ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff

Inconceivable!

Birthday Surprises, Sheppard Style

Rating: T

Content Warning: Some adult themes is about all.

Season: Between 2 and 3

Summary: Should a Birthday present really be this hard to receive? Okay, now that Christmas is over I can do the story I wanted to do. Again this is mostly fluff with just a little bit of plot thrown in. OC 1st person perspective story, established ShepOC relationship.

Classifications: Romance

Pairings: John Sheppard & Original Character

Spoilers for: Nothing really

Disclaimer: The Stargate characters, storylines, etc aren’t mine – we went on a long cross country journey together and now I’m just heading down to the beach for a small vacation. I am unfortunately not associated in any way with the creators, owners, or producers of Stargate or any of its media franchises. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, equipment, etc are the property of whoever owns them. The original characters and plot and anything else I made up are the property of me, the author. No copyright infringement is intended.

Copyright (c) 2008 ShaViva


Phase 1: Ignition


After the whole Christmas gift exchange thing I found myself hoping that John would have satisfied his urges regarding surprising me and not feel the need to do something for my ‘birthday’. I had joined Team Sheppard in the commissary for dinner a couple of days after Christmas. The others were talking amongst themselves and I was trying subtlety to work out whether John did in fact have something planned.

"You ah ... don't have any plans for New Years, do you?" I asked hesitantly.

"After your reluctance with the whole Christmas mass celebration," John replied, "I would have thought you'd be all partied out."

"I'm not asking because I want to do something," I pointed out irritably. "I'm asking because I wanted to make sure you weren't doing anything!"

"Why would I be doing something for New Years?" John frowned at me in confusion.

"Because of that ... conversation we had a while back," I almost groaned in frustration. "You know ... when Rodney tried to find out something but there was nothing to find?!"

'Did I hear my name mentioned?" Rodney's head snapped up and he turned to us curiously.

"Not really," I told him. "I was just trying to remind John of that conversation we had where you couldn't find out something and had to ask me."

"Oh you mean about your birthday?" Rodney asked innocently.

"No," I growled. "Perhaps you'd like me to talk to Dr Weir about what actually happened?"

"I don't think that'll be necessary," Rodney said quickly, turning back to Ronon and Teyla. Of course it was too late.

"Is your birthday approaching?" Teyla asked curiously, clearly sensing the undercurrents of tension but confused about why a simple birthday would create them.

"No," I replied, trying to smile casually.

John had been silent since I'd brought Rodney's name up - he scoffed when I answered Teyla but otherwise said nothing.

"Is it a big secret then?" Ronon asked, looking from John back to me.

"Arg," I groaned in frustration. "There is no birthday, okay?!" Getting up with my tray I turned back to John with a raised eyebrow. "Happy now?" I asked grumpily.

"You were the one who mentioned New Years," John denied any responsibility for my current mood.

"Yeah, right," I returned, completely unconvinced by his innocent air. He'd known full well what I was asking - he just didn't want to tell me anything. "I'll just have to find out some other way." I turned and headed for the exit.

"Good luck with that!" John called after me.

"And good luck getting into our quarters tonight!" I returned over my shoulder.

"I better ..." I could hear John behind me hastily packing up before running to catch up with me. "That wasn't nice," John scolded me, clearly trying not to show that he was amused by my grumpiness. "You wouldn't really lock me out would you?"

"I'd try," I said without any remorse. "But Atlantis likes you enough you'd probably be able to override it."

"Good to know," John replied. Putting an arm around my shoulders he guided me down the corridor at an easy pace. "Don't worry," he reassured me.

"I'm not ... worried," I denied. "Just ... you know the library thing was ... huge ... I don't need anything else."

"We'll see," John's tone said clearly that he wouldn't be revealing anything else.

oOo

“What’s this?” I asked Rodney the next day. I looked down curiously at the envelope he’d casually handed me.

“Don’t know,” Rodney replied distractedly. “It was on my desk this morning and since it’s got your name on it I assumed it was for you.”

“Who’d be leaving me a note in your office?” I asked suspiciously, ripping the envelope and taking out a sheet of actual paper. I opened the folded page, finding a note written in a hand I didn’t recognise. The writing was bold and confident, each letter well formed and clearly evident.

Fill in the blanks in the following number sequence. To get the final answer you will need to convert the missing numbers in some way. 5, 15, 20, 2, 18, 5, --, 9, 14, --, 19, --, --, 5, 23, 18, --. Give your answer to the secret hiding place.

“Did you write this?” I asked, intrigued in spite of my confusion about what it all meant.

“Write what?” Rodney craned his head forward, trying to see what was on the paper. I hastily moved it away from his view.

“It’s a puzzle,” I revealed, folding the sheet back up before Rodney could read what was on there. “John must have done this ... but why would John give me a puzzle?”

“You’d have a much better chance of explaining the weird eccentricities of Sheppard’s mind than me,” Rodney pointed out snidely.

“Very funny,” I replied. “So John didn’t mention anything about this?” I waved the paper at Rodney vaguely.

“Since you won’t let me look at it,” Rodney said sarcastically, “I can’t help you work out what Sheppard is up to, if indeed he is the one who left you that note.”

"You know something, don't you?" I looked at Rodney intently. He looked back without any hint of agitation - if he was in on this he was being very unRodney like in keeping it a secret. “I’ll figure it out,” I said confidently. “See you later Rodney,” I called as I jumped up and headed out to my own lab, paper held tightly in hand.


Phase 2: Launch


 “Okay,” I said under my breath, spreading the paper out on my desk and rereading the puzzle. “Fill in the blanks in the following number sequence. To get the final answer you will need to convert the missing numbers in some way. 5, 15, 20, 2, 18, 5, --, 9, 14, --, 19, --, --, 5, 23, 18, --. Give your answer to the secret hiding place.

I looked carefully at each number, trying to work out some kind of pattern to the sequence. After a few minutes I realised that the first two numbers added together equalled the third and if the fourth number was subtracted it would give the fifth number. Deciding the sequence was number plus number equals number minus number equals number plus number equals number etcetera I applied that to all the numbers in the puzzle.

"5 plus 15 equals 20 minus 2 equals 18 plus 5 equals 23 minus 9 equals 14 plus 5 equals 19 minus 1 equals 18 plus 5 equals 23 minus 18 equals 5," I worked aloud, writing each number down as I calculated it. If I was correct then the missing numbers were 23, 5, 1, 18, and 5.

“Convert them in some way?” I mused, thinking about the various ways I could convert numbers. I’d already done mathematical conversions to get the missing numbers. What else could I do? I thought for a moment and then an idea came to me. Reciting the letters of the alphabet as I ticked off the numbers 1 to 26 in my head gave me W E A R E ... weare? No ... ‘we are’!

“What the hell does that mean?” I asked the empty room. Not receiving any answer I made my way to our quarters to ‘give my answer’ to the secret hiding place. Assuming that meant our wall safe I swiped a hand over the spot but for the first time it didn’t open. I tried focussing my thought sharply at the safe but that didn’t work either. Feeling just a bit ridiculous I said aloud “we are” and watched in disbelief as the safe opened to reveal an empty space save for a piece of paper and a small square piece of metal.

Putting the metal in my palm I squinted at it closely. There were faint ancient carvings on one side and the edges had a kind of routed appearance like they might slot in somewhere else. I couldn’t see anything I could possibly do with the piece right then so I put it back in the safe and turned to the paper I’d found.

“Ask Teyla,” I read aloud. Ask Teyla what? Deciding I wanted to know what was going on before I bothered anyone else I headed off to the commissary after tapping into the sensor system to find the instigator of this little mystery.

“What are you up to?” I threw myself into the seat across from John and speared him with a narrow glance.

“Me?” John said innocently. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The puzzle Rodney gave me,” I replied stubbornly, handing John the puzzle I’d gotten from Rodney.

“Real paper,” John commented, turning the page this way and that like he’d never seen it before. “We don’t get much of that in Atlantis these days.”

“Did you write that?” I ignored his innocent act.

“This is maths,” John said with a distasteful expression. “What would I know about that?”

“Don’t do the dumb soldier routine with me,” I replied. “I’m pretty sure you’re behind this but I can’t confirm it – how the hell could I have known you for almost two years and not have seen your handwriting?” I complained.

“I’m not the love letter type?” John suggested, holding in a grin with some difficulty.

“You’re enjoying this aren’t you?” I accused.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” John insisted, doing a pretty good job of making me doubt myself.

“It had to be you,” I insisted. “It says ‘secret hiding place’ – no one else knows about the wall safe!”

