Winter Sunlight

Fic: Long Road Home (1/3)

So ... I have all these unfinished stories that I'm supposed to be working on, but instead, I got bit by this plot bug -- they're not plot bunnies for me, more like plot hornets or something -- and I wrote this long, friendshippy AU. Hey, I got to put them through a whole different kind of emotional hell than usual, and that's gotta be worth something.

It's complete, but broken into parts because I think it's too long for a single LJ post.

Title: Long Road Home
Rating: T (mostly for language)
Summary: AU, gen, friendship, h/c. You can run to the ends of the Earth, but you can't escape from yourself. The story of an illegal immigrant, an emotionally and physically damaged veteran trying to shut out the world, and a border patrol agent who hates his job. Maybe they were destined to be friends in any universe.

I. Across the Rio Grande

The coyote's name was Steve. A man who claimed to be a friend of a friend of her father's introduced her to him, and he said he would take her across the border for all the money she had left.

The night that he came to get her, she had slept in a drain pipe beside the road. Still, she took the time to comb her hair with her fingers, to straighten her ragged peasant skirts. It was not vanity that made her do this; she was remembering something her father had told her when she was a little girl. To have the world respect you, Teyla, then you must present yourself as a person worthy of respect. If you look as if you expect to be spit upon, then that is what will happen to you.

Her father had died in a dusty village street, shot by guerrillas who unfairly branded him a government sympathizer. Now, ten years and a thousand miles away from where she had started, she put her life in the hands of a man with eyes that undressed her even as respectful words fell from his tobacco-stained lips.

He was not the first American that she had ever seen, nor even spoken to. There had been an American nun who ran a school in the village when she was a child. From Sister Margaret she had learned halting English in a soft Carolina drawl. And during her years of walking, she had spent some time selling bracelets to American tourists on the coast. They were strange, colorful people, those Americans -- they wore their privilege like a cloak around them, refusing to meet her eyes even as they admired her wares. She did not sense malice in them, just a confidence that precluded empathy. And yet, they could also be kind. Only days before, an American tourist riding a motorcycle had stopped beside her and given her money to buy food. She had not been begging. She did not beg. Her father would have told her to give back the money. But instead, she bought dinner from a tired woman in a roadside stall, and was grateful for it.

She hoped that in the place she was going, there would be more people like the kind American tourist on his shiny motorcycle, and less of the coyote's sort, with his lank blond hair and his grabby, greedy hands.

II. Wide Open Skies

The day that Major John Sheppard got his walking papers from the USAF where he had spent his entire adult life -- medical discharge, all benefits, etc.; hell, it beat "other than honorable", which was what he thought he was going to get -- he went down to the nearest Harley dealership and spent a very small chunk of his considerable savings on a black-and-chrome Heritage Softail with metal-studded saddlebags. He didn't know how far the road would take him; he only knew that it had to be better than here.

His doctors told him not to, but he didn't listen. The worst he could do was kill himself. The pain he could deal with; he quit taking the meds when a dizzy spell almost made him wipe out on a rainy hill in Tennessee. He learned to brake and shift gears with one leg immobile and one arm a lot less responsive than it used to be. He could do it. The doctors said he couldn't, but he was thirty-seven years old and he'd spent his whole life ignoring perfectly good advice, so he wasn't about to start taking it now.

He ended up riding across the country, from DC to the Rio Grande, and somewhere out there in the lonely stretches between towns, he found himself slowing down. He liked Texas: the wide-open skies made him think of flying.

He wasn't rich, but he'd never really had anything to spend his money on. He didn't have a family, and the Air Force moved him around so often that it wasn't worth it to pile up a lot of possessions. He didn't even own a car. The biggest thing he'd owned was a surfboard, and he'd left that on the doorstep of the Boys & Girls Club on his way out of town. So he put a down payment on a hundred and sixty acres of sagebrush with a beat-up house that ran off a wind-powered generator. The nearest neighbor was five miles away, the nearest town fifteen -- if you could call it that; a post office, a church, a couple of bars and a motel with three letters out on its flickering neon VACANCY sign. The nearest town worth talking about, with a Wal-Mart and a crappy little airport, was another twenty miles beyond that.

John went out there sometimes, stood behind the mesh fence and watched the little puddlejumper planes take off and land.

