Summary: John had stopped thinking of Mer'deth as a parasite long ago, but at some point he'd also stopped thinking of him as a passenger. Somewhere along the way, Mer'deth had become the other half of John's soul.

Please note there is a sort of Major Character Death Warning.

Updated: 14 Oct 2009; Published: 12 Oct 2009

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Story Notes:
This story was directly inspired by lavvyan's jaffa_for_hire AU, wherein John Sheppard is host to Mer'deth, a brilliant, arrogant, and not-entirely fearsome Goa'uld. This story is a sequel to her Lord of the Sea, and is a companion piece to her story The Extraction of the Goa'uld Mer'deth: A Brief Summary. You don't actually have to read those fics to understand this one, but I really hope you will anyway. They're not very long, but they're typical examples of Lavvyan's wonderful and inspirational storytelling. I'm very happy that she is so generous to let other people play in the universes she creates.

My beta for this was the incomparably incredible Squeaky.

I swear to God, Mer, I know what I'm doing! If you don't pull back and let me take care of this, we're both going to be dead! John whispered harshly inside his skull. He could feel the Goa'uld's fear and it was making it hard for him to concentrate. Not to mention that intense physical activity and combat weren't exactly Mer'deth's strengths.

"Sorry!" Mer'deth whispered a little too loudly with John's voice. John would have winced if he'd had control of his facial muscles. He'd gotten used to hearing his voice spoken by someone else years ago, but he knew the tense line of panic wasn't him at all. Mer'deth released control so abruptly that John stumbled.

"Thanks," he murmured, knowing the sarcasm would be completely lost on Mer'deth. He slowly eased his way around the corner, Zat gun ready.

He shot the two Marines before they even registered that someone was behind them, trying not to feel guilty about it as he pelted down the corridor. He'd only shot them once, after all. They'd just wake up with a headache, whereas John had no illusions about what would happen to him if he and Mer'deth were caught.

I still think you should just kill them, Mer'deth huffed.

"No, you don't." John rolled his eyes. "Give it up, Mer--you've never killed anyone, ever, let alone after you made me your host."

You chose me for your host, remember? and John carefully didn't hear the hurt transmitted with Mer'deth's message. And I've destroyed entire solar systems!

"Uninhabited," John hissed. He threw himself around the corner just in time to avoid a barrage of gunfire--looked like the SGC was still using P90s, the cheap bastards--then ducked back for just long enough to fire off another shot, felling the Marine. He took a second to think, mapping out Mer'deth's Ha'tak ship in his head. It was a given that the SGC teams would have the Tel'tak and Glider bays guarded, but if he could get to the ring transporter...

What are you doing? Mer'deth demanded. The ring transporters are that way! Right! Go right!

"Sorry," John murmured, skidding to a stop then launching himself in the opposite direction.

I knew I should never have told Ba'al about the ZPM! Mer'deth wailed. Of course that misbegotten worm would've led those cursed Tau'ri right to me!

"Well, maybe next time you shouldn't gloat so damn much. And last I checked, I was a 'Tau'ri' too, by the way." John was just glad he'd had the Goa'uld sharing his skull for so long that he'd learned to multi-task, having conversations mostly on autopilot while the rest of his mind focused on what needed to be done.

He couldn't tell if Mer'deth had heard his thoughts or not, but the Goa'uld sounded a little guilty. Oh, right. No offence.

"None taken," John muttered. He heard the sound of someone behind the door to the transporter room right before the panels slid open, and he cursed and rolled, hearing the crackle of another Zat as the energy sizzled right through the place his body had been. He hurtled to his feet, spinning as he did so, lifting his Zat to fire.

And stopped dead.

"Holy fuck," Cameron Mitchell said, gaping. "Sheppard?"

John fired and Mitchell went down twitching. John whirled and raced into the transporter room.

He recognized Teal'c just before the staff blast caught him in the belly, exactly where the Goa'uld would have been if he were a Jaffa. Standard combat training for Goa'uld's warriors, intended to be a killing blow.

All this went distantly through John's mind as the force of the blast smashed him to the floor. He dimly heard Mer'deth screaming something that might have been his name, and then endorphins were flooding his system so thick and fast that he actually burst out laughing.

His last thought before he plummeted into unconsciousness was the warm knowledge that Mer'deth was trying to heal him.

The dust was blinding him.

John tried to blink it away, his eyes aching, and then panicked when everything around him was just as dark. He couldn't see anything at all.

"Rodney!" he yelled, choking on dust. "Rodney!" He heard his own voice sharp as a gunshot, but nobody answered.

He tried to crawl in the direction that he'd last seen him, but as soon as he moved the thrumming, background pain exploded up his spine and into his head, leaving him nauseous and gasping. He threw up before he could control it, barely managed to move his head enough so he wouldn't inhale it back into his lungs. He knew the coppery salt taste in his mouth was blood.

John lay still for awhile after that, floating somewhere that wasn't quite conscious. The pain settled like snow, and he followed it like a trail, dimly aware of the throbbing in his legs, the dull agony in his abdomen and behind his ribs, the blood in his mouth. He slowly realized that the solid cold underneath him was smoothed rock; the solid, rough surfaces all around him were metal and stone, pieces of the Ancient outpost.

There had been an explosion.

John remembered: He was standing next to Rodney in what Rodney was pretty sure was the main laboratory of the outpost, the other two members of his team off somewhere down one of the tunnels, out of sight but within easy radio contact, leaving John and Rodney by themselves. John had stayed with Rodney ostensibly so he could help with anything requiring the ATA gene, but mostly so he could be with Rodney, far enough away for propriety in case the motley twosome came back, but close enough so that he could feel Rodney's body heat, reach out and brush his hand any time he wanted. And Rodney's quick, surprisingly shy smiles in return were worth all the waiting in the world.

Until Rodney stopped smiling, started hitting keys with a pace close to frantic, eyes going wider and wider and muttering Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, oh my God. And then his face went white.

"What is it?" John asked, picking up on Rodney's fear, feeling it pulsing in his chest. "What's happening?"

Rodney ignored him. He grabbed John's tac vest and started to run, yanking John after him. His free hand hit the radio in his ear. "Kowalski! Rothman! It's a trap, get--"

(And then dark, and then waking up in dark, and then nothing but silence and pain.)


"Rodney?" Rodney sounded bad--he sounded really bad, weak and wet like there was something in his lungs. But he was there and he was alive, and that was all that mattered. "Rodney! I'm here!" John moved towards the noise, dragging his broken body along the floor. He was prepared for the pain this time, but the agony still made it take years to cross the tiny space between them, until he could put his hand out and feel the skin of Rodney's face and all the blood on it.

Rodney's hand clasped around John's hand, holding on tight. "Oh, thank God," he breathed. "I thought you'd been buried too." John could feel the foam coming out of Rodney's mouth, smell dust and copper. He could practically feel Rodney dying.

"It's okay, Rodney," John said. "I'm here. It's going to be all right."

"No, John, it's not going to be all right." Rodney said, not quite panicked but urgent. "I'm trapped from the chest down, I can't even feel anything. And Kowalski and Rothman aren't answering their radios. They can't help us, even if they're still alive. And I know I won't be for very long."

"Don't say that, Rodney," John said, but there wasn't enough air in his lungs to put command into his voice, and when he tried to hit his own radio he found he was too weak to lift his hand. "We'll miss our check-in. They--they'll--"

"They'll be too late, John," Rodney said. He didn't sound afraid, just the same urgency in his voice. "Too late for me, and probably Rothman and Kowalski as well. But..." He swallowed, coughed, and John could hear the awful gurgling and the noise of pain Rodney made afterwards. "But not for you."

"Not for both of us!" John snapped breathlessly. He spat blood, heard the slap of it hitting stone. He was shivering. "You're still here, Rodney, and so am I. Just..." He took as deep a breath as he could, with ribs most likely broken and stabbing into his lungs. "Just give me a minute and I'll dig you out. We can find the tunnel back to the gate," he gasped. "Get help."

"You can't," Rodney said simply. "Can you even walk? I didn't think so," he went on before John could answer. "The ceiling fell on me. I don't even know how many metric tons of rock that is. If it wasn't for--right, sorry. I mean, I should be dead now. I will be soon."

"Shut up!" John hissed. "You--you're not--" Something shifted inside him, and suddenly he had nothing but blood in his mouth, he was drowning in it. He was distantly aware of Rodney calling his name, of their fingers intertwined; John holding Rodney's hand so tightly he might be breaking his fingers, Rodney letting him. When he finally coughed it was like a thunderbolt going through his chest. The world grayed out.

He woke to Rodney calling his name.

"M'here," he murmured, warmth of blood against his lips but the rest of him freezing cold.

"John! Please--please don't talk, okay?" Rodney said. He sounded weaker now, fading, but his voice was still strident, fiercely demanding John's attention. "Listen. Just listen."

John didn't have enough breath to answer, so he just squeezed Rodney's hand.

"Just--whatever happens, just...I love you," Rodney said. John could hear the labored wheeze of Rodney's breathing. "We both love you, so much. And maybe, maybe you won't forgive us for this, but, but it doesn't matter. We love you."

"Rodney." Concussion, John thought. That explained how Rodney was talking.

Rodney tightened his grip on John's hand. "Don't worry," he said softly. "I'm not...there won't be any pain for me. I'm sorry that it will hurt you, but it's the only way to save your life."

"Rodney," John hissed. "Stop--"

"I love you," Rodney said. "So long."

John heard Rodney's gentle exhale, like he was letting out the last of his life. His hand relaxed once and went still.

"No, Rodney," John said, breathless now with horror instead of pain. "No, Rodney! NO!"

He felt something touch his hand, warm and wet and oily, like a snake.

And then something hit like a pickaxe in the back of his neck, going in and in and in.

"You're not getting it," John said, for what had to be the fortieth time. "I'm not a prisoner. I volunteered. Why the hell do you think he's letting me do all the talking?" He strained against the restraints on reflex, wishing to hell that Mer'deth would just take over for a second and break them, but each time he moved his abdomen got a jolt of pain.

Stop doing that! Mer'deth hissed worriedly to him. Do you want them to shoot you again? I can't just keep healing you, you know!

