People reacted to being told they were going to Atlantis in a variety of ways, ranging from squealing excitement to screaming terror. Given that it was a voluntary mission with more than half the expedition members being scientists who'd give their left arms to go, reactions were usually closer to the former than the latter.
Cameron Mitchell, upon being told that he was being sent to Atlantis to take over leadership of the expedition, managed to come out with an actual new response: a highly unprofessional, "But I don't want to. Sir."
Landry looked at him, his expression very clearly pointing out that Cam was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force, serving on the country's – even the planet's – most top-secret project ever, and that, as such, his personal preferences regarding any given mission were not of the highest concern to those in charge. When Cam had had long enough to absorb that look, and all of its nuances, Landry added, "You were the IOA's choice, but, if it had been down to me, I would have chosen you as well."
Cam suspected that was supposed to be reassuring, maybe even taken as praise, though, given the reasons that the IOA came up with later, he found it hard to be sure.
Two weeks later, standing in front of the gate and watching it dial the Pegasus galaxy, he decided it was just another part of some sick joke at his expense.
"Is this because of what has happened with the Replicators?" Teyla asked, when the team met for dinner that evening. Fortunately, her question derailed Rodney from a repeat of the anti-Mitchell rant John had listened to when Rodney found out.
"The Replicators?" Of course, Rodney didn't usually stay shut up for long. "What have they got to do with anything?"
"Because they chose to attack the city directly," Teyla explained. "And Colonel Mitchell belongs to Earth's military, unlike Dr Weir, it seemed that the two were connected."
"I guess, maybe," John said slowly. He hadn't actually given all that much thought to why they'd chosen Mitchell, just glad that they'd chosen someone, and someone he could work with. They were friendly, at least, from a dozen different bases and training courses, and Mitchell was a pilot, like John, would understand the things that happened during war, better than Elizabeth sometimes had. "That they wanted someone with combat experience in charge, you mean?"
"Great. Great. As if it's not bad enough that command of the city falls to the military leader while Elizabeth's missing, now we're going to have a military commander all the time. Perfect."
"Gee, thanks, Rodney," John said, weirdly hurt. It wasn't like he'd wanted the job – would have happily given it up to anyone else who'd offered, except no-one had, because no-one was that crazy, even on Atlantis – but he didn't think he'd done that bad a job, all things considered. "Sorry I didn't live up to whatever exacting standards you were imagining."
Rodney frowned at him. "Get a grip, Colonel. Or at least a better grasp on your own memory, since you've apparently forgotten I said this morning that you'd do a decent job if you were in charge."
"I am in charge," John said. "And you actually said that I'd do a better job than Mitchell."
"Semantics," Rodney said, waving it away. "I'm just not that keen on final decision making authority resting with a man who thinks it's funny to threaten someone who has a deadly citrus allergy with a lemon."
John had been waiting for that to come up, though he'd have preferred not to have it happen in front of Ronon, who was grinning like they were the interval comedy act, and Teyla, who was looking between the two of them with her usual air of 'you are both very strange, and I am not at all sure why I like you some days'.
"I tell you what, Rodney; you point to one day when you actually suffered even the slightest hint of a symptom from sitting opposite me while I ate an orange, and I'll force Mitchell to apologize publicly for coming near you with a lemon. Until then, could we maybe drop it and give the guy a chance?"
Rodney glared at him. "Like I don't know you were behind that lemon thing in the first place," he grumbled, but that was tantamount to him agreeing to what John wanted, so John let it go.
"If we're getting a soldier to take over, why don't they give it to you?" Ronon asked.
John curbed, with difficulty, the urge to bang his head against the table until the conversation changed to something else or he passed out. "Because I already have a job?" he suggested. "And I really don't want that one."
"But it's weird," Rodney said. "Ronon's got a point."
John thought it was weirder that Rodney was agreeing with Ronon about anything; maybe it was an after-effect of nearly losing him to his old Satedan friends. "Landry doesn't usually see fit to explain his decisions to me," he said. "I'm sure they had a good reason."
"Perhaps they felt that you would do better continuing in your current role," Teyla suggested.
"Thank you," John said gratefully, as much for the end to the conversation as for the compliment. "It's nice to know someone appreciates me."
Cam's memory of Atlantis was kind of fuzzy – far fuzzier than it had any right to be when he'd been in the city less than a year ago. It wasn't a bad thing, as it turned out; Atlantis made even more of an impression the second time around, when he got to stop and look at the city, rather than passing through the gate room and the conference room in a blur, focused on getting out and attacking the super-gate. It almost drowned out the phantom presence of the rest of SG-1, back on Earth watching the gate shut down behind him.
The whole place was like some super-futuristic city, ironically, given that it was older than any city on Earth, and the buzz of Ancient tech in the back of his head was kind of nice now he had time to pay attention to it, if a little weird. More than a little weird.
By the end of his third day, Cam was ready to call up Earth and beg Landry to let him back through the gate, to let him back onto SG-1, who were currently back under Sam's command. Not that he didn't think she was perfectly capable of leading them, but he'd worked hard to be accepted by them, to feel part of that team. Now here he was, stuck in another galaxy with a bunch of people who resented him just for being there, a walking, talking symbol of what – who – they'd lost, and of the SGC's continued insistence that they let it go. All things considered, it wasn't the best feeling in the world, and the fact that Dr McKay would only talk to him if Sheppard was in the same room didn't help.
"Thought I might find you out here."
Which, speak of the devil, there he was, stepping out onto Cam's balcony off the gate room and joining him to lean on the railing over-looking the lower parts of the city and what seemed like an endless sea.
"Guess all that training did take after all," Cam said, which got a huff of laughter from Sheppard. It was one of the things that made Cam think Atlantis might grow on him; Sheppard's presence, their shared history from nearly twenty years of bumping into each other in different deployments and training sessions all over the world. It wasn't quite like having Sam around, but the two of them had been friends for what felt like forever, since their first years in the Air Force. Cam was pretty sure he didn't have a closer friend than her these days.
"Having a life signs' tracker in the control room probably helped," Sheppard admitted. "Did you know this planet has five moons?"
"Not until I got here, but six different people have told me since," Cam said. It was late enough that he could see two of them amongst the clouds, a permanent reminder that he wasn't in Kansas any more. "And something about giant snakes on the mainland? I'm hoping that's a joke."
Sheppard shook his head. "Fraid not."
"Long as it's not spiders," Cam said, then remembered that Sheppard probably had other things to do than read the details of how the Ori had been stopped.
"We actually don't get many bugs in the city," Sheppard said. "The best theory is that Atlantis takes care of them somehow."
He didn't even flinch as he said it, which kind of impressed Cam. He was pretty sure he'd spontaneously developed arachnophobia, or at least a serious spider aversion, after their fun and games on the Odyssey, no matter how much Sam pointed out that they weren't really spiders. The thought of being turned into some kind of half-bug half-Wraith hybrid sent sympathetic shudders down his spine every time he thought about it, though it apparently did nothing to Sheppard.
"So, listen." Sheppard turned slightly, looking up at the moons so Cam couldn't read his face. Cam braced himself for whatever was coming anyway. "Not that we're not happy to have you here –" Sheppard glanced quickly at Cam from the corner of his eye, then away, too fast for Cam to pick anything up – "But Elizabeth – Dr Weir – the IOA haven't exactly been…" He trailed away into an awkward pause, one that Cam had to force himself not to fill with things he was sure Sheppard didn't mean.
"You want to go back to the planet," he said, when it became clear that Sheppard wasn't going to.
"We can't just assume that she's been killed or co-opted by the Replicators," Sheppard said, turning back to face Cam full on. "We owe her our lives, all of us who were in the city when we left Lantea, we can't just give up on her."
Apparently, Atlantis hadn't done anything to mute Sheppard's intensity when his people were in trouble. Not that Cam was surprised to learn that.
"The IOA won't give their approval, and we couldn't exactly – we don't need them to turn on us, not now." Sheppard sighed, dropping his eyes. "Look," he said, talking to the floor. "A lot of our marines come from the SGC. They talk. About SG-1. And, you know, you." He chose that moment to look up again, and the defiance that had painted his features before was gone. Cam didn't have a name for the emotion that replaced it, and wasn't at all sure he wanted to find one. He didn't want to think about the times he'd been stranded, trapped, dying, either, reliant on his people to get him back, even when it hadn't seemed likely that he was still around to be gotten back.
Sheppard sighed again, leaning heavily on the railing. "I can't just leave her out there. If there's a chance that she's still alive, we have to take it and go look for her."
Cam wanted, just for a second, to pat Sheppard on the arm or something, and tell him that he knew how he was feeling, the need to fix something, even if trying would probably make things worse. Sheppard didn't need comforting, though, and even if he did, it wasn't Cam's place to do it. He certainly didn't need Cam telling him he knew how it felt – this wasn't even the first time in Atlantis that Sheppard had lost someone without getting evidence in return that they were gone for good, and they both knew how much that could matter.
"Even with the Replicators busy attacking the Wraith, we've got no idea how many of them are left on the planet," he said eventually. "It's a lot of ifs, and not a lot of actual plan."
He could read Sheppard's face easily this time, stricken and betrayed, and it made Cam feel queasy with guilt, even though he wasn't doing what Sheppard thought he was.
"I'm not saying we can't go after her," he said. "I'm saying that 'let's head over there and see what happens' is not a plan I want to commit a lot of our people to, especially when we've got no idea if Dr Weir is even still on that planet."
"So you're saying…" Sheppard prompted, and Cam tried not to sigh.
"I'm saying, imagine I'm Dr Weir and you're trying to convince her to do this."
Cam decided, nearly a week into his tenure on Atlantis, that it wasn't the city that was weird, it was him.
He didn't fit there. Not like everyone else.
He'd read the Atlantis reports, even before he'd known he was moving there; the AARs had been entertainingly random, when they weren't tales of narrowly averted disaster and tragedy, accompanied by lists of missing, wounded and dead. He'd even read the summary reports that got done occasionally, the statistics about numbers of people staying, numbers of marines asking to do another tour out there, or to be assigned permanently. For a mission to another galaxy with near death experiences every other week, Atlantis had a surprisingly low staff turnover rate.
He'd had a taste of it when the expedition had been back on Earth for six weeks the year before. Not that he'd spent much time with any of them, busy with the grail quest, but he'd dragged Sheppard out a few times, trying to take the man's mind off things. It hadn't worked – Sheppard had been friendly as always, but there'd been something off. He'd obviously been doing it because he had to, not because he wanted to, which had just made Cam want to try harder. He'd wanted to make it better, and not known how. Hell, he'd barely understood why he was doing it; maybe it had been something to do with Sheppard's distracted, unhappy expression, the way it made something inside Cam twist up.
Sheppard on Atlantis, even a Sheppard who was engrossed in trying to get Dr Weir back, was nothing like Sheppard on Earth. He fit in Atlantis, part of a team, surrounded by marines who respected him and scientists who trusted him. Cam remembered what that felt like. Landry had trusted him, he knew – it was a big part, he was sure, of why Landry had been happy for Cam to take over on Atlantis. He hadn't had the same kind of relationship with the scientists there that Sheppard did with his, but he'd fit into the SGC.
Atlantis, he knew, would get better, with time. People were wary; people resented him for not being Dr Weir, but even then, there were people who made an effort to make him feel welcome. Sheppard was amongst them, repaying Cam's attempts at hospitality on Earth, maybe, or just trying to set a good example. Whatever it was, Cam was grateful for it, in ways he wasn't keen on looking at too closely.
"Colonel Mitchell?" the gate-tech called in. "Lieutenant Kagan's team are an hour over-due for check-in."
"Right." Cam stood up, heading out to the control room. "Try dialing the gate, see if we can raise them on the radio."
And that was the other thing – he was used to being the guy missing check-ins and needing to be rescued, or occasionally the guy doing the rescuing. Giving the order and staying behind was going to take some getting used to, especially with the emails from Sam, keeping him up to date on what SG-1 had been doing. It helped, sort of; made them seem closer, but at the same time, he sort of wished she'd stop. Since there were four of them left, they didn't have anyone taking his place, so he didn't have to worry about being compared to someone new and found wanting. Being compared to someone old and found wanting was enough of that.
"Excuse me, Colonel Mitchell."
Cam looked up to find Dr Keller standing in his half-open doorway, smiling nervously. He'd been hoping for a few more days' reprieve before she actually came to him, rather than just sending pointed emails, but apparently he'd underestimated her. "What's up?"
She waited for him to walk past her back into his office, then took a few steps into the room, far enough to give the illusion of privacy without actually getting too close. "I asked Dr McKay and Dr Zelenka, and they've both assured me that there's nothing wrong with our intranet, so I can only assume that you're purposely ignoring my emails." She smiled again, going from professional and competent to young and nervous in a second, then right back just as fast. "And as your doctor, I'm afraid I have to do something about it. I'm sure you're aware that Dr Lam sent your medical records when you joined us, along with some of her professional notes."
"I'm sure she did," Cam said. Outside, the gate wooshed into life, and he could just hear the gate-tech on his radio, hailing Kagan.
"Which included a note that you weren't likely to come to me yourself, but that you needed to have regular check-ups, with your recent injuries on the Odyssey."
"I'm fine," Cam said firmly. Most people would need a few days to come back from being tossed around the ship by a replicator, whatever Lam said about it exacerbating his old injuries from the crash.
"I'm sure you are, but I'd like to get you a medical diagnosis of being fine as well." Keller shifted her tablet so she could see the screen. "I'm free this afternoon at two."
"Assuming I'm not staging a rescue for Lieutenant Kagan and his team, I'll be there," Cam promised.
"Great," Keller said brightly, making a note. "I'll send a nurse up to accompany you, just in case you get lost," she added, and was out of the door before Cam could say anything in response.
That conversation, at least, had felt a lot like home. He got up, heading for the gate-room. "What's going on, Sergeant?"
John poked at how to convince Mitchell to send them back after Elizabeth, every night for three days, halfway between awake and asleep, chasing dreams of Ronon offering himself up to the Wraith-worshippers to ensure the team's survival, of Rodney drowning in a jumper, of Teyla possessed by the Wraith, of Mitchell in a downed 302, waiting to die. He kept poking at it all through his run with – behind – Ronon, until Ronon got fed up with how slowly John was going and sped off without him. It was Teyla who came up with a possible solution to the problem, when John finally cracked and mentioned it to the team over dinner.
"They are called the Vedeenans," she explained slowly, looking at her bowl of pasta with more concentration than she usually gave it. "Many people believe that these are just stories, but my father often said that he was not so certain."
"Really?" Ronon asked, looking skeptical. "We knew about them on Sateda, but everyone said they were myths, that they didn't exist."
"They certainly do exist," Teyla said. "Several of my people have met with them before, though never with their leader."
"I'm sorry," Rodney interrupted, so John didn't have to. "What are we talking about?"
"The leader of the Vedeenans, a man named Davos, is said to be a great seer," Teyla said, looking back to her pasta like she knew what was coming. John figured you didn't have to be a seer for that. "It is not something that is widely believed – as Ronon says, many do not believe in the existence of the Vedeenans at all; they are a private people."
"A seer?" Rodney asked, actually putting his coffee cup down. "Like a psychic, seeing the future, that kind of thing?"
"You do not believe such a thing is possible," Teyla said.
"Well, frankly, no. Unless you believe in a deterministic universe, one that's being controlled by some higher power, and let's face it, the Ancients are hardly likely to be bothering with dictating the course of our puny little lives when they can't even be bothered to come down off their ascended plane and –"
"Rodney," John interrupted, before he could offend Teyla again; as much as she agreed with them that the Ancients could be more helpful than they actually were, she'd grown up believing in them as gods, and tended to get a little upset when Rodney went into one of his occasional rants about how useless they were. Rodney huffed, but shut up. "Teyla, you're saying, what, this Davos might be able to tell us if Elizabeth is still… if she's still on the Replicator homeworld?"
Teyla held her hands out, a gesture of helplessness. "I cannot say for certain. Though I have always believed the tales of his abilities, it may be that Rodney and Ronon are correct, and he cannot do as he says. Even then, he may not be able to offer anything of use to us."
"It's worth a try," John said uneasily. Really, in a galaxy that had bad guys who sucked out your life force through their hands, a machine that tried to ascend you against your will, and occasional incidences of people turning into bugs, a guy who could see glimpses of the future didn't sound all that implausible.
Rodney's expression when he turned to John was more disappointed than John could ever remember seeing. "I can't believe you're buying into this," he declared. "I mean, no offence, Teyla, but it's obviously impossible. Colonel Sheppard's been through a scientific education, even if it wasn't anywhere near the standard of most of the people here, he ought to know better than to believe in things like seeing the future."
"Hey!" John said, not sure if he was more offended on his own behalf or Teyla's. The sting of hurt was definitely on his own behalf though; he'd gotten used to Rodney's occasional comments on his intelligence, and the implication that Rodney thought he was stupid stung more than John wanted it to.
"Colonel, please. Next you'll be telling us you joined the Air Force because a fortune teller suggested it."
"Actually, it was a palm-reader," John said, smirking as casually as he could manage at Rodney's disgusted expression. "Teyla, you want to come with me to pitch this to Mitchell?"
To John's surprise, Mitchell nodded along to the explanation, then shrugged and said sure when John proposed taking his team to see if Davos could give them anything. He must have picked up on John's surprise, because he smiled, a little embarrassed. "We spent three weeks running round the galaxy looking for a brainwashing ark on the strength of Jackson's visions," he explained.
"Didn't that turn out to be Morgan le Fay?" John asked, thinking, 'hah!' when Mitchell looked at him. Mitchell wasn't the only one who read other people's mission reports, particularly when they were talking about something John was pretty sure they could use in Pegasus, if it could be reprogrammed. Switch it from the belief that the Ori weren't gods to the belief that they should go vegetarian, wave it at a few Wraith and hey-presto, no more Wraith problem. Of course, Area 51 had it now, so that plan was out the window.
"Yes, but the point was more that we followed her advice even when we thought they were visions," Mitchell said. Teyla, John noticed, was looking between the two of them like they'd just started talking in another language. "It sounds low risk and not that time consuming. If it doesn't work, we won't have lost much."
He left it at that, but John was pretty sure he knew what should have come after that: if we're going to do this, we need anything we can get.
Rodney was still griping about the proposed mission when he turned up that evening to play computer golf with John. "Seriously – I'm not sure who I'm more worried about: Teyla for believing this, you for suggesting we go and see him, or Colonel Mitchell for agreeing to the whole ridiculous plan."
"Maybe he's just being open-minded," John suggested, booting up the game. He wasn't entirely sure why this had stuck when a number of Civilization-style computer games hadn't – maybe because they weren't comparing it to the Ancient version, which had been far cooler – but he was glad it had. Lately, computer games with Rodney were one of a small number of things that he still actively enjoyed. "Isn't that part of being a good scientist, not dismissing things until you have evidence to do that?"
That actually stopped Rodney where he was. "I'm sorry, you're taking my lack of belief in this man's ability to see the future as evidence that I'm not a good scientist?"
"I didn't say that," John said mildly.
"It was implied," Rodney said darkly, finally pulling up the stool next to John's.
"If that makes you feel better," John agreed.
"No, it doesn't make me feel better." Rodney turned suddenly, glaring at John. "What's with you lately? Ever since we left the old planet – you're not infected with some weird space pathogen are you?"
"If I was, you'd be the first to know," John promised. "Are we going to play or not?"
"Not," Rodney said, immediately and predictably. "You're just – I don't know. Not yourself."
"No-one's themselves right now," John said, looking down at the controls in front of him and wondering if he should just shut the game down. Whatever light-hearted atmosphere they might have managed was pretty much shot with this conversation. "Everyone's adjusting."
"Yes, but everyone else isn't suggesting we go consult a mystic seer about the whereabouts of our missing leader."
"Hey, if you've got a better idea," John said, more sharply than he'd intended. He still didn't want to look at Rodney, so he couldn't see, but he was sure Rodney's face would be slightly flushed, his chin up, his expression hard like it got when he thought he'd hurt one of the team, when he thought they were doing something on purpose to hurt him.
"I didn't say that," Rodney said after a while, echoing John, though he didn't seem to notice. "But you wouldn't be doing that if Elizabeth was here."
"Of course not," John said. It wasn't like Rodney to be that dense. "If she was here, we wouldn't need to look for her."
He could feel Rodney's eye roll. "I mean you wouldn't be making that suggestion if it was someone else and you were trying to persuade her. Why are you doing it with Mitchell?"
John leaned his head on one hand, turning slightly away from Rodney. "Maybe I just thought he'd be more open to it."
"Did you? He doesn't seem that way to me, but I suppose you know him better." It carried the same faint undertone of disdain that everything Rodney said about Mitchell had; remnants of John's joke with the lemon, maybe, or maybe just that Rodney wouldn't have liked anyone the IOA sent to replace Elizabeth. John was grateful, again, that he'd given in to the strange urge on Earth to keep his occasional evenings with Mitchell secret from Rodney. The two of them didn't have a lot of secrets about the present, but John had hugged his friendship with Mitchell close, a secret burst of warmth every time Mitchell did something that made it clear he liked John. They'd come home before John had managed to figure out whether that meant something, for either of them.
"I don't know, Rodney. It's either talk him round or stage a mutiny, and I'm trying to keep the mutinies down to one a year if I can."
Rodney went silent at that, and John wanted to look up, but didn't. He wasn't ready for the possibility of Rodney looking at him with sympathy, not when everyone had lost Elizabeth, when it wasn't just John. Maybe it was just that John felt the most guilty for it, even though the run on the Replicator world had been Rodney's idea in the first place. It was John's job to protect his people, and he'd failed Elizabeth right when it had really mattered.
"I don't think I'm really in the mood for golf any more," Rodney said eventually. "Another night?"
"Sure," John said, and didn't point out that Rodney was spending more of his time with Katie lately, which didn't leave so many evenings for them to play. He knew it would come out sounding exactly as bitter and jealous as it did in his head.
"Good night, then."
"Night, Rodney. Don't be late tomorrow."
It meant something, John was sure, that Rodney didn't take the opening to rant some more; he just didn't know what it meant, and he didn't come to any conclusion, sitting in the dimly lit lab long after Rodney had gone.
Being met by a group of people who knew they were coming and were prepared to be nice about it was a lot weirder than John had expected. At least it made a change from having to explain who they were and what they were doing there, though the suspicious part of John couldn't stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Not that he had to wait long, when Rodney stumbled back from Davos, blinking away what the old man had shown him.
"What did you see?" Ronon asked, his hand edging towards his blaster.
"Atlantis," Rodney said, almost absently. John really hoped it was mostly shock at having been so spectacularly proven wrong. "The city was under attack, by the Replicators." He looked up, straight at John. "And Elizabeth was with us."
"I already told Sheppard and Ronon and Teyla this," McKay complained.
Sheppard, sitting opposite him at the conference room table, frowned like he was trying to convey be nice with his mind. From what Cam had seen of the team, Teyla would have done it better, but she was down in the infirmary with Davos and his daughter, helping get them settled. Cam wasn't sure what it said about him that he hadn't been surprised when Sheppard had asked to bring the fatally ill Davos back to the city. Maybe that he was getting acclimated to the place, where every second planet seemed to be populated with the ill, the homicidal or the crazy. At least with SG-1, they'd mostly just been crazy.
"I know that, but since I can't read their minds, I want you to tell me now," Cam said, focusing back on the meeting. He did his best to sound patient and rational, but the flicker of Sheppard's glance to him said he hadn't quite hidden his irritation. He was willing to accept that McKay was brilliant, and possibly even that he'd been a bit harsh on the man last time they'd met, but he'd been in Atlantis for nearly two weeks, and McKay was showing no signs of letting them have a working relationship.
"We were in the city, the four of us, and Elizabeth. It was being attacked, with drones, by the Replicators, and we were trying to get to the jumper bay so we could get away." McKay shrugged. "It was only a few seconds, I didn't have chance to get a lot of details. And Davos was no help at all, with his –"
"Rodney," Sheppard said quietly, cutting him off. Cam was seriously considering asking Sheppard to teach him that tone of voice. He'd just managed to find one that worked on Jackson, and wasn't it just his luck that it didn't translate to another galaxy?
"All right. How do you know it was the Replicators?" he asked. Sheppard twitched again, a familiar expression flickering across his face, one that said he was wishing Cam hadn't asked that.
"I don't know," McKay said, clearly frustrated by his inability to explain. "I just knew. Like I was the one in the – the vision, I knew what he knew."
"That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for a rescue mission," Cam said, turning to look at Sheppard; wanting, again, to say something comforting, even knowing that was probably the last thing Sheppard wanted. It didn't help that he really didn't want to be the voice of reason on this; he wanted to be the one saying, 'yes, let's go, bring her home,' and knowing he couldn't make it worse. "Assuming that the vision means she's still alive and we're successful, it brings the Replicators here, and we're right back where you were before you left your old planet."
"So we should just leave her in the hands of the Replicators?" Sheppard demanded. "She saved all of our asses back there, and now we're just going to –"
"Let her carry on doing that?" Cam suggested quietly. "Do you really think she'd want to be responsible for bringing the Replicators here?"
Sheppard looked away, down at the table, obviously caught in thought. Next to him, Ronon glared at the tabletop like it had personally offended him. Cam still hadn't gotten a good read on Ronon, not having shared more than a handful of words with the guy outside of meetings. He seemed simultaneously more and less alien than the other Pegasus natives in the city, maybe because Cam had recognized the military training, even before seeing Ronon's file. He couldn't shake the sense that the first sign that he wasn't cutting it as Atlantis' commander would be in Ronon deciding to leave the city, the same way he'd been most worried about Teal'c leaving SG-1. He'd already nearly done it, and, whatever Sheppard said about him being committed to the place now, Cam wasn't convinced.
Sheppard looked up, taking a breath to speak, but whatever he would have said was cut off by the conference room door swinging suddenly open and Teyla hurrying in, looking more rattled than Cam would have expected she could look as she came to a stop against the table and said, "We must go to the Athosian settlement, immediately."
"Teyla?" Sheppard asked before Cam could. "What's going on?"
She was practically vibrating with suppressed energy, and it was infecting everyone in the room; Cam felt himself lean forward and Ronon was already on his feet, ready to follow Teyla.
"I believe my people are in great danger," Teyla said. "Davos showed me a vision of New Athos, of many armed men coming through the gate in the night." Her right hand ghosted across her stomach for a moment. "It was unclear exactly what will happen, but it seemed that those coming through the gate intend to attack them, to take… Please, we must go now, before it is too late."
Sheppard turned back to Cam, who was already nodding. "Take your team and Major Lorne's. Radio check every half hour. Leave someone by the gate in case you need to call for back-up." John's face twitched into a frown for a moment – Cam had forgotten that he didn't need to tell these people how to do their jobs, any more than he'd needed to tell SG-1. He turned to Teyla. "You want to bring them to the city?"
"Yes." Teyla nodded fervently. "I know it is not an ideal solution, for either of us, but they will be safe here."
"Sure," Cam said easily. "I'll square it with Landry while you're away. You need a jumper to help carry stuff?"
Teyla shook her head. "We do not have much that cannot be left behind."
"Okay then." Cam looked round them all, not sure what he was looking for. What he saw were four battle-ready people, eager to dash off and save the world, or at least a world. It hurt more than it should that he couldn't go along. "What are you all waiting for? Get out of here."
In the chaos of packing up the settlement under hyper-alert for anyone coming to attack them, then moving the Athosians back into the city, a move entirely too reminiscent of their first days in the city for his liking, John managed to forget about Davos until the evening.
It was probably too late to go down to the infirmary, but Keller, like Carson, wasn't shy about kicking him out, so he wandered down anyway. At least the walk would kill a few minutes while he waited for Mitchell and Teyla to finish meeting with the Athosians, so she and John could pitch their plan for setting up surveillance around the empty Athosian settlement, see if they could find out who wanted the Athosians so badly, and why.
The infirmary was mostly unoccupied, only Davos still there, a puddle of light around his bed. His eyes were closed, but he opened them when John walked in, and beckoned him over.
"How're you feeling?" John asked, trying not to sound like someone who had no idea what he was talking about. He wondered if there was a way of asking if someone had any visions about your missing boss, or if etiquette dictated that he wait for Davos to offer.
"No worse than I have for the last few weeks," Davos said, which wasn't exactly reassuring. "But I do not think you have come to enquire about an old man's health." He smiled as he said it, so John returned the smile.
"Not exactly. Linara said you knew that we were coming, and why."
"I did. You have a question."
"I was…hoping… that you might be able to tell us – that you might know something about Dr Weir, the woman who was with us in the vision you showed McKay."
"Yes." John expected Davos to take his hand, like he had with Rodney. Instead, he kept his hands folded on the blankets. "She remains alive, though I am not certain where she is. It seems a cell of some kind, but I cannot be sure. If you wish to save her life, I would advise haste. Her captors do not value her life as one would hope."
It shouldn't have come as a surprise, and it didn't, not really; John already knew from Rodney's vision that Elizabeth was alive, and five minutes with the Replicators was enough to tell him that they weren't likely to keep Elizabeth around for long unless they had a use for her. Thinking it and getting it confirmed were two very different things, though.
"This was not the news you were hoping for," Davos said gently, not really a question. John shook his head, trying to come up with something to say. "I am sorry, then, for that. I have always believed it is best to know, in order to be prepared for the fate that comes to you."
"Right," John said. He'd always thought it was better not to know, to dive into the darkness without knowing if it was all going to work out, or if this would be the time you pushed for something you couldn't achieve. "Thanks."
Davos waved it away. "I have done nothing. I wish you luck on your mission, Colonel Sheppard."
"You too. With the –" John waved vaguely at the machines. "The getting well."
Davos' smile was gentle and sad. "Even without my abilities, I would know enough to tell you that your wishes, though welcome, are misplaced. Though I cannot see how it will be, I know that my end comes for me."
There really wasn't anything to say to that; John nodded, and went to find Teyla and Mitchell.
Mitchell approved the plan to leave a small team on the Athosians' planet for a while, along with some long-term security equipment to track what was happening, and Teyla left to help with settling the Athosians. John wasn't sure why he didn't leave as well, but Mitchell didn't dismiss him and he didn't get up. Now he was sitting down, he was far too aware of just how long a day it had been. A few minutes sitting quietly were just what he needed before he faced the rest of the city, and Mitchell had always been good at comfortable silences. Not like Elizabeth, who'd always tried to say something comforting, he thought before he could stop himself, and felt instantly guilty, even though it was true.
"I forgot to ask, with everything else," Mitchell said after a while. "Did Davos have anything else to say about Dr Weir?"
John tilted his chair back a little, looking at Mitchell. It should have been weirder, sitting with him in Atlantis and talking about what to do for the city, for its people. Even when they'd been stationed together, they hadn't ever worked all that closely, had only been casual friends at best, and not even that for a long time before the Ancients had turned up and thrown John and his people out of the city. There was something oddly comforting about the way Mitchell waited for John to take the lead, his slow smile when they were in agreement, weirdly familiar, making John want to smile back, share the joke. It made a nice counterpoint to the way he knew the Air Force and the SGC thought of the two of them: Mitchell the favored son, after Antarctica, and John the guy they were stuck with because he kept failing to turn out to be awful at commanding Atlantis.
Mitchell was still waiting patiently for John to speak when he finally shook himself out of it. "Not much. She's in a cell, she won't make it much longer if we don't go after her."
"And if what he showed McKay was right, neither will we, if we get her back," Mitchell said, sounding as weary as John felt.
"It's a possible future, though," John said. At least, he thought he remembered that being said. "Or there'd have been no point going for the Athosians today."
"You think we can avoid the Replicator attack on the city," Mitchell said. He rubbed at his forehead. "I don't know, John."
John took a second to notice how weird it was to hear Mitchell drawl his first name, when he was 'Sheppard' to virtually everyone he knew, even after three years. "We can do this," he said, leaning forward, figuring he sounded as desperate as he felt and might as well use it. "We've been there before, we know what the place is like. Volunteers only. We can get the engineers working on some better anti-Replicator stuff, maybe protect the whole city." He took a deep breath and let everything show, the way he hadn't for anyone since they'd lost Elizabeth, not even his team.
Mitchell shook his head, but his eyes were crinkled in something that could have turned into a smile. "I don't think this was what Landry had in mind when he gave me this post," he said dryly. "All right. Fine. But you're still not going in without some kind of plan, or without some proper training for the guys you're taking."
John got that. "Minimal losses," he said, and Mitchell nodded. "Thank you," John added, thinking distantly that he would have expected victory to feel better than this did.
In the morning, John made the request for people to join a rescue mission to bring Dr Weir back from the Replicators. By the middle of the afternoon, every marine in the city not occupied with security there or on New Athos had volunteered, as had a number of the scientists, mostly those who were on off-world teams.
It wasn't a surprise, but it felt good to know that he hadn't underestimated his people. Teyla was busy with the Athosians and the security team posted on their planet; since she'd played a big part in convincing them to stay there when everyone came back from Earth, she seemed to feel personally responsible for the near tragedy. Rodney had sequestered himself and his favorite science team members in one of the labs to come up with anything they could to help things go more smoothly. John wasn't super-hopeful about that, but he'd take anything he could get. In the spirit of which, he tracked down Ronon and, armed with a blueprint of their own city, started drawing up a map of the Replicator city.
"You got a plan?" Ronon asked after a while, watching John label the core room and its contents.
"Get in, get Elizabeth, get out. Try not to get everyone killed." Ronon didn't say anything. "What, you think it needs more than that?"
Ronon shrugged. "Kind of get the feeling your marines like a bit more detail."
The marines liked every detail, which was one area where they and John still jarred, and one of many areas where John was very grateful for the two marine captains they had in the city, who knew how to take an Air Force plan and turn it into a Marine plan. "I'm working on it. We're working on it," he corrected. "You guys had an organized military of Sateda, what would you have done?"
He usually steered clear of questions about Sateda, but Ronon had no problem making it clear when he didn't want to talk, and it had maybe surprised John a little more than he wanted to admit to find out that Ronon had had someone on Sateda, so he was trying to ask a little more.
"Wouldn't have taken on an enemy in their own fortress without more intel," Ronon said, which wasn't a great help.
"All right, then. You. What would you do?"
"Shoot everyone who got in the way," Ronon said.
John wasn't sure that what they came up with, between him, Ronon, Lorne and Mitchell, when he wandered into John's office while they were brain-storming, could exactly be called a plan, but it was the closest thing they had to one. They labeled it Operation Homecoming and called it done.
The nice thing about Mitchell having helped draw it up was that they didn't have to sell him on it in the end, because they'd hashed out the details into something he'd sign off on. It didn't escape John's notice that no-one said anything about contacting the IOA to tell them what Atlantis was doing. In his first days in Atlantis, Mitchell had been up in the gate-room for every data-burst, chatting to Carter over the video link when she occasionally showed up; now, he seemed intent on avoiding the gate-room until the data-burst was over.
The main point of contention was over how long they needed in order to train people up.
"Couple of days," John said, shrugging.
Mitchell shook his head, spreading the highlighted list of mission personnel out in front of them. "You lost a third of your marines back to Earth after getting here, most of them with the gene. Unless you've been running stealth training camps without mentioning it to me, most of the new ones are going to need some time to learn to fly the jumpers."
"They've had basic training," John said. He just wanted to get out there – if he could have gone with his team and a jumper, he would, but their last visit had shown how much of a bad idea that was likely to be.
"Colonel Mitchell's right," Lorne said, dirty traitor that he was. "If this mission goes anything like the last one, jumper pilots are going to need more than basic training."
"Won't hurt for them to have some time to work with the rest of the marines," Ronon added. "Give them some pointers." John suspected that was code for run them ragged, but he wasn't going to turn down an offer of military experience from Ronon.
In the end they agreed on five days, which turned out to be a good thing, since Rodney came to John not long after that, asking for more time for his people to come up with something, and John couldn't say no. It had nothing to do with the way he knew he was going to end up leaving Rodney on Atlantis while they did this, or how much he knew Rodney was going to bitch at him about it. Even in Pegasus, where the division between soldiers and off-world scientists was hazy at best, there were some things that had to be left to the actual soldiers, something that Rodney continued to fail to grasp.
"You're still going off-world, right?" Mitchell asked partway through the meeting, looking round the table at John's team, Keller, Lorne and Zelenka. John thought he should have had glasses to look over, even though he was too young, and kind of needed his eyesight to be a 302 pilot, even if it was in his spare time.
"Since about a week after we got here," Lorne confirmed. "Can't get everything we need shipped out here."
"I noticed," Mitchell said under his breath. "Okay, so we need to keep that going."
"You don't think we're already spread a touch thinly?" Rodney asked, not looking up from his datapad. He did that a lot, to the point that Mitchell had stopped commenting on it. "Between your ninja-commando training thing on the mainland, security in the city, and the people on New Athos. You know, since unexpected attacks on the place aren't exactly a rarity around here." The training on the mainland was a compromise – John had wanted to run it in the city, since the layout was pretty similar to the Replicator city, but everyone had agreed that would be too disruptive. Ronon had clinched it when he pointed out that the cities were different enough that learning in Atlantis could end up being more of a hindrance than a help, anyway, though it had been a near thing. The radios had always been fine on the old planet, but here, there was some kind of mineral in the rocks that blocked the signal. They'd be completely out of touch with the city all day, which John really wasn't wild about.
"I'm well aware of that, Dr McKay," Mitchell said with the exact same icy politeness that Elizabeth used on diplomats she didn't like. "But you yourself said the Replicator ships could be anywhere in the galaxy now. I'd rather not have them get suspicious when we stop popping up on random planets."
"And we might just happen across some decent intel on how that war between them and the Wraith is going," John added, getting a glare from Rodney for taking Mitchell's side. He glared back, which was way less than Rodney deserved for the ninja-commandos comments. John was well past amused with Rodney's continued vendetta against Mitchell at this point.
"I suppose more information wouldn't hurt," Rodney agreed reluctantly, and Mitchell said, "So glad you approve, Doctor," and they moved on.
It had been a while – years, and more than John really wanted to count – since he'd been involved in putting together something like this, something that actually had planning and special training behind it. On Atlantis, most people got trained by being thrown in the deep end while John crossed his fingers and hoped their on-going luck with not drowning would hold. It wasn't ideal, not even close, but Pegasus didn't exactly hold off on the potential disasters just so John could get a decent training program up and running.
It reminded him uncomfortably of the weeks before they'd first tried the retrovirus on Michael, everyone huddled in the conference room throwing things back and forth, and it was worse, somehow, when Rodney finally got interested in discussing what Engineering might be able to do and actually engaged with the conversation a bit. It felt normal, apart from how they were talking about getting Elizabeth back, and John couldn't help wondering if this was how Lorne felt when John's team got themselves captured. It probably happened too often for Lorne to feel anything but weary resignation, he decided.
The meeting finally broke up an hour or so before dinner, everyone drifting away to do their own thing for a while. John caught up with Rodney a few feet from the transporter. "You think you might have anything to help us against the Replicators in their city?" he asked, even though Rodney and Zelenka had agreed that they had nothing in the meeting. Rodney wasn't above keeping quiet about it in front of Mitchell – not wanting to be proven wrong by someone he didn't know and liked even less – but he'd usually give it up for John.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, I've got the secret to a super-powered anti-replicator weapon in my back pocket, I was just waiting for the best moment to reveal it."
"I'm just saying, lots of them, not a lot of us, and we barely made it out last time."
