"Vala is bored."
Teal'c's declaration sent a shudder through every man at the SGC morning meeting except himself and Colonel Sheppard. The Colonel may not have even heard him, as he was bent with great intentness over the latest tic-tac-toe game in the marathon he and Dr. McKay had been engaged in for the last half hour. He appeared to be winning, to go by McKay's sour expression.
McKay heard, flinched, muttered, "That's got to be bad," scratched his O into the wrong column and then glared as Sheppard immediately crowed, "I win!" while filling in his third X in a row.
Everyone else turned to look at Sheppard, heads swiveling with doom-laden ponderousness, until their gimlet eyes were lasering into his tussled, dark head. He looked up from the piece of paper on the table between him and McKay, convulsively pushed it toward McKay, and essayed an innocent expression. "What? Did I miss something?"
The innocent expression landed with a leaden thump among the rest of the attendees. Sheppard should have known it would. Elizabeth saw through it within a few week and Landry had never bought it in the first place. (It did still work on Colonel Carter, so far, which was just another reason to look forward to the end of the IOA mandated three month rotation back to Earth that everyone stationed off-planet permanently now had to endure every two years.)
Sheppard and McKay had both been heard expressing their opinion that life-sucking albino goth vampires were infinitely preferable to the briefcase-toting, suit-wearing variety the IOA dispatched to 'oversee' the SGC. Luckily, they hadn't actually said it to IOA representative Ambassador Elsa Random. They really wanted the expanded funding for Atlantis her okay could provide. They'd both been so proper with her, several people had inquired in the infirmary whether an MRI might be in order, to make sure they hadn't been possessed.
"Yes," said General Landry. "I'm temporarily assigning you to accompany Ms. Mal Doran outside the facility." The smile on his face did not bode well for Sheppard's fate. "I believe she recently expressed a need to go shopping and do some 'girl things'. Since Colonel Carter isn't here any longer and your duties don't seem sufficiently time consuming, you can escort her."
Mitchell winced, while Jackson gave him a look of deep sympathy – the look of man faced with a diagnosis of incurable cancer or a representative of a health service informing him he'd been exposed to a social disease – in front of his in-laws. McKay just gulped and edged his chair away from Sheppard, like doom might be contagious.
Teal'c smiled beatifically and nodded to Sheppard.
Sheppard straightened his spine (McKay would swear later he heard the vertebra click) and said, "Yes sir."
Hot breath in his ear woke John Sheppard. This would have been sexier if he hadn't been dying of a hangover. As it was, his stomach rolled, he clutched at the sheet thankfully covering his naked – naked! – body and all he could think was Oh, God, what exactly had been in the liontamer's flask?
He couldn't swear what planet he was on, wouldn't swear what his last name was (changing it and running away to join an accounting firm – not the circus, never the circus, please – seemed like a possible plan), but he cursed the day the IOA and Landry and his parents for ever giving birth.
He could have been happily running for his life from the Wraith, being interrogated by the Asurans, or comparing nuclear penis size with the Genii and not, please why do these things happen to him, in bed with someone in a fur coat with truly hideous breath.
Even though his eyes were still shut, John squeezed them shut tighter, willing it to be some kind of a horrible, terrible, Freudian nightmare. He'd go see Heightmeyer immediately, she'd give him drugs, painkillers sounded good right now, just let it not be real.
Something coughed, nudged John's jaw, and then licked a long stripe over his face, tongue nearly rasping off his skin, breath nearly knocking him out again. So much for wish fulfillment.
Throwing up or screaming or crying all seemed likely in the next second. (He wasn't McKay, so passing out manfully was out of the question, something he actually regretted for the first time.) There was some possibility of mixing and matching with the other three, however.
"Unh," he groaned instead and flailed his way free of the sheets, Vala's arm (Vala?), the leopard (Oh God), and finally the bed, ending up standing beside it, looking around wildly.
Orange shag carpet, horrible flowered aquamarine comforter shoved onto the floor, and pictures of huge-eyed children on the walls informed John that he was in a no-tell motel. (He'd never prayed for something to live down to its name so hard in his life.) The TV and the remote were both bolted down. He wondered if that would be enough to keep Vala from making off with them.
Sunlight seeped around the edges of the pulled curtains, painfully bright and reminding him he was supposed to have taken Vala back to the Mountain the day before. He was so screwed.