John relaxed with a sigh, glowering at SG-1, who were all gathered around him in the Mountain's infirmary like he was some prize bull at a 4H club meeting. He could feel Mer'deth's exhaustion like an echo of the pain still gnawing at his guts. Mer'deth was working so hard to heal him that John was more than a little worried the Goa'uld would kill himself with the effort.

Daniel Jackson rubbed his eyebrow with his thumb, looking frustrated. "I'm sure you understand it's a little difficult to believe you, considering a Goa'uld can use its host's voice."

"Besides," Cameron Mitchell put in, "I know Sheppard. There's no way in hell he'd volunteer to have a snake in his head!" He was sitting next to Daniel, straddling his own chair backwards with his forearms on the backrest and his chin on top of them. He looked relaxed and vaguely amused by this whole thing, which neatly disguised the tension John knew was roiling underneath.

"I still do not see why we cannot simply remove the Goa'uld, since we have the technology to do so," Teal'c said. He was standing against the wall, staring at John with typically Jaffa cool disdain.

"Because we need that ZPM," Sam Carter said to him. She and Cam had both moved up a rank since John had last seen them. She was still just as beautiful, though, even looking at him with the exact same expression as Teal'c. "It wasn't on your ship," she said to John, though he knew she thought she was speaking directly to Mer'deth. "So you've obviously hidden it somewhere, which was clever, considering you must know that we won't remove you from Colonel Sheppard until we get that information."

"Believe me, he wants to tell you," John said. Mer'deth had been clamoring so loudly about it that it was giving him a worse headache than he'd woken up with. John figured the only reason Mer'deth hadn't charged to the forefront already and blurted everything was that there'd be even less hope of convincing SG-1 that John was, well, John if his voice changed and his eyes started glowing. And unless he could convince them that he really did want Mer'deth in his head, the Goa'uld was toast.

John couldn't let that happen.

"I know how hard it is to believe that I'm me," John said, trying to sound exasperated and not actually afraid. He turned his head as much as he was able with the band around his neck to look at Cameron. "That I'm really the one talking and Mer'deth isn't just using my voice. But you got to believe me, here. I did fight, in the beginning. God, I fought so hard I think I would've killed us both. So--Mer let me go."

"Right," Cam scoffed. "And then you were so overcome by his generosity that you changed your mind." He shook his head. "Nope, not going to buy it."

"Goa'uld never let their hosts go," Daniel said, and the hard edge of pain behind his words froze John to the core.

"I believe that is the plot of Beauty and the Beast," Teal'c said.

"Yes it is," Daniel said. He was starting to sound angry now. Not good. "I'm sure if we wait long enough you'll give us the plot to The Wizard of Oz. He stood, coming so close to John that he loomed over him. "We're not interested in your games, Mer'deth. Where's the ZPM?"

"You're going to rip him out of my head!" John barked. "Why the hell should he tell you?"

"We have many ways of procuring this information," Teal'c said. He didn't have to come close to loom. "It would be better to simply tell us now."

"What, you're going to torture me?" John demanded, aghast.

"Believe me, we don't want to hurt your host," Sam said, looking apologetic but frighteningly resolute. "But that ZPM is vital for the defense of Earth."

They're going to torture you?" Mer'deth sounded even more horrified than John. Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I can't let them do that! What if they hurt you?"

"I think hurting me's kind of the point, Mer." John said out loud. SG-1 looked at him strangely, probably thinking this was some kind of ploy. "It doesn't matter," he went on quickly, "you can heal me, right? But that ZPM's the only leverage we have here!"

I know, John, Mer'deth said. But I don't care. I'm not going to let them hurt you!

John felt Mer'deth surging forward, and his whole body arched in the restraints as he fought him back, resisting in a way he hadn't since he'd willingly bared his chest to the Goa'uld two years before.

"What's happening?" Sam asked worriedly. Everyone was crowding around his bed, no clue what was going on.

"Listen to me!" John ground out, forcing the words between his teeth as he struggled to keep his body under his own control. "Mer'deth's brilliant, a genius. You need him. He can you weapons, shields. Help you fight the Ori! You have--!"

John's words cut off on a cry. His body spasmed and then fell back to the bed as Mer'deth finally wrested control from him. For a second the world glowed orange as John looked out through what were now Mer'deth's eyes.

"I'll tell you where the ZPM is," Mer'deth said breathlessly with John's voice. "I'll give you the coordinates. Just--just don't hurt John. Please, don't hurt him. I'll tell you anything!"

"Well, that was easy," Cam drawled. He sounded almost disappointed.

There was no more pain.

John slept, or he thought he might have slept; it felt more like sleeping than anything else. (Dream of his body moving, like he was watching himself from somewhere distant, warm and safe.) All the pain was gone, cut off like it had never existed. As if the explosion, being wounded, Rodney's death had never happened.

He thought he might have gotten out of the ruins like that, if the ruins were real. He knew Kowalski and Rothman were dead because of the sorrow he felt (except that it wasn't his own, somehow, like he was looking at it through a window). Sometimes, though, he could feel Rodney's death, a sudden agony of loss, and the grief would be his and not only his, and it would build and build like a never-ending echo until John thought it would kill him and the pain of his injuries would come roaring back and he wanted it, wanted to die--and then it would be gone again, boxed up, and John would feel nothing except the warmth and the safety and the lack of pain and there would be a voice saying, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's all right. You're all right. You can sleep, John. And John would.

And then he was staring up at a bright blue sky, on ground that was fragrant and meadow-soft beneath him. He was out of the Ancient outpost, aboveground again. He didn't remember getting here. His legs felt mostly fine, but his abdomen and lungs still hurt like hell, like a wound that had only started to heal. It was so bad that for a long time all he could do was lay there, arms wrapped around his torso, trying to breathe through the pain.

Someone was talking to him.

I'm sorry. I didn't know you were that badly hurt. How could you have even been talking when you were that badly hurt? Don't you have any sense of self-preservation at all? I can't do any more. Not right now. I need to rest, or I'll die and then we'll both be screwed. And by 'screwed' I mean, more screwed than we are now. Because we won't be late for our check-in for another half-hour, and I'm not entirely certain either of us are going to make it until then. I should've healed your internal bleeding first. I know that. Bad call. But it was dark, and the ceiling had come down, and I think I might've picked up Rodney's claustrophobia because--

"Rodney? Rodney!" John tried to sit up, only to fall over onto his left side in the grass, curled around the flare of agony. He coughed and spat more blood, but he didn't know if it was his stomach or his lungs. I shouldn't be alive, he thought with numb certainty. But Rodney was there--John had heard him..."

Oh, no, oh no. It's not Rodney, John. I'm so sorry. Rodney's dead. Do you remember what happened? He...he died, John. I tried to save him, I really did, but he was so badly hurt, and you weren't trapped so you had a better chance, and we didn't--we couldn't leave you.

John closed his eyes against the merciless blue of the sky, feeling the tears roll down his face into the grass. Rodney was dead. He knew it as certainly as he did for the rest of his team, and the anguish of their deaths (oh God, Rodney) was his own and not his own. And Rodney had loved them both so much, and now he was gone--

John's heart staggered into pounding. The feeling of wrongness slid into his mind like a blade.

"Who are you," he demanded, spitting it out like the blood between his teeth.

Please, John! The voice--the voice that wasn't Rodney's, the voice that was in his head--sounded frightened, nearly frantic. Please, please calm down! You're going to make your injuries worse, and I can't help you!

"Who are you?" But John realized with another jolt of adrenaline and pain that he knew. He knew what this was; he knew.

I'm Mer'deth, the voice said.

And yeah, that was a Goa'uld name. John had become a host to a fucking Goa'uld.

John woke up with a headache so bad it felt like someone was prying off his skull.

There was nothing but black emptiness where the Goa'uld had been: vast and cold as the distance between the stars. It was like when Rodney had died, only worse. Then, John's pain had been mitigated by rage. His struggle for the sovereignty of his own body had been all-consuming, eclipsing grief and memory, even thought, until he was suddenly in a medical bed in a Tok'ra tunnel, and he was free and Mer'deth was gone.

After that, when Mer'deth was inside him again, his in a way John had never experienced with anyone before, their mourning was a shared thing, each using the broken parts of the other to make something mostly whole again. They had both loved Rodney; when they lost him they each had lost just as much. There was some comfort in that.

Eventually comfort had become a kind of love in its own right. John had stopped thinking of Mer'deth as a parasite long ago, but at some point he'd also stopped thinking of him as a passenger. Somewhere along the way, Mer'deth had become the other half of John's soul.

And now he was gone too.

John bit back the scream clawing at his throat, and it lodged there like a stone. He was so full of anguish and horror and rage that John thought he might die if it let it out. He clenched his jaw so tightly it immediately started aching. He couldn't help the tears, though. John swiped the water from his face, trying to control his breathing and waiting for the voice in his head that wouldn't come.

"Hey," someone said softly, and John's eyes snapped open. It was Mitchell, expression gentle and hopeful and satisfied, like he'd just saved John's life. "I know this is probably--"

John flung himself out of the bed and into Mitchell, knocking the chair over and bringing both of them down to the floor. His hands were around the Colonel's neck, and he grinned in vicious satisfaction at how loud the crack was when the back of Mitchell's head struck the concrete.

"Where is he?" John demanded, his voice low and growling. He wasn't crying anymore; the fury had taken care of that."Is he still alive?"

Mitchell was struggling to breathe, his hands prying uselessly at John's fingers. John had no doubt Mitchell was a better fighter than this, but he hadn't expected this attack and right now John had no problem with killing him and Mitchell knew it.

John lifted Mitchell's head just enough so he could crack it down again. "Is he still alive?" he snarled. "What did you do with him?"

Stupid--he'd been stupid. It hadn't even occurred to him that there would be other people in the Infirmary, or that they might call for help. He suddenly had two large men hauling back on his arms, lifting him bodily off the floor and away from Mitchell. John kicked and fought and bit and raged, but then Mitchell grabbed one of his flailing legs, and someone else took the other one, and the last thing John felt was his head being wrenched to the side, and someone plunging a hypodermic into his shoulder.

The dark that followed was just a new kind of emptiness, but part of John was grateful for it.

He snatched his gun out of the holster and lifted it to his head.


John's hand jerked violently as the gun fired, sending the bullet streaking off into the sky. His arm swung away from his body, his finger convulsing over the trigger until the magazine was empty. The Goa'uld abruptly let him go, and John's arm dropped to the ground.

