Mathématique: Chapter 76

“Human, Serpentis, Promethean, Gray, Galactic Sprite, or Ghoul. CHOOSE. You have to choose. Just say one. I’m begging you.”




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

Text iteration: Witchingest hour.

Additional notes: We’ve earned a few chapters of pure glittery fluff. Right?




Chapter 76


By Wednesday morning, Rush had gotten the hang of the layout of Cheyenne Mountain, memorized the list of people he’d supposedly known, and met most of them (at least in passing). He’d even searched out Lisa Park and received assurances that Dale Volker’s cat was alive and well in a sunlit Colorado Springs apartment (formerly) full of orchids. While he was glad to have permanent housing and considered himself well-rid of his Boston barista days, he was finding life in a windowless cement honeycomb a bit trying.


Eli, too, was feeling the strain. The young man had been spending more and more of his time in VIP Suite #4, though whether that was because he found Rush’s company less objectionable than watching an endless series of orientation videos or because he enjoyed crossing the hall to say a passing hello to Ginn Keeler was an open question.


His “intern” had spent 45 minutes in the SGC mess regaling Rush with the “lore” of the Astria Porta franchise while Rush tried not to rake the breakfast on offer over the hot coals of his culinary opinions. It was difficult. He was opinionated. And not all that keen on memorizing or even necessarily acknowledging the history of “The Empire Serpentis.”


Back in VIP Suite #4 (true to his word, and days of threats) Eli began the process of creating a new Astria Porta character. On Rush’s behalf.


“Is there not some automatic option for this?” Rush hooked a hand over his shoulder and pressed his fingers into aching muscle.


Eli, seated at the desk, scowled up at him. “Dave. No. Show some respect for the game, man. We gotta build this whole campaign from scratch on Lantean servers. Playing a preset is unconscionable. You would be an object of ridicule. As your intern, I can’t allow it. Get over here. You need to be able to see the character creation screen.”


Rush rounded the desk and stood over Eli’s shoulder. On the right half of the screen was a generic looking male video game character, dressed in fatigues reminiscent of the United States Military, complete with buzz cut, strong jaw, and forbidding expression. 


“Human, serpentis, promethean, gray, galactic sprite, or ghoul. CHOOSE. You have to choose. Just say one. I’m begging you.” Eli cycled through six different characters. The human with the impressive physique gave way to a scantily clad man with glowing eyes, which gave way to a man in white with fine bone structure, which gave way to a petite gray alien (wearing no clothes), which gave way to a man with a vaguely grayish cast and a combination of hair, twigs, and moss on his head, which gave way to a man with bluish skin, artful white braids, and insectoid eyes.


“Human,” Rush said.


“UGH. You didn’t think about it at all.”


(Guilty.) Rush quirked an eyebrow. “I am human, Eli.”


“I’m gonna make you a ghoul,” Eli muttered.


“Fine,” Rush said.


“Don’t make him a ghoul.” Sheppard, who’d been lying on the couch across the room, propped himself up on one elbow, with the slow grace of a predatory cat, despite his red-rimmed eyes and rumpled fatigues. “The Lantean Mod allows a five-person party and we’ve already got a half-ghoul.”


“I think we need to discuss a new sleep schedule,” Rush said.


“The ‘Lantean Mod’?!?” Eli crashed right over him. “I thought we were getting some siloed slice of the regular MMO.”


Sheppard shot Rush a look of magnetism and banked fire, but when he spoke, he addressed Eli. “That was the original suggestion, but McKay’s trying to pull some strings. If all goes according to plan, not only will we be transferring your characters to our server, but also opening the whole Maths Expansion to all of Atlantis. You boys are gonna have some competition for those last two cyphers.”


“How many are in your party?” Eli asked.


“Three. A half-ghoul spiritual assassin, a promethean technomage, and a human medic with serpentis augments. Technically we’ve also got a gray biohacker and a serpentis defender but we’re kicking them out to make room for you and Nick. They can head up the B Team.”


“Oh my god,” Eli whispered. “Dave. We’re on the A Team.”


Sheppard tried to hide a smile. “What do you play?” he asked Eli.


“I play a human librarian,” Eli said.


