Recipient: camshaft22

Pairing: Alison/Laura, John/Cam, Dusty/Ronon and some random others

Rating: R

Word count: 23300

Warnings: none

Disclaimer: I do not own the Stargate franchise nor will I ever get any money for this story. It is for enjoyment purposes only.

Summary: The McKay Foundation is holding their first ever Innovative Engine competition. Anne Teldy and her team have set their sights on winning but a few things get in their way. The good thing about the whole mess is that they find out who they really are.

Notes: Thank you, camshaft22 for giving me a good excuse for playing with the Whispers folk. This story took on a life of its own. I hope you enjoy it. This is an Alternate Universe story.

"And this is Jumper Bay Twenty Three. No idea why they call it that. I didn't help with the names of these things."

Alison was the first one of the team to walk into the large hanger that had looked, on the outside, as deserted as the rest of the old military base. With the door thrown open to provide some light, it appeared more mysterious than derelict. The basics had been provided, per the agreement offered to all the teams, so there were shiny new tools hanging up on one wall and several larger pieces of equipment beside the large hydraulic jack in the middle of the room.

She didn't care about those, though. Her eyes alighted on the panel of computers off to the side of the room and the rolling cart parked next to the solid table. The tech they had was a thing of beauty, all shiny chrome and dust-free keyboards. She ran her hand longingly over a hard drive the size of a pack of playing cards. For months, she'd longed for one of these new computers but they were slightly out of her price range. For that matter, this particular box was out of most people's price range.

"Mama's home," Alicia cried from the middle of the room, her arms outstretched as if trying to hug the contents of the room at once. Alison had only just met the girl but she was pretty intense about, as she called it, "heavy metal" and this was all definitely heavy metal. On the ride in, Alicia had talked about the GTO she was fixing up and Alison had just been nodding along, pretending she understood any of it, until she heard the phrase, "Hands covered in grease? Yeah, that really turns me on." After that, she had actively followed the conversation in the hopes of catching any other tidbits of information about the pretty mechanic. Unfortunately, she seemed to appreciate people of the male persuasion which disappointed Alison more than she cared to admit.

Alicia wasn't just any old mechanic. Just like Alison wasn't any old scientist who knew a thing or two about streamlining machines after six years in CalTech's aeronautical division. Anne Teldy, the team's captain, had hand-picked this team of women with one goal in mind - to win the ten million dollar prize being offered up by the McKay Foundation in their first ever Innovative Engine competition. The fourth member of their group had been delayed but she was expected to show up tomorrow. They had three days before the competition started to get settled in and comfortable with each other.

Considering they wouldn't be able to leave the compound now that they were on the grounds, there wouldn't be much else to do but get to know the other teammates. There were other teams but from the sounds of the brochure, there wouldn't be much time to fraternize with them. This was a competition, after all.

"Huddle up, guys. We'll have time to bask in the warm glow of the new toys later. Parrish needs to give us the rest of the tour."

The thin man blushed as the attention was suddenly shifted back to him. He'd only really been comfortable when he was showing off the complex and their attention was on something else. In a surprising twist that Alison had decided no other tour guide would have thought to add, he'd made a point of pointing out each and every plant along their path, commenting on its genus, species, and growth rate.

Still, it had been a good tour of a very impressive enterprise. Alison had thanked her lucky stars every time she thought of how she'd ended up here. If she hadn't gotten in that horrible argument with her girlfriend, she wouldn't have had that melt down at work that ended with her throwing pudding all over the scale model of the Jupiter Rocket her team had been working on. That had been one of her lower points, she had to admit, but it had gotten her fired from the project. When Anne had come calling, there hadn't been anything keeping her away from the challenge.

"If you'll come this way, I'd love to show you the grouping of saguaro near the dining halls."

Alison had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. She made the mistake of glancing over at Alicia who was wearing a grin that boded no good. "Saguaro? Oh, David. You do know how to tease a girl."

Parrish turned white as a sheet and bolted through the open door. That earned Alicia a growl from Anne who hurried after the man to patch up any misunderstandings he might have had from her teammate. Personally, Alison was surprised that Alicia hadn't come up with a few more of those zingers early on.

"Good one," she murmured as she started walking toward the opening, surprised when Alicia fell into step with her.

"Thanks. I've been aching to see what he'd do if I flirted with him. Men really are so predictable."

Alison contemplated just nodding but, instead, she replied, "I wouldn't know. I'll take your word for it." It didn't surprise her that Alicia didn't elaborate on her statement it but it did surprise her that Alicia stayed at her side for the rest of the tour.


Dinner the first night was a surprise. Alicia had been led to believe that they would be kept separate from the other teams but the crowded Mess Hall was anything but empty as they walked in. A zing of pleasure wove through Alicia as she realized that the majority of the people in the room were men. Not just any sort of men. These were the kind that used their hands just as much as they used their brains. They didn't mind getting dirty but they could still clean up nicely.

"I'm in heaven," she murmured to Alison as they stopped at the doorway to survey the room. From her blank look, Alicia figured she didn't share the same sentiment. There had been several small hints throughout the day that Alison was a lesbian but she hadn't come right out and said anything. That was cool with Alicia. She didn't mind competition now and then but it would be nice to be able to pick and chose from the contenders without having to okay her choices with her teammate first.

They were supposed to meet Anne after one of the meetings she was required to attend as the leader of their team but it didn't look like she'd beat them here. There was a table over in the corner and one in the middle of the room. Tugging at Alison's arm, she indicated her choice with a lift of her chin. Alison's eyes grew wide and she shook her head.

Alicia was holding firm on her choice, though. "Come on. We might as well show them who the real competition is in this thing." She wasn't letting the other girl go so she had no choice but to stumble forward. When they got to the table in the middle of the room, Alicia jumped up onto one of the chairs. The ringing of her work boots against the metal frame caught everyone's attention. When all eyes were on her, Alicia began talking. "Good evening, gentlemen. And ladies. Can't forget the few of you that I see in this crowd. I just wanted to introduce myself. Alicia Vega. And no, it's not a nickname."

There was silence in the room for a single heartbeat before Alison whispered, "Would you get down from there? You're making a spectacle of yourself."

"Spectacle? Me? I don't think so. Do you think I'm making a spectacle?" she asked the crowd. A large man at the table next to theirs caught her eye but he wasn't smiling at her like some of the men were. His glare intensified when she winked at him. His reaction intrigued her even more when he went back to talking to the woman next to him. If anything, it was a red flag to her already high state of emotion.

Before she could react to him, Anne arrived. "Alicia, get off the furniture. We're guests here. Not primates at the zoo."

She was flanked by three of the most gorgeous men Alicia had ever seen. Two of them had a modified military hair cut that looked good on just about anyone. The third, well his hair was hard to define because it stuck up like he was constantly running his hands through it. While Alicia didn't normally like that look on a guy, there was something about this guy's hair that just made her want to run her hands through it to see if it was as soft as it looked.

The problem was that when Alicia tried one of her best hey there, sexy smiles, none of the men responded. They blended into the crowd while Anne stood her ground, her expression a mixture of fury and resignation. Alicia had seen that expression plenty of other times, mostly from teachers, parents or other people in authority. It was the kind of expression that said they weren't exactly sure how to react to the girl in front of them with the stubborn chin and flashing eyes.

For the first time in her life, Alicia decided to back down from the challenge. Truth was, she needed the money from this job because she'd hit a brick wall when it came to work. She might have had the experience and the finish results to prove that she did a good job, but she had a tendency to leave behind bad feelings with the men who felt they'd been played with. Jilted lovers had a tendency to talk and she was gaining a reputation that was starting to keep her from getting jobs. She'd come to the conclusion that she needed to move if she was going to find anything when Anne brought her a better solution.

"I thought you said you were going to keep it in your pants," her new boss murmured through clenched teeth. "Is this how you plan on doing that?"

"No," she started to answer as she stepped down but something went wrong. She didn't notice that the cuff of her jeans had caught on the chair until it was too late. Try as she might, she couldn't right herself in time to keep from pitching forward. Her last thought was to twist to the side to keep from planting her face in the asphalt but she didn't even have time to do that. This did not go as planned, she thought to herself with a tinge of regret as she waited for impact.

But the impact never came. Arms wrapped around her at almost the last instant so that she never hit the ground. The impact of arms around her chest had her breath coming out a bit strained but nothing she couldn't work with. "Tha-" But the man holding her up wasn't the man she'd expected. Instead of the big guy with the skin like milky coffee, she'd been rescued by the guy with the great hair. He grinned at her as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. It took her a moment to find her words again as the surprise grabbed at her tongue and refused to let go. When she looked around, everyone was looking at her. Everyone except for the one person she wanted to look at her. He was deep in conversation with the woman next to him. "Thank you. That wouldn't have been pretty if I'd landed."

"No problem. Besides, you got the attention you were asking for. No one's going to forget this exhibition."

Giving in to the pressure of his kind eyes and devil's grin, Alicia felt herself blushing. She felt like the skinny twelve year old girl being laughed out of the school dance all over again. She hadn't dared spent the quarter to call her mom to have her come pick her up so she'd spent the time fixing the cars in the parking lot. If those cars hadn't needed work before she started and quite a bit of work when she was done, that wasn't any of her concern. It had been worth having to spend the summer with Aunt Frances and Uncle Frank because there'd been nothing else to do in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska except help her uncle fix the farm equipment. She could make anything and everything with an engine run just like the day it was built.

And she'd vowed that no one would ever laugh at her again. Those girls that had made her feel like a fool had come to regret their decision. She'd slept with each of their boyfriends, making sure they all knew the details. Back then, that had been the kind of revenge she'd been best at. Now... well, now she was going to make sure her team won this competition.

"Wouldn't want anyone to think that I'm the wallflower type," she responded with a smirk that she didn't feel. Not when her stomach was constricting with remembered torments. It was more than evident that her savior didn't believe it much either, but he gave her another grin before finding his own seat.

"Feel better about yourself?" Anne asked when Alicia sank down into the seat beside her. Her voice was soft but it held a hint of steel as she rolled her eyes and handed them both a sheet of paper. "They've changed some of the rules on us. Seems some of the teams aren't as comfortable with all the secrecy that they wanted each team to work and live under. From the hours of noon to three, our bay doors have to be open. Anything we want to work on in private can be stored away but we have to allow the other teams in if they want to see what we have going on."

Alison had a look of concern but Alicia just shrugged. "Bring it on. We'll show 'em what we have to offer."

"And by what we have to offer, I'm hoping you only mean the car?" Anne's expression was tight but Alicia only flashed her a grin. With another exasperated sigh, Anne went back to the list in front of her. "Also, we may have some trouble with these new driver requirements."

This made Alison's knuckles turn white. It was no secret in the team that she was a good driver but it wasn't her strong suit. While she'd accepted the decision that she would drive the car, it was obvious that it made her nervous. "Like what kind of trouble?"

"Like the kind of trouble that we'll just have to work around. They don't like that our seat is so far back. Your long legs may prove to be a problem."

"So I'll do it," Alicia offered. "I can drive just as well as she can. That way we can move the seat back to the forward position."

Anne pretended she hadn't said anything, keeping her head turned toward Alison. It might have irritated Alicia on any other occasion. This time, Alicia only pressed her lips together so she didn't say something stupid. The meal bell rang and they all got in line like they were back in school. Alicia spent the time chatting with a group of guys that seemed more interested in seeing down her tank top than in actually hearing her talk but she didn't care. The positive attention left her with a warm glow as she stayed silent through the rest of the meal. It was more than apparent that Anne was angry with her but that didn't bother Alicia much. She wasn't here to gain friends. There was a job to do and she was going to do her best. If she had to deal with the disapproving glares of her team leader while she had a little fun on the side, so be it. That was the price she'd pay for getting to live her dream.


Dusty was late. She hated the feeling of being the last person but it was something she was all too used to. This time, it was because she was bailing her uncle out of jail at the request of her mother. Why he couldn't rot behind bars until he learned his lesson was something she didn't understand but her mother had called and she'd done her familial duty. Next time, she'd try to say no. It was a nice dream but she knew she'd never be able to turn down family.