He thought about getting a horse, but didn't want to be responsible for another living thing besides himself; he didn't think he could handle it, not right now. Living alone, he could take off whenever he felt like it -- ride out to the pine forests of the New Mexico mountains, or across the border into Mexico where dead-eyed children begged for pesos along rutted roads. One time he went all the way to California, to see the redwood forests he remembered from his childhood. Adulthood had worn the shine off a lot of things, so he was happy to see that the huge, moss-draped trees still had all the magic and mystery that he remembered. He camped on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and wished he had his surfboard, before coming down wrong on his bad leg when he was picking up firewood and remembering that he probably didn't have the physical dexterity to catch waves anymore.

He stopped into town every so often to pick up junk mail from his P.O. box, have a few too many beers at one of the local watering holes, and harass the lone INS agent who had been stuck here to protect the town from, one assumed, invading Mexicans and terrorists. Or Mexican terrorists, maybe.

It was a good life, he supposed -- at least compared to being dead, which was what he'd expected when he'd woke up on an Afghanistan hillside, covered with rocket fuel, with his leg in more pieces than a jigsaw puzzle, and Taliban all around him.

But he was still here, and his closest friends were dead, and he didn't really know how to come to terms with that, so he didn't try. When he got to thinking too much about it, he'd take the bike out on the open road under the wide Texas sky, until the sound of helicopter rotors and screaming was drowned out by the rush of the wind in his hair.

III. Ends of the Earth

When Meredith Rodney McKay was five years old, he took apart his family's television set and built a rudimentary laser. When he was twelve, he constructed a nuclear bomb at his high school's science fair, and his parents began getting -- and refusing -- phone calls from various American government agencies. When he was thirteen, his parents took a turn too fast on an icy Canadian highway, and the orphaned McKay children were sent to live with their paternal grandfather in America. Young Rodney had been born in the U.S. to an American father and a Canadian mother, so he was an American citizen anyway, although his Canadian-born sister was not.

The CIA recruited him straight out of high school. He worked in forensics for a while, and then in R&D, but by the time he was thirty-two, he'd leapfrogged from one agency to another as his abrasive personality and refusal to accept orders made him persona non grata all through the middle management of the American government. Rumor had it that some of the orders he refused to follow -- or, maybe, orders that he followed too well -- had to do with building weapons that the American government didn't want their allies to know about. At the age of thirty-seven, he was working for the Customs and Border Patrol, living in a crappy motel in a town that wasn't even big enough to show up on a map, and eating his meals in a bar because the damn town didn't even have a restaurant.

There were a lot of stars here, and no light pollution to keep them at bay. The motel's TV got two channels, his laptop's wireless cut out intermittently, and there wasn't even a video store. Between insomnia and nightmares, he hadn't been able to sleep without chemical assistance in years, and every so often he refilled his sleeping pill prescription at what they laughably called a town, twenty miles down what might, loosely, be termed a road, but sure as hell wasn't a highway. However, with increasing frequency, he found himself dealing with the long nights in a different way. He'd sent off for a telescope and a book on astronomy. Re-learning the names of the stars reminded him of other things -- of the equations that governed the slow dance of the planets, and of the days when knowledge existed for knowledge's sake, rather than as a means to design new and better ways to kill people.

Technically, he was supposed to be here to keep illegals from crossing the river. As far as Rodney could tell, though, the occasional Spanish-speaking strangers who drifted in and out of town were no more dumb, dirty or uneducated than the locals -- not that it was much of a distinction. One night in the motel room, he calculated on a bar napkin how many years it would take the flow of illegal immigrants through this particular corner of West Butthole, Texas, to overwhelm the native population of the United States. After discovering that that many zeroes just didn't fit on a 4" square of napkin, he quit caring completely.

Besides, he wasn't cut out for field work. Even after a year in the desert, he still burned, rather than tanned; slathering himself with SPF400 sunscreen helped with that, but it also made him smell like coconuts, which didn't help his street cred with the leathery-looking locals. He carried his H&K P2000 dutifully, but wasn't precisely sure that he remembered how to fire it. He figured that wearing it ought to net him some respect, if nothing else could, but instead, it just got him heckled by the crazy veteran who lived back in the hills, who told him that he had the holster buckled wrong.