Details began registering. There were shopping bags and boxes piled on the floor, frilly, girly things spilling from some of them. There were several bottles of mysterious origin on the dresser. They appeared to be empty. He was pretty sure the contents were going to reappear in the toilet in another minute after leaving his stomach. There was a purple-spangled leotard – a shredded purple-spangled leotard – draped over the lamp next to the bed. There was no sign of his clothes at all.
He was so very screwed.
And there was a leopard in the bed with a still sleeping (or passed out) Vala Mal Doran.
A naked Vala Mal Doran.
All John could do was stare at the leopard, though.
Golden moon eyes blinked back at him and it yawned, displaying a pink tongue and large, white, sharp teeth, before beginning to purr loudly. John's brain stuttered. Did leopard's purr like domestic cats? If that wasn't a purr, it certainly came close enough for him.
So very, very, very screwed.
The flutter of gold foil on the floor next to Vala's side of the bed turned out to be a condom wrapper.
John bolted for the bathroom.
"I can't believe she lifted my credit card."
"Yes, yes, whatever," McKay muttered without looking up from his laptop, typing with one hand and eating with the other. Mitchell had flopped down in the seat opposite him in the cafeteria and begun talking. Like McKay actually cared about whatever tiny thoughts were dying of loneliness in the vast emptiness of Mitchell's head.
Mitchell kicked at him, but McKay was too fast for him. He'd trained in the mess hall of Atlantis and could avoid a shin kick or shoulder slap from Sheppard or Ronon without slopping his coffee, missing a word or shifting the protective hover of his fork over dessert.
"Working," McKay muttered around a mouthful of something chocolate. It was either a brownie or a failed cake and he didn't care either way. One of the few really good things about time on Earth was the availability of chocolate, sugar, butter and eggs.
"Oh, like hell," Mitchell said. "You're playing minesweeper."
McKay swallowed. "Am not." He was hacking the IOA representative's files, looking to see what her evaluations were. If she didn't clear them, he and John wouldn't be going back to Atlantis, and neither would the big funding allocation they'd been promised. If her opinions of them weren't good, he'd need to spend the night tracking down whatever he could find to blackmail her into changing her mind. Honestly, no one appreciated how much effort he put into this job, not even Sheppard.
"So I can't believe she swiped my credit card. Again." Mitchell paused then pointed at McKay. "And why aren't you thanking me, anyway?"
"For Vala stealing your credit card? Can't take credit – hah! – for that," McKay replied. And ah hah! There were the files. Random had only the most obvious, child's play versions of commercial encryption protecting her information, he felt like he should give her a head's up an and maybe do some work on her security. He'd leave a back door for himself, of course.
"What are you doing?"
"CYA and none of your business."
Mitchell settled back in his chair and tried to do the puppy-dog eyes thing on McKay. McKay just rolled his eyes. That worked better for Sheppard, who would waggle his eyebrows and push his lower lip out like a three-year old. Or he used to, before that evil Swallow woman had got her talons into him and started going on about setting an example. He hoped that this enforced separation would result in Sheppard shaking off whatever evil voodoo spell she had on him, but it hadn't happened yet, so he'd had to take measures. He was genuinely starting to worry, because Sheppard might not see it, but everyone else did; the woman was going to persuade Sheppard into leaving Atlantis and his family. Alice Swallow had ambition written all over her. Sure, if he married her, Sheppard would make General before he was forty-five, but McKay knew he'd be miserable, and more importantly, he – and everyone else on Atlantis – would be too.
McKay stopped and glared at Mitchell, punctuating his glare with a pointed finger lifted from his keyboard. "I will cover your credit card bill if Vala manages to keep Sheppard off base all night and I will not tell Carter about PXD-477 if she can break his engagement to the Wicked Witch." He paused and added, "But if he marries that Swallow woman, your parents are getting the pictures Vala took."
Mitchell turned green. "McKay!"
"Don't think I won't do it; this is a man's life – and his balls – on the line."
"She's that bad?"
"She has all the charm and personality of an Asuran replicator. Did I mention she can suck the air out a room faster than Wraith can snack on you?"
