lit up with an ominous red glow. With a small revolution of her finger, she said, “Turn around, handsome. I’ll show you.”

Young raised his eyebrows. He glanced at Jackson. The archeologist gave him a wordless shrug. Rush, in the midst of putting white accents on a silver curve, didn’t look up.

“Won’t take a minute,” Vala said. “If you hate it, I’ll stop.”

Young turned his back to the bed and felt a vibration start in his back, low and deep. The edge filed off the ache in his hip, replaced by a growing warmth. He felt muscles lose their knotted-iron consistency. Just as the warmth turned to heat, the buzzing stopped.

“Well?” Vala asked. “What’d you think?”

Young turned. “Maybe a little better.”

“You’ve got a lot of metal in there, handsome,” Vala said, a note of contingency in her voice. “But our beautiful little doctor has gifted me this for the duration of our Atlantis vacation.” She tapped the dome of crimson glass with an immaculate nail. “Maybe we can make some headway? Compensate for all the physical therapy you’ve been avoiding?”

Rush gave him a disapproving glance from the foot of the bed and it hit like the gleam of candlelight in glass.

“That’d be nice,” Young said.

“How’d you boys do with my list?” Vala asked.

Jackson looked up. “Pretty well.”

Young pulled the folded paper out of his pocket. “See for yourself.”

Vala took the paper, scanning down the list. “Hmm,” she said disapprovingly. “No mandoline slicer or wearable gems? Gorgeous, you need to rethink your priorities.”

“What?” Rush squinted up at her. Whatever cotton blend his shirt was made of was doing him all kinds of favors.

“If you’re stranded on an alien planet what are you possibly going to barter for passage?” Vala asked. “Think it through.”

Rush reseated his glasses. “Math?”

“Not a bad instinct, gorgeous” Vala said, still frowning at the list, “but it’s a little naive. Not everyone knows they need math.” She looked up at Young. “What happened to number 37?”

He leaned over her shoulder to see the list. “Leather gloves? Couldn’t find any. Sorry.”

“Leather is extremely underrated,” Vala said disapprovingly. “Versatile, durable, will hold up for quite some time as you’re dragged across various surfaces—”

Dragged across surfaces?” Rush cut in. “Your business card says ‘personal shopper’.”

“No one’s gonna be dragging you across any ‘surfaces’, hotshot,” Young growled.

“This stuff,” Vala said, delicately pinching the fabric of Young’s BDU’s between her thumb and forefinger, “won’t hold for more than sixty seconds if you’re dragged at speed through sand.”

“Actually—that’s about right,” Jackson said.

“Leather,” Vala said solemnly. “I’m telling you, this ought to be brought up with your leadership.”

“Fill out a suggestion card,” Jackson said.

“Call Hank Landry.” Rush eased the light box back over Vala’s injured foot.

Young snorted.

Vala narrowed her eyes at Jackson. “Do we have suggestion cards?”

“No,” Jackson grinned, and his eyes flicked to Sheppard, “What’d you guys do to John?”

“I’m awake,” Shep rasped, eyes shut. “Leather’s a great idea. Too expensive though. I looked into it.”

“Seriously?” Young asked.

“Yeah. I been dragged. Over all kinds of terrain.” Sheppard cracked his eyelids. “How’d the polynomial sequence turn out?”

Vala held her hand out in front of her, admiring her nails. “Brilliantly. Come look.”

Sheppard bit back a groan, but staggered out of bed. He scanned Vala’s nails. “They’re not in order.”

“Everyone’s a critic.” Rush muttered. “Not every nail can fit a tenth-order polynomial?” And god he looked good in black. 

“I guess.” Sheppard shrugged blearily. 

“I have enough nails for everyone,” Vala said, like a school teacher trying to keep the peace.

“Shep you wanna give this up already? Get on Earth time like everyone else?” Young asked. “There’s still no formal estimated completion time on the Gate Bridge.”

“Any day now,” Shep said.

“Go get some sleep,” Young clapped him on the shoulder.

“I don’t need constant guarding,” Rush informed them.

“Yes you do,” Young and Shep said simultaneously.

Jackson chimed in half a second later with “Yeahhhh. You do.”

“I told you you were popular,” Vala said mildly.

“For a certain definition of popularity,” Jackson amended.

“Rude,” Vala said, cool and prim. “You’re disinivited from our dinner party.”

“I’m just trying to—wait. Dinner party?”

Vala straightened, shifting on the bed.

Vala.” Rush lifted an annoyed eyebrow, a silver-tipped toothpick hovering just above her foot. “Hold still.”