"Go to hell," was Rodney's succinct reply. He had a comfortable arrangement with the locals: they left him alone, and he left them alone. The crazy vet, though, was sort of new in town. From what Rodney had heard, he'd showed up one day on a motorcycle and bought a place even farther out into the armpit of nowhere than this little town. And he liked it out there. That made him crazy in Rodney's book.

"No, really, if you leave it like that, it's going to wear a hole in your leg."

Rodney's hand slipped down unconsciously to rub at the sore spot. He'd just figured it was supposed to do that -- figured you built up a callus eventually. Like learning to play the guitar. Like the way that the emotional scar tissue covered over the place in your brain that remembered the names of towns in other countries, where woman and children were killed by bombs you helped design.

"Excuse me, did I ask you for the finer points of firearms handling? Did you not just hear me tell you to go to hell?"

Rather than getting pissed, the vet just grinned lazily and limped over to sit down on the bar stool two down from Rodney. His left leg stuck out stiffly in front of him, braced against the floor. "Look, I'll buy you a beer if you re-buckle that thing, because looking at it is making my drill instructor roll over in his grave. Well, I'm pretty sure he's not dead, but if he were dead, he'd be spinning, and the noise is giving me a headache."

The guy was clearly loopy as a loon, and it wasn't like Rodney couldn't afford the beer -- he'd been charging all his meals to the Department of Homeland Security anyway. Although, come to think of it, they'd started sending him suspicious memos about his every-growing bar tab. So he figured, why not. Free beer didn't come along every day.

It was the start of ... something. Not friendship, certainly ... well, probably ... well, hell, he didn't know; the last time he'd known anyone he could remotely call a friend, anyone who didn't stick around to get something out of him, was back in grade school. The crazy vet guy was unexpectedly intelligent -- a quality utterly lacking in anyone else in this sorry excuse for a town -- and if they spent most of their time bickering with each other, well, it was how Rodney related to the world anyway. The crazy guy didn't come down to town too often, but Rodney found that he actually looked forward to it. If arguing with a gun nut from the hills had become the high point of his week, then he really did need to get out of this town before he was as loopy as Sherman or Shapiro or whatever the guy's name was.

IV. Painted Sunrise

Besides the wide-open skies, the thing that Sheppard liked best about Texas was the in-between time when the world hung between day and night, frozen for a pink-tinged moment on the cusp of daybreak or dusk. He loved the dry sharpness in the air, and the way that the sunrise or sunset painted the rocks and sagebrush a thousand shades of gold. It had been a long time since he'd been able to stop and appreciate a sunrise without checking the boulders for snipers. Well ... in truth, he did still check the boulders for snipers, but living alone, this far out of town, there was no one to see.

Limping out to the shed where he kept the motorcycle, the lazy morning sun warm through his black T-shirt, he found himself wondering if this was what contentment felt like. It had been so long since he'd felt it that he didn't really know. There was a peace and a sameness to the days, and he thought he could spend his whole life here without missing too much. The screaming place inside him, where Mitch and Dex and Holland had once been, was mostly quiet these days -- scabbed over, he thought. He was friendly with the locals, but he didn't really have friends among them, and he liked it that way. He enjoyed talking with the INS guy and was going to be sorry when they reassigned him somewhere else, but it wasn't a desperate kind of sorrow ... just a little regret.

The shed was part of a complex of outbuildings that might have been designed to house animals or equipment. Some of them had fallen down; the old ranch had been vacant for a decade or more before John had bought it. He used one of the intact sheds to store his motorcycle and an ancient truck that he'd bought off a local for fifty bucks and a round of drinks. It wasn't much, but occasionally he needed something more substantial than the motorcycle. Like today. He planned to head up to the city and get some building supplies. Since it looked like he was staying here, for a while at least, he intended to start fixing things up around the house. His leg and arm were both getting stiff, sitting around without doing anything. The doctors had warned him about that, too.

He pulled off the patched tarp that he used to keep weather and rattlesnakes out of the truck, and then flinched violently backwards when something moved in the bed. His gun was in his hand before he knew it, and the only thing that stopped him from firing was the way his bad leg twisted under him and nearly sent him in a heap on his ass.