“Librarian?” Sheppard echoed, unmistakably—impressed? “What level?”


“Sixty,” Eli said.


Sixty?” Sheppard repeated. “You’re a level sixty librarian? No librarian on Atlantis has ever survived the Quantum Mirror.”


“Very difficult to do.” Eli shrugged with calculated nonchalance. “Requires both luck and skill.”


“The Quantum Mirror?” Rush echoed.


“Librarian-specific sub-quest that spawns at level 15 wherever you are,” Sheppard said. “Takes you to a mirror universe where you have to save an entire planet from a serpentis fleet. At least that’s how it works on our servers. McKay is gonna—”


Someone pounded on the door. Sheppard got to his feet.


“Insider tip,” Eli whispered, looking up at Rush. “You don’t actually need to save the planet. You have to convince them to send you back to your reality before the enemy fleet arrives. They all die. But your charm quotient skyrockets.”


“Pleasant,” Rush said dryly. “Isn’t most of this franchise based on real stories?”


“Uh yeah,” Eli frowned. “Do think that means that Daniel Jackson actually—” Eli broke off as Sheppard opened the door to reveal Sergeant Greer and Ginn Keeler.


Rush gave Eli a significant quirk of the brow.


“Not sure I like that,” Eli whispered, his eyes on the doorway as he packed up his computer.


“Car’s ready, sir,” Greer said.


“Good,” Sheppard replied. “I’m driving.”


Outside the base, the morning was cool and the air was clear and the trees were losing their leaves to the turning of the seasons. Rush zipped up his NORAD track jacket and studied the surrounding landscape. The hills rose sharply around the base parking lot, covered with pines. Red rock formations broke the line of upward slopes.


“Too bad you guys don’t get windows.” Eli adjusted his backpack, eyeing the sun on the slopes above. “This is epic.”


“Tell me about it,” Greer said, coming to stand at Rush’s shoulder. 


“Nice,” Sheppard said, leading them through the parking lot to where Vanessa James stood, waiting in front of a black SUV. “What’s that, a Chevy Tahoe?”


“Good eye, sir,” Greer replied. “Bulletproof siding and windows. Seats eight. Nine if you don’t mind getting personal.”


“Coolness,” Eli whispered.


Rush glanced at Sheppard. “Is this really necessary? I was working in the clear for weeks, y’know. Zero security.”


Sheppard pulled a pair of sunglasses out of an inner pocket of his jacket. “This?” He slid them into place. “This is all for Eli.” He raised his voice, “Level sixty librarian comin’ through.” Sheppard opened the back door of the SUV and gestured Eli and Ginn into the car. “Kids in the back. Lieutenant,” he looked to James. “Toss me those keys.” She tossed the keys in a high arc and Sheppard caught them one-handed. He turned to Rush. “You wanna ride shotgun?”


Rush cocked his head in acknowledgement and opened the passenger-side door.


The drive from the base into Colorado Springs was picturesque. Rugged in a way that, somehow, didn’t strike him as new. As he watched the red rock and the pines, he tried to think of an analogy in computer science, neuroscience, or engineering to label what had happened to his mind. Driving down the 115, he understood there was a part of him that knew the drive. A flash of uneasiness hit him, without cause, at an unremarkable switchback in the road. Why? It was impossible to say.


The Greeting, Dale Volker had said. There must be a reason the Lucian Alliance referred to it as such. 


They passed a golf course at the base of Cheyenne Mountain, its manicured fairway iced over in shaded patches.


“The Broadmoor,” Sheppard said, noting the direction of his gaze. “It’s where the heads of state stay when they come visit the mountain. They have golf tournaments there sometimes. You play?”


“I doubt it, though I’ve had a recurring dream where I hit golf balls into the ocean. Alone. For hours at a time.” He turned to look at Sheppard.


“The gentleman’s game,” Sheppard muttered, like a poorly mustered defense. He glanced away, his color a bit up. “You’re Scottish. You guys invented golf I hear.”


“That may be,” Rush allowed, “but seems a bit posh for the likes of me, don’t you think? Have y’heard this accent?”


“Not a ‘posh’ one?” Sheppard asked, like he wasn’t sure.


“No,” Rush admitted.