Before Mitchell could comment on that, the gate activation klaxon sounded. He glanced at his watch and stood. "That should be SG-69 checking in. I can't believe they're on time for – "
The alarm started whooping and Harriman's harried voice sounded over the base wide announcement system. "Medical unit to the gate room. Medical unit to the gate room, please."
"I'd better go see what that's all about," Mitchell said.
McKay closed his laptop. "Mind if I tag along?"
"Sure, but I'll lay money that Peabody tripped on the ramp and knocked himself out again."
A squawk from the intercom made them both look up, followed by Harriman shouting, "Someone close the door before it gets away!"
"Or maybe not," Mitchell corrected himself.
Bits and pieces came back after the puking and whimpering eased off.
There had been hours spent at Victoria's Secret, the Maserati Vala wanted to buy with Mitchell's credit card, the blond bruiser she tried to pick up by telling everyone John was her brother, the French kissing, the small incident with mall security, making sure Vala gave their handcuffs back, the slightly larger incident with the blond bruiser after he saw Vala kissing John, the sprint to the government-issue Taurus in the parking lot after the cops were called, then dinner out because neither of them could face the cafeteria at Cheyenne Mountain even one more time, and then, oh, then on the way back, Vala had seen the billboard advertising the circus.
He should have known. He really should have. Nothing good had ever come of anything involving clowns. The night before had been a perfect example. If he hadn't tripped over one of those giant shoes, he'd never have fallen into Vala, who fell into the liontamer, who fell over a bucket full of elephant poop, breaking both of his ankles, while the elephant poop flipped right into the face of his beautiful assistant, who screamed that was enough and quit. He didn't quite know how he and Vala ended up taking the liontamer's place in the arena, but that was probably due to whatever had been in the flask Xaviero offered him after John dressed in the purple-spangled leotard.
He knew better than to drink mysterious drinks offered by smiling natives, but he thought he could be excused this once. It was, after all, Earth, and then there was Vala and a leotard. His memory got blurry again after he stuck his head in Simba's mouth, jumped through flaming hoops so that Rajah and Sheba would follow him (he thought they might have been meaning to eat him rather than obeying Vala), because he couldn't figure out how the Nair, the Volkswagen, and the cupcakes had fit into the act.
As for Nyssa the leopardess, he didn't think 'She followed me home' was going to cut it and he couldn't imagine explaining to Landry or the IOA that Xaviero, balanced on his crutches, waving his flask, had declared, "She ees in amor with you! You must take her! She luffs me not anymore! Go, go, my heart, eet is broken, broken like my ankles!"
Turns out Peabody did trip and knock himself out on the gate room ramp. (Apparently, he did that regularly enough that there was betting pool, though it wasn't as popular as the one on when Mitchell would lose his pants next.)
Many hours later, after they had dialed back to Pa'aard and discovered the rest of SG-69 wouldn't be allowed back until the Pa'aardeen ambassador returned, Peabody came around. Of course, by then, things had taken their usual turn for the weird and everyone found themselves gathered around Peabody, who was confined to a bed in the infirmary. McKay observed it all with a snicker and a Snickers bar (what, his blood sugar was low).
"What do you mean the cat was the ambassador!?" Landry howled.
Peabody clutched at his head.
"Sir – "
Daniel was seated on one of the other beds. He kept taking his glasses off and pinching the bridge of his nose, muttering things like interstellar incident, diplomatic immunity, ingrained bias, and coffee. Sometimes he interspersed it with Jack and Scotch.
"Sir – "
Peabody moaned and tried again. "Sir – "
"Yessir," Mitchell said from the doorway. Teal'c loomed behind him as he sidled in, looking a bit like a hunted dog. (Mitchell, not Teal'c. Teal'c looked as inscrutable as usual, yet McKay knew the Jaffa was laughing his ass off on the inside. Teyla did the same thing.)
"Colonel," Landry said. "What did you do with the extraterrestrial animal that accompanied Private Peabody through the stargate earlier?"
Mitchell looked guilty.
"Stunned it with a zat, sir."
"And?" Landry drawled.
Everyone held their breath.
"Well," Mitchell said. "It looked like a leopard, so I had Corporal Slocum and Private Grogarty take it to the zoo."
"The zoo," Daniel breathed. "Oh my God."
"You took an extraterrestrial animal out of the Mountain without even going through quarantine!?" Landry shouted.
"The zoo," Daniel repeated. He dropped his face into his hands.