“I’d like to help you,” John ignored my accusation, “but I’m enjoying your frustration too much.” He ducked away with a laugh when I leaned in to whack his arm.

“This had better not be about my birthday,” I warned, “because you promised not to rope anyone else in.”

“Did Rodney say anything about your birthday?” John asked seriously.

“No,” I admitted.

“There you go then,” John replied easily. “I’d love to stay and watch you ... sweat ... but I’ve got a briefing to get to.” After sweeping a fond hand down my pony tail John walked jauntily away, leaving me sitting there bemused.

Resigned to being led along whatever path John had put me on (it had to be John, despite his innocent act - who else would go to this much effort?), I got up and headed out to find Teyla.

“Hi Teyla,” I found her talking with Dr Weir in the Control Room. “Have you got a minute?”

“Of course,” Teyla agreed, following me to a corner of the room for as much privacy as I could achieve.

“I ah ...,” I hesitated before ploughing on, “have you got something for me?”

“You solved the first puzzle,” Teyla said with a smile. “You have earned this,” she held out another envelope.

“Thanks ... I think,” I replied, looking warily at the innocent looking object.

“You are welcome,” Teyla replied with ease. Although she seemed somewhat curious about the mystery, it was not Teyla's way to put pressure on a friend to reveal personal information. Rather she allowed space for things to be revealed in their own time. I suspected Teyla knew a lot more about what was going on in Atlantis than the rest of us for that reason alone.

“Did John give you this?” I asked.

“The envelope turned up in my quarters along with instructions for its distribution,” Teyla avoided answering my question. “You will have to speak to Colonel Sheppard to confirm its origin.”

“I thought you’d say something like that,” I smiled ruefully. I left Teyla faintly amused at my absorbed behaviour as I wandered off, opening the envelope as I walked. The same confident scrawl greeted me ... I read.

I am the essence of innumerable biographies,

I am philosophy teaching by examples,

I am a distillation of rumour,

I lie at the root of all science,

I belong to the winner,

In all my volumes vast I have but one page,

There is no life that does not contribute to me.

What am I? Give your answer to the secret hiding place.”

“What the?” I said aloud, stopping short as I frowned down at the offending page. First number sequences, now word riddles? Assuming that John was behind all of this, the range of material he’d already used kind of surprised me. Of course I knew that John Sheppard was an extremely intelligent man – but it was one of his best kept secrets. Ask anyone involved in any of the harrowing missions and situations team Sheppard had been a part of since arriving on Atlantis and they’d all say that Rodney was the one who’d come up with the plan that saved the day. But if you looked back and carefully assessed each situation you’d be surprised to find that, a lot of the time it was actually John, seeding Rodney’s brilliance with the initial idea, who continually got us all out of trouble.

I took the latest puzzle back with me to the lab ... I should have been working on the latest Ancient doohickie for Rodney but I couldn’t ignore the riddle screaming out for me to solve it.

Phase 2 authors note:

Number sequence puzzles are pretty common on a lot of quizzes, including Mensa. I made the one in Phase 1 up from scratch, and added the converting bit myself so I can't really credit it to anyone but myself ... probably explains why it wasn't that hard to solve!

Re the ref to Shep's handwriting I put that in because I can't recall any time in the show when he actually had a pen in his hand - it all seems to be data pads and electronic stuff or print outs of things. For some reason it amused me to have Sabina never having seen his handwriting!


Phase 3: Solid Rocket Boosters


I made a brief stop on my way back to the lab - about fifteen minutes later I was sitting at my desk ready to solve the next puzzle. I smoothed it out on the desk and read it again.

I am the essence of innumerable biographies,

I am philosophy teaching by examples,

I am a distillation of rumour,

I lie at the root of all science,

I belong to the winner,

In all my volumes vast I have but one page,

There is no life that does not contribute to me.

What am I? Give your answer to the secret hiding place.”

“There is no life that does not contribute to me,” I whispered, thinking hard. That, along with the line about belonging to the winner gave me the most likely answer ... history. Of course I just had to find out immediately if I was right so I made my second unnecessary trip of the day back to our quarters.

“History,” I said, standing in front of our wall safe and watching it open silently. I briefly wondered how John had managed to reprogram the safe to only open on a key word, as well as how he’d managed to change that word between this mornings and my second visit. I'd shown him that I'd solved the first puzzle when I confronted him in the commissary - that had obviously given him enough time to make it back here. He must have had help though because I was pretty sure his skills didn't go as far as reprogramming Ancient technology.

Inside the safe I discovered that my solitary piece of metal had been replaced with a lovely ornate box about the size of my palm and made of a warm reddish brown wood. When I opened it I discovered the original piece as well as a new piece, this one a right angled triangle of a similar size with similar markings and routed edges. Reaching into the safe again I found two pieces of paper. The first had the words “than the” written on it ... another two words that made absolutely no sense to me. I’d been thinking that the key word ‘history’ was the result for this round but the presence of the second piece of paper made me doubt that – lucky because I’d been nervously worried about the meaning when I put history with the words I’d got from the first round! Surely that wasn’t an accident – if not I really needed to have another word with the mischievous and too clever John Sheppard!

Unfolding the other piece of paper I read “If you know yourself as well as your enemy, then you do not need to fear the result of 100 battles.”

I turned the page over to see if there were any other instructions but that was it. I’d known straight away what was required for each of the first two puzzles but this one had me stumped. I was still thinking about that one line hours later when John joined me in the commissary for dinner.

“How was your afternoon?” John greeted me.

“Mmm?” I asked distractedly, tapping a finger lightly on the table as I tried to recall if I’d heard the line before. It had a familiar flavour but beyond that I was pretty sure I'd never come across that particular quote before.

“Sabina,” John clicked his fingers in front of my face, trying to get my attention.

“Sorry,” I snapped back to the present. “It’s your fault I’m distracted. You should know never to give someone like me a puzzle ... I hardly got any work done today for thinking about it.”

“Who said it was me?” John continued to deny being the perpetrator.

“You can forget that,” I told him smugly. “I showed the first page to Dr Weir and she confirmed that it’s your handwriting.”

“That’s cheating!” John complained.

“I didn’t know there were any rules,” I laughed at his disgruntled expression. “Dr Weir was intrigued by the idea of you creating a puzzle ... said she didn’t know you had it in you, and that I should ream you out for failing to write me even one note the whole time we’ve been together.”

“Did she?” John narrowed his eyes and I felt a brief moment of remorse over whatever retribution he might plan for that comment.

“Don’t blame her,” I said. “If you didn’t want me to show anyone else, you should have left some instructions.”

“Wouldn’t want to make it too easy,” John smiled, obviously feeling pretty smug himself right about then. “I’ve gotta get my fun somehow.”

“Speaking of fun,” I narrowed my eyes sternly, “nice little joke – ‘we are history’ – or are you trying to tell me something in an extremely exotic way?”

“Depends on how you look at it,” John denied, a twinkle sparkling in his eyes. “Perhaps I’m trying to tell you we’re history as in a momentous occasion worthy of being written down and remembered.”

“Is that right?” I raised an eyebrow mockingly. “Are there any more profound messages in my immediate future?”

“Nah,” John relented. “To be honest I couldn’t find a way to make Teyla’s puzzle come out with the words I needed so I decided to go for a solution that had meaning to her and just give you the words.”

“I’m sure she’d appreciate that,” I nodded like I was impressed, “if I ever had any intention of telling her about it that is.”

“That’s okay,” John said quickly. “We can just keep this to ourselves ... wouldn’t want anyone to work out the reason behind it.”

“And that’s another thing,” I said grumpily. “I can’t believe you’ve got me working for a birthday gift I never even wanted in the first place ... this better be worth it in the end!”

“It will be,” John said with a confident smile. “So where are you up to then?”

“100 battles,” I admitted. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with that one.”

“I’m sure it’ll come to you,” John replied, clearly feeling no temptation to give me even the slightest clue.

“Well, don’t expect me to be a witty engaging companion tonight,” I warned. “I’ll be working on this until I get the answer.”

“I would expect nothing less,” John looked at me with a fond expression.

Phase 3 authors note:

Sources for the Phase 2 puzzle were as follows:

Lines 1, 3 and 4 are attributed to Thomas Carlyle; Line 2 is attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Line 5 is attributed as anonymous so if you know who said it first please let me know; Line 6 is attributed to Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel Byron); and Line 7 is attributed to Dorothy West. I like thinkexist dot com for quotes which is where I found these. I changed the actual quotes to make them fit with the timber of my puzzle.