"Figured you be here by noon." Anne didn't even look up as Dusty set her duffle bag down on the table. The room she'd been shown to looked like how she'd always imagined a college dorm room would look. This main room held a couple of dilapidated couches that had seen too many backsides and not enough cleaning supplies, a table that tilted slightly when she'd set down her burden, and a bank of computer monitors and laptops set up over in the corner. There were four doors, all but one of them closed. Anne pointed to one of them but still didn't bother looking up from the magazine that had her so engrossed. "You're in there. You can thank me later for making sure you got one of the single rooms. Vega's bunking with Porter and I'm not sure how well that's going."

As if in answer to the comment, a derisive laugh filtered out from behind one of the closed doors. "Are they killing each other yet?"

"Not quite. Porter made some comment this morning about Vega's wardrobe being rather... skimpy. Vega took offense only because Porter didn't seem to mind that she was showing cleavage."

Instantly, Dusty's outlook brightened. She'd helped Anne pick this team and had been the one to mention that she didn't think the two other women would be very compatible. In fact, she'd tried to get Anne to bet on how long it would take before Alicia realized that Alison was gay and if she would take offense. Too bad her friend hadn't taken that bet because Dusty could have used the money.

"I told you she'd attempt it. Vega is right up her alley in the looks department. Girl has a type. She likes the pretty cheerleader type. The bubblier, the better."

"So, not you?"

Dusty just grinned as she shouldered her bag once again, pulling a piece of gum out of her pocket. "If the girl wants to flirt with me, I'll flirt back but I'm not here to get laid like Vega is. I'm here to work on a car."

And not just any car. The car she had designed. Had been designing since fifth grade. After she and Anne had become friends and business partners, she'd taken a chance and shown her the pile of papers she had hidden in a shoe box under her bed. Some people kept porn under their bed. She kept her dreams there.

"Not a car. The car. You should see the modifications that Porter made." The thought of anyone else messing with her designs made Dusty bristle but she just kept chewing at the gum as if her life depended on it. "They're brilliant. But the guts are still yours. Don't worry."

The conversation wasn't one she wanted to be having right now. Not on top of the few days she'd already had. Instead, she changed the subject. "So, how's our competition?"

Anne looked up for the first time, the light of battle gleaming in her eyes. People always underestimated the woman but she read people and situations better than anyone else Dusty had ever met. She should have been a general, leading groups of people into battle. Instead, she'd gone into another profession that was normally reserved for men. There wasn't a lot of money to be made in fixing up cars but with Anne's head for business, she'd combined all sorts of interests until she and her partners were beginning to see quite a nice profit. Winning this competition would be the perfect feather in her cap and Dusty was determined to help her achieve what some people saw as the impossible. A team of girls? Sure, why not. It had been done before and it would be done again but they were going to do it the best.

"There's only ten teams, less than the eighteen originally signed up but more than I figured we'd see when it came down to the starting line. I left a dossier of each of them on your bed. Read it at your leisure but pay careful attention to John Sheppard's team. He wasn't on the original list. Appears that he was working for Sumner but didn't make the the original team."

"Sunmner?" From the way that Anne said the name, she knew she should have known who she was talking about but no face came to mind. It wasn't often she drew a blank. "Why do I know that name?"

"The old guy who used to race professionally. Cashed in on the little bit of success he had to start up the garage in Kansas City. Thought he was God's gift to the sport of racing. Remember? Anyway, this Shppeard is a nice guy but, from what I've heard, Sumner didn't like him much. Thought he was too much of a wild card."

"I like him already."

Anne didn't try to contain her smirk. "But Sumner had a heart attack and there wasn't anyone else willing to pick up the pieces. John got rid of the rest of the team and pulled in his own people but no one's ever heard of them. All three of them are from out of the country."

"It's an international competition. Wouldn't think that would be a big deal."

"Well, one of them is from some Czech Republic. Not that big of a deal. The other two... they're from some little islands that no one's really ever heard about. I had Alison look them up online and there's hardly anything there. It's just strange, is all. I think they shouldn't be overlooked even though most everyone else seems to be ignoring them. Seems Sheppard is friends with the leaders of two other teams. They know each other from their military days."

"Old boys club going to be a pain in our ass again?" They were constantly being bombarded with veterans coming in their shop, looking down on them because they were women and trying to tell them how it should be done, their only recommendation for knowing this right way because they were in the service and that was how Uncle Sam liked things done.

Anne just shook her head. "No, I don't think so. There's a strange connection between all of them. Just a gut feeling, though. Nothing on paper. All three of the teams have women on them so I'm already inclined to like them. They just... well, I'm not ruling them out to give us a run for our money. I'll introduce you to them tonight at dinner. Had intended to at lunch but you're late."

"Love you, too, boss." With a final snap of her gum, Dusty turned toward the door that led to the little room. If her smile was a little bigger than normal, it was only because she was happy to be here. My, how she loved a good adventure.


It was the night before starting of the competition and everyone was in high spirits. Maybe a little too high, Alison thought as she found a seat in the corner of the room. All this testosterone wasn't really her kind of scene but it was interesting watching everyone interact. There was an arm wrestling competition going on in the middle of the room, the large man from Cameron Mitchell's team taking on anyone with the guts to sit down across the table from him. She'd kind of been hoping the equally impressive muscled man from Sheppard's team would take him on because the two had been exchanging glares for most of the day. Ronon didn't appear to find that sort of attention worth his time and had taken his drink and a overflowing plate of food over to an alcove that Alison wished she'd been able to snag. He and Teyla, the pretty woman he was often seen with, were deep in conversation with no interest for what the rest of the room was doing.

Alison took note of Alicia walking up to refill her glass yet again. The girl certainly liked to drink. She was currently chatting with at least five guys, all of whom were barely looking her in the eye. Not that Alison faulted them, though. In yet another tight tank top, Alicia was showing off more cleavage than anyone else in the room. She'd made a big deal about asking Alison's opinion and then laughing about changing her outfit to find something the men would like. It should have made Alison angry the way that Alicia was stringing her along, acting like she was her own new little toy lesbian but she found that she was fascinated by the girl. Not necessarily in a sexual way even though Alicia Vega looked very much like her last two girlfriends. There was a confidence about her that Alison wished she had.

"Enjoying the festivities?"

Alison shook herself out of her reverie as a short man with round glasses and a pleasant smile came to sit down beside her without asking for permission. She didn't find it to be imposing because she genuinely liked this man. "Hey, Zelenka. I'm not much for parties. How about you?"

"Me? I can take them or leave them. My teammates are uncomfortable, though. Except for John. He is never uncomfortable."

John Sheppard had just sat down across from the arm wrestler, good-naturedly taking the ribbing he was getting from the spectators with just a grin. He unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt and made a show of rolling his sleeve up past his elbow, the whole time his gaze zeroed in on Cam who was standing behind his teammate, acting as unofficial coach as he laughingly listed all of John's weaknesses.

"No, he doesn't strike me as someone who would ever be uncomfortable, no matter where you put him."

"He's very... oh, what is the word?"

"Charassimatic? Painfully good looking? Witty? I bet he's charming, too. The good looking ones are always charming."

The Czech scientist nodded thoughtfully. "All of those, yes. He is a good leader and that is all that I care about. His smile makes you think that he is not intelligent but there is a genius hidden under all that wild hair. Instead of trying to make a name for himself, he wants what is best for the team."

"That's certainly rare. Have you done much with cars before this? Is that how you know him?"

"Cars? No, certainly not. My field of expertise is actually in theoretical physics."

So she wasn't the only fish out of water. Alison grinned, leaning against him playfully. "And mine's in aerospace engineering. What a pair we make."

"Enjoying yourself?" Dusty stood in front of the pair, a sweating can of Diet Coke in her hand. She hadn't come down with them, having gone on a self-guided tour of the facilities since she'd missed the official one. It was hard to read her expression considering Alison had only just met this member of the team the day before so she wasn't sure if the question, asked with just the barest hint of derision, was meant to dispute her motives or not.

Alison decided to treat the question as innocently as possible. "About as much as I can considering I don't arm wrestle, throw darts or shoot pool. Have you met Radek Zelenka yet? Zelenka, this is Dusty Mehra, a member of my team. Dusty, Zelenka."

Zelenka held out his hand but pulled it back when Dusty didn't respond. With a quick straightening of his glasses, the small man stood up and moved carefully around the newcomer. "I should go see if I can be of some assistance to my teammates."

As he walked off, Alison glared up at Dusty. "Really? Did you have to be that rude to him? We were only talking. It's nice to be around someone who understands that an atom isn't just a really fast car."

"So you were talking about atoms?"

"Well... no." Alison had the uncomfortable sensation that she'd just lost a battle that she hadn't known she was fighting. It made it hard to know how to retaliate since she wasn't exactly sure had caused her to lose in the first place. "But it wasn't like we were swapping secrets. He was just being polite."

"Polite. Sure. I get how you might like a guy to be polite now and then."

The way that the woman phrased the question and emphasized certain words made Alison irritated. "I'm not supposed to like it when a guy is polite to me?"

"Just figured you wouldn't be so keen on that sort of thing. Being... what you are."

"You can say it out loud, Dusty. I'm not going to get embarrassed because you call me gay. It's not like I'm not out and proud of it."

Now it was Dusty's turn to look uncomfortable. Well, wasn't that something for the record books. She really had been afraid to say the word, after all. Dusty looked like she wasn't afraid of much and the fact that Alison now held the upper hand gave her a little bit more confidence. "Look, I'm sorry if I make you uncomfortable but I signed up for this because I wanted a new challenge not because I was looking to convert a bunch of people. You don't have to worry about me coming on to you or watching you shower or anything. I'm not that kind of girl."

"You watch Alicia." As soon as the words were out, it was clear that Dusty wanted to take them back but Alison only laughed.

"And so do you. That's how she wants it. I don't know her story but Alicia wants to be noticed and she doesn't care who's doing the noticing. She paraded through the main room in just a towel because she wanted attention and we all gave it to her. It wasn't because I was checking out her body. It's more like, well, I feel sorry for her."

"You do?"

"Sure. Don't you?"

Dusty nodded her head slowly, probably coming to the realization for the first time. "I heard about what she did the first night. I mean, I admire her for sticking around after looking like a fool but it wasn't the smartest move."

"It's armor. The men only see a pretty face and body and the women only see her actions to those males. No one is really paying attention to her. Not really. She's going to keep pressing until someone finally sees her for who she really is."

"And then what?"

It had been a question she'd asked herself many times but Alison didn't have a good answer so she just shrugged. "I don't know. But whatever happens, I'm sure it's going to be explosive."


He called himself Stackhouse, no first name, but Alicia didn't care what he called himself, only that he'd promised to take off his shirt so she could see the ridge of muscles she could feel as she pressed up against him as they walked out to the main parking lot by the main entrance. Those had been a welcome bonus she'd only just discovered. What had really drawn her to this man was the shiny gold Trans Am in the parking lot. Yes, she freely admitted that she picked the lay of the night based on what car they would be doing it in. Sex was sex but sex in a pretty car was infinitely better.

"It glitters," she gushed, as if she didn't know anything else about the car but what color it was painted. Still, she liked the way his eyes glazed over as she draped herself over the hood, her hands stroking over the gleaming metal in an imitation of how she'd been stroking his chest earlier. She'd had enough alcohol in her blood stream that the comparison made her want to giggle but not enough that she wasn't keenly aware of when and how to use that giggle.

If this didn't work, she was ready to ask him what he had under the hood, but she didn't need to pile on any more innuendo before he lifted up her shirt so he could lay down a pattern of kisses and nips along her backbone that had her aching for more. A hand tugged at her waistband and, faster than she'd expected, her skin was exposed to the cool night air. She had to admire that the man knew what he wanted and wasn't afraid to go after it.

A questing hand had her squeezing her eyes tight and biting her lip. She didn't have a problem with making noise during sex but there was something almost poetic in letting the silence of the night surround them. Except that the gunning of an engine broke through her enjoyment of the moment. The growl of the engine spoke of something big and bad behind it. Nothing she'd seen in this parking lot or on the entire compound could make a sound like that.

Stackhouse had heard it to because his questing fingers stilled. "What is that?"

Lights shone through the bars of the perimeter fence and Alicia realized why the noise sounded so big. Not one but two large vehicles were coming straight at them. It was hard to tell exactly what kind of vehicles they were but they were big. Tank big.