A minute later, he realized that it was a person in the bed of the truck, and almost went sick with the knowledge of what he'd nearly done. This isn't Afghanistan, John; it isn't Iraq; you're in the U.S. of fucking A, and you don't shoot people hiding in your shed.

On the other hand, even in the U.S. of A, people hiding in sheds were often bad news, and he kept the gun trained on the pair of dark eyes blinking at him from the shadows. He'd heard stories from the neighbors, of illegals sneaking onto people's property, robbing, raping and killing; and while he dismissed the wildest stories as redneck paranoia, the fact remained that a person who'd been walking through the desert for days and had no money to buy food wasn't usually in a rational frame of mind.

"I don't keep much cash at the house," he told the dark eyes. "You need food, water, maybe a ride somewhere? I can do that. Just don't get ideas, because I can and will use lethal force to defend myself, and I'm more than capable of it."

The eyes blinked back at him, and a soft raspy voice said something querulous in what he assumed was Spanish. Then the person in the truck bed slumped back down in a heap.

"Well, hell," John muttered. He limped forward cautiously to peer at his uninvited guest. It was a woman, young and bruised and filthy. He winced at the sight of her bare, cut-up feet. From her sunken eyes and cracked lips, he guessed that she was pretty dehydrated. What really worried him, though, was the dried blood all over her hands and arms and ragged dress. John knew a lot more about violent injury than he really wanted to, and he could tell just by looking at the spray pattern that most of the blood didn't come from her.

All he wanted was to leave the world behind and live out here without trouble. And trouble was exactly what was lying in his shed, probably a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, and maybe five-four in its bare feet -- pure trouble.

He had some trouble picking her up. A year ago, he could have easily swung her up in his arms, with her head resting against his shoulder ... and that was what he tried to do, but only succeeded in staggering around and nearly dropping her on the rocks. The damaged muscles in his arm couldn't do it, and with his bum leg, he didn't have the balance to support another person's weight, even one as small as her. He ended up draping her over the motorcycle's seat and wheeling her to the house that way. Then he laid her on a rug and gently dragged her into the house.

It appalled him, being this weak. John wasn't a man who was accustomed to demanding something from his body and not having it obey him. Maybe he should start driving into the city again for the physical therapy sessions he'd been skipping.

He laid her out carefully on his bed. She was filthy, but sheets could be washed. He thought about trying to undress her, but the idea of stripping an unconscious young woman was too repugnant; she didn't seem to be too badly hurt, so she could undress herself and get cleaned up when she woke. Her main afflictions, aside from exhaustion and dehydration, seemed to be bruises -- someone had worked her over pretty good -- and then the appalling condition of her feet. John decided it might be a good idea to clean those up before they got infected, so he got a bowl of water and a sponge.

As soon as he touched the wet, soapy sponge to the cuts on her feet, she flinched violently and then, suddenly, he was sprawled on the floor with her elbow in the crook of his throat, with his gun lying a few feet away.

"Whoa," John said.

Immediately she pulled back, and reeled woozily, putting a hand to her head. She looked around with wary caution and then sat back against the side of the bed. "I am sorry," she said, dropping her eyes. She had a heavy accent, but spoke slowly and precisely; it wasn't difficult to understand her. "I thought you meant to hurt me."

John eyed his gun thoughtfully, then decided not to risk spooking her. "Nope. No hurting here. Just trying to clean you up a little bit."

"Oh." She looked down at them, blinking slowly.

Getting off the floor was one of the trickier things for him, these days. He used a chair to lever himself back to his feet, and bent over awkwardly to pick up his gun, tucking it back in its holster. "You're fast," he said. Understatement of the day. He'd never seen anyone move like that.

"My father taught me to defend myself."

John laughed. "I'd hate to meet your father, then."

"He is dead." Her chin tilted up. "Thank you for helping me. Can you tell me -- where is this? We are in the United States, yes?"

"Texas," he affirmed.

The smile that broke across her face lit her up, for a moment, more brilliantly than the brightest of Texan sunrises. "Madre Dios," she breathed, and then moaned softly and sank back with her head in her hands.

