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Set My Soul On Fire

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The last job went sour in the way they sometimes did – Holland made a rookie mistake and their two man job, defrauding the corrupt Bank of Genii out of money for an imaginary missionary program in Venezuela, became a three man job with a fifteen-fifteen-seventy split favoring their third wheel, a partner in the company named Ladon Radim. While the third wheel gave them an inside man in the organization, Radim was hardly trustworthy and John had spent two weeks acting like a wet-behind-the-ears Catholic priest just out of seminary, shooting paranoid glances at Radim and waiting for him to stick a knife in his back.

In the end, it turned out that Radim didn’t get a chance to screw John and Holland out of the money and rat them out to the authorities, because Holland was made as a con man by an attractive but altogether unnecessarily nosy bank teller (John had always warned Holland that his ladies’ man routine would get him – or both of them – in trouble someday and John was right). Somewhere between the time that Sora marched into the meeting room and pointed an accusing finger at Holland and the part where they could finally catch their breath, John and Holland had to beat a quick retreat from Salt Lake City with several thousands less than the fifteen thousand they were planning on making off with.

After the crap in Salt Lake City (as exciting as that was), John made contact with Holland on a payphone well outside of the Utah state lines and heard firsthand how Holland hadn’t wanted to break it to John during the job but that he was leaving the business. What could John do? He wished Holland well and told him he’d catch up with him later when everything cooled down. Holland went against his instincts as a conman and turned down John’s offer to help him out by wiring him some money so Holland could start all over again and John’s trust in his friendship was reaffirmed by it. Just because Holland was going legit didn’t mean they couldn’t be friends (theoretically at least).

That was how John came to be rolling into town on the main strip on a bright and blue Friday morning, flashy Vegas lights extinguished in the clear sunlight. John had watched the Viva Las Vegas sign roll by with just over six thousand cash in a hidden pocket in his suitcase on the backseat and time to burn until his next job. He owed himself some rest and relaxation after the debacle in Utah, even if it was at the expense of his savings. And if he was in Vegas, he figured he might as well do it right – so he booked two weeks’ stay at the Mirage, money be damned. It wasn’t their best suite but, like all of their rooms, it was spacious and clean, with the hotel linens John couldn’t get to sleep without (too used to them after all the time he spent on the road).

For two weeks, John was going to relax by the pool and gamble in the casino. He figured he could thrive on the cheap buffets off the main strip and recoup his losses by saving on general life expenses (maybe he could go without hair products for the interim). In actuality, the expenses of staying in Vegas crept up in expected as well as the most unexpected places. The hotel was expensive – he’d known that before he’d even skirted the city limits, so he was prepared to drop some cash on the room. He always had to eat, that was a fact of life he didn’t mind most of the time. He had to tip the doorman, the waiters, the valets, even some guy who washed his window without asking. And John had given into temptation a couple times to play a few games in the sparkling lights of the casino downstairs, losing seventy dollars in one night (not much to some of the other guys there, but John suspected they might have prepared for the full Vegas experience beforehand).

At the tail end of his first week, John had burnt through well over half of his savings. Usually, he only took a rest after a big job with a big payoff, but this time he hadn’t really planned ahead.

The Wednesday after he’d blown into town, the doorman (a handsome, clean-cut kid with dimples) extended his hand for a tip and John grinned wryly, slapping his pockets for his wallet. When he opened the beaten leather billfold, he peered down through orange-tinted aviators at small change. He laughed awkwardly, scruffing a hand over the back of his neck as he shrugged a shoulder.

The doorman waved a hand at him. “Don’t worry about it, sir. Maybe next time.” A smile showed that it was no harm, no foul.

John smiled crookedly. “Sorry about that.”

“Hey, if I were on vacation, I’d be running on empty, too,” the kid grinned. “Have a nice day, sir.”

John nodded to him, pushing his aviators up on the bridge of his nose. As John went out into the dry heat of a Nevada morning, he caught sight of a man staring at him from across the sidewalk – it wasn’t unusual, John attracted all kinds – it was sort of in the job description. But something about the man’s clear blue eyes and square jaw gave John pause, feeling a flirting sense of attraction himself. He thought for a minute about doing something about it – it had been a while since he’d last gone out with a man. Even though John’s trip to Vegas was all about R&R, maybe John could fit some bracing physical activity into his plans somewhere.

But then, the man turned, greeting a short man with wiry hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and, engrossed in their conversation, walked away. John sucked at his lip and glanced back at the lobby, wondering about asking around for clubs in the area, gay clubs or gay-friendly clubs, but he dismissed the idea as quickly as it came. Clubs were expensive, too.

***

Evening settled on Las Vegas in navy hues, the twinkling night held at bay by the sign lights flickering on in the late afternoon. Everywhere Rodney McKay looked, there were cascades of blinking golden lights and splashes of neon on the roof of every building, and spilling over the walls of every restaurant, signs that said 24 Hours and All You Can Anything. Heat radiated off the pavement on the strip as cars slowly rolled by, some tourists glued to their windows, peering out at the shining spectacle while others were buried in their maps. It wasn’t the first time Rodney had come to Vegas – it wasn’t even the twentieth. He was confident wherever he went, but in Vegas he was imbued with an almost preternatural self-assurance.

“Rodney, I am still unsure,” Radek said. “How can you possibly be certain that this is a good idea? We cannot be certain that this man is to be trusted.” Radek Zelenka was a man of small stature with a thick Czech accent and a wildly patterned button-up shirt. His wiry mouse-brown hair was tamed somewhat by the straw fedora pushed low on his head. “I maintain that I have misgivings about all of this,” he finished, hands slicing through the air – meaning, end of discussion.

“And I’ve told you, as I’ve told you a thousand times before, to leave the thinking to me.” One corner of Rodney’s mouth turned up in a lopsided smile, his eyebrows pitching up toward his hairline. “I am completely confident – have I ever said that and led you guys astray?” He waved his hand definitively as Zelenka opened his mouth. “Don’t answer that.”

“Fine, I will leave it to you,” Zelenka relented, “and if it falls apart, the egg is on your face.” With a sigh and two hands thrown up, Zelenka turned and walked back into the family-style restaurant he’d followed McKay out of.

“What the hell does that mean?” Rodney called after him. “Does that mean the egg’s on you if it works out exactly like I say it will? I’d put money on that!” Zelenka didn’t so much as pause at Rodney’s retort and Rodney watched as the shorter man walked back inside and returned to the table they’d recently been seated at, greeted by their friends with questions and a third slice of pepperoni pizza.

Maybe there were times Rodney had led them astray before, but now was definitely not one of them. His plan was going to go off without a hitch. He sighed at his friend’s lack of faith and, flicking a hand up in a lazy good-bye when Cadman nodded at him from the table, Rodney turned to go back to his hotel as planned.

Pushing his hands into his pockets, Rodney walked down the sidewalk, navigating through the crowds of tourists and the occasional scantily-clad woman handing out off-color ads. He kept his head low as he passed some of the casinos, chin tucked into his lapel as he passed the security cameras off the lobbies. Light splashed over his shoulders and his face as he walked down the street.

Coming back, a short distance from his hotel, Rodney spotted a familiar frame at a valet parking booth –dark hair tufted up in every direction like a make-shift crown on the top of the head, shoulders rounded as the man flipped through his wallet for a five dollar bill to give to the valet. Rodney slowed down, watching as the man smiled an attractive but dopey apologetic grin at the valet, shrugging his shoulders and gesturing to the space between them. The valet looked confused and impatient, finally casting a beseeching look at another valet by the doorway.

Rodney watched as the brunet turned his smile on the newcomer, his features bright and charming and affable. He was definitely good-looking, moving into pretty boy territory if it weren’t for the wry expressions and endearing flaws. Rodney walked over. “Hey,” he spoke up as he came close to them.

The two valets looked over with identical expressions of impatience – Rodney was a little chafed to note that they looked far more annoyed at him than they had at the dopey guy who was short on cash at pick-up. “How much are you short?”

Rodney watched the flicker of recognition in the brunet’s eyes – up close, Rodney could see that they were a nice shade of hazel. Rodney took out his wallet with an imperious air that had never failed him (except maybe where interpersonal relationships were concerned). He caught the quick way the brunet’s eyes flicked down and back up Rodney’s frame.

“Ah, you don’t have to,” the brunet said half-heartedly.

“It’s no problem.” Rodney glanced over at the valets, blue eyes on the sandwich sign on the blacktop behind them. “Five dollars?”

“Yeah,” the brunet answered apologetically, his tan cheeks darkening. “You got that on you?”

Rodney’s eyebrows furled and he wanted to snort. Did he have five dollars on him? He had five hundred on him, at least. He met the other man’s eyes, a smile crooking the corner of his lips. “I’ve got it.” The valets cast a look amongst themselves, one arching an eyebrow at the other. Rodney ignored them as he unfolded a five from his wallet, catching the brunet’s green eyes on the rest of the cash in his billfold before Rodney slipped it back in his pants pocket.

Having been paid, the valet handed the brunet his keys with a nod. “Have a nice night, sir.”

The other man waved at him lazily. “Sure thing, you too,” he said.

Rodney watched as the other man spun his keys around his fingers, returning his beaten wallet back to his jeans. Rodney glanced over his frame while the brunet flipped his jacket back, pushing his wallet into his back pocket. “It’s Rodney McKay,” Rodney told him, putting his hand out.

The other man’s hand clasped his and Rodney felt a shock of nervousness run through him as the brunet smiled. “John,” he said.

Rodney nodded with a smug grin. “Maybe you could give me a ride – my hotel’s around the corner.”

The other man – John – gestured to the passenger side of his black Mustang. “And pay you back for the five bucks? Sure. Hop in.” The hinges of the driver’s door croaked as he opened it and slid in the front seat.