"An animal that is actually the ambassador of a technologically advanced species who were willing until now to trade weapons to us in exchange for valerian and basil?"
McKay coughed up a chunk of candy bar laughing.
"Say," Mitchell said, glaring at him, patently trying to distract the General, "Where're Vala and Colonel Sheppard?"
Eventually, John recovered enough to turn on the shower and use it. Of course, this was the point where Vala woke up. After stretching luxuriously, then frowning over the coarse quality of the sheets, she turned her head toward her bed companion, uttered a small shriek, and levitated out of the bed.
"No one told me he was a shapechanger," she muttered to herself, then clutched at her head as her own hangover rocked her. "Oh, ow."
The sound of the shower penetrated the haze of pain. Keeping a wary eye on the overly large feline now taking up the center of the bed, Vala sidled over to the bathroom door and ducked her head inside, sighing with relief and a certain amount of appreciation as she spotted John in the shower.
She imagined Daniel would be having a hissy fit by now, since they hadn't reported back in the night before. With a sigh, Vala found her phone and called him.
"Daniel, darling, it's Vala – "
"Where are you?"
"Well, I'm not completely positive, but it appears to be a motel room – "
"In the shower – "
"I should have known."
"Don't be so prissy, Daniel," she told him. "I'm sure we both had a wonderful time, though I don't actually remember anything after the circus..." She turned and eyed the leopard. "...and dear Xaviero."
"Xaviero," Daniel choked out.
"A terribly generous man." And she meant that. Terribly generous. As in what had possessed Sheppard to accept the gift of a leopard? What did one do with a leopard anyway?
"Vala, we have a...situation. You need to get back here. I don't care what Sheppard does – "
"Don't be so jealous, Daniel."
Daniel made a high, keening sort of noise. "I can't talk about this on the phone. Where are you?"
She strolled over to the dresser and picked up a match book, reading off it: "The Alloway Inn. Room 58."
"Fine. Stay there. I'll come get you."
"Probably wise. I'm just going to pop out and buy John some clothes, but I'll be right back, before you even get here I imagine..."
"Arrrgh." The connection went dead. Vala glared at the phone and told the leopard, "He can be very rude, really."
Sheppard was still in the shower. Did the man have gills or was he part amphibian and needed to moisten his skin? With a shrug, Vala dressed, retrieved Cameron's credit card and swept out. She left the room key on the dresser and the door unlocked so that she could get back in without picking it.
Shading her eyes once she was outside, Vala looked around. Now where would she find someplace that would let her finally dress Colonel Sheppard the way she wanted? Something in leather...
Daniel walked into the motel room cursing Vala, Sheppard and Landry equally. What had Landry been thinking, letting those two out together? Vala was a menace all by herself and Sheppard was on the ragged edge of flipping out according to McKay (though Daniel didn't think McKay got to point any fingers in the crazy contest). Also, he really didn't like the way Vala looked at Sheppard. The man was engaged, damn it! (Though why anyone would want to marry Alice Swallow, the most rigid, hidebound bore Daniel had ever had the misfortune to sit through a seminar with in his entire existence, baffled him. Maybe Atlantis had changed her or McKay was right and the man was having a nervous breakdown.)
And, of course, Vala wasn't there.
He froze with his hand still on the doorknob, though, because he was staring into the round yellow eyes of a leopard.
He could hear the shower in the bathroom going as he carefully eased the door shut. He took back every bad thought he'd ever had about Vala or Sheppard. Somehow they'd had found the Pa'aardeen ambassador!
"Ambassador *coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraaar*," Daniel exclaimed. "I want you to know you have both my and the SGC's most abject apologies for this terrible, humiliating misunderstanding."
*coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar* growled and shredded the sheets of the bed she occupied.
"We are so terribly, terribly sorry," Daniel continued.
She coughed from deep in her chest.
"If you would just come with me, we'll get back the Mountain and straighten everything out. I assume that's Colonel Sheppard in the shower. As soon as he's ready, we'll leave."
*coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar* jumped off the bed and stalked over to Daniel. She sniffed his pants and then butted her head against his knee, before looking at the door.
"Of course, you want to head back now," Daniel blurted. "No problem. Just follow me."
He opened the door and led *coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar* out into the morning sunshine. Vala and Colonel Sheppard could make their own way back to the Mountain.