"I remember," Rodney said, his shoulders slumping and his chin going down. John wished he hadn't said anything. "We're working on it, okay?" Rodney added. "I mean, you know, the way we were working on it when the Wraith came the first time. Except with fewer atomic bombs and scientists on uppers."
John didn't point out that, by the end, everyone had been on something, John included. Since Rodney'd built one of the bombs that had helped save them, he didn't mind indulging Rodney's martyr complex this one time. "If you could use a nuclear bomb, I can probably get us some from the SGC," he offered.
"Would that it were that easy," Rodney said darkly. "Don't worry – five days is plenty of time for me and my people to come up with a genius plan to supplement your well-thought-out just-shoot-it policy."
He didn't sound his usual confident self though, and John couldn't blame him. At least with the Wraith, bullets made an impression, even if it didn't last as long as John would have liked. "I've got faith in you, buddy," he said. "Listen, I know you're working your asses off on this, but how about a break for golf after dinner?"
"Golf?" Rodney said dubiously.
John sighed. "Fine, computer golf, then you don't even have to go near the perfectly nice fresh air of our new planet."
"Exactly the way I like it," Rodney said. "I can't tonight, though."
"Oh, come on. You said it, five days are way more than you need to get this done, you can take a break," John wheedled. With everything that had been going on, he'd hardly seen Rodney outside of a lab or the conference room in weeks and it felt like a lot longer.
"No, of course I can take a break. Just not with you."
"Gee, thanks, McKay. Way to make a guy feel wanted."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Get over yourself, Colonel. I promised Katie I'd watch a movie with her, and, well, no offence, but losing at golf with you versus winning at –"
"Yeah, I get it," John said, before Rodney could make whatever awful pun he'd been about to make. "Go make nice with your girlfriend. I'm sure there're plenty of people here who'd be eager to play golf with me. Even real golf."
"Whatever gets you through the night," Rodney said cheerfully, patted him on the arm and disappeared into the transporter.
John stood in the corridor like an idiot for a minute, trying to remember where he'd intended to go after speaking to Rodney, and failing. He tapped his radio on instead. "Mitchell?"
"Go ahead," Mitchell said, sounding kind of distracted.
"Gene therapy took for you, right?"
"Didn't have it," Mitchell said.
"You – what?" John asked. Everyone coming to Atlantis had the gene therapy; it was one of the conditions of being able to come.
"Didn't need it," Mitchell added. "Natural gene."
If John had been a little more insecure – or if Mitchell had been a little more at home in the city – he might have gotten worried about that. Instead, he just filed it away for future use. "Cool. You up for a lesson in the jumpers later?"
There was a tiny pause on the other end of the radio, then Mitchell's voice came back, bright with enthusiasm. "Oh hell, yes."
Teyla, though she would not say so to anyone, went to the Athosian quarters that evening mostly because her team members were all occupied: John with Colonel Mitchell and the jumpers, Rodney with Dr Brown, and Ronon with Major Lorne, planning the training. They had both asked her to join them in this, even after she had declined. Truthfully, she knew that strategy was not one of her skills, and though she would be part of the team that went, she could not conscionably join in training that she did not need when her people needed her more.
Though that did not mean she was not a little disappointed. She had looked forward to returning to their missions through the stargate once Colonel Mitchell released John from his additional responsibilities, but it was clear that this would now be delayed once more. Of course, the rescue of Dr Weir was more important, she chided herself; perhaps, in her heart, she had not expected that a rescue mission would actually be undertaken.
She touched the chime on Kanaan's door and waited. It was strange not to hear his voice granting entry, as she had on New Athos.
He was smiling when he opened the door. "Teyla. I was not certain you would be able to visit."
"Of course I would make time for you. May I come in?"
Kanaan stepped back, allowing her entry. It was evident that he was not yet fully settled, many of his things still packed, though he had spread his own coverings on the bed and lit several candles. She wondered if he had anticipated her visit, despite his words.
"How has your day been?" she asked, stepping over to the window, unsure if she should sit or not. No matter what John implied with his teasing, she and Kanaan had not been intimate for such a long period, compared to their long friendship, and she sometimes found that the change was still awkward.
"Well," Kanaan said, coming up beside her and looking out at the sea. "This is a beautiful city. You are very lucky to be allowed to remain here."
Kanaan, unlike some of the others, had said little when Teyla had remained behind as they left for the mainland in the expedition's first year, neither in condemnation nor encouragement. "Colonel Sheppard and his people have always been gracious hosts to me," she said. "I am certain, if others wished to remain –"
"It was not my intention to suggest that," Kanaan said. He hesitated for a moment, the slipped his arms round Teyla's waist, his chin resting on her shoulder. She leaned into the embrace, grateful for his proximity, for his safety, and for that of all of her people. "I do not think there is a place for me, as there is for you."
In the same way, Teyla could not keep from thinking, as there was no longer a place for her in New Athos, if they returned. Her place had been so long in Atlantis that to return to her old life was unimaginable. Even when the Ancients had come, she had not felt comfortable in New Athos, but out of place, as though she was constantly waiting to leave. John's return had been a relief, an end to an exile she should not have felt, and she had gladly returned to the city, turning aside her deepening relationship with Kanaan to do so.
"You seem tired," Kanaan said.
Teyla smiled, though he could not see. "In truth, I have been much quicker to tire of late," she agreed. Though she did not want to say so, she felt it was a consequence of too many losses in too short a time, a grief that she had no choice but to live with until it faded and she felt more herself.
"You do not care for yourself as you should," Kanaan said, moving them both towards the bed. "Always concerned with everyone else first."
"As it has always been," Teyla said, but she did not fight him as he removed her boots and her jacket, nor when he settled her into the bed, covers pulled to her chin, and served her tea, as a lover should.
They were, according to the meteorologists down the corridor, in the middle of the planet's summer, the sun just starting to slip below the horizon when Sheppard took the jumper out into the open sky. The light turned the whole city golden, and Cam had to admit, it was pretty damn cool, even if it wasn't what he wanted.
Sheppard looked at him from the corner of his eye, his face twisting up into a smile that actually seemed genuine. Cam could count the number of times he'd seen that smile on one hand, if he was feeling generous, and if it didn't make him sound like the kid he'd been in high school, the one with such a crush on Amy Vandeburg that he barely even spoke to her.
"Nice place, huh?" Sheppard asked.
Cam watched the water skim by under them for a minute. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been in a ship he wasn't flying, not counting the Odyssey, which was more like a city with wings. "Beats Colorado Springs," he said.
Sheppard made an offended sound. "It'd have to. We flew it through space, you know."
"And an asteroid belt," Cam added. "I read the reports." Sometimes, it was reassuring to know that other people's lives were even weirder than his.
Of course, now he was out here, he was wishing he didn't know quite so much about what could – and had – go wrong.
"Just the jumpers," Sheppard said. "The city flew through the hole we made."
Which was, Cam thought, not a sentence he'd have been likely to hear with SG-1. Whether that was a good thing or not was yet to be determined.
Sheppard put the jumper into auto-pilot and turned to Cam. "You want to try?"
"Nah, I figured I'd just sit here and let you fly me around," Cam said, tilting back in his chair and trying not to look like someone who was itching to get his hands on the controls.
"You're about three years to late to be taxied around by me, sorry," John said, so casually that it took Cam a moment to realize he was talking about his gig in Antarctica, the one he'd had while Cam was learning to walk again.
"I thought that was one of the privileges of being in charge," he said, pleased to hear that his voice didn't waver at all.
"You're about three years too late, sir?" Sheppard suggested with a grin. "Trust me, if McKay can do it, you'll be fine."
"Please tell me your pep talks are usually better than that," Cam said, swapping seats with Sheppard and finally, finally getting his hands on the controls. They weren't the 302s, every pilot's wet dream, but they were still pretty damn cool. Sheppard didn't say anything, and when Cam looked over, he didn't meet Cam's eye. "Well, that settles that – all pre-mission pep talks are now responsibility of the mission leader."
"About time too," Sheppard said, and that was pretty much it for conversation for the next couple of hours, Cam concentrating too much on the little ship, which turned out to be much more aerodynamic than it looked. He'd thought he knew what 'responding to his every thought' meant when he was flying, but that was nothing on the jumper, which literally did that. It felt good, the first time he'd been truly at home since he left Earth, and Sheppard's presence next to him just made it more so, like a tiny piece of his old life, waiting for him out here.
They turned back towards the city once it got truly dark. "You wanna..?" Cam asked, shifting to stand up, but Sheppard waved him down again.
"It's automatic once you get close enough to the city," he said easily, which turned out to be true. Cam didn't even have to do anything to open the jumper bay doors. He glanced over at Sheppard as they closed in on the city, meaning to say something about all the lights, but Sheppard was staring out the view-screen, his gaze distant, his expression caught somewhere between wistful and content.
It wasn't like Cam hadn't ever looked at Sheppard before, hadn't thought, once or twice, about taking him home when he was on Earth for six weeks, but they hadn't been serious thoughts. They certainly hadn't been enough to prepare him for the wave of warm affection that swept through him, watching Sheppard watch his own city, the way his hands twitched for a second with wanting to reach out.
Oh yeah. That was just what he needed.
Stick-fighting lessons with Teyla had been one of the things that had been cut down on when Mitchell showed up; John didn't exactly have a lot of free time even now, but he'd started to miss seeing Teyla more often, so they were back to twice a week.
Of course, of the two of them, Teyla could afford to miss a few sessions a lot more than he could, which probably explained why he was on his knees with her stick across his neck five minutes into their session.
"You have not been practicing," Teyla said, letting him up.
John gave her his best charming grin, even though it never worked on her. "Maybe you've just gotten better."
"You have become worse, regardless," Teyla said, which John figured meant she was agreeing with him.
"Good thing I've got you to remind me to practice, then," John offered.
"Yes," Teyla said, smiling sweetly at him as she gave him a hand up.
By the end of their hour, John was painfully aware of exactly how much he hadn't been practicing, and how much worse he was now than last time they'd sparred. It wasn't a comforting realization. Sitting in the warm sun coming through the large window was nice though; he'd probably missed that more than the sparring, if he was honest.
"You will never improve if you do not practice," Teyla said, sitting next to him with her water bottle.
"Trust me, you just beat that into me for an hour, I don't need a lecture as well," John said. Teyla tilted her head in acknowledgment, apparently taking it in the spirit John had meant it.
"How're the Athosians settling into the city?" John asked after a while. With everything else, he'd barely seen them in passing.
"Well," Teyla said. "Most remember the first time they were here. Though they are grateful that there have been… changes."
"Right," John said. He definitely wasn't up for that conversation. "Good thing you mentioned Davos when you did."
"It was fortunate timing," Teyla agreed. "The thought of losing my people – or of them being missing, while I remained here…"
John kind of wanted to reach out, pat her hand or something, but he always got those kinds of things wrong and made things awkward. "How come you never mentioned him before?" he asked, though he was fairly certain the question was actually Why did you mention him now?
"Truthfully, I had not thought of him in many days," Teyla said slowly. "I am not sure what made me do so now." She paused, looking down at the sticks across her knees. "Perhaps I was also guided by something unseen."
Since Teyla had been in the meeting in which Keller had explained that Davos' advanced brain chemistry was what gave him the visions, John thought she was probably teasing him. Probably.
"It seemed, when I remembered the Vedeenans, that perhaps this was something with which they could help us." She looked up at him, solemn and kind of sad. "And that this was an occasion when we needed help."
John couldn't remember, exactly, when he'd started being able to read what the members of his team weren't saying amongst what they were. It seemed like something he'd always known how to do, even when he remembered the first few weeks in the city. When he'd thought it'd be a miracle if he hadn't killed McKay by the end of the year; when Ford had seemed so young John had assigned them to the same team because it was the only way to get round assigning a team to Ford; when Teyla had been mysterious and aloof and someone he would never get to know, not really.
He didn't miss those days, not even when he knew that, when Teyla said we, she really meant him.
Jumper training should probably have been given to Lorne, but Atlantis had never had as many senior officers as it needed (because the SGC stole them before they made it through gate-team training, according to most people in the city). Lorne was training the ground teams with Ronon instead (and facing up to a fear of snakes he'd never mentioned before). Plus, John was going stir-crazy being stuck in one place for so long, even if the place was Atlantis, and he had more experience flying the jumpers than anyone else around.
Besides, he was ranking officer in the city, so he could assign himself to the task if he chose. It helped that his new boss was a pilot as well, and understood the need to escape sometimes. Which was why, a day and a half into their training camp, John was sitting in a jumper round the other side of the mainland from Lorne and Ronon, watching Jumper 8 plough a long line through the empty field as it landed.
"Dobrowski, that better have been a demonstration of how not to do things," he said into his headset when the jumper finally came to a halt, even as he was touching the controls to take his own jumper down.
He heard the click of a headset being turned on, then a beat of silence, then Dobrowski's voice, sounding shaken. "Sorry, sir. I don't know what happened, I thought –"
"Are you hurt?" John asked. "Kemp, take over from me."
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Kemp said quickly.
"I'm fine," Dobrowski said. "Just feeling kind of dizzy."
Great. Injuries already, and they hadn't even left the planet. "Sit tight, I'm coming to you," John said, touching the jumper down. It wasn't even as if Dobrowski was inexperienced in the jumpers, having been on Atlantis for six months; he'd spent the last couple of days with the ground teams, only joining the jumpers once the basics were done.
The back hatch of Dobrowski's jumper was open, and he'd swung his seat round to face John. He wasn't obviously hurt, which John took as a good sign, but it seemed to take him a few seconds to focus properly on John. "What happened? Jumper malfunction?"
Dobrowski shook his head. "No, sir, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it was me, I got kind of dizzy, and I couldn't tell where the ground was. I think the display went out, but that was probably me as well."
"You're saying you were already feeling sick when you came out here?" John asked, trying not to sound like he was criticizing when he was. It wasn't like he wouldn't have done the same thing.
"Just a bit of a headache, and kind of dizzy. I thought it'd wear off."
"Wish you'd mentioned it before you got behind the wheel of one of our limited supply of irreplaceable spaceships," John said. "Okay, I'll get one of the others to take you back to be checked over in the infirmary, just in case." He touched the controls for the jumper, bringing up a handful of readouts, all of which seemed to confirm that it was still flight-capable. "No major harm done, then."
"Great," Dobrowski said, giving John a relieved smile. "I'm really sorry, sir, I didn't mean to cause a problem for you, but I didn't want to miss any training."
"Don't worry about it," John said. "Like I said, no major damage, to you or the jumper. Just tell me next time. I'd rather catch you up later than end up dragging your body out of a crashed jumper."
"Yes, sir," Dobrowski said, turning faintly green. John turned his back on the marine to call Shah down with Jumper 3, hiding his smile. Occasionally, people were just too easy.
There was enough space in the jumpers to bring back the ground teams as well, so the trip home was made en masse, a couple of hours before it would start to go dark. John didn't start getting nervous until they were in sight of the city, same as always. With the mysterious mineral in the rocks on the mainland blocking their radio signals, he could never shake the sense that something bad had happened in his absence. Even knowing that they'd kept a couple of jumpers in the city to fly out if they needed him didn't help.
He wasn't prepared to find two people in hazmat suits in the jumper bay when he docked, though.
"What's going on?" Ronon asked from next to John. The jumper hummed as it powered down.
"Some kind of infection in the city?" Lorne suggested.
"Or another nanite thing," John added. His radio beeped as he said it. "Go ahead."
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Dr Haussmann." The figure on the left raised a hand to them. "I'm afraid we're quarantining the jumper bay. You can all come out of the ships, but you'll have to stay in here."
"What the –" John muttered. This was what happened when the entire military command left the city. "I assume you're going to tell us why you're quarantining the jumper bay," he said, nodding for his passengers to step out so he could leave.
"Of course. After you sent back Sergeant Dobrowski, four more marines reported to the infirmary with similar symptoms. Two of them were on the mainland with you yesterday."
"That doesn't sound like grounds for quarantining all of us," John said. He stopped in front of Haussmann; it was weird, talking to someone through the suit.
"No, sir, but the medical staff who've been treating them are infected with the same thing now. We're conducting tests on the rest of the city's population now."
If it was that easy to contract whatever they all had… John turned to his assembled marines. "All right, I know most of you would have to be bleeding to death to tell me you were feeling kind of unwell, but I need you to pretend you're Air Force and not Marines for five minutes." That got a laugh from everyone, except Lorne, who gave him a betrayed glare. "Sorry Major, but you know it's true. Anyone been feeling dizzy over the last couple of days, or had a headache?"
There was a bit of shuffling and a lot of glancing round as people waited for someone else to speak first. John was about to lie and say he felt ill – he did have a headache, but he was fairly certain it was a regular Pegasus-induced one, not a precursor-to-illness one – when Lorne bit the bullet and said, "Since this morning, a headache. I figured it was from spending too much time in close contact with so many marines."
"Thanks, sir," Reed said, grinning at his team leader.
"All right, Major, come over here please, we're going to need to take a blood sample," Haussmann said, nudging Lorne towards his companion, whom John still couldn't identify from the side through his suit. "Who else?"
In the end, nearly everyone who'd been training with Lorne and Ronon, as well as a few of John's jumper team, were waiting to have their blood taken by, it turned out, Dr Strydom, while Haussmann went through the people who felt fine.
"You sure you're okay?" John asked, sitting against the wall next to Ronon. He couldn't tell, any longer, if he really did have a headache or if it was psychosomatic.
"Okay. I think. I'm hoping it's just a coincidence."
"Don't get many of those," Ronon pointed out, which John couldn't really argue with.
"How'd it go today?" he asked. If he was going to be stuck in the jumper bay, and missing dinner, he might as well get the debriefing over with; he could catch Mitchell up later.
"Better," Ronon said.
"That's it?" John asked. "Better?"
"Better than yesterday," Ronon added, grinning at John a little.
"Fantastic. I don't think that's what Mitchell had in mind when he said full debriefing at the end of every day." Though, really, John could think of plenty of times when he'd have been happy to give or receive a debriefing that amounted to 'better than yesterday'. At least it wasn't 'worse than.'
After an hour, another person in hazmat gear brought them MREs in exchange for the blood samples, and Mitchell came on the radio to report that more people were going to the infirmary, most of them people who'd been on the mainland the day before. John didn't remember switching so many people back to the city, but Lorne confirmed they'd agreed it – something to do with trialing the new people for best fit between security and missions.
An hour after that, Haussmann got a call on his radio to say that every one of the first half of the samples – a mix of those with headaches and those who felt fine – had come back positive for whatever the infection was. Twenty minutes after that, Strydom fell over walking between Haussmann and a group of marines who'd started a card game.
"Keeping us down here is a waste of time," John told Mitchell over the radio, while Haussmann settled the doctor in a quiet corner and helped him remove his hazmat suit, since he was clearly infected as well. "If more people are getting sick, we'll have to set up an auxiliary medbay somewhere. You'll need the hands."
"If this really came from the mainland, like Keller thinks, we'll need you up here to be treated," Mitchell corrected. The radio crackled as he sighed. "But yeah, it doesn't seem like we're actually protecting you or the rest of the city right now. Check with Haussmann, if he doesn't object, I could use you and Lorne up here. Infirmary's getting kind of full, we could use some bright ideas."
John looked at Ronon, who was listening to the same transmission that he was. "Mess hall?" Ronon suggested, glancing down at the MRE packet in front of him.
"You get that?" John asked Mitchell.
"Yeah. You want to get some of the marines with you on that?"
Nearly half an hour had gone by when John finally made it up to the conference room, only to be greeted with Mitchell's sharp smile and an announcement that Dobrowski and a couple of others who'd been admitted early on were starting to suffer from memory loss. And, in case they'd started thinking that was as bad as it could get, that Keller, still searching the database, had no idea what was causing the infection.
"Great," John said darkly, which got him a faintly reproving look from Teyla. It usually took more than that to provoke her. "You feeling okay?" he asked.
"I am fine," she said calmly. "I feel no different, and my blood test showed no sign of infection"
"You think you've managed to avoid being exposed?" Mitchell asked, leaning back against the table. He half-raised his hand, like he meant to rub his head but thought better of it. Headache, then, which meant it might not be the best time for John to mention that his own headache had gone past Pegasus-stress-headache a while back.
"I do not believe so," Teyla said. "John and I sparred last night, and I was with Sergeant Gray when he was taken ill this morning. But I am not suffering any of the symptoms that Dr Keller listed."
"Me either," Ronon put in. "I feel fine, and I've been on the mainland with everyone else."
"You must have been exposed," Lorne said. He was leaning, ever so slightly, against the wall behind him, but 'ever so slightly' was more than John had ever seen Lorne lean on anything, especially in a meeting.
"I know that," Ronon said, sounding alarmingly like Rodney for a second. "Doesn't mean we've got it, though, right? Maybe it affects some people differently."
"Affects you how?" Mitchell asked reasonably, then made a negating gesture with one hand. "Forget I asked. You mind heading down to the infirmary, mentioning this to Dr Keller? Can't hurt, might help."
"Perhaps you could suggest to her that she test my blood again, also," Teyla put in. "There may be something in common between us both."
Ronon nodded and left.
"Sheppard, Teyla, you guys want to head down to the mess hall, see how everything's going?" Mitchell continued. "And, Major, we've set up teams to check on everyone in the city, in case any of them start losing their memories. Maybe you could take charge of that, along with Lieutenant Cadman? Get someone to check in on the Athosians as well."
"Yes, sir," Lorne said, giving John a moment's pause. It was odd to hear Lorne saying that to someone who wasn't him.
"If Sergeant Stackhouse is free, he might go," Teyla suggested. "He is well known to many of my people, and they will be concerned."
"Familiar face," Lorne said. "I'll send him over, get him to explain that you're busy with us."
"Thank you, Major."
It didn't occur to John until he and Teyla were about to step into the transporter, and when it did, he wanted to kick himself for managing to forget. Knowing it was probably a combination of the headache, which was making it hard to think, and impending amnesia didn't make him feel a lot better.
"John?" Teyla asked, touching his arm. "Perhaps you should be the one going to see Dr Keller."
"I'm fine," John said automatically. "I just – where's McKay?"
Teyla smiled. "He was not feeling the effects of the virus, and chose to remain in his lab. I believe he is trying to discover how the infection spread so quickly amongst the people of the city."
That was code for 'hiding out so he doesn't get sick' if John ever heard it. It probably didn't say anything he wanted said about him that he wanted to go drag Rodney out anyway, and not because he could help. Hell, not even for the amusement of watching him wind himself into hypochondriacal panic, but just because John wanted him around. He resisted the temptation, just.
Not that it mattered – by the middle of the night, things had gone well and truly to hell, even with Teyla and Ronon able to identify the illness and its possible cure from Keller's records. Rodney had to come out of his lab then, to join the search for Zelenka and the gate crystal, cunningly hidden in a place they'd never find – literally.
Dr Keller was one of the first to awaken, though Teyla did not realize she had done so until she heard the young doctor's voice say, "Um, what's going on?"
Jennifer was sitting up in her bed, peering across the infirmary when Teyla reached her side. "Do not worry. Everything is under control."
"I see that," Jennifer said, looking around again. Teyla tried to see the infirmary through her eyes – only one of the nurses had awoken so far; it was still mostly Teyla's people moving between beds, checking on the patients. "Is everyone okay?"
"Everyone is fine," Teyla said calmly. She would not, she decided, remind Jennifer of the two fatalities until it became clear that she did not recall them. "When the plant was distributed through the ventilation system, it sent all of you to sleep."
"How long have I been out?" Jennifer pushed her hair back from her face and twisted to sit on the side of her bed.
"Only a few hours," Teyla assured her. "There do not appear to be any lasting effects, though it might be best if you remained in bed for a time."
"Oh, thanks, but I feel fine," Jennifer said, giving her a bright smile. She did appear unaffected by recent events, and eager to return to her work. "I can't lie around all day and let your people do all the work."
"It has been no trouble," Teyla said. "We have all been happy to help."
"No, I know," Jennifer said quickly. "Thank you, really. I just –"
"Wish to return to your duties," Teyla finished, smiling. "Though perhaps you would like me to find you some clothes first."
Jennifer looked down, taking in the loose nightgown she was wearing. "Yeah. That's probably a good idea. Thanks."
After checking on the patients in the infirmary, she soon left to see to the others, in the care of Ronon and Halling in the mess hall. Teyla expected her to be gone for some time, but she returned in less than an hour, drawing Teyla aside.
"Is everything all right?" Teyla asked. John and Rodney were both there, as were Major Lorne and his men. Colonel Mitchell, in the corner of the infirmary, was still sleeping, though he had begun to show signs of returning to consciousness.
"Everything's fine," Jennifer said, though her worried expression remained. "I just – I don't know what reminded me, but something did, and -." She paused, looking around the room. "When I was looking at your blood, and Ronon's, I did find something in yours."
"The Kirsan fever bacteria?" Teyla asked, though Jennifer had said she had found that in another medical record. Perhaps she had been confused over the source when making the report.
"No." Jennifer looked round again; checking if anyone would overhear, perhaps. "I was testing for anything, everything, and one of the tests showed… Teyla, you're pregnant."
John woke up to five minutes of pleasant fuzziness, followed rapidly by a moment of utter panic when Rodney wasn't with Ronon and Teyla, and then a stab of unreasoning hurt that Rodney was, instead, with Katie Brown, who hadn't even been infected that badly. Last thing John remembered, she'd barely started to lose her memories. Of course, the last thing he really remembered was agreeing to fly Ronon to the mainland to look for the enchuri plant, so she could have been turned into a rampaging sunflower and he wouldn't have known about it.
"Major Lorne wishes to speak with you," Teyla added when John finished worrying that Rodney was one of the dead.
"Right," John said. "It wasn't his fault." It was true, but Lorne had sought him out when everyone who'd been on the Apollo had been returned to the city, and apologized, apparently genuinely, for not being around to help out during the crisis. He had a weirdly well-developed guilt complex for someone who was usually so laid back, and John was sure that the crash from the stimulants he and his team had been taking wasn't helping. "I'll go find him as soon as someone lets me out of here."
He raised his voice slightly on the last part, which worked to bring Keller scampering over. "Sorry, Colonel, we're still a bit over-crowded here. Though it would probably help if you ordered your marines out from under our feet. At least the ones who are fine."
"I'll see what I can do," John promised. "Not sure how much authority it'll have while I'm flat on my back in here, though."
Keller gave him a distracted glare. "You were unconscious a few minutes ago," she pointed out. "Even you can't complain about waiting a few hours while I run some tests." She looked up from her notes. "Unless you think you'll command more authority by passing out in the corridors somewhere."
She'd definitely spent too much time with Carson; John remembered Beckett saying those exact words to him before.
When Keller finally let John escape, he headed down to the gate-room automatically, wanting an update in person from the staff posted there. What he got was Mitchell catching his eye through the open conference room door and waving him in. "Feeling better?" he asked when John took one of the empty seats.
"I'm not sure – who are you again?" John asked, making Mitchell smile and flip him off. He looked good when he smiled. More relaxed, less stressed; more like he'd looked on Earth.
"Good. I've spent enough time trying not to make the report on this sound like a bad comedy routine," Mitchell said. "Your turn to try."
"I don't think it can be done," John said sadly. He'd tried before, and never succeeded. "What I want to know is, how did I end up being knocked out for a day while all the rest of you are fine?"
Mitchell really did look fine; perfectly pressed uniform, every hair in place, clear-eyed and focused; in other words, the complete opposite of how John felt, even though Keller had given him a clean bill of health. Not that John spent a lot of time noticing what Mitchell looked like or anything. One unattainable crush was plenty, he didn't need to develop one on his boss as well, however single and available said boss might be.
"Clean living and a virtuous past?" Mitchell suggested. Apparently, he was planning on pretending he hadn't collapsed in his office and spent most of the crisis confined to the mess with the civilians.
"Right," John said dubiously. "I seem to remember I wasn't the only one who passed out drunk at that party."
Mitchell waved the comment away, then sobered up. "Keller says we're safe to go back to the mainland now everyone's been infected. She's going to start working on a vaccine for new staff, once this has died down."
"Sounds good," John agreed. Hopefully that whole it could take years thing would turn out to be excess caution, since the other options were either keeping new personnel away from the mainland or letting them get sick and then treating them, neither of which sounded ideal. "Training restarts tomorrow?"
Mitchell nodded. "Let's hope this isn't an omen for the real mission."
They'd been training teams for the rescue for three full days, not counting the days off for everyone to recover from losing their memories, and John's pile of waiting paperwork was threatening to take over his desk.
"Look, I know you'd rather be out there," Mitchell said when he held John back.
John didn't need to ask what the 'but' was; Mitchell wasn't saying, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that the IOA either didn't know what they were doing or weren't willing for it to have any impact on the daily functioning of the city. Either way, he was going to be spending the day in his office filling out pointless forms, while Ronon was running the foot training, and Kemp was taking over the jumper training. Even Lorne had the better end of the deal; John had sent him on the re-supply run to McKenzie's research station, hoping to wipe the exhausted, guilty expression from his face.
Sometimes, being in charge sucked.
It sucked even more halfway through the morning when his radio activated and Rodney informed him that Major Lorne had gone off-radio right before he went through the gate above the research station planet, right after announcing that he was being fired on.
Gathered in the conference room with Teyla, Mitchell and Rodney, John really kind of wanted to just put his head in his hands and hope it would all go away. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option.
"What happened?" Teyla asked.
Rodney shook his head, bringing up a map of the planet and the surrounding sky. "I'm not entirely sure. The Major said he thought someone was firing on him."
"Who?" Mitchell asked, leaning forward slightly.
"Not the people on the planet," John put in. "They're not much beyond mud huts and blow darts, it couldn't have been them."
"No," Rodney agreed. "Plus, just after we lost contact, there was a short burst of radiation in the vicinity of the gate, consistent with the opening of a hyperspace window."
"The Wraith?" Teyla asked before John could. They hadn't seen any signs of Wraith in that part of the galaxy, a state of affairs that John would have been happy to have continue. God, the last thing they needed was for the Wraith to get their hands on everything in Lorne's head. Or even just their hands on Lorne; John was getting seriously fed up with losing his command staff.
"Lorne thought not," Rodney said. "What little sensor data we picked up from the jumper before it disappeared confirms that. The energy signature's all wrong; it's inconsistent with Ancient technology as well, so we can probably rule out the Replicators."
"We know of no other peoples in this galaxy that possess hyperspace technology," Teyla said.
"Of course not," Rodney said. "No-one reaches near that level of advancement without being culled."
Mitchell caught John's eye, looking tired. "So, who was it?"
John looked round at the other half of his team, wondering if there was any point in hauling Ronon back from the mainland. What he saw on their faces wasn't exactly encouraging.
"We could take a jumper," he suggested. "Check out the area round the gate for any debris, head down to the planet and see if anyone knows anything."
"Did you not just hear me say someone opened a hyperspace window near the gate?" Rodney asked, spinning back from his map to glare at John.
"Yeah, right after you said they were firing on Lorne's jumper," John said. That didn't have to mean anything. Lorne was a good pilot. "So unless you've got a neat trick for tracking where a hyperspace window goes to that you've never mentioned…"
Rodney half-turned away, not before John saw his face twist unhappily. "No, we don't."
Mitchell nodded. "Okay, then. You guys want Ronon back for this?"
"We do," Teyla said.
She followed John out of the conference room as Rodney cut off to the lab for his equipment. "We will find Major Lorne," she said quietly, too quietly for the people passing in the corridors to hear; Lorne's disappearance wouldn't stay quiet for long, but he'd take anything he could get.
"Of course," he agreed, trying to sound confident. Maybe they'd get to the research station and find Lorne sitting there, slightly battered with a crashed jumper. Maybe when they got back, the Wraith would have self-destructed, and taken the Replicators with them, leaving behind sparkly unicorns for the expedition to ride around on.
Teyla gave him the look that meant she was seeing right through him. He'd been getting it a lot, lately, even when he wasn't sure what she was looking through him to see. "This is not your fault, John."
"Right," John said. Except it was; he'd been the one to send Lorne, he'd scheduled the re-supply run, and what did it say about him that he was wishing he'd sent someone less vital, as though there was anyone on Atlantis that they could actually afford to lose. "I should've…"
"We will find him," Teyla said again.
When Teyla finished explaining to Ronon what had happened, he didn't say anything. Rodney filled the silence instead, with a contemplative, "Huh."
"What?" Ronon asked, and Rodney turned back to the front of the jumper, hands up defensively.
"Nothing. I always thought you reserved that glare for when Sheppard does something stupid and goes missing."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ronon said. John slid his gaze away from the display for a moment, trying to catch Ronon's reflection in the glass, wondering what the look Rodney meant was like.
It was, he discovered, the same look Ronon had had when Rodney had been about to ascend against his will, the same look he'd had when they'd lost track of Teyla in a forest fire a few months back and been unable to get her on the radio for three hours. It was the look that meant someone was part of the team.
Atlantis, no matter what some of the more imaginative members of the expedition said, wasn't sentient, but that didn't change the fact that, with everyone living so close together, it felt like the city had moods.
"He's out there," John had said to Mitchell when they'd come back, empty-handed. "We'll find him." He wasn't sure he believed his own words; he'd said the same about Ford, when the hive-ship had exploded, about Lieutenant Morgan and his team when they'd been culled six months ago, about a half dozen different people over the last three years, and he wasn't any closer to finding any of them. The only one they had a chance with was Elizabeth, and they hadn't had to look for her.
He went down to his office, not knowing what else to do; the paperwork was still there, waiting for him, and he couldn't hide out in his quarters or the labs, however much he wanted to. Lorne was too well-known around the city for people not to have questions, or just want someone to talk to, and they wouldn't care that John was just about the worst person to come to for that.
It was actually kind of a relief when someone knocked at his door and he looked up to find Cadman standing there, stiff and too formal. "Sir."
"Lieutenant. You want to come in?" She nodded and stepped into the office, closing the door behind herself. "Have a seat."
"Thank you, sir, I'd rather stand." She'd barely been back in the city six months after a break on Earth, taking her turn at gate team training with the SGC. It had been plenty long enough for her and Lorne to pick up their old friendship again. "I wanted to volunteer, sir. If you're looking for help to find Major Lorne."
"Thanks," John said. "I don't know how much looking we're going to be able to do for him though."
Cadman's posture actually got stiffer; it was almost impossible to see the woman who'd gotten into a popcorn fight with Lorne, both of them laughing, during the last Atlantis-wide movie night. "I understand that, sir. But we've done more with less before."
John shook his head. "No, we haven't. We've done more with not much, but we have nothing right now. He could be anywhere in the galaxy."
"You can't just –" Cadman started, then appeared to remember who she was talking to, and shut up.
"Can't just what?" John asked. She shook her head. "Permission to speak freely," John offered. Not that anyone on Atlantis ever needed it.
"You can't just leave him out there," Cadman said quietly, like she didn't want to be saying it at all. She closed her mouth firmly, but John thought he could guess what the rest was going to be: He wouldn't leave you.
"I know that," John said, and that was when his radio went off again, Rodney babbling, summoning him to the gate room for the second time that day. John held up a hand to Cadman and touched his headset. "Any chance this can wait?"
"That depends on how badly you want Major Lorne back," Rodney said. That on its own was enough to get John moving; Rodney was only that sarcastic when he actually had something.
Mitchell was waiting for him when John got to the gate-room, Cadman tagging along behind him. He looked cautiously optimistic, enough that John risked a smile and got one back.
"I don't have all day here," a female voice said over the comms before John could ask what was going on.
"Oh relax," Rodney said, irritated. "He's here now. Sheppard, talk to her."
John looked at him, then Mitchell, for guidance, and got nothing. "Hi there," he offered, feeling like an idiot.
"Colonel Sheppard?" the woman said. "I was beginning to think this was some elaborate ploy on the part of your people, and you didn't really exist."
"We're not smart enough for elaborate ploys," John told her. "You want to give me your name, maybe tell me why I've been dragged along to talk to you?"
"My name is Larrin. We haven't met, but I have someone here who seems to think you and your people can be of use to me." She reminded John of his elementary school head-teacher, brusque and to the point.
"We're always glad to help out," John said. It wasn't as easy to be charming over the radio, but if she had Lorne, he could make the effort.
"Good. I'm sending coordinates for the location of my ship. Send more than one ship to meet us, and we'll blow you out of the sky." A laptop beeped and Campbell nodded that he'd received the transmission. "Your people know the rest."
"Wait," John started, but the communication shut down before he could get any further. "Okay, what the hell was that about?"
Mitchell shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned. "Her ship picked up Lorne and his jumper. Apparently, this ship of hers is Ancient and in need of repair, and she's willing to trade Lorne for you and Dr McKay here, to get it done."
"As if he'll be of any use beyond standing around handing over the wrong tools," Rodney put in.
John heard Cadman make a strangled sound behind him, but she'd been having a rough day, so he gave her the benefit of the doubt. "I assume Lorne's probably not intending for us to actually be traded," he said.
"You think?" Rodney asked. "I was under the impression he'd coordinated the whole thing so he could finally take over your job after doing all your paperwork for two years."
"I do my own paperwork, thank you very much," John said.
"Okay," Mitchell said loudly, cutting them off. "Maybe you want to save the arguments for after we've got Lorne back from this woman, whoever she is?"
"Don't worry," John told him. "Rodney's got no problem doing both."
"I realize it's a little late to worry about this," Rodney said when the tractor beam on the Ancient warship – which John was totally taking back to Atlantis as payment for kidnapping his second in command – swept over them. "But you're not planning to trade us for Lorne, are you?"
"I'd trade you for Major Lorne," Cadman put in from the back of the jumper. She'd cheered up a lot when Mitchell had agreed to her coming on the mission, and spent most of the trip winding Rodney up.
"Think we could convince them to trade Lorne back to us in exchange for the Lieutenant?" Rodney asked the jumper at large.
"We're not trading anyone," John said firmly. "We're here to try to fix the ship, so I figure I can distract her, you do something to temporarily disable the ship, we grab Lorne and we're home in time for supper."
"That's your plan?" Rodney asked, staring at John in horror. "Cadman could have come up with a better plan!"
"Aw, McKay, I'm touched," Cadman said.
"Yeah, in the head," Rodney muttered. The jumper docked at that moment, perfectly parallel to Lorne's, and the five of them rose to face the rear hatch. "Here goes nothing," Rodney added.
"That's the spirit," John said cheerfully, pretending not to notice Ronon checking the settings on his gun. Hopefully, the ship wasn't well populated; if all else failed, they could shoot their way out, but it would be a lot easier with fewer people to go through.
They were greeted by two men in dark uniforms, armed with very familiar looking weapons. "Huh. Guess we're not the only ones scavenging on Sateda."
"Rodney," Teyla said sharply, but Ronon just shrugged.
"Didn't have these on Sateda," he said.
The two men looked between them. "Dr McKay and Colonel Sheppard will come with us. The rest of you –"
"The rest of them come as well," John interrupted. "Or we'll just take our ship and go home, and, frankly, it looks like you need us more than we need you."
"I'm sure your Major Lorne would be pleased to hear you care so much for his welfare," the one on the left said, but he helped his colleague herd them out of the jumper and relieve them of their weapons before leading them into the ship proper.
It was laid out in much the same way as the other Ancient warships John had been on, though it was immediately obvious that it was mostly powered down, and that it had recognized one of them as gene-bearers, everything humming with the desire to turn on in the back of John's head. "Nice ship," he offered. "Little bit of a fixer-upper, but it's got potential."