Rodney more reticently eyed the car, the dusty windshield and muscle of the car, before getting in himself. As John pulled out of the drive, lights cascaded over the windshield and lit up the dashboard in patterns. “Thanks,” Rodney said as an afterthought.

John smiled, seeming amused by Rodney’s lapse in manners and asked, “Where to?”

Never being one to mince words, Rodney said, “Actually, my hotel’s only a block to the right. I just wanted a chance to talk to you.”

John’s easy-going smile turned into a smirk, slow like honey and about as agreeable. “You don’t say,” he said, sounding like it wasn’t hard for him to believe at all.

“You want to make some money?” Rodney asked.

Now John did look surprised, hazel eyes wider when he looked at Rodney, his mouth curled humorously. “I’m flattered, but I think you got the wrong idea, pal.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Very funny,” he snorted. “I’m talking about a business proposition.”

“Not the regular kind?” John asked with an arched eyebrow.

“Definitely not,” Rodney scoffed. He watched an amused look pass over John’s face, his hazel eyes becoming playful. He leaned over, the crook of his elbow over the steering wheel.

“I’m listening,” John said.

***

It turned out that McKay was a legendary card counter. He’d made mincemeat of the casinos in the nineties, netting millions in profits with a team of counters, until he was caught, his team disbanded, and McKay was barred from a network of casinos in North America, any using the Weir Security company – most of the casinos in Vegas. What McKay had was a nine man team for a card counting operation he was running – what he needed was a face and a body to play for him and John’s was perfect.

Rodney told John that outside the Mirage that morning wasn’t the first time he’d seen John. In actuality, he’d spotted John around the strip half a dozen times before he’d spoken to John that night – and earlier that morning, after they’d caught each other’s eyes on the sidewalk, McKay’s partner, Zelenka, told McKay that he recognized John’s face from somewhere. It took Zelenka twenty-seven minutes to place John as the long-haired hippie who’d defrauded Wraith Technology out of seventeen thousand dollars in exchange for a deed to protected land John had no right to. Apparently Zelenka had been working there as a research developer at the time, before McKay had recruited him for the card-counting outfit.

What McKay was offering was a commission on all of John’s earnings – McKay would take the lion’s share and John would take a comparatively modest cut, but a modest cut on thirty thousand dollars was better bread and butter than selling fake timeshares and forging land deeds. All John had to do was sit at the tables in the casino, listen to McKay through the radio in his ear, and roll hard sixes at McKay’s command.

It sounded like more R&R than a job, even if McKay was quick to remind him that it was anything but a cakewalk – he wasn’t paying John to relax at the blackjack table. The fact that John had been made by a random passer-by on the street was no small part in John’s decision – as a confidence man, John had to keep a low profile.

So what do I do? John had asked cautiously, like he could take it or leave it.

All of McKay’s gang stayed in the same hotel – their arrivals staggered so they didn’t raise any red flags. Since McKay couldn’t show his face in some of the casinos that left certain hotels open and others they were barred from. Apparently McKay liked luxury, because he insisted on staying at the Bellagio.

John moved his stuff out of his room at the Mirage and checked into the Bellagio. What greeted him was a marble foyer opening out into a large room dominated by a crisply made bed with a light brown duvet and six thick pillows against a tall wooden headboard, two large armchairs in front of a large window looking out on the sparkling Vegas skyline. John could get used to the amenities in Vegas – and one thing was for sure, card-counting on McKay’s dime beat the hell out of sleeping in his car under the stars in the Nevada desert when his money ran out.

John tossed his suitcase on the bed and laid his guitar case against the leg of one of the arm chairs. He doffed his jacket and threw it over the arm of the chair, walking over to the window to check out the view.

“—and a separate shower,” McKay said, walking briskly out of the bathroom. John hadn’t been paying attention to what he’d been talking about when he’d gone in, giving John the grand tour – something about marble floors, complimentary bathrobes and the hair dryer McKay seemed to think John would be very attached to. “You’ll find a wall safe for any sensitive materials or valuable possessions you have in your room. According to Zelenka, they’re reliably secure,” he said, breezing through and showing John the open safe, “in case anyone does try something.” The chances of that were pretty slim but McKay seemed to like to play on the safe side as much as was possible for a career criminal.

John half-turned, his hands shoved in his jeans pockets as he watched McKay move about the room like a whirlwind with a mission. Something about the other man’s wide, winding hand gestures and expressive face amused and intrigued John. In the short time that they’d spent talking over McKay’s proposal and John’s role in all of this, John had already decided that he liked teasing and prodding him. With McKay’s constant outpouring of energy and expression, it was hard to believe that he’d ever made a living playing cards – John couldn’t imagine him wearing a convincing poker face.

“Housekeeping comes twice daily, so don’t leave anything compromising around. TV,” McKay pointed to the tall wooden cabinet against the wall, “wireless internet, separate phone line, so on. You have my cell number but if you can’t reach me, call Zelenka at his room. Number 3405. I’m next door at 3406 – but I always answer my cell.” He turned and caught John’s eyes, his blue eyes clear and bright. “I think that’s everything.”

“I think so,” John agreed, pulling McKay’s pigtails. He quirked a smirk at the other man but as McKay turned to leave, he stopped, snapping his fingers.

“One more thing,” McKay said, turning back to John, “very important.” He pointed to the far wall. “The bar’s fully-stocked but it’s not a free-for-all. Meaning simply: you drink, you pay for it.”

“Got it, chief.”

“So…?” McKay said, his thick eyebrows puckering hesitantly. He looked around like he was missing something.

“So,” John repeated after him. He grinned, walking past McKay and drawing the other man’s curious stare in the process. He turned at the door and held it open. “Night,” he said sweetly.

McKay’s face fell and he rolled his blue eyes around, huffing irritably as he walked over. He picked up the placard dismissing housekeeping as he passed the night side table. “I’ll arrange a wake-up call for you with the desk downstairs. Eight-thirty. Be dressed and ready by nine.”

Standing in the doorway with McKay, they were so close they were almost touching. John smiled what McKay had kindly called a dopey smile and raised his eyebrows, hoping to raise McKay’s ire as well. He watched McKay slip the hang tag banishing housekeeping on the handle of John’s door. “Sure thing, boss.”

“Good night,” McKay said pointedly. John grinned and shut the door.

***

If John had any doubt that McKay would indeed call down for a wake-up call on John’s behalf, his doubts were thoroughly banished in the morning. Bright and early, the phone on John’s table rattled John out of his dreams. Curled into the soft sheets and fluffy pillow, John reluctantly dragged himself over to the telephone to answer the insistent ringing. He cleared his throat and picked the receiver up. “Yeah?” he asked.

“Good morning,” a woman’s smooth, deep voice rang over the line. “You arranged for a wake-up call.” The assertion was neither fully statement or question.

John rubbed the blurriness out of his eyes. “Guess so,” John replied. “Thanks.”

“Of course. You are welcome. Is there any other way I may be of service?”

“Nope, guess not,” John replied. “Thanks.” He hung up, thinking briefly on the woman’s amusingly archaic manner before his mind was crowded with the memory of everything he needed to do that day. “Busy day,” he muttered and yanked his shirt over his head on his way to the shower, leaving a path of discarded clothes in his wake.

John didn’t think it had been a full thirty minutes before pounding sounded on the door. A half-hour didn’t give a hell of a lot of time to shower and shave (and maybe put some product in his hair). He answered the door damp from the shower with a towel wrapped around his hips. “Yes, McKay?”

In the hallway, McKay’s blue eyes went round and surprised, the words on his lips abruptly going quiet as he glanced at John’s bare torso. He clapped his mouth shut with an audible click.

John looked down at his own chest and colored. “I was in the middle of shaving.”

McKay nodded distractedly. “In the nude?” he asked with the same absent air. Realizing that he’d spoken out loud, his eyes shot to John’s.

“That kind of remark to an employee could get you in hot water, McKay.” John smiled at McKay’s uneasy look. “Good thing it’s not that kind of company.”

“It does explain the,” McKay gestured to his own face.

“What?” John asked, feeling his cheek. His fingers slipped through left over shaving cream under his left ear. He suddenly felt a lot less smooth but that was par for the course for him anyway. “Ten minutes.”

McKay heaved a sigh, pursing his lips in not-so-silent dissatisfaction. “Just ten. You don’t have anyone you need to impress with your-your roguish good-looks.”

John arched an eyebrow. “I thought dressing for success was an important part of the interviewing process.”

“Yes, yes, well, since you already got the job…,” McKay nodded toward John’s open door. “Get dressed. I’ll be waiting downstairs in the lobby.”

John shut the door and went to get dressed, his ears and neck a little hot after the conversation with McKay. A little over ten minutes later, John rode the elevator down to the lobby. The doors slid open to the sight of McKay’s broad back, his cellphone to his ear. John walked over.

Hearing John’s footfalls, McKay glanced over and nodded his head. He ended his conversation with whoever was on the end of the line. On John’s part, he guessed it was his partner in crime, Zelenka.

“That was actually thirteen minutes,” McKay told him, tapping the face of his wristwatch.

“Three minutes over.”

“Yes, three minutes over. Three minutes we could have used.”

John pouted. “And it’s turning into four,” he said, looking up at McKay through his eyelashes.

McKay heaved a sigh and gestured for John to go on ahead of him. As they passed the front desk, John saw an attractive young woman behind it, attentively conversing with a guest. John wondered if it was the same woman who’d phoned his wake-up call in. Catching John’s look, McKay said, “Not your typical concierge.”

“What do you mean?” John asked. Most of the places he’d stayed at over the years were far from highbrow – roadside motels with hourly rates, extended stay hotels, that kind of thing – so he had less than encyclopedic knowledge of what was and wasn’t expected of a concierge at a AAA Diamond-Awarded hotel.