The door to the room next door opened and a tired looking hooker in a leopard-skin print mini strolled out followed by a businessman with a comb over. Both took one look at *coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar* and jumped. "Oh my God!" the hooker squealed, tottering on her four inch heels.
Daniel grimaced as *coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar* let loose a loud roar.
The businessman sprinted away, screaming for the manager and the cops.
"Uhm, please, let's just go, it's not real leopard skin," Daniel said desperately and headed for his car. *coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar* gave out another roar at the hooker, then leaped inside as soon as he opened the driver's door.
He burned rubber getting out of the parking lot and thought vindictively that he'd let Sheppard explain to the cops whenever they arrived. It would serve him right for spending the night with Vala.
John spent at least an hour hiding in the bathroom before the hot water ran out and his headache eased off enough to face both Vala and a leopard. The towels were sad small things completely insufficient to wrap around a man, but he managed to dry off and even use the disposable razor before finally nerving himself up to open the door again.
The room was empty.
Well, not empty, because Vala's shopping booty remained, but there was a distinct lack of either Vala or the leopard. The latter didn't upset John too much, but the prospect of having lost Vala after Landry put him in charge of keeping track of her burned. He could pretty much forget about going back to Atlantis ever again at this rate.
And he still had no clothes.
He straightened the bed, grimacing over the wrecked sheets and began poking through the bags Vala had left (they at least made him hope she would return, if not for him then for the silk undies) looking for anything he could put on. If he didn't come up with something he was going to be forced to call McKay to bail him out of this fix. It made him shudder in sheer horror to think about the hell McKay would put him through if it came to that.
He'd just pulled out a fuchsia silk robe trimmed in some kind of feathers when someone hammered on the door. John froze. The knocks came again with the heavy weight of authority behind them.
"Open up in there! CSPD!"
John gulped. "Gimme a minute!"
"Hurry it up!"
He glanced down at his naked body, started to grab for a sheet to wrap around himself, remembered the sheets were in tatters, and gave in to the inevitable, donning Vala's robe with a feeling of horrible futility. It just barely skimmed his thighs. He pulled it close around and walked to the door with the slow tread of a man going to the gallows.
"Open up – "
John opened the door and squinted at the two police and a weaselly looking man he thought might have been the clerk that checked him the night before.
Trying to ignore the way the two cops took in the robe and his hairy legs, John asked, "What can I do for you?" A feather floated up from the lapel of the robe and tickled his nose, making him go cross-eyed trying not to sneeze.
"Report of a wild animal in your room... sir," the larger of the two cops said. His lips kept twitching.
With a grimace and a swipe at his nose, John stepped back. "No wild animals, officers."
"Well, none of the four-footed variety," the second cop commented with a snicker.
"Mind if we come in and take a look?" the first one asked.
"No, why would I?"
"No reason, sir."
John gestured them to come inside. They glanced around, taking in the shopping bags, ducking a head into the empty bathroom and finding nothing and no one. The smaller cop even looked under the bed, something John wouldn't have done for a bet or pay.
"Sorry to bother you, sir. Been doing a little shopping?"
John squeezed his eyes shut briefly, then blurted, "I... I suppose you think it's odd, my wearing this. I realize it looks odd... I don't usually... I mean, I don't own one of these."
The two cops kept their faces straight.
John tugged the robe's belt tighter and considered all the ways he might have died in his life only to end up like this. It just wasn't fair.
The weaselly guy pointed at John. "Where's the woman who checked in with you?"
"Not here," John snapped back. "Obviously."
"Because I just went gay all of sudden!" he snapped.
"You'll forgive me, sir," the first cop murmured, "but, well..." He gestured to the marabou-trimmed robe. "Fuchsia really isn't your color."
John sighed. Perfect. They thought he was a transvestite with a bad color sense. "If you're done?"
Weaselly guy was chivvied out by one cop. The other one paused and said, "There are some places in Denver that'd have things in the right size, you know."
"I'll keep that in mind," he said. He shut the door behind them, went over to the bed and sat down, wondering just how his morning could get worse.
He wasn't sure the clothes Vala brought back were actually any less embarrassing than the marabou-trimmed robe. The pants kept creaking and chafing and the t-shirt fit so tightly he thought he could count his chest hair through it. Even so, he was grateful. At least he hadn't had to call McKay after all.