Before they could do anything but stand in there in terror, balls of fire erupted from the canon mounted on the back of each truck. "Run," Stackhouse shouted but the world was already exploding in heat and light. As much as Alicia wanted to run, she found she couldn't move and then... nothing.


The light of day gave a new sense of horror to the scene in the parking lot. After an explosion that rocked nearly every building in the vicinity, no one had expected to find anything good but the sheer amount of wreckage had been horrific. When the fire had finally been put out and the damage had begun to be inspected, the reality of just how much was lost came to light. Nearly twenty cars had sustained enough damage as to make them nothing more than a pile of twisted metal. That damage was nothing compared to the loss of life they discovered. Two bodies were found, burned nearly beyond recognition.

As word of the discovery filtered through the group of onlookers, they began to search for their teammates to make sure they weren't suddenly a man short. Dusty stood alone in the tumult, her emotions raw and bitter. Two people had been out in the parking lot in the middle of the night after a night of drunken revelry and she hadn't seen Alicia in the crowd. Those two things added up to her team being one person short.

That was confirmed an hour later when the coroner brought them back the charred remains of Alicia's left shoe. "Maybe she left it behind when she was in the parking lot earlier. Maybe she just went into town." Alison was full of maybes but Dusty wasn't trying to find a silver lining to this cloud. She sat on the couch and stared off into space, trying not to be reminded of other death watches she'd been part of.

Alison, on the other hand, was walking the floor, talking non-stop. There were a few times that Dusty had thought about asking her to stop or, better yet, forcing her, but it was too much trouble and would take too much energy. At this point, she needed to conserve every bit that she could. The competition had been put off for a few days so she would need to be ready to go now that they were a mechanic down. Thankfully, that fact hadn't quite hit Alison's brain yet. They would probably hear about it as soon as she thought about it.

For the most part, the other competitors had left them alone. Stackhouse's team was as much in mourning as they were, maybe more so since their cars had all been parked in the center of the inferno. While Alison had gone to visit, paying her respects, Dusty hadn't been able to do anything but sit here, thinking. No, that wasn't right. She wasn't thinking. Instead, it was more like actively not thinking and she'd perfected it. When Anne arrived at the rooms with visitors in tow, Dusty gave them the barest of nods. The woman on John's team, Teyla, sat beside her for several minutes before she laid a hand on her arm. Dusty tensed, expecting a hug or a perfunctory platitude about how sorry she was for her loss. It felt wrong because it wasn't really her loss. Some of these teams were made up of people who had spent more than a few days together. Some were even friends. Alicia Vega had simply been a woman who could use a socket wrench better than anyone else they could find.

When Teyla didn't make a move to do either, Dusty turned to see what she was missing. The women caught her eye, giving her a serene smile that took the edge off the overwhelming nothingness.

When she looked around, she saw that Zelenka was sitting with Alison, having finally quieted her incessant conversation to no one. She'd been so lost in her own head that she hadn't even realized how quiet the room had gotten.

"She wasn't my friend," Dusty offered, wanting to stem the question or any of the sympathy the woman might give.

"But she was a person you knew and even that leaves a mark on our soul."

The simple words were her undoing because they were true and she didn't want them to be. The very last thing she wanted from this experience was to pick up someone new to care about and care for. She had enough of that at home. Pulling away from the light grasp of the woman, she jumped off the couch and ran for the door, straight into the arms of a large, muscle-bound man.

"Excuse me," she muttered, trying to keep the tears from actually leaving her eyes. Even without looking up, she knew she had run into Ronon Dex, the fourth member of John Sheppard's team. There had been very little in his file but she'd noticed him around the complex. Not where she expected to see people, though. It seemed he was doing very much the same thing she was doing. Not so much scouting out the people in the competition as the competition itself.

She'd always tried to stay out of his way but now she found she couldn't because he wasn't letting her pull away. After taking a few stuttering breaths, she leaned into the offered embrace. It had been a long time since anyone had hugged her, although she remembered most other hugs as feeling as if she was imprisoned within bars of flesh and bone. This was more like an offer to hold her up for awhile, to take the burden of reality away from her for the moment. A few moments was all she needed before things had righted themselves. The tears weren't threatening and her breathing wasn't coming out in gasps. It was safe to walk away.

"Dusty, if you don't mind, Evan wanted to talk to us. Don't leave just yet."

It took a moment to remember that she had been headed out the door before she'd been detained. Even more confusing was the amount of people in the room when she turned back around. "Sure. I wasn't going anywhere in particular."

Settling back on the spot of the couch she'd vacated, Dusty looked around until she located Evan Lorne, one of the other captains. His team surrounded him but there was one extra. She'd been introduced to Chuck and Laura but only knew Stevens from his file. The addition was a short, dark-haired lady who seemed to belong to Chuck. In his file, it did mention that he was married so either he was cheating on his wife or that was her. From the looks of him, she very much doubted he was the kind of man to carry on with another female, especially with one who looked like she could take him down with a swift round house kick.

"Even though it's still early to bring this up considering your loss, you're a man short. " Laura, the blonde, elbowed him in the side as she muttered something too quiet for anyone else to hear. "Er, I mean woman short. Whatever. Anyway, we double checked with the officials and the other teams and everyone has agreed that they don't mind if you bring on a replacement."

Anne stirred, crossing and recrossing her legs in the only outward sign of stress that Dusty had noticed so far. "That's very nice of you to find that out for us but we don't have anyone else to choose from. We'll make do with our team as it is."

"What Lorne is trying to say in his own, rambling fashion," Laura stepped in front of the man attempting to find a reply to Anne's cool words, "is that we have a person for you. If you don't mind, that is."

"Who?" Everyone's attention shifted to Alison who, up to this moment, had been a wreck. Now, she appeared to be keenly aware of the conversation and the outcome. "It's just... we weren't friends but we were a team, all the same. We can't just put someone in her place and expect it to work out. Not this close to the competition."

"I was thinking I would do it." Laura took another step away from Evan and her team. "Amelia can fill in for me. We've always been a five member team and it would be silly to separate the married couple. So I'll do it."

The cocky grin that Laura usually favored was replaced with something much more serious and now was downright somber as she looked at each member of Anne's team in turn. Even though she had a team, she was willing to work with another group of people. While it might have been a plot to see what exactly they were going to be working on but Dusty knew for a fact that her plans weren't anything special. Even with the modifications Alison had made, it didn't make it anything worth stealing.

"We'll need to talk it over-" Anne started to say but Dusty shook her head until she had her attention. "What?"

"What's it going to hurt us to say yes? We could use the help if we're going to compete. Who are we going to ask to join us? We might as well take them up on their offer. I don't think it'll take any discussion."

Alison was nodding her head in wild approval. "Agreed."

Even though it didn't look like Anne was relieved, there was definitely less tension in her shoulders. She walked over to shake Laura's hand. "Glad to have you on the team, Cadman."


Laura moved her stuff in the next day. The reason Alison knew this was because she walked in to a completely different room than she'd left that morning. She'd spent the previous evening packing up Alicia's things, striving to keep from bursting into tears. The way she'd been carrying on, it was like the two of them were the best of friends. It was just that she'd been rather sheltered growing up and the only death she'd ever experienced before was her great-grandmother who had been one hundred and two years old. That death had been a relief. Knowing that Alicia died well before it was her time was harsh. Anne had assured her that it would get easier to accept over time but Alison felt horrible knowing that one day it would hardly hurt at all to think about this incident.

Now, as she stood in the room that had once been messy with clothes, more clothes than Alison had ever seen one girl need for the two months they had here, she didn't know how to react. The room had gone from threadbare and boring to being vibrant and warm. It had been four white walls, a cramped closet, two beds with lumpy mattresses (Alison knew this because she had tried out each one before deciding which one she was going to take), and a single side table with one drawer that came out but didn't go back in well. And now... now Alison pinched herself to make sure this was real. Then she stepped back out into the main room to make sure she'd come in the right room.

"Do you not like it?" If there was one thing she'd learned about Laura in these first few hours of friendship, it was that she wore her feelings on her face. When she was happy, she smiled. When she was irritated, her eyes narrowed. Now she was concerned that she had overstepped her boundaries and her eyes were wide, her voice slightly higher than normal.

She fascinated Alison less than Alicia had, mostly because Laura was easy to understand. Alicia had been the kind of girl that Alison had never had a chance with. Even if she had been gay, Alicia was the sort of girl who was simply out of her league. As much as it pained Alison to think about it now, she had been a bit silly.

Laura was anything but silly. As Alison looked around the room that had transformed from a place to sleep to more of a home than she'd had since leaving her parent's house, it was all she could do not to sigh with contentment. "Like it? No, I love it. How did you do this in the three hours it took for me to get the computer set up done?"

She shrugged. "Amelia helped me. Most of this is from her. She kind of went stir crazy when she was packing. You should see the way she's decorated the room she and Chuck are using. It's a bit overstuffed. She got concerned with timeline and the fact that we can't leave. That's why they let her come in the first place. We had to petition for her to be here but she made a valient effort. Evan's good like that. He recognizes the big picture and makes sure everyone else does, as well."

It was obvious that Laura was talking because she still wasn't sure of her reception. She probably figured that no one was listening to her but Alison heard every word. As she looked around the room, admiring the silk scarves that had been turned into a wall hangings and the floor lamp that gave the room a nice glow instead of the fluorescent brightness that always gave her headaches, Alison asked, "Will you be sad to be away from them?"

A fragment of the happy expression fell away, revealing the sadness underneath, but she was quick to put on a bright smile once again. "Sad? No. I mean, they're right here and I can have meals with them. It won't be any different."

"But it will be."

Laura sank down on the bed that was now covered with a warm red comforter, a scattering of pillows in fire hues turning the piece of furniture into a comfortable seat when it wasn't being used for sleeping. She pulled one of the pillows onto her lap, clutching it to her stomach as if that would stop the ache. Alison knew all about that ache. Her life had been turned over numerous times in the last few months so that it almost felt normal to be unsettled.

"We want you here," Alison suddenly said, as if she'd realized where the conversation was going and didn't want it headed in that direction. "I've heard you're a good mechanic."

"I'm a better driver. Me and fuel, we have a love-love relationship. Going fast, yeah, that's my thing."

"Why did your team let you go?"

Her smile was suddenly all cheeky arrogance and a giggle escaped. "Because I'm not the fastest on the team. But don't worry. I don't mean to come upsetting the way you guys have your team set up."

"Does Anne know this? That you can drive?"

The metamorphosis had Laura retreating back into the shy, stammering act she had been using before. After several attempts to start a coherent sentence, she finally said, "No. It's fine. I'm not a good driver. Not really."

"Why shouldn't you tell her? We need a driver. And not just because Alicia's... gone. I'm only good at the timed things. None of us have the guts to really open it up. We could use your skills if you can drive."

"If you don't think-"

"I do think and I say you need to say something to her. Or I could tell her, if you're embarrassed to toot your own horn."

"Toot... what was that?" The explosion of laughter erased the tension that had descended back on them when Laura grew uncomfortable and awkward. "Did you just say toot your own horn? Are you eighty?"

Normally, Alison didn't like people to make fun of her but she saw it for what it was, an excuse to lighten the mood. For now, she would allow the blow to her ego. Instead of taking offense, she pulled the pillow out of the other girl's grasp and hit the side of her head with it. "Yes. Now shut up and show me how you got those twinkly lights to stay wrapped around the lamp pole like that. Mine always droop to the floor instead of staying up so nicely."


"It didn't hurt this much when... Ow! Do you mind?" Dusty put an arm over her eyes as she tried not to give in to the urge to howl in pain. She had been hurt a lot worse in her life but this burn covered a good portion of her leg, from her hip to her knee. No matter how hard she tried to stay still, there was always a pull on the injured skin. It was probably the most painful thing she'd ever experienced. The hot oil had soaked through the heavy fabric of her jeans and if it hadn't been for the quick thinking of the man standing behind her in line, the one who had ripped the pants off her, she might have been hurt even worse. That the man had been Ronon made this experience as embarrassing as it was painful.