McKay glanced at the woman. “She looks like nobility from a distant country – regal, unaffected, diplomatic, aloof.” John arched an eyebrow at McKay, disappointed by the other man’s lingering stare. Meeting John’s gaze, McKay snorted. “Oh please, I’m not checking her out. I read people’s faces. It’s my greatest gift, withholding my enormous intellect.”

John smiled indulgently at the other man. “Don’t hold back, McKay. No need to sell yourself short.” A feeling of happiness flirted with John as McKay narrowed his eyes at him.

“Come on,” McKay said, walking briskly out into the Vegas sun.

They drove to a small cheap-looking diner a mile off the main strip, the diner owned by a friend of Zelenka’s. Early on a Saturday morning, the sign on the front door was flipped to say Closed but as they walked up, John could see half a dozen people through the plate glass window. Rodney walked over to the window in front of John and tapped the glass.

John stepped back as the wiry-haired man from before walked over, skirting through tables crowned by chairs. The man unlocked the front door and held it open. “You’re late,” he said chidingly, holding his wrist up to show his watch. John noticed that the face of his watch was scratched and the language on it was foreign – Czech maybe.

“We got held up,” Rodney replied, walking past him into the comfortable dimness of the restaurant. “I already told you about John.”

Zelenka followed the motion of McKay’s hand and stared at John appraisingly through the round lenses of his glasses. “Ah, yes, the confidence man,” he said after a moment, holding out his hand. “It’s a pleasure, I’m sure.”

John nodded to him and shook his hand, smiling. “Heard you worked at Wraith Tech, so, you know…nothing personal.”

Zelenka blinked at him. “I had no great loyalty to Wraith Technology. On the contrary, Mr. Sheppard, I should thank you. If I’d not known that Wraith Tech was attempting to secure protected land, I wouldn’t have started looking for another position and re-met McKay.”

“Glad it worked out for you.” John genuinely meant it.

“All right, enough with the social hour,” McKay called from the table. “Get over here.”

John grinned as Zelenka rolled his eyes and they both walked over to the gathering. They’d pushed three tables together and sat, arranged around it. Rodney sat in the middle on the far side and as John walked over, a blonde woman pulled a chair up for him.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, this is my team,” Rodney said. When John nodded, sliding into the proffered chair, Rodney began gesturing to them one by one, drawing John’s gaze in turn. “You’ve met Radek Zelenka, my technologies expert and second in command.” The man in question tipped his head to John. Now Rodney gestured to a small, unassuming woman with oversized glasses and a humble smile, “Miko Kusanagi, Zelenka’s assistant and go-to woman for anything you need.” John quirked a smile at the woman, whose face, in turn, flushed bright red. “Laura Cadman,” Rodney said, gesturing to the woman seated beside John.

The blonde woman stuck her hand out to John, smirking. “How’s it going?”

John shook her hand, an easy grin matching hers. “Nice to meet you.”

Rodney cut in, sounding annoyed by Cadman’s interruption. “She’s no good at counting but she has a second sense about when casino security is onto you.” Cadman nodded approvingly and Rodney gestured to the next man, a boyish man with a round face, “Brendan Gall, research and scout.” Next was a dark-haired woman with unflinching brown eyes followed by a young man with closely cropped hair and after him was thin-faced man with elfin features, “Alicia Vega, Markham, and Parrish, they’ll be on the floor with you when you’re working – along with Gall and Cadman, of course.”

Coming to the last man, a veritable giant with a mane of dreadlocks, Rodney said simply, “And this is Ronon Dex.” John filed the lack of direct job description away as a point of interest, wondering if Ronon was a second cousin or a mentor’s nephew who’d needed a job when Rodney was looking. The man in question said no more than McKay did, grunting through a folded-over waffle.

“Everyone,” Rodney made a sweeping gesture, “John Sheppard, who’ll be playing in my stead.” After Rodney’s introduction, the temporary quiet during introductions erupted in a din of overlapping conversation and laughter. John found himself in the middle of a sea of smiling faces, clapped on the shoulders and shaken by the hands. The group’s enthusiasm was as overwhelming as it was amusing. John found himself smiling nonetheless, his hazel eyes finding McKay across the tabletop.

A few minutes later, when the furor died down and the group continued eating an almost unending supply of warm waffles supplied by the friendly redhead in the kitchen, John looked at McKay and asked, “So what’s next? When do we start?”

“Well, provided you’re familiar with the rules of blackjack—”

“Sure, provided that I’m familiar with the rules,” John interrupted. He arched an eyebrow, picking at a special order flapjack with his fork. “How about we say for a minute that Texas hold ’em is more my game and that I’m not strictly familiar with blackjack….” McKay blanched at John’s words and the din of breakfast conversation became notably quieter. John shifted his eyes to Rodney, going on, “Let’s say that’s how it is… What about then? What’s next in that case?”

McKay blinked round blue eyes at John. “You’re telling me you don’t know how to play.”

John made a face. “I know how to play,” he protested. “Twenty-one’s the magic number, don’t go over…” he trailed off. “That’s all there is to know, right?”

Radek Zelenka murmured something in Czech, delicately scratching his eyebrow as though it was all too awkward, and John was getting a definite feeling of offense at the crowd’s muted chatter. Rodney groaned. “All right. First, we have to get you up to snuff so you don’t look too green. You have to look like you’re at least familiar with the game.”

“Familiar, yes, but not an expert,” Radek cut in.

Rodney snorted. “Of course not. That would be too ridiculous.”

John narrowed his eyes. “Hey!” he protested. At the end of the table, the giant named Ronon guffawed at John’s expense.

***

“Okay. As you so eloquently put it before,” Rodney said, “twenty-one is the magic number.”

“Like spring break in college,” Ronon muttered, his arms crossed over his chest. He was sitting to Rodney’s left and John’s right.

Rodney rolled his eyes at John’s chortle and snapped his fingers impatiently, bringing them back to attention as he sharply flipped out two cards on the table. “Since twenty-one is the magic number, you want to get as close to twenty-one as humanly possible without going over. You know that when you’re over, you’re done. The dealer deals you one card face-down and one card face-up. Based on the value of the card you can presently see, you must determine your likelihood of coming closer or going over twenty-one with the subsequent cards you’re dealt. The object is to be the one closest to twenty-one at the table.”

The three men were seated around a low table in Rodney’s room. Outside the window, the sparkling Vegas skyline spread out against the backdrop of a purple mountain, the hazy sunset casting long shadows on the desert, a dusting of stars peering, pale and uncertain, through the early twilight sky. They’d gone from the restaurant back to Rodney’s room after a handful of hours at the restaurant – the time flowed quickly when the group got together, per always.

“Sounds simple,” John said.

“It is simple,” Ronon agreed.

Rodney rolled his eyes at them. “Perhaps if you only consider the counting itself,” he retorted, “but in context, it’s anything but.” John’s green eyes settled on him, and Rodney was pleased at the other man’s attentiveness. “In context, you’re in a casino surrounded by cameras, security, and dealers watching your every move. If you win too big too fast, it looks suspicious. If you suddenly start winning after a losing streak, it looks suspicious. Casinos can eject you based on suspicion alone, so maintaining an innocent demeanor is of utmost import. No matter what, you must always remain in character – breaking character casts suspicion on the entire operation. Believe me. I’ve been there when security catches on. But I assume all of that is old hat for you as a confidence man.”

John’s smirk was off-puttingly attractive, if still rather dopey. Rodney did his best to ignore him. “Let’s play a few hands and see how you catch on. I’m unconcerned with your actual abilities, which I expect will be rather sparse. But I want to familiarize you with the format of the game, the rules, and the correct terminology.”

Rodney’s “few hands” was, in actuality, several hands. It was no surprise to Rodney that Sheppard wasn’t making a killing at Texas hold ‘em when anytime the man had a good hand, his features affected an expression of spacey adorableness and anytime he had a bad hand, his right eyebrow ticked up toward his messy hair. It didn’t matter that Rodney apprised John of his obvious tells, the lanky man appeared disinclined from learning from it.

“So what if I have tells?” he asked. “We’re not playing poker.” On this point, Ronon agreed with John. Rodney pressed his palm to his forehead and asked Ronon to order up food for the three of them.

“Waffles?” the large man asked. Rodney wrinkled his nose. As Ronon stood up to go over to the phone, his cellphone buzzed in his pocket. He exchanged a few words on the line before hanging up. “Gotta go,” he said, carrying Rodney’s phone over to the table. “Zelenka just called.”

“What about?” Rodney asked. “And why is he calling you if something’s wrong?” His mind was already caught up in calculations – maybe he’d been sighted outside of an off-limits casino. If Zelenka had been caught by those goons from security, their whole plan would have to shift focus. They’d have to call everything off in Vegas – go back to Atlantic City.

“Do you guys need me to do anything?” John asked, looking up from his seat across from Rodney.

“It’s not an emergency,” Ronon said as he pulled his jacket on.

Rodney relaxed. “Then what is it?” he demanded.

“Said a goat’s in his room,” Ronon reported, opening the hotel room door.

Both of the men rose from their seats. “What?” Rodney asked incredulously. “A goat?”

“Like an actual goat?” John asked.

“Later,” Ronon rumbled in lieu of a response, the door shutting at his back. Of course, Rodney was well aware of Ronon’s inability to resist parties and their sometimes strange after-effects. With the sound of the shutting door still resounding, Rodney looked at John.

“You guys throw a lot of wild parties?” John asked.

Rodney grimaced. “It’s like they don’t know the meaning of the term, ‘low profile.’”

John grinned. “Let ‘em have their fun,” he advised, “it keeps them nimble.”