Unfortunately, Vala didn't know where the leopard had gone.
They spent the next hour sneaking around the parking lot, waving packages of sandwich meat and calling, "Kitty, kitty, here, kitty, kitty," but the leopard had disappeared.
John finally gave up and let Vala drag him inside a coffee shop, dropping down into a booth where someone had left a newspaper behind, while she got coffee for them both.
He began flicking through the pages, reading the various catastrophes affecting the world with a certain Schadenfreude. Wars, taxes, earthquakes, tornadoes, drug convictions, embezzlement, and adultery blared in the headlines. John flipped past to the local news section just as Vala sat down with their coffees and a plate of pastries. She began eating them neatly.
"Look at this!" he said and shoved the paper at her.
"Look at what?"
He pointed at the headline.
"Oh, well, I guess we know where Nyssa is," Vala said.
John nodded and found he had an appetite after all. The leopard wasn't wandering around the city, in danger of being run over or shot by some overzealous policeman. He grabbed a donut and began eating.
"Does it say where they have her?"
John read through the article. "The veterinary clinic."
"That isn't secured very well, is it?" Vala asked.
"No, of course not – No, no, we are not getting that leopard back."
"Of course we are," Vala said. "I'm sure Xaviero has sobered up by now. He'll want her back."
"Then he can break her out – What am I saying?"
"Yes, don't be ridiculous. Xaviero doesn't have our experience in breaking out of jails," Vala said.
John stared at her and knew he was doomed.
Daniel staggered out of the VIP quarters and ran into McKay.
"How's it going?" McKay said.
McKay skittered back. "Does that mean something in Pa'aardeen?"
"No!" Daniel shouted, throwing up his hands in obvious frustration. "The Ambassador won't talk to me at all! She just keeps shedding on and shredding everything in the room!"
"Oh, too bad, I think I'll just go back to the labs now," McKay said.
Daniel grabbed him. "Wait! Where're Sheppard and Vala? They must know something about why the Ambassador is so angry, they're the ones who found her."
"What do you mean?" McKay asked. "Didn't you pick them up?"
Daniel rocked back and admitted, "Well, no, not exactly. I was in a hurry to get the Ambassador back here. I was sure they'd make their own way back...eventually..."
"Oh, perfect," McKay snapped. "You've lost them, haven't you?"
"You know, I'd ask where you had the zats hidden, but I really don't want to know," John remarked as they stunned the sole security guard outside the zoo veterinary clinic. They had waited until dark and now were inside.
Vala looked back at him and raised her eyebrows.
"Really," John added. "Don't tell me."
"As you wish," she said. She frowned at door lock. "Unfortunately, I don't have my lock picks with me."
"That's okay," John said, plucking a set of keys from the unconscious guard's belt. "I think these'll work just fine."
Once inside, he found a second to be grateful there was only one leopard in the clinic. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been able to tell which one was his. Somehow, she just didn't look the same. Nonetheless, he started talking as they opened up the cage.
"Hey, there, we're going to have you out and back home lickety-split," John said.
The leopard mewed at him, then chirred and huffed.
Wow, she hadn't done that before. Despite himself, John ran a hand over her head. "I guess you're glad to see us, hunh?"
Another series of chirrs and mews answered him. She'd gotten really vocal. Well, he'd never liked being locked up either.
The leopard rubbed her head against him so hard he almost fell over. Great, cat hair. She stayed right next to him as they trotted out of the building, vaulted a security fence and piled into the Taurus. (It didn't make a very romantic getaway car, but it did have a backseat.)
That should have been it, really. They should have driven back to the circus, left her off with Xaviero and headed back to the Mountain.
Life was never that easy.
"Oh, I should have known," John snapped, as he braked the Taurus to a stop, facing the empty lot where the circus tents had been the day before.
"I'll admit I wasn't expecting this," Vala said.
John glanced at her. "No, really?"
Before she could answer, her cell chirped at her. She looked at it and then showed him. He didn't need to see though, since his own phone had begun ringing too.
They both answered anyway.
"Get back to this base right now!" General Landry shouted.
"Uh, sir – "
The sound of dead air followed.
The leopard poked her head over the back of the seat and purred into John's ear.
"I guess we'll just have to take her with us," Vala said.