With each deep breath she took to try to get past the seering pain that was making her see stars behind her eyelids, she could smell the unique scent that was Ronon. Warm air, dirt, engine grease, car wax, and a bright scent that made her think of cookies. Vanilla? She wasn't sure because she was having trouble concentrating. She'd told him he could leave as soon as he'd set her down on the table but he hadn't moved. In fact, Mr. McKay's private physician had been maneuvering around him instead of asking him to move, as if he was just a piece of the furniture that he didn't have the time or inclination to find a better place that was out of the way.

"I wish I could be as intimidating as that." The words came out before she realized she was saying them out loud. For a moment, she wondered if no one had heard her but the utter stillness of both the doctor and his nurse told her that she'd been heard loud and clear. She considered taking back the words but it felt like a coward's way out. Instead, she uncovered her eyes and opened one just enough to zero in on his location. He was staring at her, a small twitch playing with his lips as if he wasn't sure if he should be smiling or not.

The doctor's manipulations of her injury got her attention once again. This time, she couldn't resist inflicting some pain but the strain was already getting to her. When she stuck out her arm, assuming she'd hit something. All she succeeded in doing was wrenching her shoulder as she hit nothing but the air next to Dr. Beckett's shoulder. "Ow! What are you doing?"

The doctor held up a syringe, the small needle waving around like he was waving a small, sharp flag. "I gave you an injection to help keep you from feeling the next bit of agony I'm going to inflict on you." His voice was nice, having just the tiniest of inflections that placed his birth outside of the United States. She must have told him that because he smiled and patted the arm that was gripping his lab coat. "Scotland, dearie. My grandmother still lives there."

Feeling bold as the numbing agent and whatever else raced through her bloodstream, she turned back to Ronon. "And where are you from?"

"You've never heard of it."

"Try me. I got an A in Geometry."

"Math won't help you find where I'm from." When she glared at him, trying to figure out what he'd meant, he chuckled. She liked the sound of his mirth but still she struck out at him. He caught her wild arm in one of his hands, keeping it steady and still. "You said Geometry. I should have just assumed you meant Geography and not made a joke."

She tried to pull her arm away but it was useless. Instead, Ronon changed his grasp so that his hand wrapped around her wrist. The corded muscle under her fingertips was warm and solid, anchoring her to the ground when the ceiling threatened to rise too high above her, letting her drift out into the darkness of space. Whatever was in those drugs the doctor had given her was making it hard to concentrate but she did everything she could to keep his face in view. "I don't mind. I'll make all the jokes I can think of if you'll laugh again."

This only earned her a smirk that should have been enough but wasn't. She'd been the first one outside of his team to see Ronon Dex smile and hear his laughter. She knew this because, heaven help her, she'd been making the rounds of the dining hall over the last few weeks, listening for anyone talking about Sheppard's team. That was why she'd been in line tonight. Sometimes the best place to hear the hushed conversations was to be right next to the man himself because everyone appeared to believe he was deaf or, better yet, couldn't hear their whispers. The only reason she had been in front of him was because he'd been a gentlemen as the lines converged and let her go first. If she hadn't taken his place, he might have been the one that got attacked by the hot grease.

"I'm glad you didn't get hurt. That would have been a shame." The filters in her head appeared to have short-circuited because whatever tried to get out had exclusive rights to her tongue. "People as pretty as you shouldn't get hurt. Like Alicia. She was pretty. So many accidents here. So many."

The room stilled. Even with the disconnect going on between her brain and her mouth, Dusty understood the reality of what she'd just said. In the two weeks since Alicia's death, there had been reports of small accidents all around the compound. She saw Ronon's concern and wondered what he thought of it. Wondered if he thought it was odd that a group this small would have such a high rate of accident, odd ones at that.

Once again, her thoughts became words and he was reaching for her hand that clutched at him hard enough to leave his skin darkened. "I think the same as you. There's been too many."

"We should do something about that."

Instead of telling her to leave it to someone better suited for the challenge, he just nodded. She wanted to comment but the words suddenly left her and she slipped into a conscious unconsciousness. His smile was the very last thing she remembered but it was enough to fuel enough hazy dreams to get her through the rest of the pain.


There was a clatter as a wrench crashed into the far wall and landed unhappily on the floor in a pile with a lot of other tools. Alison had stopped looking up hours ago, when the first one had sailed through the air with far more finesse than was necessary for a tool to have. She paused now because, if her math was correct, the mechanic should have just thrown her last tool. Seeing as there was nothing else that she might encounter if she were to venture a question, she stepped away from the calculations she was pretending to care about.

Making sure not to walk too quietly or, for that matter, too loudly, Alison crouched down beside the pair of legs sticking out of the bottom of the car that didn't have a sheet over it. "Anything I can help with?"

There was a mutter that sounded something like, "Go get me more things to throw," but Alison couldn't be certain since there was a loud banging noise. There was obviously still one tool left.

"I don't think you should be hitting your car like this. It can't be good for it. Besides, you said yourself the other day that it runs like a dream."

Wheels rasped against pavement as the legs became a torso and the torso became a whole body. A grease-smudged Laura Cadman glared up at her. "A day's suspension! We didn't do anything and the whole team gets a day's suspension. It's not like she needs her leg. We can put her in a wheelchair and roll her around to where she needs to be. This put us a day-"

She only stopped ranting when Alison put her hand in front of the girl's mouth. It stayed open, Laura's breath warm on her skin, but Alison didn't move her hand away. "Hush. It's going to be fine. It's just one day. Not a big deal. The doctor's just concerned about the way that the painkillers are affecting her. She'll be back in here tomorrow, grousing because you dented her pretty tools."

"Those were her tools?" Laura grabbed at her hand, pulling it far enough off her mouth that she could talk unimpeded but not far enough that Alison felt like she should move it. "Why didn't you tell me those were her tools? I thought they were the ones that'd been set out for us to use."

"They are. Don't worry." There was enough fear in Laura's eyes that Alison felt compelled to sooth her with a small smile and soft pats to the cheek she'd been cradling. "Dusty likes shiny things. She sort of thinks of the tools as hers. We let her because it makes her smile. Have you ever seen Dusty smile? Well, I haven't seen it often. But don't worry. I don't think you actually hurt them."

For a moment, Alison wondered if Laura wasn't going to gather up the tools and start all over again but, instead, her eyes took on the devilish gleam that Alison was starting to anticipate. "They gave us a day off. Let's go have fun."

Alison's eyes strayed to Laura's lips as they moved, part of her concentrating solely on the way each syllable was shaped, her tongue darting in and out of view. This was why she'd stayed in the muggy hanger instead of going back up to the computers set up in the room. She'd reasoned with herself that it was to make sure that Laura had someone to show her around but Laura had found her way around just fine without any help. The only thing Alison had been able to help with was a hair tie because Laura had left hers behind. It seemed like nothing but it still made her a bit gooey inside to see the other woman wearing it.

"Do you?"

"Do I what?" Alison tore her gaze away from Laura's lips. Clearly she had missed something. While she might fantasize about what it was that Laura was talking about, she had a feeling the two weren't the same thing.

"Want to have some fun?"

She only stopped to think about it because she wasn't completely sure what she was getting herself into. The little impish gleam of delight in Laura's eyes gave her pause. "How much fun are we talking? Christmas morning kind of fun?"

"Standing in line for the new OS that you've had your eye on for a year and you're going to be the first one to get it kind of fun."

Alison stood up and held out her hand. "I'm in. Just, please, don't get me arrested. I'd really like to stay out of jail for the time being."

"What? Some kind of university grant lined up or something?"

"No. My mother. She's convinced I'm going to get myself in trouble because I don't have a steady job. A steady job, in her book, being something with tenure and a list of benefits that stretch over three pages." She helped Laura get to her feet, tempted to brush the dirt and grime off her overalls but containing herself just in time. It was getting embarrassing how this girl affected her. She wasn't so much tongue-tied as she was enamored with everything about the girl. A simple smile stopped her in her tracks and made her forget what it was she'd been doing. She shivered every time Laura said her name, and not the simple kind that was just a tinkle. No, the kind that made her muscles ache for hours afterwards.

This morning, Laura had woken her up by bouncing on her bed a few times before hopping up again to use the shower. Thankfully, it had been a long shower because Alison had found herself having to finish what Laura had unwittingly started, making her grumpy for most of the rest of the day. She never had been one for self-fulfillment the way some girls were. It was so much better with a partner but the one she preferred at the moment was all about being friends. Not wanting to shatter her illusions that Alison wanted nothing more than to be her friend, she'd kept silent about her feelings. Normally, she would have acted on them and not given it a second thought.

Instead, she found herself holding back, smiling blandly because she was afraid of showing the wrong emotion. "Silly, isn't it? She's a worrier. I'm her only daughter and she feels she's messed me up too badly to have a decent life."

"How'd she mess you up?"

She'd been rather up front with the rest of her team about her sexuality, had never had a problem saying the words or phrases before, but found herself just shrugging now. "Who knows with mothers? They just worry."

"Mothers," Laura replied emphatically, dusting herself off energetically so that Alison's eyes almost crossed as she watched where her hands went. "Can't live with them and they won't let you move out completely."

"Yeah," she answered softly, biting her lip in imitation of how Laura looked when it seemed as if she was feeling overwhelmed. She'd thought it rather cute but now she saw the gesture for what it really was, a way to buy time as she thought about her next move. 'So... fun?"

"Fun. Let's go take this bad boy out to the track." Laura smoothed a hand over the sedate paint job of her sleek sports car. She seemed the kind of girl that would have a car painted something like cherry red or mint green. The muted silver with blue stripes was almost classy. "If they won't let us start working on our car, we'll go have some fun. They'll be so jealous they'll be begging to have us put back in our hanger."

As ideas went, it was a good one. Alison wanted to see what Laura considered fast. She may not have liked to drive herself but she didn't mind being a passenger.

"That's a good plan."

"No, my dear. That's a great plan." Laura gave her a sly wink before beginning the process of getting her car off the jack. It was a good thing that it took all her concentration because Alison was pretty sure her face had gone slack with lust and need. If she didn't find some way of getting rid of this gnawing desire, it was going to swamp her and she'd do something stupid. Like kissing Laura Cadman. That, she was sure, would be a mistake she would regret. Of course, she wasn't too sure that not kissing Laura Cadman would be any better.


The doctor had told her she needed to lay down but he'd never actually said the laying down needed to be in her bed. Without anyone else around, even the main room had become slightly more tomb-like than she cared for. Hefting a blanket, her iPod and a book she'd found (just in case she felt like reading for the first time since graduating from high school), Dusty went in search of company. She was hoping to run into Anne but she had a strong suspicion the woman was spending some time with Kate Heightmeyer, the psychologist employed by the McKay Foundation to keep the employees mentally healthy. All Dusty had ever seen her do was show off her impressive cleavage with shirts that didn't seem to button all the way. The one time that Kate had come by their hanger to check on them, Dusty had watched as Anne's eyes had glazed over. She was very much smitten with the pretty doctor.

The problem was that Dusty didn't want to converse with anyone else. If Anne was busy, and she most certainly didn't want to interrupt, she didn't want to seek out anyone else. She mostly just needed the feel of human bodies near her to push away the suffocating feeling of being the only one in a room. Instead of heading for the room used as the Mess Hall or the Game Room, she went toward the open area affectionately called the Library. Three bookcases formed a sort of barrier around a couple of window seats that overlooked the main lawn. There were always people walking by but no one ever stopped to look through the ancient copies of Road and Track that lined the shelves.

Or she'd thought no one ever stopped by. She'd picked one of the window seats for her own, tucking in the blanket securely, ever mindful of her aching leg, when she heard the first conversation. They didn't step into the area but they used the shadowed area that the bookcases afforded to hide their meeting.

"I thought you said you were going to stop by last night?" That southern drawl was unmistakeable. She didn't know who Cameron Mitchell was meeting but there was enough sex oozing from his words that Dusty couldn't help feeling that the woman had been slightly stupid to stay away when she had a shot with that hottie.

There was a rustle of clothing and the unmistakeable sound of a kiss, the wet rasp of lips pressing together and sliding apart onto hot skin making Dusty wonder if this was really a conversation she wanted to be listening in on, the shadows clearly giving them more than enough privacy to carry out unthinkable private acts.

"I got caught up on the top floor. He wanted another meeting even though I told him we were taking care of it."