“Nimble?” Rodney asked skeptically, making a face.

“Ready,” John said with a smile. “Besides, who suspects a noisy guest of illegal card counting? Somebody drawing undue attention to himself is the last thing they’ll be looking for.”

Rodney snorted. “That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard of.”

“Even after the goat?” John challenged.

“Yes, after the goat.” Rodney walked over to the nightstand and picked up the room service menu. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Do I get to see the menu or do I guess what I want from your expression?” John asked. He leaned forward in his chair, watching as Rodney walked over.

“Hardy har. You’re a regular comedian.” Rodney came over and sat down across from John, putting the menu down on the table.

“Can’t see it,” John interrupted as Rodney started to speak.

Rodney heaved a put-upon sigh and turned the menu further toward John. “Don’t try the fish,” he warned John cryptically. “If I were you, I’d go for the steak or the burger, medium or well done.”

John smiled up at Rodney and Rodney felt a distinctly uncomfortable feeling in his chest. “Guess I’ll go with that then. Burger, medium done with everything on it, red onion and fries on the side with some ketchup and a Diet Coke.”

Rodney felt like a waitress, which was more than a little ridiculous given who was employer and who was employee around there. He grimaced and pulled a notepad over to him. “Yes, yes, I’m writing it down.” He scribbled John’s order down on the hotel stationary and read it back to him. “Correct?” he asked.

“Right,” John repeated. Before Rodney could hedge in with a complaint, he said, “Thanks, Rodney,” and canceled Rodney’s complaints before he had the chance to voice them. “Awesome.”

Rodney rolled his eyes and dialed room service, where a smooth-voiced woman took his order. He wondered briefly if she was a concierge herself, if a concierge would be taking orders. He was distracted by the flipping sound of cards colliding as John began to reshuffle the deck.

“How about a couple more hands before they bring it up?” John asked persuasively.

Rodney had thought that John was getting bored. “We can try a few more times,” he conceded, internally preening at John’s interest in his lessons.

“Okie dokie.” John began to deal cards out, the pleasant sound of cards shuffled and slapped against the table on the air.

“What’re you doing?” Rodney asked. “That’s too many.”

“Because we’re not playing blackjack,” John said without looking up at him. “We’re playing Texas hold ‘em.” Rodney sighed and accepted his hand, already calculating the probability of a favorable hand. “So why gambling?” John asked after a second. “You don’t seem like the type.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rodney asked.

“Not addicted to risk-taking.”

Rodney balked. “You don’t know that,” he retorted. “For all you know, I could be in dire need of risk rehab. I could be the Amy Winehouse of risk-taking.”

John smiled at him. “I think I would’ve noticed that.”

Rodney squinted indignantly at John. “If you weren’t so distracted by what your hair is presently doing.” He snapped his fingers when John defensively pushed at his hair. “Yes, that!” he crowed. “That exactly.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, mouth forming a pout as he peeked at his cards.

“And I take it that that’s exactly what you are,” Rodney suggested pointedly. “A risk-taker.”

John’s eyebrows pitched up. “Well, since you said it first…”

“Daredevil, ne’er-do-well, risk-taking liar.”

“Hey, I’m not a liar,” John protested. “I don’t con people – if I’m conning somebody, they probably did something to deserve it.” Rodney’s gaze was speculative. “I have my own code of ethics,” John said, “and I abide by that.”

Rodney hummed, uncertain about whether he entirely believed it, but if he hadn’t thought John was trustworthy – if he had a trail of enemies as long as Rodney’s arm – Rodney wouldn’t have asked him to join his gang. Sheppard’s reputation was as clean as a con’s reputation could be.

“I have a certain skill for mathematics,” Rodney said after a moment. Sheppard looked up at him. “You asked before,” Rodney put in awkwardly, “why I’m a gambler. And, no, I suppose that I’m not ‘addicted to risk-taking’ – I’ve always been talented with numbers. Mathematics was a hobby of mine. I started card-counting at the behest of a mentor and,” he shrugged, “I never stopped.”

“Do you like it?” John asked.

“Of course. I love it.” John’s smile spread slowly over his face and Rodney ducked his head to conceal his own grin. “Unfortunately, I can’t show my face around most of the casinos here. When I was in my late twenties, I made a fortune off of the casinos here – I was caught and ultimately had to flee the city. It was ridiculous.”

“I think I know the feeling.” Rodney looked up and found John’s easy smile and green eyes still on him. “Right before I came here, I was in Salt Lake City. It’s always easiest to defraud companies that don’t keep things on the books. That way, they don’t call the cops when you cut and run. We were there to do a simple job, but my friend got involved with a secretary – very attractive, very loyal to the company…”

“I think I can predict the outcome of this,” Rodney suggested.

John pointed at him. “And you’d be right. She found out that we were cons, then the company found out that we were cons, and it fell apart,” he ducked his head, laughing out loud. “We hightailed it before we got buried in the salt flats or something.”

Rodney chuckled. “And Vegas seemed like a better destination?” he asked skeptically. “You have as much chance of being buried in the desert here as you did there.”

“Not before!” John retorted. “Before, I was just an innocent visitor! I was here to relax and take a break.”

Rodney flicked his eyes skyward. He quirked a lopsided grin at the other man. “Then I suppose it’s good for you that I saved you the boredom of being an innocent visitor,” he said smugly.

“Maybe,” John said, “if I don’t end up buried in the desert because of you guys.” Was it Rodney, or was Sheppard’s tone flirtatious?

Rodney snorted. “As if. Stick with me. No one on my team ends up buried in the desert. Drunk? Yes – that’s definite. Stranded? It’s a possibility, sometimes even a strong one – but we always come back. Buried? Not likely.”

John smirked at Rodney. “You guys don’t leave men behind?” he asked playfully.

“Of course not,” Rodney scoffed. “What do you think we are? Animals?” John laughed aloud.

***

 

Three more crash course lessons on blackjack terminology late into the evening in McKay’s room, two days of rushed surveillance and radio checks, and one last quick shopping trip for John’s new casino costume, and McKay finally deemed John ready for the actual floor. At eight in the evening, he came up to McKay’s room for final instructions.

Ronon let John in at the door. At the low table in McKay’s suite, Zelenka was at one end and Rodney was at the other, radio sets on their ears and three computers spread out in front of them. Zelenka was arguing to someone on his radio that he could see perfectly before their brooch obstructed his view. McKay lifted his head as John came in, his eyes moving up and down John.

John turned to one side and the other, flipping the lapel of his black blazer out to show the button-up and dark wash jeans beneath it. The corners of his lips quirked, his hazel eyes rolling good-naturedly to say that he thought it was a little silly, too.

“Well,” McKay said after a moment. “I see that Radek didn’t fit you out too poorly.”

“Hey,” John retorted, “these are nice jeans.”

McKay rolled his eyes. “Airhead.” His cheeks were bright with color. “Here,” he said, holding out John’s radio. “Put it on. We’ll make sure it’s invisible from every angle.”

“Every angle,” John muttered after him. He accepted the tiny radio and fit the piece into his ear. It was like an earbud, sized down and much more discreet.

Rodney lifted his mic to his mouth. “Can you hear me?” he asked. His voice sounded in John’s ear, much clearer and closer than John was used to. “Testing, testing. One, two, three.”

John nodded at him. “I can hear you.” He gave a thumbs-up.

At the end of the table, Zelenka peered up at John, having ended his conversation. “Remember that if Miss Vega gives the sign,” he demonstrated by tapping his lips with his fingertips, “that you should disengage.”

“Which definitely will not occur,” McKay put in brusquely. “This outfit has never been made—”

Zelenka sighed. “Except for in Monaco,” he muttered.

McKay pulled a face. “Monaco!” he sputtered, “Monaco barely qualifies as a country! It could fit on a postage stamp! That was one time—”

Zelenka met John’s amused stare. “Monaco,” he repeated.

McKay stood up, suddenly in John’s space. “Ignore him,” he said. “That was years ago. I don’t even know why he’s bringing it up now.” He adjusted John’s lapel, fastidiously checking John’s radio.

John’s neck and face felt hot as McKay’s fingertips brushed his bare skin. He kept his smile cool and unaffected. “Oh yeah?” he asked.

McKay shot a discreet glance at the tech expert. “Senile,” he suggested in a low voice. Zelenka shot an ugly look at him and McKay shrugged exaggeratedly. “What?”

John took the tiny camera from Rodney and tucked it into his lapel, unsure if he could handle anymore touching and close-space encounters. “How’s that?” he asked. He felt more than a little like James Bond. He held his arms out for the guys’ inspection. Zelenka and McKay looked him up and down critically.

“Could be better,” McKay said, pulling out a strip of tape. “Hold still – you do not want this stuck to your chest hair.”

Twenty minutes later, John took the stairs down to the first floor. He figured that if the camera or ear piece were to be dislodged, it would be best in the staircase than on the casino floor and if they didn’t jump off his body going down the stairs, they’d stay put. Unsurprisingly, his gadgets passed the test.

They were meeting in the Palms. John took a cab over per McKay’s instruction. Walking into the casino, John’s heart reminded him of the risk he was taking. A frisson of excitement ran down his spine. He smiled and made his way over to the blackjack table, making sure to catch sight of Vega, Gall, Parrish, and Cadman across the room. He slid into a seat at a table and nodded to the dealer. He’d have to remember not to hum the James Bond theme song – that might send all kinds of strange signals.

“Okay, Sheppard,” McKay’s voice said in his ear. “Let’s see how you do. We’ll start out small.” The dealer began to deal the cards. John had a queen of spades showing. The house had a nine of hearts. “All right,” McKay said. “I’m going to tell you what to do.” John had a feeling that this would be the easiest money he’d ever made.