"You make it sound so easy," John groaned, but shifted the Taurus into gear again and headed it for Cheyenne Mountain.
Smuggling a large, live leopard into a super secure, semi-secret military base and down twenty-six stories should have been harder. John went through each checkpoint first, then Vala distracted the guards and the leopard slinked through below eye level. It worked like a charm until the elevator opened up and the three of them faced a squad of SFs aiming P90s at the three of them.
"Busted," Vala said with a smile.
John just looked upward and murmured, "Why do you hate me?"
"Hold it right there, sir," the SFs said.
"Sure." He already had his hands up. The leopard leaned against his legs and growled at the SFs. John glanced down and whispered, "You're not helping." Then he smiled at the SFs and shrugged. "You know, I'd tell you there was a good explanation, but I just can't think of one."
"Yessir," said an SF. "You want to come with us now?"
John kept his hands up and in the open, gave another easy shrug and nodded. What the hell, his career was probably (probably being optimistic) over. "If you don't mind, what gave us away?"
John had to resist the urge thump his own head.
Well, he thought as he and the leopard were locked in one cell, at least the leopard didn't complain as much as McKay. The SFs led Vala off, which was another pro point. And Earth jails were really the very creme de la creme of incarceration experiences.
John settled onto the bunk (it even had a mattress), the leopard jumped up with him and began chirping and chirring and purring at him again. "I know," he said, stroking one velvety ear. "I said I'd get you home. But it kind of looks like we're stuck here for now." He sighed. "I don't think either of us are going to be going home at this rate. I'd take you back to Atlantis with me, if I thought I'd ever see it again."
The leopard butted her head against his chin and said, "All will be well."
"That's easy for you to say – What!?" John scrambled back and eyed the leopard. "Did you just talk?"
She purred at him.
John pointed a shaking finger at her. "Okay, that's just too much. It's bad enough that the General set me up, the police think I'm a cross-dresser and I'm stuck wearing leather pants, now I'm hallucinating that a leopard is talking to me. I've really lost my mind."
"What's a cross-dresser?" the leopard asked.
John clapped his hands over his ears and said, loudly, "This is not happening." He squeezed his eyes shut. "It's all a horrible dream and when I wake up I'll be back in Atlantis."
The leopard batted at his knee with one big paw. John's eyes snapped open. He groaned.
"This is not a dream, Sheppard," she said. Her voice was hoarse and odd, with little trills and vibratos running through it. "If you would just listen to me, I am Parrrm *coughchuff – "
John shook his head. "No, no, not listening." To drown her out, he began singing. Every time Parrrm – the leopard – started to talk to him again, he sang louder. After a while he ran out of Johnny Cash and had to wrack his brains for anything else.
He wasn't a particularly good singer, so by the time McKay showed up, the leopard had her front paws over her ears and her eyes squeezed shut too.
"You!" Daniel yelled at Vala as the SFs escorted her into the conference room. "What did you do to the Pa'aardeen ambassador? She won't even listen to me. A few minutes ago she peed on the bed in the VIP quarters!"
Vala gaped at him. "The who did what?"
Daniel's hair stood up in tufts and he was covered in cat hair.
"The Pa'aardeen ambassador!"
Vala glanced around the room helplessly, hoping Mitchell or Teal'c or Landry or even McKay (who wasn't actually there, but she would have looked at him too if he had been) would offer some sort of explanation.
"I don't know who you're talking about, darling, but I think it was very nasty of you to lock poor John up."
"I don't care about Sheppard!" Daniel shouted. "I don't care if he's locked up for the rest of his life, just tell me why the Pa'aardeen won't talk to me?"
"How would I know, Daniel, I've never seen a Pa'aar–whatever," Vala replied. She sat down on the edge of the conference table and swung her legs.
"She was in your motel room!"
Vala straightened up. "Pardon me? John and his leopard were the only things in that motel room when I went out. Are you saying he – But he didn't even have any clothes. Oh, well, I suppose that wouldn't be a drawback under the circumstances."
"Leopard...?" Daniel echoed.
"Motel room?" Mitchell repeated.
"Indeed," Teal'c intoned, just to remind everyone of his awesome presence in the room.
The conference room door slammed open and McKay blew in like a particularly loud tornado.