Phase 4: External Tank plus Main Engines


"You're trying too hard," John was stretched out on the bed, watching me tapping away at my laptop as I sat cross legged next to him. I’d relented in my determination to keep the whole thing a secret by asking Major Lorne if he'd heard of the quote before. He'd known immediately that it was something from Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War. Figures that the military guys would know that one! Major Lorne had been curious as to why I was asking but I'd managed to put him off with some vague explanation about John and I trading famous quotes.

"Well how about you give me a clue then," I replied grumpily, giving up on the idea that the words could somehow be transformed into something else.

"I can give you a clue ... if you're willing to concede that I'm smarter than you," John offered with apparent good will.

"In your dreams," I scoffed. "It's always easy when you know the answer ... don't gloat too much or else I might return the favour one day."

"You're hiding it well but I can tell you're really enjoying this," John teased.

"Sadly, I think at this point you're enjoying it more than I am," I muttered under my breath. "Tell me again why you couldn't just give me a birthday present like a normal person would?"

"You're not gonna give me too many chances to do something like this," John replied, "so I had to make the most of the opportunity."

"Yeah - the opportunity to torture me," I complained, smiling so John would know I wasn't quite as disillusioned as I was making out.

"Maybe you should take a break," John suggested, grabbing my laptop and shutting it decisively before lobbing it onto a nearby chair. "I could help you ... clear your head."

"I should refuse on the grounds that you're responsible for my head ache," I replied, letting him pull me down next to him, "but that would just be cutting off my nose to spite my face."

"I always knew you were a very wise woman," John kissed me with the smile still on his face.

oOo

I went to sleep that night still mulling over the clue I’d been given. "If you know yourself as well as your enemy, then you do not need to fear the result of 100 battles."

Clearly it wasn't like the other puzzles - I couldn't transform it or decode it or anything like that to get the answer. Rodney had given me the first puzzle and Teyla the second so it stood to reason that I’d be getting a third ... something ... handed to me by someone. Maybe it came down to who best fit the flavour of the quote. Since it was about battles fought I narrowed it down to John himself, Ronon and Major Lorne. I didn’t think John would put himself into the mix this early in the game so that left Ronon and Major Lorne. John could have enlisted either of them to deliver the next clue but I was leaning towards Ronon just because knowing yourself and your enemy sounded like something he would teach.

Very early the next morning I went searching for Ronon and wasn’t surprised to find him in the sparring room. I’d thought about what might be required to get the next clue and quickly realised it wouldn’t be as simple as just asking Ronon – that would have been the instruction like it was for Teyla. I had a sick feeling I was actually going to have to ‘battle’ Ronon to win the puzzle from him.

“Hey Ronon,” I greeted him somewhat nervously, grateful that at least he was warming up alone so there’d be no other witnesses to my probable humiliation.

“Sabina,” Ronon returned simply, continuing to practice a series of scary looking moves.

“I hope this doesn’t sound crazy,” I began, “but I ... ah ... have to ... challenge you to a round of sparring.”

“Choose your weapons,” Ronon replied, not at all surprised by my statement.

“Fighting sticks,” I replied – the only choice for me since I wasn’t particularly skilled in any other forms of combat.

I warmed up slowly, feeling apprehensive about embarrassing myself in front of Ronon. He’d become a friend and a support to me over the past few months and his opinion really did matter to me. Although he’d watched me train with Teyla and had commented favourably on my ability, we’d never actually sparred together before.

I’d delayed as long as I could with my warm up and hesitantly stepped into the middle of the room. I’d just taken my fighting stance when the doors opened - I looked up to see John standing in the door way.

“Good, you haven’t started,” John surprised me with that one. Even though he’d set up the puzzle I didn’t think he’d want to witness the result. He pulled me to one side of the room and took both my shoulders in his hands. “Are you ready?”

“I‘m not sure I want to do this,” I whispered somewhat miserably.

“Ronon can teach you a lot about battle,” John discounted my protest. “It’s silly to avoid sparring with him because you’re scared of what he’ll think.”

“I’m not scared,” I denied hotly, still whispering. John just raised an eyebrow and looked at me pointedly. “Okay,” I admitted. “Maybe I am a little ... concerned, but I’m not sure jumping in at the deep end is the way to fix that.”

“You’ll be fine,” John coached me. “Put yourself into the same mindset you use when you train with Teyla or me ... and remember the quote: ‘know yourself, know your enemy’.”

Nodding, I took a deep breath and concentrated on calming myself, focusing my thoughts on treating this as a training session. I walked to the middle of the room and took up my fighting stance. “I’m ready,” I said as confidently as I could muster.

Ronon swung at me with one stick, attempting to draw my focus so that he could come in low with the other stick and get in a hit. It almost worked but I was able to get just enough of a defence in place to deflect the blow. I’d watched Ronon spar with the fighting sticks before and I honestly didn’t think he had a weakness. If I couldn’t exploit a flaw in his style then I’d have to take advantage of something about my own style that would keep the match going as long as possible. I was quick and smaller than Ronon, and I had a strong reserve of stamina so perhaps I could move and duck more than was my custom when sparing with a shorter opponent. I also concentrated entirely on defence, hoping to last as long as possible by minimising any hits that would affect my ability to keep fighting.

Our match went on for some minutes in silence. I took a few glancing blows to shoulders and thighs that did nothing more than mark the spot where some nice bruises would be appearing in the near future. Ronon remained untouched, both in terms of hits as well as any visible drain on his own stamina. I kept at it doggedly, determined that I wouldn’t give in and that he would have to immobilise me for the match to be over.

Ten minutes later I was starting to tire. Ronon went for a shoulder hit and this time I felt the full force of the blow. I danced out of range, shaking my suddenly numb arm quickly hoping the feeling would return. Ronon didn’t give me a chance to reset myself, quickly hammering me with a series of blows and manoeuvres that ended with me pinned to the mat with a fighting stick to my throat.

Ronon quickly jumped up and held out a hand to pull me to my feet.

“Interesting strategy,” he commented, looking at me curiously.

“You’re bigger, stronger, more ruthless,” I pointed out. “I couldn’t see any weakness in your fighting style that I could take advantage of so I decided to defend at all costs.”

“Why?” Ronon persisted.

“In this situation it’s a pretty useless strategy,” I admitted freely. “But out in the field I wouldn’t be alone – the longer I can hold out the more chance there is that backup will arrive to give me assistance.” I glanced over a John for the first time since the match began and felt a warm glow inside at his proud smile.

“Not bad,” Ronon nodded. “How’s the shoulder?”

“Sore,” I replied, rubbing a hand over the spot. “This next puzzle better be good!”

Ronon looked over at John and when I followed his gaze I saw John holding up another envelope.

“Are we having fun yet?” I murmured, letting John put an arm around me for a quick hug.

“Come on,” John drew me out of the room. “Let’s go and ice that shoulder.”

I let John lead me back to our quarters after he’d stopped at the infirmary for an ice pack.

“I’m surprised you set up a sparring match like that,” I commented, lying on the bed as John sat beside me holding the pack to my shoulder. “Weren’t you worried Ronon would hurt me?”

“I could spend every minute whenever you’re off world worrying about you getting hurt,” John replied, “or I can do everything within my power to make sure you know how to handle yourself.”

“I guess,” I acknowledged. “I know you can handle yourself but I still worry when you’re off world. Of course you do have a knack for getting into trouble.”

“Okay – so I do worry about you when you’re out with Major Lorne’s team,” John admitted. “But knowing you can hold your own gives me something to console myself with.”

“Now that I do understand,” I agreed. “All right, give me the envelope.”

John handed it over silently, watching my face as I opened it quickly and took out the contents. There was a smaller envelope and a piece of paper. Looking at the paper first I wasn’t surprised that it only had two words on it – ‘Ask Elizabeth’. The envelope had another metal piece just slightly bigger than the other two, this one a sort of rhombus shape with the now familiar markings and edges. There was also a piece of paper with the words ‘of our’ written on it.

“How many people have you involved in this little game?” I looked at him curiously.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” John said childishly. When I just looked at him silently he grinned and ruffled my hair. “Why don’t you soak those sore muscles before you hunt Elizabeth down?”

“Good idea,” I replied, trying to drag myself slowly off the bed. "You heading down to breakfast?"

"Yeah," John reached down and helped me back up. "Make sure you get something to eat before you go haring off for the next puzzle."

"Yes Mum!" I grumbled, heading into the bathroom before he could make any come back.

oOo

Feeling refreshed after soaking out all my aches and having a good breakfast I headed up to Dr Weirs office.