By the end of the night, McKay’s voice was a familiar buzz in John’s ear, telling him when to hit, when to stay. Parrish was the first to disappear, wandering out just after ten thirty. Gall took off not long after that. At two AM, John saw Vega get up out of the corner of his eye, smiling as she took her chips to cash out. Forty-three minutes later, Cadman followed suit, cradling her chips to her chest with a mischievous expression of triumph. John studiously ignored them while keeping them in sight until they disappeared back into the main hotel.

Five minutes later, McKay told John to take his winnings to cash out. John smirked happily as he won another hand and waved off the invitations to stay, stay by some older single women. He slid off his seat and took his winnings to cash out.

Later, back upstairs in McKay’s suite, the eggheads doing the math on the split, Ronon clapped John on the shoulder. “Pretty good for your first day,” he rumbled.

John shared a smile with the big guy. “Pretty good?” he asked. “I raked in thirty K.”

“Like I said,” Ronon smirked, “not great – but pretty good anyway.”

John shook his head dismissively and leaned with his hip against Rodney’s chair. Vega was drooping, leaning against the wall by McKay’s window, but Cadman and Parrish were apparently raring to go, chatting amicably about clubbing later.

“The final take is one hundred thousand,” McKay said. “So your individual cuts are fourteen thousand each.” John nearly choked – he’d never made that much in one night. McKay had that smug look he sometimes sported. “Not bad, but I think we can do better tomorrow night.”

“You always say that,” Cadman protested.

“I agree,” Parrish said, looking up from a game of what looked like cat’s cradle with Cadman. “A hundred thousand is one of the best results we’ve had. We should do something to celebrate.”

“Like getting down,” Cadman said, bumping the thin man with her hip. It tipped off a short game of hip bumping slash what some four year olds would call dancing. Gall moodily tried to extricate himself from between them, loudly complaining as he did.

McKay rolled his eyes. “You two can go right ahead and do that.”

“I, for one, am exhausted and I don’t see boogieing down in my future,” Zelenka sighed. Ronon shared a smirk with Cadman as Zelenka pulled off his radio. He stretched his spine and popped his vertebra, muttering in Czech. “Ouch, ouch.”

“Too tired from the party the other night,” Ronon rumbled, arching an eyebrow. Zelenka peered at him indignantly through his off-kilter glasses.

“Enough!” Rodney complained. “Just get over here and take your money, you barbarians – not that you actually deserve it.”

The gang descended on the table, noisy with triumph or complaint. Zelenka policed the money-disbursement carefully after catching Cadman trying to make off with Gall’s cut.

John ignored the ruckus for then and hedged over to McKay’s side, perching on the arm of his chair. He kept his features carefully disinterested, mouth describing a petulant bow. “So…one of the biggest takes you guys have had,” he began.

McKay’s light blue eyes fell on John like he’d surprised him. He paused, considering and John was pleased that Rodney had to think before coming up with an answer to his smug assertion. “With this team,” he answered primly.

John propped his elbow on the chair back, garnering a distracted look from the other man as he grinned down at McKay. He didn’t believe for a second that McKay wasn’t pleased with the outcome. John had been tested before and knew the feeling when he passed muster. “So how’d you say I did out of the gate, boss?” His heart beat nervously as McKay met his eyes, the set of his crooked mouth soft and endearing in a wholly unexpected way.

“Not bad,” McKay concluded evasively.

John smirked. “So what now?” he asked. “Are you going to keep me? Or are you guys going to dump me in the desert with my bags?”

McKay studied John’s face for a moment before saying, “I think we’ll keep you for now.” In the corner of John’s eye, Ronon was grinning at them.

***

Unsurprisingly, the next night went even better than the first, per Rodney’s prediction. They’d made three hundred thousand already – enough to happily retire until to the next casino, but Rodney wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet.

Sheppard had proven himself on both nights out. Rodney was more than a little pleased to discover that Sheppard did something right on the casino floor (which actually just proved Rodney right about his initial hypothesis that Sheppard would be a good addition to the team). Sheppard followed Rodney’s directions with characteristically charming goofiness and a natural air like he wasn’t following orders at all. Sometimes, Rodney had to wonder if Sheppard was or whether Sheppard’s choice to follow Rodney’s lead retained Sheppard’s independence even in following Rodney’s directions. Either way, Sheppard exceeded Rodney’s modest expectations. He was an excellent cover.

That wasn’t why Rodney was knocking on Sheppard’s door at ten AM, bright and early as far as they were concerned. It had absolutely nothing to do with the time Sheppard had answered the door in the morning, dripping wet with a towel wrapped around his hips.

Just as Rodney was impatiently lifting his hand to knock again, the door opened and Sheppard stood in the doorway. He was wearing a fluffy white robe, belted at the waist, a triangle of his bare chest revealed at the neck. It shouldn’t have been as stupidly endearing as it was. “McKay,” John said. “What can I do for you?”

The first thing that ran through Rodney’s mind was definitely unacceptable. He lifted his chin up and said, “My radio?”

Sheppard stepped away from the doorway, the robe splitting to show one hairy calf as he stepped back. “Come on in.”

Rodney followed him, swallowing with a dry throat. Sheppard walked ahead of him, over to the bedside table, where he picked up his wallet. He slipped the radio out of the zippered change compartment and handed it to Rodney. “Want a pastry?” he asked. “I ordered them a couple minutes ago.” He flopped down in a mass of fluffy white pillows, looking indolent and spoiled rotten in his thick white robe and oversized cushions. Sheppard was mussed, his dark hair even darker against the pillows, but his green eyes were alert and fully awake.

“How many minutes?” Rodney asked.

John chuckled. “I just said, Rodney. A couple minutes. Like five.”

“Not technically a couple,” Rodney muttered.

John leaned forward and pushed the platter of breakfast pastries over to Rodney. “You want it, eat. Don’t want it, I don’t want to hear complaining about it.”

Rodney arched an eyebrow at Sheppard’s familiar demeanor but he didn’t mind it too much. He took a small unused saucer from the tray left from Sheppard’s breakfast and picked at the unchosen pastries that remained on the dish. He picked up what looked like a bear claw and took a bite. “Okay, so far you’ve done all right. Not bad. We’ll see how tonight goes.”

John smirked at Rodney, all his wild hair tufting up on the crown of his head. “So is this my bi-weekly performance review?” he asked.

“Possibly,” Rodney said.

“So I’m still sticking around?” Sheppard was tousled and handsome with the sun coming in at his back.

Color flooded Rodney’s face as he looked at him. “We’ll see how the rest of this week goes.” He met John’s stare over his hands as he tore bite-sized pieces off the breakfast pastry.

Sheppard grinned, unaffected by Rodney’s noncommittal reply. He snagged a strawberry pastry off the plate and broke off a piece. Rodney stared for a second too long as Sheppard put it in his mouth, brushing errant crumbs off his lip with the side of his thumb.

Rodney wrapped the other half of his bear claw in a napkin and hurriedly stood up. “I should be going. I told Radek I’d meet him in his room to discuss the cameras.”

“Something wrong?” Sheppard asked, looking absolutely unconcerned.

“No, no, no, no. There’s nothing wrong. It’s for later. We’re thinking about upgrading for the next time.” Rodney dusted crumbs off his slacks and fastidiously adjusted his collar. It gave him something to do other than staring at Sheppard, who looked tan and dark and handsome in the luxurious room and the late morning sunlight.

“Ahh,” Sheppard hummed.

Rodney nodded his head and turned to go when a thought struck him. “So… Wait, what are you doing today? Aren’t you up a little early?”

Sheppard furled his eyebrows. “Duh, Rodney. I’m going to play a round at Shadow Creek.” When Rodney looked at him with confusion, Sheppard nodded his head in his direction. “It’s a golf course,” he added. Then, exasperated, he said, “It’s a famous golf course, Rodney.”

Sheppard might as well have been speaking Greek – Rodney paid utterly no attention to sports, least of all golf, which he held in healthy disdain as a non-sport. If anything, he might feign mild interest in hockey, the game of choice in his homeland, but even then… “Oh. Can you do that on your own?” he asked.

Sheppard laughed and Rodney had the distinct impression that it was at him. “Bye, Rodney.”

Rodney took that as a cue and sighed, going back to the door. He opened it up and glanced back at John before he left. “Oh, yes. Remember to be ready to go tonight. Ten sharp.”

“What? Was I late last night?” Sheppard asked incredulously.

Rodney waved a hand at him. “Just be ready when I said to be ready. Ten sharp. Remember. I want you at my door at ten, possibly earlier, and I want you to be ready.”

“I’m always ready!” Sheppard called after him as Rodney shut the door. The strange thing was that Rodney actually believed him.

***

The week went by in a blur. John adjusted to his newfound wealth more quickly than to his new hours, but a couple strong cups of coffee before nightfall kept him going until two or three o’clock. They went through the casinos, one by one, and once they were done with one, they didn’t go back for seconds. John thought it was a little paranoid but it was Rodney’s way, which John was more than happy to abide by given how far it had gotten them by then.

John worked well with everyone on the team, but he worked best and most closely with McKay. He liked the guy’s candor, the way he sometimes rubbed John the wrong way and the way he made John want to crack up. They had a similar sense of humor and a kind of shorthand that came in handy working together. John got used to the rhythm of the game and the rhythm of McKay’s conversation.

The Venetian casino was the last one for the week, Sunday being a rest day. John wandered in the casino around eleven twenty, catching sight of Gall, sitting at a table with his chin on his fist and a troubled furrow in his forehead, then Cadman, encouraging a handsome man to blow on her betting chips, and Alicia Vega, moody as always with a glass of champagne at her elbow. Somewhere out of John’s line of sight but in Cadman or Gall’s were Parrish and Markham. John slid onto a seat at the table and gestured in salutation to the dealer.