I'm not going to hurt you, John! Please listen to me!

It took three tries before John could get to his feet, and the blast of vertigo that came with it was almost enough to send him sprawling again. He forced his leaden legs to move, carrying him swaying and lurching towards the Gate.

He crashed into the DHD, and then had to wait a long time for the world to stop swimming. Hopefully not too long--he had to dial out before the SGC tried to dial in, or they'd know something had happened and they'd come to make sure his team was all right. John couldn't let them find him like this.

Mer'deth was screaming something like an audible migraine in the back of his head, trying to get John to stop, insisting that he was going to die like this, if he didn't rest and wait until Mer'deth could heal him. John just grinned, dripping blood on the DHD. He tried to wipe it away but only succeeded in smearing red. Maybe whoever came to find them wouldn't notice.

The snake was scared for his own oily skin, John knew, because if John died he would as well. John wanted to live, but he'd gladly kill himself if it was the only way of taking the Goa'uld with him.

He sure as hell wasn't going to bring him back to Earth.

I've been on Earth for five years! Mre'deth shouted, and wasn't that just a kick in John's already bloody teeth, because John had only met Rodney four years ago, which meant he'd never met Rodney at all.

It was all a lie: every argument, every smile, every shared beer or crazy story or sorrow or joy, or every secret, forbidden stroke and push and thrust of skin-to-skin. John hadn't been in love with Rodney; he'd been in love with whomever Mer'deth had wanted Rodney to be. And now Rodney was dead and John didn't even know who he was mourning. He hadn't ever known.

That's not true! Mer'deth was like a siren in John's brain. He was there! He was always there! He loved you--we both did! I still love you.

John gritted his teeth and hit the gate keys at random.

Wait. What--what are you doing? No! John was staggering towards the Gate, trying to throw himself into the wash of energy. Mer'deth grabbed control again, except the Goa'uld was almost as weak as John was and could only send him sprawling to the ground. The impact was like an explosion behind John's ribcage and he almost blacked out. He managed to hold onto consciousness by the skin of his teeth.

John yanked control of his body back, smiling grimly at Mer'deth's squawk of fright. John started crawling towards the Gate, then managed to heave himself to his feet. He all but fell through the event horizon.

The Gate spilled him out on a planet in winter, blizzard raging around him. John dropped to his knees forward into the snow, spattering drops of red. The cold was already stinging the skin of his cheeks, his fingertips, settling in.

He should've just dialed the SGC, he realized, thrown himself into the iris. John thought about doing that, but he was too weak and too cold to move again. It wasn't like this wouldn't do the trick anyway.

Don't do this, John, Mer'deth begged him. Please. Please don't do this. I can't--I'm too weak. I can't move you. Please get up! You're going to die!

"Yeah," John said, barely a whisper into the snow. "You and me both." He closed his eyes.

The snow floated down, not even that cold anymore. John waited.

"I'm very sorry about the handcuffs, John, but I'm sure you understand why we might need to be cautious," the psychiatrist said. He'd introduced himself, but John hadn't been paying attention. The shrink had big, serious glasses like Daniel Jackson, and grizzled hair that he probably thought made him look grandfatherly and approachable. He had a pad of paper and a pen, and was making notes even while he was talking, even though John hadn't said anything.

"I tried to kill Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell," John said. It still felt strange to be using that title, since the guy had still been a Major when John went missing. John had his cuffed hands resting on his lap, the chains dangling down between his knees and pooling on the floor. There were chains around his ankles as well. It was kind of flattering, especially given how his abdomen was still painful where the staff weapon had nearly cut him in two. Mer'deth hadn't had a chance to finish healing him before they'd torn him out of John's head.

Shrink guy blinked, as if he hadn't expected John to tell the truth. "Yes, well, you did." His sympathetic smile crawled back onto his face. "So I'm afraid you'll need to wear those until we can be certain of your--"

"Compliance?" John broke in.

"Mental state," Shrink said, his mouth curved down in an ever-so-slightly disapproving frown. He drew a breath, settled back in his chair a bit, obviously about to say something important. "John--"

"My title is Lieutenant Colonel," John said. They weren't buddies, much as the shrink was trying to pretend like they were. "Please use it."

Shrink paused for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Very well. Lieutenant Colonel--I presume you've heard of Stockholm syndrome."

John stared at him. He purposely kept his fingers relaxed, his face showing nothing of the seething rage inside. He imagined Mer'deth's indignant, sputtering reaction to what the guy said and he smiled inwardly. It helped a little.

The Shrink waited a moment, like he was expecting John to say something. He cleared his throat. "Stockholm Syndrome occurs occasionally during kidnapping or hostage situations," he said. "When someone is abused for long enough, they may come to sympathize with, or even like or admire the people who put them into that situation. It's considered a form of cognitive dissonance, where a victim might engender warm feelings towards his captors in order to reconcile his need for safety and comfort with the constant stress, helplessness and fear of his surroundings."

"I wasn't helpless," John said. "I wasn't afraid, either. Mer'deth's like a Tok'ra. I volunteered."

Shrink put his fingers on his lips, looking thoughtful. "I can understand that right now it must feel very much like that, that what happened to you was your choice." He looked straight at John, eyes earnest and kind. "But you need to accept that this was inflicted on you, that you were forced into being a prisoner in your own body, that Mer'deth was nothing more than a parasite, and that there's no shame in what happened to you, or how you reacted to it in order to survive."

John was very careful to keep his expression neutral, though he couldn't help how his fingers twitched. "Where is he?" John asked.

Shrink's eyes widened, then he actually looked disappointed. "I'm sorry, Jo--Colonel. It's really not in your best interests for me to tell you that, given your current state of mind."

John felt the thick leather cuffs on his wrists and ankles, his naked feet, and kept from baring his teeth. "Is he alive?"

More disappointment. "I'm sure you understand why I can't tell you that, either."

John was very careful not to clench his jaw. He rubbed his stomach with one hand, feeling the rough scar under the thin material of his hospital scrubs. The clink of the chain moving was shockingly loud in the suddenly silent room.

The scar might be the last thing he ever had of Mer'deth; he would have lost him and Rodney both. Because of people like the sanctimonious psychiatrist, sitting there so fucking certain that he had John all figured out. Because of SG-1, who were so certain that they'd saved John from a fate worse than death, that someday he'd realize it and thank them. It didn't matter what John said; no one believed him. He was all alone, here, among people who used to be his colleagues and friends. He'd won a medal for heroism in Afghanistan, helped save his team, the Earth, the entire fucking Milky Way more times than he could even remember, and all of that meant nothing. No one was going to believe him.

The chains on his wrists were heavy, designed to slow him down. The ones on his ankles kept his stride short so he couldn't run, but there was less than a body-length between him and the shrink. And John was used to moving very, very fast. The guy was still holding his pad and pen when John had his wrist chain looped around his throat.

"If you scream I'll snap your neck," John said. He kept his voice quiet so he wouldn't alert the two Marines standing guard outside. He glanced at the camera high in the far corner of the room, knowing he didn't have much time before the cavalry arrived. He lowered his head so that his mouth was right next to the shrink's ear. He could hear the rapid puffs of Shrink's breathing. "Where is he? I know you know."

The shrink stared up at him. He looked more composed than John had expected. "I'm trying to help you, John," he said, though his voice was panting a little too much for true calm. "I know this is what you think you want, but--"

John tightened the chain, just a little. He wasn't actually going to kill him, but he doubted the shrink knew that. "I'm not going to ask you again."

He felt Shrink's throat move as he swallowed. "I don't know," he said, his voice tense over his rapid breathing. "I'm telling you the truth--there's no reason for me to know."

John gritted his teeth. "Is he on the base?" He moved his hands again, just making the loop of chain slide on the guy's skin, but he sucked in a breath anyway.

"I don't know," the shrink said. He sounded almost angry. It reminded John of Rodney, which was the last thing he needed to be thinking about.

The door burst open and the two Marine guards spilled in, Zats drawn and pointed.

"Hey, guys," John said pleasantly.

"Let Dr. MacKenzie go, sir. Please don't make me shoot you," the younger one said. He looked really upset at the idea of having to Zat a superior officer. The other one--older, craggier, likely had done this a thousand times for one reason or another--just stood there grim-faced and silent, Zat sparking.

There was no way John could take them both, not with the chains. He doubted he'd make it to the door before they stunned him. So he heaved up on his chains instead, forcing MacKenzie to stand. The pad and pen dropped to the floor. John caught the word delusional before the pad slid under the chair and out of sight. MacKenzie put his hands up to his neck, scrabbling at the chain, trying to loosen it.

"How about you let me go, instead?" John grinned, keeping MacKenzie mostly in front of him. He could tell by the agonized expression on the young Marine's face that there was no way he'd shoot him and risk hitting the shrink. John figured that the older one probably would, but it was worth the gamble. It wasn't like he was getting out of this either way. "Or we all take a nice walk to where--"

The older Marine shot John and MacKenzie both, which was exactly what John would have done.

The crack of thunder woke him gasping.

He was lying on his side in a cave, floor sandy and sun-warm but muddy near his head like maybe he'd thrown up at some point, but he didn't remember that. The world outside was greenish and thick with ozone. Between one blink and the next there was a flash of lightning, and then the storm started pounding down.

John stared out at the hissing curtain of rain and tried to remember how he got there or where he was. The last thing he was sure of was snow: white everywhere, cold so deep he'd barely had time to feel it before it'd sunk into his bones. But he was hot now, despite the rain outside and the cool air streaming into the shallow cave. He could feel the sting of sweat in his eyes, smell it on his skin. The minute weight of his clothing hurt. His lungs were on fire and his belly was full of stones.

Mer'deth. The name came into his head without context or reference, and for a long moment John didn't know what it meant, and then it was like a switch was thrown in his brain, and he remembered the dark in the cave, trying to get to Rodney, and then the pain of something burrowing into him and the cold, terrible knowledge that Rodney was dead physically now, but had really died long before John had ever known him.

That's not true, John.

John sucked in a breath that rasped like sandpaper. He tried to cough but couldn't expand his lungs that much. "Thought you were dead," he whispered.

Not yet, despite all your efforts to the contrary, which really sucks, by the way. And is completely unfair, considering all I've done is help you, Mer'deth said. He sounded bizarrely petulant, considering John could feel how weak he was, somehow, how badly he was straining even to communicate.