"I was just about to make breakfast," John offered, a bit nervously. It had been a long time since he'd had guests of any kind, especially mysterious, beautiful young women. "Shower's down the hall, if you wanna freshen up first. Uh -- you can wear some of my clothes while yours get clean, if you want to."

She pulled herself up onto the bed shakily, and drew her legs up to her chest, wincing. "You are kind. I have no money; I cannot pay you."

"I don't want to be paid." He was genuinely surprised that she'd feel like she had to. Was this the world he lived in, where an injured young woman couldn't get a little charity from a stranger? "I'm John, by the way."

"I am Teyla." She gave him one of those brilliant smiles again.

"I guess I'll leave you alone, then, Teyla. Towels in the bathroom; some T-shirts in the closet that you can wear. Just holler if you need anything."

He went downstairs as quickly as his leg would allow, and broke eggs into an iron skillet in the farmhouse kitchen. He wasn't much of a cook, but found it was oddly pleasant cooking for someone other than himself. He made omelets, toast and bacon, setting the table with a large glass of milk at each place.

She came into the kitchen so quietly he wasn't even aware of her, until he looked up and there she was, in one of his T-shirts and a pair of jeans rolled up at the cuffs. Her wet hair was slicked down to her head, and with the bruises and shadows under her eyes, she looked about twelve years old. Only her grip on the doorframe seemed to be keeping her upright. John had been doing just fine up until then -- making breakfast, not really thinking too much about the stranger upstairs -- but at the sight of her, all awkward and shaky and weak, he suddenly didn't know if he could handle this. He'd been doing so well. He liked his life, as much as he'd liked anything in years, and he found that he was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, something which he had never experienced before. He'd lost it all once -- the friends who had become his family, the life he'd known, the ability to lose himself in flight. To risk losing it all again ... he didn't know if he could do that and survive.

She would be gone in a day or so, he told himself, and then she wobbled, and before he knew it he was across the kitchen, catching her and helping her to a chair. "I could have brought the food upstairs, you know," he chided her gently.

"I want to eat at the table, as Americans do."

She sat primly in one of the straight-backed chairs, and though her eyes greedily followed the food as he served it, she gripped her fork tightly and waited for him to scrape the slightly overdone omelets and bacon onto her paper plate.

"It's not much ..." he apologized as she began to eat. Actually, "inhale" would be more accurate; she was eating like a ravenous wolf.

She paused to say, "No, no, it is wonderful, I have not had anything so good in ..." Then she swallowed, and set her fork down, swallowing again.

"Dammit," John muttered, because he'd known she was probably starving and he'd just -- crap. You don't feed starving people bacon and eggs. She lunged out of her chair and he did too, helping her to the trash can in the corner.

"I am so very sorry," she breathed when she was done, slumping against him.

"No, no, it's my fault. You probably haven't had anything to eat in days. The last thing I should have done was dump a bunch of greasy, unfamiliar food on you." He helped her up; she leaned against him, weighing almost nothing. "You want to go lie down, I can make you some soup."

"You do too much already," she protested, as he led her upstairs.

"I like doing it." And it was true, he realized. Somehow, he got more satisfaction out of taking care of a sick stranger than he'd gotten out of all his days of peace and contemplation among the Texan hills.

He reminded himself, again, that she'd be gone in a day or so, and this time it wasn't relief that he felt.

V. Stalemate

The car appeared at sunset, and at first it was just a cloud of dust, far away down the winding ribbon of dirt road that led to the town. John noticed it from the porch, but it took him a while to realize what it was, because in all the time he'd lived out here, no one had ever come to see him.

It had been so long since he'd really had to deal with the outside world that he didn't even think about the implications of having Teyla here: an illegal alien, and one who'd shown up with blood all over her hands and her clothes. Earlier in the day, after eating a small bowl of soup and then sleeping the afternoon away, she'd told him what had happened to her -- sitting wrapped in a blanket on the edge of the porch with her bandaged feet dangling to touch the sand.

"It was a man, a coyote, they call them. You know what those are?"

"I do." Coyotes were the men, and sometimes women, who smuggled immigrants across the border. John had met a few in town, and found them to be a mixed bag -- some were immigrants themselves, genuinely interested in helping their countrymen or else dabbling to earn a quick buck. Others were professional human traffickers, dangerous and ruthless.