“Sabina,” she greeted me with a smile. “I believe you’re after this?” She held out an envelope for me.

“Thanks Dr Weir,” I smiled in return.

“John seems to be having some fun with this,” Dr Weir commented.

“I think he’s worried I might get stale ... not having any complex problems to work through at the moment,” I said lightly, not wanting to give away to her that this was all about the birthday I wouldn’t admit I was having.

“If you say so,” Dr Weir made it clear she didn’t believe a word I’d said. I gave a weak smile before taking the envelope and making a quick getaway.

I waited until I was back in our quarters before I opened the envelope and read the next puzzle.

On each row place a three letter word that can be attached to the end of the word to the left and to the beginning of the word to the right to form a longer word in each case. When completed the last letters of the three letter words will give a word reading downwards. What is it? Give your answer to the secret hiding place.

WING - - - TOP

UNDER - - - FOOD

ARM - - - SELVES

OUT - - - FULLY

ALP - - - SOCK”

This one was gonna take a while ... groaning softly I headed back to my lab to hide out and try to complete the puzzle. I only hoped Dr Weir wasn’t going to ask for a report on my latest project ... since this puzzle quest had begun I’d gotten very little done!

Phase 4 authors note:

As mentioned in the story text, the quote for Phase 3 is attributed to Sun Tzu. I hope no one minded that this one was a physical rather than mental challenge, beyond working out that fact of course.


Phase 5: Orbital Manoeuvring System


 On each row place a three letter word that can be attached to the end of the word to the left and to the beginning of the word to the right to form a longer word in each case. When completed the last letters of the three letter words will give a word reading downwards. What is it? Give your answer to the secret hiding place.

WING - - - TOP

UNDER - - - FOOD

ARM - - - SELVES

OUT - - - FULLY

ALP - - - SOCK”

I spent the whole day alternating between doing actual work and trying to solve the puzzle. I’d already covered several pieces of scrap paper with the various words I’d tried to fit into each line. Finding three letter words for some of them wasn’t the hard part – getting their last letters to spell an actual word was causing me the grief.

“Sabina?” Rodney stood at the doorway with an almost hesitant look on his face.

“Hey Rodney,” I said distractedly, still mulling over the words in front of me.

“Looks like you’ve been at this a while,” Rodney commented, coming into the room and looking down at the evidence of all my failed attempts.

“Turns out John is the one who set all this up,” I looked up at Rodney with a faint knowing look, “but I’m guessing you already knew that.”

“I’m sorry,” Rodney said miserably. “Sheppard threatened me with only chicken MRE’s for our next ten missions – you know how much I hate those. I had to pretend I didn’t know anything.”

“That’s okay Rodney,” I let him off easily. “John’s having fun with this ... and to be honest so am I. But if you tell him that I’ll have to hurt you,” I smiled to let him know I was just joking.

“I’ve got a program that could help you with that,” Rodney offered.

“Wouldn’t that be cheating?” I commented.

“I don’t see why,” Rodney denied. “Sheppard didn’t give you any rules after all ... and you have been working on that for a few hours now.”

“Show me the program,” I compromised. “If I get really stuck I’ll take a look at it.”

“Fair enough,” Rodney turned my laptop towards him and tapped out a few commands to bring up a dictionary search program. I could see that it allowed searches of words starting and ending with various letters as well as words of a particular length. “If it makes you feel better, Sheppard used this program to create that puzzle.”

“Oh he did, did he?” I narrowed my eyes at the screen, thinking quickly. “I’m still gonna solve this without the computer,” I told Rodney. “That way I can point out that clearly I’m smarter than him!”

“Okay,” Rodney actually smiled slightly before taking his leave, happy I think to have assuaged his guilty feelings for essentially lying to me about the first puzzle. I didn't have a problem with Rodney keeping John's plans a secret and was actually impressed at how well he'd done.

I turned back to the latest puzzle, mulling my progress. TIP would fit the first line – wingtip and tiptop were both acceptable words. I’d decided the only choice for the second line was SEA, as in undersea and seafood. OUR was one of my possibilities for the third line, giving me armour and ourselves. The fourth line could only be FIT – outfit and fitfully. That left just the last line which had me stumped. I looked at the last letters of the other four lines and realised that I had spelled out PART. Words I could make with one more letter added were party and parts. I could just try each of them at the safe and see which one worked, but it was late enough that John would be there and I didn’t want him to see me fumbling and guessing rather than coming up with a confident solution. I couldn’t think of any words I could make out of sock if the last letter was a y, which left only an s. Hassock was the only word I could come up with, implying my final three letter word was HAS. Thinking that alphas for the other side of that line was a bit of a stretch I never the less felt confident that I had finally solved the fourth puzzle.

“Took you long enough,” John complained when I finally arrived back at our quarters to try my next solution.

“Yeah but I solved it manually,” I took delight in pointing out, “which makes me smarter than the creator, who apparently used a computer to assist him!”

Rodney,” John muttered under his breath.

He watched as I walked over to the wall safe and said “Parts”. The safe opened immediately to reveal my ornate box and the predictable piece of paper. Checking the box first I discovered I now had four metal pieces, the newest another right angled triangle almost identical to the first.

“Who’s up this time,” I asked, unfolding the paper and reading aloud “Ask Dr Zelenka. Ah Radek – I wonder what he’s got in store for me?”

“You’re not gonna keep going tonight are you?” John asked in concern.

“You know me and puzzles,“ I replied, genuinely thinking about disturbing Radek’s evening so I could get the next puzzle.

“This isn’t a race you know,” John pointed out. “I think for tonight you should just put it away and concentrate on something else.”

“Got any ideas for that?” I asked with an innocent sidelong glance.

“I could think up ... something,” John smiled.

oOo

The next morning after a quick breakfast in the commissary I headed down to Dr Zelenka's lab for my next puzzle. I had briefly considered staking out our quarters to see how John was handling the changing of key words for the safe as well as get some kind of clue to where this was leading. Common sense reasserted itself though when I realised the chances of me successfully spying on John Sheppard, ex special ops military man, were probably around zero. I wasn't sure he wouldn't have been expecting me to do something like that too - he'd have some kind of plan to head me off. In the end I decided that powering through the puzzles as quickly as possible would have to be satisfaction enough.

Walking purposefully down to the labs I found myself wondering about why John had involved other people in his little game, since apart from handing me envelopes their involvement mostly seemed unnecessary. If the answer didn't become obvious by the end of the game I made a mental note to ask him myself.

"Hi Radek," I greeted, smiling at his 'mad scientist' appearance. Even this early in the morning his hair had that Einstein look about it.

"Sabina," Radek replied, giving my name a faint Czech inflection that always made it sound more exotic than it was.

"You have something for me?" I asked casually.

"Yes," Radek reached behind him and pulled out the now familiar envelope. "This is some kind of ... game the Colonel is playing?"

"Something like that," I replied, not wanting to get into the whole birthday thing, even with someone as mild mannered as Radek.

"And this is fun?" Radek frowned in confusion at the concept.

"For some people it is," I tried to explain. "John knows I like puzzles so I guess he decided to give me one ... in the absence of any real puzzles to solve right now."

"Ah," Radek nodded in understanding. "In that case ... enjoy!"

Smiling a thank you, I took the envelope and headed out the door. Rather than waste time walking to my lab when I knew I'd have to go to our quarters at some point I decided to just go straight there.

Sitting on the bed I opened the envelope and took out the single sheet of paper.

Start with a seven and with a four,

add two to each number - nothing more.

Take four from the smallest number to date.

Then from the other take only eight.

To work out what your answer should be

Take the two numbers and make them three.

Give your answer to the secret hiding place.”

Hmm, interesting. Another number puzzle. On the surface this one seemed simple, but knowing John there'd be some kind of twist at the end.

Phase 5 authors note:

I got the idea for the phase 4 missing word puzzle from mensa dot org dot uk/puzzles. The specific puzzle used here was made up by me, using onelook dot com - a website that does exactly what I described the program Rodney offered as doing. Since I knew the answer I really have no idea how hard it was to solve - apologies to anyone I inadvertently frustrated as a result.


Phase 6: Re-entry


 Start with a seven and with a four,

add two to each number - nothing more.

Take four from the smallest number to date.

Then from the other take only eight.

To work out what your answer should be

Take the two numbers and make them three.

Give your answer to the secret hiding place.”