The guards ignored him, though Rodney snorted in derision behind him, making John grin. Some things never changed. "What do you think, Teyla?" John asked. "Maybe some throw pillows, a nice wall hanging or two…"
"Many people enjoy a simple, clean decorative style," Teyla said, which was rich, coming from someone who had more candles than anyone John had ever met, including the self-styled neo-pagan hippie he'd known in college.
"Many people enjoy lemon meringue pie, that doesn't make it a good idea," Rodney grumbled.
"Actually, isn't that on the menu for tonight?" Cadman asked sweetly.
"If you insist on continuing in this fashion," the guard in front said, "I will separate you and keep those of you who are not required in our cells until Dr McKay and Colonel Sheppard have completed their work."
Since they wanted to keep him and Rodney, John wasn't sure that sounded like such a good idea. "No need to get defensive," he said. "I wasn't suggesting you needed to hire an interior decorator or anything."
"Oh my God, Sheppard," Rodney said. "Shut up before we're all taken captive and the city collapses in distress at the loss of my genius."
"A genius," said the voice from the communication. "I'm sure we could make use of one of those."
She was, on sight, nothing like John's elementary school teacher, a comparison he was wishing he'd never thought to make, since he was now picturing Miss Richardson in the low-cut leather outfit that Larrin was wearing. Her gaze swept over all of them as they stepped onto the bridge, then cut back to John. Of course.
"And you must be Colonel Sheppard."
Ronon made a quiet, disgruntled noise, but John was fairly sure his uniform marked him out as the guy who'd have the rank. "Pleasure to meet you. Shame we don't have time for dinner."
Larrin's gaze turned closer to assessing. "I'm sure something could be arranged. Assuming you can get my ship operational."
"You do realize that there's nothing wrong with it that someone with the gene couldn't fix, right?" Rodney asked, already peering at his data-pad.
"I'm sure you need to run some diagnostics," John said, wondering if anyone would notice him kicking Rodney. Since Teyla was stood between the two of them, it seemed likely they would. "Just to make sure."
Rodney chose that moment to look up, before he could say anything else stupid. "Right. Of course. Wouldn't want to make any sweeping judgments before we check things out thoroughly." He laughed, mostly convincingly. "Actually, Major Lorne would be helpful here."
"Why?" Larrin asked. "He wasn't any use earlier."
"That was probably due to the malfunctions that Dr McKay is attempting to find," Teyla said. "He will be able to test these for us."
"Yeah," John agreed. "I mean, a lot of the things on these ship need two people with the gene anyway, to get them working properly." It wasn't, he reflected, the best way to sound like they were willing to be traded for Lorne, but it was hard to guess what Lorne might have told her; Larrin didn't seem like the kind of person who'd give much away.
She nodded to one of their guards. "Bring him."
Rodney was hunched over the control chair, so John joined him, trusting Teyla and Ronon to have their backs. Even without weapons, over-powering the only three people who seemed to be on the ship shouldn't be that hard, especially with Cadman upping the numbers for their side.
"Well?" he asked quietly.
Rodney looked up. "If we can get someone in the control chair, it shouldn't be difficult to create some kind of distraction. Everything really does seem to be in working order; they just don't have the gene to operate it."
"What kind of distraction?"
"Whatever the person in the chair wants, really," Rodney said, tapping at his data-pad in an attempt to look busy.
"Okay. I'll think of something," John promised, pushing himself up.
Larrin shot him a suspicious look, which didn't entirely abate when John smiled at her. "So, what do you need this ship for anyway?" he asked. "Seems kind of big for just the three of you, especially if you can't operate it."
"Why do you think we want you?" she asked. "I recognize the ships you and your Major were flying."
"You do?" John asked.
"Of course. Or did you think I have nothing better to do than pick up attractive pilots on a whim?"
"Hadn't actually given it all that much thought," John said honestly.
"I'm not surprised," Larrin said, smirking. "You have the gene to operate this technology. You're going to get it working, with the help of the doctor over there, and then we're going to reverse engineer a way to keep it running."
That was… pretty much what John would have expected, if he'd given it much thought. "Why?"
Larrin sighed, sounding exactly like Rodney when he thought John was being too dumb for words. "Because we need it to live on," she said. "When this ship is operational, many of my people will be able to return to us. They are no longer safe on any planet, not from the Wraith."
That, John would think later, was probably what guaranteed them letting Larrin and her people keep the ship. He'd never been able to resist someone making an argument about keeping themselves safe from the Wraith.
Lorne, when the guard finally brought him up to the bridge, had his hands bound and a cut seeping blood above his eye. He still grinned when he saw John and his team standing on the bridge. From there, it really didn't take much effort to subdue Larrin and her people (no inappropriate use of Ancient tech necessary, just force of numbers), retrieve their weapons, and high-tail it back to the jumpers.
Right before they went through the nearby space gate, Lorne's voice came over the comms: "Next time you offer me an easy mission, sir, remind me to turn you down."
Everything sped up after that. Mission training, which they'd ended up extending by a couple of days to account for all the chaos and interruptions, started earlier in the day and finished later at night. John barely saw Rodney or Zelenka, beyond an occasional rushed progress report on their attempts to find a new anti-replicator weapon; off-world missions got scaled back in favor of keeping everyone safe in the city and avoiding another crisis. It felt like the Replicator attack all over again, as much as John tried to find a sense of hope amongst it all. They knew where Elizabeth was, after all, how to get to her, even how to get out of the Replicator city again. They were taking three jumpers to act as aerial support, and four teams to sweep the city. They were trained and knew what they were facing and…
And none of that had ever done them any damn good in the past.
"Hey," Mitchell said, suddenly standing in front of John's table in the mess, well into the night shift, when they should both have been asleep. John was starting to wonder if Mitchell ever slept. "You want some company?"
"Sure," John agreed. He'd only been staring into space anyway, his body ready to crash but his mind whirring with blueprints and plans and a dozen other things that wouldn't stop. They were scheduled to go the day after tomorrow. Mitchell leaned back in his seat, coffee mug in one hand, looking as at home there as he had at the SGC. "Hell of a way to start your command," John offered, before Mitchell could ask how the training was going.
"Yeah," Mitchell agreed, smiling dryly. "They said Pegasus would be different, they just didn't say it would be quite like this."
John wasn't exactly sure what 'this' covered, but he wasn't sure he was that eager to find out either. "It takes some getting used to," he said, then, impulsively, "You should come with my team, next time we have a mission. After this one."
"Sure," Mitchell said, but something in his expression had gone brittle and fixed. It took John a second to realize – if they got Elizabeth back, Mitchell probably wouldn't be sticking around that long. It was a weirdly unpleasant thought; he'd gotten used to having another pilot around, a kind of kindred spirit – the really good-looking kind. "Be kind of pathetic to go back to Earth and only have seen Atlantis."
"More than most people do," John said.
Mitchell nodded, leaning forward. "Pretty amazing city you've got," he said quietly. He'd said it before, when SG-1 had come to visit, but not like that. John mirrored his movement, only half-conscious of doing it, wondering what they'd look like if anyone glanced over. Conspirators.
"We like it," he said, dropping his own voice. "People tend to stick around."
"I noticed," Mitchell said, and the brittleness in his expression was in his voice as well. He must have heard it, because he laughed a little, leaning away again. "Wasn't even planning on coming in the first place."
John didn't move, wanting Mitchell close again, close enough to say – something. He didn't know what. "You wouldn't have to – Elizabeth was injured, before the nanites, she'll need time to recover."
Mitchell smiled, unamused. "Don't sweat it. You know what it's like to wind up on the wrong planet, without your team."
John did, far better than he ever wanted to, but it had always been temporary for him, and unplanned. He'd never been sent away from them, or faced the prospect of going back when he'd just started getting used to the new place. He wanted to say something, to let Mitchell know that he wasn't unwelcome in the city. That it was about having lost Elizabeth and not about him. He wanted to say I'd miss you, because he thought it was true, in a way. Mitchell was military, like him, and easy, but they didn't know each other well enough for John to say that, even if he was the kind of person who did. He wasn't sure he really meant it like that anyway; he thought he'd miss Mitchell, not just another military presence in command.
"The marines say we're one big off-world team anyway," he said instead, hoping Mitchell would get it.
"Biggest off-world mission in history," Mitchell agreed, and something in his posture relaxed, echoing the thing in John that eased in the same moment.
Teyla had not intended to find herself in Kanaan's room, mere days before the rescue mission was to go ahead. Now that they were not just lovers, but the parents of a coming child, it was inappropriate for her to be spending so much time alone with him as she had. He had not asked about her intentions, in part, she was certain, because the rescue mission and the lack of activity on New Athos had combined to prevent a decision being made about her people's long-term home. That did not change her certainty that he was waiting for her to bring up the topic, and it was unfair for her to raise his hopes by continuing to visit so often.
Nevertheless, she had needed counsel, and had somehow found herself at his door, sounding the chime.
"Teyla," he said when the door slid open. "Have I not told you that you need not continue to seek permission to enter?"
"Yes," Teyla said, stepping inside and removing her boots. It was not often that she came to the Athosian quarter in her uniform, usually changing into traditional clothes first, but she had only intended to seek a peaceful space overlooking the water, to allow herself to think clearly. "I suppose it is only habit."
"A habit that I hope one day you will break," Kanaan said, waiting for her to settle into the soft chair he had found before sitting on the end of his bed. "Though it is a pleasure to see you, even so."
Teyla smiled, though the expression did not feel right on her face. "I am supposed to join Colonel Sheppard and the others on the rescue mission in two days," she said.
"I had heard that it was to take place," Kanaan said. "There are many here who pray to the Ancestors for Dr Weir's safe return."
"Thank you." Teyla rather felt that, despite Davos' predictions, they were likely praying more from duty than hope. "Of course I am willing to do whatever is necessary if it may bring us closer to finding Elizabeth and returning her to her place in the city," she said. "It is only that – that there are risks, and I am not certain that I should be taking them."
"Because you carry our child," Kanaan said.
Teyla felt the tension in her shoulders ease. Their child. Not that she had ever planned on such an event; Halling called it a blessing from the Ancestors, though Teyla was more inclined to call it the result of being carried away in the moment. "Yes."
"You were not concerned by that when you flew with the others to rescue Major Lorne," Kanaan said. His tone was neutral, exposing nothing, but Teyla saw the flash of resentment on his face. He had not been pleased to hear that she had almost been captured, even when she had pointed out that she had both risked capture and been captured many times since coming to Atlantis. The Earth expression 'what he doesn't know can't hurt him' seemed appropriate for the instance.
"There was little danger there," Teyla said, though this was not strictly true. "Unlike this mission." Though John had said nothing, she was well aware that he did not expect to return everyone safely to the city. "And yet, if there is a chance of bringing Elizabeth safely home, I do not know how I can refuse to go. If something were to happen…"
She forced herself not to think of the possibility that it would be members of her own team who failed to return. They would be facing the most danger, she was certain – John would never send his subordinates into danger on a mission such as this. It had taken her many months to accept the loss of Aiden to the Wraith, even with Ronon in his place; the thought of losing the others was painful.
"They are experienced fighters," Kanaan said, resting one hand lightly on her knee. "You have told me of many battles between yourselves and fearsome enemies, all of which you have survived."
"Yes," Teyla said, willing herself to smile at the man who was offering her comfort. Comfort that she could not take, not from him. She had been mistaken to come to him for this, when he did not – could not – truly understand the magnitude of what was to happen, of what had come before. On New Athos, Kanaan was a farmer, not a trader, rarely stepping through the ring. Though she had tried, there were not truly words to explain the things she had seen, the things of which she had been a part.
She wanted Elizabeth, with a sudden, fierce longing. Elizabeth had understood what it meant to be apart from those you cared for, to be placed in a situation for which you were not prepared, where you could never truly fit. Though Elizabeth was loved and respected by many in Atlantis, she had always been a little apart, never truly one of any group.
Elizabeth, Teyla was certain, would have understood her dilemma; she would have served them tea and listened, and only advised if Teyla had asked.
"Teyla?" Kanaan prompted. "Are you well? You seem distracted."
"I am sorry." Teyla held onto her smile, getting to her feet. "I had forgotten an arrangement I made, I must go."
Kanaan stood as well, his brow furrowed in concern. "If you are certain."
"I am," Teyla said firmly. "Thank you for your counsel."
"I did little," Kanaan said, but he smiled, and stepped close to touch his forehead to hers, his arms close around her. Teyla returned the gesture, drawing strength from it. "If you do choose to go, please, do not leave without saying goodbye."
"I promise," Teyla said.
Outside Kanaan's door, it seemed that her feet once again took control, making a decision that her mind could not.
"Teyla," Kate said, looking up from her computer as Teyla paused in her open doorway. "Can I help you?"
Teyla hesitated, unsure. The city's psychologist had been of help to her on many occasions, however. "Yes," she said. "If it is no trouble to you, yes, please."
Rodney blew into the early morning senior staff meeting the next day and talked at them for nearly three minutes before Teyla and John combined managed to shut him up long enough to ask him to start at the beginning.
"I was in bed last night," Rodney said, finally sitting down and stealing John's coffee. John thought the last thing he needed was caffeine, given the way he was practically vibrating, but he'd probably had even less sleep than John, and they couldn't afford for anyone to crash right now.
"That something we really need to hear about?" Ronon asked.
Rodney barely paused to toss a glare his way. "And I was thinking how much easier this would be if we could freeze the Replicators, like Elizabeth did last time."
John was abruptly absolutely sure he knew where this was going. "Tell me you didn't –"
"So what we need is someone with a connection to the Replicator collective, right? Or –" He looked round the gathered staff, his face bright with excitement. "Something."
Yeah, John had been right. "Something, like a Replicator?"
Mitchell twitched, like he wanted to shift back from the door. He'd had his own Replicator problems, John remembered, even if they hadn't been human-form like these. "You built a Replicator in the city? Can you even do that?"
"Of course," Rodney said dismissively. "The Ancients left behind their blueprints, the device they used to make them in the first place… all we need is the understanding of the nanite coding, which we have, thanks to yours truly."
"Okay, back up," John said, taking in the expression on his team's, Lorne's, Keller's faces, somewhere between surprise and horror and grudging admiration. He knew that look. "You want to build a Replicator and – what?"
"Not like the ones we're used to. Strip it down to its basic functions, upload the command into its base code, then when we get down to the planet, it gets absorbed into the collective. Next update, bam, frozen Replicators. I mean, we've got no way of knowing exactly how long it would be before they over-rode it and unfroze, but any time is better than none, right?"
John glanced over to find Mitchell looking at him, one eyebrow raised, his expression clearly asking if this was a viable plan, or just wishful thinking. "Could it work?" John asked Rodney, not looking away from Mitchell. "Honest assessment, McKay, we're going tomorrow – could your team do this by then and have it work?"
From the corner of his eye, he watched Rodney puff up defensively, then deflate. "Yes. Probably. Almost definitely."
"You're asking me to stake the lives of your team and three others, not to mention everyone in the jumpers, on this," Mitchell put in. "Almost definitely isn't going to cut it."
"Well, forgive me for not having an instant understanding of ten thousand year old technology that none of us have ever used before," Rodney snapped.
"Rodney," John said. Teyla reached over and touched Rodney's arm gently and Rodney subsided.
"I need more time with the technology. Let me have Zelenka for a few hours – we can have a realistic assessment for you by lunch."
John nodded slowly. "That sounds reasonable," he said.
"Yeah," Lorne put in. "It's not like we don't have a plan in place already. It'd be great if this worked, but we could pull it off without."
"Exactly," John agreed, hoping no-one would point out that the current plan for the Replicators was to avoid them.
Mitchell nodded. "Okay, Doctor. You've got six hours."
"Six –" Rodney started, then looked over at John. "That's fine."
By ten o'clock that evening, there was a – temporarily shut-down – human-form Replicator under guard in one of the cells. John would have felt better about the whole thing if Rodney hadn't made it look like an attractive woman (though at least not a blonde one) and given it a name, even if the name was supposedly an anagram.
Just looking at it, more like a dead person than a piece of machinery, gave him the creeps, and knowing he'd have to fly the jumper with it in the morning made it worse. Assuming it didn't kill them all when it was turned on, of course.
It didn't help that Rodney had, predictably, used the high tech nature of the Replicator to talk his way onto the mission, which John had really been hoping to avoid.
When he got back to his quarters, Teyla was waiting outside.
"You looking for me?" It hadn't taken Teyla long to get used to the radios, or to calling them rather than dropping by.
"Yes." She smiled warmly, but there was something under it, something unfamiliar.
"You want to come in? I can make tea, if you want –"
"I am fine," Teyla said. She stood quietly as John let the door close, found a place to set down his datapad, then took a deep breath. "I cannot accompany you to the Replicator homeworld tomorrow."
John felt himself gaping at her, like an idiot. "Um. For – I guess you've got a reason?"
"Of course. I had intended to be part of the team, though Kanaan suggested otherwise. It was only tonight that I realized I could not, in good conscience, allow such a risk."
John reminded himself firmly that the city's sensors would have picked up an alien imposter using Teyla's body; it was just strange to hear her talking about a risk that she wasn't willing to take, especially when it was for Elizabeth. "I know it's not exactly the safest thing we've ever done, Teyla, but we've got McKay's replicator thing, if that works –"
"It is not that I doubt it will be successful," Teyla interrupted. John couldn't remember her ever interrupting anyone before. "But you cannot be certain that there will not be casualties, and I cannot place myself in that danger." She shifted slightly, one hand coming up to rest on her stomach and – Oh, fuck, no.
"Tell me you're not," John started. Except he didn't need to ask, did he? As if there was any other possible reason for Teyla not to come on a mission with them. "How long?"
"I have known since the Kirsan fever outbreak," Teyla said calmly. "Dr Keller discovered this in her search for the cause of mine and Ronon's immunity."
"Since then," John said, trying not to sound as stunned as he felt, or like someone who was on the edge of flipping out. He knew the outbreak hadn't been that long ago, not really, and he'd been busy – they'd both been busy – without a lot of time to just hang out; but this was Teyla, Teyla with a baby, and she'd hopped into the jumper to go after Lorne like it was nothing, like she was risking her life and nothing else, and didn't have… "You let me take you into space, against an unknown enemy who had one of our people trapped."
He sounded angrier, out loud, than he thought he really felt. Maybe.
"It was my decision to make," Teyla said, starting to sound angry in turn. "Larrin was an unknown threat."
"Great," John said. "That's what you'd have had me tell Kanaan, then, if something had happened. She could have dropped the radiation shielding while we were up there, do you have any idea what that could have done to a child?"
"I am well aware of the risks, John," Teyla said. She didn't exactly move, but suddenly she was a lot closer to John than she had been, radiating tension. "Which is why I have chosen to remove myself from this mission."
John took a deep breath, trying to calm down. The burn of nervous energy didn't help, and neither did the fade of his anger, leaving behind something he suspected was probably hurt. Teyla was one of his closest friends, anywhere, and she hadn't told him. "I'm removing you from active duty," he said, striving for calm and not making it.
Teyla stared at him. "You cannot do that," she said. "I am perfectly capable of continuing to do my job here. Athosian women remain very active well up –"
"You're on my team, and I'm the military commander of the city. It's my call."
"You are being ridiculous. You did not even notice I was pregnant until I told you, clearly it has not hampered my ability to serve on your team."
"Teyla," John said, and had to stop, afraid of what his voice was going to sound like. He blamed it on lack of sleep, and surprise. He'd never agued with Teyla before, not like this.
"John," Teyla said. "You are angry with me for concealing this from you, and concerned for the mission tomorrow." She sounded like she was trying hard to be rational. "I have already chosen not to join the mission, though it has been a difficult choice for me, and one that I have spent many nights contemplating. Wait to make a further decision until you have returned."
Allow clearer heads to prevail. John thought he remembered her saying that to him once before. He nodded, forcing himself to meet her eye. She'd go back to Kanaan in a minute, and talk to him. Tell him who knew what about John and this conversation, and, God, could he get any more pathetic than being jealous that Teyla was able to be close to her people again? "Fine. No decisions till we get back."
Teyla's nod was stiff. "You should rest. I will see you all in the morning."
"Night," John said, as casually as he could manage, and then the door was sliding closed behind her, leaving him vibrating with tension, formless and acidic.
Maybe it was just the cumulative effect of too many changes in too-rapid succession. Even if they got Elizabeth back, things wouldn't be the same. Assuming she even wanted to stay in the city, which John privately thought was a pretty big if.
Teyla didn't show up for the final briefing, and John was afraid he'd have to tell everyone why. Something must have shown on his face when Rodney asked if they were waiting on her though, because nobody asked the reason when John said no.
Mitchell caught John's arm as he was leaving, his hand scraping over John's jacket sleeve for a second. "Teyla told me why she's not going with you," he said quietly.
"Yeah," John said, not sure what there was to add to that. "I guess it's for the best."
Mitchell nodded. He'd been serious in the briefing, leading John and Lorne, then Rodney and Zelenka, through one final rundown for the teams of who, what, where and how, but now he looked something else, something more. Solemn, and kind of sad. He smiled, sort of, when he caught John looking. "First time I've been the one staying behind and giving orders for a major operation."
John got that. One of the things he liked about Atlantis was being allowed to go out with a gate team, not being stuck in the city, watching everyone else risking their lives and waiting to find out what happened. No-one was saying it, but this mission was volunteer-only for a reason. They wouldn't be coming back with everyone they left with.
John's radio beeped, Rodney demanding to know where he was.
"Go on," Mitchell said off John's apologetic look. "Just – try not to get yourself killed, okay? I'm pretty sure your marines would rebel against me without you."
John knew he wasn't the best at reading human interactions, but even he knew Mitchell was saying more than that, enough to make him want to promise something he couldn't. "I'll do my best," he said instead, and Mitchell let him go.
John felt his gaze, right until he turned the corner, out of sight of the gate room.
The Replicator – John refused to call it Fran, or even FRAN – was sitting in the backseat of the jumper, opposite Ronon. It looked up when John stepping inside the ship and smiled at him. "Hello, Colonel Sheppard."
"Hi," John said back automatically, then shook himself out of it and went up front to where Rodney was fiddling with his computer. "I know it's a bit late to ask, but there's a way to shut that off if it turns into a crazy Replicator bent on our destruction, right?"
"Fran's not going to become bent on our destruction," Rodney said without looking up, and John could hear the non-acronym status of the name. "She's perfectly safe."
"Fine. But just in case."
"Did you not just – fine. Yes, I can shut her down remotely, are you happy now?"
Teyla was missing, sitting out the mission because she was pregnant, and also really pissed at him; Mitchell seemed like he was kind of into John, a sentiment that John was starting to suspect had been mutual for quite a while, even if it took him risking his life on the Replicator homeworld for him to get it; and he was about to fly a jumper into the Replicator homeworld, armed with a glorified robot who smiled a lot.
"Ecstatic," he said, and tapped his radio to give the go order. Dropping down into the gate room, he tried not to notice how much Teyla and Mitchell, up on the balcony, looked like every picture of war widows watching the troop trains pull away that he'd ever seen.
Once they were through the gate, the training kicked in, the back-up jumpers cloaking and moving into positions hopefully outside the range of the Replicators' scanners, while John and the other three teams hung back by the gate, their own scans running.
"Okay," Rodney said after a while. "I've got activity, but it's mainly at the edges of the city, and down near the core room. Nothing like as much as we saw when we were here last time."
John nodded. "All right. You all know what you're doing. Keep your radios open at all times. When the Relicator's done its thing, I'll give the all clear and we'll go in."
Three affirmatives came back. John tapped his radio onto standby, double-checked the jumper's cloak, and headed down to the city.
From the air, it didn't look much different from Atlantis, though John had seen the modifications with his own eyes on their first visit. It could have been abandoned, if not for the display showing clusters of activity. Clusters were good, though, clusters meant easily avoided. Just in case.
"Set down there," Rodney said quietly, pointing out a tower that seemed to correspond to one on Atlantis with cells.
John nodded, setting the jumper down carefully. The other jumper pilots checked in their own landing zones, voices hushed, like the stillness was getting to them the same way it was to John. He wanted to be up, out, moving, not sitting at the top of a tower, totally exposed. "They don't know we're here, right?"
"No," Rodney said, looking between his laptop and the Replicator.
"Because when we were here last time, you said it would only be a matter of time before they noticed her, and then it's a small step to noticing us."
"I told you," Rodney said. "No." But he looked more worried than John was really comfortable with. "Anything yet?"
The Replicator shook its head. "They have not yet become aware that I am here."
"Right. Good." Rodney turned back to John. "We could upload it now and go," he suggested. "We're all in fairly empty areas right now."
"You're sure they won't notice anything?" John pressed. "Running around the city is a lot more active than sitting in the back of a jumper."
"No. If they haven't picked her up now, there's no reason to assume they will."
"You guys get that?" John asked into his radio, getting three affirmatives back. He nodded at Rodney, who hit a series of keys and nodded. "Okay, then, go. We have no idea when the next update will happen, though, so watch yourselves. In and out without anyone noticing us."
"Well, mostly," Rodney said. He glanced over when John didn't say anything. "I mean, they're going to notice Fran when the update happens. If they unfreeze while we're still in there…"
"They'll know exactly where to look for us," Ronon finished.
John remembered Rodney talking about the possibility of them unfreezing, the guess-work nature of figuring out how long it would last. Somehow, that information had gotten buried under everything else. "Okay, let's just hope that doesn't happen."
"Yes," Rodney said, sounding shaken. "Absolutely."
There were, according to the plans of Atlantis, ten areas with cells in the city. Assuming Davos had seen Elizabeth in a real cell, and assuming that the Replicators hadn't built more, or put them somewhere different. Ten blocks of cells, four teams; if everything went to plan, John figured they could be on their way home, with Elizabeth, in a couple of hours.
If everything went to plan.
"That way," Rodney muttered, nudging John down the left-hand corridor. Ronon brought up the rear, one eye always on the Replicator. It would be the first sign that things were working, and the first sign if they stopped.
John wanted to hold his breath, creeping through the city. Life signs detectors were useless on the Replicators, and they didn't have Elizabeth this time, telling them when to go and when to hide, relying instead on John's and Ronon's own skills. John kept half an ear on the occasional hum of noise in his radio; Team 3 checking in to say their first point was deserted, Lorne saying something John couldn't catch to Sergeant Reed.
He didn't even notice the Replicator's footsteps until they stopped, followed a moment later by Rodney's quiet, "It worked."
And now they had an immobile Replicator with them. John was beginning to think that, for all the training they'd done, this part of the plan could have used a little more thought.
Ronon hefted the Replicator before John could say anything, swinging it into a fireman's carry and taking out his weapon again.
"Replicators are all frozen," John told his radio. "Let's hurry it up, get out of here before they start melting."
There was no need for either quiet or stealth at that point; not that anyone got loud, but they sped up, checking off the ten cell blocks faster than John had anticipated.
"Nothing, sir," Lorne said when he hit the last one. "If they're keeping her in the city, they're not keeping her in any of the cells."
"Okay." John looked between the remnants of his team, huddled in the junction of two corridors, the Replicator leaning slightly on Ronon's shoulder once he put it down. "If you've got a brilliant idea," he told everyone else. "Now's the time to bring it up. Hell, any idea, brilliant or not."
"Didn't they have a data storage device in their gate room?" Ronon suggested. "Maybe it's on there."
Rodney blinked in surprise. "That's actually a good suggestion. Assuming we can break any security on their system, which should be a breeze."
"Great," John said. "All right, Lorne and Kagan, pull your teams back to the jumpers. We don't know how much longer this is going to hold. Gutierrez, bring your team down to the gate room to meet us."
"Yes, sir," Gutierrez said, followed by sounds of movement.
"S'that way," Ronon said, hefting the Replicator back onto his shoulders.
They were almost there, the corridors comfortingly familiar, when Ronon huffed a sharp breath. A moment later, the Replicator said, "I awaken."
"Fuck," John muttered. "Gutierrez, the Replicators are up and about again, keep your eyes open. Lorne, Kagan, how're you guys doing?"
"Back at the jumper," Kagan confirmed.
"Same here," Lorne added. "You need us down there, sir?"
"Negative." John watched Ronon set the Replicator back on her – its – feet. "We'll yell if we need you." He switched back to standby. "Can you tell us where the others are, now you're part of the collective?"
"Not exactly part," Rodney put in. "She's still under our control, she just has links –"
"Rodney," John said sharply.
"There are ten in the gate room," the Replicator said calmly. "You will not be able to fight through them. Oberoth is searching for your presence as we speak. He will send others to dispose of you."
"Great," John said. "Is there another terminal, for accessing the data storage?"
"There is –" it started, and John's radio activated to Shah's tense voice saying, "Sir, we've got a gate activation up here."
"Our people?" Lorne asked.
John shook his head. They didn't have time for this, not now, when they were so exposed. "We've got hours yet, and Mitchell knows not to send anyone after us."
"Darts!" Shah exclaimed. "Sir, be advised we have six darts come through the gate, heading for the city."
It had always been only a matter of time before the Wraith figured out what was killing them and tried to fight back. John just wished it hadn't been today. "If you can take them, do it," he said. "No unnecessary risks, they might just be doing a fly-by, and not notice us amongst the Replicators."
When he turned back, the power cell on Ronon's gun was pulsing darker, set to kill, and Rodney's eyes were wide. "There's nothing we can do about them," John said firmly. "We'll finish our mission. Gutierrez, hold your position."
"Okay," John said, turning to the Replicator, resisting the urge to shake it. At least the darts seemed to be keeping the rest of them occupied – no-one was coming yet. "Where's this terminal you mentioned?"
"It is in the north wing of the city," the Replicator said calmly. "I can lead you there."
Something exploded in John's ear, distorted by the radio. He really hoped it was a dart and not a jumper, but he couldn't stop to check. Lorne would be keeping track, if he could. "Let's go. Gutierrez, head for the north wing."
Speed won out over stealth, now they knew they'd be found. John had no illusions about what Oberoth could do, and the darts wouldn't distract him for long, if they had at all. Pounding down metal corridors indistinguishable from those on Atlantis, John found himself slipping out of the mission, just for a second, until Rodney's rasping breath pulled him back.
"This way," the Replicator said, turning sharply and passing through a door. John followed, Rodney and Ronon crowding through after them.
He just had time to think, outside. Huh before the shimmering sensation of a dematerialization beam washed over him.
It wasn't unreasonable that Atlantis seemed quieter when the wormhole shut down after the last of the jumpers; the departing fleet had caused plenty of noise, and there'd been an increase in the amount of running around all morning.
That didn't explain why, hours later, the city still seemed too quiet. The teams that had left had been on the mainland for days; combined with the people on New Athos, it had dropped Atlantis' population by a big enough margin to make a difference, but Cam had thought they were all used to it. Clearly, he'd been wrong, because he could have sworn he could hear his footfalls echoing when he left the office. The city felt late-night still, even with people moving about, huddling in whispering groups at the junctions between corridors.
He'd intended to walk out to one of the far balconies, just for a few minutes' break, but he gave up after less than five minutes and headed back to the office, where at least no-one would come looking for him for reassurance.
Not for the first time, he wondered what had made the IOA pick him as a suitable leader for the city; he knew team leadership, military leadership, from the front and in the field, not this, left behind, waiting for the action to come back to him, trying to project reassurance and confidence that he didn't feel.
Sheppard hadn't given much of a prediction for when they'd be back – some time in the next day or so, with a shrug, like he was running out for milk – and that actually made it worse. Team missions had defined check-in times, stated times to send in the cavalry for a rescue; this didn't have either, didn't even have a rescue plan, because if they didn't come back, there would be no point sending teams after them.
No-one on Earth knew about this. If it went badly, the first anyone would hear would be when Cam opened a wormhole to the SGC to announce that he'd lost a large chunk of the city's military contingent, including its military commander and second, as well as its chief scientist. He didn't harbor any illusions about how long he'd stay in the city, or in the Air Force, probably, if that happened.
If they lost everyone on his decision, he'd deserve whatever punishment the IOA chose, and then some.
"Excuse me, Colonel Mitchell?" Teyla's voice said, and Cam looked up to find her standing in his half-open doorway. "May I come in?"
"Sure." Cam closed the lid on his laptop, where he'd been trying – and failing – to compose an argument for allowing the Athosians to stay in the city, something that Landry and the IOA weren't keen on, even after he'd pointed out that they were under threat of genocide on their own planet. For someone who ran a top-secret mission sending people to other planets, Landry could be remarkably closed-minded. "What's up?"
Teyla folded herself neatly into one of the soft chairs opposite the desk. Now that he knew, Cam could see her pregnancy starting to show, but it was barely noticeable. She still looked a lot like the woman he'd met on his first visit to the city, ready to take on anyone who came after her people; she reminded him of Vala a little in that way, which was more comforting than it should have been.
"Kanaan and the others have grown weary of my pacing," she said, smiling slightly.
"Threw you out, huh?" Cam asked.
Teyla nodded. "Though, in truth, I am more comfortable here."
Cam understood that. The control room would get any news first, would see the returning fleet as soon as they came through the wormhole. He'd set a limit on how many times every hour he could go out to the balcony and look down at the gate. "Sucks being left behind, doesn't it?"
"It does," Teyla agreed. "Even if it was my own choice."
"I think you made the right decision," Cam said. "John – Colonel Sheppard – will come round, when this is over."
"I hope you are right," Teyla said. "There is no reason why I cannot continue to go through the gate on less hazardous missions."
"We'll talk him round," Cam said, trying to sound confident. Trying not to sound like he wasn't sure they'd have John back to talk round. He couldn't imagine staying behind while his team went out to face danger and potential death; he couldn't imagine going out to face danger and death, knowing it wasn't just his own life he was risking, either. He knew which decision he'd have wanted Teyla to make, in Kanaan's position.
"Colonel Mitchell!" one of the techs called from the gate-room.
Cam had to catch Teyla's arm as they both made for the door at the same time, nearly knocking her over. "What's going on?" Not that he needed to ask.
"Gate activation, sir. It's the alpha site."
Cam wished, suddenly and hard, for something to lean against. "IDC? Radio transmission?"
"Nothing yet –" the tech started, then cut himself off. "Receiving Major Lorne's IDC."
"Lower the shield," Cam said. "Get a medical team down to the jumper bay, and a hazmat team standing by, just in case." He reached up for his radio. "Cadman, have a security team standing by in the jumper bay."
"Yes, sir," Cadman said, not asking questions. One more thing that Cam liked about the marines.
"Major, you're clear," the tech said, and it was like a switch being flipped, everyone on the control balcony turning to the gate.
They'd sent out seven jumpers altogether, a little under half their total contingent: more air support than some ops Cam had flown in, enough ground teams for a fast sweep of the city, and a Replicator that they controlled.
Teyla's hand closed over the railing, pressing close to his. Cam felt her looking at him, but he couldn't look back.
The first jumper came through, two people in the front section – part of the air support team, then. The marine in the co-pilot seat gave Cam a sharp nod before the jumper headed up to the bay; his face gave nothing away, which told Cam enough.
Teyla's sharp breath next to him said the same thing.
Another followed, air support again, then Kagan's team.
There was a pause, then another jumper. This one stopped in front of the balcony, giving Cam a clear look at Lorne's face.
He already knew what was coming. Lorne's flat voice on the radio only confirmed it. "You can shut down the gate. No-one else is coming through."
John's head was fucking killing him. Just opening his eyes hurt; it wasn't worth the effort anyway. Everything was blurred, but he could still see that he was behind some kind of bars, and, really, headache and bars could only add up to one thing.
They'd been captured.
Nearby, someone groaned, then said, "What happened?" Rodney.
John wriggled his fingers across the floor of the cell until he could press his hand over Rodney's, all without opening his eyes. The hand under his twitched, like Rodney was thinking about turning his hand and pressing back, but couldn't find the energy.
John drifted again. He knew he should shake it off and get up, start looking for a way out, but everything hurt, and he was too tired.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Rodney said, snapping John awake.
"What?" he asked, trying to force his eyes open. Things were a bit less blurred this time, enough to see that they weren't in a Replicator cell at all.
He felt he should have had something to say, but the only thing coming to mind was Rodney's you have got to be kidding me, and John tried not to be repetitive.
Not that it mattered, since Rodney had apparently taken John's question as genuine. "We have, Colonel, been taken captive, not by the far more likely Replicators, but by the statistically improbable, even with our luck, Wraith, while they were undertaking an attack on the Replicator world."
"Yeah." Rodney's hand slid out from under John's, which John took as a sign that he needed to get it together. He blinked a couple of times, which helped with his focus problem, and forced himself to sit up, leaning back against the cell wall. "I got that."
Rodney was doing better than him, on his knees and looking at the control panel for their door, though worse than Ronon, who was still passed out. John peered into all the corners of the cell, found them empty, and dragged himself over to the door, trying to see into the other cells. The lighting wasn't great, but it didn't need to be: there was no-one there.
"Maybe they're being kept somewhere else," Rodney said quietly. He wasn't looking at John, but even the back of his head radiated misery and despair. Which meant John couldn't lean against the cell bars and give in to the creeping sense of complete and utter failure. Unfortunately.
Ronon groaned, drawing John's and Rodney's attention. He was already pushing himself upright when John made it to his side, reaching for his blaster and snarling when he found it missing. His eyes flickered round the cell before settling on John. "Wraith."
"Yeah," John agreed. "Rodney's getting us out of here."
"I am?" Rodney asked. "Right, of course I am, because what's the use of having two highly-trained military men around, I still have to –"
"Rodney," John said, cutting him off before he could get into a proper rant and make John's headache any worse.
"You think anyone else got picked up by the Wraith?" Ronon asked.
John shrugged. He wasn't even sure which would be the better option at this point.
Rodney came over to join them before he could think of anything to say, flopping down next to John. "Well, unless one of you managed to hang onto a knife, I'd say we're pretty much stuck in here."
Ronon's hand went to his dreadlocks, then came back down, empty.
"Guess they wised up after last time," John suggested. He'd known it was too much to hope that they could use the same trick they'd used when they'd been trapped with Ford's crew.
Rodney opened his mouth to say something, but Ronon cut him off with a raised hand. "Someone's coming."
"We scanned the planet for life signs," Lorne said. "There were four when we left the Replicator city, but they were gone as well before we came through the gate."
Cam nodded, trying to absorb the information. Three jumpers lost, nine members of the expedition: seven on the Replicator planet, two to a drone fired by the city.
It shouldn't have hurt as much as it did. It wasn't like they were friends, or had even spent that much time together since Cam had got to Atlantis. But there had been something. John's promise before he'd walked away, stepped into a jumper and gone off on a mission that Cam had approved.
"All right. Lorne, you'll take over command of the military in the city, until further notice. Make sure everyone from this mission sees Dr Keller and her team. And Dr Heightmeyer, I guess. Including you."
Lorne nodded. He looked more exhausted than he had after the Kirsan outbreak, and his new responsibility could only make that worse. Cam made a mental note to push for someone to be brought in to replace Sheppard, rather than giving the command to Lorne. Not that he'd get much say.
"I guess I'd better contact the SGC, tell them what happened."
Teyla shook her head. "Do not do so yet. Colonel Sheppard and Dr McKay have often managed to escape from seemingly hopeless situations, as has Ronon."
"There weren't any life signs on the planet," Lorne said gently.
"Perhaps they were swept up by the darts," Teyla insisted. "Or somehow escaped in the jumper. One day will make no difference to your commanders."
Lorne nodded slowly, like he couldn't believe he was doing it. "Sergeant Gutierrez and his team are pretty resourceful," he said. Cam wouldn't have said he sounded hopeful, but he sounded fractionally less defeated than he had. "Teyla's right, sir – Landry's not going to care that you left it another day."