"He took my money and after leading me into the desert, he told me that he still had to collect the rest of his fee. When I said I had no more money, he said he would take it in --" She broke off for a moment, her lips tight. "He tried to rape me. I stabbed him with my father's knife." She mimed thrusting a knife upwards. "There were other men with him. They beat me. I escaped from them into the desert. I have been running for days."

"Did you kill him?"

She shook her head. "I do not think so. There was a lot of blood, but I do not think it was deep enough to kill."

Since she didn't seem inclined to talk about it further, John got a piece of wood from the pile curing on the windowsill, and began to whittle it, sitting on the edge of the porch with a cold beer between his knees as the sun went down.

Teyla leaned forward, drawing the blanket closer about her shoulders. "What are you making?"

"Chess pieces." He showed her. He was working on one of the queens. "When I was a kid, my dad had this gorgeous marble chess set. He taught me how to play. I don't know whatever happened to it; I was an Air Force brat and we moved a lot, so I guess it probably was lost in one of the moves. But I always wanted to have a nice chess set like that when I grew up, and I figured since there's nothing much else to do out here, maybe I'd make one."

Her dark eyes drank down his words, as starved for knowledge as her body was for food. He felt silly, then, under that intense gaze. She probably didn't even know what chess was. "It's a game," he added, self-consciously. "You try to take your opponent's pieces, and they all move in different ways -- the knights go in L's for example, and the queens, like this one ... you know, I'm not explaining this very well, am I?"

She smiled with both her dark eyes, and her mouth. "This is a game that Americans play?"

"Some of them, yes."

"Will you teach it to me?"

He held up the half-finished queen. "Unfortunately, all I have right now are a few pawns and a bishop or two. You need all the pieces to play a proper game. I don't even have a gameboard yet."

"Oh," she said, sadly.

"But hey, when you get to where you're going, why don't you send me your address, and I'll come visit you? I can teach you then."

Again, the thousand-watt smile. "I would like that very much, John."

He went back to carving, watching the curls of blond wood pile up around his feet. He'd noticed the dust cloud out on the horizon, but had not yet realized what it was, what it meant. "Where are you going, anyway? Do you have a destination in mind?"

She nodded. "My brother lives in America. Well, he is not my real brother, but we grew up together, and when he left to go to your country, he said that I could live with him if I ever came here. So I will find him."

"You know where he lives?"

There was a hesitation. "I have not heard from him in years. The last thing that I heard, though, was that he and his wife worked for a chicken farm in this place, Texas." She lit up again. "And now I am almost there!"

John hated to deflate her enthusiasm, but ... "Texas is a big state, you know. A whole lot bigger than any of the states in Mexico."

"After I have come across so many countries to get here, it is not a big thing to cross a state, John."

Well, she was probably right about that. He peeled off another curl of pale wood, and then looked up, squinting against the lowering sun. "Hey, it looks like we got visitors."

The car was small and silver. They watched it draw closer. "Maybe you should go inside," John told her.

Teyla shook her head. "I will not hide, and I will not bring danger upon someone who has helped me. If it is the coyote's friends, then I will go with them so they will leave you alone."

"I don't think it's that easy." John loosened his gun in its holster. "And I'm sure as hell not letting them take you without a fight."

The look she gave him was surprised and grateful.

The car, a Lexus, drew up in front of John's farmhouse. He recognized it immediately; it was usually the only vehicle parked in the lot of the Atlantic Motel. It had acquired a few new gravel dings on its journey up John's five-mile driveway.

"Your road sucks," was the first thing McKay said as he got out, looking even more out of place among the rocks and sagebrush than he usually did in the bar.

"It's easier in four-wheel drive," John told him. He kept his hand on the butt of his Beretta, because even though McKay looked slow and soft, John knew that he did have a gun. It didn't take much muscle to pull a trigger.

"How in the hell do you do it on that bike? With your leg?"

John hated being reminded of the leg, but he'd learned by now that McKay wasn't someone who pulled verbal punches. "Because unlike you, I have skill," he said, and smirked.

Rodney sputtered. His blue eyes swept the rugged hills, the sunset-stained sky. "So this is the hell hole in which you live. Wonderful. Never met a place that cried out for paving the way this godforsaken wasteland does."