"Want to help, get out of my head," John murmured. He tried to push himself upright, only to end up panting on the ground, hands digging like claws into the sand.

I can't, John, even if I wanted to, Mer'deth said. I'm so weak now that if I left, I'd release my toxin--I wouldn't be able to stop it. You'd die too.

"Don't care," John said. It was difficult keeping his eyes open, but he fought against slipping unconscious again, letting the Goa'uld take over.

I care! Mer'deth blasted him weakly. I don't want you to die--why do you think I dragged your sorry ass out of the snow?

"Save yourself," John said. His eyes slid shut and he blinked them open again. They were gritty and felt as hot as the rest of him. If he could just get up, pull himself out into the rain...

You've got a fever, John, Mer'deth said. It's taking all my strength right now to keep it from frying your brain. You need to stay here and rest. If you keep trying to move you're going to tear something else, or put your rib deeper through your lung. And--I won't be able to fix that. You'll die.

"Good," John said.

Not good! Mer'deth shot back fiercely. Completely not good! Don't you understand? It--this isn't about me. I mean, I want it to be about me. I'd really, really like it if you could get your probably-concussed head out of your ass and listen to me for once, not that you ever did, mind you, but this isn't about me saving my own life, precious and unique though it is. I want you to live. Don't you get it? I love you. Just...just as much as Rodney did. You--you need to stay alive, okay? Please.

"Fuck you," John muttered. He gave up trying to keep his eyes open. "Liar."

It was weird--John could feel how hurt Mer'deth was. That's what you really think?

"Yeah," John breathed. You're all fucking sociopaths, he thought, because he knew he couldn't manage to say all those words.

More hurt, and John got an image, completely unwanted, of Rodney: all shocked expression with big, wounded eyes. John shoved it away.

What about the Tok'ra?

John made a sound that didn't have enough air to be a laugh. "Not Tok'ra."

Mer'deth went thankfully silent after that. John smiled to himself and dozed a bit, listening to the endless rushing of the rain. He was thirsty, and he thought about pulling himself to the cave entrance and maybe catching some drops of rain in his mouth, but every time he tried to get up he just fell back in the sand again.

I'll show you, Mer'deth said all of a sudden, and then John's mind was being flooded with images, sounds and emotions that weren't his own, that he knew weren't his own, and John let out a roar of fury and horror and tried to shove them away, tried to physically push himself up, out into the rain, anything, anything to make it stop, to keep his mind his own where his body no longer was. But he couldn't.

"You bastard," he hissed, as he was plunged into Mer'deth's memories. And then he was seeing his reflection somewhere but it was Rodney's face, and he was looking in a pool of water deep in a cave.

John had never been to that planet, but now he knew that PK4-M3 was where a society of renegade Jaffa had been hiding from their System Lord, with a High Priestess who was about a million years old and knew so much about physics and astronomy that Rodney treated her like a venerated grandmother when he pretty much sneered at everybody. But the Priestess was dead, now. Her body was lying peacefully, hands soft at her sides, a small smile on her face like life had been well-accomplished. And John knew her pouch was empty because Rodney did, because the Priestess had been so old she was dying despite her young Goa'uld--almost a Prim-tah, a little baby--doing his best to sustain her, and that she had begged Rodney to take her larvae to save him.

Rodney had been horrified at the idea, understandably, but then the Priestess had told him about how she had communicated with her Goa'uld during Kelno'reem, and how this one was special, how this one had wanted to learn everything she knew about the universe and more, how all this one wanted to do was keep learning, to make discoveries, to build wondrous things. He didn't want to be a System Lord. He didn't want slaves; he wanted knowledge, and he had so much to give in return. He knew so many things that Rodney would never know, otherwise.

And Rodney, because the word knowledge was magic to him, magic enough to override his fear, and because he trusted the Priestess (Eyn'mon, her name was Eyn'mon, and Rodney kind of loved her because she was everything he wished his real mother had been) and because if she cared for the little worm-thing so much then maybe, maybe he was different enough to be good after all...Because of all that, Rodney said yes, and he reached into Eyn'mon's (squishy, disgusting) pouch, and he put the trembling child Goa'uld to his chest with a hand that was shaking just as badly. And now he was looking at his reflection in the pool of the cave, but those weren't his eyes.

I am Mer'deth! the little Goa'uld crowed in Rodney's head. Bow to me! I am your GOD.

In his memory, Rodney scoffed. "Nice try, squirt. In case you hadn't noticed, I don't bow to any God, least of all one that looks like a legless naked mole-rat."

Oh, Mer'deth said, sounding embarrassed. But that's what we're supposed to say! It's in my genetic memory.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, Eyn'mon said you didn't want to be a System Lord, so you might want to rethink the proclaiming yourself a God all over the place. Especially as that's a great way to get you a one-way ticket to the Tok'ra and a personal fishtank."

This is true, Mer'deth said.

"No kidding," Rodney groused, and he sounded so much, so exactly like the Rodney John had known, the same Rodney John had always known, that he gasped, heart pounding again in something like hope.

In the memory, Rodney climbed to his feet, then leaned backwards with his hands on the small of his back. "I need to get back to the others, or they're going to come looking for me, and I don't want them to find..." He swallowed, blinking, and John could feel how deep his sorrow was. "I don't want them to find her gone and check for the larvae," he said, more quietly.

I miss her a lot, the Goa'uld said, and John could feel his sorrow, too.

"Yeah," Rodney said roughly. "Me too." He took a deep breath. "But it's you and me now, okay? And if you can manage to stay quiet and cut out the 'I am your God' crap, I think we might--I think we might have a pretty good relationship. Can you manage that?"

Of course I can, Human, Mer'deth said, as snotty as a teenager, but John, because of Rodney, could also feel the Goa'uld's fear--fear that he couldn't do this, fear that he would be caught, fear that he might accidentally hurt Rodney and be found out and put in a tank and then he'd never be able to learn anything at all. And he would be all alone.

"It's okay, Mer'deth," Rodney said softly. "I know Eny'mon's gone, but you have me. You won't be alone." And John knew how much Rodney understood what being alone meant--how often Rodney had been alone, and so, so lonely--and John shut his eyes tighter, because he knew how that felt, too. God, did he know how that felt.

That memory faded as Rodney rejoined his team, and then suddenly John was looking at himself (younger, thinner, shorter hair, looking stiff and ridiculous in the dress blues) and his own eyes were so dark and haunted that John knew immediately when this was, how recently he'd come back from Afghanistan.

"This is Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," Colonel Carter was saying. Her hand on John's shoulder looked like she was trying to keep him from bolting. Two minutes ago John had just seen a Stargate for the first time. "He's going to be leading your team, now that Colonel Dixon's been reassigned." She smiled, patting John's shoulder. "Remember to be nice, Rodney, or I'll tell General O'Neill on you."

Rodney had smirked at her, besotted as always, but it was Mer'deth who practically did cartwheels around Rodney's brainstem when Carter had leaned over and given him a kiss on his cheek.

"Take care of him, okay?" she whispered. "He's never done this before."

It was Mer'deth that made Rodney's head turn to watch Carter walking away, but he relinquished control immediately afterwards.

"So, um, you're meant to be some big hero, right?" Rodney said to John just as John was extending his hand, mouth open to say something pleasant. "Well, I hope that means you'll be willing to throw yourself between me and the ever-present possibility of death whenever necessary, because, as I'm sure you know, I'm the preeminent expert on Ancient, Asgard and Goa'uld technology, and therefore far too important to risk getting hurt." The shared moment of smugness between Rodney and Mer'deth--because Rodney's knowledge of Goa'uld technology came mostly from the Goa'uld in his head--wasn't something John expected, either.

They were friends. He could feel it, like a layer of warmth over the memory. Rodney and Mer'deth liked each other. They were friends.

Rodney grabbed John's hand before he could pull it away, shaking it vigorously, and John remembered how he'd decided to feel more bemused than irritated, how desperate he was for a distraction from his grief, how very little like a hero he felt, with Captain Holland less than a month dead.

"I kind of skipped the taking bullets for the scientist course at the academy," John said, putting on his best fake smile.

Rodney scowled. "Yes, well, you can't be entirely stupid or you probably wouldn't be here, so I guess you'll learn. Come on." He turned and started stalking down the corridor, expecting John to follow. "Apparently you've got the ATA gene, and it's still an hour before they start serving dinner, so you might as well make yourself useful. Well?" he asked, half-turning when he realized John wasn't right behind him. He snapped his fingers. "I haven't got all day, here."

"I can see this is the start of a beautiful friendship," John drawled, then grinned as Rodney rolled his eyes.

He is unbelievably hot, Mer'deth said.

Yes, Rodney thought back to him, using more decorum than John had ever figured he possessed. Yes, he is. And he's also in the American Air Force, so you're going to keep my hands to yourself, got it?

Yes, Mer'deth said glumly, but John couldn't miss the wistful longing there, from both of them.

The next memory was Rodney looking at John's face again, but this time John was in a hospital bed in the Infirmary in the Mountain. Everything about the scene was so generic that John didn't even know which injury this had been, except that he was unconscious and intubated and probably just post-op, so it must've been pretty bad.

I wish you could heal him, Mer'deth said to Rodney. His mind-voice sounded hushed, and John could feel how deeply upset he was, because Rodney could. They have a Healing Device right here in the Infirmary! You could just grab it! Please?

"Shut up!" Rodney kept his voice down, but there was still snap in it, though the anger was because Rodney was afraid; John almost hadn't survived this one. "Don't you think I want to? Hell, I know you know how much I want to! But I can't! We'd get discovered, and--and you...they'd take you away from me." He shook his head, looking down, and John realized Rodney was holding his hand. "I don't want them to take you away from me."

I know, Mer'deth said. I'm sorry. I just hate it when he gets hurt.

"Me too," Rodney said, voice rough.

God, how they loved him.

It nearly stole what little breath John had. He didn't know if this memory was before or after Rodney had told him: that crazy, fantastic moment when Rodney had burst wild-eyed into John's anonymous little apartment and said, 'I'm sorry, I can't not do this anymore', and kissed John like his life had depended on it. And John didn't know if he was in love with Rodney by then either, by the time Rodney was holding his lax hand in the Infirmary. Or if it had still just been infatuation, John's heart thumping like a kid's whenever Rodney was in the same room.