“All British people sound fancy to Americans!” Eli called from the back seat.


Sheppard snorted. “He’s got a point. And we can work on your golf game.”


The remainder of the drive passed with companionable chatting between James and Greer, interspersed with the occasional deferential question that Eli directed at Ginn Keeler. As they passed into Colorado Springs proper, Eli seemed to realize that Ginn had no idea whatsoever what a “video game” might consist of, and he spent the last seven minutes of the drive regaling her with tales of virtual space adventure, and promising to make her a custom character.


That was a relief; maybe the lad would leave Rush alone about it.


The unassuming brick building where Sheppard stopped the car had a flavor of familiarity about it, just as the landscape had. An inlaid pattern of visual processing stripped of personal association. He had no idea which apartment belonged to Colonel Young, but he was certain that, once he saw it, he’d feel the same tip-of-the-mind familiarity that the base, the drive, the landscape had all inspired. Like a specter, haunting its own house.


Sheppard checked his phone, then led the way to Young’s apartment and rapped on the door.


Vala swung the door wide, leaning into the frame like it was a sports car. “Hello teeeaaaaam,” she purred.


“Use the crutch, Vala,” Young growled from somewhere behind her.


Dubious she’d agree to any such thing, Rush stepped forward and offered her his arm.


“Ah. A gentleman and a scholar,” Vala flipped her hair over her shoulder, (deliberately) catching Sheppard in the face as she turned. “Thank you gorgeous, now let’s get you out of this atrocious NORAD branding and into something much more troubling.”


“Vala,” Young growled, leaning into his cane and coming forward with what was, without a doubt, her crutch, given it was tightly wrapped with winking fairy lights. “USE this.” He caught Rush’s eye and gave him a long-suffering look.


Sheppard snorted.


“Awesome,” Eli laughed from the back of the pack behind them.


“I don’t love it,” Vala said, with dignified hauteur. “But it’s better than nothing, I suppose. C’mon gorgeous, let’s go inventory your wardrobe.”


“Did I—” Rush frowned, taking in the nearest wall, reaching out to brush a circle surrounded by Ancient symbology, scrawled over white paint.


“Yup,” Young said. “I think you put one on just about every wall I have.”


Rush winced, finding that defacing a perfectly nice wall with what looked to be marker didn’t feel like a social boundary he natively felt comfortable crossing. Then again, this was Colonel Young’s apartment as opposed to anywhere else. He traced a fingertip in an arc along the almost perfect circle, recalling the man’s words on a New York City rooftop. We’re wrapped up in each other in space and time.


“This,” Greer said, spinning to take in the mathematical defacement in Young’s apartment, “is giving of a very ‘classified’ vibe.”


“I’m getting the Nine-Point Circle from this,” Sheppard said, coming to stand at Rush’s shoulder. “The Feuerbach Theorem, maybe. Not sure about—” he touched an Ancient symbol. “This looks like a frequency.”


“I think,” Rush murmured, “it’s a chord circle?”


“This is feeling VERY relevant, Dave,” Eli said, studying a circle on the opposite wall. “Very relevant. Anybody have a camera?”


“Can we cut it out with the ‘Dave’ stuff?” Young growled.


“Can I have a marker, actually?” Sheppard asked, not seeming to address anyone in particular.


“We,” Vala said, plastering herself against the wall, directly over the chord circle on the wall. “Are having a dinner party. Don’t you dare solve your final cypher AND RUIN EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE.”


“I wasn’t gonna solve it,” Sheppard muttered sulkily. “I was just gonna draw a triangle.”


“Ah,” Rush said, already picturing it, taking the next step. “The tones corresponding to the nine points, you think?”


Sheppard gave him a small smile. “Yeah.”


Triangle geometry?” Eli asked. “You really think a cypher falls out of the triangle?”


“Maybe.” Sheppard’s eyes were still on the wall. “Atlantis is full of them.”


“Are you serious?” Eli grinned.


Rush ran a hand through his hair, considering.


“Yeah.” Sheppard tapped the approximate location of the nine-point center. “The nine-point circle is a fundamental object in triangle geometry. If we superimpose a—”


“NO.” Vala spread her arms. “After the dinner party, flyboy, or I swear on the sacred Silt River I will never. Speak to you. Again.”