Cam had a feeling Landry was going to care about every possible thing he could when he heard what had happened. But he wanted – "Okay. One day."
"Thank you," Teyla said fervently.
Rodney, predictably, was the first one to break the silence. "I did not see this coming."
"A sentiment we share," the wraith said solemnly, getting a shudder from Rodney and a glare from Ronon. John was still sort of stuck on 'huh.'
"I suppose this is the part where you go on about how fortunate it was that you picked us up, because now you can get revenge on Sheppard for abandoning you on that planet," Rodney added, coming to stand on John's right side. With Ronon on his left, John felt a lot like he'd just acquired two bodyguards.
"It is indeed fortuitous. It has saved me the effort of many more trips to human worlds."
"Well, good, glad to know we were able to provide you with a quick snack, rather than going to all the trouble of culling people," Rodney said.
"Okay, enough," John said. "What the hell's going on?"
The wraith turned to look at him. "John Sheppard. I see you are still doing well."
"Not that well, since we're in a Wraith cell," John pointed out. He could maybe handle Rodney snarking at the wraith, but making small talk with the one who'd drained his life then given it back was a little too much weirdness for one day.
"Ah," the wraith said. "It is a precaution, for the safety of us both."
John could see his point; he'd bet on Ronon's vibrating fury against the wraith any day, even without weapons. "All right, I'll bite. Why do you want to keep us safe?"
"I have left messages for you on many worlds, but it seems your people are not so well-traveled as I had hoped."
"Sorry about that," John said, putting as much fake sincerity into it as he could.
The wraith tilted his head slightly, in what John thought might be amusement. If the Wraith had a sense of humor. "So what did this message say?"
"As you know, the Wraith are at war. I see you are aware of our enemy." The head tilt this time was definitely amusement.
"We've had a bit to do with them," John agreed. He pushed away the rest of the thought – trapped on a hive ship wasn't the moment to start wondering about the fate of the rest of his people.
"Apparently," the wraith said. "We have a weapon, a virus that was designed to re-set their attack directive, causing them to stand down and return to their planet. At present, it is not working."
"No offence, but we're not exactly upset by that news."
"No offence is taken. We are well aware that it was Dr McKay who set them on their current mission."
Rodney groaned. "Great. Try to save the human race, and instead you end up at the front of the line to be eaten."
The wraith ignored him, which made a nice change. "It is also known that Dr McKay made certain changes to the Replicator base code, opening the door for them to alter their own programming. Knowingly or not, they have since repaired the weakness that our virus exploited. In order to make it work again, I need to know the changes Dr McKay has made."
John had kind of seen that coming, but it was still a surprise to hear it out loud, spoken as though the wraith expected him to just hand over the information with a smile – Wraith better than Replicators, sure, why not? "Maybe you missed it the first time round, but we're glad you can't get your virus working. We sent the Replicators after you in the first place, we're happy that the plan is working."
"Only because you are as yet unaware of their new tactic."
John knew, even before Ronon growled, "What are you talking about?" that this wasn't going to be good.
"The Replicators have realized that they cannot hope to keep defeating us using their current methods. They have chosen instead to go after out food supply."
"What?" Rodney asked, sounding stunned.
"They have begun to annihilate human worlds."
He just hadn't realized exactly how not-good this was going to be.
"I don't understand," Rodney said. "Why would they want to do that?"
"Starving them out," Ronon said, somewhere between satisfied and horrified. Much like John.
"How do I even know you're telling the truth?" John asked. "It's not like we're in any position to check on what you're saying."
The wraith sighed. "Would you be more inclined to trust if I was to unlock this cell and return your weapons to you?"
"It'd be a start," John agreed. Their chances of escaping had to be better if they were armed and not locked up.
The wraith turned to the control panel, then paused. "I must warn you that we are currently travelling in hyperspace," he said. "And also that this cruiser carries many battle ready Wraith. Your chances of escape would be slim."
"That's another thing," John said, reminded. Hyperspace wasn't good news, but the ship would have to drop out eventually. Plus, a cruiser was better than a hive. "You just happened to be flying over the Replicator city at the same time we were there? Doing what, exactly?"
The wraith tapped a sequence of keys, shielding the touch pad from view with his body. "You are very suspicious, John Sheppard."
"What can I say?" John asked, trying to shrug casually and finding he was too tense to pull it off. "Get captured by the Wraith a couple of times, you lose your naïve optimism."
Rodney huffed in agreement next to him, but didn't say anything.
"I suppose," the wraith agreed. "As Dr McKay said, this was a fortunate coincidence. My ship was sent to this world in an attempt to beam up a Replicator for closer study. We have had little success in capturing another during an attack, but it was thought that an alteration to the technology used in our darts would allow us to cull non-living matter also."
"Did it work?" Rodney asked, curiosity getting the better of him, as usual.
"We were partially successful," the Wraith said.
"What does that mean?" Ronon asked.
"It appears that the bonds between the nanites cannot survive the rematerializing process," the wraith said. He turned a little to look at Rodney. "Though we are hopeful that we may be able to use the nanite cells in the future."
The control panel beeped, the door sweeping open, and John was doubly glad for it, because it meant he wouldn't have to see the look on Rodney's face at finding out his creation had been destroyed.
The ceilings in Atlantis, Cam had decided, needed something to make them more interesting. Not that most ceilings were particularly exciting, but this was Atlantis, lost city of the Ancients. It had a reputation to live up to, and right now, it was being let down by its ceilings.
It was possible that he'd hit the slightly high, irrational point of lack of sleep.
Actually, given that he had to get up and go back to work in twenty minutes, and was still lying awake, trying to fall asleep, that was more like probable than possible.
He wasn't sure when he'd become the kind of person who was grateful to hear the words, "Colonel Mitchell, we need you in the gate-room," but apparently it had happened. Maybe when he'd joined SG-1, and it meant something exciting and probably dangerous was going to happen.
"On my way," he said, and shoved his feet into his boots, feeling for his weapon on the desk before he realized he hadn't actually removed it the night before. That probably explained why he was still fully dressed.
The gate was open when he got up there, bright blue in the early morning light. Lorne was already on the balcony, not looking like he'd slept much either. "Major?"
"We've got a radio transmission from the beta site, sir."
They didn't have any teams out. Cam tamped down the flare of hope. "Who is it?"
"Colonel Sheppard's team, sir." Lorne didn't look as pleased by that news as Cam might have expected. That was never a good sign.
"Sergeant?" he said, turning to the gate tech. The tech tapped a couple of keys and nodded. "Sheppard?" Cam said, looking out at the gate. "What's going on?"
"I know it sounds unlikely," John's voice said, distorted by the radio and the wormhole. "But we were rescued by a wraith during the dart attack."
"By your wraith," McKay's voice said, loudly enough for John's mike to pick it up.
"He's not my wraith," John said sharply, then, "By the wraith who fed on me."
"With the Genii, right," Cam said, sharing a look with Lorne. "Who just happened to be passing by."
"I said it sounded unlikely," John pointed out.
McKay cut in before he could get any further. "It's a long and thrilling story, Colonel, one we'll be happy to regale all of Atlantis with at great length, but we've spent most of the last twenty-four hours on a hive ship, at the mercy of some frankly not-that-friendly Wraith, and if you could drop the shield so we can come through rather than being splatted into it like so many bugs, we'd all be very grateful."
"Yeah," John said, sounding like he was trying not to laugh. "That."
Cam looked over at Lorne again, getting a single nod in return. "We'll send a team through to scan you for nanites," he said.
"Oh, for –" McKay started, but it was John who cut him off this time.
"He's right, McKay. Good idea. We'll be here."
The praise, Cam thought as the wormhole winked out and Lorne tapped his radio on, really shouldn't have felt as good as it did.
The day seemed to drag on forever, once the scans were done and the gate opened back to Atlantis. It was a subdued return, even with Teyla's hug for the three of them, John included, which he took to mean he was temporarily forgiven for their earlier argument. The standard post-mission checks with Keller felt like an anti-climax, even more so than the hours of debrief and plotting over the wraith's proposal.
It wasn't until he made to follow his team to the mess for dinner and Teyla raised a dubious eyebrow at him that John realized he still had one hand on his P-90.
"Perhaps it would be best if you left your weapon behind," she suggested.
Ronon grinned. "Could be a good way to get extra dessert."
"Damn, why didn't I think of that?" Rodney asked, gathering up his tablet and two coffee mugs. John stared at him, confused. They'd been together all day, how had Rodney managed to get rid of his weapons and vest while John was still wearing his?
"You guys go ahead," he told the others. "I'll catch up."
"Sure?" Ronon asked, hovering.
"I think I'll be all right between the armoury and the mess," John said, willing him not to mention how John had gotten lost in the city during the outbreak. "Save me some cake if there's anything good."
"Pff," Rodney snorted. "If there's any good cake, I'm having all of it. I deserve it after today."
"And Ronon and I don't?"
"Ronon, maybe. You took the last piece of chocolate cake last week. All they had left when I got down there was lemon drizzle cake. You owe me."
"Do not worry," Teyla said warmly. "I will protect your cake from both Rodney and Ronon." She smiled at John, concern right under the warm amusement. That definitely meant John was forgiven, at least for the moment. Maybe they could even avoid talking about it, which would only be awkward, and probably make things worse.
"It's good to know somebody loves me," John said, watching the three of them leave.
Mitchell cleared his throat from the head of the table, and stood up. "Come on, I'll walk you down."
"I don't need a guard," John said, irritated. "Or a guide." Like Mitchell could find his way round the city any better than John anyway, and it wasn't like John regularly got lost in Atlantis.
"I know," Mitchell said easily, steering him out of the gate-room with a hand on his shoulder. "I'm just hoping to get sympathy cake from being with you."
He was joking, John knew, he meant it to carry on the banter John had had with his team. Instead, it was like something heavy and stifling falling back over him after being lifted for a moment, a reminder of his failure. They'd lost people, maybe even given the Replicators more captives, whatever Lorne said about the life-signs disappearing, and they were no closer to finding Elizabeth than they had been. She'd been there, she was there, he knew it. If they'd just had more time…
"John," Mitchell said, catching his arm. "I thought you didn't need a guide."
John blinked, surprised to find himself outside the door to the armoury. "Right. Sorry."
He touched the sensor to open the door and dumped his vest in the corner to pick up later, then counted his P-90 ammo back in and checked the weapon, all the time aware of Mitchell leaning against the wall, watching him.
"So," he said, just to break the silence, which wasn't entirely comfortable. "How much trouble are we in with the IOA?" It wasn't the most pressing question, but it was about the only one he was comfortable with getting an answer for. Considering he'd needed a vision from a now-dead seer to convince Mitchell to approve the first mission, he wasn't keen on proposing another one yet. Not with six of his people missing.
"Ask me after I talk to them tomorrow," Mitchell said dryly.
John winced. "Good luck."
There was a rustle of fabric that might have been Mitchell shrugging. "Dial-in's at 0900, my office."
That was what John had been afraid of. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." The noise this time was definitely Mitchell, taking a step towards John. He kept his eyes firmly on the control pad for the lockers, keying in the code he'd memorized years ago, feeling Mitchell get closer. His arm burned from the remembered feel of Mitchell's hand there, before they'd left the city, and his hands wanted to start trembling. He hadn't even thought about this with anyone else, not since he'd sat down in the chair in Antarctica and a guy in orange had told him to think about where they were in the solar system.
He hadn't wanted to think about it with anyone else, and now that he was, now there was someone…
Mitchell's hand on his shoulder was gentle, carefully turning him round, and John closed his eyes, heard Mitchell say his name, soft, and tilted his head, leaning in, letting Mitchell kiss him.
Mitchell was a nice kisser, his hands careful on John's shoulders, the kiss more about comfort than anything else. And it wasn't something John had thought about, not really, or something he'd imagined wanting, but it was good. Kissing back was far easier than it should have been, far easier than was safe.
John leaned back, just far enough to break the kiss, and opened his eyes.
He didn't need to say anything – which was good, since he had no idea what he might have said – Mitchell was already smiling, wry and self-deprecating. "Bad idea," he said.
"Bad timing," John agreed. Six months earlier, when they'd been back on Earth, and he was fairly sure it would have had a different ending, even if he hadn't known that then. Maybe it had always been there, something that kept them in each other's orbit when they were posted together, something that had needed the pull of proximity and Atlantis to spark properly.
"Right," Mitchell said. They were still standing close enough together for John to see the flicker of disappointment across his face. "Sure."
John thought Mitchell would step away then, but he stayed where he was, and John couldn't make the first move, not without seeming -. It wasn't like it was a hardship, not really. Mitchell was a nice guy, didn't throw his weight around like some people would in his place, trying to prove they were in charge. He was a nice guy, and good-looking, always had been. And it was kind of nice, being physically close to someone he could be close to without tensing up and wanting to leave. Sometimes, history really did work better than closeness for that.
"Your team will be wondering where you are," Mitchell said quietly.
"Yeah," John said. As much as he didn't want to be around all the people who would still be in the mess, he'd promised to go along, and they'd worry if he didn't show up. It wasn't fair, not when they'd had such a bad set-back in getting Elizabeth home. "I should go." The polite thing would be to invite Mitchell to join them; John couldn't make the words come out.
It was more difficult than it should have been to step back, away from Mitchell's warmth. "Dial-in at 0900?"
"Yep," Mitchell said, not quite looking at John's face.
"See you then," John said, and fled.
Landry, predictably, wasn't happy to hear what John and Mitchell had to say about the rescue mission, or the Wraith intel.
"Discretion over mission planning isn't supposed to include signing off on missions you know the IOA doesn't like," he said eventually.
Mitchell made an odd, scrunched-up face, which made him look like every stereotype of dumb Kansas farmboys. John looked away, afraid he was going to laugh. "I'm aware of that, sir," Mitchell said. "But it seemed like the mission plan had merit, and a reasonable chance of success."
"Which is why you failed to inform us until after the event," Landry said dryly. John remembered, again, why he disliked the new rule that more than two casualties on any one mission had to be accounted for face to face, rather than just on paper. It was just an excuse for Landry to tell him in real-time all the things that he already knew he'd done wrong; another reminder that his people were dead, their bodies gone, and that he was responsible.
As if he needed more of those.
Knowing that people had volunteered didn't make it any easier. He'd still had final say over who went and who stayed behind, made the choices. It was the worst part of being in command.
Mitchell nudged him sharply and John replayed the discussion to which he'd only been giving half of his attention. "I think it's worth checking out," he said, hoping he hadn't imagined the change of subject. "It sounds like something the Replicators could do, and if it's true, we need to do something to put a stop to it."
Another thing he was responsible for. It didn't matter that it had been Rodney's idea. John had made the decision, and John would have to deal with the consequences. Like he was still trying to do after waking the Wraith early, except it was starting to seem like he couldn't do both, and he had no idea what the good choice would be.
"Just try not to go chasing off on any more rescue missions," Landry said. He sounded resigned, and maybe a little bit fond, though John was sure the latter wasn't due to him.
He glanced over at Mitchell, but the guy had his implacable commander face on, giving nothing away.
"We'll do our best, sir," Mitchell said.
"Good," Landry said. "I'm sure the IOA will have more to say about this."
"Looking forward to it, sir," Mitchell said, as sarcastic as John had ever heard him.
"I'm sure," Landry said, and, wow, that was a grin on the man's face; not even a grin at their expense, but a shared joke with Mitchell. Maybe he was more tolerable once you got to know him.
Or if he wasn't stuck with you because of your boss's political clout he thought, less charitably.
"I want to be kept apprised of the situation with the Wraith and the Replicators," Landry added, barely waiting for John and Mitchell to say, "yes, sir," before letting the wormhole close.
"I think that went well," Mitchell said, overly brightly, and shook his head when John looked over.
"You'd know," John said. It came out sounding more suspicious than he'd intended. Mostly.
Mitchell ignored it. "We haven't been recalled to Earth yet," he pointed out. "Could have been worse."
John couldn't really argue with that, even if he'd wanted to. Not in the gate-room, anyway, with half a dozen techs and marines around to hear everything he said.
Mitchell looked at him for another moment, then nodded, glancing away. "Sergeant, any word about Engineering's problems yet?"
"Nothing so far, sir." Chuck looked over at John. "But the lack of alarms and quarantines is probably a good sign."
John returned the smile, since it was true. The mild energy fluctuations in the naquadah generators weren't anywhere close to crisis point yet, so they could probably assume the lack of alarms would continue. Rodney had still been firm on it being something that took priority until it was sorted. "A couple of hours," he'd said. "Four, max." They still had over half of that to go, so John wasn't worried.
"Okay." Mitchell looked down at the gate for a moment. "When they're sorted, get someone up here and we'll send a MALP through to M5S-768." He turned back to John. "You'll be back for that?"
He didn't sound any different, but the switch from friendly to professional was sharp and obvious.
"Yes," John said. He remembered that planet, kind of; after a while, all the moderately industrialized, wooded planets started to blur together. "I'm on the radio."
"Good," Mitchell said. He looked at John for another moment, then nodded and went into his office. He didn't close the door, but John wasn't keen on taking that as a sign that he wanted any kind of company. Not when even he had picked up the signs that Mitchell wasn't as happy about John's response last night as he'd made out.
Not when John had woken up to the phantom sense of Mitchell's hands on his shoulders, and still hadn't managed to shake it.
Lorne came by John's office when he'd been in there for half an hour, wanting to go through the plans for the memorial service. Not that the plans needed looking at – memorials were one thing they'd gotten down to a smooth routine. Part of the routine, though, was pretending that it wasn't routine, that they didn't do this as often as they did. Lorne usually got John's agreement and left. Not today, apparently, if the hovering was anything to go by.
"Something else?" John asked, hoping to put them both out of their misery.
Lorne hesitated, then said, "Yes, sir. Are we planning another rescue mission for Dr Weir?"
Gutierrez and his team were officially listed as missing, but they'd been included in the memorial; John was aware he was probably clinging to empty hope there. "I don't know. Depends on the IOA."
Lorne nodded, but still didn't leave. "Spit it out, Major," John said finally.
"Do you really think the Replicators would have kept her alive after finding out we were in their city?" Lorne asked.
And wasn't that the million dollar question? If John had an answer to that – but Davos had died, and there weren't any other seers hanging around waiting for John to ask them. He shrugged, too tense to do a good job of it. "If they think they fought us off, sure."
Even he could see the holes in his own argument, but Lorne was too polite to point them out. "Yes, sir," he said, managing not to sound overtly dubious, and left.
Ronon turned up two hours later. "Lunch-time," he said, then, "Teyla's waiting."
"I don't think Teyla wants to have lunch with me," John said honestly, though it was tempting. Not that he begrudged the time it took to write the next of kin letters, but there was something about looking at people's files for all the good stuff they'd done that made the whole thing worse than it already was.
Ronon gave him a look that clearly conveyed how much of an idiot John was being. It was worrying that his entire team had versions of that look, and that he'd seen them often enough to know. "Because you tried to take her off the team when she told you she was pregnant?" Ronon asked.
"She told you?" John asked, surprised. Not that there was really any reason for her to keep it a secret at this point.
"Wasn't surprised," Ronon said easily. Of course he wasn't; John didn't think anything really surprised Ronon any more. "Come on. She'll be more pissed off if you make her wait much longer."
That wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for going along, but John went anyway.
Teyla had given up on waiting for them, and was sitting alone at their usual table, tucking into a bowl of stew. She smiled when they joined her, but looked back down too quickly. Maybe not so forgiven after all.
"Is Dr McKay not joining us?" she asked.
Ronon shook his head. "Went by the lab, but he was yelling. Left him to it."
"He's probably having more fun there," John said. He tried a bite of the stew, which actually tasted like it was supposed to for once, the current kitchen staff being much better marines than they were cooks, and made a mental note to drop by the lab and see what was taking so long.
They ate in silence that wasn't quite uncomfortable, but was definitely not comfortable either. It felt way too familiar, a reminder of being a teenager, even with the massive change in location, to the point that John was actually happy when Ronon gulped the last of his water and stood up.
"Gotta go," he announced. "Supervising training for some of your marines in twenty minutes."
John had seen the way Ronon supervised training sessions, and was just as content not knowing the details any more.
"We could have eaten earlier," Teyla said, the faintest note of reprimand in her voice.
Ronon shrugged. "You two can talk, now," he said, and left. It was pretty much what John had been waiting for – for all Teyla's skills when it came to off-world diplomacy, Ronon had somehow become the intra-team mediator over the years.
Teyla smiled dryly. "Ronon is not always terribly subtle."
"Subtle doesn't usually take," John said.
"Though he is correct in saying that we need to talk," Teyla added. She set down her spoon carefully, and, okay, apparently they were going to talk during the lunch-time rush. "It was my decision not to join the attack on the Replicator world."
"I know that," John said. "Just like it's my decision who comes through the gate with us."
"With us?" Teyla repeated. "I was not aware that I had ceased to be a member of this team."
"You haven't." John took a deep breath, trying to explain. "It's not that I don't trust you. You're not off the team."
"But I am not allowed to go with you through the gate. Not while I am carrying a child."
"It's not that simple," John said. Except it was. Even if Teyla was okay with risking her child's life alongside hers, he wasn't. It shouldn't have made a difference, but it did. "I just don't – what would Kanaan say if I took you on a mission and something happened to you or the baby?"
"It is not his decision," Teyla said, anger cutting through her words. "He does not speak for me, or for this child."
John wasn't up for a lesson on the workings of relationships and parenthood in Athosian culture. "And you're telling me that it doesn't bother you, the risk you could be exposing both of you to?"
"I am well aware of the risks," Teyla said. "I have been traveling through the ring for most of my life."
The ring. John hadn't heard her call it that since their first months in the city. Teyla didn't seem to notice.
"I am quite capable of deciding for myself whether a mission is safe for me to be part of," Teyla continued. "As I did with the attack on the Replicator world."
"No. You're not." John realized he'd leaned forward without meaning to, and sat back again. "None of us are. That's why we get captured so often, and stunned, and shot at. We have no way of knowing what's going to happen to us when we go through the gate, and I'm not prepared to put you at risk when you're carrying a child."
"And I am to have no say in this decision," Teyla said stiffly. "I see."
John kept his mouth shut. It wasn't like the situation could get much worse, but that didn't mean it wouldn't anyway.
"You do not have the final say in this," Teyla said. "I am certain that Colonel Mitchell will –"
"Colonel Mitchell's not Elizabeth," John hissed, and Teyla started back. "He's military, Teyla, he thinks like I do. He won't let you go either."
Teyla collected her used dishes carefully and stood up. "Then perhaps it would be best if I were to cease to be part of this team. Until I am no longer a risk to you."
"Teyla," John started, but she was already walking away. He wasn't going to chase after her, not when both of them were angry.
He wasn't going to sit and bang his head on the table either, but it was a close run thing.
His radio beeped as he was drinking the last of his coffee, forcing himself to stay put. Two days ago, everyone had assumed he was dead along with his team; hiding wasn't really an option for the next couple of days. "Sheppard."
"We've finally managed to resolve the problem, no thanks to some people who ought to be back on Earth making up lab testing kits," Rodney said. The words lacked their usual bite – everyone was tired. "Mitchell wants me to send a MALP through to M5S 768, I assume you'll be joining us?"
"Be right there," John said.
Teyla was not especially surprised when Ronon fell into step with her moments after she left the mess hall. "Will you not be late for your training session?"
Ronon shrugged. "They can start without me." He continued to walk beside her, saying nothing about their lack of direction. In truth, Teyla had been so intent on leaving that she had not considered where she would go.
"Things didn't go well with Sheppard," Ronon said after a while.
"No," Teyla agreed, blowing out a breath in an attempt to release her frustration. "They did not."
"He's kind of stubborn," Ronon said.
"That is not the word I would use," Teyla said. "He does not wish to listen to anything I have to say on this topic; his mind is already made up."
"He's worried about you," Ronon said neutrally. "And your child, and Kanaan."
"He has no need to worry for any of those," Teyla said. "I am perfectly capable of deciding for myself whether a mission is too dangerous for me to undertake." She turned down a corridor that led away from the more populated areas; she did not want to meet someone she knew, not yet.
"Yeah, but it's Sheppard," Ronon said. "He's over-protective."
"You do not need to defend him," Teyla said, more sharply than she had intended.
"I'm not. Cadman says they don't have many female soldiers in battles on Earth."
"And that is justification for his behavior?" Teyla asked. "My being female has not been a problem until now."
"He wants to keep you safe," Ronon said quietly. He slowed to a stop and took Teyla's hand, squeezing. She returned the gesture, absurdly warmed by it. "And your baby. He's afraid something will happen to it."
Teyla closed her eyes for a moment. "He is not the only one who worries," she said, fighting to control her voice. The worst part about carrying a child, she was finding, was the way it affected her emotions, making her much more prone to tears than she had been since childhood. "I fear – I dream of Rodney's vision, of the Replicators coming to Atlantis, of what could happen to this child." She found that her free hand was resting lightly on the curve of her stomach, though it was too early for her to yet feel her child move. "I fear what might have been if Davos had not shown me the attackers coming to New Athos, or if the radiation shielding on the ship had failed while we were there to rescue Major Lorne."
She took a breath, blinking back the threatening tears. "But these things cannot be controlled. If I can still be of use on a mission, my being with child should not affect whether I am part of the team. If I cannot be part of our team, I am certain that I will find a place on another team. That is all that I wish for John to see."
Ronon squeezed her hand once more. "I know."
Considering his day so far had included at least three people being pissed at him (probably four by now, given the way Ronon was looking at him), John wasn't the least bit surprised to see that M5S 768 had been destroyed.
"That could've been the Wraith," Mitchell suggested from behind John's right shoulder.
Rodney turned from the MALP footage to glare at him. "Not unless they've started using the Replicators' weapons. Which, before you ask, is incredibly unlikely."
"How many people lived there?" John asked dully.
Rodney turned back to the screen. "Estimated between fifty and seventy-five thousand," he said quietly.
John wasn't sure if it was better or worse than a Wraith culling. It was familiar, that was for sure, and not just because it reminded him vaguely of Sateda, though that had been far more advanced than this world. Maybe it was the lack of survivors. That was the worst part of cullings; the stunned, vacant expressions of the survivors as they picked through the wreckage of their entire lives.
"Guess he was telling the truth," Ronon said.
"That's what I was afraid of," Rodney muttered.
Mitchell sighed. "There's nothing else to see. Shut it down."
Cam couldn't figure out why it hadn't occurred to him earlier that Atlantis would do this kind of thing, but it hadn't. Not even when he'd seen John and the others come through the gate in dress uniforms and suits, bearing Dr Beckett's coffin.
Memorials in the city were different, apparently. No blues, no medals, just rows of people standing stiff and still in their regular clothes, listening to Major Lorne talk about sacrifice and honor while Cam thought vaguely guilty but grateful thoughts about not having to do that. Apparently John felt the same, since he didn't speak either. Standing next to Cam, his eyes fixed firmly on Lorne, he radiated tension, enough that Cam was starting to tense up to match.
Enough that he wanted to reach out and touch, to say something that would make it better.
The strange thing was, he thought maybe this was what made people stick around Atlantis, despite the high chance of being unpleasantly killed, or the day-to-day boredom of being a marine who wasn't on a gate-team. They would never do this at the SGC, unless there had been a major loss, but this went with a smoothness that spoke of too much iteration in the past. Not routine, but familiar, practiced. John hadn't asked permission to do it, had barely mentioned that the service would be happening, and yet the expectation that Cam would attend had been clear.
Major Lorne stepped down, allowing Captain Fields, the closest thing the marines had to a chaplain in the city, to take his place. Cam bowed his head with the others for the final prayer, and felt the same wash of peace he'd felt in church, all his life.
John lingered at the end, even after his team left together, McKay pausing in the open doorway to frown at him and ask what he was waiting for, John shrugging and waving them on. Cam wasn't sure where they all stood as a team, but some things were best resolved without external help, and he really didn't want to get involved.
"So," he said, wandering over to where John was standing, watching a couple of marines gather up the photographs. The Daedalus wasn't due for another two weeks, so there hadn't been any coffins.
John turned, his mouth lifting slightly in acknowledgement. "Get used to it," he said quietly. The empty room picked up the sound, bouncing it back in a vague echo. Cam remembered the room being pointed out to him as the chapel on his first day. It certainly lived up to that designation, with high ceilings and large windows of the same ornate glass that was all over the city.
"Some days, I have no idea how you guys keep doing this," Cam said, though he hadn't intended to.
John shook his head, looking back at the marines. "It's not always like this," he said. "Some days are amazing." He sounded worn through, unconvinced. Cam remembered that feeling, running after the grail and trying to make people believe Jackson was coming back.
"It's getting late," he said, lowering his voice as the two marines passed close by on their way out. "You should get some sleep."
"Right. Fun times with the wraith tomorrow," John said. "Can't wait."
"Let's just hope he shows up," Cam said. He hadn't done a lot of that kind of thing with SG-1; the SGC had enough teams to send someone else for the alliance building and the boring meetings, while his team got on with saving the world. Still, he couldn't imagine that potential alliance building with the Wraith would be any less weird if he had. "Are you taking Teyla with you?" John wasn't showing any sign of actually leaving, so Cam started towards the door, relying on habit to bring John with him. It did.
"I'm not sure Teyla's still on the team," John said. He shoved his hands into his pockets, walking close enough that his elbow brushed Cam's for a moment, before he shifted away. Cam waited for the explanation – it didn't always work on John, but it had a better than 50-50 success rate. Much better than actually asking. "I think she might have quit."
Cam could imagine that conversation. He'd seen Teyla's barely contained frustration when she'd removed herself from the rescue mission, and the way she and John had looked at each other, tense and upset, when she'd walked into the memorial, then not looked at each other at all.
"It's your team," he pointed out, in lieu of giving advice that he was sure John wouldn't take. Their footsteps sounded in sync along the empty corridors; most people seemed to have retired for the night after the service. "She'd go if you asked her."
"Right," John said, expressionless. They walked a little further in silence, heading vaguely towards the residential quarters. "She wants to stay on the team, make her own decisions about which missions are safe."
"She's the leader of her people," Cam said. "She'd need a good sense of danger."
"I know," John said. He sighed. "I just don't want her to get hurt." He paused, looking at the floor, then said, "and it seems like the chance to have a family makes her happy," sounding like he was trying hard for neutral.
"People want to belong," Cam said, remembering meeting John years ago, back when he'd still been trying to slide seamlessly into the Air Force machine, before he'd decided that he and it were never going to fit quite right together. Apparently, he'd just been waiting for the place he did belong, without knowing it. "They want to be part of something that matters."
"I thought –" John started. Another pause, and his steps slowed. "I thought this mattered to her. Us."
"She wants to stay on the team, right?" Cam asked. "Doesn't that tell you something?" The same way SG-1's easy return had said that, objections aside, they'd welcomed the excuse to come back.
"Yeah." John came to a stop, leaning against the wall. Cam stood next to him, waiting. "I just keep thinking – what would I tell Kanaan, if something happened? She's carrying their child."
"That Teyla was doing what she wanted to do, for the good of her people," Cam said quietly. The same as he'd told Captain Alvarez's parents when she'd been killed in a space battle, six months after he'd become leader of the 302's blue team.
"Honor and dignity," John said wryly, his expression twisted with the words. "Noble sacrifice for the greater good."
Cam opened his mouth to say something, but John's hand was on his arm, holding him still, and then John's mouth was on his, warm and open and on the edge of desperate. Cam kissed him back mostly automatically, instinct taking over as his eyes slid closed, John pressed close against him, everything else sliding away to leave behind this.
Somewhere close, a door thumped open, followed by the sound of two voices.
Cam felt John tense for an instant, before they both stepped back. He forced himself not to look for the source of the noise, knowing he wouldn't be able to do it without seeming guilty. John turned his head slightly, hiding his face in shadow.
"Sorry," he said, too low for Cam to pick out the tone. "That wasn't fair."
Agreeing wasn't really tactful, and Cam wasn't sure he could disagree completely convincingly. He managed a shrug instead, not certain what it was conveying; it left them with awkward silence that John clearly wasn't going to break.
Cam reached out to pat his shoulder, keeping it carefully between too short and lingering. "Let me know what you decide about Teyla," he said.
John looked up, meeting his eye, finally, his expression full of gratitude. "Right. Thanks for the advice." He gestured vaguely along the corridor. "I'm going to…"
Cam nodded. "Yeah, early mission, I should go too." He gave it a moment, trying not to feel like he was waiting for an offer that wasn't going to come. "Night, John."
John blinked. "Night," he said, already turning away.
Cam watched him all the way along the corridor, not at all sure what he was looking for.
John had stuck with his small room on the edge of the military corridors long after bigger quarters had been found and opened up to whoever wanted them. He didn't have much stuff, didn't need much space, and anyway, his room was close to the gate-room, in case of emergencies.
He was wishing, now, that he'd moved. There wasn't enough space to move, and every time he sat still, his head filled up again with Elizabeth, and Mitchell, and Teyla and the team, and the baby, until he felt like his head was going to explode, brain matter all over the walls. He wanted to be out, up in a jumper where everything got small and unimportant against the sweep of space and the empty expanse of the planet below.
He lasted half an hour, too restless to settle on any one task, too wired to sleep. Then he gave up, and headed back out into the corridors, going nowhere, just moving. It wasn't too late to find Ronon, try to outrun his thoughts. Except that Ronon wasn't entirely pleased with him for the argument with Teyla, and he wasn't up for another period of silent almost-disapproval yet.
Or maybe he was, since his aimless wandering had just brought him to the edge of the Athosian area of the city. He wasn't even sure if Teyla slept there now. He knew she didn't have her own room with her people, but maybe she slept with Kanaan. If she was pregnant with his child, their relationship must have gotten to the sleeping together stage.
The Athosians, despite their occasional bits of scavenged technology, had been dependant, until they came back to the city, on daylight and candles for light, so they tended towards early rising and early bedtimes. The area was quiet and still, most of the lights dimmed, and John hesitated. It would be awkward enough if Teyla wasn't there, without waking someone else up as well. Except that it really wasn't that far past sunset and he'd walked down here for a reason, even if he hadn't known what it was.
And he hated being at odds with Teyla.
He told himself firmly to suck it up and be a man about it, and touched the chime by Kanaan's door.
A male voice called from inside, the words unrecognizable, then the door slid open to reveal Kanaan, fully dressed, the welcoming smile already sliding from his face when he saw John. So Teyla had talked to him. Wonderful.
"Hi," John said, offering a smile in case it helped. "Sorry to come by so late, but I was looking for Teyla."
"I had not assumed that you wished to speak with me," Kanaan assured him stiffly. "I will see if she wishes to speak with you." He touched the sensor, the door closing smoothly between them.
"Uh, thanks," John said to it. That was kind of rude, for the Athosians, though he supposed that he'd have been inclined to do something similar in Kanaan's place. At least there was no-one around to see him.
At least he hadn't interrupted anything he preferred not to think about in conjunction with Teyla. Hopefully.
The door slid open again and Teyla stepped out, allowing it to close behind her. She'd changed out of the uniform that she'd worn to the service and into something soft and brown and Athosian. John wondered if it was because she was in their space or just because she felt more comfortable in it. Whether it meant something that she'd almost always worn her uniform around the city before this.
"Kanaan has asked me to convey his request that we do not argue in the corridor like children, where we will disturb the others," Teyla said. "So we may retire to one of the empty rooms, if you wish."
"I, er –" John rubbed the back of his neck. "No, we're fine here. I don't want to argue with you."
Teyla smiled, her expression edged with relief, and John risked a smile in return. "Nor do I. I much prefer for us to be friends."
"Right." John nodded, and made his decision. "Look, if you want to stay on the team, I don't want to remove you. But there have to be conditions."
"Conditions," Teyla repeated.
"I get the final say over whether a mission is too dangerous for you to be on. You don't go over my head to Mitchell. And when you get closer to – you know – you'll go on maternity leave."
"Maternity leave?" Teyla asked, more like she was checking that it meant what she thought it did than like she didn't understand the phrase. She did a lot more of the former than the latter these days.
"Time off work until the baby's born," John clarified.
Teyla considered for a long moment, then nodded. "May I have a condition as well?"
"Depends what it is."
"You do not make a decision about whether I may go on a mission without first consulting Dr Keller and myself."
John nodded. "Okay. I can go for that."
Teyla's smile was real this time, the good one that meant she was really happy with something. "I am so glad we have come to this agreement," she said. "I had thought that it would be much longer, if at all, before you would accept that I am not an invalid."
"Yeah, well," John said, feeling awkward and stupid, and not wanting to admit that Mitchell was mostly responsible for that. He was annoyingly like Elizabeth in that way, with the whole voice of reason thing. "Someone has to keep us from being captured any more often than we already are."
"And you are hoping that sympathy for my pregnant state will do so," Teyla suggested.
"No," John said quickly. "No, I didn't mean –"
"John." Teyla put a hand on his arm. She was laughing at him on the inside, he was sure. "It is well, now."
"Yeah," John agreed. He kind of wanted to hug her, even knowing it would be stiff and awkward.
Teyla moved the hand on his arm to his shoulder, tilting her head and waiting for John to return the gesture. It was much better than a hug.
"McKay, let's go."
John wasn't sure what it said about him that he was actually grinning at the prospect of going through the gate to face a potentially hostile wraith. Even having to track Rodney down in his lab – again – wasn't dimming his good mood.
"You look demented," Rodney told him, closing the lid of his laptop and slapping a Do Not Erase sign on his white board.
"You say the sweetest things," John said. "Come on, or Ronon and Teyla will go without us."
"Yes, because clearly this ill-fated mission is more important than the experiment that could save all of our lives in the near future," Rodney grumbled, but his vest and P-90 were ready by his desk. John took it for the pro-forma grumbling that it clearly was, part of the pre-mission routine.
"Try not to blow up the city while I'm gone," Rodney threw over his shoulder to Zelenka, who didn't even look up from his laptop, and followed John out into the corridor.
They were halfway back to the gate room when Rodney looked up from fiddling with his equipment and said, "Wait a minute. Teyla's coming?"
So apparently her and John's argument hadn't passed him by after all, not completely. "Of course," John said innocently. "She's part of the team, Rodney, we wouldn't leave her behind."
Rodney snorted. "She wouldn't let you, you mean."
"We came to an agreement," John said truthfully, which got him an eye-roll. John imagined Rodney was picturing him being beaten into submission by Teyla and her sticks.
"As long as there won't be any more awkward silences and death glares at breakfast, I don't care."
"We'll try to keep the death glares to a minimum, but no promises," John said, stepping into the gate-room. The jumper was already hovering, Ronon and Teyla waiting by the gate, and Mitchell leaning on the balcony rail, grinning.
"Finally," Ronon grumbled.
"We were beginning to think Colonel Mitchell would have to accompany us, in your absence," Teyla added, smiling up at him. John hadn't even realized they'd gotten much past saying hello, but there they were, making jokes and smiling. He shook off the moment of disorientation.
"You did promise me an off-world mission, Sheppard," Mitchell put in.
"You want this one, go ahead. I'm sure I could find something to do with a warm sunny day while you guys go get captured by the Wraith…"
"When you put it that way," Mitchell said, holding up his hands in surrender.
John half-turned away, fighting not to smile. "It's always the same – everyone wants to go off-world until there's the threat of having your life sucked out by the Wraith, and then it's all, gee, I forgot I'd got a report due."
"Are we going," Rodney asked, "Or do you two want to stand around and trade the Air Force's version of wit a bit longer?"
"Hey!" Lorne said over the radio, from inside the jumper. "Leave the Air Force out of it – my jokes are much better."