“Sorry gorgeous; won’t happen again.” She tipped her face up to Young and Sheppard. “I’d like to formally invite you to a dinner party. Wednesday night. Arrive at 5:30 PM sharp or you’ll miss the pre-dinner cocktails.”

“And where’s this party taking place?” Young asked suspiciously.

“At the apartment of a very well-respected Air Force colonel?” Vala said. “I think you’ve been there. Well stocked kitchen, recently upgraded?” Delicately she tapped her packing list with a manicured nail. “I’m hosting, flyboy’s providing security, Nick’s cooking. Or we’ll order catering depending on how the day goes. I have a credit card now. I’m a Virgo.”

“You’re not Virgo.” Shep crossed his arms. “You’re a Scorpio.”

“You think so?” Vala asked. “I almost chose Scorpio! What are you? Don’t tell me. Aquarius?”

“Gemini,” Sheppard said.

Vala gasped. “Stop it. Flyboy! You’re a terrible communicator! Not at all quick-witted.”

“Aw c’mon,” Shep said blearily.

“You simply can’t be a Gemini. I’ll not allow it; you’re mistaken.”

“You won’t allow it?” Jackson repeated. “Astrology isn’t real.”

“Can we get back to the dinner party?” Young growled.

“Gorgeous, toss us your wallet. Let’s find out when you were born.”

“I’m in the middle of something here.” Rush frowned as he traced more silver filigree.

“I mean, if anyone’s gonna be a Scorpio it’s Nick,” Jackson said.

“Oh now you have opinions?” Vala asked.

“No,” Jackson said defensively. “But if astrology were real, you’d obviously be a Sagittarius.”

“Where were you with this three months ago?” Vala asked, outraged.

Dinner party?” Young growled.

Rush looked up from his artwork and mouthed, “Wednesday,” at Young.

“I dunno,” Shep looked skeptically at Jackson. “I don’t see it.”

Vala huffed. “Says the Gemini.” She made a show of opening—

Wait a minute.

“Is that my wallet?” Young growled.

“Don’t stand so close if you don’t want to be pick-pocketed.” Vala pulled out his driver’s license. “Hmm. Taurus.” She winked at him. “Earthy and sensual,” she announced to the room.

Rush made a “fair enough,” expression.

“Yup,” Shep said, like they were talking about the weather.

“Oh my god,” Jackson muttered, tipping his head back.

“Give me that.” Young swiped the wallet out of her hand, trying not let the heat rise in his cheeks.

“Daniel’s a Cancer, obviously,” Vala said. “But a very judgy one, if I do say so myself. His moon is probably in Capricorn. What time of day were you born, darling? We’ll do your chart. I found a free website.”

“No idea,” Jackson said shortly.

“Can we talk about this dinner party?” Young growled. “In my apartment?”

“Handsome, you can take the girl out of the service industry, but you can’t take the service industry out of the girl. You won’t have to worry about a thing.”

Sheppard grinned down at the tops of his boots, for the first time in days, his lip stayed intact.

“Who’s coming?” Daniel asked.

“Not you,” Vala said airily.

“I said for some definitions of popularity,” Jackson protested. “No disrespect to your terrestrial BFF intended, okay?”

“I don’t know, gorgeous, what do you think?”

Rush finished his last white accent and capped the polish. “‘Terrestrial BFF’?”

“Did I mention I hail from outer space?” Vala said. “I’m certain I must have.”

Sheppard snorted.

Rush eased the light box over Vala’s toes. “I think I would’ve remembered as much.”

“Well, you’ll find I’m not big on words,” Vala said.

“Lies,” Jackson said in a sing-song.

“I’m a fan of action.” Vala ignored Jackson. “It’s pointless to tell you you’re my terrestrial best friend, am I right? Best to just functionally approach the situation that way.”

“I approve.” Rush pushed his glasses up his face.

“I knew you would. So. What do you think? Should we forgive Daniel for his oblique insult?”

Jackson rolled his eyes. “For the last time Vala, I did not insult him.”

Rush turned off the light box and set it on the bedside table. “I’ll follow your lead.”

“Mmm,” Vala said, tipping her chin up and considering Jackson with haughty grace. “We’ll forgive you. If.”


“If you personally make the case to General Landry for allowing Nick off the base for a day.”

“I—” Jackson, ready to dig his heels in on principle, stopped himself. He scanned the room, got a small, amused nod from Young, and said, “Yeah. Okay.”

“And suddenly I feel like this is really gonna happen,” Sheppard said.

Young looked at Vala. “Well played.”

“It’s so nice to be recognized for one’s talents.” Vala leaned back against her bedsheets with a sparkler of a smile.

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