“Seems unlikely I wouldn’t have considered that,” Rush said. “Then again, I’ve got no bloody idea.”


“I know exactly how this goes,” Vala said imperiously. “You’ll spend ten hours buried in trying to figure it out, realize it goes nowhere, and RUIN THE NIGHT.”


“Yeah, okay.” Sheppard reluctantly tore his eyes away from the wall. “That sounds like me. Might as well wait for McKay anyway. And Carter.”


“Come on, gorgeous.” Vala dragged him deeper into the apartment with more force than he’d’ve expected from a woman relying on a fairy-lighted crutch to get around. She led him down a short hallway and into a bedroom, converted into a study. It looked little used, but the closet was full of—


“Did I live here?” he asked, astonished.


“The real answer,” Vala said, pulling out a pale blue dress shirt, holding it to the light, then replacing it in the closet, “is yes and no.” She paused her closet-hunting and gave him a frank look, with none of her usual theatricality. “Your apartment’s a bit of a disaster. Barely habitable.”


“Why?”


“Oh, because you’re a bit like me,” she said, her voice turning gentle. “Or you were. I don’t think you were really ‘living’ in that place. It was more like a workshop. Set up for nothing but math. What little living you did,” she met his eyes, delivering the words apologetically, “happened here. Your apartment is nothing but boxes and bare necessities, scattered over the floor.”


“Was I—” he cut himself off. “Do you know if the colonel and I were ever more than friends?”


“I honestly don’t know,” Vala said, “but I doubt it. You were quite sad, gorgeous.” She gave him a melancholy smile. “I still see it in you. Even if it’s not so accessible now.”


He nodded, thinking of the night he’d spent in a lonely hotel room, city lights outside his window, watching a woman channel the joy of a long-dead composer. The unbridgeable gap between the image of her and the ache in his mind.


“But that’s not to say,” Vala continued, leaning into her twinkling crutch next to a closet of his clothes, “that there was nothing between the two of you. He likes you. I’m sure of it. I’m less clear on how you felt about him. But you did make a habit of cooking him meals at least once a day, so I’m thinking you weren’t wholly neutral.”


“I confess I don’t find myself ‘wholly neutral’ now.”


Vala gave him a glittering smile. “He’s very handsome. Loyal to a fault. Cool head. Mostly. I applaud your taste.”


“However,” Rush continued, pushing past some trepidation. “Colonel Sheppard told me he’s had feelings for me for quite some time.”


Vala’s expression was a war of astonishment and delight. “Flyboy?”


Rush opened his hands and shrugged.


“He successfully communicated a feeling?”


“It was more of a confession that he’d spoken about me in what I gather was a flattering way to some personnel on Atlantis? He didn’t want it to come as a surprise.”


Vala made a small touched sound in the back of her throat. “Well I’m not surprised, gorgeous,” Vala said. “You’re good-looking enough, but you carry yourself like you’ve got a fleet of warships and a mountain of treasure at your disposal. I’m sure it can’t help but appeal to those military types.”


“A mountain of treasure,” he repeated skeptically.


“Yes.  At least one mountain. Now, while I can’t formally condone starting a relationship while stripped of your personal context, I’m not against it either. That said, I’m wholly against crushing anyone’s heart in circumstances such as these, so, if you do decide to pursue a romantic option it must, by necessity, be a threesome.”


Rush coughed delicately. “Excuse me?”


“They’re less common on your planet than I’d’ve believed possible, but definitely your only viable option, should you decide to proceed. Again, I’m not necessarily in favor of proceeding. But, as your terrestrial BFF, I use my power to veto a relationship with only one of them. At least until your memories are restored. Then you can choose.”


“Do you have an extraterrestrial BFF?” Rush asked, because responding to her stance on the ethics of monogamy versus polyamory in the setting of no personal memories seemed a bit of an overwhelming prospect.


“No,” Vala confessed, “but hush, gorgeous. No one needs to know that.” She turned back to the closet. “Right then. Let’s dress you a bit against type. Those jeans will do; my sources tell me a slim fit is in right now. Where’d you get them?”


“A Boston thrift shop.”