John just shrugged. "I like it out here."

"I know you do. I blame that on brain damage from whatever war you were in." His gaze rested, eventually, on the blanket-wrapped woman on the porch. He didn't even look particularly surprised; he just sighed. "You know, Sherman, I was really hoping I wouldn't find her here."

John's stomach clenched, but he managed to answer lightly. "My name is Sheppard, and she's my sister."

Teyla's eyes widened for a moment. McKay's suspicious glare went back and forth between the two of them. "Different fathers?" he asked, challengingly.

"Precisely," John agreed.

"What's her name?"

Their eyes locked in a stare-down. "Teyla."

"Teyla what?"

"Teyla Sheppard."

One edge of McKay's mouth quirked smugly. "Different fathers, though?"

"Adopted, actually," John lied smoothly.

"You are lying through your teeth, you cocky bastard."

John's eyes narrowed. "Prove it."

The smug grin got wider. "Show me her driver's license."

Something broke in John. He threw the unfinished carving as hard as he could with his lame arm; it skipped off into the yard somewhere. Teyla jumped, and McKay flinched and threw up his hands to protect his head, though it was nowhere near him.

"For God's sake, Rodney!" It was the first time he'd ever called the other man by his given name. "You know what she is. I don't know why you've suddenly decided to do your job for the first time in, well, ever, but I'm going to shoot you before I let you take her. And I'm not kidding about that."

Teyla was now staring at him in wide-eyed shock. He was a little surprised himself. He just couldn't help remembering how she'd looked that morning, so fragile and weak; even now, she could barely keep herself upright on the porch. Like hell he was going to let the border patrol drag her off to a cell before dumping her back on the street in Mexico.

McKay bristled, but then his shoulders sagged. "You think I like doing this?" he demanded, his voice cracking. "Look, there's some guy in town -- they call him Coyote Steve -- who's been raising hell. Says a Mexican woman beat the crap out of him and stabbed him."

"I am not Mexican," Teyla said in a soft, clear voice.

"Yeah, whatever, same difference." McKay waved a hand dismissively.

"He tried to rape her." And somehow John wasn't surprised that it was Coyote Steve. He'd met the guy -- creepy bastard, wouldn't be shocked to find out Teyla wasn't the first woman he'd gone after.

McKay looked a bit sick; his shoulders were hunched, as if to close himself off from the world. "I thought it might be something like that. Look, I'm not going to press charges against her, or anything. Really. I'll just --"

"Deport her?"

His look of discomfort deepened. "Well, she's here illegally, Shipley."

"Sheppard! And look at the woman, McKay. See the bruises? See her feet? You honestly think someone's going to go through all that to get here and then just quietly go home? She'll come right back, with someone just as bad as Steve or even worse. Only this time, maybe she won't be as quick with the knife."

"You're trying to guilt me, aren't you?" McKay's voice was an indignant squeak.

"Is it working?"

His shoulders drooped. "Of course it's working."

John had to suppress a smile. "Listen, McKay, you drove all the way out here, you looked around, you didn't see anybody, and you went away. That's all. It's not even really ... lying, per se. You just didn't see her here."

McKay slouched back to his car. "I can't believe I'm letting you talk me into this. There' s a huge difference between turning a blind eye and actively helping you hide an illegal --" He froze, staring at his car. "Oh great. And I thought my day couldn't get worse."

One of his tires was flat.

"Sorry," John said, and he genuinely did feel sorry this time. "The road ... it does that. I've got a pretty good jack in the truck, if you want some help changing it."

McKay cleared his throat and shuffled his feet. "Yeah ... about that ... I kind of ... don't have a spare."

John's eyebrows shot up. "You came all the way out here, over that road, without a spare tire?"

"I forgot!" McKay flared, defensively. "I had to use it a few months ago, and I just forgot to get the other one fixed. All your roads out here are crap. And if you had a phone, like a normal human being, I wouldn't have had to drive all the way out here!"

"You got a cell phone?"

"Of course I do, but it doesn't work out here." He waved the offending item in the air. "Nothing works out here. Because you're living in the nineteenth century!"

He stood for a moment, panting in indignant ire and staring at the tire as if the force of his glare could fuse the rubber back together. The sun had slipped below the edge of the world, and it was growing dark.