"Okay," I muttered to myself. "Seven plus two is NINE. Four plus two is SIX. The smallest number so far is SIX so taking four from that gives TWO. Which means I have to take eight from the nine which gives me ONE. So I have a TWO and a ONE." I frowned slightly, wondering how I was going to take two separate numbers and turn them into three numbers instead. Then it hit me - if I just summed the two numbers I'd get an actual three! "Nice one John!"

Jumping up and heading over to the safe I stood for a moment - what had I done to get my answer?

"Sum?" I said aloud hesitantly. The wall safe rewarded my efforts by opening silently.

I checked out the metal pieces first - now there were five, the newest one being another triangle, this one an equilateral triangle double the size of the other two. I seemed to be solving puzzles only to collect more puzzles - these metal bits looked like they were going to fit together in some way and the words I'd been collecting each round also had to be some kind of puzzle too. The complexity of what John had created impressed me and I wondered how long it had taken him to work it all out. A present based on personal effort meant much more to me than one that was bought - not that we could exactly do that here on Atlantis.

Turning to the next piece of paper I read "Ask Major Lorne."

I gathered up all the bits of paper and the metal pieces and put them all back in the wall safe. Knowing that Major Lorne wouldn't let me off as easily as the others I almost hesitated before heading out to hunt him down.

"Major Lorne," I called out, running to catch up with him.

"Sabina," Evan greeted me with a knowing smile. "Just trading quotes huh?" Okay, so obviously John had spoken to him recently. Wondering what Evan might been have told made me cringe inside - this was gonna be bad ... I just knew it.

"Okay, how much teasing am I gonna have to put up with before you hand over the envelope?" I cut straight to the chase, hoping to put him off.

"No teasing," Evan denied, still smiling. "You just have to fill me in on what this is all about."

"Evan," I looked at him pleadingly. "It's personal ... you really don't want to hear all the ... gory details."

"Nice try," Evan kept walking, turning into the commissary and heading straight for the coffee. I followed close behind, deciding I might as well get a coffee too. I sat down across from Evan and speared him with a knowing look.

"Surely John gave you some kind of order about handing me that envelope?" I suggested. "Don't you have to follow orders?"

"Actually Colonel Sheppard left it up to my discretion as to how hard to make you work for this," Evan held up said item, sweeping it out of my reach when I tried to grab for it.

"I can't believe he did that," I muttered, crossing my arms grumpily and slouching back in my chair. I frowned for a minute, thinking about how to handle this. Would it really matter if I told Evan the barest details - surely he'd give me the envelope before I had to tell him my whole life story? "Okay what do you want to know?"

"What's in the envelope?" Evan looked across at me, waiting expectantly for my answer.

"It's a puzzle," I admitted grudgingly. "John's got me running from person to person solving puzzles ... at this stage I don't know what the final result's gonna be."

"Why?" Evan persisted.

"Why what?" I asked in confusion.

"Why is Colonel Sheppard giving you puzzles to solve?" Evan spelled it out for me.

"Because he doesn't want me to get bored?" I offered hopefully. Evan didn't say anything, just started to get up from the table. "Okay, okay," I put a hand on his arm to stop him from leaving. "It's a kind of ... birthday ... thing," I admitted softly.

"It's your birthday?" Evan sat back down, looking at me in surprise. "When?"

"Ah ... New Years?" I said hesitantly. "Now can I have the envelope?"

"There's more to this than you're telling me," Evan narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You said New Years like you're not sure yourself. What gives?"

"I am so gonna kick John's arse for this," I muttered under my breath. I looked up at Evan with a pained expression but he just stared back at me impassively. "I don't do birthdays," I looked down at the table as I said the words emotionlessly. "John made me ... pick a date so he could celebrate it."

"Now I'm confused," Evan leant forward, looking at me intently. "How come you couldn't just let Colonel Sheppard celebrate on your actual birthday?"

"This is so not worth it," I got up and looked down at Evan almost angrily. "Since you insist Major," I said heatedly, "I don't know when I was born because I was abandoned at birth. They gave me a birthday and I used to celebrate it with my adopted parents but they were killed on my tenth birthday - I'm sure you can understand why birthdays lost their appeal after that!" I could feel myself on the brink of getting really upset so rather than hang around I turned and walked briskly from the room, ignoring Evan calling out after me.

I'd calmed down a bit by the time I got to my lab. Since I'd neglected to get the envelope from Major Lorne I had no reason not to continue with my work. I let myself get caught up in conducting some research on a piece of Ancient technology Rodney had found on team Sheppard's last off world mission. We thought it might be some kind of portable memory unit but it seemed to be out of power. I was attempting to find reference to it in the database so we could work out how to get it operational.

"I'm sorry," I looked up to see Major Lorne standing uncertainly in my doorway.

"Not your fault," I replied, looking back down at my laptop.

"You forgot this," Evan stepped into the room and held out the envelope for me. I took it calmly, throwing it down on the table before turning back to my research. "When Colonel Sheppard gave me that envelope he told me to get you to tell me what was going on before I gave it to you," Even continued, ignoring my apparent lack of attention. "Said I should push you until you gave in ... that it was important. I had no idea I was going to upset you."

"I don't blame you Evan," I relented, looking up at him calmly. "You couldn't have known ... it's been a long time and I shouldn't have gotten upset."

"So, you gonna blast Colonel Sheppard about this one?" Evan asked curiously.

"I'm thinking about it," I admitted. "But probably not - John will have had a good reason for asking you to make me work for the next puzzle. I can't quite see what it is right now but I'm not gonna make an idiot of myself reacting before I think about it."

"Well, good luck with the next puzzle," Evan turned to leave, stopping when he got to the door. "You're not gonna be all weird with me now are you?"

"Weird?" I looked at him in confusion. "Why would I be weird with you?"

"Because I know stuff about your past that you obviously wanted to keep secret," Evan revealed.

"Are you gonna mention it, make a big deal out of it?" I asked.

"No, what you tell me in confidence stays in confidence," Evan promised. 'And I mean that not just for what you told me today."

"That's good to know," I smiled, pleased when Evan visibly relaxed. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Evan said. "Enjoy your birthday ... present."

"I'm trying," I muttered, watching him head down the corridor.

I couldn't deny that I was a little angry with John for using his supposed birthday gift to force me to share something personal that I otherwise wouldn't. I was even more confused now about why John was involving everyone else ... technically he hadn't broken his promise to not rope anyone into anything he planned. Well the letter of it, if not the spirit. It was petty but I decided to leave off even looking at the next puzzle ... my little rebellion for John's methods. I spent the remainder of the afternoon concentrating solely on actual work for the first time in three days. When it was time to meet everyone for dinner I packed up, tucked the unopened envelope in my jacket pocket and headed down to the commissary.

"How’s the puzzle solving going?" Rodney asked as soon as I'd sat down. Everyone else was already there and I avoided looking at John when I took the vacant seat next to him.

"I'm taking a break," I replied simply.

"Getting a little too hard is it?' John took delight in teasing me.

"No Colonel," I said sarcastically. "The puzzles themselves have all been quite ... easy."

"Ah ha," Rodney laughed. "She told you!"

"You're already spoken to Major Lorne, haven't you?" John asked, completely serious once he'd worked out I was less than impressed with him.

"Evan was a little ... difficult to convince," I admitted, looking down at my meal without really seeing it. "I'm not sure I quite understand why you put him up to that."

"If you haven't worked it out by the end I'll explain everything," John promised, risking my continued anger by putting an arm around me and pulling me into him.

"You better have had a good reason John," I semi threatened. John squeezed my shoulders before releasing me. I looked up, embarrassed to find Teyla, Rodney and Ronon all looking on interestedly. "Okay - that's enough Sabina watching for one night ... how'd it go today?"

The remainder of the dinner was taken up with conversation about the search for supplies mission they'd gone on that afternoon. I sat back and relaxed, feeling my anger at John's interference in my relationship with Evan dwindling away. Evan was my team leader but he was also a friend ... I trusted him professionally without question. John's puzzle had made me realise that I could also trust Evan on a personal level too. I guess I just had to get comfortable with that.

oOo

I waited until we were back in our quarters for the evening before I opened the envelope from Evan.

"Break the code and then find the one word that will complete this famous quote by Henry Ford. Give your answer to the secret hiding place.

Gsqmrk - - - - - - - - mw e fikmrrmrk. Oiitmrk - - - - - - - - mw tvskviww. Asvomrk - - - - - - - - mw wyggiww."

"A code?" I looked over at John quizzically. "Where did you get all these puzzles anyway?"

"Made most of them up," John admitted smugly. "Got some of the ideas from Rodney, some from stuff I'd seen before."