John looked up to find Lorne looking down at him, hands on the controls. "Just for that, you're checking all the reports before the Daedalus comes."
"Yes, sir," Lorne said, mock-serious, then, under his breath, "Like always."
"I heard that," John told him.
Next to him, Rodney sighed the sigh of the eternally put-upon. "Did someone replace you with a pod person overnight?" he asked John. "You're freakishly cheerful."
"If they had, I probably wouldn't know it," John pointed out reasonably. "Lorne, cloak the jumper." It shimmered for a moment, then disappeared. "You wanna do the honors?" he asked Mitchell.
Mitchell waved the offer away. "Nah, go ahead. I get plenty of practice."
"If you're sure. Chuck, dial it up."
They stepped back to let the wormhole form.
"Okay, team, let's go."
"Danger, peril, potential death," Rodney grumbled, following Ronon through the gate. "Oh, how I've missed this."
John tossed off half a salute to Mitchell and followed them, still grinning.
An hour and a half later, they came back through the gate with everyone they'd left with, no injuries, and a stunned Wraith prisoner.
John was ready to chalk it up as a much needed win, until Mitchell came down the stairs, listened to John's summary, nodded, and said, "Perfect timing. Woolsey's coming to assess us next week."
"Great," Rodney grumbled. "Because things always go so smoothly when he's here."
Mitchell ignored him, still looking at John. "And they're sending the Daedalus, to scan the Replicator homeworld."
"Did you tell him we'll probably still have a wraith in the city?" John asked, once the debriefing was over and the two teams had gone their separate ways. He wasn't sure why he was lingering in the conference room, but Mitchell didn't seem inclined to leave either, so he stuck around. It gave him something to do while they waited for the wraith to wake up, rather than worrying about how that conversation would go.
Mitchell leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. "I told him I was confident that Dr McKay would have resolved the shutdown code by the time Woolsey got here, and that the wraith would have been dealt with." John could imagine the expression of complete, and completely false, sincerity he would have worn through the conversation.
"Dealt with?" he asked.
Mitchell shrugged. "We'll figure something out by then."
"I'm not wild about letting him go when he knows so much about the city," John said. "The last wraith we had here caused a lot of trouble when he left."
"Michael," Mitchell said. "This one seems to like you, though. You've got a history."
John made a face, couldn't help it. That history was one he really preferred not to think about; he could have done without the permanent reminder that he owed his life to a wraith, and now he was walking around John's city. Or would be, once he woke up. "We're not exactly dating," he said, then wished he hadn't. Mitchell hadn't said anything about the kiss – either of the kisses – and John wasn't intending to bring it up.
"Pity," Mitchell said thoughtfully. "It could have been the start of a whole new Wraith-Atlantis alliance." John shuddered, making Mitchell laugh. "But you did help him escape from the Genii, and he's come to us for help. If this works, it benefits him more than us – we'll still have a major enemy on our hands. Maybe that'll make him less likely to betray us."
John thought that Mitchell just didn't get how deadly the Wraith could be, probably because his encounters with them hadn't involved the customary levels of life-sucking, culling, and general unpleasantness. "Maybe," he said.
Mitchell tilted his head, acknowledging John's unvoiced disagreement. "Let's just hope this doesn't end up having anything to do with the Replicators from Dr McKay's vision."
John was still waiting for the other shoe to drop on that one. "What's the Daedalus looking for anyway?"
Mitchell twitched one shoulder up in a shrug. "Evidence of what's going on with them." The look he was giving John said it was something else, though; that it was Caldwell coming, for a reason.
Landry couldn't put Caldwell into John's job, not with Mitchell in overall charge of the city and still his inferior. Which meant they'd either promote Mitchell, or pull him out of the city along with John, and John knew which he'd put his money on.
With both of them replaced, with Caldwell in charge of the military, maybe even the city, there'd be no chance of another rescue mission for Elizabeth. Caldwell wasn't going to be swayed by a vision Rodney had seen, especially when it came along with an attack on the city.
"Hey," Ronon said the next day, after twenty minutes of tossing John around the training room. John was blaming his own crushing defeat on knowing that the Daedalus would be leaving Earth in a couple of days. He couldn't stop thinking about the week it would take for the ship to reach Pegasus, plotting another rescue mission.
He caught his breath and pushed the half-formed plans away. "What?"
"When are we having movie night again?"
That hadn't been anywhere on John's list of potential questions. "I don't know. Why?"
Ronon shrugged. "Haven't done it since we left the old planet. I thought it might be because of Dr Weir."
"You thought, what, that we stopped holding it…" Yeah, John had nothing. He held up a hand for Ronon, who grabbed it and pulled him roughly to his feet.
"I don't know. Teyla said maybe that was the reason."
"It's not," John said. At least, he was pretty sure it wasn't. Okay, movie nights had been Elizabeth's idea in the first place, back in the beginning when Heightmeyer had said that they needed to do more things to make people feel like their lives were normal, in amongst the living in another galaxy and the potential for death in any one of a hundred unpleasant ways. They'd long since become part of life in Atlantis though, along with the informal basketball tournament (after John had lost a vote for it to be football) and the chess games in the mess.
"So when are we having another one?" Ronon persisted.
"I don't know," John said again, rolling his shoulder back. Nothing hurt, but he'd have a nice bruise come morning. "Tomorrow night, if no-one's booked the rec room?"
Ronon nodded. "Good. It's my turn to choose."
John wasn't about to argue when Ronon was armed with a stick and John was at his mercy. Since Lorne was current keeper of the choosers' list, and he and Ronon had gone through some kind of freakish bonding during John's last run of bad luck, there wasn't much point anyway.
Cam hadn't been sure if he'd be welcome along when he'd heard a couple of people debating over breakfast whether to go to movie night or not – apparently Ronon Dex liked films with violent car chases and films with women triumphing over adversity and bastard husbands. The two chemists, both young women, had agreed in the end that they'd stick around for the former, but not the latter.
Ronon himself made the decision for Cam, sticking his head in Cam's open office door at a little before five and saying, "Movie night's tonight, if no-one's said. You should come."
"What's playing?" Cam asked, mindful of what the two chemists had said, though in all honesty it probably wouldn't make a difference. Movie night had been an SG-1 tradition.
"Come and you'll find out," Ronon said, and left.
So Cam went. He figured movie night was casual enough that he didn't need to wear his uniform, then spent ten minutes staring at his paltry choice of two pairs of jeans, three t-shirts and two sweatshirts before declaring himself dangerously close to turning into one of his teenage cousins and putting on the first clothes he put his hand on.
He felt oddly naked, walking around the corridors unarmed. It was probably the first time he'd done so since arriving in the city, even if he was in a mostly civilian post at this point. A couple of scientists nodded at him as he passed, and a marine security patrol helpfully pointed him in the right direction, keeping any comments about directionally challenged Air Force officers quiet until Cam was out of hearing distance. John's reputation preceded them.
The rec room was two thirds full when Cam touched the crystal to open the door, the mismatched collection of chairs and couches and giant cushions pushed round to face the screen on the opposite wall. Dr Zelenka was plugging cables into the back of a laptop, while Ronon stood nearby, one of the large DVD cases open on the table next to the computer.
Cam leaned against the wall for a minute, watching them; with the noise of over a hundred off-duty personnel, no-one had heard him come in, giving him the chance to watch, unobserved. Most people were out of their uniforms, and from the side, he had trouble figuring out who some of them even were. He picked out Teyla easily enough, sitting cross-legged in a blue armchair, holding a mug with both hands. McKay was sitting on the couch behind her, next to Dr Brown, Dr Keller on her other side, looking slightly uncomfortable as Dr Brown rested her hand on McKay's arm, smiling at him. Further back, a group of marines had commandeered a half dozen hard-looking settees, sprawling on them to kick at each other's feet, all of them grinning. Cam couldn't make out what they were saying over the general buzz, which was probably a good thing. Small groups and pairs of scientists had taken most of the rest of the seats.
Cam looked round again, trying to spot John's familiar dark hair among the crowd. The rest of his team was there, Captain Fields was running night shift – there was no reason for John not to be there.
"Radek, if you don't get that thing working in the next minute, I'm going to consider it proof that I really am the better engineer," McKay said loudly, his voice carrying over the babble. "Not that further proof is really needed."
Zelenka looked up from the mass of cables to glare. "Perhaps it is instead the case that I have superior skills, beyond connecting a few cables," he suggested.
"If that's what you want to call it," McKay said. "Forty seconds, by the way."
"He always complains when I do that," a voice at Cam's side said. "Hypocrite."
John grinned when Cam turned his head, looking more relaxed than Cam could ever remember seeing him. Even in jeans and a black fleece, he looked good.
"Sorry, didn't mean to make you jump," he added insincerely.
"I wasn't expecting anyone to sneak up on me," Cam said.
John smiled again. "That'll be why I always do best in ground combat simulations," he said, patting Cam's arm and heading into the room.
"At least I don't get lost," Cam called after him, and a woman on the other side of the room turned, revealing herself to be Lieutenant Cadman and not a scientist after all.
"Colonel Mitchell!" A good half of the room turned to look at him when she said his name, leaving Cam wondering if he needed to acknowledge them with more than a smile. Most of them turned back before he could offer one. "Come sit with us."
Cam wasn't about to turn down the offer of a seat on what looked like a very comfortable couch. It did remove the question of who he could sit with, when he was technically in charge of everyone in the room.
'Us', when he'd picked his way through the other people, turned out to be Cadman and Major Lorne, who nodded. "Evening, sir."
Cam waited for Cadman to shuffle along a bit and sat down. "You can drop the sir," he said. "Especially since I just crashed your date."
"Date?" Lorne asked, biting off the end of the word like he'd nearly said sir automatically. "What date?"
Cadman looked between the two of them and fell back into the couch, one hand over her mouth as she laughed. "Me and him?" she asked. "Oh my God, what made you think that?"
Cam didn't blush. It hadn't been that much of an off-the-wall assumption; they did things differently in Atlantis, in every way.
Cadman was still laughing. "Seriously. Even if he wasn't in everyone's chain of command." She looked at Lorne, who was on the edge of laughter as well, judging from his expression. "That's the funniest thing I've heard all day."
"Care to share the joke?" John asked, leaning on the back of the two-seater couch he'd commandeered in front of Lorne and Cadman.
"Yes, please do, since it doesn't look like we're ever going to get this movie going," McKay added.
"Right, cos you just came for the movie," Cadman said, looking pointedly at Dr Brown, who stuck her tongue out in return.
"There," Zelenka said suddenly, a blue square coming up on the screen, replaced after a moment with the computer's desktop. "Are you happy now, Rodney?"
"Ecstatic," McKay said dryly, which got him a sarcastic smile from Zelenka.
"God, Ronon, put the movie on before they get going," John said, then, when the title for The Fast and The Furious came up, "Seriously?"
"What?" Ronon asked, taking the other end of John's couch and slumping down so his head was below the seat back. Someone dimmed the lights. "I like it."
"We know," McKay called across. "You pick it every third time you get a turn."
"You're keeping count?" Cadman asked from where she'd curled up against Lorne's arm, something that he didn't appear to mind. She shifted slightly, pressing her feet against Cam's thigh. "You need to get a life, McKay."
"You're one to talk," McKay retorted. Cam kept waiting for someone to shut them all up, but since the rest of the room's occupants were keeping up a steady buzz of conversation of their own, apparently it wasn't going to happen.
"You wanna do a comparison?" Cadman asked.
Lorne didn't look away from the screen as he put a hand over her mouth. "Stop winding him up," he said firmly. Even in the dim light from the screen, Cam could see her glare at him.
"You're no fun," she told him when he removed his hand.
"I know," Lorne said easily, and patted her arm.
"You like it," Cam heard Ronon say when his couch mates went quiet, apparently still arguing with John about the choice of movie.
"I liked it the first time I saw it," John corrected. "Now I've practically got it memorized. They made a sequel, you know, we could –"
"No," six different people said over the end of the sentence, and John's hand came up from the couch to wave in a placating manner.
"Actually, they made two sequels," Keller put in quietly.
"Really?" Teyla asked, interested. Cam heard shuffling as she turned. "Was the young police officer in both?"
"No," Keller said, sounding disappointed. "Only the first one. The lead in the third one isn't as good looking."
"Because that's all that matters in a film," Lorne muttered, getting a slap on the arm from Cadman.
"The cars are better in the last one," Cam said, figuring he could miss the opening few minutes without missing much and turning to look at Keller and Teyla. "And it's set in Tokyo."
"Tokyo?" Teyla asked.
"Capital of Japan."
She nodded. "I see. Perhaps we should show all three. To compare."
"Compare what? The attractiveness of the lead actors?" McKay asked.
"We'd let you have a vote," Cadman assured him, making a few people laugh.
When Cam turned back to the screen, John was leaning over the side of the couch to look at him sideways. "Even we've never seen the third one," he said when Cam caught his eye.
Cam shrugged. "Team movie night. Teal'c says it's not right to only watch part of a trilogy, and Vala and Sam liked the cars."
"My kind of women," Cadman said.
"What about Jackson?" Lorne asked. "He doesn't seem like the fast car type."
Cam shrugged. "He gave us a twenty minute lecture on police culture and insular society groups at the end of the first one; I think he was hoping for more material."
Lorne started to say something else, but Ronon's, "Quiet," cut him off, just in time for the first race scene.
By the time the end credits rolled, everyone had actually gone quiet, paying more attention to the screen than their own conversations. Cadman, apparently not bothered by either man's seniority to her, was leaning fully against Lorne, her sock-clad feet in Cam's lap. It was kind of strange, but a much nicer strange than most of the things that had happened to him since he'd hitched on with the SGC.
"That was good," Ronon said, satisfied. When Cam looked behind him, people were stretching and starting to stand up, Sergeant Reed nudging Dr Parrish to wake up. The lights came back up, like the city was responding to all the stirring people.
"You always say that," McKay pointed out. He had his arm round Dr Brown, Keller leaning against the other arm of the couch like she was trying to put as much distance as possible between them. Cam wouldn't have pegged McKay as the type to be trying anything with his girlfriend in a room of people he knew, but he really didn't know the man that well.
"It's always good."
"Of course it is, it doesn't change from one viewing to the next." McKay leaned forward to glare at Ronon, dislodging Dr Brown without appearing to notice.
"I enjoyed the movie a lot, Ronon, thank you," Teyla said.
"Me too," Keller put in brightly.
"What's not to like about hot young men in fast cars?" Cadman asked, removing her feet from Cam's lap and sitting up. "Not to mention all the subtext."
Lorne groaned. "I'm sure Colonel Mitchell's not interested in hearing your argument for why the two main characters are secretly in love with each other."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Cadman said sweetly, grinning at Cam, but she didn't elaborate, which was fine by him.
John stood up, stretching. He'd taken his fleece off a few minutes into the movie, and his t-shirt rode up to show a flash of stomach. Cam looked away.
"Well, boys and girls, I think that's enough excitement for me for one night." He got to his feet, straightening his bad leg carefully, then gave Cadman a hand when she looked at him expectantly. Ronon and Zelenka were closing down the laptop again, coiling wires up and packing them away; Keller was hovering by Teyla, who tolerated it politely. Cadman went over to where McKay and Dr Brown were still sitting, leaning into Dr Brown's side, and John leaned against the couch back, watching them until McKay apparently remembered he was with his girlfriend and put an arm round her again. John looked away.
"Glad you came?" Lorne asked.
Cam tore his eyes away from John, who he shouldn't have been looking at anyway. "I could have lived without the debate on whether Vin Diesel or Paul Walker would be better in bed, based on their driving, but yeah."
Lorne laughed. "Welcome to my world," he said, dry and affectionate, glancing over at Cadman. Cam couldn't imagine, now, how he'd ever thought they might be on a date; they had the same old friends vibe that he recognized from his own friendship with Sam.
"All right, gang," John said, taking the laptop case from Zelenka. "Since I set the schedule for almost all of you, I know you've all got early mornings tomorrow. Time good little Atlanteans were in bed."
Cam didn't miss the way John's gaze flickered over to him for a moment, making it clear he was included. It was nice, but not necessary; he'd never expected to realize he belonged while being asked by a marine lieutenant with her feet in his lap to make a judgment on the sexual prowess of two fictional characters, but there it was.
He figured the fact that it really didn't seem odd at all meant he'd finally gone native, and was beyond all hope.
John didn't spend much – any – time in Rodney's quarters, figuring it was safest to stay well away from temptation. That probably explained the surprised look on Rodney's face when he opened the door to John at 0700 the day after movie night.
"When you said we'd all got early mornings, I didn't expect you to be personally ensuring that we all got up for them," Rodney said, shrugging on his jacket. "Unless – tell me you haven't changed your mind again about me and morning runs."
"I haven't changed my mind again about you and morning runs," John said obligingly. Not that Rodney couldn't use a little more exercise. "I need to talk to you, can I come in?"
"John Sheppard, volunteering – no, needing – to talk to someone. The apocalypse surely can't be far behind." Rodney stepped back to let John into the room anyway, and John touched the crystal to close the door behind him, keeping his eyes firmly on Rodney and not on the unmade bed. He'd seen Katie Brown follow him in when they'd parted ways the evening before and while she was clearly gone now, John didn't need to see the evidence of what they'd gotten up to. "So? Are you going to tell me, or are you hoping I'll read your mind? Because if you are, I should tell you that I lost that ability when I failed to be forcibly ascended."
"The Daedalus is due in a week, maybe a week and a half. Once it gets here, any plans for rescuing Elizabeth will be shut down completely."
"Colonel…" Rodney said, his hands stilling on the zipper of his jacket.
"Just the four of us," John said, trying not to sound like he was pleading. "The four of us and a jumper. Come on, Rodney, you built a Replicator, you can come up with something to protect us while we're there."
"Does Colonel Mitchell know about this?" Trust Rodney to ask the one question John had hoped no-one would. At least Ronon had understood the need for discretion in what he asked.
"He can't know," John said. "We're already in trouble with Woolsey, if he authorizes another mission, he'll be pulled out of the city."
"And you're expecting Landry to take it well that you undertook a mission he made very clear he didn't want you to, and did it without getting consent from the leader of the expedition?"
"He won't care if we get Elizabeth back," John said. And if he did, if he punished John, at least he wouldn't punish Mitchell as well. Landry would happily believe that John had plotted without Mitchell knowing anything about it. He'd want to believe it, because it was Mitchell.
"And if we don't?"
"We will," John said firmly. The alternatives were something he really needed Rodney not to be thinking about. "She saved our lives, all of us. We can't just leave her behind. She'd do it for you."
"You mean she'd have let you talk her into it," Rodney corrected. He didn't seem to notice that he'd slipped into the past tense, and John wasn't going to point it out.
"Fine, she'd let me talk her into it. So let me talk you into it. We owe her our lives; us more than anyone."
Rodney just looked at him for a long moment, long enough for John to let some of his desperation bleed out. Ronon had been an easy sell, but Teyla would be tough. He needed Rodney on side as well to help sway her.
"Fine," Rodney said, sounding defeated. "If Teyla agrees to this insane plan as well, I'll come with you."
John never got a chance to ask her. First the Wraith ships showed up above the city, and then shot the hell out of each other. Then, as John was on his way back from visiting the wraith, still in his cell for the morning and starting to look noticeably less healthy, the gate opened with a message that Jeannie had been kidnapped, and that it probably had something to do with the bits of Wraith shutdown coding Rodney had sent her. John hadn't even known Rodney had sent it – usually it took him weeks, not days, to ask for her. Knowing, it wasn't hard to guess why; it had been Rodney's attempt to sidetrack John from the rescue for Elizabeth. It worked; worked as well to sidetrack him from how the wraith had been planning to grab a quick snack from the ship that had just blown up.
Twenty minutes after the message arrived, John, McKay and Ronon were walking through the gate back to Earth, and Teyla was standing on the control room balcony next to Cam, watching them leave, her face drawn with worry.
Cam waited for the wormhole to close behind the three of them, then asked, "You're not going with?"
Teyla shook her head, looking down at the empty gate. "John felt that it might raise questions, outside the SGC, for Rodney to be accompanied by a pregnant woman with no official role within your justice organization. And I believe that my place is still with my people, when there is such confusion over their future."
Her hands twisted on the balcony railing for a moment. "I hope they are successful," she said quietly. "Dr McKay will be devastated if his sister is lost due to her involvement in his work." She twisted her hands again, then looked up at Cam. "She has a young daughter."
"Madison," Cam said. The names were in McKay's file.
"Yes," Teyla said, looking away again. "It is hard to lose a parent so young."
Cam squeezed her arm, half-expecting to be shrugged off. "They'll get her back," he said confidently. He'd seen the looks on their faces when they'd gone through the gate, the same way they'd looked going after Dr Weir, only more, like their failure to get her back had amped up their desire to save Jeannie Miller.
"Of course," Teyla said, smiling up at him reassuringly, like she hadn't just been talking about losing a parent. She didn't have much of a file, neither her nor Ronon, but it wasn't much of a stretch to assume she'd lost her parents when she was young. "You will inform me if there is any news?"
"Soon as I hear," Cam promised.
Teyla nodded, stepped very gracefully out from under his hand, and walked away, her steps slow and measured. Cam stayed on the balcony for a moment, looking down at the gate-room floor. The security team was still in place, but quiet now, rather than trading the usual small-talk and jokes to relieve the monotony. A couple of blue-shirted scientists walked across the room, both of them concentrating on the datapad the woman held. Their footsteps echoed, then faded away as they moved down the corridor towards Marine Biology.
When he first joined the Air Force, he'd gotten used to worrying about family members of his team, people he'd never met and never would. It had gotten stronger over the years, the smaller the team was, the more responsibility he had for them. He'd just never expected it to cover the semi-estranged sister of a scientist he barely tolerated on a good day. Respected, hell, yes – clearly McKay really was as smart as he liked to make clear to everyone – but it was hard to like someone who made it so obvious they pretty much despised you just for existing.
That said, if he couldn't have SG-1 backing him up in a crisis, he was pretty sure John and Ronon would be high on his list of second choices.
Teyla had long since grown used to being awakened at strange hours of the night by a voice in her ear or a knock at her door. When the voice came, two nights after Colonel Mitchell had, reluctantly, sent the wraith to Earth to help Rodney, she woke immediately, sitting up as she acknowledged the call.
"Colonel Mitchell asked for you to meet him in the gate-room immediately, ma'am," Sergeant Liu's voice said, and Teyla thought of Jeannie. Perhaps the team had found a way to save her and returned, or sent a request for her assistance, though she could not imagine why anyone would have woken Colonel Mitchell for that. It was not a concern of Atlantis, not truly; unless the wraith had escaped.
"I am on my way," she told the sergeant, closing the connection before moving to find her clothes. It was becoming difficult to wear her Atlantis uniform, but she could still fasten the pants and wear the jacket open over her own shirt. It did not feel right to be on duty and out of uniform, no matter how uncomfortable it sometimes was.
When she reached the gate-room, Major Lorne and Lieutenant Cadman were huddled round Sergeant Liu's monitor with Colonel Mitchell, all three of them wearing their pistols on their legs, Lorne and Laura both carrying vests over their shoulders, P-90s loose in their hands.
"Teyla," Mitchell said, turning and catching sight of her. "The security team on New Athos just called in a gate activation."
Teyla moved closer to the monitor. It showed two blue dots close to a circle that represented the gate; further away was a group of red dots, too close together to count and moving away from the gate. "They have come?" she asked, barely able to take her eyes from the picture. Her heart tightened with the remembered fear of the vision, even knowing that her people were safe in Atlantis.
"Sergeant Phull thinks so," Laura said. "Maybe forty guys with weapons, wearing brown leathers. They all came through together, didn't leave anyone at the gate. He said they seemed confident, didn't take much care to stay quiet. That sound right?"
"Yes," Teyla said confidently. "I believe those are the men from my vision."
Lorne nodded, serious. Teyla always found it hard to reconcile this side of him with the man who let Laura steal his fries at dinner, and sometimes brought her tea after a bad mission. Unlike John and the others, he seemed to draw a sharper line between himself as a person and as a soldier. "They didn't see the security team," he said, "and if they noticed the gate opening to dial here, they're not bothered by it."
He nodded to the screen, where the red dots were continuing to move towards the settlement.
"I do not think they would see the gate opening from where they are," Teyla said. "Though they may have heard it, if they were being quiet."
"Doesn't look that way," Lorne said. He turned to face Mitchell and Laura, though he looked at Teyla first. "Whatever they wanted with the Athosians, we can't let them keep wandering round the galaxy trying to kidnap people."
"Not so much," Mitchell agreed. "Lieutenant, what's your contingency plan for this?"
Laura straightened slightly. "Two teams on the ground by the gate, with a jumper. Another jumper to track them back from the settlement and cut off their escape. Take them when they get close to the gate, before they have chance to dial. Stun weapons, get them back here for questioning."
"You don't think that's going to bring whoever wants the Athosians here, if they manage to get the address from the DHD?" Mitchell asked.
"If they know the Athosians, they'll figure out they came here," Laura pointed out. "If they can get the address – and that's a pretty big if, sir – we've got the shield to protect us."
"If they know of the bond between my people and yours, they are more likely to attempt to dial our previous planet," Teyla said. "Since that gate is now here, it would be impossible."
Mitchell looked back at the screen for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, mission approved. Get your teams down here in ten, before they can send someone back to the gate."
"Yes, sir," Laura said sharply, and turned away, her hand going to her radio to summon her teams.
"I wish to accompany you," Teyla said to Lorne, who was clearly intending to join the mission.
"Um," Lorne said, looking at Mitchell, who held up his hands, taking a step back. The gesture matched exactly to John's 'leave me out of this' gesture, making Teyla smile. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"I have not yet been removed from duty," Teyla pointed out. It would not be fair to become irritated with the Major, when he was simply attempting to do what John would think best. "You do not seem concerned that any harm is likely to befall your teams, so I see no danger in my being involved. After all, were it not for my vision, you would not have had this opportunity. I have a responsibility to my people."
"If you think you'll be okay," Lorne said with a shrug. "Maybe you should be in the jumper with my team though."
Teyla would have preferred to be on the ground, armed with her sticks. These people had come to steal the entire Athosian population, to ransack their homes and destroy them. She would have given much to have a chance to look them in the face and demand an answer.
She reminded herself that the people of Atlantis would do this. That she would get her chance to look at them when they were in the city. "Thank you," she said to Lorne. "I think that would be best."
Sitting behind Sergeant Reed, Major Lorne's co-pilot, Teyla watched the teams gather in front of the quiet gate. Dr Zelenka was standing with two of the marines, showing them something on a tablet.
"Will Dr Zelenka be joining us?" she asked, surprised to see him there.
Lorne shook his head. "Someone suggested we remove the dialing crystal from the DHD on New Athos, so they can't escape. Zelenka's just making sure we know which one that is."
Down in the gate-room, Zelenka glared at one of the marines over his glasses, and said something that Teyla could not hear. "He appears to be making very sure," she said.
"Yeah," Lorne agreed, sounding like John when he spoke of Rodney out of the other man's hearing. She thought again of her team on Earth; John and Ronon would be unhappy that they had not been able to help with this mission, though Rodney needed them more.
She watched Zelenka nod sharply at the marines and step back, retreating up to the control room where Colonel Mitchell was waiting. He looked tired, Teyla thought, as though he was not sleeping well, and she wondered if he too was impatient for John and the others to return. They had seemed to grow close since the Colonel's arrival in the city, far closer than Mitchell was to anyone else.
"Cadman?" Lorne asked, his voice echoing in Teyla's radio. "We set?"
"Yes, sir," Laura said, looking up at the jumper from her place before the gate. "You're taking the settlement."
"Yes, ma'am," Lorne said, teasing.
"Don't forget to cloak before we go through the gate," Laura added.
"Damn, I knew there was something," Lorne said sarcastically, tapping one of the controls. "All set."
Laura nodded, turning to the control balcony. "Sergeant Liu, dial the gate."
It was dark when they shot through the gate, the area immediately in front of it lit with the blue glow of the wormhole. Teyla hoped that the invaders would not see it through the trees. Not that it would matter at this point. The screen in front of Major Lorne showed a group of life-signs at the settlement, moving through it, several gathered by the empty weapons cache. At the gate, several life-signs came into existence as the teams moved into place, and then they were hovering over the settlement, and Teyla did not have time for the read-out.
The raiders were hard to pick out in the dark; they did not carry lights, and their clothing blended into the shadows between the houses, barely lit by the new moon. Though they must have realized there was no-one in residence, they were still moving to each house, opening the doors and going inside.
"You think they reckon everyone's hiding?" Sergeant Henderson asked from beside Teyla.
"Maybe," Lorne said. "Or they're just being thorough."
Teyla thought of many missions where they had gone systematically to every door, despite being certain there was no-one to find. Sometimes there were surprises.
"Would there be places the Athosians could have hid, ma'am?" Henderson asked Teyla.
"There are several," Teyla said. "Hunting blinds have been set up in the woods, they may suspect that the Athosians are hiding in one of these, or simply that they are in the woods somewhere."
Below them, the shadows gathered together, then began to separate, moving in several directions into the woods. A final group of three or four, it was hard to be certain, set off back towards the gate.
"Perfect," Lorne murmured dryly, then touched his radio. "Cadman, we've got four coming your way, the rest are heading into the woods."
"Roger that," Laura's voice said in all their ears. "Guess they do know what they're doing after all."
"We'll stay out here, track them on the jumper's LSD," Lorne told her. "Radio if you need us."
"We'll try not to be taken out by four guys who don't know we're here," Laura promised sweetly, followed by a click as the connection closed out.
Lorne pulled the display up again, showing groups of dots moving out into the woods. They would not cover all of it, but, were anyone hiding, they would be likely to find them. A further group remained in the settlement, taking up positions at the edges of the trees as though on watch.
"We could be here a while," Lorne said. "Unless they're checking in with each other, of course."
"Let us hope they are not," Teyla said, watching the dots who had come to take her people.
Though she did not mean to, once Laura had confirmed the capture of the four men, Teyla fell asleep. It was late, and she had not slept well since news of Jeannie's capture; the jumper was dark and quiet, and though she did not feel the same level of security as with her own team, Major's Lorne and his men were peaceful and calming on their own.
She awoke to Sergeant Henderson touching her arm very gently and saying, "Ms Emmagan, ma'am?"
"I am awake." She pushed herself a little more upright, looking at the screen, which showed the groups moving towards the gate. "They are giving up?"
"Looks like," Lorne said. "Apart from these four. Maybe they're leaving them as guards." He reached up to touch his radio again. "Cadman, they're heading for the gate, but in small groups. You can try to take them as they come, but they're going to notice."
"They can't get off the planet," Laura said. "And we've got both jumpers in the air. We'll take the groups as they come to us, round up the rest after."
Lorne's shoulders tensed. "Just because they haven't got life-signs' detectors, doesn't mean they won't realize you're there," he cautioned. "Be careful."
"I always am," Laura said. "Kemp's taking his jumper south to pick some of them off before they reach us."
"We'll take the group at the settlement and go north," Lorne said. He half-turned to look at them. "We'll set down in the middle of the settlement, but we're visible the moment we leave the jumper. Do this fast, and hopefully they won't get a chance to notice us."
It was, Teyla found, very satisfying to shoot one of the men who had intended to steal her people, even knowing that she was merely stunning him.
Lorne and Henderson tied the four men together in the center of the settlement to await collection. "You recognize them?" Lorne asked.
Teyla looked closely at their faces in the light of her flashlight; they were all men, little more than her own age; their clothes were evidently purchased to appear similar to one another, and their weapons too matched, though they were like nothing Teyla had encountered previously. "I do not," she said.
"Nah, that would've been too easy," Reed muttered.
It rapidly became clear that the men had no way to communicate with each other; when Major Lorne landed the jumper and they stepped out to confront one of the last remaining search groups, the four men had their weapons holstered. They were stunned before they could even reach for them.
On the jumper read-out, the gate symbol flashed as it opened. "We're sending through what we've got," Cadman said. "Kemp, Major, can you pick up your prisoners, bring them back to the gate?"
"Affirmative," Lorne said, followed a moment later by Lieutenant Kemp. He gestured for Reed and Henderson to bring the prisoners to the jumper.
"It seems a large number of people to send after one settlement," she said. "The Athosian population is not so large these days, nor well-prepared to defend itself."
"Guess they really wanted you guys," Lorne said, watching Henderson drag the final raider aboard the jumper. "We'll find out," he added, dark and angry; Teyla found it oddly comforting, so much like John's tone when his people were harmed.
Cam was down in the cells, watching the marines lock down the first of the raiders, when Chuck's voice came through his radio. "Gate activation from Midway."
"On my way. They say what they want?" He caught Kemp's eye, nodded at the door and got a nod in reply.
"Yes, sir. Colonel Sheppard and Ronon are on their way back, with the wraith."
"Be right there," he said, cutting the connection, hoping he didn't sound as relieved as he felt. Not that Teyla and Lorne weren't good at covering for the others, but… But apparently having done it before didn't make being left behind any easier. Didn't mean he worried any less, particularly with a wraith on Earth. They'd had plenty of equally dangerous visitors when he'd been there, Ori priors featuring prominently in that list, but he'd hadn't been in another galaxy then, relying on other people to protect his planet and tell him what was happening.
He just hoped the lack of Dr McKay in the return party didn't mean anything bad.
The wormhole shut down as he walked into the gate-room, not that anyone seemed to notice. Transporting forty unconscious people to the cells wasn't exactly a quick job, so there were still twelve men passed out in the gate-room, waiting to be moved, all of them under marine guard, with Cadman over-seeing the whole thing. Add in the medical staff who'd come to check on them, Teyla, who'd presumably been summoned along with Cam, the usual security for the room, three scientists whose reason for being there Cam really didn't want to ask about, the wraith and his four-person marine guard, and Ronon and John, and the gate-room was kind of crowded.
The marines were already leading the wraith away, pausing only to nod at Cam in passing, and Ronon and Teyla had moved aside, speaking quietly. Only John was left, stood in front of the quiet gate, looking round the room with a mildly shell-shocked expression on his face.
"Welcome back," Cam offered.
It took John a minute to look his way, and even then, his eyes didn't stay still, flickering away to Teyla and Ronon, to the unconscious raiders, back to Cam. "We weren't even gone a week," he said, sounding as stunned as he looked. "What happened? Someone attacked the city, you should have –"
"No-one attacked the city," Cam said quickly. "We're fine. These are the raiders from Teyla's vision."
"The…" John looked round the room again. "The ones who wanted to take the Athosians?" He looked over to Teyla and Cam followed his gaze to find Teyla looking back at him, her face drawn in concern. When he looked away, John already had. "You got them all?"
"Turns out your people don't suffer attacks on their allies lightly," Cam said. "The rest have already been moved down to the cells."
"The rest?" John asked, making Cam wonder how much sleep he'd gotten while he'd been on Earth. He seemed half a step behind what was happening.
"Final count, forty," Cam said. "I'm sure Teyla will be happy to give you the details, if you don't want to wait for the debriefing."
John glanced over to Teyla again. "I can wait. You're waiting till they're all locked up?"
"Yeah, should be another hour or so." He'd planned on giving everyone a chance to crash, since they'd been up since the early hours of the morning, but it was already early afternoon, and most people had gotten a second wind. They'd be better off getting the debriefing and planning over and sending people off-duty early, especially since a number of them were scheduled to go off-world with the Athosians in the morning, evacuating settlements in the Replicators' path. "You heard the Daedalus is on its way?"
"Left yesterday, just before we did," John confirmed. "Caldwell's ninety percent sure the hyper-drive really is fixed this time."
Cam would have wanted a bit more than ninety percent, but John making jokes was probably a good sign, even if he was still refusing to meet Cam's eyes. "How'd it go on Earth?"
John looked away from whatever he'd been watching behind Cam's head, smiling thinly. "Fine. Jeannie's okay, the wraith and Rodney fixed the coding. The girl died, though, problem with the nanites."
Cam waited for something else, but nothing came. He wanted to reach out for John, feeling strangely like John was drifting away, even though he hadn't moved. "McKay's okay?" he prompted.
"He's fine," John said, sounding distant. He'd gone back to looking over Cam's shoulder instead of at him. "Spending some time with Jeannie and her family. He'll be back next week."
"I expect we can survive a week without him," Cam said lightly, and John flinched. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," John said, pulling up another smile that didn't do a lot for his argument. "Kind of tired, actually. You mind if I leave you with this lot, maybe catch a nap before debrief?"
"We've got in under control," Cam said. "Someone will radio when we need you."
"Great. Thanks." John gave the gate-room in general one last look, then turned away.
"John," Teyla started as he got close to her and Ronon.
"I'm fine," John said, not looking at her. "Rodney's fine, Jeannie's fine, I just want –" He stopped, took a deep breath. "I'll find you later, okay? You can tell me about the daring defense of New Athos."
Teyla hesitated, then nodded. "It is truly a story of epic bravery," she said dryly.
John actually cracked a real-looking smile at that. "I'll bet." He nodded quickly at Ronon and left.
Teyla and Ronon looked at each other, then, for some reason, at Cam, who shrugged before he could help himself. He kind of wanted to ask Ronon what had happened on Earth, since it was clear that John wasn't telling the whole story, but he wasn't sure he had the right. Wasn't sure that Ronon would actually tell him.
He didn't get the chance; Ronon raised an eyebrow at Teyla, who nodded in return before both of them turned in the direction of the cells. Cam watched them go for a moment, then turned back to Cadman. "These people still cluttering up my gate-room?"
Cadman surveyed the remaining ten men and the two being wheeled away with exaggerated care. "Looks like, sir."
"This never happened at the SGC," Cam told her solemnly, trusting that she'd know he was joking.
She shrugged. "Never a dull moment in Atlantis, sir."
"Apparently not," Cam agreed, heading back up to the control balcony and trying not to think about John.
The meeting, when it finally started, seemed to go on forever: debrief of the mission on New Athos, followed by a debate over how they'd run the questioning, with everyone very carefully not saying interrogation. John couldn't stop seeing Wallace's face, looking at the pictures John had stolen from Rodney's wallet. Then discussion of what they'd do with the raiders after; John was in favor of dumping them all on a planet with a space gate, and Teyla seemed to be as well; speculation over who'd sent them and why. Then the briefest possible summary of what had happened on Earth, John feeling Teyla's eyes, Ronon's, Mitchell's, on him throughout, not sure who knew what and not wanting to see it on their faces. Discussion over what the Athosians would do now that their planet was, in theory, safe.
"Lieutenant?" Mitchell said again, catching John's attention as it wandered again.
Cadman blinked. "Sorry, sir. What was the question?"
Mitchell frowned at her. She'd sat up very straight when he'd spoken to her, but she'd obviously been half-asleep. "You know what, I think we're done with the stuff that has to be covered today," he said.
Teyla nodded. "I will speak to my people. There are many who will wish to return to New Athos now that the threat is removed." She didn't look too thrilled by the idea and John made a mental note to talk to the biologists about getting rid of the snake problem on the mainland.
"Okay, then." Mitchell shuffled his papers together – and how, John wondered, did he always manage to have papers? There wasn't anyone in the city who really used paper any longer. "It's been a long day, you're all off-duty for the rest of the evening. Lieutenant, can you pass that on to the rest of the teams from New Athos?"
"Yes, sir," Cadman said brightly, already getting to her feet.
Teyla stopped her from leaving with a hand on her arm, turning her so they were squarely facing each other. "Thank you," she said solemnly. "You and your security staff have done a great service to the Athosian people."