“Very good. Take off that track jacket. Let’s see your shirt.” Vala eyed his pants, sliding hangars through different shirt options. “Layering is in. She pulled a thin cotton undershirt off a hangar. Put that on.”


He pulled off his USAF T-shirt, but before he could put on the undershirt, Vala swiped it from his hands and swapped it with a form-fitting pale blue T-shirt with UC Berkeley’s crest in a deeper navy. “This literally says “UC Berkeley Mathematics,” he said dubiously. “Not sure why you think that’s ‘against type’.”


“Let me work, please.” Vala gave him a forbidding glance over her shoulder. “No, no, no, no—” she muttered, dismissing hanger after hanger. “Maybe.” She held a burgundy sweater up to her own pale pink top and sighed. “Ugh. We can’t clash though. Not for our dinner party.” She put the burgundy sweater back and continued her perusal. “Ah ha!” She came up with a pale gray sweater with a single vertical stripe running from the seam at the left shoulder down to the hem of the thing.


“That looks unworn,” he pointed out.


“Form-fitting, fashion-forward, vaguely athletic in spirit, and the stripe matches your jeans. This will do nicely.” She handed it to him. “Let’s see it.”


Rush took off his glasses and pulled the sweater over his head. “Don’t y’think there’s a reason I never wore this?” He straightened the seams and slid his glasses back into place.


“I’m sure there is.” Vala had one hand on his closet door and was using her crutch to drag a pair of Birkenstocks out of the bottom of the closet. “Let’s take advantage of your memory loss while we can, eh?”


“It’s November,” Rush said, frowning at the sandals.


“The colonel controls the temperature in his apartment, unlike some people,” her tone turned dark and vaguely threatening and she shot him a glare, suggesting he himself might be the offending party. “Plus,” Vala continued airily, “you don’t like shoes.”


“I don’t like shoes?”


“Not in my experience. But I’ll allow you to keep the military-issue boots if you insist.”


Rush dropped into a crouch and started unlacing. “Far be it from me to contract someone of your fashion acumen.”


“Very wise,” Vala agreed, sliding the Birkenstocks over. “Stand up, let’s have a look at you.”


Rush stood.


Vala gave him a small twirling motion with a finger, and he held out his hands, turning a reluctant circle. “Now this,” she said, gesturing elegantly to take in his whole person, “looks like the civilian meat in a USAF sandwich.”


In a movement that felt like pure dead instinct, he crossed his arms and glared at her over the tops of his glasses.


“Oh relax, gorgeous. You know I’d murder them in their sleep if they made you even remotely uncomfortable.”


“That’s not comforting,” he informed her. “Don’t murder anyone.”


“We’d make a great team,” she said, closing the closet door. “Roving the galaxy looking for treasure.”


“Storing it under mountains, no doubt.” Rush offered her his arm.


“See? You’re catching on already.” She took his elbow. “Okay, let’s come up with a points system for each colonel. What do you say? We’ll keep a running tally of which of them is more chivalrous.”


“Why don’t you keep a running total,” he suggested, finding himself quite unable to crush so much as a flower petal of her irrepressibility. “I’ll adjust as appropriate.”


Before opening the bedroom door, she stepped gracefully into a hug, hooking her chin over his shoulder. “See?” she whispered, her arms around him. “It’s like we were never abducted at all.”





A few hours later, every surface in Colonel Young’s kitchen was covered with Vala’s clipped recipes and meal prep in various stages. Vala, standing at the sink with her pink sleeves rolled to her elbows, was meticulously de-veining shrimp. Rush was pitting dates, the motion economical and sure. He’d done this before. There was no question about it. This had none of the uncertainty of his early attempts at nail art.


The air smelled of herbs and garlic and the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay Vala had poured a few minutes back.


There was a knock on the doorframe. He turned to see Young standing at the threshold of the kitchen, leaning against his cane. Their eyes met. Young, flustered, cleared his throat. Rush ducked his head and smirked at his pitted dates.


“Vala,” Young said. “Jackson’s here.”


“Well tell him to get started,” she said imperiously. “I’m pickling shrimp, handsome.”


“Get started with what?” Rush asked.


“Decorating,” Young said, like he wasn’t sure how to feel about the idea.