"You realise you may have blown your 'dumb soldier' cover don't you?" I pointed out.

"Nah," John said easily. "You're the only one who's seen the actual details."

"Well, I'm too tired to think about this anymore tonight," I announced. "Let's listen to something."

John set up some music and we spent the evening relaxing together.

Phase 6 authors note:

Re Phase 5 sources, I just completely made up the number poem puzzle from scratch with no reference to anything else ... probably explains why it's the lamest one in the story so far!


Phase 7: Unpowered landing


The next morning, refreshed from a great night’s sleep, I sat down on the bed and began working on the sixth puzzle. John was getting ready for the day, glancing over at me every now and then but not offering any comments.

"I'll see you at lunch," John offered, coming over to kiss me goodbye.

"Okay," I said distractedly. I barely registered when John did his usual ruffling of my hair before leaving me to my thinking.

"Break the code and then find the one word that will complete this famous quote by Henry Ford. Give your answer to the secret hiding place.

Gsqmrk - - - - - - - - mw e fikmrrmrk. Oiitmrk - - - - - - - - mw tvskviww. Asvomrk - - - - - - - - mw wyggiww."

A code meant there was some kind of pattern or key - a cipher - that I could use to transform the message. My first step was to write down every letter of the alphabet in order in a grid. I then looked at the message carefully, trying to work out if any of the letters could be determined just from observation. There was a solitary 'e' which would have to be either an 'a' or 'I' - I pencilled those two letters beneath the 'e' in my grid. There were also a lot of 'w's, including more than one double 'w'. Thinking about the letters that most commonly had doubles I wrote down 'l', ‘m’, 'n', 'p', 's', and 't'. The 'w' was also part of a repeating two letter word - 'mw'. Based on that I decided the most likely translation for the 'm' was an 'i' and pencilled that one into my grid. Another common sequence in the sentence was 'mrk' at the end of a few of the words; putting the 'i' in place of the 'm' I guessed that the 'mrk' was probably 'ing'.

Pencilling those letters into my grid too, I sat back and looked at what I had so far. Those four letters where actually enough for me to solve the whole code. The 'a' had been shifted four places to the right to become an 'e', the 'i' had been shifted four places to the right to become the 'm'. The same was true for the other two letters too. Quickly writing out all the other letters I used my grid to replace letters in the message.

"Coming - - - - - - - - is a beginning. Keeping - - - - - - - - is progress. Working - - - - - - - - is success," I read. It didn't take me long to work out that the only word that made sense in that sentence was TOGETHER. Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success - not a surprising quote for John Sheppard, Mr 'we don't leave our people behind', to have used.

I did the usual stand at the wall safe and say the word and took out my next piece of paper and the box of metal pieces. My sixth metal piece was another right angled triangle, more than twice the size of the others - the biggest piece so far. My paper instruction read "See Doctor Beckett."

oOo

I hadn't caught up with Carson for a few days so I actually looked forward to seeing him to get my next puzzle. My 'birthday' was the next day so hopefully there wouldn't be too many more people I'd have to visit before this ended.

"Dr Beckett?" I called as I entered the infirmary.

"Ah, Sabina," Carson greeting me cheerfully. "Right on schedule!"

"Did John give you something for me?" I asked easily.

"He did," Carson agreed, "but first there's something you need to do for me."

My heart sank at those words and I thought "what now?" I raised an eyebrow at Carson, waiting to hear what was in store for me.

"It's come to my attention that your medical records are incomplete," Carson told me earnestly. "Sit down with me now and fill in the blanks and then I’ll pass on the envelope the Colonel gave me."

"Okay," I said suspiciously, frowning because as far as I was aware my medical records were complete.

"When we did family history just after you got here, you left everything blank," Dr Beckett’s manner was sympathetic.

"You know why that is," I protested. "I don't know the answers to any of those questions."

"Aye," Carson nodded, "but you did have adoptive parents and it would be helpful to put their details in where possible."

"John put you up to this didn't he?" I asked weakly, slumping back in my chair.

"Medical history isn't just about what ailments you might inherit," Carson ignored my question. "It can tell me a lot about your early nutrition and development that can also help predict potential problems in the future."

"Um ... okay ... I guess," I looked at Dr Beckett expectantly. "What do you want to know?"

"Parents names?" Carson began.

"Gwen and Roger Scott." I said almost proudly. It had been too long since I'd actively acknowledged them and I felt guilty for not keeping them alive in my life as I should have.

"Occupations?"

"Gwen was a nurse, Roger was a lawyer."

"Handy professions for adopting a baby," Dr Beckett commented. "How long were you with them?"

"Not long enough," I replied simply. "Ten years."

"Any medical conditions for either of them?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Living relatives?"

"Again none to my knowledge."

"I assume Gwen would have arranged for all your vaccinations?" Carson looked up at me curiously.

"Pretty sure she did," I agreed. "I can't speak for when I was over ten though - I don't remember having anything done after that until I was out on my own."

"Cause of death," Carson asked almost apologetically.

"They ah ... both died from injuries sustained in a car accident," I looked down at my hands clenched in my lap, giving a slight start when Carson put his hand over both of mine.

"I'm sorry lass," he said softly. "That's a difficult age to lose a parent, let alone both."

"Any age would have been difficult," I said. "I know why John did this."

"What's that?" Carson still pleaded ignorance that there was any plot behind this.

"This - made me talk about my family like this," I persisted. "I was so sad about losing them that I denied I'd ever had them in the first place - that was just wrong."

"Losing someone is hard for anyone to accept, but especially a child," Carson excused. "You did what you had to do to get through it. As long as you take the time now to remember what they were to you I think Gwen and Roger would understand."

"Do you really think so?" I asked hopefully.

"Definitely," Carson patted my hands before turning back to his screen, giving me a moment to get my emotions back under control. "I think that's about it," he announced. "I believe this," he handed me the envelope, "is yours."

"Thanks Carson," I said gratefully, both for the next puzzle and for giving me a way to acknowledge Gwen and Roger by putting them in my medical history.

"You're welcome lass," Carson smiled at me fondly. "Enjoy the rest of your puzzle."

I smiled again, slipping the envelope in my pocket and heading over to John's office.

oOo

"That was kind of sweet," I said from the doorway, watching as John looked up from the file he was reading.

"You've seen Carson already?" he looked at the time. "That was quick."

"Yeah ... ," I walked in and sat down in the chair across from John's desk.

"How'd it go?" John asked casually.

"Carson helped me fill in the ... blanks in my medical record," I said softly. "I failed them ... Gwen and Roger ... I was so determined to bury that time in my life that I buried every scrap of anything good about them as well."

"You were a kid," John excused.

"Then," I agreed. "But for the last few years I could have thought about things differently."

"No point in beating yourself up about that now," John pointed out. "It's how you intend to behave from now on that's important."

"You're right," I agreed.

"I'm kind of surprised you're not angry," John admitted. "Especially on top of the whole Major Lorne thing."

"I was angry yesterday," I admitted. "In the past I would have come storming down here to yell at you ... this time ... I don't know ... I just thought about it and I wasn't angry enough to do that."

"What about today?" John looked at me curiously.

"Carson already knows a lot about my past, plus he's a Doctor so ..." I trailed off. "It's not the first time I talked to him about personal stuff. And like I said, it was a nice way to put my parents back into my life - even in a small way."

I got up and walked over to John's side of the desk. He turned his chair to face me, signalling his willingness to receive my attentions, a surprise in itself because we were usually pretty circumspect when either of us were on duty - unless John was trying to tease Rodney of course. I leaned down to him with a soft smile - John let me kiss him, not taking over only moments into it like he usually did.

"Ah um," someone clearing their throat from the doorway interrupted me. I straightened casually and looked over to see Major Lorne standing there with a big grin.

"Major?" John looked at Evan in confusion.

"That 10am meeting Sir," Evan reminded him, straight faced and all business now.

"Sorry," John stood up and put a hand on my arm. "I was ... ah ... distracted - didn't realise it was that late already."

"No problem Sir," Evan said, holding in a smile with some difficultly. "I completely understand."

"You okay?" John turned to me, ignoring Evan's amusement at our expense. When I nodded confidently he squeezed my arm before letting me go. Not wanting Evan to get the last word I pulled John down to me and gave him another kiss before turning and heading for the door. Evan stepped aside to let me through - I smiled breezily and sauntered away.

oOo

I'd almost forgotten the next envelope in the rush of emotions created by my visit with Carson. Reaching into my pocket I pulled it out, opening it as I walked down the corridor.