"For God's sake, what did you do to Sheppard!?" he yelled at Vala. "He's locked in a cell with a leopard, singing 'I can't give you anything but love'!" He turned on Mitchell. "I'm sending those pictures to your parents, Colonel! Do you know how hard it is to find anyone who actually likes me? It's easier to find a ZPM! And now he's broken. He says it's talking to him."
Mitchell turned green. (Not as green as an Orion dancing girl, but more the 'find a garbage can, he's about to hurl' green. Not that either looked good on him.)
McKay collapsed into an empty chair and mumbled, "All I wanted was to get him out of that harpy's clutches."
"Leopard," Daniel repeated.
"Did I understand you to say that Colonel Sheppard has been confined along with a leopard, Dr. McKay?" Landry asked, slowly and wearily.
Landry looked at Daniel. "And do I understand that the Pa'aardeen ambassador is presently ripping the VIP quarters into little bitty pieces?"
"Leopard," Daniel repeated once more, like he'd lost any other word. His eyes had glazed. He snapped out of it suddenly and glared at Vala. "Where did you and Sheppard get a leopard, anyway?"
"Good question," McKay added.
Vala shrugged. "The circus. We were trying to take her back to Xaviero the Liontamer when General Landry insisted we return to the Mountain."
"The circus," Mitchell said and choked.
"Really?" McKay asked, looking interested. "You got Sheppard to go to the circus? That's amazing considering his clown phobia."
"I believe that the Pa'aardeen ambassador must be in the brig with Colonel Sheppard," Teal'c declared, "while the leopard from the circus is ensconced in the VIP quarters."
"I think you must be right, Muscles," Vala said.
"Well, then, get it straightened out," Landry ordered. He fled the conference room, wondering if it wasn't too late to take vengeance on Jack O'Neill for leaving him with this job and these people.
"Send someone to the supermarket, to every supermarket within driving distance and buy all the fresh basil and valerian they've got. We're going to need it to make up for whatever's happened to the Pa'aardeen here on Earth."
"I'll get right on it, sir. You have an appointment with Mr. Woolsey and Ms. Random, to discuss the funding for expanded gate team rosters and supplies for Atlantis in twenty minutes."
Landry sighed. Maybe he could stock O'Neill's fishing pond with piranhas.
John stood beside Daniel Jackson and McKay in the gate room after the Pa'aardeen ambassador left.
Parrm *coughchuffchuffclickcoughgraar" had invited him to come home with her, grateful for the rescue from the veterinary clinic at the zoo, but he'd declined. He hadn't actually lost his mind after all, which meant he would be going home to Atlantis soon. Very soon, since Woolsey and Random had decided that Atlantis needed the budget expansion more than the SGC. That might have been because Parrm had made John going home part of the deal to turn over weapons technology for basil. Probably even. But John had given up on pride years ago. What the hell, he figured. Elizabeth had blackmailed the entire IOA and SGC to get him his promotion, it only made sense that he kept his career thanks to a talking cat from another planet.
Nyssa the real leopard had been turned over to a big cat rescue operation, as Xaviero appeared to have embezzled all the circus' profits and fled to Belize, taking along only Inca the jaguar from his act.
Now they were waiting for the wormhole from Atlantis to open.
Vala tripped into the gate room as the gate went kawooosh.
She shared a funny look with McKay that made Jackson frown mightily. John wondered what they could possibly be up to, then decided he was better off not knowing.
He was distracted, thus, as Alice came through the wormhole followed by several other returning scientists.
"Dr. Swallow!" McKay greeted her loudly.
Vala's eyes widened for an instant, then she pounced on John, locking her mouth on his, kissing him with everything she had. He stumbled and fell on his butt, Vala coming down on top of him. When his head cleared, he heard Vala declaring, "I'll never forget the night you and I and Nyssa spent together, darling!"
Over her shoulder, he saw Alice purse her lips then strip his ring off her finger. She handed it to McKay, who was making the strangest face and hopping from foot to foot.
"Alice..." John had no idea what else he should say.
"I don't believe we are really suited after all, Colonel Sheppard," Alice declared frostily. "Not if this is the sort of behavior you have indulged in when outside of my company."
John looked at her, with her pressed uniform, scraped back hair, and sour expression and wondered if rather than going insane he hadn't actually just got his mind back.
"You know, I think you're right, Alice," he said and then pulled Vala down for another kiss.