"It was our pleasure," Cadman said, her pale skin high-lighting her flush, but she rested her hands gently on Teyla's arms and bent her head to touch Teyla's, the two of them smiling at each other before both taking a step back. "And, you know, any day where we get to stun a bunch of idiots intent on kidnapping our friends is a good day in my book."
"What she said," Ronon put in.
Lorne laughed. "Who taught you that?" he asked.
"One of the marines," Ronon said, shrugging.
"There's a shock," Lorne muttered. Considering how far they were from Earth, the marines picked up the latest popular phrases remarkably fast, and seemed to pass them on to Ronon even faster. John's personal theory was that Teyla knew them all as well, she was just too formal to ever use them.
Mitchell rolled his eyes, grinning. "Go on, get out of here, the lot of you."
"Not even back a day, and he's already kicking us out," John said sadly to Ronon.
"More like ready to go to bed," Mitchell said. "Which I can't do till you've all gone."
"We should not keep the Colonel from his bed," Teyla agreed, a smile still playing round her expression. John hadn't noticed how tense she was until now, when the tension was gone. "John, would you like to join Ronon and myself for a late dinner?"
And just like that, the past few days came rushing back, the look on Rodney's face when he'd offered to sacrifice himself, the way Wallace had screamed and fought at the last moment, held down by the marine guards… He didn't know what Ronon knew – had purposely kept him away from the lab until it was done – but he had to suspect. He wasn't stupid. And if he suspected, Teyla would, and then it wouldn't be long before they asked.
And John wasn't ready to tell yet.
"You guys go ahead," he said. "I've got some stuff to go over with Mitchell."
Teyla looked at him, direct and hard, and John couldn't look away. He had no idea what his face was showing, was grateful for Lorne and Cadman and their well-timed exit. "If you are certain," Teyla said finally.
She knows, John thought. She and Ronon had talked, and they knew.
"I'm sure." John tried to smile, feeling it wrong on his face. He swallowed down the light comment he'd intended to make about how well Mitchell had taken care of his city, not sure how it would come out. "Breakfast tomorrow?"
"Run first," Ronon said. "Six am."
"Looking forward to it," John said, forcing another smile.
It wasn't until the door closed behind them that he realized he had no idea how to say what he wanted to. Mitchell was still shuffling his papers, pretty clearly stalling, waiting for John to say something, and John had nothing. He was fairly sure this didn't used to be so awkward.
"So," Mitchell said, abruptly looking up. "I'm done for the night. You heading back to your quarters?"
"I, er," John said stupidly, momentarily thrown. "Yes."
Mitchell nodded to the open door. "After you."
It was still fairly early, considering Atlantis was mostly a community of night owls, so the corridors weren't exactly quiet. Not that they were ever really busy, with such a small population. It would have been easy – and probably wise – to keep a respectable distance between the two of them, but Mitchell didn't say anything when John walked close enough that their arms brushed, stepping aside for a chemist with a laden trolley, or a couple of patrolling marines. He didn't say anything at all, in fact, the whole walk, which might have had something to do with John not looking at him, even when he felt Mitchell looking at him.
He didn't even say anything when John kept going, past his own door and down to Mitchell's, half a corridor away – he'd bunked up in the military section, instead of taking the larger quarters next to Elizabeth's.
Mitchell hesitated outside his own door, his hand close to the sensor, but not close enough to activate it. "You want to come in?"
This was not a good idea. John knew he should say no. "Yeah. I do."
Mitchell hesitated again, like he'd been expecting a different answer. "Okay then."
Mitchell's room looked over the city rather than the ocean, lighting it up even before he brought the lights up, small and neat and half-empty. "You want a drink?" he asked. "I've got coffee, or – coffee." He'd turned away from John, poking at the contents of a small cupboard.
John took a deep breath, told himself firmly to stop being an idiot, and stepped up behind Mitchell, one hand on the small of his back. "I'm not thirsty," he said.
Mitchell turned, so John's hand slid round to his arm. John tightened his hold, just in case. "What are you doing?"
"I don't know," John said honestly, and kissed him.
It wasn't a good kiss – Mitchell took a few seconds to respond, and John was kind of out of control, shaky and a little bit desperate. Mitchell didn't move into it, or even touch John, and then he pulled back.
The lights had dimmed at some point, in response to someone's intention. There was still enough light for John to read his expression, dark-eyed and confused and something else. He'd wanted this for a while, since before they'd gone to the Replicator world, and maybe John had wanted it for just as long. Maybe he'd just needed a push.
"John," Mitchell started, sounding kind of miserable and kind of worried.
"Please," John said, not sure that he'd meant to. "Just – please –"
"All right," Mitchell said quietly. His hands settled on John's hips, then slid up his back, pulling him close. John went with it, one hand on Mitchell's arm, the other on his shoulder, holding on, and the kiss was better this time, more reciprocal, less desperate, and, God, it felt good. Mitchell felt good, warm and solid, and he was a good kisser, except John couldn't stop himself concentrating on Mitchell's hands on his back, rubbing along his spine.
He wasn't really surprised when Mitchell pulled away again. God forbid it should ever be easy. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I don't want to talk about it," John said, yanking him in for a hard kiss, trying to shut him up. When Mitchell didn't pull back again, John started on the buttons of his black uniform shirt, fumbling awkwardly between their bodies where they were pressed too close together. He couldn't move back, trapped by Mitchell's arms round him, and Mitchell didn't seem inclined to either, so John did the best he could, tugging too hard on the last couple of buttons and hearing them hit the floor.
Mitchell had to move back when John pushed his shirt off, and of course he wanted to talk again. Why couldn't John ever fall for the strong, silent type? "John, you don't –"
John took a deep breath, holding onto his patience as hard as he could, and looked Mitchell straight in the eye. "Please," he said, a little alarmed by how desperate he sounded. "Please just stop talking."
Mitchell looked at him for a long moment, then nodded.
Belts and buttons were easier when he could see what he was doing, and Mitchell didn't say anything as John wrestled his clothes off. He didn't even say anything when John pushed him back against the wall, just looped one arm loosely round John, letting John rest against him and kiss him, getting used to being that close to someone again. It wasn't until John finally pushed Mitchell's pants down, went down on his knees and got a hand on Mitchell's cock that he gave a shaky sigh, and rested one hand on John's shoulder, not holding him or moving him, just leaving it there. John forced himself not to shiver, Mitchell's hand burning through his clothes, too heavy.
"Come on," Mitchell said, his voice loud in the sound-proofed room. John always forgot about that.
"Yeah," he said inanely, and took Mitchell's – Cameron's – cock in his mouth, getting another sigh. He hadn't done this in a while – more than a while, years, before he came to Atlantis – but it wasn't difficult, muscle memory taking over, Cameron's half-gasped breathing, his hand rubbing at the back of John's neck, carrying him along, until Cameron's hand tightened and he said, "John –" clearly in warning.
John sucked harder, stroked Cameron's thigh where his hand had landed, and Cameron pushed his hips forward, gently, once, and came. John swallowed, which turned out to be something that muscle memory couldn't quite carry him through, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, listening to Cameron draw a couple of slightly shaky breaths. He felt like grinning, lighter than he'd been in months, ready to float away on good feeling, except Cameron's hands were still on his arms, pulling him up so they could kiss.
"Take your clothes off," Cameron muttered against his lips. "Lie down. I'm too old to have sex against doors."
John paused, torn between you're my age and isn't that what we just did?, except that Cameron chose that moment to bend down and shove his pants off, and John's brain kind of derailed. Fuck, he was gorgeous, even with the scars from the accident, from a career in the Air Force and two years with the SGC, all golden skin and clean lines.
"You need a hand?" Cameron asked, already reaching for the buttons on John's shirt. "Anyone at home in there?" Cameron asked, laughing.
John forced himself out of his own head, running his hands over Cameron's shoulders, down his arms, letting Cameron take care of his clothes and push him down on the bed, covering John's body with his own. John shoved down a moment's urge to fight it; it shouldn't have felt good, being weighed down, not when he'd just been enjoying the light, floaty feeling, but it did, all that naked skin against his own, and forget giving a guy a blowjob, it had been way too long since he'd even had anyone touch him like this, with anything more than a hand on his arm. He never remembered to miss it till he had it, and then it was all he wanted, the thrum of safety under his skin better than everything else, even when his hands were trembling with wanting to touch, to hold on and not let go.
"Pay attention now, okay?" Cameron said, still amused, and kissed John, one hand wrapping round his cock, not too tight, and stroking him, long, slow pulls that dragged John over the edge almost before he realized what was happening, Cameron kissing him through it, even after John pushed his hand away, too sensitive.
Cameron kissed him again, gently, sliding his clean hand into John's hair and rubbing his scalp like he was a cat, the other hand resting on John's hip again, not moving. John let his own arms go where they wanted, which appeared to be around Cameron, and, Christ, he wasn't light and floating now, he was heavy again, held by gravity and the pull of the city, and Wallace.
"You're shaking," Cameron said quietly.
John nodded, I know. He took a deep breath, tried to make it stop. It didn't work, and suddenly he was freezing cold.
"Here," Cameron said, shifting and pulling the thick quilt over them both. When he finished, John was wrapped up tight in his arms, and it shouldn't have felt good, should have felt weird and uncomfortable, because he didn't do this, not the first time he was with someone. Except it didn't, it felt safe and warm, and the trembling eased a little, the dull ache around his heart receding. "Better?" Cameron asked.
There wasn't an answer to that, John decided. He had no idea what he wanted to say, just opened his mouth and let the words come. "You've done stuff you regretted, right? For, you know, the greater good or something."
The shiver was Cameron's this time – John wasn't the only one with bad memories – but he didn't let go, just said, "Yeah."
"You don't have to worry about how we're going to keep the wraith fed," John said into the warm skin of Cameron's shoulder. He hadn't had the chance to mention that the wraith had missed a meal or two before coming to Atlantis, but someone would have told Cameron while John was away, he was sure.
There was a pause, then Cameron said, "Okay," and didn't let go.
John surfaced from sleep to someone saying his name quietly in the half-light of early morning. It took him a minute to work through the fog of not enough sleep and remember – coming home, and Cameron; he didn't remember falling asleep, but clearly he had. They both had.
"John," Cameron said again, shaking his shoulder, and, okay, now it was a little weird to be naked in bed with the guy who was effectively his CO, even if they were the same rank.
"I'm awake," he said, sitting up, Cameron's hand falling away as he moved. Clearly he'd been awake for a while, since he was sitting on the edge of the bed and wearing boxers and a t-shirt. "Everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," Cameron said, still quiet; his smile, lit by the city lights, was warm and only a little worried. "But it's nearly five, and you're supposed to meet Ronon at six."
Right. He should go back to his room, maybe take a shower – it wasn't like they never bumped into any marines on their morning runs, after all. But it was warm in Cameron's bed, and maybe he'd get back into it, and John didn't really want to leave. He didn't want to have the inevitable conversation that him leaving would prompt, either. "Sure. Thanks."
"No problem," Cameron said easily, but he looked away. John didn't move, waiting, and Cameron looked back up. "So this was probably a bad idea."
"Probably," John agreed. Atlantis was an international expedition, even if it was heavily weighted towards American troops, so the rules about this kind of thing were more relaxed than on Earth, but they were both too visible in the city. It wouldn't take much for someone to notice. He reached out, wrapping a hand round Cameron's wrist. "But it was fun."
Cameron laughed, sounding startled. "Yeah, it was." He gave John a weird, sideways look. "I'm good at keeping secrets."
"Me too," John said, not entirely sure what he was agreeing to, only that it was more than not letting on what they'd done the night before. It seemed the thing to do to lean in and kiss Cameron, who didn't taste of toothpaste, so maybe he hadn't been awake that long after all, and somehow John ended up on his back again, clutching at Cameron's arms and breathing hard.
"Okay," Cameron said when he pulled away, catching his breath. "Five years working for the SGC between us, we should be good at keeping secrets."
"Absolutely," John lied. He could already tell exactly how much trouble he'd have, keeping from touching Cameron or calling him by his first name, when they'd only slept together once and he was already doing both. "We'll be fine."
"Of course," Cameron said, kissing him again, slow and sure, before finally pulling away and standing up. "Go run with Ronon, before he decides to come looking for you."
It would, John decided a few minutes later, trying to listen for anyone passing by through a sound-proofed door, possibly be a good idea to liberate a life signs' detector if they were going to keep doing this. Stealth training could only take you so far.
Ronon looked him up and down with one eyebrow raised skeptically when John answered his door at two minutes to six with his hair still wet. Since John didn't have an excuse ready, he gave Ronon a raised eyebrow back and jogged off in the direction of their usual route.
They were halfway round when Ronon said, "You okay?"
"Better," John said truthfully.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy, being involved with the expedition leader. Maybe because Mitchell wasn't close to anyone in the city, really, or maybe because they were both just good at hiding. In public, in uniform, it was easy to remember what was and wasn't okay. He didn't need to think about it in order not to slip with Cameron's name – 'Mitchell' just came out when he needed to call the man by name, without thought. He'd had three years to learn how not to stare, to train himself out of looking too long or too hard, so he didn't. Instead, he stored up images inside his head, recalling Cameron leaning over him, or the line of Cameron's spine when he bent over a console to look at something, running the pictures in his head when he was sitting in meetings.
The problem was, on Atlantis, almost every social activity was a communal thing, from movie nights with half the city to bonding evenings with members of your team. Being alone in your quarters with someone meant either a personal crisis or sex. Both John and Cameron were generally too stable (or too busy) to be having a personal crisis, and Cameron had been in the city far too long for John to pass it off as welcoming him. Their stealth training was going to be getting more of a work-out than either of them had given it for a while, even with a life signs' detector.
"Maybe you should start wearing camouflage paint," Cameron suggested a couple of days later.
John elbowed him firmly, which was easy enough since he'd somehow ended up slumped against Cameron, mostly ignoring the movie playing on the other man's laptop.
"Maybe not," Cameron conceded.
"Definitely not," John agreed. "I don't look good with streaks down my face."
There was a moment of silence, then Cameron twisted to look down at him, looking like he was trying not to laugh.
"Fuck off," John said, realizing how the comment had come out sounding; except that Cameron was right there, and laughing, and John pretty much had to kiss him.
He was sprawled back on the bed, top few shirt buttons open, Cameron figuring out all the good places on his neck, when Cameron pulled back, grinning. "What?"
"You know you're the only person apart from my grandmother who calls me that," Cameron said.
The last few minutes played themselves back in John's head, right along with his own voice muttering 'Cameron.'
"Yeah?" he asked, fighting not to flush. It wasn't like he was calling Cameron 'baby' or something embarrassing; his brain had just defaulted to Cameron from Mitchell, without his conscious control. "You want me to stop?"
"Nah," Cameron said, still grinning. John smiled back, helpless not to. "I kind of like it."
So, all things considered, it was pretty easy. And then Rodney came back.
There was, John had discovered over three years of working with him, no way of avoiding talking about something if Rodney wanted to talk about it. The only possible way out was to not say anything back, and even then, Rodney would talk at him. He wasn't entirely sure why he turned down Teyla's, Ronon's and Cameron's offers to do something in favor of hiding out in his room, knowing Rodney was coming back that evening. He wasn't even completely sure he was hiding, though if he was, it might have worked better if he'd locked the door, since Rodney had no problem walking in without knocking.
That conversation went pretty much as John had been expecting, leaving him wishing he could beam thoughts into Rodney's head, wipe out the doubt in Rodney's voice, the uncertainty painted across his face. At least Rodney didn't come out and say whatever he was thinking, and John was all for being grateful for small mercies.
Until, halfway through a plate of reheated stew, Rodney looked up and said, "So? What did I miss while I was gone?" at which point John was busy being grateful that he hadn't been eating anything, because his throat closed up and he would have choked.
Rodney spooned up another mouthful of stew, chewed it quickly and swallowed. "Hello? Earth – well, Atlantis, I suppose – to Sheppard. Even you can't have killed off all your useful brain cells in the last week."
The thing was, Rodney was the person John told things to, things that he couldn't stumble through with Teyla or drop into a different conversation with Ronon. Rodney was the person John had told about Teer after he'd been trapped for six months, the first person he'd told when he'd been promoted and given command of the city, the person he'd shared the game with, and gone to after being fed on by the wraith, freaked out and claustrophobic in his own space.
And Rodney, who'd been seeing Katie Brown, on and off, for three years, who'd been the only person John had thought about, until the SGC's golden boy showed up in his city, with his casual charm and obvious concern and their shared history, shared reference points… Rodney was the one person he couldn't tell about this thing with Cameron.
"Say something, for God's sake, before I have to imagine any more terrible fates that I'd really rather not."
John forced a smirk, hoping Rodney wouldn't be paying enough attention to realize how false it was. "Nothing much, really, unless you want to count Teyla and the marines thwarting the attack on New Athos."
Which of course Rodney did, because he'd come straight to John's room when he got in, didn't know anything about it, and John was happy to tell him what he knew from Teyla and Cadman, until the urge to say and I started sleeping with Cameron. Yeah, him, the guy you still hate, our boss, a man. And I don't regret it. faded away.
"You, sit," Major Lorne said, pushing the raider down into the chair and nodding for the marines to fasten the restraints round his wrists and the chair legs. Teyla waited for them to step away again before taking one of the other chairs.
Lorne joined her. "Name?"
The man smiled falsely at both of them, as many of the captured raiders had. They had only a small number of raiders left to speak with, and Teyla would be glad when they were finished; the raiders had little to say.
"You can call me Nabel."
"Nabel, right." Lorne sounded tired, though he was trying to cover it. "And what were you doing on New Athos?"
Nabel shrugged. "I was hoping to trade with the Athosians. I have heard that they are fair and generous traders."
"So you came in the middle of the night with forty men?" Teyla asked.
"I also heard they were heavily defended by allies from another planet. I needed protection."
"Protection, right," Lorne said. "Forty men against a settlement armed with sticks. No offence, Teyla."
"None taken," Teyla said. On the other side of the table, Nabel flinched. "Why do you do that?" she asked, leaning forward. "What do you know?"
"I came to trade with the Athosians," Nabel said again. "I don't know what you speak of."
"You do," Teyla said. The others had reacted to nothing she or Lorne had said. "You were not there to trade, you were not in the company of so many men for protection, and you did not need protection. Tell me what you know."
"Why?" Nabel asked. "You have me captured, I do not believe you intend to let me go free."
"We could be persuaded," Lorne said, softening his voice. "If you tell us what we want to know."
Nabel shook his head. "I don't believe you."
Lorne shrugged. "Your loss. I guess we'll go on to the next person. Teyla, you want a break first?"
"I believe I would like a cup of coffee," Teyla said, standing up.
They were almost at the door before Nabel said, "Wait."
Lorne turned back. "Change your mind?"
Nabel was looking directly at Teyla. She met his gaze steadily, waiting. "You are Teyla, of the Athosians?"
"What concern is it of yours?" she asked.
"I am only surprised to find you working with such people. I would not have thought that the leader of her people would wish to work for others."
"The Athosians have been allied with the people of this world for many years," Teyla said calmly. There was more, she was certain; it seemed unlikely that Nabel and the other men had come to New Athos without knowing of their connection to Atlantis. "I still do not see why this is of your concern."
"I might… this is Atlantis, I assume."
"Why do you need to know that?" Lorne asked, moving to sit down again. "You said it yourself, we're not likely to let you leave, what does it matter where you are?"
"What does it matter if I am in the city of the Ancestors?" Nabel asked, mocking. "Of course, there could be no reason for me to wish to know that."
"What do we get in return, if we tell you?" Lorne asked.
Nabel shook his head. "I want to stay here. In the city. There's nowhere safe in the galaxy."
Lorne smiled, and it was not a nice expression, reminding Teyla that he had the same training as John, that he had learned to kill people from the sky, never seeing their faces. "You tried to kidnap our friends, evidently as part of some larger plot. Do you really think we're going to let you stay here?"
"It seems that, knowing I can tell you something, you will not be eager to send me to the place you are sending the others," Nabel said. "And you cannot allow me to return to the person who sent me. So yes, I do believe that I will be remaining here."
"You will not be allowed to remain in the city," Teyla said, attempting to sound reasonable, concerned. "I am sorry, but those who live here are not trusting. It would not be a pleasant experience for you."
"Then I've got nothing else to say," Nabel said firmly. He could not lean back very far, fastened to the chair, but he attempted it nonetheless.
Major Lorne watched him for a long moment, then said, "What if we could offer you a life somewhere else?"
"You're sending him to Earth?" Rodney demanded, shoving through the conference room door, as Lorne and Teyla began their run-down of what Nabel had told them.
Lorne stopped partway through his sentence, but it was Teyla who answered. "He gave us information on who was behind the attack on my people," she said. "And details of where to find him."
"Oh," Rodney said, coming to a stop and sitting down across from John. "Well, good. Great. But still – this is the precedent we want to be setting? Threaten Atlantis' allies and get a free pass to a galaxy that's never heard of the Wraith? Isn't that just inviting trouble?"
"Pretty sure he won't be telling many people about it from another galaxy," John pointed out. He wasn't exactly wild about the idea either, but it had gotten them the information, and, realistically, the SGC weren't likely to be letting Nabel go wandering around the planet any time soon. He was too much of a security risk to be seeing anything other than the inside of a cell at Area 51 for the next few decades at least.
"Be that as it may, we don't offer our allies chance to leave the galaxy, and now we're offering it to our enemies."
"No, we're offering it to one guy in exchange for information we're not going to get any other way," Cameron corrected. "Think of it as payment for the safety of Teyla and the Athosians, if that works for you."
"It doesn't," Rodney said shortly. "But since I wasn't consulted on this, it's a bit late to start worrying about what I think."
"It's a military matter, Rodney, we don't have to consult you," John pointed out. Just because they frequently did make decisions about the military with his team involved, didn't mean they had to. "Look, you were busy with the Replicator virus, and it's done now."
"Well, that makes it all better then," Rodney snapped. "Because you never ask me to take time away from important projects to –"
"Dr McKay," Cameron said sharply. "Since you are so busy, perhaps we could continue with this meeting, and you can take up any complaints about how this was handled with Colonel Sheppard and myself afterwards."
Rodney blinked once at him, like he'd forgotten Cameron was there, or forgotten he had the authority to shut Rodney up. "Fine. By all means, continue."
"Thank you," Teyla said graciously, taking over from Lorne. "Nabel is certain that, although they wished to take all of the Athosians, their main goal was to find and kidnap me."
"Did he know why?" John asked. The whole thing made his skin crawl; he wanted to get the shields up rather than the cloak, a creeping sensation down his spine like someone was coming for them, someone they couldn't see.
Lorne shook his head. "If he did, he wasn't saying. But we could probably hazard a reasonable guess."
Lorne and Teyla looked at each other. "The person he describes, the one who gathered the men who attacked New Athos – I believe it to be Michael."
"Didn't we blow him up?" Ronon asked. "On Hoff."
"Apparently not," John said. Of course Michael wanted Teyla – he thought she was like him, caught between two races; he thought they'd bonded, when he'd been in Atlantis. "Did Nabel happen to mention where he is now?"
"Yes," Teyla said. "Both the address of the planet, and the location of the building he is using as a laboratory."
"Good." John turned to Cameron. "Lorne and I can go, take two jumpers and a supply of drones. Put an end to this."
Across the table, Rodney muttered something about military strategy, and shoot first, think later, but it was just muttering, not loud enough to count as a real complaint. John didn't even bother turning round, holding Cameron's eye.
It took a long moment, but Cameron nodded.
Cam didn't know what it said about him that when Chuck announced that the Daedalus was in range of the city and transmitting a message, he actually checked the clock on his laptop. "Right on time," he said, surprised, stepping onto the control balcony. Chuck pointed him to the right transmitter. "Colonel Caldwell, sir. Welcome to Pegasus."
"Colonel Mitchell." It was hard to tell over the long-distance transmission, but Caldwell didn't sound too happy. Not that he ever sounded really happy. "Good to be back."
"Yes, sir." Cam rolled his eyes at himself. "How was your trip?"
"Long, but uneventful. We should be in range to beam down Mr. Woolsey within the hour."
"Sounds good, sir." At least it was just Woolsey and not a team of marines to have him and John arrested and beamed onto the Daedalus, unless Caldwell was hoping to keep that as a surprise.
"We'll be in touch again then. Daedalus out."
"Looking forward to it," Cam muttered when he was sure the connection had been cut, then tapped his radio. "Sheppard, Lorne. If you're going to Michael's it might be a good idea to head out now instead of later."
In the end, it wasn't just him and Lorne, though John thought it should have been. Maybe with a couple of co-pilots, though anything that managed to take out one of them would probably take out the whole jumper, meaning two people died instead of one. Unfortunately, Cameron's military training lost out to the combined voices of both teams insisting that they should go with, which meant they were flying in from the next planet over, already cloaked, with Rodney chattering nervously at John from the co-pilot seat.
"You know, he's probably got his own sensors," Rodney was saying. "I mean, okay, crazy, but actually pretty smart. If he hadn't reverted back to being mostly a Wraith, we could have really used him around the city."
"I'll bear that in mind, next time we try something like that," John promised. Not that there was going to be a next time, no matter how good the potential end sounded.
Yeah. Right. Because he never ended up doing something he'd never thought he'd do in Pegasus. The whole mission was one long list of things he'd never expected, from shooting Sumner in their first week onwards.
"I'm just saying, you shouldn't rely on being able to sneak up on him," Rodney said, starting to sound petulant. He was still pissed about sending Nabel back to Earth, and the five-hour jumper ride hadn't helped.
"I know that," John said, as patiently as he could manage. "Believe it or not Rodney, I have done stuff like this before, without the benefit of a cloak."
"Does Dr Zelenka not mind being left alone to work on the Replicator coding?" Teyla asked quickly.
"No," Rodney said. "He's always telling me how capable he is of handling things by himself, he can spend some time doing it."
"I rather meant being alone with the wraith," Teyla said. "I am certain he will do an admirable job in your absence."
"An admirable – what's that supposed to mean?" Rodney asked, twisting his seat to look at Teyla. "Is there something wrong with the job I've been doing?"
"Of course not," Teyla said, sounding startled. "I meant only that I am certain Dr Zelenka will be able to cover your work while you are with us. There was no insult intended, Rodney."
"Oh, well, sorry," Rodney said. At least he had the grace to sound ashamed. "I'm sorry, Teyla, it's just that it isn't going very well, and Jeannie's not exactly eager to keep helping out, not after what happened last time, so…"
"I understand," Teyla said, leaning forward to pat Rodney on the shoulder. "We are all of us feeling the strain of our current situation."
John could get behind that; a couple of days ago, he'd actually found himself looking back with fondness on their first year in the city. Meeting the Genii and losing people to nanite viruses and scrambling madly to just survive, to find a way home, hadn't really been any easier. Somehow, in his memory, it still felt that way.
They broke atmosphere over a planet that looked pretty much like seventy per cent of the rest of the planets in Pegasus – covered in trees with a few clearings for low-tech towns and villages.
"That way," Rodney said, pointing away from the groups of buildings. The jumper helpfully put up a map showing a larger building round the other side of the continent.
"Lorne, you see that?" John asked.
"Yes, sir," Lorne said. "Sounds like the place Nabel described."
"I agree," Teyla said. "There do not appear to be any other buildings of similar size on this world."
"Okay. When we get close enough, we'll stop, scan for life signs, then release the drones. Keep an eye out for enemy fire – he might know we're here."
"Thank you," Rodney muttered, then, when John glared at him, "What, it's okay for you to give the obvious warnings but not me?"
"I'm the mission leader," John pointed out. "It's kind of my job."
"And I'm the scientist, it's kind of my job, given how often you go rushing headlong into danger without a thought for your own safety."
John quashed an absurd urge to pat Rodney's arm and say, yes, dear, the way his father had to his mom when John was a kid, humoring her so obviously that she laughed instead of getting offended. "We close enough to scan the building yet?"
"Almost," Rodney said. "Okay, now. Scanning…" The screen focused in on the single building, showing nothing for a moment, then two dots, close together. "Huh. Did Nabel mention Michael working with anyone?"
"No," Teyla said, looking at the screen. "Though he did not mention that Michael had already taken captives, either."
"What do you want to do, sir?" Lorne asked in John's ear.
"Someone working with him, they're not someone we need to save," Ronon said. He had his hand on his blaster.
Teyla hesitated, clearly torn. "If he has taken a captive, we should attempt to rescue them," she said slowly. "But we have no way of knowing if this is the case, and the risk would be great."
"What would he want with one captive, anyway?" John asked, mostly rhetorically. "He's never taken captives before, other than us."
"Could be another one of those bug things," Ronon suggested. "Something we'll end up killing anyway."
"Good point," John agreed. It was; the chances of Michael having an innocent person down there, someone in need of saving, were pretty small, and without anything to say one way or the other, it wasn't a risk they could take. "Okay, Lorne, let's do this."
The drones hit square on – score one for Air Force training – and for a moment, it seemed like the building would just collapse in on itself. Then something sparked, and flames caught.
Within minutes, the whole structure was on fire, the flames high enough that John pulled the jumper back a way. He called up the screen again. The dots were gone.
"That's it," he said, not sure why he was bothering, since everyone was looking at the same data as him. He felt weirdly hollow, missing the usual sense of accomplishment at having completed a mission. "Lorne, head back to the gate, we're right behind you."
"Yes, sir," Lorne said quietly, sounding like he was feeling it too.
They were well out of the planet's atmosphere before Rodney said, "You know, Carson would have hated knowing that we did that. He still felt bad about the Wraith we changed then bombed."
John didn't want to think about that, or about Carson. "He would've gotten over it," he said. "Knowing we did it to help keep Teyla and her people safe."
Woolsey beamed down in the middle of the gate-room floor, giving a surprised squeak when he saw the four marines with weapons pointing at him. Cam hadn't even told them to do it; apparently the Lanteans really were as paranoid as the reports made them sound.
"Mr. Woolsey," he said, heading down the stairs quickly. "Welcome to Atlantis." He waved the marines off as well, tempting as it was to leave them there.
Woolsey finished straightening his jacket. "Thank you."
"Long. And extremely delayed in departing."
Cam smiled and didn't point out that he could have come via the midway station with John, Ronon and the wraith. Implying that Woolsey didn't want to be in such close quarters with a wraith probably wouldn't be a good way to start the visit. "Well, you're here now. Shall I have someone show you to your quarters?"
Woolsey bent to pick up his rolling case, looking round the gate-room. "I was hoping to speak with you and Colonel Sheppard first. Just to establish the basis for my presence in the city."
"Colonel Sheppard and his team are out on a mission right now," Cam said, heading up the stairs to his office. "We're expecting them back shortly."
"I see," Woolsey said, his tone implying that he wasn't impressed with what he did see. "You didn't mention this when Colonel Caldwell contacted you."
"I didn't think it was important," Cam said. "You'll be spending a few days with us, that should give you plenty of time to say everything you need to." He smiled again, hoping it looked more friendly than faked.
"I'm sure it will," Woolsey said, returning the smile stiffly. "Then perhaps you could find someone to show me to a place where I can work. It never hurts to spend some extra time on preparation, after all."
"We've got an office set up for you near here," Cam said. "I'll get a sergeant to show you; I want to be here when the teams come back."
"Teams? You know, on second thought, perhaps I'd be more effective working here. It is the nerve center of the city after all."
"Sure," Cam said, biting down the groan. This was going to be a long visit.
"I think these might look familiar," Caldwell said, bringing up a photograph of the Replicator homeworld on the conference room screen.
John wanted to rub his eyes, make sure he really was seeing what he thought it was; they were well past early evening at this point, and it had been a long day. Unfortunately, Caldwell wasn't the kind of person you said no to when he proposed a meeting. Especially with Woolsey in the background, watching their every move.
"Ships," Rodney said. "Haven't we seen this before?"
"Something like this, yes," Caldwell agreed. "They've rebuilt the shipyards since we attacked them, to a level that suggests they're planning an attack."
"Three guesses where they're heading," Cameron muttered, twisted round in his seat to look at the display.
"I'd assume Atlantis," Woolsey said. "Since you did just attack their city."
Watching Cameron and Caldwell give Woolsey matching looks of almost-amused despair, John had to bite back a laugh. "We didn't attack their city," he pointed out mildly. "That was the Wraith, they were nothing to do with us."
"Though they did end up rescuing your team," Woolsey commented.
"Not on purpose," John said. Woolsey always sounded like he was accusing them of something, even when he wasn't. Though he probably was, this time.
"To get back to the point, if we may," Caldwell said. "If they're building ships with the intention of coming for Atlantis, whether it's in response to the latest mission there or not, we need to be taking steps to prevent that from happening. Unless you're planning on leaving this planet as well."
Rodney shook his head. "Not enough power in the ZPM. Which is mainly why we were on the Replicator homeworld in the first place, if you'd read the reports."
"I remember, thank you, Doctor."
"Okay," Cameron put in. "So leaving's not an option. You've been working on this with the science team, right, Doctor? How's that coming?"
"Between my sister getting kidnapped, a failed rescue mission, and working with a wraith on a shutdown code for the Replicators, we haven't exactly had a lot of time spare. Unless you want us to start foregoing sleep as well?"
"Nah, keep on with the naps," Cameron said.
"How is the shutdown code coming?" Caldwell asked.
John watched Rodney puff up, and jumped in before an argument could get started. "Dr McKay and his team haven't had a lot of time to work on it, but they're confident they can get it working. Right, McKay?"
"Absolutely," Rodney said, sounding almost convincing. "Matter of days."
Cameron caught John's eye for a second, just long enough for John to shake his head slightly. "We'll hope for a good result on that, then," he said. "In the meantime, we still need to deal with the Replicator ships before they start heading for Atlantis. McKay's right, we're not set up to withstand an attack if it does come."
John wondered how many of them were thinking of Rodney's vision from Davos. Even Ronon, who'd been skeptical from the start, had seemed more convinced since the attack on Athos had really happened.
"It does seem as though the Replicators will continue to be a problem unless properly dealt with," Woolsey put in, because clearly Caldwell, Cameron, and John and his team couldn't have figured that out for themselves. "Particularly when provoked."
"We didn't provoke them," Ronon said, turning to glare at Woolsey. "We went to rescue Dr Weir."
"Weren't the SGC working on fitting the Asgard plasma beam weapons on their ships?" Cameron asked, cutting off whatever Woolsey had been intending to say. "Carter was working on it, right before I left."
Caldwell nodded. "Both the Daedalus and the Apollo have been fitted with the weapons. They're very effective against large targets."
John nodded, watching the thoughts pass across Cameron's face like they were written there.
"Don't get too trigger happy yet," Rodney said. "I've seen the specs for those, they'll be about as much use against the Replicators themselves as a handgun, even if you can destroy their ships."
"That's where your shutdown code will come in useful then," Caldwell said.
The queasy look that settled on Rodney's face didn't inspire a lot of confidence.
"You can get it working, right?" Cameron pushed, apparently feeling the same way.
"Sure, of course," Rodney said, no closer to convincing than he had been a few minutes ago. "Give us a couple of days, maybe three."
"Okay," Cameron said dubiously, half-turning away from him. "I'll contact Landry, see about getting the Apollo out here as well."
Caldwell shook his head. "That's still two ships against fifteen or twenty on the planet. Assuming they haven't built more since then."
"I might be able to help with that," John said.
The meeting broke up not long after John suggested going to the wraith for help, Cameron shutting down Caldwell's and Woolsey's disagreements almost as effectively as Elizabeth would have done. Rodney took the opportunity to cut out for the labs, Ronon and Teyla following a moment later, while John lingered, pretending to read his tablet and waiting for Woolsey to finish up so that he could talk to Cameron in mostly-private.
"Colonel Mitchell, I'd like some time to speak to each of you involved in the decision to mount a rescue mission for Dr Weir. First thing tomorrow morning, please." John fought down the urge to groan. "I've sent you a list of names and appointment times. Since the Apollo won't be here for a week, you should all have plenty of time."
"Can't wait," Cameron said. "Do you need someone to show you to your quarters?"
"I'll find my own way, thank you very much."
Out in the gate-room, the transporter beam flashed, taking Caldwell back to the orbiting ship for the night. One down. Shame Woolsey had refused to sleep on the ship as well.
"You want to contact the SGC, ask them to get the Apollo on its way?" John asked, watching Woolsey head towards the guest quarters.
"Yeah," Cam said, then checked his watch. "Or, no – it's three in the morning on Earth, Landry'll be gone. He's probably less likely to agree if we wake him up."
John nodded, taking a fast look round the mostly empty control balcony. "You busy?"
"No more than usual." Cameron shut down his laptop and headed out, John falling in next to him. "I think I've still got the blueprints for the plasma weapons, if you want to see them."
John couldn't help grinning, even knowing that it made him look a little manic. It was just that plasma beam weapons were so cool – even the name sounded cool.
Cameron laughed. "I'll take that as a yes," he said.
The corridors were quiet once the transporter deposited them in the residential area, the only people to pass them a pair of patrolling marines. John still kept his hands to himself, even after the patrol turned the corner, until the door to his quarters closed behind them.
"Do you really want to see the weapon specs?" Cameron asked, turning round.
John grinned, winding his arms round Cam's neck and pulling him close. "Not right now."
He felt insanely like he was soaking up the kiss, trying to memorize it for later. They were already taking a big risk, just doing this; add in Woolsey in the city and Caldwell so close and the risk multiplied hugely. John was pretty sure he didn't care.
"You wanna sit down?" Cameron asked eventually, drawling the words against John's mouth so it took him a minute to realize they were an actual question.
Cameron took his boots off, leaving them neatly by the door, laces loosened, and placed his thigh holster on the left corner of John's desk, far enough away from John's that they wouldn't have another day of carrying each other's weapons when someone picked up the wrong one. It reminded John, leaning back on his elbows on his bed, of Nancy, nightly routines of removing her jewelry while John pretended not to watch her over the top of his book. He wasn't sure what it said about him that it was already familiar with Cameron, or that he didn't really mind.
"You think too much," Cameron said, suddenly sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand on the far side of John's hips, leaning over to cup the back of his neck and kiss him again. John shifted, meaning to reach up and return the gesture, except his hands were keeping him balanced, and lifting them sent him sprawling gracelessly onto his back, dragging Cameron down with him, half-twisted over John's body.
"Smooth," Cameron said on a dry laugh.
"Years of practice," John told him solemnly, enjoying the laugh. Oh yeah, he was stupidly far gone.
"That explains why you're divorced," Cameron said, sitting up so John could shuffle into a position less likely to result in him getting knocked out on the wall. "Here, maybe this is safer," he added, stretching out beside John and half-turning him so they could touch, not that they had much choice on John's narrow bed, Cameron's hands in John's hair, just like every lover he'd ever had – he had no idea what the attraction was, but it always felt great, so he wasn't complaining.
Also, it had the advantage of distracting Cameron so he didn't notice John opening his shirt. And, really, once he'd unfastened all the buttons, it would be rude for John not to touch; not that it was a hardship, not when Cameron shivered under his fingers, the muscles in his abdomen tightening when John's fingers skated over them, curved under the waistband on his pants and touched the skin there.
The little hum of contentment was just a bonus.
They went slow, kissing and touching, clothes coming off slowly, peaceful. John didn't remember lowering the lights, or maybe it hadn't been him who'd done it, but they were out, the curtains open to let the light of the two moons wash over them both, turning everything silver and faintly alien.