"An old man on the point of death summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice. He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son: "Break it." The son strained and strained, but with all his efforts was unable to break the Bundle. The other sons also tried, but none of them was successful. "Untie the bundle," said the father, "and each of you take a stick." When they had done so, he called out to them: "Now, break," and each stick was easily broken. "You see my meaning," said their father. What is the moral of this fable? Give your answer to the secret hiding place."

That didn't sound too difficult. A fable should be easy to work out ... which meant John probably had something else planned because none of these puzzles had been easy in solution and action. In any case, it was time for another trip to our quarters!

Phase 7 authors note:

I made up the code breaker puzzle from Phase 6 using the classic Caesar cipher with a shift of 4. Caesar apparently used to encrypt his messages by using a shift of 3 - if you want to know more check out Wikipedia dot org under 'Caesar cipher'. The actual quote is attributed to Henry Ford, as mentioned in the story.


Phase 8: Mission accomplished


Sitting on the bed once again I reread the fable, thinking about its meaning.

"An old man on the point of death summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice. He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son: "Break it." The son strained and strained, but with all his efforts was unable to break the Bundle. The other sons also tried, but none of them was successful. "Untie the bundle," said the father, "and each of you take a stick." When they had done so, he called out to them: "Now, break," and each stick was easily broken. "You see my meaning," said their father. What is the moral of this fable? Give your answer to the secret hiding place."

When all the sticks had been together, each son by himself had been unable to break them. But when the father had broken up the bundle and distributed a part of it to each of his sons, together they had been able to break all the sticks. So together the sons were stronger than they could be as individuals. All the other words I'd been given or collected from all the other puzzles were at the back of my mind and in the context of the fable there was only one word that would fit.

"Stronger" I said, standing in front of the wall safe.

It opened as usual - the ornate box was still in there, along with another envelope. This one was different than the others, made of high quality paper, gilded with gold trim, and closed with a genuine wax seal. Putting it aside for the moment I opened the box and found seven pieces inside - the last one another right angled triangle almost identical to the one I'd gotten last time. I was pretty sure at that point that the game was drawing to a close - the more impressive envelope was a big clue for that. I took up the envelope and carefully broke the seal.

The paper inside matched the envelope - I read aloud the words written in John's decisive scrawl.

"Meet me on the East balcony at 6pm. Bring the puzzle pieces, the phrase, and yourself dressed in 'the dress' (please?)
PS There’s a surprise to go with the dress ... look in the closet
."

I looked down at my watch and realised I still had hours to go before 6pm. Now that I knew I had all the pieces I was going to get I spread them out on the bed and tried to fit them all together. I'd seen puzzles before made of seven pieces in shapes just like this - called tangrams. I tried the standard square and rectangle configurations but quickly realised there had to be more to it than that. Tangram pieces could be arranged in a variety of shapes so just arranging the pieces wouldn't tell me anything.

Next I reviewed all the words I'd collected along the way ... 'we are'; 'than the'; 'of our'; 'parts'; 'sum'; 'together'; and 'stronger'. Combined in the right order they made a nice phrase but that didn't really enlighten me on what to expect later. Impatient though I was, I resolved to wait until 6pm when John would hopefully reveal all.

I spent the rest of the day back in my lab working on the portable storage unit. At about 5pm I decided I'd held out long enough and went back to our quarters to get ready. John was conspicuously absent so I could only deduce he was already off preparing whatever he had planned for the evening.

Somewhat reluctantly I got the dress I'd been given on The Tower planet from the cupboard and spread it out on the bed. I was okay with wearing the dress for John ... what bothered me was that I'd have to walk through the entire base to get from our quarters to the East balcony during the dinner hour. Since it was New Years Eve the place would be packed which meant practically everyone would get to see me decked out like that.

Shoes were going to be a problem too – I still didn’t have anything suitable to wear with a dress. Remembering what the note had said about a surprise I looked in the closet and discovered a box I hadn’t seen in there before. I bent down to have a closer look and noticed my name written on top. “Sabina ... thought you might need these ... John.”

Taking the box over to the bed I sat down and slowly removed the lid. Inside was a pair of shoes to die for – kick arse high heeled leather ankle boots in a colour to match the dress. And they were my size ... nice! I laughed when I imagined John ordering women’s shoes from the supplies officer on the Daedalus ... unless he’d roped someone like Teyla in to do it for him which wouldn’t have surprised me.

It took me a ridiculous 45 minutes to get myself together – complete with an up style, light make up and new shoes. Checking my appearance in the mirror one more time I grabbed the box of metal pieces and headed out the door.

Sabina?” I stopped near the doors to the commissary, turning reluctantly to see Major Lorne and the other members of my team obviously on their way in for dinner.

“Major,” I acknowledged in a tone that just dared him to make a comment.

“You look ... stunning,” Evan complimented me in a tone that was equal parts surprise and amusement.

“Hey, you don’t have to sound so amazed,” I complained. “I know how to dress up!”

“Yes you certainly do,” Evan looked at me admiringly.

“Okay, that’s enough,” I laughed at Evan’s antics. “I have to get going or I’m gonna be late.”

“Colonel Sheppard won’t mind waiting,” Evan called after me. “Have a nice night!”

Raising my dress a few inches I picked up the pace, hurrying past the commissary and down the steps towards the East balcony. The doors whooshed open and I stopped as though hitting an invisible barrier. I could hardly believe the scene in front of me. John had set up a table for two looking over the ocean, complete with white tablecloth, candles and a red rose in a crystal vase.

Tearing my eyes from the setting I looked at John himself. He’d actually put on his dress uniform just for me and I smiled at the warm and fuzzy feeling that evoked deep inside.

“John,” I began, walking slowly towards him. “This is ... wow ... I can’t think of a word to adequately describe this.”

“You look beautiful,” John took a few steps to meet me halfway, taking my hands and bringing one to his lips.

“You look pretty handsome yourself,” I replied, grinning in delight at the whole hand kissing thing. John drew me to the table and pulled out a chair for me to sit down. It was very romantic and I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

“You brought the puzzle pieces,” John commented, sitting down across from me.

“Yeah,” I admitted, putting the box on the table between us. “I tried to put the pieces together but ... nothing. It’s a tangram, right?”

“It is,” John agreed. “Another one of those Ancient finds – this one I came across a few months ago.”

“The tangrams I know of fit into the classic square and rectangle shapes but you can arrange them to make any number of different figures,” I said. “Is there something special about this one?”

“It took me over a month to figure out how it works,” John took the lid from the box and carefully removed each of the seven pieces, arranging them on the tablecloth. “The Ancients were a lot more romantic than I would have given them credit for.”

“How so?” I watched as John appeared to be absentmindedly moving the metal pieces to form patterns.

“This puzzle,” he gestured idly at the pieces, “was a kind of ... courtship ... ritual. The couple would decide on the shape they wanted and then they’d activate the pieces with some kind of key phrase or word. It would be impossible from that moment on for anyone to break the pieces apart.”

“That really is romantic,” I agreed. “So are we gonna do that – decide on a shape and then activate it?”

“Do you want to?” John asked the question with complete seriousness. I looked into his eyes, trying to determine if there was more to this than seemed obvious from his explanation.

“Yes,” I replied with conviction. “What shape should we choose?”

“It’s your birthday gift,” John reminded me. “You should pick the shape.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me think about it ... I assume you’ve got dinner hidden around here somewhere?”

“I do,” John laughed, getting up and heading for the door. “I’ll be right back ... don’t go anywhere!”

I sat quietly, looking out over the ocean and enjoying the night breeze coming in from the mainland.

“This really is a beautiful spot,” I commented when John returned carrying a tray with two plates covered over.

“Your dinner madam,” he intoned, setting a covered plate in front of me with a flourish. I waited until John had reseated himself before lifting the lid. Glancing up at John to see the twinkle in his eye I laughed in delight.

“Pizza?” I looked down at the plate with almost reverence. “Where did you get pizza?”

“I could tell you,” John said mysteriously, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

“Could I possibly be lucky enough that you got beer to go with this?” I asked hopefully.

“Of course,” John looked at me as though I’d been nuts to ever doubt him. He reached into his pockets and pulled a cold bottle from each. Popping the top on mine he handed it over, grinning as I almost snatched it out of his hand. “Had to trade Rodney for my entire chocolate stock to get these so you’d better enjoy it.”

“This is the best!” I leant forward and made short work of the pizza. We talked of inconsequential things as we ate, settling back in our chairs and relaxing as we finished our drinks.

“Have you decided?” John asked me after we’d fallen into silence for a time.