“Evening, sir,” the dealer greeted him.

“Hey.” John smiled at him and dropped a few chips into his betting box, gesturing to be dealt in. The cards snapped crisply as the dealer began to deal them. John watched the dealer’s hands, projecting an idle and aloof air.

“Okay,” McKay said over the radio. He chortled. “The dealer’s hand is crap. Soft seven, if that.” John’s first hand was good, which John took as a good sign for the evening. “Oh, excellent. If I had to guess, I’d say you have eighteen,” McKay voice said, reassuring in John’s ear. “Double down and stand.”

John dropped a few chips on the table, flicking a finger toward them. The dealer nodded. That hand saw John taking everything. The next one they surrendered and the third one, they hit twice before getting seventeen and beating the dealer with seven hundred dollars on the bankroll. On John’s fifth hand, with ten thousand dollars in chips on the table and three cards dealt him already, John looked down at his hand and realized that Rodney wasn’t chattering on his radio.

John looked down at his cards – face-up seven, three, and two – and nonchalantly scratched his ear, tapping the radio. The line remained silent. John scratched his eyebrow, imagining Rodney reaching critical mass in his suite at the Bellagio, demanding that Radek repair whatever had gone wrong. He could see Gall in the corner of his eye, furrowing more deeply than before, and he wondered if the radio had gone out on him, too.

“Bets,” the dealer prompted the players.

John had to think. Without Rodney in his ear, giving clear, less-than-concise instructions, he’d have to play it on his own skills – which, up until that week, hadn’t even existed. He set his jaw, running the play so far through his memory. He’d just have to go solo until Radek, the Big Player in Rodney’s stead, showed to clean up. He tapped the table to hit again.

A little over an hour later, John walked out of the elevator on the fifth floor of the Bellagio, his knees numb and his heart still racing. McKay flew out to meet John in the hallway, his door closing behind him even as he rushed over. John felt something like affection, looking at McKay’s blank, harried expression.

“What?” John asked. “Here.” He walked over and tucked his wins, a thick stack of bills, into Rodney’s inner coat pocket, keeping his back to the camera at the end of the hall. It was the whole twenty thousand he’d earned over the course of the night. Rodney’s body was warm against the back of his hand. “So how’d I do, boss?”

Rodney blinked at him. “I’m shocked that you knew what to do just now.”

John wrinkled his nose in offense. “Thanks, Rodney. It means a lot when you say things like that. It’s tough to find a friend you can depend on when you’re in the clutch.”

Rodney flicked his eyes toward the ceiling, exasperated. “You know what I mean. How’d you know you wouldn’t bust on your first – I mean, fifth hand? A lot of people would have stood.”

“And I guess they’d be wrong,” John replied easily. He met Rodney’s gaze. “Since that was my best hand tonight.”

“Still,” Rodney persisted, “I’m amazed. You either have nerves of steel or you very well might actually be addicted to high-pressure, high-risk scenarios.”

John lifted his shoulder in a shrug, the corners of his lips quirked up. “I don’t know, Rodney. It’s not that hard to calculate your odds and the probability of receiving a favorable hand. I just calculated what was on the table and in the discard pile against what could possibly be in the deck and knew I’d never go over. Simple stuff.” He patted Rodney’s chest over the stack of bills. “And I kind of looked up Hi-Lo counting the other day while I was at Shadow Creek,” he admitted, “just in case.”

John watched with self-satisfaction as Rodney’s jaw dropped, the shorter man gaping silently as John grinned and walked over to his door. As soon as John opened the door to the suite, a cacophony of noise erupted inside, Ronon’s heavy arm already around John’s shoulders in congratulations. Rushing to catch up, Rodney bumped John in the doorway, his chest briefly against John’s back as they came inside.

***

“All right, as you all well know, we’re coming to the end of our little vacation here in Las Vegas—” Rodney’s words were cut off by a small but unruly chorus of “No!” and “Not yet!” He scowled, directing a stern look at the faces around Zelenka’s room. “Could you infants possibly resist the urge to moan while I’m talking so that I can actually go on? Thank you.”

“No,” Cadman booed, “don’t want.” John winked at Cadman, the natural troublemaker of the group, which Rodney pretended not to notice. Cadman snickered, naturally unrepentant. She got more and more annoying by the day, in Rodney’s humble opinion, which was unsurprisingly ignored.

“—which,” Rodney cut in over everyone, “means that we’re taking a break for a few days and then going out with a bang next week.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Parrish noted pleasantly.

Rodney rolled his eyes and wished there was some way he could incorporate corporal punishment into his form of leadership without technically being considered a thug. “So I want you all on the floor. We won’t hold anyone back or stagger playing on larger bets. John and Radek will be the big players.” John looked up with interest at the sound of his name and Rodney continued without glancing at him, “When the cards start looking good, I’ll send Sheppard or Radek over to your table for high-stakes betting. When he’s at the table, Miko and I will instruct you on how to proceed to best benefit the take. I want everyone to work together. You all know the drill, so…,” Rodney grimaced, searching for the right words, “don’t suck?” Rodney dodged the crumpled paper Cadman had sent flying at him and Zelenka cut in, explaining the details of the job.

As the meeting came to an end, the members of the team stood up, stretching or talking for a few minutes before they would go on to whatever else they had planned for their rest day. Rodney walked over to the desk by Zelenka’s window and opened the box of doughnuts lying on the tabletop beside the espresso machine Zelenka insisted on carrying with him everywhere. He winced, looking at the assortment of jelly-filled monstrosities in the bottom of the box before catching sight of a chocolate-filled one caked in powdered sugar tucked under three pink-iced doughnuts in the corner. He picked it up and winced, flicking multicolored sprinkles off of it when John’s voice sounded by his left shoulder.

“So I’m the big player, huh?” he asked. John was wearing a royal blue Adidas track jacket with garish yellow piping and dark blue jeans, his dark hair all over the place as usual. He was attractive as always, especially with the shadow of stubble dark over his cheeks and his chin.

Rodney glanced at him. “Technically, since you’re just doing whatever I tell you, I’m the BP,” he corrected John through a large bite of doughnut.

“Details,” John muttered, wincing at Rodney’s manners. He handed him a napkin off the table.

“Thank you,” Rodney said, wiping his mouth with half-hearted effort.

“Don’t mention it.” John folded his arms over his chest, regarding Rodney through his eyelashes, waiting with what Sheppard might consider patience. Rodney dabbed his face again self-consciously – he must have chocolate on his cheek or something. John ignored him and said, “So, since we’re about done with the whole Vegas thing…”

Rodney nodded, going in for another bite. “Nearly.”

“Do you want to get together for dinner? Maybe a game of mini-golf or something.”

Rodney swallowed his doughnut wrong and hacked, cringing painfully as the bite went down in entirely the wrong way. He bent over, coughing loudly. Everyone was starting to look over, dismayingly disinterested in Rodney possibly choking to death on a powdery confection. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye as he looked over at Sheppard. What precisely was Sheppard suggesting? He accepted the bottle of water Sheppard proffered and took three long swigs, suddenly feeling very nervous of the possibilities. But Sheppard appeared cool and casual. Possibly even innocent.

Rodney made a face. “No, I don’t think so. I’m very busy tonight, so dinner’s impossible. Actually, I think I’ll just end up ordering something from room service again rather than attempting to go out at all.”

Sheppard’s brows met his hairline, his pout indifferent. “Well, how about Friday, since we’re taking off a couple days?”

Rodney considered John for a long moment – the long, lean face and sometimes heavy, always expressive lips, his hazel eyes and arched eyebrows that now twitched under Rodney’s gaze. He wondered what Sheppard could possibly want in asking – because he strongly doubted that it was what it seemed like it was. “Friday?” Rodney asked after a beat. “I don’t know… No, I couldn’t possibly.”

John grimaced. “C’mon, Rodney,” he complained, “I’m not asking you for your liver. It’s just dinner. No big. If you can’t make Friday, how’s Saturday?”

Rodney paused, thinking about it. It wasn’t unusual for the two of them to take lunch together – they usually got it in groups of three or four, depending on who was around or who didn’t want to be around each other that day. Rodney remembered suddenly that John had had dinner with Ronon and Zelenka three nights before and felt a pang of annoyance that it had taken John so long to get around to inviting him when, in his opinion, he was easily the closest to the conman. “Saturday,” he murmured, turning it over in his mind. John’s demanding expression prompted a reply. “Okay, sure,” Rodney conceded. “Saturday’s good for me. What time?”

“Eight?” John asked.

“I can do eight.”

John grinned at Rodney, his expression bright and offbeat and charming. “Great. I’ll meet you in the lobby then.” He tapped Rodney’s shoulder as he turned to rejoin the group. Rodney watched John extricate himself from the others after a moment, all loose-limbed boyish charm and friendliness, and he wondered what he’d signed on for in accepting the invitation. If it really was an invitation at all.

***

At a few minutes after noon, the Bellagio lobby was bright with sunlight and full of guests and tourists. To John’s knowledge, everyone on the team was engaged in their rest day activities, and to any degree, they were nowhere to be seen. John had talked briefly with Zelenka, who knew the city better than John, so he could give John advice on the venue – which he’d texted to Rodney and received a curt affirmative about. There was one thing left unresolved, which was why he was downstairs right then.

John walked over to the concierge desk on the first floor, hoping for advice about dinner with Rodney – which was a little rare for him, the part about needing advice. When he came to the head of the line for concierge services, he recognized Teyla once again behind the counter and John smiled at her in salutation. “Hey,” he said, “you have a way of cropping up.”