When Cameron pulled away to press light kisses along the edge of John's jaw, John took a deep breath, lining the words up at the back of his throat. He didn't know why he hadn't made the offer before, but Cameron hadn't asked, didn't seem like he was going to ask, or offer, and John wanted… "You could fuck me," he said, trying to make it sound like an idle suggestion and pretty sure he didn't manage it.
Cameron murmured something against his skin, then stopped, turning slightly to look at John. "Yeah," he said after a few seconds. "Sure."
John wasn't sure what he'd expected, but maybe it had been something like this casual acceptance of his offer. It was nice.
"You got stuff?" Cameron asked, pulling back a little further.
John studied his face for a long moment; he looked more serious than he had before. Not that this was a big deal, exactly. It had just been a while. A long while, for him at least. He couldn't speak for Cameron, wasn't really that invested in being able to.
Cameron twisted awkwardly to reach behind himself, dropping a condom and John's small, barely used, bottle of lube on the bed behind John before stretching back out over him. It was John who hissed this time – they were both down to boxers and nothing else, and Cameron's erection sliding against his own felt like a sudden low-voltage shock, even through two layers of clothing. Cameron grinned, looking stupidly pleased with himself, and rolled his hips again; John's breath caught, and he pushed up into it, watching Cameron's eyes go a little unfocused at the contact.
"Yeah?" Cameron asked, the challenge clear in his voice, then he was gone, shifting down the bed to press his open mouth against John's cock, breathing warm air onto the head.
"Yeah," John said without meaning to, sounding dazed to his own ears. It didn't help that Cameron couldn't stretch out down there without being half off the bed – all the muscles in his back stood out as he bent over, and John wanted to trace the line of every single one, lick along all the hollows between them.
He settled for running one hand over Cameron's shoulder, up his neck and into his hair, the only parts of him he could reach easily with Cameron's hands low on his thighs, just resting there, like the hand on John's shoulder, when he'd been on his knees the first time.
Cameron traced the length of John's cock with his mouth, lips dragging the material against him. It should have felt weird, but it just felt good, even better when Cameron twisted slightly, his own cock pressing against John's leg.
"I thought you were going to fuck me," he said, the words coming out just as dazed as the last ones, but Cameron's eyes were glazed under half-closed eyelids, which made it okay.
"What, you've got somewhere else to be?" he asked, sounding a lot more together than he looked.
"Yeah, the other hot Air Force pilot I'm fucking is coming by in an hour," John said, watching Cameron come up on his knees, straddling John's thighs.
"I didn't know you and Major Lorne were so close," Cameron said, then his hands closed warm over John's hips, sliding his boxers down and off, and John kind of lost the power of coherent thought. "Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'serving under you' though," Cameron added, removing his own underwear but staying just far enough back that John couldn't reach for him.
"You're one to talk," he said, waving one hand to encompass the two of them naked in John's bed, John flat on his back waiting for Cameron to get with the program and fuck him.
Cameron's expression twisted into something between amused and faintly horrified. "There are just too many bad puns about knowing your place in that," he said.
"Yeah," John agreed, glad Cameron hadn't felt the need to share any of them. "Come here and kiss me instead."
Cameron obliged, the movement dragging their cocks together, and John took a very shaky breath at the contact, forcing his hips still before he just rubbed up against Cameron till he came.
He concentrated on the feel of Cameron's tongue sliding against his, fumbling in the sheets for the bottle of lube, which appeared to have dematerialised.
"Here," Cameron murmured, pressing it between their hands for a moment. "Let me…"
John took advantage of his temporary distraction as he fumbled to open it, pushing them back onto their sides and applying his mouth to Cameron's throat, which he'd found always got him the best little gasps. He couldn't press hard enough to leave marks, not when Cameron always wore the top buttons of his shirt open, a glimpse of flesh that completely derailed John when he caught sight of it unexpectedly.
"You're not helping." Cameron said, belying his own words with the sound of the cap snapping open.
"Sorry," John said, nibbling carefully along Cameron's collarbone.
He was completely unprepared for the feel of Cameron's finger, slick with lube, pressing into him, couldn't help the quick flinch.
"Sorry," Cameron said. He rubbed his thumb lightly against John's perineum, oddly soothing, the single finger stilling.
"It's fine," John said, kissing Cameron's mouth quickly in an attempt to prove it. "Just surprised me. Keep going."
"Yes! What am I, your prom date?"
"Nah, you're much prettier than her," Cameron said, sounding half-serious, though John couldn't see his face well.
"Aw, you say the sweetest things," he said, putting all the fake southern drawl into it that he could.
Cameron, probably wisely, ignored him.
By the time Cameron was sliding a third finger into John, he was almost uncomfortably hard, pressing back into Cameron's movement impatiently. "Come on, come on."
"Anyone ever tell you that you lack a sense of delayed gratification?" Cameron asked dryly.
"Not in bed," John said. "Seriously, what are you waiting for?"
"Right, your other date," Cameron said, mock-serious, but he slid his fingers out and reached for the condom.
"Exactly. Hurry it up, already, some of us don't have all night."
Cameron leaned down to kiss him, hard, with lots of tongue. He was grinning when he pulled back – he had a nice smile, John thought stupidly. "Funny man."
"I try," John said modestly. He watched Cameron roll the condom onto his dick; thought about angles, and how long it had been since he'd done this, and how some of his exes had said that everything showed on his face when he was getting fucked, and rolled over slightly, half onto his side, his top leg bent up. "Okay?"
"Yeah," Cameron said, sounding slightly breathless. "Yeah, that's good."
He pushed into John slowly, like he was still worried about hurting him. The stretch was as weird as it always was, and it took John a minute to remember how to relax into it, then Cameron was all the way inside him, one hand on John's upper thigh, holding him open, the other sliding under his neck, round his chest, pulling him close. John went with it until his back was pressed against Cameron's chest, reaching up to hold the hand on his chest, not caring what it might say.
"That's good," he said, the words coming out slurred. "You can…"
Cameron fucked him slowly, smooth, hard strokes that brushed John's prostate as he pushed back into it, the only clue that Cameron wasn't in total control in the way his breathing speeded up, went ragged, and even that was mostly lost under John's own harsh breathing, the groans that he couldn't keep from escaping. It really had been a long time since he'd done this, and it felt so good…
"God, John," Cameron muttered. His hand tightened around John's. "Touch yourself."
John shoved his free hand down, wrapped it round his cock, trying to match Cameron's rolling rhythm, but he could feel his orgasm building at the base of spine and he couldn't do it, had to go faster, harder, and he was muttering, babbling, Cameron's voice a low, steady stream of encouragement in his ear. Cameron bent his head, pressing a wet kiss right behind John's ear, and that was all it took, his own hand tightening on his cock as the orgasm swept through him, leaving him shaken and sweaty, Cameron still hard inside him.
He must have stilled at some point, because John's whole body vibrated when he thrust gently into John again. "Stop," John gasped. "I can't –" He felt too sensitive, the jolt of sensation from Cameron's cock against his prostate too much. "Can I –"
Cameron eased out of him with more control than John thought he'd have in the same place, dropping onto his back. John rolled over, pulling off the condom, and twisting his upper body till he could take Cameron's cock into his mouth without the risk of permanently twisting his neck out of joint.
"Oh God," Cameron moaned. John slid one hand back and down, cradling Cameron's balls as he sucked, and Cameron went quiet for a moment, then caught his breath and said, "John," in warning, and came, his hips arching up off the bed so John had to pull back or choke, trying to swallow and not quite managing it. He went back down, licking at the head of Cameron's cock, bitter and slick against his tongue, until Cameron groaned and pushed him away, his left leg twitching slightly under John's hand.
When John finally got his limbs together well enough to crawl up the bed and drape himself half over Cameron, Cameron's eyes were closed, one arm bent above his head like he'd aimed to cover his eyes and missed. It came down to curl round John's shoulders when John kissed him softly, and he smiled. "That was good," he offered.
John had a nasty feeling he was going to end up lying in the damp spot, since Cameron tended to doze off after sex, even if he woke up after an hour or so to leave. Even so, he wasn't about to argue. "Yeah."
There were three positive things about having Woolsey in the city; Cam knew, he'd made a list:
1. Woolsey had actually helped them convince Landry to send the Apollo, despite being vocally opposed to the plan the rest of the time. Cam thought Landry had probably agreed just to spite Woolsey
2. With Woolsey there as a real outsider, the population of the city were more inclined to absorb Cam into the Atlantis collective
3. He hadn't noticed, until Woolsey turned up, just how much he really had become part of Atlantis. The shock of homesickness when Woolsey had mentioned SG-1 had actually been more of a shock because he hadn't thought of them in days.
Of course, the only reason he'd made the list in the first place was to counter-act the negatives of having Woolsey around. Starting with the way he hovered when Cam was talking to gate-teams on their way out, as though Cam might be imparting secret plans for another rescue attempt. Then there was the way he frowned when the teams heading out to warn people about the Replicators left with their Athosian guides and the questions he asked of Cam, John, Lorne, Teyla, everyone who'd been even slightly involved in the mission against the Replicators. It didn't seem to matter how many times Cam and John pointed out that the two of them had made the decision on their own.
He didn't think Woolsey was going to recall either of them at this point, but the air of tension that had hung over the city since the wraith had been brought in only thickened with Woolsey's presence. The only thing worse would have been having Caldwell there as well, but the Daedalus was parked out near the Replicator homeworld, dropping in periodically to check up on the ship-building. For once, luck was working for them; the Replicators were still building their ships and hadn't launched anything yet.
Cam was finally getting some work done in peace when Woolsey walked into his office, closed the door behind himself, and sat in Cam's visitor chair. Cam stifled the groan, just. That moment of peace had lasted twenty minutes; his reprieve in the city had lasted just over two days.
"I'm sure you realize, Colonel, that I'm not just here to review the decision by you and Colonel Sheppard to send a rescue mission after Dr Weir, despite the IOA's refusal to approve it," Woolsey started.
Cam didn't really need a summary of the events, but Woolsey seemed hung up on giving it frequently anyway. "No, not really." He'd just been hoping.
"Good." Woolsey looked down at his notes, then up again. "I'm also here to review your own role here. Call it an interim-interim review." He smiled at his own joke; the six month review was another thing Cam didn't need reminding about, even if it was a couple of months away yet.
"I figured you were," he said instead.
Woolsey straightened in his seat. "Colonel Mitchell, when you were given this post, it was, I acknowledge, partly to provide you with time to fully recover from your injuries aboard the Odyssey."
The injuries that he had recovered from perfectly well, whatever Dr Lam said about him taking an unusually long time to recover from a minor fall off-world a couple of weeks later. The half-spoken hints that it was related to his crash in Antarctica were something he'd happily chosen to ignore. "I remember."
"But not wholly," Woolsey said. "The IOA chose you to take over from Dr Weir because we believed, as did General Landry, that you had the experience and the personal connection to be able to keep Colonel Sheppard in line. To prevent him from going haring off on exactly the kind of ill-thought out missions that this turned out to be, in fact, and instead, we find that you've been helping him conduct them, and keeping it from the IOA the entire time."
"With all due respect, Mr. Woolsey," Cam said, and really, wasn't there anyone in the IOA who understood the concept of 'in command'. At least the irritation helped keep him from flinching at Woolsey talking about his personal connection to John. "You chose me for this post, I didn't volunteer. I agreed to come out here and take over leading the expedition, not to wrestle Sheppard for control of the people here."
He still had no real idea what had made them think that was something he could do. For John, their 'personal connection' was more likely to be a weakness he could exploit to get his way than a reason to give in, even if their ideas about what should and shouldn't be done weren't so closely aligned. They'd have been better off sending Sam, or even Jackson, for that – they both had the presence to stand up to John, but Cam wasn't above admitting that they both had enough experience with the SGC to be more practical, more able to sacrifice people than either him or John. They probably wouldn't have ended up in bed with him either. Instead, the IOA had chosen him, giving command of SG-1 back to Sam again. Not that she didn't deserve it, but it still stung, like the SGC and the IOA were trying to sugar-coat the fact that they thought he hadn't done a good enough job as a field commander by giving him Atlantis, which he hadn't even wanted, but where he could be kept behind a desk, doing paperwork and never going through that gate.
"Be that as it may, Colonel," Woolsey said, oblivious to Cam's wandering thoughts. "You were aware of the IOA's thoughts on the matter, from Colonel Sheppard himself if not from us, and yet you still went against them."
"Look," Cam said, clutching at the edges of his temper. Blowing up at Woolsey wouldn't help anyone. "You put me here to lead the expedition. That means I get to make the day-to-day decisions about what we do, and live with the consequences afterwards. If you don't like the way I'm doing it, remove me from duty and put someone else in. Otherwise, I've got work to do, so I'd appreciate having my office back."
Woolsey stuck it out for the better part of a minute as Cam pretended to be absorbed in requisition forms, then muttered something under his breath and walked out, leaving the door open behind himself. Cam waited until his footsteps had faded before he took a deep breath and let it out. If Woolsey hadn't wanted him gone before, he probably did now.
Although Kanaan and the other Athosians rarely came into the main city, unless on their way to a particular place, Teyla was occasionally successful in persuading them to do so. On this occasion, she had tempted Kanaan with the promise of real ice cream from Quinta, given to the city in thanks for assistance in evacuating the planet before the Replicators came.
"There are many treats to living in the city of the Ancestors," Kanaan said, resting his hand next to Teyla's on the table top. "I have not had ice cream in many years."
"Nor I," Teyla agreed, stirring her dessert so that the colors mixed with each other. "The Earth version is very different, and far sweeter." John often said that the freeze dried version which the Daedalus brought did not taste like real Earth ice cream, though Rodney seemed to enjoy it. They promised each time to take her to Earth and buy her ice cream, though she was beginning to wonder if that would ever be possible. Even when Ronon went, there had not been time for treats or excursions.
"Teyla?" Kanaan said, nudging her hand with his spoon, leaving a sticky mark there. He looked round the room, which was mostly empty, the evening wearing on towards night, then lifted her hand and licked away the stickiness, smiling.
Teyla felt herself blushing as she smiled back, though she would not have felt so on New Athos, she was certain, even had they had an audience. "Will you return?" she asked, gently removing her hand from Kanaan's to lift her spoon again. "Now that there is no longer a threat?"
"Is that truly so?" Kanaan asked, his face darkening. "You did not see the creature who was responsible for this, and you have said that you thought him dead before. How can you be certain you have not been mistaken again?"
Teyla had experienced the same thoughts, though she had not shared them; John and Rodney seemed saddened still by what had occurred only days ago, and she did not wish to tarnish Ronon's harsh satisfaction with the outcome of the mission, when he had previously been, as the others were, weighted down by the continuing missions to other worlds, their role as bringers of bad news. "There is very little that is certain," she said carefully. "But we cannot live our lives in constant fear."
"That is not what you said when you brought us all here," Kanaan pointed out. He replaced his spoon in the half-empty bowl, turning to face her. "Was it not your fear which took us from our home, and made us guests here?"
Teyla fought to keep the hurt from her voice. "It was my concern for your safety. For the safety of all Athosians. And I was far more certain of that threat than we can be of the continued threat posed by Michael."
"I apologize," Kanaan said, his tone formal. "It was not my intention to suggest otherwise."
"I do not understand," Teyla said truthfully. "Would you have preferred to stay on New Athos and risk capture? Michael has never recovered truly from the experiments which were done on him, I assure you. Whatever he wanted us for would have been far worse than anything we can imagine here."
"I believe you," Kanaan said. "It is merely that many of the Athosians wonder if we can be truly safe on New Athos, when there are people who seek to harm us in order to become closer to you, or to the city of the Ancestors."
"You mean to sever my bond with the Athosians?" Teyla asked, horror coloring her voice, though she tried to stop it. "You seek to complete the ritual – Kanaan, I am carrying our child!"
"No!" Kanaan swept her hands up in his. "Teyla, of course not, I would never suggest such a thing. None of the Athosians would. You are our leader, that does not change." His face was open as ever, his shock clear, and Teyla allowed herself to relax slightly. "I meant only to suggest that, if Colonel Mitchell and Colonel Sheppard were to agree, perhaps we could once again settle on the mainland, to be truly under the protection of Atlantis, if we are to continue to be threatened because we bear that title."
"There are snakes," Teyla said. Though the biologists insisted that they were not in fact members of the snake family, the name seemed to have remained, as did many inappropriate or inaccurate names in the city.
"Retni has been speaking with some of the soldiers here," Kanaan said, smiling. "They believe there may be ways to remove the snakes."
Teyla did not ask, certain that she would not like the answer. "Remember that you will wish to farm those soils later," she cautioned, though she could not stop her smile at the thought of her people being so close, safe within Atlantis' protection.
John was absolutely convinced that one day their luck with hive ships was going to run out. Not that it was fantastic in general, but his team had been on enough hive ships over the years that statistically they should be dead. The unlikely escapes couldn't last forever, and he was pretty sure being dragged onto one while stunned and then allowed to leave with the guy they were effectively keeping a prisoner had to count against them.
Though Ronon seemed happy to hold it against the Wraith instead, glaring at their wraith as the jumper skimmed away from the hive ship, no-one dead and twelve Wraith hives to join in the attack on the Replicator world.
"Take it as a compliment," he suggested over his shoulder. "They were afraid of you." Not that John would be in the best of moods if he'd been stunned repeatedly by the Wraith. Though it was kind of a compliment. Ronon kept glaring and John sighed, turning to Cadman, who'd tagged along in Teyla's place, everyone agreeing that the mission was too dangerous for her to risk. "Dial the gate, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir," Cadman said brightly, leaning over to start the sequence. Three buttons in, the console beeped. "What's that?"
The jumper threw up a scan in front of John. "Hyperspace window forming. You guys forget something when you –" The hyperspace window formed suddenly, depositing an Ancient battle cruiser right in their path. John yanked the controls, sending the jumper skimming across the side of the ship. "Cadman, dial the damn gate. That's a Replicator ship."
Cadman started, her face grim on the edge of John's vision.
Behind him, he heard Ronon's weapon fire up. "What did they offer you in exchange for us?"
"You are mistaken," the wraith said firmly.
John half-turned to talk Ronon down before things got really messy, and the console beeped again.
"Receiving transmission," Cadman said.
"Lantean ship, identify yourself."
"Is that –" Cadman started, looking like she was about to laugh.
"Larrin," John said. Great. He was kind of surprised to see her ship up and running, when he and Rodney had left it only half-functional at best. He really hoped she hadn't gotten weapons working; she probably wasn't that pleased with him after the rescue mission they'd pulled.
"Sheppard," Larrin said darkly. "What the hell are you doing here?"
It was better than shooting him out of the sky, or pulling the jumper in, though not by much. At least Ronon and the wraith had gone quiet in the back. "What are you doing here?" he asked belatedly.
"Seven hives orbiting a single planet. It seemed like something we wanted to take a look at. And now we have you; you still owe me a properly fixed ship."
"If we're talking owing, you kidnapped one of my people," John said. Though, actually -. "You know, maybe we should talk."
"Yes, we should. You can explain why the seven hives didn't touch your little ship before they left. Use Bay Three."
The transmission cut off.
"Great," Cadman said brightly. "Another chance to play with the crazy woman and her broken ship."
"Her broken ship that we could maybe fix in exchange for the use of some of her less broken ships," John corrected, heading for the opening bay door.
"So in return for McKay taking some of his people out to work on her ship, she's sending three, maybe four of her ships to join in the attack," John finished, glad for the space between their table and the rest of the dinner time rush in the mess. He really didn't feel like trying to shout over all the voices.
Rodney groaned into his coffee. "This is why you shouldn't be allowed to go on missions without me and Teyla. And certainly not with Cadman."
"Because it's a bad thing that we're down to two of their ships against one of ours?" John asked.
"Because you're trading my time for it," Rodney said. "Like I'm some kind of intergalactic repairman."
Ronon snorted, and even Teyla smiled slightly. "I am certain that Larrin and the other Travelers will be most grateful for your assistance."
"Well, yes, of course. I'd just like to know why it's never Sheppard's services being traded for something we need. He's not completely without skills."
"Gee, thanks," John muttered. It was tempting to list off all the times he and Ronon had been asked to hunt down some ravening beast as part of a trading negotiation, but Rodney had been suspiciously quiet about the shutdown code all day. If it wasn't going well, which seemed likely, John wasn't keen on winding him up further by mentioning it.
"Why do we have to wait for the Apollo if we've got all these extra ships?" Ronon asked. "One more won't make much difference."
"One more with plasma beam weapons," John corrected. The words still sounded good. "Besides, the Apollo's only a couple of days out, and Larrin won't have her ships battle-ready till tomorrow at the earliest."
"The Daedalus is monitoring the Replicator homeworld," Teyla reminded them. "They seem confident that we can safely wait for reinforcements."
John looked round the mess again, but everyone was involved in their own conversations, too far away to eavesdrop. "I've been thinking about that," he said quietly, forcing himself not to lean in. It would only look suspicious. "If Rodney and the wraith get the shutdown code working, someone's going to have to go into the city and upload it, right?"
"Probably me," Rodney said darkly.
"But not without back-up," John said. "What's to stop us getting beamed in close to a terminal, give us a chance to see where they're keeping Elizabeth? If the Replicators are going to be shutdown anyway…"
Teyla was already shaking her head. "This is a dangerous plan," she said. "Even if the code does work, of which you cannot be certain, there is no guarantee that you would reach a terminal undetected."
"Teyla's right," Rodney said, though he looked torn. "The core room's down in the base of the city, there aren't any terminals near."
"Fine. After we activate the code, then. The Replicators will be shut down, it'll be perfectly safe."
"Several people were taken the first time you attempted this," Teyla said. "The Replicators must know who was in their city. It is most unlikely that they will have allowed Dr Weir to remain alive."
Next to her, Ronon slumped further down in his chair, his face drawn and closed off, while Rodney fidgeted next to John, a sure sign that he wasn't keen on a plan.
"It's worth a try though, right? This is Elizabeth we're talking about." It hurt to look at the others, knowing they weren't with him on this. "Come on, what's the harm in trying?"
"Given our luck with the Replicators, plenty," Rodney said. He sighed. "Look, fine, if we can shut them down completely, then maybe."
"Caldwell's not going to like it," Ronon said.
"Caldwell can shove it," John said firmly, fighting the same swooping sense of impending disaster he'd felt listening to Landry threaten him after they stole the jumper to come home.
"Well, this has certainly been an edifying visit," Woolsey said, sitting at the head of the conference table with Lorne, Cameron, John and his team around the table. John was pretty sure it hadn't escaped anyone's notice that the Apollo was due the next morning, or that Woolsey had elected to go home via the midway station as soon as the meeting was over.
"Wouldn't have wanted you to be bored," Cameron said brightly. He didn't seem outwardly nervous, but John thought there was still something about him that said he wasn't confident of the outcome of this meeting. There was a big difference between thinking they were safe and knowing they were. The thought of being sent back to Earth right before the attack on the Replicator world coiled unpleasantly in the back of John's head.
"That's not something that ever seems to happen when I'm with you, Colonel Mitchell," Woolsey said.
John made the mistake of catching Rodney's eye as they both turned away to hide their smiles at that comment, and had to turn a laugh into clearing his throat.
"Are you all right, Colonel Sheppard?" Woolsey asked solicitously.
"I'm fine," John assured him. "Sorry to interrupt."
Woolsey looked at him for a few more seconds, then turned back to the room at large. "As I was saying. I was sent by the IOA, as you know, to assess whether any misconduct had taken place in the period leading up to the mission to the Replicator homeworld, which ended in the death or capture of several members of this expedition."
Suddenly, John was a lot less inclined towards inappropriate laughter.
"I've spoken to a number of your people, both military and civilian, as well as the senior staff." He looked at Cameron then, who looked back steadily, his face giving nothing away. "And while your actions certainly weren't the actions that the IOA would have chosen for you, we are an oversight and advisory group, not a decision-making body, and the decisions about the running of this base are ultimately in the hands of those charged with it."
John risked a glance at Cameron, who was still watching Woolsey. No clues there.
"My report will recommend that in future, greater weight be given to the objections of the IOA to a course of action, if they've been given." He closed the folder in front of him and stood up.
"Wait a minute," Rodney said. "That's it? You dragged me away from the lab, where I've been, oh yes, trying to find a way to save the population of Pegasus from destruction at the hands of the Replicators, to tell us that, in future, you'd like Sheppard and Mitchell to think a bit more about what the IOA wants before they do whatever they like."
"Rodney!" John said sharply. If Woolsey wanted to let it go with a face-saving statement, he was happy to give up a few minutes of his morning for it.
Woolsey paused in the act of smoothing his tie to look at Rodney. "I suppose you could summarize it that way, Dr McKay, yes."
"You could –" Rodney started, amazed, then stood up, shaking his head. "Right, well, if you need me for anything else completely stupid, I'll be in my lab trying to, you know, save humanity."
Lorne half-smiled, standing as well. "I'll come down with you, check on the security on the wraith. Sir..?"
"Dismissed," John and Cameron said together. Cameron raised his eyebrows at John and grinned. That had been happening a lot.
Lorne looked between the two of them, amused. "Thank you. Colonel. Colonel."
"We must get on as well," Teyla said, encompassing herself and Ronon with an incline of her head. "It was pleasant to see you again, Mr. Woolsey."
"Thank you," Woolsey said, straightening his tie again. "A pleasure, as always, Ms Emmagan."
The door closed behind them a moment later and Cameron turned to Woolsey. "What was that?" he demanded.
"I don't know what you mean, Colonel," Woolsey said smoothly. "I was asked to come here, assess the situation and give my recommendation. I believe I've filled that brief."
"And that's it?" Cameron pushed. "Not even a slap on the wrist or a don't do it again?"
"I could change my mind, if it would make you happy," Woolsey offered, then sighed slightly. "The truth is, Colonel, we fully expected that this mission would take place. We were hoping for a far better outcome, but these things can never be guaranteed. Now, if you wouldn't mind, I'll be spending twenty-four hours in quarantine at the midway station as it is, I'd like to get going."
Cameron waved a hand at the door, which slid open. "Don't let us keep you."
"Thank you." Woolsey nodded to Cameron, then to John. "Colonel." He stepped out into the control room. "Dial the gate please, Sergeant."
John listened to the gate dial and engage. A moment later, Chuck said loudly, "Mr. Woolsey reports safe arrival at midway," and the gate shut down.
"That went better than I expected," he offered.
"I guess," Cameron said dubiously, like he was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"That's the IOA for you," John said. "As long as they don't have to admit to having any part in something that went badly, they're happy."
Cameron watched the open door for a long moment, then half-turned to John. "I suppose. I just thought -. I don't know."
"Okay," John said slowly, chalking it up to Cameron's bad experience with the IOA agent on the Odyssey.
Cameron still seemed distracted, not quite looking at John or at anything else.
"You okay?" John asked slowly.
"What?" Cameron looked over at John. "I'm fine, just… I was expecting that to go on longer." He turned his data-pad around and poked at the screen. "You want to get a coffee? I've got twenty minutes before I'm due to have the botanists in here for an hour, I think I might need it."
John remembered those meetings from the first year, when a huge chunk of his daily existence had been about trading for or growing food. "They want to farm the mainland with the Athosians?" he guessed.
Cameron nodded. "They do. Apparently they've come up with a plan for getting rid of the venomous snakes."
"That I'd like to hear," John said. He'd heard some of botany's previous plans; they could be pretty entertaining, if occasionally apparently based in an alternate reality. At least it might help Teyla convince the Athosians to stick around.
"You're more than welcome to stay," Cameron said. "I've heard this one involves the use of flaming torches."
That was almost enough to tempt John. If he hadn't known that the interesting bit would be followed by an hour at least of discussion about plants, he might have said yes. "Thanks, but no thanks."
"Right," Cameron said, grinning. "Everyone wants to hear about the parts with fire, but as soon as there's a chance of having to listen to people talk about plants, it's all, gee, I just remembered I've got that report due."
John returned the grin, reaching out a hand to close the doors. "I'm glad we got off so lightly," he said, leaning against the table beside Cameron. The doors were opaque, but that wouldn't stop someone bursting in.
"And me." Cameron slung an arm round John's shoulders, pulling him closer, easy and affectionate. "Guess I'm getting used to this place after all."
John leaned into him, feeling stupidly warm and happy, even knowing the feeling wouldn't last long. "Everyone does eventually."
John was poring over the mission plan with Lorne when Rodney's voice started in his headset, apparently still speaking to someone else. "- And don't even think about – Sheppard, are you there?"
"It's a direct link radio, McKay, and you contacted me. Of course I'm here." He was never going to understand how Rodney could get on fine with the radios in the field and still treat them like glorified telephones in the city. "Did you need something?" He rolled his eyes, getting a grin from Lorne, even though he couldn't hear Rodney's end of the conversation.
"Only to let you know that I have once again come up with a brilliant plan to save all our asses. Not that this should surprise anyone who's been here more than five minutes."
Apparently it was going to be one of those conversations. "You want to share with the class?"
"It's brilliant, really. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner."
"I'm sure it's pure genius," John said agreeably. "How about you meet us all up in the conference room and tell us about it?" He cut the comm link before Rodney could say anything else, turning to Lorne. "Want to come hear a genius plan?"
"How could I refuse?"
Rodney blew in less than a minute after Teyla, the last to arrive, had sat down.
"You've got –" Cameron started, but Rodney waved him away.
"We've been working on a way to destroy the Replicators, should they somehow make it to Atlantis, right? Break the bonds, sever the connections, turn them to dust.
"Right," John agreed.
Rodney made his ah-ha! face, the one that never failed to make John smile. "We do the opposite. It's genius, actually, it totally negates the need to worry about the Replicators ever getting to Atlantis, because they'll be destroyed on their own planet. We dial up their attraction to one another, one cell attracts another, those two attract two more, and as more and more nanite cells bond to the core group, they become stronger and stronger, to the point where every Replicator cell on the planet is massed into this giant super-dense blob."
There was a moment of pure, disbelieving silence, then Cameron said, "A giant super-dense blob," sounding like he was trying really hard not to laugh.
"Yep," Rodney said, grinning at everyone.
"What do we do with the blob, then?" John asked, trying to picture it. "Aren't we in danger of creating some Godzilla-sized super-Replicator?"
"No. Well, not at first, they'll need time to adapt, to figure out how to function within the new parameters. They're going to fuse together long before that happens, so tightly that they'll be rendered essentially inert. I mean, this bond is occurring on a sub-space level, neutrons fusing with protons and –"
Cameron held up a hand for him to stop. "Just – does anyone here understand any of this?"
Rodney looked expectantly at John, his face falling when John shook his head. He was okay at regular physics, but Rodney levels of physics were a bit beyond him.
"That's what I figured." Cameron reached up to tap his comm on. "Dr Zelenka, you busy? Great. Dr McKay's going to come talk to you about – well, honestly, I'm not really sure what he's talking about, but I need you to give me an idea of whether it's going to work or not."
"Of course it's going to work!" Rodney said. "You trust Zelenka over me on this?"
"It's called a second opinion," John said, reminding himself to drop in and get the physics-lite version from Zelenka later, including the part about what, exactly, would happen to Elizabeth if they did this. And how they'd actually do it.
"Thanks," Cameron said, tapping his radio off again. "Dr McKay, go run this by Zelenka and come back to me with a plan for how to do this."
"Fine," Rodney huffed.
"Dr McKay," Cam called, spotting the scientist by the transporter. He'd gone looking for McKay in the Replicator lab near his department, hoping to check-up on the status of FRAN Mark 2, only to be told it was done and McKay had left a while ago. Cam wasn't going to pass up on the chance to talk to him outside of the labs; at least the corridors were neutral territory.
"Colonel Mitchell." McKay looked up from his intensive study of the corridor floor, one hand sliding into his pocket. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, in fact. I need an update on your replicator, if that's all right with you, Doctor." Cam knew it was childish, but he couldn't help it. Something McKay just rubbed him the wrong way, and it was pretty clear the feeling was mutual.
"That's fine, of course," McKay said. He hesitated, then gestured to the transporter they'd both stopped by. "After you, we can talk on my way."
"Ah," Zelenka said suddenly from behind Cam. The man had more stealth than half the marines Cam had known. It was creepy. "Are you going to the control room, Colonel? We can share the transporter."
Cam gave McKay a quick glance and got a head shake in return. "Fraid not, Doc."
Zelenka nodded. "I will wait, then."
"No, go ahead," McKay said, making an exaggerated gesture for him to pass. "It's not like I have anywhere to be, what with Colonel Sheppard making me late already with his million questions about El – about the mission."
"Good, then," Zelenka said innocently, stepping into the transporter and touching the screen, the door sliding closed on the flash of light.
"Going back to your quarters?" Cam asked before he remembered that the civilian quarters were on a different transporter network. He didn't spend enough time in the labs to memorize it.
McKay, not surprisingly, noticed his error. "No, Colonel, since I don't enjoy a two mile walk from the nearest transporter on this network to my residence."
"My mistake," Cam muttered.
"Yes," McKay said bluntly. "Actually, I'm headed to Botany." The doors to the transporter punctuated his words by sliding open.
McKay stood in the far corner, making it clear that he didn't want Cam too close, in case Cam hadn't gotten the message the last two dozen times. He touched the map, waiting for the familiar sweep of the transporters activating.
Instead, he got the blare of an alarm. "That doesn't sound good."
"No, really, Colonel? I thought it was just the latest iteration of elevator music." Despite the grumbling, McKay already had the crystal tray open.
Cam tapped his headset. "Sheppard, come in." The headsets never crackled in the city, but the silence somehow sounded emptier than usual. "Sheppard, this is Mitchell, please respond. Lorne? Radner?" He gave it a few seconds, then switched from the general net to the civilian one. "Dr Zelenka, come in please."
"You think he'll be able to help better than me?" McKay asked. Cam wouldn't have thought it possible, but he was actually more annoying with the alarm in the background.
"No, I think there's not much point trying to raise you on the radio when you're standing right next to me." He switched over to the medical net. "Dr Keller, please respond." All he got was more empty silence, more like dead equipment than dead air. "Try your headset."
McKay gestured to his empty ear, his expression getting tense. "I'd say it's safe to assume communications are down regardless."
"Great," Cam said dryly. It wasn't like he expected the galaxy to be kind enough to trap him in the Ancient equivalent of an elevator with John, but he really didn't think he deserved to be stuck with Rodney McKay, most annoying man in two galaxies. "So, any idea what the problem is?"
"Well, that's the quarantine alarm, so I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that Atlantis thinks there's something dangerous in the city."
"Right, the lockdown protocol, from the Kirsan fever outbreak."
"Good to know one of you pays attention in meetings," McKay grumbled.
That was almost a compliment. From McKay, anyway. "I don't remember your people mentioning an addition to the protocol that would knock out the communications network."
"That's because there wasn't one, Colonel. Obviously that's a separate problem from whatever the outbreak is." He hesitated, turning a crystal in his hands, and Cam remembered the mention of claustrophobia in McKay's file. Maybe he'd be too distracted trying to fix the problem to think about it. "I don't suppose you've got a computer hidden on your person by any chance."
Cam resisted the temptation to make an 'is that a computer in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?' joke and shook his head.
"Didn't think so," McKay said resignedly. "So, no way to find out which areas of the city are affected, no idea what the outbreak is, no way of contacting anyone else, and no-one out there who even knows where we are, assuming they find a way to rescue people."
Which sounded a little too close to an outbreak of claustrophobia. "Zelenka just saw us waiting to get into the transporter," he pointed out. "He was heading to the control room, he'll let whoever's up there know that we're here."
"Hmm, good point, I suppose," McKay said, bending back to the crystal tray. Cam had no idea what any of them did, but he'd seen McKay working on a problem and this wasn't that kind of purposeful focus. He was just doing it for the sake of doing something. Or not, since he was straightening again. "Who is up there? If you're here and Sheppard's in my lab."
"Gate-room security. Control room staff." Cam thought for a minute. Lorne's team was supposed to be heading out in an hour or so, completing a quick but scheduled check-in with one of their trading partners. "Probably Major Lorne." He tended to show up early for missions.
"That's good," McKay said, nodding. "Between him and Zelenka, they probably won't destroy the city. Not that it will matter, if whatever's out there has gotten across the city. We'll probably die in here waiting to be rescued, while everyone else dies from some horrible Pegasus disease."
Cam didn't bang his head against the wall, though it was a near thing. "That's the spirit."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Colonel." He gave Cam an obviously fake smile. "I'm sure that Zelenka and Lorne will have us out of here and save the day in no time, despite the potentially city-wide outbreak of an unknown disease. Since the last one of those we had went so well."
Cam could have lived without that reminder. "Maybe we can get the door open," he suggested. "They're lighter on the transporters." Briefly, he missed the SGC; at least there, his key card had pretty much always worked, and when it hadn't, there'd been plenty of marines, and Teal'c, to get doors open.
"Sure, why not?" McKay said, rubbing his hands on the front of his pants. "At least then we can die in the corridor. Really, a much better fate. Far superior to staying in an air-tight transporter and not getting infected at all."
"At least we'll be cooler before we die," Cam said, hoping McKay wouldn't realize he'd just called the transporters airtight until they were out of them. "Grab a side."
As it turned out, the transporter doors, though lighter than the others, sealed just as tightly.
"Time for Plan B," Cam said when they gave up.
Cam looked round the transporter, hoping for inspiration. It didn't present itself. "Sit and wait?"
"Oh, good plan," McKay said. "Now we –" He stopped. "Do you hear that?"
"No," Cam said, then actually listened. "Yes. Someone turned the alarm off." He'd gotten so used to the sound of it, bouncing around inside his head, that the silence was nearly as deafening. "Clearly someone's working on the problem."
"Hmm. Yes. I suppose."
McKay looked at the door again. He was, Cam noticed, starting to sweat.
"I'm sure they'll have it fixed in no time," he said firmly. The nice thing about working with a group of terrifyingly competent scientists: he didn't have to fake the confidence. "Sit down, chill out. They'll have us out of here any minute now." The transporters weren't very big, but, sitting against the back wall, Cam could just stretch his legs out fully.
McKay stood in the far corner, stiff-backed, and this time, Cam couldn't fight down his sigh. "Just – sit down, all right? I promise I don't have a single citrus-related product on my person."
"And I'm supposed to believe that, after you threatened me with a lemon when I didn't do what you wanted."
"I've read your file," Cam reminded him. "The only way that would have done you any damage was if I cut it open and force-fed it to you. And I really didn't have that kind of time."
"Yes, well," McKay said stiffly, but after a moment, he closed up the crystal tray and sat down against the same wall as Cam. Not especially close, but Cam was all for calling that a win anyway. Small victories.
It really was quiet without the alarm.
"Are you hot?" McKay asked suddenly.
"Considering I'm trapped in a transporter, not particularly," Cam said cautiously. "Why?"
"Because I am. Hot. Feverish. I'm very susceptible to disease."
Maybe claustrophobia wouldn't be such a bad thing right about now. "You're still wearing your jacket," Cam pointed out. "And it's warm in here. Why don't you take it off?"
McKay frowned at him suspiciously, and Cam felt a sudden crazed urge to assure him his virtue was safe. However shallow it made him sound, Cam had always preferred an athletic body to go with the brains. That, and a love for going fast. "Here, I'll take my shirt off as well if it makes you feel better," he offered, already unfastening the buttons, unable to resist the temptation to wind McKay up, just a bit.
"That's really not –" McKay started, shifting the few inches he could back from Cam. Who pulled his shirt off and folded it neatly in the corner, leaving himself still modestly dressed in the black t-shirt he wore under it. "Oh. Ah. Yes. Good idea."