That was most definitely not a female voice. Dusty's eyes widened as she finally placed the clipped accent. Cam was meeting John Sheppard? And they were kissing? Her throat was suddenly dry as a very accurate picture of what the two of them were doing to each other right now was broadcast across her mental screen. They were two very, very pretty men who, in her imagination, complimented each other to a tee. She could imagine five o'clock shadows rasping against tanned skin, corded muscles flexing and releasing as bodies moved against each other. Of course, she reminded herself, they had to stay clothed because the area wasn't completely private. They each had a room where they could go for that, as was evidence by the start of the conversation.

"Does he like your theory?"

"Of course not. He only likes his own theories. Nothing his sister said helped any. I don't think she's the asset we thought she would be. She should have at least been able to convince him that this is dangerous. You'd think with the kind of messages he's been sent, the man would be shutting this place up like a fortress."

The only person on the top floor, that she knew of, was the McKay that the foundation was named after. She'd never seen him, only hearing his words from David's mouth like the man was a puppet and not just a hired assistant. It sounded like he was in danger. The idea made her shiver because too many of these accidents had already touched her. If this was all for some man who wasn't going to listen to the ideas of sane men... of course, they weren't sane right now because she'd most definitely heard the sound of a shirt hitting the ground. A low groan, from someone clearly under a lot of stress, barely reached her ears and she found herself wanting to mimic the sound as her daydreams began to heat up.

"If you keep this up, I'm not going... oh, God. Right there. Right... like that. No, no. She's there. We can't. She's right... right there, yeah. Just like that."

Before she could be accused of being a dreadful snoop, Dusty pushed the earbuds in her ears. While it kept out the sound of whatever else was going on on the other side of her alcove, it couldn't keep out the mental images that were already embedded deep in her brain. It still felt intrusive so she tried thinking of something else but all she did was replace Ronon for Cam and herself for John so that the intwined bodies were a little less similar to each other but still pressed close.

She knew herself too well to do anything about the ache between her legs at the moment. Instead, she pulled out the book and tried to loose herself in the words. It worked for awhile but her curiosity got the better of her. Slowly, so as not to create too much noise, she lowered the book and pulled one of the earbuds out. With every fiber of her being, she listened for any moan or twitch or button being unhooked. When she didn't hear anything, she pulled her earbuds out and settled back in with the book.

There were other snippets of conversation that floated into her sanctuary. Two kitchen employees speculated on when the lost shipment of potatoes would arrive in the kitchen so they could get to work on dinner. A man walked by, a tuneless whistle escaping with each footfall, as if he was counting his steps in his head yet still needed to have a verbalization of the number. If he hadn't moved off so quickly, she felt as if she might have been able to tell his identity just from the sound. It was one she'd heard before but it wasn't anything she could place.

For a community that should have been actively working down in the hangers encircling the abandoned air strip, there were a lot of people roaming the halls. More than she would have expected for a cash prize of so much money on the line. There were some employees here but she heard a couple of different conversations that led her to believe that several of the participants were in this building instead of their own.

She also kept hearing that whistling. It came from different directions and, after awhile, she realized it was coming with some regularity. Since she had nothing else better to do, she pulled out her watch to keep track of when she heard it. The second hand of her watch kept her so transfixed, she almost missed the next conversation that took place in the alcove.

"Did you get the message?"

"I thought we were on radio silence until we can figure out who's on watch?"

"It just came in with the food delivery. I'd think about working through dinner."

"Fire wasn't good enough? Now they're going to take them out at the food source? Nice. I knew there was a reason we hooked up with that group."

"Let's not tell Steve. It would look better if one of us came down with the same thing as everyone else."

There was a low laugh, so full of eager menace that Dusty shivered. "Yeah, I think Steve is the perfect one to go down with the rest of them. He deserves it for messing up that last job. It was almost bad enough to send her to the hospital and then where would we be. If the police get called for something else, they're sure to start investigating, no matter how much money McKay uses to cover up everything that's happening here."

"If the bitch hadn't slowed down the line making goo-goo eyes over her shoulder, we would have been home free. You know he had to have been suspicious, though. Better if we'd got our intended target and laid him up."

"Too ambitious. They know we're on to them. Better to eat away at the foundation until the whole thing topples."

More laughter, a slap of skin like a handshake and nothing. Dusty felt her whole body begin to tremble as the ramifications of the information seeped in her conscious mind. They'd been talking about her. The accident hadn't been so accidental, after all. A small whimper escaped before she could stop it. She stuffed her knuckle between her teeth to keep any other noises at bay.

The whistle made her jump, knocking the book to the floor. It was high and strident, like a bird calling for help. After a few seconds, it called out again and her whistle, the one she'd found herself waiting for, sounded from a distance. When it called out again, nearer this time, the higher sound answered back.


"Michael and Todd."

"Did you hear anything?"

"I did not see them in time to get into a better location. If she's awake..."

The third conversation ended abruptly as Ronon pushed himself through the bookcase opening. "Are you harmed?" he asked in a voice, quiet yet hard as nails. The look in his eyes would have frightened her if she hadn't already been nearly ready to scream as it was. "Did they hurt you?"

She shook her head, completely mystified by the question as she couldn't figure out which they he meant. Right now, with the way her skin was crawling and the blood in her veins turning to ice, he could be the one hurting her as he gripped her arm. While he might have meant it as a nice touch, the pressure made her want to scream.

We take care of family. Always.

The words in her head, an echo of her mother's voice when she was a child, calmed her. This wasn't about her any longer. This was about her friends getting hurt. This was about standing up for those that couldn't help themselves. She had no idea if Ronon was the one who could help her take care of them but she had to tell someone. He was a good place to start.

Her jaw ached from the familiar clenching. "You have some gum?" she asked as her jaw protested the movement. She needed to keep it moving or she'd clench herself right into a migraine.

He shook his head, completely mystified by her words but he looked over his shoulder. "Teyla, go get us some gum." A high pitched whistle was his only answer but he seemed perfectly okay with it. "Now, are you going to answer my question? Did he hurt you?"

"Who?" John Sheppard? Cameron Mitchell? The doctor that had poked and prodded at her tender skin this morning until she'd wanted to punch him just to show him what kind of pain he was inflicting on her? The facility was full of men who he could be asking her about and her brain was still busy processing the information she'd received to narrow down her search for the answer.

Ronon's eyebrows flattened as he glared at her. "Michael. Did he touch you?"

"Michael? Was he... was he the one talking about the food being poisoned?"

"Is that what they were talking about?" He touched his ear. "Sheppard? Yeah, I got her. No, she hasn't mentioned anything about... hey! Listen, okay? They were talking about that new food delivery. You were right. Better get rid of it. What? I'm kind of busy here. Look, I'll send... fine. I'll go right after... fine. Now. I'll go now." He growled the last words, his frown staying in place as he turned his attention back to her. "How'd you like to get a snack?"

"Tell me what this is about and I'll think about it."

At first she thought he was going to turn her down but a deep sigh evened out the deep lines on his face. "You picked the one place on this damned campus that we've been keeping an eye on over the last few weeks. The shadows and easy access make for some interesting conversation. You got here before Teyla this morning or you would have had company."

It was news to her that she'd been seen coming in here because she hadn't seen anyone in the hallway. Not that she'd been trying to keep out of sight or anything but there hadn't been anyone around. She would have noticed if someone was following her. Wouldn't she? The thought that someone had been around without her noticing made her shiver. The shiver broke something inside her. Something that had been keeping her iced over and scared.

Dusty shook off Ronon's hand and threw the blanket aside. The abrupt change in temperature against her bare leg made her gasp in shock but it was still pretty numbed up from the medication that the doctor had forced down her this morning. A vague memory of him telling her she would need to come back for the next dose nagged at her but she didn't have time for that right now.

"So this is a meeting spot? Is that what the thing with John and Cam was? They were meeting?"

"This has been hard for them. They haven't been apart this long since... well, since I've known them. McKay didn't want one big security team, said we needed to blend in, so we split up. Cam took his people and John took his. We told John you were here but no one told Cam."

So she had been the she in that conversation, too. A dull flush crept along Ronon's cheekbones, most likely matching her own heightened color as she stared at him, remembering how her daydreams had changed from the two men enjoying each other to how she might enjoy this man.

A whistle wrecked the moment, heralding Teyla's entrance as she slipped through the opening. "Gum. Would you like me to go to the kitchens since you are... busy?"

Ronon stood up. "No, I should go stop this before it gets out of control."

As he walked out, Dusty couldn't help but wonder if he meant the tainted food or whatever might eventually grow out of this fascination they each had for the other one. When she looked up and saw Teyla's expression, she couldn't help but wonder if Teyla thought the exact same thing.


"I don't think I've ever gone so fast in my whole life. You're amazing," Alison said for the third time. She was still trying to catch her breath, most of the air in her lungs having disappeared on the first turn Laura made along the tarmac. It hadn't seemed possible to make such a sharp corner while going so fast but they'd done it. And then done it again. And again. Alison had actually lost count of how many times they'd driven up and down the stretch of asphalt. When she looked at her watch, she saw they'd only been in the car for a total of fifteen minutes. It felt like she'd set here for an hour, at the very least.

Laura was looking out the front window as if she didn't see anything past the front bumper. A small frown tugged her lips down. As Alison looked at her, she realized she was seeing a true emotion. It wasn't going to change to a smile or a laugh in the next few seconds. Even after the show of speed, Laura Cadman was not happy.

"Do you think you can do better?" she asked quietly, laying a hand on the other woman's tense arm. "I thought that was amazing."

"That's not what you said before. You said I was amazing. Not what I did. Me. You thought I was amazing."

Alison nodded, pulling her hand away in case Laura decided to swat it away. Before this moment, she'd thought she was a good judge of what Laura was thinking but this new Laura was a complete mystery. She wasn't trying to be funny or make other people laugh along with her and she most definitely wasn't happy.

"I do think you're amazing. What you can do in this car is nothing short of spectacular. You have it fine tuned down to-"

"So you only like me when we're in my car? I thought you were different. Turns out you're more like those guys I knew in high school. You only want me for my car."

The words felt like a slap. She'd never, ever been compared to a guy. It wasn't meant as a compliment, no matter how she looked at it. "I don't want you for your car. I mean, I like your car but... what is this all about? I thought you wanted to have some fun. That's what this was supposed to be about. Did you not have fun?"

"I wasn't throwing the tools because I was angry about not being able to work on our car."

The way she said our made Alison's skin crackle with electricity. It made this whole day turn into an experience that was just something between the two of them. Her words gave Alison the strength to ask, "Were you throwing the tools because you wanted to spend time with me but it wasn't working out the way you thought it should?"

Laura turned to look at her, the anger seeping out and just leaving behind the confusion. "You knew that?"

"It was how I was feeling but I didn't have any tools to throw. I did throw my pencil a few times to see how that felt. Not quite as satisfying and I had to keep sharpening it."

At first, Laura went back to frowning but slowly, so slow that Alison felt that she caught every single muscle movement, she smiled and then started to laugh. It was just a short hiccup of a laugh but it was better than the grim expression she'd been wearing. "All this time I thought you didn't really notice me. I'd try to catch your eye but you never looked at me. When you did, it was like I wasn't who you thought I should be. Every time I threw one of the tools, especially that big wrench, I thought you'd yell at me for making noise and then at least we'd be talking."

"We talk all the time."

"We do? I feel like it's just me. You never laugh at my jokes."

"I do laugh-"

"And you wake up in the morning with a growl, like you've had a horrible sleep because I'm nearby."

"That's because you jump-"

"Dusty said you liked Alicia. Did you like Alicia?"

"She was a very-"

"I hoped that someday you'd be able to get past your feelings for her and I was going to be patient but I'm not a patient person. Do you think you'll ever get over her?"

"I was never-"

"Because I really like you. Like... really like you."


"And it's getting hard to just smile and hope that someday you see what is right in front of your eyes. Because I'm quite a catch. If you'd like I can have Evan vouch for me. Not that he's ever tried to catch me because he doesn't like girls. In fact, he has his eye on that botanist who works for the big-wig around here but we've been friends for forever so he's as good as-"

It didn't look like Laura was going to stop talking anytime soon, nor was she going to let Alison get a finished sentence out so she decided to take matters into her own hands. More precisely, she decided to take Laura's face between her hands. When that shocked the woman into silence, Alison took advantage of her parted lips to begin kissing her. It took a moment but there was finally a sigh and Laura melted into her touch instead of trying to get away from it.