It didn't matter. What mattered was what Mer'deth was trying to tell him, as it spooled out behind his aching eyes: John had always known Rodney, and Rodney and Mer'deth loved him.

But John's body was his, and Mer'deth was still a violation that filled John with revulsion to the very core of his being. He couldn't do this. He couldn't live like this. He wouldn't.

I know, John, Mer'deth said, sounding resigned and fond and sad. It's all right. I know.

They started giving him pills, pink and blue ones, like babies. John didn't know what they were.

He knew what they did, though. They made everything inside him hazy and distant, like he was looking at his emotions through a window but couldn't touch them. Like when Mer'deth would share with him without John feeling what he felt. But now John was doing it by himself, and he was too foggy most of the time to know if that was ironic or not, but he knew it wasn't what he wanted. It was just really hard to care.

SG-1 visited him a lot. Mitchell would tell him funny stories that John smirked at and forgot the next second. Carter brought him magazines and journal articles that might've interested him if he'd been capable of paying attention. Teal'c just sat quietly, meditating, as if he knew about the silence where Mer'deth had been and understood what that meant. John thought he would probably have appreciated that, if his head was clear enough to appreciate anything.

Jackson would sit next to his bed and talk about Sha're, about the Goa'uld that had stolen her body, about how brave she was, and how Teal'c had killed her to save him and how Jackson was glad about that, now, that she hadn't continued to suffer. He kept looking at John like John was meant to get it, like John should realize what a gift he'd gotten, his freedom.

John was alert enough to know he wanted the chains off, to know he didn't want to walk around feeling like his head was full of sand. He knew that fighting hadn't gotten him anywhere.

So he nodded solemnly to Jackson, and he probably would have felt badly about it when Jackson started blinking back tears, except that John couldn't feel much of anything at all.

It worked pretty well for him, though.

He started saying stuff at his daily counseling sessions, instead of having bets with himself like how long he could stare at the new shrink before she blushed or coughed or laughed or got that wary look on her face; or how many times he could make the chains on his wrists and ankles clink before she started making these long exhales to conceal her irritation. Figuring out what she wanted to hear became John's new game: seeing how her eyes lit up or her head tilted or she started nodding, depending on whether or not he said the right thing.

He pretended to have his requisite epiphany right on cue, and she actually leaned across the space between their chairs and held his manacled hands as John blinked a lot and told her how awful it'd been, how helpless he'd felt, how he knew now that he'd made up a scenario where he and Mer'deth were friends to keep himself from going insane.

The Shrink was hugging him by the end of it, with her slender arms wrapped around his shoulders and John's head resting on her breasts like a child. John couldn't hug her back because of the chains, and part of him actually wanted to, because he'd had another person sharing his body for two years, and now it was just him and no one had touched him for months--nothing more than a hand on his shoulder, or to hold him down while they injected him with something else, until the pills started kicking in and he didn't care enough to fight back anymore.

The meds blunted everything, but John knew intellectually that he was lonely.

There was light all around him.

"He's awake," a man's voice said, and John tried to turn his head, to see where the voice was coming from, but he could barely move, and the light was everywhere, blinding.

"Don't move," someone else said. "We are almost finished with your healing, but you were gravely injured and ill, and you could still do yourself harm."

John blinked, too tired to really understand. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Shh." That was the second voice again, female, standing somewhere outside the light. "Don't distract them. What they're doing takes a great deal of concentration."

"You are safe and you are being healed," the man who had first spoken to him said. "That is all you need to know for now."

"Rest, John," the woman said. "We will speak later."

John fell asleep wondering how she knew his name.

A couple days after John sold Mer'deth out they took the chains off. John figured that was mostly a win.

It took a little longer for the meds to change, but one evening he had only the pink pill in the tiny paper cup the psychiatric nurse brought him. John thanked the guy and pretended he didn't notice and wished he could feel something about the victory other than being distantly pleased, but this was the start, at least--he was going to get clear, now. All he needed was time.

(Too much time had passed already. John knew that, though he didn't know how many months he'd been there, trapped under a mountain like a bug in the dirt, filling the hole in his head with drugs he didn't want, waiting until they trusted him enough to take off the God-damned chains.)

He started caring about things again, which meant that finding Mer'deth became a necessity and not just something to keep him focused. It made it harder to pretend, harder to smile and say, you're right, it was terrible, how could I have thought I wanted that? and, No, I understand. I don't feel ashamed, and ignore the betrayal spitting off his tongue like poison. It made it harder to worry about Mer'deth every damn day and not be able to do anything. Patience had never been a strength, and now that he was aware of the days and weeks and months as they passed it became a torture, so bad that John wasn't sure how much longer he could pretend that he was recovering and not just snap and go for someone's throat again.

And there was no one, no one at all who knew how he felt. Everyone in the Mountain was a stranger to him now. His time apart from them and their lack of trust had taken care of that.

A week after he stopped getting the pink pill either, John started crying in the psychiatrist's office and couldn't seem to stop. He was curled up on the chair, sobbing so hard he couldn't speak, too blindsided to even feel humiliated. The Shrink handed him tissues and rubbed his back and told him calmly how this was natural, it was just to be expected, that this was an excellent thing he was doing, letting it all out. This was how he would be able to heal.

He wanted to say, this isn't healing. This is me cracking apart.

"I don't get it," John said. "You mean, the planet with the Noah's Ark rainstorm--that's where you found me?"

"Yes." The Tok'ra nodded. John knew he was speaking to Ceridwen because her voice sounded normal human. The Tok'ra were polite like that, not pulling out the snake without ample warning. She'd introduced both herself and Oreh, her symbiot and told him she was one of the Tok'ra he'd spoken to while they were healing him, but only Ceridwen was talking to him now. "We are on the same planet. This is one of our bases." She didn't smile--Tok'ra didn't smile much, apparently--but her eyes sort of looked like she was. "I'm afraid I can't let you know the name."

"Sure," John said distantly, nodding. He was still caught in what Ceridwen had just told him. "That doesn't make any sense," He shifted in the chair, feeling the leather like material of his apparently standard-issue Tok'ra pants slide unpleasantly as he moved. He had no idea how the Tok'ra could stand wearing this crap all the time and still carry out guerrilla warfare. "I mean, that's got to be a coincidence, right? There's no way Mer'deth would have willingly taken me to you."

Ceridwen looked a little impatient with him. "I believe you misunderstand. Mer'deth did not come here accidentally. He knew we frequented this planet. He wanted you to be found."

"What? No." John shook his head. "No way--he had to have known what you were going to do. There's no way in hell he would've just waltzed through the Gate and let you capture him!" He shook his head. "That's nuts."

"I cannot speculate on the wisdom of his decision," Ceridwen said, "but he made it obvious from the start that he was fully aware of where he was and the consequences of it. As soon as our scouts came upon you, Mer'deth begged..." Ceridwen's mouth twitched. "Well, to be accurate he demanded that we heal you, because he himself was too weak to do so. And then he promised to tell us all he knew of the System Lords if we removed him from your body."

There was a small section of corridor, about twelve feet away from John's quarters, that John was mostly sure was in the camera's blind spot. That was the place he chose to take his two guard-dogs out.

It was pretty simple--John figured that after all his smiling and nodding and sob sessions they could probably hear through the door of the shrink's office that the Marines had stopped worrying about him. The young guy, Corporal Morris, chatted at John all the time now, telling him about his mom and his girlfriend and the latest gossip in the mess hall and how eager he was to get off-world again (no offence). The older guy, Sergeant Grossman, should have known better, but John guessed that after seeing the same guy day after day for months he might start getting a little friendly, too. Lima syndrome.

So Morris was in the middle of some stupid story about this pole dancer John was sure he had no chance with, and Grossman was shaking his head and chuckling, and John was smiling and shuffling along amicably between them until he hit that spot about twelve feet from his door, and then he shoved Grossman into the wall, yanked the Zat out of the Sergeant's holster while he was still stumbling, and stunned them both.

Then he grabbed Grossman's ID and ran like hell.

He'd been re-kitted with a set of generic green jumpsuits with empty Velcro shapes on the arms and a pair of boots so new they were still squeaking, but at least the standard uniform meant that almost no one gave him a second glance as John went by them. And John forced himself to walk whenever he went through the more public areas, Zat held down and on safety by his side and trying not to act as winded as he felt. He'd been in great shape before he and Mer'deth got captured, but he'd been cooped up for months. His body remembered how to run, but his lungs and heart weren't used to it anymore.

He made it to the main elevators without any alarm sounding, which was more than John had expected and also pointed to the SGC having some serious complacency problems. He swiped Grossman's card with a hand that shook just a little bit, slid gratefully into the elevator and hit the button for the second-lowest level. That was where most of the labs were, and where they'd most likely keep a Goa'uld. Unless he was in the Infirmary, but John knew that if he went in there he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting out again. So he bet on Mer'deth being kept in one of the labs. It made more sense, anyway.

John refused to think that Mer'deth was dead. He was definitely in one of the labs. The only question was whether John would get recaptured before he found him, and John would make damn sure he wasn't.

The laboratories were mostly empty this time of day, with everyone going for dinner or going home. That was one of the reasons John had chosen to do this now. The other reason was that any later at night and he'd be locked in his room.

He galloped around a corner and skid to a stop in front of the first lab, already bolted tight. John gritted his teeth and swiped Grossman's card through the scanner, and it blatted a noise at him and the red light went on and the door didn't open.

"Shit!" John didn't waste time trying it again. He looked around--there had to be an open lab, someone with no life but a higher security ID card, hopefully too absorbed in his or her work to notice John sneaking up on them.

The fourth lab was like that.

John spent a couple seconds pressed flat against the wall next to the open door, just controlling his breathing, going over the next steps in his mind: run in there, Zat everyone while they were still blinking behind their glasses, get the cards and go.

He lifted his arm, made sure the Zat was ready to fire, then took a breath and ran through the door and nearly shot Rodney McKay.

"So, what happens now?" John asked.

"You are free to go," Thoran said, or rather, his symbiot did. Thoran was the first Tok'ra John had heard when he woke briefly during the healing. His symbiot was named Mehshu and was a female and wouldn't shut up. And she seemed to like how creeped out John was with the deep, synthesizer voice, which only proved John's private theory that the Tok'ra were just as big assholes as the Goa'uld, except that they directed it at different targets.