"Tomorrow I'll take you into town and get the tire fixed," Sheppard said. "It's the least I can do. But, trust me -- even I don't like going over that road in the dark."

"Wonderful," Rodney growled. He kicked the tire.

"You can stay here tonight." John couldn't resist twisting the knife just a bit: "Unless you'd rather sleep with the rattlesnakes."

He hadn't realized someone that obviously out of shape could move that fast. Rodney was up on the porch next to Teyla almost faster than John's eyes could track him. "Snakes? There are snakes out here?"

"Haven't you ever seen a Western, McKay? Of course there are snakes."

"I do you people a favor, and now you're trying to kill me."

Teyla finally, shyly spoke again. "He may not be appreciative of what you are willing to do for me," with a reproachful look at John, "but I am very grateful. Thank you, sir."

Rodney blinked. "Uh, it's Rodney. Not sir. Rodney McKay."

"I am Teyla."

"Great, now I'm on a first-name basis with illegal aliens," McKay groaned. "I am officially the worst border agent ever." He sighed, and slumped down in a dejected heap on John's porch.

"I've got steaks thawing in the fridge," Sheppard said. "Who's hungry?"

Continued in Part Two.
Yup! I got your review over there -- thanks! (I suck at replying to feedback on Not sure why.)
no worries at all hehe just keep the stories coming and you won't here me complain at all hehe
This story is making my brain itch. In a good kind of way! I love AU stories because...I don't know...they could happen to us. I mean, what if you were meant to be something that you're not and you have the same personality and meet the same people that you would in the other universe because it's fate or kismet or serendipity? I don't know how you thought up this one, but, guh, I'm just loving it. "Steve"? Heh. I'll read on...
Yeah, the funny thing is that I do AUs for my own life -- I mean, I don't write 'em down or anything, but it's entertaining to me to imagine if I'd made certain decisions in my life differently, or if I'd been born in a different place or whatnot ... imagining how I might have met my husband and friends under different circumstances ... or not. Which might just mean that my always-tenuous grip on reality has slipped another notch. ;) But yeah, that's probably why I enjoy AUs and I bemoan the dearth of good AUs in this fandom that aren't slash.
I'm just reading along...
...and I'm enjoying it so far but I just thought I'd point this out:

Young Rodney had been born in the U.S. to an American father and a Canadian mother, so he was an American citizen anyway, although his Canadian-born sister was not.

Actually, based on the time frame if you had one American parent and you were born in Canada, Jeannie would likely have had dual citizenship.
Re: I'm just reading along...
Oh -- thanks for the info! (I'm just now going through and responding to feedback, as you can see.) I didn't know how that would work. Thank you!
I'm vastly enjoying this fic ! Can I friend you? I 'dike to keep up with your stuff.
*heh* I'm replying to feedback out of order here, and kind of belatedly too ... but I don't mind a bit if you friend me! :)
Thanks for letting me know where you got the rec from, FYI -- obviously I don't mind being rec'd at all, but it's just very interesting to me to find out where new readers come from! :)

As far as the comments on veterans' perspective -- John in this story is kind of based on a guy I know, one of my co-workers. He was a Marine who was in a really bad helicopter crash in Afghanistan -- basically crushed his lower body -- and the first thing that he did when he got out of the hospital was hop in his car and drive from Maine to Alaska (where he now lives). He's actually more psychologically well-adjusted than John, but when I got a little stuck on POV, I'd mentally try to channel my friend and figure out how he'd react to (x) circumstances. Glad it worked!
Oh. I can really feel the Texas desert now, with the sun-baked soil and endless skies and the silence - and I've never even been to Texas. Obviously. But you paint such a vivid picture of it...! And, of course, of the characters. AUs are fascinating, but I'm picky about which ones I like - this one, I'm loving. The characters' strength, their basic personalities, they're all there, but adapted to their other lives, the lives that could have been... Teyla's determination; John's way of coping with his new life; Rodney being miserable where he ended up, it all fits, and it's all making me very curious to find out more about them. And, of course, to see more of how they get along together. ♥ The interaction so far has been absolutely perfect and sweet, and I laughed at Rodney's inability to get John's name right. It really is them! *loves on*

Off to study some, and then