"First," Alison said as she sat back, her lungs protesting all the time they were spending without air, "I did like Alicia but as a friend. She sort of looked like my last girlfriend but I didn't like her like that. I miss her, but the way someone misses someone they knew thirty six hours. Nothing more. And if it seemed that I wasn't paying attention to you, it was only because I've been trying to sort my feelings for you these last few weeks. I haven't felt like this since... well, I've never felt like this. You discombobulate me, Laura Cadman. Most of the time I'm just trying to remember how to breath so I don't combust into a thousand fires. I wasn't ignoring you and I was most definitely laughing at you. Not in a bad way. But laughing at your jokes."

"Really?" The small smile that made Laura's eyes sparkle was back. That was a look that Alison could read but she only nodded. All her words had been used up. "I guess I've spent so much time trying to get you to notice me that I wasn't paying much attention to what you were actually doing.

"I wasn't pushing you away." Alison tried not to smile but she couldn't resist. It was funny just as much as it was sad that they'd been at odds with each other over the same thing. "We're good now, right?"

Laura began to nod but something caught her attention. When she realized that the woman hadn't gotten another bee in her bonnet and was gearing up for a new fight, she looked out the windshield herself. A black car, shaped more like an ear of corn than a typical car should, was headed down the airstrip toward their position, coming too fast for it to be a joyride. They both came to the conclusion at the same time.

It was only Laura's quick reflexes that saved their lives. As she put the car into reverse, she cranked the steering wheel as much as she could and held out her arm as if the gesture would keep Alison safe. They gave each other a small smile as Alison wrapped her hands securely around Laura's outstretched arm. Silence filled the car as Laura put pressure to the accelerator.


"I need to apologize for my behavior earlier." John's face was scarlet as he came up beside the chair in the corner that Dusty had taken as her own. The ready room for Sheppard's team was cluttered but everyone seemed able to move easily through the equipment, as if they'd done it a thousand times before.

She spared a glimpse at the man before turning her attention back to the room. "No problem. I think I'm more offended that all of you didn't just announce your presence. Maybe I could have helped. Did you ever think about that while you were wasting energy on protecting me?"

He made a sound, a cross between a chuckle and a snort. When she shot him a glare, he held up his hands as a sign of surrender. "I'm not laughing at you. It's just... that's the same thing Ronon said. I just figured you were one of his... well, it's not important."

"One of his what?" When he didn't answer, she grabbed the sleeve of his shirt and pulled until he was closer to her level so that her glare carried more weight. "One of his what, John?"

"He collects lost causes. Damsels in distress. That sort of thing. He told us you were there after the fact but I guess I hadn't really thought of you as the spy type. More like that he saw something in you that made him go all cave-men. He does that sometimes."

"Go all cave-men?" She wasn't sure she wanted an answer to that question.

John shrugged, pulling his sleeve out of her grasp. "He's the sort of guy who wants to solve all the problems in the world single-handedly. Doesn't use much finesse. He finds these projects and, more or less, sledgehammers his way to a solution. It's not pretty but it's effective. You seem... well, you seem different but you never really know about a person, do you?"

She turned her attention to the man who had just entered the room. That certainly explained a lot. Why he'd stayed with her when she was getting her burns taken care of. Why he'd walked out this afternoon as soon as it was obvious she was okay. Now she just felt silly... and sick. She'd come with Teyla because she wanted to see what exactly was going on. Answers had been promised to her.

But a part of her had hoped to somehow find a way to insert herself into Ronon's life so that he couldn't just walk away from her. Come to find out, she probably never would be able to be the person she wanted to be to him because he only saw her as a lost cause. Wasn't that what she was? The time here was meant to give her a break from her endless cycle of a life where she was the one who could be counted on because she hadn't messed up as much as the rest of her family. As much as she tried to break away, they kept pulling her back in to their futile miasma of pain and suffering. For each step they took forward, they pushed themselves back two steps. As much as they liked to blame life and the man, they did it to themselves. She prided herself on being tougher than that. Obviously, it was all a delusion.

Her chin lifted and the words came out through a clenched jaw. "I'm no lost cause. Until the day I stop breathing, I will continue to fight. And I don't need any hand outs." She thought about adding a message for John to take to Ronon but she decided she wanted the satisfaction of seeing her words strike their mark instead.

Pushing herself off of the chair was harder than she'd thought it would be. All the inactivity today had given her skin the opportunity to heal and stiffen so that each new movement was pure torture. For a moment, her vision grayed around the edges and, no matter how many times she blinked her eyelids, she couldn't get the room to quit spinning.

"She's going down," someone said beside her but she didn't have time to tell them they were wrong. She wasn't going to give in to the floating sensation that wanted to send her to the ground. It grew worse as arms wrapped around her, lifting her off her protesting leg.

"That was stupid. Should have stayed sitting down or you're going to end up laying down." Warm breath against her cheek woke her up out of the dizziness. She turned her head into the warmth surrounding her shivering body. Her hand came up to connect with the five o'clock shadow already gracing a face she'd taken the time to memorize from afar.

Her words were muffled in his shirt but she didn't care. They weren't meant for public consumption and, if she'd been feeling better, she wouldn't have said them to him, either. "I usually do the stupid thing. Liked you, didn't I? But you didn't feel the same way and now I should just leave before it gets worse but I can't even get out the door on my own two feet."

"Why do you need to leave?"

"Because you're breaking my heart."

A finger encouraged her to turn her head but she kept her eyes lowered so she couldn't lose her resolve when she saw his eyes. "Look at me, Dusty."

"Put me down," she muttered, instead. Now that the pain and dizziness were passing, she was starting to feel the embarrassment for what she'd said. A part of her was sad that he did what she asked. He didn't try to fight her on her terrible idea, didn't even touch her after he made sure she was steady. She stood in the middle of the now silent room, everyone encircling the drama as if they'd been on a stage. "Nothing to see here. Move along. Go about your lives."

And they did. The headiness of people following her orders should have given her a big head but she felt a heavy depression instead. She meant next to nothing to these people. That she had expected something more added to the depression. Better she got back to her life soon, before she took to depending on people.

"Explosion on the airstrip. Looks like a car drove into some tanks of fuel." Everyone paused as the announcement came from the corner where Chuck was monitoring a computer screen. "Looks like two cars might have been involved. Let me... I can't see the one in flames at all but there's another one that looks like it might be... yeah, it's Cadman's car."

A moment of silence was followed by a stream of barked orders, weapons being checked and slotted back into their holders, confusion coalescing into streamlined efficiency with little hesitation. In the blink of an eye, she was left standing in the middle of a nearly empty room.

"Laura's part of this, too?" she called out but it was a rhetorical question. Of course, she was. If Chuck was here, Laura was involved. She vaguely remembered seeing Evan walk past her while she was talking to John. Three teams out of the rest of the entrants were actually envolved. For a moment, her stomach made a sickening jerk as she felt the inevitable tug of being outside the loop. For all she knew, she was the only one not involved. That wasn't true, though. She was involved. "Got a spare fire arm?"

Chuck narrowed his eyes at her. "Got a certification you can show me?"

She patted down the thin material of the track pants she'd cut one leg off of to accomodate her healing leg. "Must be in my other pair. Just... give me one. It's not like I've never shot one before. I need to look like I have the right to be... well, where I'm going."

"And where is that?" He looked smug but also nervous. If she pushed, she knew he'd give her what she asked for but she could also tell that he was good at his job and true to his team. If she pushed too hard, it would snap back and end up hurting her right at the moment she needed his help the most.

When she limped over to his side of the room, the man visibly recoiled away, as if she was going to hurt him to get what she wanted. In that moment, she knew she'd rather leave this room without a gun then threaten him. "I heard the men talking today. I know who they are."

"We know who they are, too. Not new information."

Dusty snapped her gum in exasperation. "Yes, but I can get access to their rooms. Maybe find something that you guys don't know about. Something that could help."

"The room is bugged. And locked. It's not like we haven't tried." He pointed to his screen. A grainy picture of a door never seemed to move, as if it was just a still and not a video feed. "This is as close as we can get."

"You guys didn't put a camera in every room?"

He sneered. "Of course we did. One of the first things they did was to disconnect it."

"Wasn't that your first clue they were the bad guys?"

"Not really. Your team did the same thing."

That made Dusty shiver. She hadn't known anything about any camera in the room. That left three others who might have known. If it had been Anne, she would have expected to have known about that development as soon as she'd discovered it. Alison could have discovered it but the techie seemed a bit green to look for a bugging device and a bit naive to keep from saying anything about it. That left Alicia. Had the dead girl known more about what was going on than she'd let on? No, the girl would have enjoyed her personal life being on camera too much to disable it.

"Can you tell who did it?" she finally asked when she found her words.

"It wasn't physically turned off. Something is disrupting the signal."

"Like what? One of Alison's computers?"

He shook his head, calling up another screen that was just a haze of gray and silver streaks. "No, it's an actual disrupter. Something I've never encountered before."

"And it has to be close by?"

This got his attention. Dusty got the impression that he'd spent some time thinking about this and had probably said something to someone in charge but had been ignored. She had an idea that seemed to be right along with his theory, though. This was the advantage she needed to push. "Let me go investigate it, Chuck. What's it going to hurt? I'll be back in fifteen minutes. Twenty, tops. It'll probably be nothing and then we'll both be satisfied. Right?"

The hesitation she expected lasted only long enough for him to push a few more buttons. Another screen popped up and then a smaller screen, showing a diagragm of a floor of the building. "This is the view from right outside your rooms. I can pan it back and forth like this but we haven't had any need to because there's no one in any of these rooms. Still, I like to give it a go every few hours, just in case I see something weird. See what happens when I have it go to the right." The same pattern of gray and silver blurred the screen until he moved it back toward the door again. This time, he pointed to the schematic. "There are two more doors down the hall that way. If you haven't heard anything odd coming from the one next to you, my thought is that they've set something up in the one next to it. Right here. It's on the corner so not only does it overlook the same patch of asphalt as your view but it also is within range of the fence that circles this place."

"So they could have set something up to get messages in and out of this place?"

If she'd expected to be told that idea was stupid, she was in for a surprise as his face started to glow with happiness. Obviously, she was thinking along the right lines and that concerned her because she was never much for the why of things. She just concerned herself with the end result. Like the car she designed. She hadn't been able to see how to get there, just that her design would work. Maybe all the time having Alison explain how she'd worked backwards was finally paying off. She was almost a geek!

"That would explain the disruption. It started the night that... the night that Alicia was killed."

"The fire bombing. It was planned." She shook her head to get rid of the images of the charred remains of the cars. That was bad enough that she was thankful she'd never seen the evidence of what the attack had done to Alicia and Stackhouse. "Of course it was planned. But it was, you know, designed to happen that way."

"To act as a way of getting all the attention off them as they set up their communication center. Yes."

"Much like today." Dusty's blood ran cold. "Yet another distraction."

"I'll get that gun for you."


It took several minutes for Alison to tell her side of the story to a hovering Teyla. She shivered even with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Everything had happened so fast that she was having trouble putting it into words. The only ones that kept coming up were She saved me and He was going to kill us.

When Anne came running up, a concerned look on her face as yet another one of her team members fell prey to the increasingly antagonistic accidents, Alison fell into her arms but couldn't shed any more light on the incident than Teyla. "I should take you back to the room. You could do with something to drink and a rest," she said when she had all the information.

Alison shook her head. "No, I want to make sure Laura is going to be alright." Anne followed her shaky finger to where the other woman was standing. "She was driving. She might be hurt."

"I think she's fine or she wouldn't-" Anne was saying just as Laura staggered against Cam, her arm wrapped around her waist as if to frame what was hurting her.

Since she was the only one who'd been watching Laura, Alison was the first one to her side. "What hurts?"

"It's just a bruised chest. I'll be fine." But her tone of voice made it sound like anything but fine.