“Yes, I put him in charge of the decor,” Vala said. “I mean, you’ve seen his office.”


“I haven’t, actually,” Rush said.


“It’s full of bones and jewels and precious metals and treasure maps,” Vala said. “Everything a girl wants at a party.


“Jackson,” Young shouted from the doorframe. “She says get started.”


“Come, handsome. Pull up a chair. Give us the news from the living room.”


Young snorted. “You guys are missing quite the show. Eli’s making everyone Astria Porta characters.”


“Everyone?” Vala asked, vaguely hurt. “I want one.”


“Don’t think that’s gonna be a problem,” Young said. “I’ll put your name in the ring.”


“Please tell me he finished mine.” Rush took a sip of wine that tasted of white peach and flint, chalk and honeysuckle.


“Yup. Sorry hotshot. You’re a Galactic Sprite. He made the twig hair look mostly okay. Turned the flowers white. It's not as bad as it could be.”


Rush rolled his eyes. “Wonderful.”


“You’re like a space-time bender or something. It’s got a better name. Mystical spinning? It’s like—good for transit and, um, Shep seems to think it’ll fill out a gap in A-team battle tactics. Like intra-mele portals’ll give better battlefield control. I guess once you level enough, you can shear enemies apart under duress but you take a ‘spiritual hit’? No weapons. No armor, but the team’s got some high-end gear that’ll up your evasiveness.”


“What a relief,” Rush said dryly. “What’s your character? Some heroic, gun-toting human, no doubt.”


“I don’t have one,” Young said. “I recused myself from Shep’s tiers.”


“There are tiers?” Vala asked. “What tier am I?”


“C-tier.”


C-tier.” Vala caught Rush’s expression, scandalized.


“Unacceptable,” Rush announced in dry solidarity.


“Hold your horses,” Yougn said. “A-tier is: Shep, McKay, someone named ‘Teyla’, Eli, and Rush. B-tier is: Ronon, Radek Zelenka, Greer, James, and Ginn. C-tier is SG-1.”


Vala sniffed. “Not sure why SG-1 would be C-tier anything.”


Young raised a hand, palm out. “Take it up with Shep and Eli. I’m just the messenger.”


“What’s the prettiest thing to be? Tell Eli that’s what I want.” Vala pitched her de-veined shrimp into a boiling pot on the stove.


“Prettiest is gonna be half-promethean, half-sprite, I bet. But I’ll let the intern take you through the options.”


“I like the sound of that,” Vala said. “A few native flowers in my long, flowing hair?” Rush glanced at her and saw her face tipped up, smiling to herself as she set the microwave timer with wet eyes, her expression hopeful, grateful, cut to pieces with the pain of living.


He looked back to the dates under his hands and tried to imagine the kind of life that might carve a person like her. Found he couldn’t do it.


“Go boss Jackson around and get off that leg,” Young growled, full of gruff solicitude. “Dinner party’s gonna be real short if you re-splinter that femur before you’ve put in enough time with that healing device.”


Rush finished his pile of dates, located a mixing bowl, filled it with ice, and added cold water. He stepped to Vala’s shoulder and took her slotted spoon. “Go,” he murmured. “Keep Jackson in line.”


Vala picked up her wine, leaned into her crutch and smiled over her shoulder. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes.”


“Make it forty-five,” Rush said. “The colonel, I’m certain, can handle some bacon-wrapped dates.”


“You bet,” Young said, all false bravado and flustered charm.


Young watched Vala leave the kitchen. Once she’d gone, he turned to Rush. “You know I can’t handle ‘bacon-wrapped dates,’ right?”


Rush gave the cooking shrimp a stir. “No?” He braced a hip against the kitchen counter and looked at Young. “What makes you so sure?”


“Hotshot, on a good day I can char meat over a fire. That pretty much covers it.”


“That’s no way to live.” Rush took a sip of wine and tried not to smile.


“Fair enough,” Young said.


Rush left the shrimp, crossed to the refrigerator, and found a block of goat cheese. He handed it to Young. “Twenty-four pieces, please. Small enough to fit.” He indicated his bowl of perfectly pitted Medjool dates, then stepped back to the pot as Vala’s timer sounded and started transferring shrimp to his bowl of icewater.