Teyla chuckled. “I believe I do, indeed. Perhaps we run in the same circles.” John gave a short laugh and she smiled. “How may I be of service today? Is everything to your liking?”

“Everything’s to my liking, yeah,” John said. “It’s…,” he waved a hand around approvingly, “nice.”

“I am happy to hear that.”

John roughed a hand through his hair and leaned closer, not wanting to be overheard by the people in line behind him – even if their hearing was probably dampened by the busy flow of tourists in the lobby. “Actually, I was hoping you knew where I could get something to wear for a dinner…a dinner,” he flushed and hesitated, finishing lamely, “date.” Teyla smiled at his discomfort. “Hopefully something nice.”

Teyla’s expression was bright and friendly. “Of course. What type of attire do you need? I can suggest retailers for any type of clothing and nearly every type of style.”

John thought about it. They were going to a nice place Zelenka could get John reservations at as a favor from the owner. It wasn’t a blazer-and-jeans type of restaurant. While McKay tended to dress informally, t-shirts under blazers with cargo pants or khakis, John would bet hard money that McKay showed up in the lobby, dressed to the nines and looking pressed and polished and generally inviting to all kinds of speculation on John’s part. He laughed softly to himself. “Formal,” he answered finally. He didn’t want to get shown up. He pitched his voice lower to avoid the embarrassment of being overheard. “Look, between the two of us, I want to look…”

“Handsome?” Teyla finished for him.

“Sure, that would be good. And maybe I kind of want, um…,” John quailed, at a loss for words.

“To impress your date,” the concierge put in for John. When John colored to the tips of his ears, she smiled widely. “I can definitely help you.”

***

At seven fifty-two, John strode across the lobby, making himself visible from the elevator banks. John straightened the lapel of his jacket and checked his watch, waiting on McKay under the glass sculpture in the lobby. At his back, the lights filtering through the Fiori di Como glittered over the Chinese New Year mirrored-mosaic horse, lighting the mirrors up like varicolored jewels across the head and flank of the enormous statue. The rainbow of colors framed John in his black tux, though he was unaware of it, contrasting with his dark, tousled hair and his black suit. He perked up at the sight of Rodney coming around the corner.

Rodney looked as good as John had expected, his hair pushed back and his face clean-shaven, he had one hand in his pocket as he scanned the lobby for John. His blue eyes seemed brighter and more piercing with him in his dark suit. He was early, which suggested that he wasn’t as reticent to go out as he’d let on when John had asked him.

John’s forehead briefly creased in confusion as Ronon and then Zelenka followed suit, also dressed in formalwear. As they came into view, Cadman turned the corner behind them, wearing a water-green full-length dress. After Cadman was Markham, Parrish, Vega, and Gall, his tux all wrinkled and his bow tie twisted.

“So?” Rodney asked, meeting John. His eyes went over John in his formal clothes and John wanted to smack the back of his head for bringing everyone. “You look good.”

John arched an eyebrow at him and Radek looked distinctly uncomfortable. At least someone knew this was supposed to be a date. “You guys aren’t bad yourselves.”

“Thanks a bundle,” Cadman answered before Rodney could reply.

“That’s really kind of you to say,” Parrish said. “I vacillated between these cufflinks and another pair—”

“Can we just stop with the recounting of your cufflinks-related quandary?” Rodney huffed.

John rolled his eyes and indicated the revolving doors with the tilt of his head. “Okay, kids, let’s go.” He ignored Rodney’s brief, studying glance and planned out ways to get even with the other man, even if he’d abandoned them by the end of the evening.

One advantage of the group date was that it came up to significantly less than John had expected. He thought that Parrish had possibly miscalculated the cost of his meal and put in more than his share when they got the check. John didn’t get to spend nearly any time with Rodney and none strictly on their own, but it was nice as always to hang out with the whole team.

They came back to the Bellagio too late in the evening, several of them reeking of wine and mixed drinks. John gratefully separated from them when Parrish, Markham, and Vega got off on the second floor, followed by Cadman and Gall on the third, Radek suggesting to Ronon at the last moment to indulge in a nightcap in Cadman’s room. John waved his hand at them and Rodney muttered, “Good riddance,” as they’d gone.

The doors slid shut in their wake and Rodney was still complaining. “They’re ludicrous. It’s a strong possibility that they really are, internally, three years old – if three year olds could drink. You’d think it was happy hour every hour of the day if you looked at that sloppy mess. And no matter how many times I beg Ronon to use a fork—”

“He used a fork,” John protested half-heartedly because Ronon’s table manners vied with Rodney’s as some of the most appalling he’d seen lately. “I gave him a fork and he used it.”

“He used it as a shovel!” Rodney shot a dubious glance at John from the corner of his eye. John wanted to point out that Rodney was hardly one to complain about restaurant etiquette, having sent his plate back to the kitchen twice as inedible despite the contents being half-eaten already, both times. But then, they were all kind of hopeless – Radek making wildly inappropriate exclamations in Czech when the rest of them got on his nerves, Cadman drinking a baker’s dozen appletinis, Gall sniffing suspiciously at his plate when the waiter brought them their plates, and Vega getting up every fifth minute to hit on women at the bar. Rodney was right about one thing – he couldn’t take them anywhere.

“I don’t think it counts as actual silverware-usage when you use your fork like gardening instrument.”

Now alone at long last in the elevator, with everyone having abandoned it at the last floor, John’s head was much clearer without the second-hand drunkenness clouding the elevator car. He arched an eyebrow at McKay. “Well, you wouldn’t have had to deal with Ronon’s tableside manner if you’d come alone,” he pointed out.

Above the elevator doors, the number four lit up with a ding and Rodney’s eyes lit up at the same time, his stare confused but suddenly sharply attentive. His crooked mouth parted, wordless for three seconds. “What? You wanted to go on our own? Together?” He looked at John with an expression John couldn’t quite decipher, but a look like the suggestion hadn’t crossed his mind.

John snorted at Rodney’s clueless tone. He pulled the knot out of his bowtie, letting the ends fall loose against his shirtfront. He popped the first couple of buttons open and shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks. “Well, I only invited one of you.” He raised his eyebrows and McKay gaped at him. His speechlessness was a little gratifying. As the doors slid open on the hallway of the fifth floor with a chime, John pushed himself up off the back wall of the carriage. “See ya,” he said cheerfully.

***

Afternoon was dim in the hallway outside of Rodney’s doorway. “Come in,” John heard through the door, coming on the heels of his low knock. John used his keycard and opened it up, walking into Rodney’s brightly lit room. The sun came in through the large windows and illuminated the luxurious suite. After a couple weeks of living-in, his room was getting plenty untidy – discarded tux jacket on the back of his chair and, that was interesting, the pants crumpled at the foot of his bed. A crumpled pile of candy bar wrappers were discarded on his night side table, along with a couple empty cans of soda.

Rodney was sitting at his desk, tools in his hands as he worked on the malfunctioning radio. He was back to his faded Mr. Fantastic t-shirt, plaid button-downs, and khaki-colored cargo pants. He looked up and blinked at John. “Oh, I thought you’d be Zelenka.”

“I’m not.” John sat down across from Rodney, his knees hooked over the arm and his head on the pillow of Rodney’s loveseat. He made himself comfortable.

Rodney stared at John silently for a brief moment, his blue eyes moving over John’s clothes and his figure while he was at it. “And I’d thought you’d be resting up for the big job,” he said.

John smiled at the air of reprove in Rodney’s words. “Not as much. I’m rested up.” He peered down at the electronic in pieces on the desktop. “So, what’re you doing?”

“I’m repairing your radio. I thought I’d resolve the problem we had with interference the other night while I’m at it.”

“So, what? Was there was another signal on the same wavelength you were using that interfered with your signal and broke up reception?” John asked.

“If one were to put it simply, yes.”

John knit his hands on his stomach and shrugged. “So you’re planning on adjusting to a different wavelength with less popularity.”

“Yes, that is the plan.”

“So why’re you taking it apart?” John asked.

Rodney sighed. “I stepped on it.” John laughed and Rodney grimaced impatiently. “Yes, hilarious. They are tiny, you know.”

When John had quieted down and he was just smiling at Rodney like he was an amusing Muppet, Rodney cleared his throat. “So, um, what you were talking about the day before yesterday…”

John hummed, looking at Rodney with interest. “Yeah?” he prompted him.

Rodney’s face was flushed. “About the…dinner?” he asked. He was suddenly very engaged in his radio repairs.

“Sure,” John replied. “What about it?”

Rodney shrugged a shoulder. “Well, not strictly barring any other possibly activities pursuant to it, we could conceivably do that. Alone.”

John grinned at Rodney. “Really? Would that make it a date or something?”

Rodney’s face was dark pink. “That terminology could be conceived of as accurate.”

“But not tonight,” John put in to tease Rodney. When the card counter looked up at him, he smiled. “The big job.”

“Well, no, of course not,” Rodney sputtered. “Tonight would be ridiculous.”

Warmth and happiness spread over John as he looked at the other man, restraining himself from laughing. “I’m free now. How about lunch?”

Rodney blinked at him. “Um, yes, that could be…”

“Okay,” John announced, jumping up. He picked up the phone to order something up from room service. “No fish, so…you want a burger again?”

Rodney snorted. “Room service. I should have known.” His exasperation was more warming to John than it probably should have been.

***

 

The lights flashed over the casino floor, describing a banner made of individual bulbs over a sea of slot machines and craps tables. John idly played the slots, perched on a stool in front of the screen. Over in the high limit pit near the far wall, Alicia Vega touched her earring, smoothing the strands of her brown hair into place. John didn’t need Rodney on the line to tell him to get over there. One last lazy spin and John collected the paltry winnings, dropping them into his box of chips.