Cam already had a grip on her which was probably the only thing keeping her upright. Alison inserted herself under the girl's other arm. "You can go to the doctor like this or I'll ask Cam to carry you. Which ones sounds good to you?"

They were starting to draw glances from the other groups, all of them trying to figure out their next course of action. The resignation in Laura's face was probably due to the fact that she didn't want the attention focused on her, a fact that Alison was prepared to use to her advantage if she needed to. When Laura nodded her head, muttering under her breath about always choosing the bossy ones, Alison knew she'd won.

They started walking across the asphalt, slowly making progress even though Laura's breath hitched now and then. They got about halfway when she stopped walking completely. "Cam, do you mind? I need to talk to Alison about a few things. Don't worry about me. I'm not going to collapse before you have a chance to beat my ass for not following protocol on this one."

"Knew it was going to be trouble when I let Evan have you on his team." The southern drawl held a sound of authority as he stepped away, but stayed within an arm's length just in case he had to catch her again.

"Ah, you're just jealous because you think I think Evan's prettier now. Don't worry. You'll always be my favorite." Laura tightened her grip on Alison's shoulder, letting out a little groan as it jarred something near her bruised muscles. "I'll get bandaged up and then meet you-"

"No, you most definitely will not," Alison answered, horrified that she'd even brought up the idea of leaving the infirmary once they got there.

Cam just laughed. "The mama bear has spoken and you better listen to her. Besides, I doubt anything's going to happen between now and tomorrow morning. I'll come brief you after dinner."

"After dinner? That's hours away."

"Exactly." Alison began moving, giving Laura no way out of going along with her as she made sure to keep at a pace that would place the injured woman at the edge of her endurance. It was cruel but she was feeling the need to have the upper hand for once. "So, what did you need to talk about?" she finally asked when they were in the shade of the main building.

"Figured I'd wait. Until you can't kill me. Oh, wait. You already are." Laura leaned out to touch the wall, her fingers shaking as they sought another source to steady her. "Let me rest here and I'll tell you everything."

"Including why you weren't nervous at all when you got us out of danger?"

"Didn't get us out of danger. We still crashed, didn't we? Pity about that car, too. I've put so much money into it and I doubt the insurance adjuster is going to let this one squeak by."

"You've done this before?"

She was bent over, her color still pale but otherwise she looked okay. Alison wanted to be more worried but she couldn't help wonder if part of this was an act to garner her sympathy. It might have worked if she hadn't seen the wink that Cam had given Laura right before he walked off. If Cam had been worried, there was nothing that he would have done to keep Laura from getting help. Instead, she restated her question to be more of a statement of fact. "You've done this before. Let me guess. CIA? FBI?"

"No alphabet group. I wouldn't work for them for all the money in the world. They're a bunch of whiners." She turned her head so that Alison could see one of her pretty eyes and part of her upturned smile. "Besides that, I couldn't pass the psych test. Don't know why they want their operatives to be sane when they start because they certainly aren't when they get out."

"Then who? Who gives you training to work a car like that?"

"That came from me. I learned how to do that all on my own. The group I work for allows me to do it legally instead of in the parking lot outside the bowling alley with Wes Parker's '59 Chevy. It's a group of people intent on helping others in situations like this."

"Like what?"

Laura's voice lowered but was still loud enough for Alison to understand all her words. If anyone else walked by, they wouldn't be able to hear them, though. Alison noticed the difference and was grateful for it as soon as Laura began speaking, her voice low and steady and not at all full of pain. This was a set up so that she could tell Alison everything that was going on. In that moment, Alison wasn't sure if she felt safer because of this knowledge or incredibly vulnerable to whomever was out there intent on destroying this place.


It had been easy enough to pick the lock on the door. Dusty had been doing it for years now, had become an expert after her mother had taken to locking herself in the garage to drink without having to deal with the constant haranguing her daughter gave her. This lock didn't give her any trouble, at all. The situation on the other side, however, made her eyes widen in fear.

Chuck had been right. She didn't know that for sure as there wasn't a sign above the machine that proclaimed it to be some sort of communications device but there was nothing else in the room, no reason for it to be here. As she walked in far enough to close the door behind her, remembering to lock it so no one would walk in on her as she went about her business, Dusty tried to find some evidence of human occupation. While there was a fine layer of dust on the table in the opposite corner, everything else looked like it had been used recently. The chairs had been moved and a wad of paper littered the floor near the door that led to the single bedroom in this suite.

As much as she wanted to check out the other room to make sure that she was indeed alone, Dusty only wanted to verify her findings so she could get the hell out of here. It gave her the creeps to know that anyone this dangerous had spent time this close to where she'd slept. It also angered her that no one had listened to Chuck. If they had, would they all be in this situation now? Would Alicia be dead?

She turned her anger on the people who had used this room. It was easy enough to find the power switch and the cord that was plugged into the wall but she went one step further. Finding the access panel, she began to pull out wires and conduits until the table around the machine was littered with the technical debris. With all the bits and pieces out of place, she was positive that the camera in here was now working and, once she knew where to look, she was able to locate it in the opposite corner. No one had bothered to tamper with it so it was most likely still working.

The small smile she sent to Chuck dropped away as the doorknob rattled. Even if she found a hiding place, her presence here was evident. The last thing she wanted to do was to put herself into a position that she couldn't escape from. Better to stay out here and hope she could either talk her way out of this situation or shoot her way to an escape

Gripping the gun in both her hands, she leveled it toward the door and waited.


"So today wasn't about any of this?" Even after the whole explanation, Alison felt a need to establish what had been real and what had been part of the job. She felt reassured but battered and bruised, all the same.

"No, not at all. I was supposed to be on stand down today. Under strict orders not to do anything that would put me in the path of our friends. I thought a drive would keep us away from them. Never had any idea that it made us targets." Laura stood up, all pretense to injury gone. There was still something in the set of her body that spoke of her current aches and pains but she was no longer trying to play them up. The height difference put her just below Alison's eye level, just far enough down that she had to bend her head to still see Laura's eyes as she stood closer. "Today was about getting to be with you."

Alison took a deep breath. God help her, she believed her. Nothing Laura had done today had felt false, although both her explanations, about her feelings and her job, went a long way in shedding some light on her actions over the last few weeks. "So, your job is pretty dangerous?"

"Kind of but I wouldn't have thought of it as dangerous before this job. Mostly I get to drive cars really fast and blow things up. That's what I do. I blow things up."

It shouldn't have impressed her as much as it did. "I used to work with rockets. Things blowing up is, well, it's kind of sexy."

"Oh... well, good."

She might have been wanting to say more but Alison leaned down, closing the distance to her lips quickly, as the weight of what had happened today began to bear down on her. Tears slipped out of the corner of her eyes even as she felt her lips curving into a smile against Laura's warm skin. It was a slow perusal of each other, comforting and exciting at the same time. Fingers touched, grasped, took hold as the emotions ran high before ebbing to normal and then back up again. Tongues began a tentative quest, hesitant against each other at first before fighting for dominance.

Laura was the first to pull back, her breath coming fast but not because all the kissing had increased her heart rate. When she resisted Alison's advance, the other woman took notice of her far-away expression. She started to get self-conscious, thinking that she'd bored Laura completely, until she remembered everything that had happened and all that she had learned over the course of the day. "What's happened?"

"Dusty's in trouble."

It took a heartbeat before Alison made up her mind that she was going to do something to help her teammate. She was normally the type to sit back and wait for a more beneficial outcome from the people who did this thing all the time before she offered to help. In whatever group she was in, her job was always that of clinician. But Dusty was in trouble. Gut-instinct had her turning to head for the door.

Laura's hand clamped down on her arm before she got very far. At first, she tried to shake it off but the blonde was surprisingly strong. "Just wait a minute. I'm not saying you can't go but you need to stay out of the way."

In a minute, Alison understood what exactly Laura was trying to say to her. Ronon Dex and John Sheppard seemed to come out of nowhere, silent and deadly as they aimed for the door. If she had been in front of it or even down the hall, she would have been run over, left behind for someone else to pick her up and put her back together if anything was broken accidentally. There was a pause as Ronon reached for the door and John, taking advantage of the movement, mimiced Laura's eariler movements and pulled at Ronon's arm.

"Hold up, buddy. Just hold up. You can't go in with your guns blazing. That's not how this is supposed to work or I would have let you at them weeks ago."

There was a moment, when Ronon turned to push John away and Alison got a view of his face, that she realized what true fear felt like. Nothing in his features was kind or gentle. It was all hard lines and anger, harsh eyes and thinned lips.

"You would have let me? I told you at the beginning that I would play along because it was a good cover story but that ended the moment they tried to lay a hand on her. We keep letting him dictate our movements. This should have been shut down the moment the first people died here. How many more, John? How many more will have to suffer a battle that isn't theirs because we didn't stand up to them when we had the chance?"

"I'm not saying no this time. I'm just saying slow down. Let's go in as a team."

This took some of the steam out of Ronon but not for long. He stiffened up once again, throwing off the constraining arm as he entered the building. "Get the team together and follow me up but know that I'm shooting to kill. No more playing around."

John glanced over and caught Laura's glance just long enough to pass along some sort of silent message that had her nodding before he followed the man through the door. The whole interaction had only lasted a few moments but Alison was as exhausted as if she had watched hours of debate. She had learned a lot about those two men with those few words but there was still so much she didn't know that she needed to in order to help.

"What does it matter to him?" she asked, unable to phrase her question so she didn't sound crass and unfeeling.

There was a shadow in Laura's eyes that didn't bode well for the answer being something simple. "His whole island was bombed. Over thirty thousand people died because this group of people wanted some beach front property and no one would sell them any."

"What? I never heard of anything like that happening."

"Exactly. These guys have a lot of clout. Didn't it strike you as funny that the police didn't come to investigate Alicia's death?"

It had bothered Alison but she'd been in such a fog for those couple of days after that she'd figured she'd just missed them in all the hustle and bustle. After that, it hadn't really crossed her mind again. These were the sorts of things that went on without her having to worry about them. Now, the idea that she'd let such a major thing like the lack of a police investigation slip past her made a wave of guilt wash over her. It wasn't a pleasant sensation.

"They paid them off, Alison. Do you understand how powerful you have to be to do something like that?"

"No one has that kind of money."

"These guys do. It's scary the kind of damage they can do. John and Cam... well, they've seen some of the damage first hand. Had some contacts in the military but our government can't touch them so they had to find a way to help without running to Uncle Sam. Problem is, people like McKay draw jerks like this out of the woodwork. He needed help, more than what he could pull together at such a late date, and so he called us. They aren't just threatening McKay. Their threatening everyone who works for him and everyone who's affiliated with the man. They want to destroy him."

It was a lot for Alison to digest. She'd been cloistered for so long that it seemed like this sort of thing could only happen on television. No one was that evil. It was comical to think of someone being threatened with something so grandiose as complete annihilation. Sure, they'd given her the creeps but most men did. "So why are they trying to hurt Dusty?"

"She got in the way."

Alison barely digested those words before she was snapping a reply back. "And I suppose you all just mow down the bystanders to get to the bad guys. Typical. I should have known you were no better than the people you're supposedly protecting us from." She held up her hands to use air quotes around the word protecting as if she didn't really believe that Laura and her employers were doing anything like that.

"I'm going to pretend that you didn't just say that," Laura whispered, hurt lacing through her eyes. "You've been through a lot and you don't understand what you just accused us of."

Instead of apologizing, Alison jerked the door open and followed after the trail the men had just taken. She didn't feel like apologizing just yet.


"What did they send you here to do?" the tall man asked. They were all tall but he was the tallest of the group of three that clustered around her.

Even though Dusty had seen him around, she didn't remember their names. None of this group had been very friendly. If she'd thought about it for very long, she would have pegged them as troublemakers even if Chuck hadn't directed her thoughts in this direction. With all the white-blonde hair and sallow skin, they looked like trouble. Besides, there wasn't a tattoo on the bunch. How had they ever gotten into a group of gear-heads without a visible tattoo between the lot of them?

"I don't know who else you mean. I got bored and decided to investigate. Found a locked room. Unlocked it because I like to do things like that. Found this thing and decided to see how it works. I'll put it back together again. Don't worry. There's not a single machine on the face of this earth that I can't put back together again. Of course," she tried not to show just how nervous she was so she reached down and began flipping one of the metal components around her knuckles like it was a quarter and she was a two-bit shyster. "I can't very well do that with you all staring at me. Why don't you leave me be for a few minutes and then you can come back in and it'll be as good as new?"