“This thing is gonna stay in whatever shape I pick forever?” I quizzed him.

“As far as I could work out yes,” John cleared the table so that the only thing left was the candles. We both looked down at the seven separate puzzle pieces.

“Then how come this one is in pieces?” I asked with a frown.

“It’s never been used,” John revealed. “Maybe someone was planning to and then with the war ... maybe they just never got the chance.”

“So this could be the last one of these in existence?” I looked up at John in shock, appreciating the magnitude of what he’d given me. “Should we even be using this for our own personal reasons?”

“It’s got no military or strategic value,” John excused. “This was made to be put together ... it seems a little sad to me that it’s been waiting here for 10,000 years to fulfil its purpose.”

“I guess,” I replied, running a finger over the pieces as my mind whirled with all the possibilities. “I feel a bit nervous now ... “ I thought for a bit more and then arranged the pieces on the table as John looked on avidly. “How about this?”

John looked down at the simple square I’d constructed and then back at me. “Why this one?”

“Because it represents the combination of like and not like pieces into a whole that’s compact, strong, invulnerable,” I explained. “Plus its simple, elegant ... that’s more me than some fancy or complex arrangement.”

“You are anything but simple,” John said firmly. “But I like it ... so a square it will be. Ready to activate the pieces?”

“This is just gonna join the pieces together?” I checked once more before proceeding. “We’re not going to get swept away or physically joined or anything wacky like that are we?”

“Of course not,” John said confidently. I placed a finger on one corner of the square and watched as John put a finger on the opposite corner. The pieces immediately began to glow with a faint blue light. “At least I don’t think so,” John looked across at me to make sure I knew he was only joking. “Do you know what to say?” I nodded.

Together we are stronger than the sum of our parts,” we both said together, looking at each other the whole time.

Intense blue light flashed from the pieces, blinding us for a moment. I felt a tingling sensation travel up my finger, through my hand and arm. It washed up into my mind, causing me to wince at the unfamiliar sensations. My eyes watered as I perceived my connection to John as visible light travelling from me into our square and then back to him.

After a moment the light faded away and we were left in the candle light that now seemed darker than before. My eyes were locked with Johns as I reached up with my other hand and wiped the tears from my face. We’d each kept our finger connected to the Ancient tangram and as one we looked back at the table to see what had happened to it. Instead of seven separate pieces there was now only one square, engraved with a single Ancient symbol.

“Una,” I said softly. “It means ‘One’.”

“That was pretty intense,” John admitted, picking up the square and turning it over in his fingers. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a thin silver cable. I watched as he threaded it through the loop that had appeared behind one corner of the square. He rose from his chair and stepped behind me, lowering the necklace and fastening it confidently. John then reached for my hand and drew me from the table to face him. “Looks good,” he complimented.

“Thank you,” I closed the small distance between us and hugged him tight.

“You’re welcome,” John said into my hair, leaning his head down and returning my hug fervently. Still feeling a portion of that tingly connection to each other led us very easily into passionate kissing.

“We need to –,“ I began, reluctantly breaking away.

“- move?” John finished. Leaving the table as it was we walked hand in hand back through the doors, up the steps and past the commissary. I know we must have gotten some looks from the people that were still around but I honestly didn’t register them. My whole focus was on John alone.

Back in our quarters we moved easily into each other’s arms, continuing our kisses where they’d left off. There was some stumbling as we each tried to free ourselves from clothes that were a little more complicated than we were used to. Once freed, we wasted no time in establishing a physical connection to match the emotional one we’d been feeling since we activated the tangram.

I wouldn’t say I’d necessarily become accustomed to the intensity of our usual intimacy but I had reached a level of acceptance over what to expect in the year we’d been together. This time was so far outside of that expectation as to feel like the first time all over again. John had always demonstrated a deep understanding of my needs but again this time he seemed to take that to a new level. I think my whole existence shifted out of reality for a time as it was almost too much for me to handle. I cried when the release came, overcome with an intensity of emotion that called for no less from me than everything I had to give.

“Was that the tangram?” I almost croaked once we’d both semi recovered from the storm we’d just put each other through.

“I have no idea,” John mumbled beside me.

Silence reigned for some time after that before I finally felt able to carry on an actual conversation.

“I understand why you involved Dr Beckett and Ronon ... even Major Lorne,” I said into the silence. “But why everyone else?”

“You were right,” John pulled me close, settling us so that my head was resting on his chest. “Birthdays aren’t about parties or presents ... they’re about sharing something of yourself with the people close to you, even if it’s just the chance to have a bit of fun. You’d already made me promise not to rope anyone into a proper birthday celebration but I still wanted our friends to have some part in the first birthday you were willing to celebrate here on Atlantis.”

“That’s an interesting way to look at it,” I murmured. “Are you saying it’s kind of selfish to keep a special occasion to myself?”

“No,” John denied. “But I think that if you’d trusted everyone and shared a bit of yourself with them that isn’t about Ancient text or Wraith weapons or any of that, they’d have respected your wishes enough to not make more of it than you were comfortable with.”

“I guess,” I said reluctantly.

“I didn’t want to force you to do anything you really didn’t want to do,” John told me. “I trusted that if anything I’d asked was too much that you’d have admitted it.”

“I don’t know,” I replied hnestly. “I hate giving up on anything ... the Ronon thing was good in the end because now I will feel more confident in letting him teach me about fighting. Carson already knew something about my past so telling him the rest didn’t seem that difficult and it did make me realise that I wasn’t honouring my parents by burying all my memories.”

“And Major Lorne?” John looked down at me expectantly.

“That was the tough one,” I said reluctantly. “I do trust people on a professional level but you made me see that on the personal level it’s a whole different story. You’re the only one here that I’ve trusted with even basic information about myself. Having to open up and tell even just one personal thing to Evan was really hard ... I’d still have to push myself to take that any further with him, or with anyone else – even though I can see that it’s cheating all my friendships not to do that.”

“Something to work on?” John questioned.

“Yeah,” I agreed. Silence descended on us again before John spoke.

“Did you enjoy it?” he asked hesitantly.

“I wasn’t going to admit this because I don’t want to inflate your ego any more than it already is but I did get a real kick out of the whole thing. I don’t even mind the satisfied smile I know is on your face right now,” I raised my head and looked down to see just the look I’d expected. “You put a heap of effort into this and that more than anything is what I appreciate.”

“I love you,” John reminded me. “I wanted to give you something unique ... memorable.”

“Oh you did that all right!” I exclaimed. “I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the last few days any time soon.”

“Mission accomplished then,” John smiled,

“I guess I could tell everyone we’re celebrating my birthday tomorrow ... satisfy the burning curiosity I know they’re all feeling.” I said after a few minutes of silence.

“That’d be nice,” John agreed simply.

We’d both drifted into a light sleep when the sounds of revelry reached us. I looked groggily at the clock and realised it had just clicked over into the new year.

“Hey – Happy New Year,” I said, leaning down and kissing John sleepily.

“Back at you,” John mumbled. “And Happy Birthday too ... how old does that make you?”

“A lady never reveals her age,” I said primly. “Younger than you is all you need to know.”

“I’ll just get Rodney to hack into your file again so you might as well tell me,” John threatened.

“I could always post all your puzzles up on the commissary notice board,” I threatened back. “You’ll never get away with the lazy Sheppard act again.”

“That’s low,” John complained. “See if I make you a puzzle again in the future!”

“I really do appreciate everything you did for this birthday,” I said, snuggling against John’s chest again. “But next year, just get me some flowers okay?”

“We’ll see,” John said with amusement in his voice.

THE END!

Phase 8 authors note:

The fable I used for the last puzzle is one of Aesops, entitled The Bundle. This version of it I got from thinkexist dot com. The actual moral was ‘Unity brings Strength’.

If you don't know about 'the dress' from the Tower that comes from Chapter 22 of my story Fortunate Journey Season 2.

The origins of tangrams are unknown but most agree they were first observed in ancient China, possibly as a set of six, and then later seven tables. I used the actual traditional 7 piece set for my story - if you want to see a picture of what the square configuration looks like check out wikipedia dot org under Tangram.

The titles of my chapters come from the seven stages of a three stage rocket launch which I also got from wikipedia. I usually use lines from the chapters for my chapter titles but for this one I didn't want to risk giving anything away and I just took a fancy to the rocket thing ... for no particular reason really.

And finally I have to credit my husband with the whole 'puzzle as a present' thing - he did this for me years ago which ended in a frustratingly hilarious manner as I dug up half the backyard looking for something the size of a film canister.

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