"Yeah, I got that," John said, trying not to narrow his eyes. They'd saved his life after all, and pulled Mer'deth out of his head. He figured he could be polite in spite of the bitchiness. "What I meant, though, was what's going to happen to Mer'deth?"

"He will be executed," Mehshu said, like this was the most obvious thing ever and John was a moron for not knowing it. "That is what we do with Goa'uld."

"You're going to kill him?" John exclaimed. He kept himself still only with effort; the surge of protectiveness he felt for the snake had completely poleaxed him. "But he didn't do anything!"

Thoran blinked. "He is a Goa'uld," Mehshu said, like that fact alone was reason enough. She didn't seem too happy with John's protest. "He also stole your body from you, did he not? I am honestly surprised why his execution should not be a relief to you."

"He--he didn't really steal my body," John said, though his stomach still twisted at the memory: something squirming into him in the dark, the peace afterwards that he knew now was all Mer'deth's doing, flooding his brain with endorphins, melatonin and serotonin; anything to keep John out of it. He hadn't asked to host the Goa'uld. He would have rather died than turn his body over to him.

But Mer'deth had only done it to save him, even though Mer'deth had to have known how badly John was going to react. That wasn't theft; that was self-sacrifice.

"He didn't steal my body," John repeated. "He...used it, to save my life."

"And his," Mehshu said, like that was the only relevant part. John had been sure of that himself at the time, but he didn't really think so anymore. Mehshu made Thoran's body lean closer to him. "And yet you are here because, as you yourself said, you fought his control so fiercely that it would have meant both your deaths, had he remained."

John swallowed. "He let me go," he said. "He knew you were going to execute him, but he came here anyway."

"Yes." Mehshu nodded. Thoran's head bobbed on his neck like she hadn't practiced the move often enough. "And I have to admit we were wondering why that would be so, since he gained nothing from it."

"He didn't want me to die," John said, remembering the planet where Rodney died, Mer'deth begging John to let him save his life. "He's sacrificing his life for me."

"Ah," Mehshu said thoughtfully. She stroked Thoran's chin, which somehow looked ridiculous. "That's difficult to accept."

"I know," John said quickly. "But it's true--it's got to be true. I mean, why the hell else would I be here, right? You can't just kill him for that!"

"I'm afraid his motivation for delivering you to us is irrelevant," Mehshu said. "He is Goa'uld, and if we are to rid the galaxy of their evil, we cannot allow any of them to live."

"What you're doing is evil," John spat at her. He meant it.

"Rodney," John breathed into the long, aching silence.

"John?" Rodney blinked at him. His blue eyes were huge and astonished and just like John remembered. He was perfect, standing there like nothing had happened to him. "What--what are you--"

"You were dead," John told him. He wasn't breathing right, too shallow and fast. The world started going grey at the edges and the Zat slid out of John's hand, thunking unnoticed on the floor. John swayed, took a step to steady himself but his legs gave out.

Rodney caught him, his hands clutching fistfuls of John's jumpsuit, but all he managed was to carry them both down until they were seated together on the concrete floor.

"You were dead," John said again. He grabbed Rodney's shoulders and the still-familiar solid shape of them was like a punch in his chest. "You were dead! You died and we left you there!"

It was the meds--it had to be the meds. John had stopped taking them and now he was so fucked up his control was gone, nonexistent. He could feel himself shaking, cold like he was going into shock. His brain was such a mess of elation and rage that he felt like he was about to explode.

"Oh my God, John!" Rodney was saying. He was still holding John's jumpsuit, like he had to physically keep John there with him. His expression was wide open, looking as blasted as John felt. "Are you all right?"

"No," John said. He wanted to pull himself closer, but couldn't seem to move. "You died," John said. He had been there, still remembered it exactly as it had happened. Mer'deth had felt it.

"Yes I did," Rodney said softly. "The SGC has a sarcophagus."

John made a sound not even close to a laugh, and that did it, somehow broke the spell around him and let him move. He hauled Rodney to him, wrapping his arms around Rodney's back.

Rodney did the same thing. "God, you're freezing," Rodney said. "Why didn't you come back?" John could hear the years of misery in his voice, the bright, deep stab of betrayal and the loneliness. "I waited for you to come back."

"I'm sorry," John said. He nuzzled into the curve of Rodney's neck, wishing he could get closer to him. "You were dead. There was no reason to come back. We couldn't...didn't want to be here without you."

"Oh," Rodney said softly. He moved his hand to the back of John's head. "But you're back now, right? That's why you're here, isn't it?" The hope in Rodney's voice was heartbreaking.

"No," John said. "They found us." He forced himself to lift his head and look Rodney in the eyes. "The took Mer'deth. He's gone. I think--I know he's somewhere here. I was trying to find him."

"That's terrible!" Rodney said, stunned, and John almost smiled at the familiar understatement. "I thought--I thought you had him. I thought he was still in you."

"No," John said, shaking his head. "They thought I was his prisoner. No one believed me."

"Oh, God, John," Rodney said. "Oh my God. That's horrible. How long have you been here? No, never mind, that's not important." Rodney snapped his fingers, and John could practically see the ideas clicking into beautiful order behind Rodney's eyes. "Okay, listen," he said quickly. "Here's what you have--"

John heard the clatter of boot steps the same instant Rodney did, and suddenly Rodney was shoving him away, scrambling off the floor. "Get away from me, you psycho!"

John was still gaping at him when the Marines stunned him, again.

"Ceridwen," John said, "I need to ask you something."

Ceridwen regarded him levelly, which seemed to be the only way the Tok'ra regarded anything.
"If this is about clemency for the Goa'uld, he has no information of value to us," she said, "I'm sorry. If there was ever a Goa'uld who deserved mercy, it is Mer'deth. But I'm afraid the execution will stand."

"It's not about that," John grit out. He wanted to pace, punch the wall, possibly even punch Ceridwen, but he couldn't do any of that. They were standing facing each other in one of the wide, crystalline tunnels of the Tok'ra's underground base. Ceridwin had her hands clasped in front of her, half buried in the folds of her dress skirt. She looked very proper and Victorian.

She arched her eyebrows elegantly when John didn't say more. "Then what is it you wish to ask me?"

"What's it like?" John asked.

Ceridwen blinked mildly at him. "To what are you referring?"

John clenched his jaw. How could he even contemplate doing this if he couldn't say it? He squared his shoulders. "You have a symbiot," he said, as if challenging her to deny it. "How do you live like that?"

The question had come out far less neutrally than John had intended, but Ceridwen just cocked her head a little, like she was seriously considering his question. "I fear I know why you're asking this," she said. "Are you certain this is what you want to do, John?"

John swallowed. "Just tell me."

Ceridwen kept looking at him, John had no idea what she was searching for in his face, but finally she nodded. "Very well. I have shared this body with Oreh for so long that I can scarcely remember my life without her, but I will try."

John nodded tightly. Shared this body. It sounded like a nightmare, but John made himself listen.

Ceridwen's eyes grew distant for a moment, and for the first time John saw her smile--a small, dreamy thing that nonetheless made her look decades younger. "It was...difficult, at first. I joined the Tok'ra because my mother had been killed by a Jaffa, for nothing more than being too slow to kneel for the System Lord's procession. She was carrying my little brother at the time, and only wanted to put him down first. I believe my brother was taken after she had been killed. I heard he'd been taken. The most I ever discovered of him was a rumor of a young Jaffa who looked like me, who had been stolen as a child--some Goa'uld Queens have the power to do that, you understand. Make Jaffa. In any case I have never seen him again."

John winced.

"That was many years ago," Ceridwen said softly. She took a breath, gathering herself. "So through dint of great effort, I found the Tok'ra, and was given Oreh. And at first, as I said, it was very difficult." She smiled again, as if at her own foolishness. "For twenty years I had been my own master, at least as much as slavery to our false God allowed. My time was not my own, but my body was, as were my thoughts. It was a terrible blow to suddenly have to share them both. And it didn't help that Oreh was very young at the time and quite impulsive." Ceridwen shook her head fondly. "She had a bad habit of taking over my body unexpectedly, and somehow she always managed to do it when I was climbing or running. I can't tell you how many bruises and scrapes were the result of her interference."

"How can you take that?" John demanded. "Knowing that something can steal control of your body at any time?"

Ceridwen looked thoughtful. "Well, we had a common goal, and that helped. And Oreh certainly never wished to hurt me. She always healed me as fast as she could, with many apologies. And she learned, eventually, to give me fair warning or ask permission. It was the same with our thoughts. I was very jealous of keeping my memories and ideas to myself, so I loathed it when Oreh explored my mind without asking. But again, in time we created an accord about it. And of course Oreh is an open book to me as well."

John nodded. It still sounded like hell, all of it. Just like what he'd gone through with Mer'deth. "How do you trust her?"

He thought the question might have surprised her, but then Ceridwen smiled. "If I stopped trusting everyone who was ever selfish, thoughtless or impulsive, I believe I would be quite alone." Her expression became thoughtful again. "You asked what it was like, however, and I haven't really told you. Yes, Oreh," she tisked. "I had indeed thought of that. Excuse me," she said to John. "Oreh is very shy, but that never prevents her from voicing her opinion." She took a breath. "It's...nothing like anything you've probably experienced, really. I suppose it's somewhat like sharing a small dwelling. You're both in there at the same time, so the trick is to give the other as much space as possible. But it's more than that," she said before John could break in. "It's" Her gaze turned inward for a moment, and John knew she was talking to Oreh again. "Yes. Thank you." She lifted her head. "The best I can tell you is that Oreh is the second half of me, as I am for her. She is my friend, and my sister, and far more than either of that. Together we are more than whole." Ceridwen's smile was beautiful, and John felt like he was looking at the woman as she had been before her mother was killed and her brother stolen. "I am far richer for hosting her than I could have ever been without."

John stared at her, and Ceridwen let him. She looked serene, John thought. Happy.

John wondered if Rodney had felt like that. He wondered if he could.

"Excuse me," Ceridwen said quietly. She bowed her head, and when she raised it again John knew he was looking at Oreh, something in the way she held her face.

"I think you need to know something," Oreh said. "Do not underestimate a symbiot. If you were able to fight for control of your body, it is because he chose to let you."