They didn't buy that. She hadn't expected they would but she'd gained some ground. They were so mesmerized with her that they weren't paying attention to the door. It opened slowly, a gun entering before her savior showed himself. It shouldn't have surprised Dusty to see Ronon standing there but she had to admit that she hadn't thought he would be actively coming to her rescue yet again. Even though it was something he seemed to do a lot, after he'd left her earlier, she thought she'd reached the end of her quota today. As much as it was a relief to see him, she couldn't help but feel a little miffed that she hadn't been allowed to at least try to get free.

"So, no? You aren't going to let me fix this?" She watched as Ronon gave her a subtle signal before he began a count down on his fingers. "Fine. I'll just leave."

They began advancing on her just as Ronon's last finger dropped. Dusty dropped to the floor as fast as gravity would allow, covering her head with her hands as she curled into a small ball. Even before she was in position, the gun Ronon held began firing. There were no bullets buzzing around the room because each one found it's mark. Three shots. Three thuds onto the floor beside her. She counted each one like a death knoll. When the room was silent, she dared peek out from under the protection of her arms.

"Are you done?" she asked the man standing in the middle of the room, his gun down at his side as he stared down at the bodies. She'd expected something different than this calm after the storm that he'd been before. Just in case she had missed something that might be important to her future well-being, Dusty stayed on the ground where she would be out of the path of any stray bullets. When he didn't answer her, she pushed herself up to her knees. "I'm fine, by the way."


"I'm fine. That was going to be your first question, right? That seems to be your MO. Figured I'd answer it for you." Even though he'd just saved her, she was feeling irritated. At him, at the dead men on the ground, at Chuck who was most likely watching the whole situation on his computer monitor. Even at John Sheppard who had poked his head inside to make sure that everything had been taken care of in the room before pulling back out again. All the emotions of the moment, not to mention the stress of the last day, was starting to come out in a surprising way.

Ronon continued to stare at her which unnerved her to no end. Every time he did this, she got her hopes up that maybe he found her spell-binding but he only ended up walking away. She knew she wouldn't be able to handle many more situations like that, especially not today. "Why do you keep staring at me? Is there something wrong with me?"

He shook his head, blinking as if clearing away the thoughts that had held him hostage. "There's nothing wrong with you."

"Fine. Then quit staring at me." Since he hadn't bothered to offer to help her up, she heaved herself up. A stain of red was beginning to race across the floor toward where she was standing, bringing her back to the reason they were in this room. "Did Chuck tell you where I was." He nodded slowly. "And you came to my rescue once again."

"If you'd like, I can leave you to it next time."

That made her chuckle which quickly turned into a sob that she tried to keep back in. The dead men were a ring that she couldn't cross no matter how much she wanted to run out the door and back to the hanger where her life was waiting for her. "I've done it again," she moaned as she pushed herself back against the window. "I've solved everyone's problems but my own."

"And what problems do you have?"

"Right now? Surrounded by dead people. Saved, once again, by a man who appears to dislike me most of the time."

He stepped over one of the bodies, holding his hands out to her. When she didn't take it, he stepped closer. "I don't dislike you. I just... I didn't want to put you in the middle of this."

"In the middle of killing people?"

"Something like that." His voice was gruff but the frown wasn't quite as deep as it had been. A tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth spoke of the smile that wanted to come out, even though the situation didn't call for such frivolity.

"I guess I kinda put myself in this middle. No one else put me here."

"You'd have a lot less problems if you stayed out of the middle of things."

She took his hand, not sure if she wanted to cross the barrier even with his help. "I'd love to stay out of the middle of things but that never works. Not with my life."

"How about we get you out of here so they can get the room cleaned up and we discuss those things in your life that you might need help with?"


Without realizing it, she had stepped over the body and was near the doorway. Sobs still made her throat clench as a reminder of what had just happened but there weren't any tears. Her hands were steady and the stress of the moment was beginning to wear away, leaving her in awe that she had been so steady during the whole ordeal. It hadn't been so bad, really. Still, she wanted to know why Ronon suddenly wanted anything to do with her.

"Why?" she asked again when they were in the hallway. John and Cam pushed past into the room, presumably to clear it out. "Ronon, I really need you to answer my question. You keep walking away from me. I don't like that. Why do you care about my life if you're just going to walk away?"

"I worried that you were hurt. And then I worried that I was going to make it worse for you."

"I can handle it."

He nodded, lifted their hands to study them before carefully rearranging the finger positions so that they were more firmly entwined. "Exactly. You don't need me. You can handle just about everything, can't you?"

"But what if I want you?" she interrupted. "This isn't really my life. I'm much better under the hood of a car. I'm very good at problems dealing with cars. I guess you don't have much need for a mechanic, seeing as you know so many." When he gave her a glance, she started to laugh. The harsh emotions had subsided enough that she could laugh without sobs erupting. "Okay, some of them aren't mechanics. Still, I don't know if I fit in to your life but I find... I find I want to fit in your life. I may not need you to tell me where the carburator is but there is still a lot of room in my life for you. Oh, hell. Do you have any gum?"

This time, Ronon gave her a huge smile as he pulled out three packs of gum from his pocket. "I stocked up."

A shiver of delight ran through her body as she realized that he had gotten the gum for her. Because she'd asked for it earlier. Because he'd assumed that he might by nearby when she asked for it again. While she wasn't too sure about the dead bodies that he'd been so casual about, she was very sure that she wanted to keep asking him for gum.


The day of the last trial of the McKay's Foundation Innovation Engine competition dawned bright and sunny. Only five cars had made it this far but there would be a fierce run to the finish line in today's speed trials.

Anne Teldy's team hadn't been favored to win in the beginning but they'd been tough competition so far. Their car hadn't shown well in the agility aspects but it had outshone all the others in the aerodynamic category. The design would have been theirs as well if Daniel hadn't decided to enter the car he'd been working on in that one category. Still, they had a good chance of winning the whole thing.

Alison should have been happy about that but she hadn't been able to find much of anything to be happy about lately. During the last few weeks, she'd gone through the motions but hadn't done much besides staring at her computer screen. Even though her part on the computer was technically done, she hadn't had much interest in helping. Dusty, Anne, and Laura had everything under control and, while they hadn't told her to stay out of the way, Alison didn't feel especially welcome in the hanger.

She didn't know why she expected Laura to apologize when Alison had been the one in the wrong. Laura had never, technically, done anything wrong. Alison should have apologized right away for the way she'd stomped away from Laura but she hadn't. Even now there was something that was keeping her from just walking across the tarmac and saying the words. She was sorry that she'd been such a brat, letting her pride take hold. Every minute she didn't say the words was another minute she needed to apologize for.

There also been a lot of fear that had suddenly surfaced from out of nowhere, swamping her with feelings of inadequacy. She was just a scientist, someone who spent all her time staring at a computer or a white board. Surely Laura didn't really like her. Yes, she'd said the words but maybe they didn't mean what Alison had thought they meant. Surely they weren't compatible. They were so different.

Laura had stayed out of her way, acting like there was nothing amiss but never like they'd been anything special to each other. That should have hurt Alison but, strangely, it made her feel better. It was clear that Laura was trying to make everything seem as normal as possible. It was an act. The girl's smile was too bright, her laughter forced. Alison had hurt her and would need to make amends but she couldn't figure out how to get the words out or where to start.

Tomorrow, Laura would go back to her normal job. Alison would go back to... well, whatever life was still there on the other side of the fence. It wouldn't be nearly as interesting as these last few weeks had been. She'd gotten used to the flow of conversation around her as she worked on her computer or ate her meals. Going back to silence would be difficult.

As Alison watched Laura fit herself into the driver's seat, testing and retesting all the knobs and gadgets that she would need to rely on to get the car from one end of the airstrip to the other, she tried not to get nervous. The actual driving wasn't anything new for Laura. She'd done it a million times, at least once with Alison in the passenger seat, but it had never been in this car. Never this important. Anything could happen on the drive.

You need to tell her that you were an idiot. You need to say it out loud. What if something happens and she doesn't get to hear your words? Are you going to let her go?

Her answer was a resounding YES. Not surprisingly, she was afraid that Laura would just smile and accept the apology with silence. Like she wanted this new status quo to be the one they finished out this event with. Like it was okay that she had been an ass.

When had she become such a chicken?

Dusty walked by, a cell phone permenantly attached to her ear these days as she talked with Ronon. Since they'd taken care of the men that were threatening the McKay Foundation, there was no need to have all twenty of them hanging around, pretending to care about cars. Some, like Cam and his team, had actually worked on a car but they'd been behind the other teams so had concentrated on a few specifics instead of the whole package. Ronon and Teyla had been the first to leave, going back to their hurting communities to let them know that revenge had been enacted for their nightmare. From the sounds of it, he was planning on coming back. John had offered him a position on his team and he'd taken it but only if Dusty was also given a job. Seemed there were cars that needed to be constantly taken care of, although she'd gleefully insisted that she be taught to shoot that badass gun that Ronon carried around.

Anne had begun spending time with Kate Heightmeyer, the psychologist that kept the McKay Foundation employees healthy and sane. From the looks of it, they probably needed someone to talk their troubles out to. This threat hadn't been the first and wouldn't be the last. Whatever it was that they really did here, it kept people irritated with them. Anne was coming on as head of their PR department, something she seemed to be looking forward to if for no other reason than she would get to spend more time with Kate.

That left Alison as the only one on the team without a future. Without a reason to get up in the morning. And why is that? she kept asking herself. You know what you need to do. You know what you want. Why do you keep fighting it?

There was a hubbub from the finish line where the first car had finished its run. Each team got two chances. If anything happened in the first run, they would have to take that original time and be happy with it. The second car made it through but the third car stopped just short of the goal. As the team ran out to push the dead vehicle forward, Laura started revving the engine. It was now or never.

"Laura," she yelled even though she knew that no one near the loud car would hear her. It felt like an eternity before her feet gained purchase on the asphalt. As she sprinted forward, she tried yelling again. All the noise should have kept her words from carrying but this time Laura looked over at her as if she'd heard.

Even though there were people talking to her, getting her ready for the first race down the strip, she watched Alison run up to the door. "Kinda busy, Alison." Her voice wasn't unfriendly as she let her fingers play across the plastic of the steering wheel. "Can this wait?"

"I'm sorry. For everything. For being a brat. For not saying the words right away. For not saying them at all in the last weeks. For waiting until this moment before I could say them. I'm sorry, Laura. I'm really sorry."

There was a moment of silence, odd with such a crowd of people but they were all staring at them like they were all that mattered at the moment. Alison wondered if she should step away so they could get back to what they'd been doing but that would be like stepping away from what she'd done, admitting that she was a coward. She needed to be brave.

"Do you want me to say that I forgive you?"

"No." Alison shook her head, her hair swinging in front of her face, catching on the tears that had started to leak from the corner of her eyes. "I guess I just want you to hear the words. Don't forgive me, though."

"Why not?" Even through the small window of the crash helmet, it was easy to see that Laura was confused.

"Because I'd rather you just say that you love me. But, really, I want you to win this thing so... just drive."

To take off the helmet would have set them back by ten minutes or so. It wasn't an easy process. While Alison would have liked to have the girl pull it off and kiss her, she knew it was impossible. Still, she was surprised when Laura held out her hand. "Come here."

It wasn't a kiss but the hand caressing her cheek was every bit as moving. Alison let out a sigh as she leaned into the touch.

"I'm gonna go win and then we're going to talk this out. Okay?"

Alison kissed her palm, pushing it back into the car. "I'll wait right here for you."

Time had seemed to stand still for them but there was still much to do in the competition. Anne came over and pulled Alison away from the car as the engine rumbled and growled, eager to be away. The next few minutes would decide the winner of this particular event. For one team, it would be a happy outcome. For the first time since arriving here, Alison didn't care one little bit about the award or the money they'd win. She'd gotten something much more important from this experience. A girl who cared about her almost more than she deserved. Someone who was willing to give her a second chance. Alison was innovative enough to know that she could make a future out of that kind of gift.