He ambled over, catching sight of Parrish, his hands folded in front of his mouth at an adjacent table, and Gall, tapping the table to hit again. “I want you to bet the max. Double it on this hand and bet half your overall total after that.”

The bankroll was four hundred thousand, and they were aiming for nine hundred thousand by the end of the night. John slid into the seat beside Vega and nodded to the dealer.

They played for an hour at Vega’s table, taking in ten thousand, before Rodney said, “Parrish’s table look’s good. I want you over there.”

John collected his winnings from the betting box and quirked a smile at everyone, extricating himself from the table. He waited a few minutes, pretending to hem and haw before taking a seat at Parrish’s table. “Start with the minimum, no matter what you have next time surrender as camouflage.”

John was playing for forty minutes before he noticed the pit boss looking at him with mild suspicion. “Stand,” Rodney said in his ear as John tapped the table to hit. “What the hell are you doing?” Rodney’s shout rang in John’s ear. “You’ll lose the entire pot!” Of course John couldn’t reply that they’d lose it if he was barred anyway.

The dealer dealt John another card. “Bust.”

“Damn it,” John hissed. He watched the dealer rake over his chips. He played the next hand low, regardless of Rodney’s wishes, so when he abided Rodney’s instructions and bet the max the following hand, the pit boss’s eyes wandered from him. He got up from the table, having doubled what he’d sat down with. From the corner of his eye, he could spot Zelenka in his Hawaiian shirt, exulting quietly in a win. John walked over to another table, where Cadman was playing first-base.

The next time John moved, he’d played seven hours, making several large bets, his chip box filling up steadily. He had ninety thousand dollars in chips – technically, as McKay would be quick to point out, they had ninety thousand dollars in chips. He was ready to move on when Gall began tapping his mouth. John caught the idle gesture and McKay said in John’s ear, “Oh damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. John, they’re going to pull you up.”

John slid off his seat, turning as he did and ran, hard, into Cadman, their chip boxes colliding against each other with a clatter and the rattle of chips inside. Standing up, John could see the casino security approaching, the guard a beefy man with a black suit and a neck the size of a tree trunk. John apologized to Cadman and Cadman moved off with a laugh, disappearing in the sea of slot machines.

“You,” the guard thrust a finger at John, “come with me.”

“John,” McKay’s voice said futilely in his ear. “Hold on.” John wanted to tell him to relax – the worst they could do was toss him out on the sidewalk.

“What?” John asked, furrowing his brow. “Is there some kind of problem?” He made himself innocent and bland as white glue, putting his box down on the edge of the table beside him.

“Come with me,” the guard repeated, “or you’ll be escorted out physically.”

John cast a look around the other gamblers like it was ridiculous, but the friends he’d been making over several hours of conspicuous good luck were suddenly absent. Even Gall was steadfastly eyeing the table rather than John. “Okay, okay.” John put his hands up. “I’m coming.”

The guard’s hand gripped John’s arm and he pulled John out, jostling him out between the tables. He pulled John through a series of passages until they came out into a narrow alley outside. The balmy night air was thick after the cool inside, lights splashing over the sidewalks and dying them their hues. John saw another guard out there and winced. He could see where this was going.

“You must want to get buried if you’re counting cards in here,” the first guard said as he shoved John.

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Flung forward, John tripped and stumbled, smashing face-first into the brick wall on the other side of the alley. Pain blossomed over his cheek bone, sharp and numbing in his skin. He grimaced and pressed a hand over the hurt. “Jesus, could you give a guy some warning?” He waved a hand, guardedly looking at the two broad men.

“I’m going to show you what this casino thinks of cheating.” The second guard threw his fist out and caught John on the cheek.

John fell, his shoulder slamming into the wall, and the first guy grabbed the front of his shirt. John panted, sweat springing out on his forehead. “Nobody ever taught you guys how to play nice?” he asked.

“Since you have trouble learning a lesson, let’s try it again.”

John gritted his teeth as the second guard pulled back his fist, when suddenly shouting erupted in the mouth of the alley. They all turned as a scuffle sounded calamitously near the sidewalk. “Giant idiot!” a Czech accented voice called, “Watch where you’re going! Idiot! Moron!”

“What the hell did you call me?” a second, guttural voice rapped out. “Oh, you’re dead, little man!”

“You want to try it? I’d kill you! Jackass! Neanderthal!”

Through the rapid beating of his heart, John dimly recognized the Radek and Ronon’s silhouettes over the shoulders of the guards. He pushed himself up on his feet but didn’t move yet.

“What the hell is this?” the first guard asked.

Then the second guard cursed as Radek leapt at the larger man, small but surprisingly spry. “God damn it!” They sprinted off to intercede and John went the other way, walking rapidly toward the Bellagio. He was just around the corner when two hands came out of the shadow of a casino and yanked him in.

“Jeez, you really are addicted to risks.”

“Rodney?” John hissed, peering at the other man as Rodney’s face resolved itself in the shadow.

“No talking, just walking. Let’s get back before those goons come back.” They made the rest of the way in remarkable time, going a back way up to Rodney’s suite. As soon as they opened the door, Rodney made his way to the icebox and took out a cold bottle of vodka.

John sank into the cushions of Rodney’s couch with a sigh, too many parts of his body aching from his brief run-in with casino security. “Jesus, do they always come on that strong?” he asked.

Rodney settled on the table in front of John, the insides of his knees brushing the outside of John’s legs as he leaned forward. “Not usually,” he said. “You really have a way with people.”

John gave him a wry smirk and winced as Rodney touched the cold glass to his aching cheek. “Am I bleeding?” he asked.

“A little. It’s a raspberry.” Rodney flinched in response to John’s delicate cringe.

“Doesn’t feel like a little,” John said.

“I’m sorry.” John stared at Rodney, sobering, and Rodney hung his head. “I shouldn’t have had you…” The corners of John’s lips turned up, regarding Rodney with a soft look. Rodney raised his head and met John’s eyes. “It was a miscalculation on my part. I should have had you play better camouflage, but…I-I hope that I’ll be able to earn back your trust in my abilities.”

John snorted and pressed his lips over Rodney’s. He told himself it was mostly about shutting the other man up. For a second, Rodney was still and surprised, and then his mouth was against John’s, coaxing John’s lips open for a deeper kiss.

Rodney’s hand brushed over his cheek and John winced with a hiss, Rodney yanking back from him at the same time. “Sorry, sorry! I forgot!”

John rolled his eyes and pushed the vodka bottle back into Rodney’s palm, folding his hand over Rodney’s with the bottle to his cheek. “Now let’s try again.”

***

“Rodney,” Radek said briskly as soon as Rodney opened the door. It was the following morning, John still asleep in Rodney’s bed, murmuring in annoyance at the pounding on the door.

“Oh, Radek,” Rodney said. He belted his fluffy white robe tighter. “Thanks for the…,” he gestured broadly.

“If by that, you mean distraction, that’s fine. Perfect.” He peered in over Rodney’s shoulder, searching for John in the room. “As I’d thought when Sheppard didn’t answer his phone. Would both of you pack up? I’d like to see the city limits before sunset. And you’re welcome for finishing up last night as well.”

Rodney flicked his eyes heavenward. “Yes, yes. Exactly.” He closed the door to prohibit Radek from peeking in. He didn’t know how naked John still was in there and the conman hadn’t exactly set any records for modesty in the time Rodney had known him.

“Then we will agree to meet in the lobby.”

“Yes,” Rodney agreed easily. It was a little surprising how the time had gotten away from him when the kissing had started (and progressed rapidly). “What time is it?”

“What time?” Radek asked. He swore in Czech. “It’s one-fifteen.”

“Oh,” was all Rodney could think to say. “Okay, okay, hold your horses. Jeez, we’ll meet you downstairs.”

Radek stopped him shutting the door and leaned closer. “And, McKay, the concealed camera in Sheppard’s shirt?” he shook his head ruefully, “What I saw last night I cannot unsee.”

Rodney sputtered uselessly. “You didn’t have to watch!” he cried.

“Kay, Radek, we’ll see you downstairs in ten,” John said smoothly by Rodney’s ear. Rodney balked at him as he waved and shut the door.

Ten minutes turned into fifteen when Sheppard started kissing behind Rodney’s ear in the elevator, scandalizing a young family of four trying to get on the lift on the third floor in the process (what did they expect in vacationing in Vegas, anyway). It would’ve turned in to twenty or something more to the order of, “Hell with it, let them wait!” had Rodney not pushed him off with one last firm kiss and decisive gait as he walked into the lobby.

John caught up quickly, waving to the familiar concierge coming back from her break, and slipped his hand into Rodney’s back pocket, bouncing against Rodney’s shoulder with every step. It was halfway annoying and halfway pleasant. “So, what next?” John asked. “Radek said something about Germany.”

They passed the riotously colorful Fiori di Como once more, a last time on their way out, and the large mirrored-mosaic horse. They could see the team by the bank of revolving doors at the end of the lobby, jostling good-naturedly.

“Yes, maybe. But it’s complicated. We can get into a closed game if we have some forged documents and twelve counters. Oh, and we’d need a woman who could pass as a foreign dignitary or nobility from a distant country – regal, diplomatic, aloof…” Rodney trailed off as John slowed to a stop, blinking at each other.

“No,” John said lowly and it sounded like a question.

“I couldn’t conceivably see it happening,” Rodney replied. They both looked back at the concierge desk at the same time, where the attractive young concierge named Teyla was helping guests with a regal, diplomatic, aloof air. The corners of John’s mouth quirked up as he peered at Rodney. “We could try,” Rodney conceded.

“You know what you are?” John teased. “You’re a high-stakes wager with a high-profit win.”

“I am not,” Rodney retorted in offense. John laughed and kissed him on the mouth right there in the lobby.