"No, that's not true." John shook his head, guts clenching with revulsion. "He tried to--he couldn't. He told me he was too weak."

Oreh nodded. "Are you aware of how you arrived at this place?"

John's brow knit in confusion. "Yeah. He took me to this planet and you guys found us."

"Yes," Oreh said. "But what you don't know is that it was you who found us. Mer'deth was extremely weak, that is certain, but he walked through the storm until one of our scouts saw him." She went on while John stood there, all but gaping. "There is a reason why the Goa'uld claim that nothing of the host survives. It's because they lock their hosts up so tightly inside their own minds that they are no longer aware of any part of the outside world. It is an existence so close to death as to be no different. Mer'deth could have done that at any time. He could have kept you quiescent until your wounds were healed and forever after. Instead, he chose to weaken himself almost to death to give you freedom. Think on that, Colonel Sheppard." Her eyes glowed like an exclamation point.

One of them--John wasn't sure which--inclined her head gracefully then continued walking down the corridor. John stayed where he was. He thought about Rodney, who wouldn't share his coffee if he didn't have to, willingly--gladly--sharing his entire being. And Mer'deth, who could have taken John's body completely and never given it back.

John's body was his own again. He was free to leave. He could do whatever he wanted. But if he left Mer'deth here, Mer'deth was going to die.

John never left anyone behind.

"I'm truly sorry about this, John," the shrink said. She was standing on the other side of the prison bars. "I really thought we were making progress."

"I want to speak to Rodney," John said.

The shrink looked like she wasn't sure if she should be frustrated or sad. "I've already told you, John, we can't do that. It's a question of his safety."

John didn't try to insist that he hadn't done anything to Rodney again; they hadn't believed him the first ten times, and they weren't going to now. "I'm behind bars," he said. "I can't even touch him."

"His physical safety isn't really an issue here," the shrink said, "but his emotional safety is." Her lips pursed in a pretty moue. "I can't go into details, but suffice to say he was in a very bad mental state when we revived him. We don't want to risk triggering another breakdown."

John wondered who the hell 'we' were. "Why didn't you tell me he was alive? Why didn't you tell him I was here?" he demanded. He kept his voice even, but he guessed that there was something showing in his eyes, because the shrink backed up a step, despite the fact that John was sitting on a bench on the far side of his cell.

"You may not remember this," she said, looking regretful, "but you were highly delusional and violent after we removed the Goa'uld. We didn't want to risk you having a psychotic episode and attacking Dr. McKay."

"So you thought it would be better just to keep us believing that the other was dead," John said flatly.

"Yes." The shrink nodded. "To protect you both."

John tightened his hands around the edge off the metal bench until it felt like there was no blood in his fingers. If he lost his cool here he knew there'd never be a chance of his getting out again. "Is he all right?"

"Yes, he's fine," she said, but didn't elaborate even when John waited for it.

John swallowed. "I'd really like to see him."

"I'm sorry, but that's not possible right now," she said.

"When can I get out of here?" John asked.

For a moment the shrink looked like he'd lost what was left of his mind, but she regained her composure quickly enough. "I'm not sure you understand the seriousness of your situation, John. You attacked two Marines, stole a Zat gun and an ID card, then used it to access restricted areas and assaulted Dr. McKay."

John knew his jaw was twitching; he didn't answer.

The shrink hesitated as if waiting for him, and then went on, "Given your recent behavior, the only reasonable conclusion is that you've been completely compromised by your time as a host to the Goa'uld." She looked sorry. "I personally have never seen a more severe case of brainwashing." She pursed her lips again, as if hating to have to say whatever was coming next. "And the truth of the matter is, this is out of my depth. I can't help you."

That sounded so ominous that John stood up, though he was careful not to come closer to the bars. The Marine standing conspicuously by the door looked all-too-eager to use his Zat, and John was a little sick of being stunned. "What does that mean?"

The shrink pulled in a defeated breath. "It means we're going to move you to a different facility, where you can be properly deprogrammed." She smiled sadly. "I'm sure, given time, you'll be able to have a team again."

"I don't need to be 'deprogrammed'!" John shouted before he could think about it. He rushed the bars and grabbed them. "God damn you! You don't listen to me, you drug me and lock me in a fucking cage and won't even let me see my--my best friend, who I thought was dead, and then you have the hubris to tell me I've been brainwashed and need 'deprogramming'?

The Marine's Zat shot up, but the shrink raised her hand, stopping him. "I can see you're very upset about this, John--"

"Damn right I'm upset!" John shouted as he yanked ineffectually on the bars. "I've told you and told you that Mer'deth didn't hurt me! I told you I volunteered to host him! But you'd all rather think I was crazy than even consider that I was telling the truth and you might be wrong! So yeah, I'm a little fucking upset!" He smacked his hands on the bars as he pushed himself away to stalk over to the bench again. He lay back and threw his arm over his eyes.

"I'm tired," he said. "I'd really like to be left alone now, please. Unless you think I'm so fucking compromised that I can't be by myself in an empty cell."

The shrink cleared her throat delicately. "There was some question of self-harm."

John laughed, bitter as acid. "I really think you've done enough harm for the both of us."

The Tok'ra guard was so easy to take down John was almost embarrassed for the guy, except that when John grabbed his Zat and stunned him the guard fell against the transparent fish tank thing they were keeping Mer'deth in, and it slid off the electronic pedestal and smashed on the floor.

"Shit!" John dropped to his knees among the wet shards. He let the Zat go so he could scoop up the Goa'uld. Mer'deth was squirming madly, flipping like a fish over the glass. His long, light-grey body was streaked with his species' bluish blood.

"Mer'deth! Mer'deth! Stay still! I'm trying to help you!" John didn't know if the Goa'uld was too panicked to listen or couldn't hear him out of water or what, but Mer'deth didn't stop moving even when John tried to cup him in his hands. John ended up grabbing him in both fists like he would a snake, sucking in air when his sliced his fingers on the glass. "You'd better heal that," he muttered.

Mer'deth stopped moving as soon as he was off the ground, lying limp in John's hands. He stared up at John with one enormous, terrified eye, like a mouse in a trap. Minute shudders ran through his body like vibrations under the smooth, alien skin.

John knelt on the wet floor, fragments of the tank cutting into his shins even through the stupid pants, and he held Mer'deth in his hands and stared down at him and it felt like he couldn't breathe.

He was giving away his body, if he did this. He wouldn't be John Sheppard anymore. He'd be half of a dual entity, or maybe a prisoner. Oreh and Mer'deth had said that Mer'deth had purposefully given John autonomy, control of his own being, but that didn't mean Mer'deth wouldn't just take over now. And if he did, John would be lost. An existence so close to death as to be no different.

John almost dropped the little Goa'uld right there and fled.

Except. He was willing to die for you, John remembered, and the light in Ceridwen's eyes when she'd told him about Oreh: Together we are more than whole.

But Oreh wasn't a Goa'uld. Then again, neither was Mer'deth, not really. And if John didn't do this, Mer'deth was going to die. He was already dying, because John was hesitating, because he was afraid.

Rodney hadn't hesitated.

And maybe that, in spite of everything else, was what made John lift his hands and put Mer'deth gently against his chest--because that was what Rodney had done.

It didn't hurt quite as much, this time. Maybe because John was expecting it.

Thank you, Mer'deth whispered in the back of his mind.

John didn't answer him. He scrabbled the Zat off the floor and lurched to his feet, trying to decide which direction to run.

I think there's a Tal'tak bay to your right, Mer'deth said. We--you, I mean--can steal one and go into hyperspace. I think that will be safer than trying to get back to the Gate.

"Maybe," John said. "Maybe not."

It's your choice, Mer'deth said.

"Yes it is," John said.

He turned to the right and started running.

"Hey--hey, John! Get up!"

It was the urgency of the whisper that woke John up, a particular tightness to the voice that he knew as well as his own, even after two years without hearing it. John bolted upright, was at the front of his cell a second later, hands clamped tight around the steel bars.


"Yes, yes, it's me," Rodney said brusquely, while John stood there blinking. Rodney squinted worriedly in the red light the SGC used in the cells at night, so the prisoners could sleep while being visible on the security cameras. "Are you all right?"

"They said I couldn't see you," John said. He was sure he should be doing something--Rodney had to be there for a reason; he was fiddling with the lock on the door--but all John could do was stare at him. Rodney was wearing a dark green jumpsuit that looked a lot like John's, with its pockets bulging. He'd gained a bit of weight since John had last seen him, and maybe his hair was a little thinner, but the piercing, fiercely intelligent eyes were exactly the same. Rodney had the same crazy, wonderful smile.

"Yes, well, a reasonable precaution, really. Considering how you brutally attacked me in my own lab." Rodney looked over his shoulder, expression going soft and sad. "I'm really sorry about that," he said. "I really--God, I hated doing that. But I couldn't risk doing anything that might make them put me under guard, too."

Like being too sympathetic with the obviously insane escaped prisoner. John got that.

Rodney was still looking at him. "Boy did I miss you," he said.

"Yeah," John said, voice rough. He nodded again. He looked up at the camera, glowering down in the corner of the ceiling. "Um..."

Rodney had turned back to whatever he was doing with the door and the tools in his pockets, but he seemed to understand what John was saying anyway. "Yes, because I would've completely forgotten about the cameras when I came to bust you out. Actually," he turned again, and his smile was pleased. "I'd just been thinking, blackout, you know?" He made a sharp gesture with one hand. "Zap! And we'd be laughing. But Mer'deth thought it'd be better to loop pre-existing footage, so unless someone looked twice everything would be business as usual."

John had heard almost none of that. "Wait, Mer'deth?" He pressed so close to the bars that his face hurt. "You found him?"

Rodney blinked at him. "Well, yeah," he said, like it was too obvious even to mention. "Before we came to get you. Why do you think I was talking about him?" Whatever he saw on John's face made his eyes go wide. "Oh, yeah, okay." He went back to the lock. John heard the faint, beautiful click as it disengaged.

Rodney slid the door open, and he and John were standing face-to-face again.

"Hey," Rodney said, his smile hopeful but uncertain. "We, uh,"--he gestured at the door--"we really should--"

John surged forward and kissed him, holding Rodney's face in his hands. Rodney was startled, but he sank into the kiss almost immediately, sliding his hands around John, his palms streaks of warmth as they smoothed up and down John's back.