“No problem.” Young searched drawers like he didn’t know his way around his own kitchen.


Wordlessly, Rush handed the man his own kitchen scissors.


“Thanks,” Young murmured. “I see you lost your shoes somewhere along the way.”


One-handed, still transferring cooked shrimp, Rush pulled a knife out of a knife block, flipped it by the base of its blade, and offered it to Young, handle first. “Yes well.” He might’ve said more, but Young’s expression, at once bold and tentative, stole whatever he might have said.


“I don’t know why,” Young said, “but I have the feeling that this—” he took the whole of his apartment with a subtle arc of the blade in his hand, “—was a really good idea.”


“Vala’s,” Rush reminded him softly.


“I know. But you’re making it happen, hotshot. You’re gonna win a lotta hearts and minds with this. Not that you haven’t already. But this kind of thing doesn’t happen as often as it should for the people who are gonna be here. SG-1. SG-68. Shep and McKay. Your dropout intern.”


“Everett,” Rush said quietly, and the man in front of him startled subtly at the use of his name.


“Yeah?”


“Stuff those dates, won’t you?”


“You got it, hotshot.”


Rush transferred the cooked, cooled shrimp to the marinade. He poured Young a half glass of wine grown under California sun and salted sea breeze.


“Thanks,” Young murmured.


Rush pulled a baking sheet of toasted almonds off the opposite counter and set himself up next to the colonel with a parchment-covered pan, a set of cross-cut bacon strips, and a box of toothpicks.


“So,” Young said, easing soft cheese into the ripe interior of a half-split date. “I’ve been known to make a bad call, here and there.” He passed a date to Rush. “I’m not the guy I could be.”


Rush took it and slipped a toasted almond into the midst of the cheese, point down. “How so?”


“I keep people in line. I keep myself in line. I consolidate. I pull resources together, I set them up, I pull more. If I’m asked to hold territory or take it back, I do it methodically. Bite by bite.”


Rush wrapped the date in a strip of bacon, secured it with a toothpick, set it on the pan. He quirked an eyebrow and held out his hand.


“That’s who I am.” Young handed him a stuffed date. “Ninety percent of the time. Ninety-five, even. But I’m also a pilot. Every good pilot has wild streak. The thing that let’s you say ‘to hell with it’ when you pull a high-G barrel roll in the middle of a dogfight.”


Rush slipped an almond into the heart of a date and wrapped it tight.


“I was married,” Young said, looking at his hands. “Flying steady and level. Until the SGC gave me a deep-cover assignment with the Lucian Alliance. I was gone for months. And, like you, I found myself on the wrong end of an LA drug.”


Startled, Rush looked over at the man.


Ruefully, Young shrugged. “Not blaming the drug for what happened. But I came back with about three pounds of titanium bolting my skeleton together and an obsession with LA. Had a fling the medic in charge of my physical therapy. My wife divorced me. For a while there, I lost every command I had. Would’ve washed out of the program if Jackson hadn’t taken an interest. If I hadn’t met you.” He offered Rush a stuffed date.


Rush drew it from his fingers with a quirked eyebrow.


“I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t let me sweep you off your feet, hotshot.” Young picked up another soft slice of cheese, “It’s not a good idea. Not when some chemical is keeping you from everything that’s ever happened to you. I’d like to think I’m gonna remember that. That I’ve got enough self control not to roll the damn plane, but—” he handed over the date, “—in the interest of full disclosure, you soak up a little more of my good judgement than most.”


Rush took the date and wrapped it, thinking of the version of this man he’d met on a New York rooftop, untethered from quantum multiverse, who’d implied that, at some point in the past or future, across the Grand Monte Carlo, Everett Young had done exactly what this local aspect of him was suggesting. He couldn’t share as much, constrained as he was by fears of quantum causality violations.


“I’m not worried about it,” he said, studiously sliding an almond into a stuffed date. He felt the warm edge of the colonel’s interest.


“No?”


“No,” Rush confirmed.


“Well,” Young growled, closing the book on the promise of the moment, “I’m worried enough for both of us, hotshot.


“Your prerogative,” Rush said, and wrapped another date.

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