Rodney sighed in pleasure into John's mouth and then licked it away, his tongue gliding alongside John's. John had never forgotten the taste of him.

"God, I've missed you," Rodney said when he finally, gently pushed John away. He touched John's face, briefly stroking his fingers down John's cheek.

"Yeah," John said, nodding. He didn't want to try to say more than that. He hugged Rodney instead, allowing himself to hold on tight, for just a minute. It had been so long.

"Hang on," Rodney said when John let go of him. He blinked, and when his eyes opened they glowed orange.

"Are you all right?" Mer'deth said.

"Mer!" John kissed him too. Mer'deth kissed almost the same way Rodney did--meticulous and thorough--but there were subtle differences in the nudge and slide of lips and tongue that astonished John by how much he recognized them. He'd known for a long time that Rodney and Mer'deth had shared, whenever Rodney was with him. But John hadn't expected he would be able to tell the difference.

"I'm fine," John said when they broke apart, and did his best to ignore the searing jealousy that took him completely by surprise, speaking to Mer'deth but looking at Rodney's face. John had been host to Mer'deth for two years, and it didn't matter that he knew intellectually that Rodney had hosted Mer'deth for longer, or that this was the only way of getting Mer'deth out of the base. John wanted Mer'deth looking out through his eyes, snug around his spine. It suddenly hit him that he'd never have that again.

"We really need to go," Rodney said, back in control now, and John nodded absently and went with them, automatically moving in front of Rodney.

"Let me lead," Rodney whispered in his ear. "It's part of the plan." He put his hand on John's wrist to stop him then squeezed gently before he let go.

John didn't like it, but he trusted Rodney and Mer'deth, and they'd gotten this far; he was sure they could get him out.

He followed Rodney down the corridor, matching Rodney's hurried, purposeful stride. Rodney used his own ID card to access the elevator, and then stood in the car with his arms crossed and foot tapping impatiently as if his biggest concern was arriving late to a meeting.

The elevator ground to a halt and let them out into part of the mountain John recognized but hadn't seen for a long time. This was the way to the Control room, with the Gate room right below them. Rodney just kept up his brisk walk like he wasn't doing anything unusual.

"Try not to look suspicious," Rodney murmured to him. John rolled his eyes, smiling despite how adrenaline was sizzling along his nerves.

"Walk casual?" he whispered back, then smiled sweetly when Rodney glowered at him.

And then they turned the corner to the Control room, and John set his shoulders back, leaving his hands relaxed and ready at his sides, knowing there would be a fight. Rodney glanced back at him, expression completely open and maybe a little scared, and John nodded.

Rodney's mouth flickered in a smile, and then he was storming up the stairs, full of bluster and self-important irritation.

"All right, what the hell problem here was so serious that you needed to drag me away from my lab?" he demanded of the room, and the two bored Gate technicians whirled in their chairs and stared at him. "Well?" Rodney stomped his way over to the tech on the far end of the room before the man could get a word out. He glanced back at John, as if his presence was barely significant. "You handle that one, if you can manage it." He snapped his fingers and pointed imperiously, but he was already glaring at the tech again. "Let me tell you, the damn Mountain had better be on fire--"

John was just able to catch the orange glow of Rodney's eyes as Rodney let Mer'deth take over. In one swooping move the Goa'uld grabbed the tech by the front of his garrison shirt and tossed him into the wall. The tech hit spread-eagled, then slid down to the floor.

The tech Rodney had assigned to John was a woman, and she was about as prepared to be attacked as the guy had been. John hauled her out of her chair and into a choke hold, trying to hurt her as little as possible while still cutting off her air. He lay her down gently as soon as her eyes rolled back, but he still felt guilty as hell.

John didn't know if it was Rodney or Mer'deth opening the iris on the Gate, but when Rodney looked over, John knew it was him.

"Um, do you think the throwing thing was overkill?" Rodney gestured nervously at the tech he'd taken out, now sprawled on his side on the floor.

"He'll be fine," John said curtly. He'd taken hits just as bad, though he didn't envy the guy when he woke up. He swallowed, watching tensely as Rodney hit the keys to open a wormhole. It seemed to take forever before the last chevron was locked and the Gate finally burst into a bright disk of blue water.

Instantly, the Unauthorized Gate Activation alarm went off.

"Let's go," Rodney said. John nodded, already moving.

They ran down the stairs and up the ramp and then side-by-side through the event horizon, shimmering behind them blue as freedom.

The SGC had stolen Mer'deth's pyramid ship, but that was fine; he had another one.

That was where the Gate address had taken them: to the planet where the ship was locked in orbit. Rodney found the controlling device for the ring transporter exactly where John and Mer'deth had left it. Seconds later they were home.

"We'll need to gather our Jaffa," Rodney said. They were in the Goa'uld's suite, as kitschy and tackily opulent as the previous one, on the bed large enough to fit six people. John didn't know if Rodney was murmuring his plans to Mer'deth or John or both of them, but he wasn't really listening anyway. He grunted something in reply and finished pulling off McKay's jumpsuit. It fell to the floor next to John's and he kicked them both aside. The life those uniforms represented had been over for him years ago, and he felt nothing but relief to not be wearing one anymore.

Rodney was looking up at him from where he was lying on the bed, resplendent as a king. His cock was hard and red and there was something close to wonder in Rodney's eyes, and for a long moment John couldn't do anything but stare back at him.

John swallowed, throat suddenly thick in a way that had nothing to do with how Rodney was waiting like a gift. "I never thought I would see you again," he said.

"Me too," Rodney said just as seriously. He lifted his arm, beckoning. "Come here."

John did, crawling onto the bed and onto Rodney, sliding up his body, touching as much of him as he could. Rodney hissed as their groins met, cocks rubbing, then grabbed John and rolled them both onto their sides, kissing John almost frantically.

"Wait, wait," Rodney said suddenly, pulling away. He put his hand over John's mouth when John followed, trying to reach his lips again. "Um, Mer'deth wants me to tell you that he'll stay back, if you want. You can be with just me. If you want that."

"No," John said. He didn't even have to think about it. "I want you both. It's always been both of you."

The happy sigh from Rodney's mouth might have been Mer'deth, but John didn't care. He pulled Rodney into another kiss, reaching between them to take both their cocks in his hand.

"Oh, God, yes," Rodney said against John's lips, and then his hand batted John's away, and John knew that was Mer'deth--impatient, demanding, sumptuously generous Mer'deth--who knew John as well as John knew himself and who was able to make him shudder and gasp with a practiced, perfect twist of Rodney's hand.

"Oh, yeah," and that was Rodney again, taking up Mer'deth's rhythm. "That's it. Come on, come for me, John. Please, I want you--"

John moaned and buried his face against Rodney's neck, his breath hitching and ragged as he bucked and thrust into Rodney's hand. He came so hard it made him dizzy, and he ended up giggling stupidly into Rodney's shoulder, laughing at himself and so incredibly happy.

Rodney made a desperate noise, but it was Mer'deth who pushed John onto his back like he weighed nothing, who rutted into the crease of John's hip, dragging the head of his penis through the slickness of semen and sweat. John could see the instant the Goa'uld retreated, giving Rodney the climax, and Rodney threw his head back and came.

"Jesus, that was good," Rodney said a little while later. He was lying mostly on John, and John was kind of uncomfortable, but not enough to really want to do anything about it. Especially since Rodney had his head on John's shoulder and was carding his fingers through John's hair in slow fascination.

John smiled, sleepy and content. His arms were linked over Rodney's back. "Mmm."

"I'm so glad you're here, both of you," Rodney said, and John could hear how very much he meant it.

"Yeah," John said, pulling Rodney closer. "M'glad you got your snake back." Part of him really was. Mer'deth had belonged to Rodney first, after all, and John knew how awful it felt to have emptiness where part of yourself had been. But he knew because he felt that emptiness now, and he wanted Mer'deth back, and that wasn't going to happen.

"He resents that word, you know," Rodney said mildly. He kissed John's shoulder. Rodney was silent for a moment, and then he lifted his head. His expression was grave. "Mer'deth wants to know something," he said.

"What?" John asked, worried now. "What is it?"

"Is it okay if he talks to you?" Rodney asked.

John nodded. "Yeah, sure. Of course."

"Okay, hang on..." Rodney's eyes flashed orange.

"With Rodney as my host, he'll live longer than you," Mer'deth said.

John nodded again. "Yeah," he said, smiling ruefully. "Though chances are that would've happened anyway."

Not if I could help it." Mer'deth snorted, as if John's protectiveness was a personal insult. "Well, I don't want that to happen," he added imperiously. "You're too pretty to allow to become old and ugly and...and die."

"Thanks," John said caustically. He shrugged as best he could with Rodney's body laying on him. "It's natural, though. That's what happens."

"Yes," Mer'deth sniffed. "Well, I was thinking we can do something about that."

John went still. "I'm not using a sarcophagus."

"Of course you are, because homicidal insanity would just exponentially increase your attractiveness," Mer'deth said caustically. "I wasn't talking about a sarcophagus. I was talking"

John blinked, tried not to pay attention to how his heart sped up in hope. "That's not fair to Rodney."

"Well, no, it wouldn't be fair if I took you as my host permanently," Mer'deth said. "But Rodney and I were discussing it just now, and there's no reason why you can't share me. I mean, I could, perhaps, spend a few years with Rodney, and then a few years with that." He sounded almost shy about it, as if there was some possibility that John would refuse. "As long as I'm healthy--which really shouldn't be a problem for, oh, about two thousand years--I can keep from releasing toxins when I come out. So, that is, it wouldn't be a problem. For us, I mean. If you wanted it?"

John took a few breaths, hoping his voice would sound normal. "And Rodney's okay with that?"

"Like I wouldn't be," Rodney scoffed, but he belied his tone by cupping the side of John's face. "I don't want to watch you getting old and frail any more than Mer'deth does."

John smirked a little, but there really wasn't anything funny about this. "I don't know what to say."

"How about yes, stupid?" That was definitely Mer'deth.

This time John really laughed, happiness bubbling out of him. "Fine. Yes, then, if you're just going to bitch about it."

"Oh yeah." Rodney gave a great, put-upon sigh. "You two are squabbling already. I must be home."

"We are," John said, holding them close, everything he ever wanted. "We're home."