He turned away to fold his jacket up, and Cam let himself smile, just for a second. Messing with the man's head was still entertaining. "There. Better, right?"
"Maybe," McKay said cautiously. "Though my joints are starting to ache. That's usually the first sign of a fever."
"We don't even know that there's really an outbreak," Cam said. "No-one's been off-world for nearly a week, wouldn't we have known about it by now?"
"There are plenty of things in the city that could have triggered the outbreak. The first year we were here, we had an energy-sucking alien cloud, a nanite virus…"
"Yeah, okay," Cam said. Clearly reassurance wasn't going to work. "So who were you going to see in botany?"
"Oh." McKay said. His hand went to where his jacket pocket would have been, if he hadn't taken it off. "Katie – Dr Brown and I have a dinner date. Or, had, I suppose. We've missed it now."
"Too bad," Cam said, and did not think how nice it must be to worry about breaking your dinner date, instead of worrying that you were spending too many dinner breaks with the person. He really did only have himself to blame. Well, himself and whoever thought Don't Ask Don't Tell was a good idea. "You guys have been together a while," he said, for something to say.
"Hmm. Since the start of our second year here. Well, on and off, only really seriously for the last –" McKay cut himself off, frowning. "Why am I telling you this?"
"We can talk about something else," Cam offered.
"Like what?" McKay asked.
Cam had no idea what they might have in common, other than John, which wasn't really a topic he was keen to get into. Not with McKay, no matter how much of a good guy John insisted he was. "I came up with the last one," he said. "Your turn."
"My turn? Oh, very mature, Colonel." Except that he actually sounded close to amused; not exactly close to the way he sounded with John, but less like he was just waiting for a chance to shove Cam through a space gate. Cam figured it had to be worth the effort. He didn't have to be the guy's best friend, just get some kind of civil working relationship going. How hard could that be?
"I was happy to discuss your love life," he pointed out. McKay's gave him a confused frown and he shrugged. "It's that or I-Spy."
"Which would keep us occupied for, oh, three minutes?"
"Depends how good you are at guessing," Cam said. Not that he was eager to try it. "So, you guys manage to see much of each other, in between the disasters and the crises?"
"More than you'd think, actually," McKay said, his frown easing into a faraway look. Yeah, Cam could see why John wasn't too keen on Dr Brown.
"That's great. Good to see two people managing to make it work," he said, because he wasn't kidding himself for a second that he'd have had a chance with John if McKay had caught a clue at any point in the last three years.
"Yeah." McKay actually smiled at him. Cam wanted to mark the day in the calendar. "Can you keep a secret?"
Cam choked down an inappropriate laugh. "I can try."
"Okay." McKay reached into his jacket and – whoa, okay, Cam hadn't been expecting that. "I was going down to the labs to propose. Marriage. To Katie. I got a ring, when I was on Earth last time, with my sister. I think it's time we, you know – took it to the next level. Our relationship. And there's a reasonably good chance that we'll all be killed horribly by the Replicators tomorrow, so tonight seemed as good a night as any."
"Why are you telling me this?" Cam asked, not sure what else to say. Obviously McKay had been thinking about it for a while, if he'd brought the ring when he'd been on Earth. He really hoped McKay wasn't going to mention the whole 'I could die tomorrow' thing in the proposal though.
"I don't know," McKay said, turning the box in his hands without opening it. "I just – we could be the only people left alive in the city right now, thanks to being in this transporter. We could all die from whatever the outbreak is, and I'd never even get to ask her. Someone ought to know I meant to, and, let's face it, if anyone's going to be killed during this, it's probably going to be Sheppard."
Cam's smile felt more forced than it had before. "I'm sure they're all fine," he said, and that was when the second alarm started, louder and more insistent than the first. "That's not good."
"That's the self-destruct," McKay said, on his feet again, both hands on the doors like he could will them open. "Why would they arm the self-destruct? Oh God, this is it, we're all going to die."
"We're not going to die," Cam said.
"We're trapped in a transporter, in a city that's about to explode followed rapidly by the wreckage sinking to the bottom of the ocean. You haven't been here long enough to see the crazy things Sheppard will do for the city. If he's arming the self-destruct, it's got to be the last possible solution."
"There's not a lot of situations where blowing everybody up counts as a good solution," Cam pointed out. He was on his feet as well though, curious and nervous. Mostly nervous.
"We're all infected, it's too late to find a cure, and this is the only way to prevent it spreading to the rest of the galaxy," McKay said immediately.
"It's been an hour and a half," Cam said, with no idea whether this was true or not. "That's not even long enough to figure out what it is."
"It's obviously spreading fast, and quickly fatal. Half the expedition could be dead by now. It could drive people crazy, make them do insane things. Oh God, that's probably why I told you about Katie and the proposal."
"Okay," Cam said, grabbing McKay's arms and pushing him firmly back against the transporter wall. "Get a hold of yourself. I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation for this which doesn't involve anyone catching a deadly virus, going crazy or doing insane things. We just have to wait it out until they fix it." With amazingly good timing, the alarm switched off, and he grinned at McKay. "See? Getting better already."
"Um. Yes." McKay blinked. "Good. We're not going to die in an explosion after all. Though if it really was better, that door would be opening." He looked across at it, but their good timing had apparently been used up on the alarm. "Perhaps you could let me go, now."
"Sure. As long as you promise not to start predicting our imminent demise."
"I can't help it," McKay said, sounding genuinely distressed. "I just – that's how my brain works. I see all the possible problems, and I can't help but be worried about them."
That sounded incredibly depressing. Cam was naturally pretty optimistic; he'd had to be, between his dad's accident and his own. "Well, just try to think positive for five minutes. If we're still trapped then, you can go back to freaking out." He stepped back, giving McKay some space.
"Five minutes," McKay echoed. "I can do that. Five minutes of positive thinking. Zelenka's nearly as good as me, after all. There's no reason why he shouldn't be able to fix it…"
It took eight minutes for the door to open, but McKay seemed happy enough in his little positive-thinking monologue; Cam hadn't had the heart to stop him.
John had turned down Cameron's offer of the final three episodes of season one Torchwood, and left Ronon and Keller making eyes at each other in the mess hall. Instead, he'd come back to his room to wait for Rodney, who was sure to show up, however the proposal turned out. Unfortunately, that left him with worrying over tomorrow's mission, and trying not to think about the nanites in Elizabeth being absorbed into a giant blob that would sink the planet.
John privately thought the fact that Rodney would come by his room, instead of spending the night with Katie, if she said yes, was a pretty clear sign that she wasn't likely to, though he was starting to revise that opinion. Rodney had been meeting her for their rescheduled dinner date nearly two hours ago; how long could it really take to get to a proposal?
Not that he could talk, really. Nancy had asked him, in the end, fed up with waiting for him, though she'd told his dad that John had done it; his dad approved of Nancy because she let him think she fit his idea of what a proper woman should be.
Not that his marriage was exactly the standard he wanted to be judging other people's by. It felt genuinely strange to be wishing Rodney well in his relationship with Katie, however much he thought marrying her was a terrible idea. At least he thought it for the right reasons, some of which had as much to do with Rodney's faults as they did with her; John was man enough to admit that he probably hadn't been entirely fair in his assessment of her.
She had tried to help Rodney and Cadman save them during the Kirsan outbreak, leading the rush for the doors and getting stunned for her trouble while the two of them escaped. It was getting to be a theme, salvation by least-likely scientist. He was pretty sure today was going down as Most Bizarre Crisis Ever, with a special foot-note on how the man who'd ended up saving them had been literally right outside the door the whole time. The control doors, as Zelenka told it, had slammed shut inches in front of his face, leaving him trapped in the atrium until John had accidentally set off the self-destruct and then blown out the door, nearly blowing up Zelenka with it. At least Caldwell had been out of the city for it.
The chime at his door didn't sound, but the door gave the same momentary jerk it always did when anyone else tried to get in, before sliding open to reveal Rodney, out of uniform and looking somewhere between stunned and disappointed, in his doorway.
John dug under his bed for a moment, pulling out two bottles of probably-warm-by-now beer and holding one out to Rodney, who stepped into the room and took it. After a moment, he sat down on the foot of John's bed, holding the bottle and not drinking.
John didn't have to wait long.
"She said she was flattered," Rodney said. "That it was completely unexpected and – and that she was flattered. Did I say that already?"
"Yeah," John said quietly. He placed his own unopened beer on the table, just in case he was going to end up needing his hands.
"Right. Of course. But that she'd been doing a lot of thinking, and, well, that we really aren't ready for – that. Kind of commitment." He turned the bottle in his hands again, then put it on the floor, and looked up, his face brightening. "And I think she was right. I got to thinking; when I was trapped in the transporter with Colonel Mitchell and sure we were going to die, I was… Well, I don't want to say I panicked, but maybe I got a little too caught up in the possible bad endings and not… And Katie, she looks on the bright side, she's so sweet and calm and –"
John really wasn't ready for a list of all Katie's good qualities. He wasn't that over Rodney, especially when he'd come in looking like he'd already had one too many. "You think she was right?" he prompted.
"What? Oh yes. She was. She deserves someone who can – well, someone who can make her happy. Who she can relax around, be herself. And that isn't me. Because I can't do those things around her, either. That's what her turning me down made me realize. Marriage would just make us both miserable. We'd be marrying who we thought the other person was."
"Okay," John said slowly.
"I knew you'd understand," Rodney said brightly, shifting slightly towards him. "Because, I figured something else out. About me, and relationships. Who's the one person, I asked myself, who I can always be myself around, who I never have to pretend with, who takes me for who I am and still likes me? Do you want to know the answer I came up with?"
"No," John said, but Rodney was on a roll, grinning and not listening.
"You," he said, and leaned forwards and kissed John.
It wasn't a short kiss, or even a jubilant, I'm-a-genius kiss. It was a long, slow kiss, Rodney's hands on the side of John's face, halfway between holding him there and just holding him, Rodney's tongue sliding into John's mouth, and John couldn't not kiss back. Couldn't stop his own hands from drifting to Rodney's shoulders, feeling the muscles tense as Rodney shifted again, moving closer. It wasn't what he'd imagined, but, God, it was so close, and he'd wanted it, so badly.
Rodney shifted again, hands moving to wrap around John's shoulders, leaning him back and down until he was spread out on the bed, Rodney on top of him, between his legs, still kissing him and –
"Stop," John said, pulling back as far as he could. "Rodney, stop, let me up."
There was a second in which John was pushing, and Rodney was resisting, and then something in John's face must have registered with Rodney, because he scrambled back, fast. John sat up, back against the wall, and very deliberately didn't pull his knees up. Rodney was looking at him, his eyes still bright with desire, his mouth twisting in confusion.
"Why did you stop?" he asked. "Was I – did I do something wrong?"
And wasn't that, of course, the one question John didn't want to answer. "I shouldn't have – I should have stopped you before it went that far," he said, compromising. "I'm sorry."
"You're sorry? What the –" Rodney frowned. "You're not going to try telling me you're actually straight, are you?"
"No," John said, startled into honesty. He really hadn't thought Rodney knew he was bi; apparently, he'd been a lot less circumspect than he'd thought, if Rodney had figured it out.
Rodney's chin went up, classic defensive posture. Great. "I see," he said, his voice flat. "It's not that you don't like men, it's that you don't like me."
"It's not –" John started, then lost the end of the sentence, and finished lamely, "Like that."
"I see," Rodney said again. "Except, no, wait, I don't see at all. Because you weren't exactly fighting me off, and, let's be honest here, Sheppard, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that you've been attracted to me practically since we met. And I'm much more than just a genius."
John let his head drop into his hands, feeling his face go hot with humiliation. Add that to the list of things he'd assumed Rodney didn't know. "Do we have to talk about this?"
"Since I just got turned down by my girlfriend, and then turned down by my best friend, yes, Colonel, I think we do."
Right. Because what the conversation really needed was a reminder that Rodney had come to John as his second choice, his sure thing rebound pity fuck. "What made you so sure I'd be available?"
"Please. You expect me to believe that you've somehow hooked up with someone and no-one here knows about it? When everyone knows within days about the latest hot alien you've been seduced by?"
Yeah, all three of them, over three years. He'd had more sex in Antarctica. "Maybe it's someone I can't tell you about."
"Like who?" Rodney asked curiously. Not even a hint of jealousy, not that John wanted one. Not really. Not much. "Even you wouldn't leap into bed with one of your new Marines, and there's no reason for you not to tell me about a scientist you've taken up with. I know you and Lorne have been spending ridiculous amounts of time in your office together lately, but it hardly seems likely that you'd decide now, after two years working together, to jump each other. I'm pretty sure that exhausts all the possibilities."
John manfully didn't point out that Rodney was basically doing exactly that with him, after three years of knowing each other. Or that Lorne's FBI agent back in LA would probably have something to say about John jumping him. Mainly because he was fairly sure he wasn't meant to know about that. At least Rodney probably wouldn't look any further, believing he'd covered everything.
"So, what, you figured I was just hanging around, waiting for you to decide that, hey, maybe you did want me after all, after three years of doing a damn good job of pretending like you never noticed me as anything other than a friend?" Or maybe he couldn't quite keep from pointing that out, but Rodney was so self-righteous, looking at him like it could only be a matter of time before John fell into bed with him, like John couldn't possibly have found anyone else he wanted while Rodney was buying Katie Brown a fucking ring.
"Well, excuse me for getting that impression, yes," Rodney snapped. "When you haven't shown any interest in anyone besides me and an occasional woman off-world the whole time we've known each other. Yes, I stupidly thought that you were waiting for me to return your feelings."
"Because there wasn't anyone else I wanted until now!" John yelled, suddenly absolutely furious with Rodney, for offering, for expecting John to say yes, for talking about the whole thing like it was nothing, when John had wanted to break things, watching Rodney say his farewells and wait to die. He couldn't remember ever being more furious with Rodney than he was in that moment, not even after Doranda. Even that hadn't been this kind of white-hot fury, the burning surge of anger and, okay, he could admit it, hurt, because he'd spent three years wanting Rodney fucking McKay. Of course, of course, Rodney would decide to go for it now, when John had finally managed to move the hell on, find someone who actually wanted him back, and…
"Oh," Rodney said suddenly. "I mean, I know the two of you spend a lot of time together but…" When John looked up, Rodney was giving him the look he gave to a puzzle he'd just figured out, like he knew exactly what John was thinking. So much for Rodney not looking any further; he'd already lined up all the ducks, and John had just handed over the gun to shoot them with, the one person not accounted for in Rodney's litany of possibilities. He should have known better than to expect Rodney not to see the gap in his data. Should have known better than to expect Rodney not to figure out exactly who John was thinking of. John had to curl his fingers into the blankets just to stop himself from hitting Rodney, wiping that smug, knowing look off his face, like figuring out John was sleeping with Cameron meant he knew everything there was to know about John and his sex-life. His love-life.
"It's none of your fucking business," he hissed. "You say one word about this to anyone, especially him, and I swear to God, McKay, I'll –"
Rodney was on his feet, suddenly, they both were, facing off with barely inches of air between them. "You swear to God you'll what, Colonel?" and John couldn't take anymore, his hands on Rodney's arms, pushing him across the room, out of the door, before this went too far, any further than it had already gone.
When the door closed with Rodney's stunned face on the other side, John sat down heavily against his bed, trying to breathe, his hands shaking with adrenaline. What the fuck had he just done? Outed himself, outed Cameron, God, to Rodney McKay, who couldn't keep a personal secret to save his life. Outed them, right after turning Rodney down. It wasn't like Rodney was a vindictive man, not really; he wouldn't make a point of telling people, but he wouldn't have to. They'd only have to look at him around John and Cameron and they'd know.
And John had kissed him. Had, Jesus, been halfway to taking his clothes off, and it wasn't like he and Cameron had agreed to any kind of monogamy, but John wasn't stupid enough to think that Cameron would have been okay with it if it had gone any further.
Cameron. Who had looked so scared when John had gone off to the Replicator planet. Who let John call him Cameron, the only person who could, because he liked the way it sounded when John said it.
He was probably the closest thing Cameron had to a friend in Atlantis, though Cameron was friendly with plenty of people. Cameron was definitely the closest thing John had had to a relationship since his marriage ended; what did it say about him that he'd been willing to fall into bed with someone else? Even if it had only been a kiss, in the end.
He thought about radioing, asking if it was okay to come over, but he was afraid he'd lose his nerve. He didn't even think to look for Rodney until he was down the corridor, and by then it was too late. Cameron's door was opening for him.
"Hey," Cam said, surprised to see John standing in his open doorway. He would have expected him to be tied up with McKay for longer, celebrating or commiserating, but maybe it had gone well, and McKay was otherwise occupied.
John was still standing in the doorway, the door making aborted movements to close. "You coming in?"
"Yeah," John said, stepping forward, the door sliding happily closed behind him. "Sorry, am I interrupting something?"
Cam glanced down at his data-pad. He practically had the mission plans memorized at this point. "Nah, come in."
John smiled faintly and came to sit, straight backed, on the edge of Cam's bed, barely in touching distance. Cam finally noticed that, beneath his jeans and black fleece, he was only wearing socks. "You okay?" he asked, putting aside the computer and sitting forward. "What's going on?"
It couldn't be anything major, or someone would have radioed, but John's back, when he rested a hand there, was tense, and he was studying his clasped hands with far more attention than they warranted.
"Katie turned him down," he told his hands. "Said they weren't ready for that kind of commitment."
"I guess she'd know," Cam said, mostly just to say something. He didn't know her that well, but she'd seemed fairly clued in during the meetings about the mainland with the Athosians. "McKay all right?"
"He's fine," John said, his voice sharp with something that might have been irony. He kept his eyes on his hands for a long moment, then suddenly came up to his knees, twisting to lean over Cam and kiss him, hard and possessive. Cam went with it, getting his hands on John's arms, half-convinced he was going to lose his balance and send them both crashing into the wall, but he didn't, just pressed closer against Cam and kept kissing him, his eyes tightly closed.
Cam pulled back, fighting the bad feeling coiling in his stomach. "What's going on?"
John sighed, dropping his head against Cam's shoulder. Cam wanted to put his arms round him, give him some of the comfort he clearly needed, but the tense line of his spine said it wouldn't be welcomed. "I don't think we should do this any more," John said, low.
Cam blinked in surprise, couldn't help it. He really hadn't seen that coming. "Because?"
"I just don't think it's a good idea," John said, shifting away until he was back on the edge of Cam's bed, head down but half-turned to Cam. He looked miserable and tense, like someone who was doing what he had to, not what he wanted to. "With Caldwell and Ellis around, and all their crew… Someone could see something, or say something."
Cam felt a brief, intense, longing for SG-1, who, for all their difficulties, had no problem just telling him what was really going on. He couldn't imagine how he'd forgotten this part of John's nature. "Caldwell's been here for a week," he said reasonably. "Woolsey was staying in the city. You don't think it's a bit late to start worrying about someone turning us in?"
"Yeah," John agreed. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't start. Even if we didn't get into official trouble, they could pull us out of Atlantis, take us off the stargate program."
Cam seriously doubted that, and even John didn't sound convinced. He still looked miserably determined; it was incredibly frustrating, made more so by Cam's sure and certain knowledge that there was something that John wasn't telling him. "If no-one's reported us this week, they're not going to do it in the next two days." He swallowed the urge to sigh. "What's really going on?"
"Nothing," John said, starting to sound sulky. "Forgive me for not wanting to risk your career on a –"
"A what?" Cam asked, genuinely interested.
"I don't know!" John surged to his feet, pacing to the door. He hesitated for a moment, then turned; his expression, when he faced Cam wasn't quite blank, like John was trying but not making it. Cam was pretty sure the thing he was trying to hide was hurt, and the rush of pointless anger at whoever had hurt him was a little overwhelming. "I don't know what this is, but it's not a good idea for us to carry on with it. I don't know what we were thinking."
"I was thinking that you're pretty good in bed and that I've never had a boyfriend who drove a flying city," Cam offered, risking a grin.
He wasn't sure if John's sigh of pure frustration and the way he flopped back onto the bed, eyes closed, meant he'd found it funny or not. Cam tapped one hand against John's shoulder, but his eyes stayed resolutely closed. "What's really going on?" he asked again.
John turned his face into Cam's thigh a little, muffling his voice as he said, "Rodney knows. About us."
"Okay," Cam said gamely. A little discussion might have been nice before John outed him to someone who he was fairly sure still didn't like him, but McKay was John's best friend, the subject was bound to come up. Hell, he was hoping for a chance to go back to Earth and see Sam, just to have someone he could tell. Not that he'd need to, she'd see it on his face. It didn't really seem like cause for breaking it off, though. "As long as he doesn't decide to share with Caldwell and Ellis –"
"And we kissed," John added, cutting him off in a rush. "He said – it doesn't matter what he said. He kissed me, and I didn't stop him."
"Okay," Cam said again, glad that John couldn't see his face. He wasn't blind, he'd seen the way John looked at McKay. Apparently he'd been kidding himself when he thought the looking had stopped lately. He wondered if he ought to move his hands, but John was still leaning against him. He really wished John had said that first, that he wanted to take the thing he'd waited years to be offered.
"I'm sorry," John said quietly. "I don't know what I was – I wasn't thinking. It was just a kiss, really, it didn't go any further. I mean, he wanted to, but I –" John's breath caught and he sounded utterly miserable. Cam realized suddenly that this wasn't John breaking up with him; this was John expecting to be tossed out, bracing himself for rejection. That John had come to break up with him first, out of some bizarre desire to spare him whatever it was that John thought he was going to suffer.
He bit his lip, hard, against the urge to laugh, fairly sure that would send John running. "It's okay," he said. "Not that I'm all that keen on you kissing people other than me, but, you know, these things happen." He didn't point out that John had been in love with McKay since long before he and Cam started working together, was probably still in love with him, a bit.
John lifted his head, his face utterly blank as he looked at Cam for a long minute, and then something in him seemed to loosen. When he twisted up and kissed Cam this time, it was more like his usual kisses, soft and affectionate.
Cam ignored the faint taste of gratitude under it all. It was, he supposed, one way to avoid the relationship/monogamy conversation.
"I'm sorry I outed you," John said after a while. They'd somehow slid down the bed as they kissed, till they were lying across it, their feet hanging off the end, still fully clothed. His whole face crinkled for a moment as he frowned. "Not that I actually did. He guessed."
"Rodney McKay guessed that you and I are sleeping together?" Cam asked, mildly dubious. He wouldn't have thought McKay was that good at inter-personal relations, even with someone he knew as well as John.
John shrugged. "Only after I told him I was seeing someone."
That sounded more like it, and also better than just sleeping together. "So basically, we're fine, as long as neither of us ever mentions that we're seeing someone."
John laughed, and it only sounded a little bit strained. "Something like that."
"Good to know," Cam said. He ran a hand through John's hair, something that he didn't think was ever going to get old, and tilted his head up for another kiss. Just because he could.
Because Rodney McKay, for all that he said he was a genius, was actually an idiot who hadn't managed to get this, even when John was in love with him. And Cam had.
"I wish I was coming with you," Cam said quietly, leaning next to John on the control room balcony and watching those joining the mission gather to be beamed to the two ships then, in John's case, on to Larrin's to operate her Ancient chair.
"Yeah," John said. He hadn't slept well the night before, even though he'd stuck around in Cam's room for most of it. Cam blamed it on the thing with McKay, and even more so when the two of them hadn't spoken a word to each other all day. At least they'd be on different ships; McKay was going on the Apollo with FRAN Mark 2, Ronon and their marine guard, before beaming down to the Replicator world to over-load the ZPMs and destroy the planet. A handful of other military staff, including Lorne, were going over to the Daedalus either to fly the 302s or to provide extra support on the ship during the mission. Cam hadn't even bothered asking to go along as a pilot; it was weird enough being in nominal charge with two senior officers in the vicinity, without being told no by one of them.
Down on the gate-room floor, Zelenka and two marines came in with FRAN Mark 2.
"You think this'll work?" Cam asked. He still wasn't sure he fully understood how exactly it was all supposed to happen, but he'd gotten enough of the basics. FRAN would start off the attraction process while their fleet distracted the Replicator ships, and from there it was, apparently, a short step to the entire planet going boom.
"Sure," John said. "McKay's plans usually do. Especially when it comes to blowing up planets."
Cam ignored that; whatever their problem was, he wasn't getting involved. Particularly not right before a mission. "Yeah, well. Just try not to get killed, all right?"
"Still don't want to be stuck with Lorne, huh?" John asked.
"Right," Cam agreed, blinking against the flash of déjà vu. It didn't help that FRAN Mark 2 looked exactly like FRAN Mark 1.
"Atlantis, this is the Apollo," came Ellis' voice over the comm system. "We're ready to beam up Dr McKay and his team whenever you are."
Cam went over to Chuck's station. "Give us one second." In front of the gate, everyone was moving back, leaving a clear space round McKay, Zelenka, Ronon, their marines and the replicator. "McKay, you good?" He waited for the nod, then activated the comm again. "Ready when you are, Apollo."
There was a brief pause, then the transporter beam swept over them.
"Seven passengers, safely on board," Ellis reported.
"We'll take ours as well," Caldwell cut in. "Send Sheppard separately, we should be able to beam him straight to Larrin's ship."
John came to stand by him, watching the marines and Lorne gather together to be beamed away. They were mostly hidden by the console, enough for John to press the back of his hand against Cam's. "We'll be fine," he said quietly. "I promise."
The beam swept Lorne and the marines away.
"I'm holding you to that," Cam said, then John was gone, heading down to the gate-room floor, distant and battle-ready.
"Ready when you are, Daedalus," Cam said, and the beam swept John away.
The gate-room seemed very quiet following the announcement that the fleet was moving into hyperspace. "Right then," he said softly, and went into his office to wait it out in private.
"Whoa, what the – Sheppard, do you see this?"
John blinked at the view screen in front of him, still trying to get his bearings from the drop out of hyperspace, Larrin's panicked voice distant outside the grip of the chair. Replicator ships in orbit. They must have been on their way to Atlantis; the fleet had arrived just in time. "I see it."
He closed his eyes, concentrating on the drones, targeting the ship closest to them. The drones made a solid hit, the ship already beginning to disintegrate. The next one followed suit, a victim of the Daedalus' plasma beam weapons. Good to know they were working.
"That's good, Sheppard, keep doing that," Larrin said low in his ear. John couldn't help the slight smile; when she wasn't kidnapping his people, she was actually kind of cool. "Bet that's not something you hear from many women."
Or maybe not. "Just try to stay out of their way," he said, firing off another drone. There had to be twenty ships up there with them, and they hadn't planned on any being in the air. Even with the Travelers and the Wraith, this was going to be close.
The ship shook suddenly, jolting John into opening his eyes.
"We're fine," she said calmly. "Shields are holding. Try not to miss."
John exploded a Replicator ship, aiming straight for the hyper-drive. "I'll do my best."
Larrin had a comm link to the other ships in the fleet, but John had turned his off, needing to concentrate on the chair and what was happening in his ship. He regretted it then; he had no way of knowing if Rodney and Ronon had beamed down successfully, or how they were doing. It made him nervous, anxious. "What's going on out there?"
"Dr McKay and the others beamed down safely."
That was a good start. John closed his eyes, concentrating on the ships in orbit around them. He could see 302s out there as well now. The little ships were fast, but they seemed so small in comparison to the Replicator ships. With that much weapons-fire flying, they'd need every second of speed they could get.
Far over to the right of the screen, a Traveler ship exploded into pieces. John concentrated harder, sending three drones at the ship that had destroyed it and watching in satisfaction as it exploded.
"Nice," Larrin said.
John opened his mouth to answer and closed it again. "Is that what I think it is?"
"What?" Larrin asked.
"A hyperspace window just opened." The flash of energy on the screen couldn't be anything else. "Is it one of your ships?"
"Negative." His radio beeped sharply, connecting him to the main net again, then Larrin said, "Who's responsible for that window?"
"It is a Replicator ship," their wraith said. "They appear to have realized what we are doing, and are attempting to flee."
"Not for long," Ellis said. "McKay, how's it coming?"
"Much faster than I ever imagined," Rodney said. "You should be able to see the mass from where you are."
John risked a fast glance from the screen to the window, just in time to see a 302 skim past. Rodney was right; the silver mass was clearly visible. "Nice job," he said.
"Did you do that?" Ronon's voice asked suddenly, and John had to fight down the urge to demand to know what was happening. He concentrated on another hyperspace window opening, aiming half a dozen drones at the ship he thought might be responsible for it.
The ship exploded messily, but he could still see another ship disappear through the window right before it winked out. "Son of a bitch."
"- Send some nukes down there?" Ellis was saying in his radio.
"It's not that simple," Rodney said, starting to sound panicked. "In order to implode a mass this large, the explosion has to be timed to the nano-second. With the power-grid collapsed and the ZPMs out of reach, we're sunk. We can't just fire a few nukes in and get the job done."
"It's gotta be better than nothing," John said. That was the problem with super-dense blobs right there; couldn't guarantee control of them.
"I have to agree," Caldwell said, which had to be a first.
"Be that as it may, you – Wait. Wait, wait." That was more like it – Rodney with a genius plan.
"What's going on, Doctor?" Ellis asked.
John let the chair come upright again, watching the last of the nanites stream towards the planet.
"The ground around the mass is rich in neutronium, it's the base raw material in the Replicator cells. It's incredibly dense."
"And this helps us how?" John prompted, trying not to think about Rodney, Ronon and three marines on the same planet as a Replicator mass.
"Okay, the mass is so super-heavy that it's sinking into the planet's surface. If I dial it up just a little bit, it'll attract the neutronium and sink all the way to the core, and the planet will exert enough pressure on it to cause an implosion. Just give me one more… Got it!" There was a pause, then, "Um, we need to get out of here."
A moment later, Caldwell's voice came over the headset, telling them all to jump to the rendezvous point. The last John saw of the Replicator homeworld was a writhing silver mass; he swallowed round the lump in his throat. It wasn't much consolation to think that Elizabeth had probably already been dead.
One of these days, John was going to find out how people always managed to be beamed onto the bridge of their ships facing the ship's captain. Since that day wasn't this day, he offered Ellis a nod and stepped away from the front view screen. "Everyone okay here, sir?"
Ellis nodded. "Some minor damage, but nothing that we can't fix. Seems like the Wraith fleet lost a ship, but they didn't show at the rendezvous point, so we can't be sure."
"Guess they're done with us," John agreed. It felt weird to be back to being enemies with the Wraith again, even if they had never been allies with all of them. He kind of hoped they didn't run into their wraith any time soon. "Larrin lost a ship as well."
Outside the view screen, three hyperspace windows opened, Larrin's ships disappearing into them, leaving behind the two Earth ships. "I was a bit distracted with the chair, sir, but it looked like there were some ships jumping into hyperspace during the battle."
Ellis nodded. "We counted at least four, but we're waiting to get back to the city and analyze the data from both ships. Hopefully, it wasn't any more."
"No chance they were the Wraith fleeing the battle?"
Lieutenant Marks shook his head from Ellis' right hand. "No, sir. There were definitely six Wraith hives still in orbit at the end of the battle, and you saw the Travelers' three ships just now."
"Great," John muttered. God forbid it should be easy, and now they had at least four Replicator ships out in the galaxy somewhere, with no way of tracking them. Probably more, actually, counting the ones that had been culling worlds. Just for a second, he really, really wanted to find somewhere he could just curl up and forget about it all for a while.
Some of that must have shown on his face, because Ellis gave him a sympathetic smile. "We're about to jump into hyperspace for the trip back to Atlantis. There should be coffee in the mess again by now, go take a break."
"You sure, sir?"
"I think we can manage one trip through hyperspace without you, Colonel. Go on."
John really wasn't going to turn down coffee; it was probably the only thing that would keep him awake until they reached Atlantis. "Thank you, sir," he said, and left to the sound of Ellis confirming the jump to hyperspace with Caldwell.
John was mostly zoned out, walking on autopilot and trying to come up with a plan for tracking the Replicators, when he turned a corner and walked straight into someone. "Sorry," he said automatically, the other person closing a hand round his elbow to keep him on his feet.
"My fault," Rodney said. He looked up at the same moment as John and pulled his hand back quickly. "Colonel. Er, Sheppard – sorry, I didn't see you."
"Hard to see round corners," John agreed mildly, cursing himself for forgetting Rodney had to be on the ship somewhere.
"Yes. Exactly." Rodney looked over John's shoulder. "I didn't know you were back from Larrin already."
"Yep." John shuffled his feet then made himself stop. When he looked up, Rodney was still studying something behind him. "Where's Ronon?"
"In the mess, with the marines. I'm just on my way to find Zelenka, actually, so –"
"Don't let me keep you," John said, stepping against the wall and waiting for Rodney to go round him. Rodney didn't move. "You need something?"
"For those ships to have been sucked in before they could jump to hyperspace," Rodney said, and sighed. "Look, I wanted to, to talk."
"Talk," John said flatly, hoping Rodney would be discouraged. Not that it had ever happened before.
"Yes," Rodney said. "But not here." He looked up and down the corridor again, then nodded to a door a little way down. It turned out to be a storage closet, three-quarters full of boxes of MREs and with no space for John to sit down. "Look, we can't carry on like we have been today, people are going to notice. And once they notice, they'll wonder what's going on, and let's just say that you and Colonel Mitchell haven't been as discreet as you could have been."
"You didn't notice until I let it slip," John pointed out.
"Yes, because I'm clearly such a good barometer of general human perceptiveness," Rodney said. "Okay, that might be true, but do you really want to risk your career and his just so you can continue to hold this ridiculous grudge against me?"
What John wanted was for Rodney never to have kissed him; what he wanted was for Rodney to just give him some space for a few days, but this was Pegasus and he never got what he wanted. He certainly never got any space from Rodney; that was partly what had caused the original problem. "Is there any chance that you'll drop this if I ask really nicely?"
"No, but feel free to try anyway. I don't think I've ever seen you ask nicely for anything."
"I ask nicely all the time," John said, and then couldn't think of a single example. Well, one example, but he wasn't ready to share that much about his private life, not even with Rodney.
"Yes, well," Rodney said awkwardly. "Look, I really didn't mean to – to upset you, or, or hurt you, or whatever it was that I did. I wasn't thinking and… If it makes you feel better, you can rest assured that I'm not pining away, broken-hearted, for you."
Oddly, though it really should have made him feel worse, that actually did make John feel better, or at least less irrationally guilty. "I suppose it'd be too much to expect you to say sorry twice in one year," he teased, gently. Rodney and Keller's end run round John to reactivate Elizabeth's nanites was still a sore subject; even more so given what had just happened.
"Only because watching you flirt with the space pirate slash dominatrix at the briefing was freaking me out," Rodney said. "But – I'm sorry, okay?"
John wondered if he was supposed to apologize as well, except that he wasn't sorry he'd made Rodney stop, and he wasn't really all that sorry that he'd yelled, or that he'd ignored Rodney for most of the day, because Rodney really had been a complete asshole about the whole thing. The only thing he was sorry for was kissing back, and Rodney wasn't the person who'd needed that apology. He nodded, offering Rodney a half-smile that got returned with blinding relief.
It felt pretty good. He kind of hated fighting with his team.
"Okay, good," Rodney said, bouncing slightly. "So – you want to get out of here?"
John gave the MREs an exaggerated stare. "We're in a closet on the Apollo, Rodney. I was ready to get out of here before I got in here."
John was really getting tired of being beamed around. Although it was nice to see Lorne and the other pilots safely back, and to be returned to the city while Ellis and Caldwell were landing their ships on the out-lying piers.
Even better was seeing Teyla and Cameron coming down the stairs to meet them.
"Oh, God, now what?" Rodney said.
Well, it had been better, for the few seconds before John had been able to read their tense expressions.
"Let's not do this in the middle of the gate-room," Cameron suggested. His gaze flicked over to John for a second, his face relaxing into a smile that John returned. Surviving was really nice, some days. "Lorne, you guys take the evening off. We'll debrief the mission later, when everyone's had a chance to rest."
Lorne looked between Cameron and John. "Go on," John said. "Whatever it is, I'll catch you up later."
"If you're sure, sir," Lorne said, looking between the two of them again, then jerking his head for the marines to disperse. "Debrief tomorrow morning?"
"0900," John said, getting a quick nod from Cameron. "You too, Doctor."
"Of course," Zelenka said, pushing his glasses up.
The two of them left the gate-room together, both radiating curiosity and concern. Pretty much the way John felt, except he was about to get some answers.
"Shortly after you all left for the Replicator homeworld, we received a message from Dr Singh at the marine research station on P4J 186," Teyla started when they were all seated round the conference room table, the doors closed. Cameron sat at the far end of the table from the screen, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but there. "She reported that the station had received several visitors who wished to speak to John and Rodney."
"I thought we didn't know anyone there," John said, trying to think who might be dropping in on their oldest research station. It had to be on purpose; with the Replicator attack in the works, they'd recalled all the off-world teams except the handful in long-term research stations.
"We do not. Their visitors went there specifically to meet up with members of the expedition." She hesitated, then touched a button on the remote, bringing up a picture on the screen.
John heard Rodney's gasp of surprise before he actually processed what the picture was showing. "Elizabeth," he said stupidly. She looked exactly like she had when they'd last seen her, crouching down to smile into the camera – a laptop webcam, maybe. "I don't understand. Was she – she escaped?"
"Not precisely." Teyla touched the remote again, and a second picture appeared, this time of Elizabeth and John.
He blinked at his own face – that was one of Singh's semi-permanent tents in the background of the shot, but John had only been to the research station a couple of times, never with Elizabeth.
"Sergeant Stackhouse's team and I went to the planet to speak with Dr Weir and her companions," Teyla said, her voice gentle and soft. "Although all five of them look as we do – as Dr Weir did – they were created by a faction of the Replicators, in order to study ascension. They were given all of our individual memories, and all of Dr Weir's memories."
"She looks just like Elizabeth," Rodney said.
"Yes," Teyla agreed. "It was most strange, both to speak with myself and to see Dr Weir after such a long absence."
John leaned his elbows on the table, leaning forward to cup his hands round his head, which was starting to ache. "So you're saying that we just destroyed our last hope of finding the real Elizabeth, only to have this – copy turn up on our doorsteps. That doesn't strike anyone else as a bit of a coincidence."
"According to this version of Dr Weir, Oberoth became aware of the experiments being done by the Replicators who made her, and the copies of the four of us. When he found where they were, he sent a ship to destroy their city."
"Wait," Rodney said. "The vision – the one the seer showed me, the city under attack from the Replicators, with Elizabeth –"
"He was showing you the Replicator city, not Atlantis," John finished. God, and he'd been so sure that it meant they were going to find her. Instead, she'd almost certainly been dead before they even left for the city the first time.
"That does seem the most likely answer, yes," Teyla agreed. "From what they were able to explain, it seems that they were present on the Replicator homeworld quite recently. They were helped to escape from the attack on their Atlantis, and 'caught a ride' on the ship sent to destroy it, then stole a ship from the Replicator homeworld to come here."
"Why?" Ronon asked.
"Where would you go?" Rodney asked, turning to him. "They must have thought they were us – that they were the real versions. Wouldn't you have wanted to come home?"
"Dr McKay is right," Teyla said. "Though it seems there is more to their presence at Dr Singh's research station than just this. They were unwilling to explain without the rest of you there."
John checked his watch; early evening, which was late for a mission to be leaving, but not horribly so. Caldwell and Ellis were still with their ships. If they hurried, they could get this underway before either of them came back to interfere. "Let's go, then."
"Have you forgotten that we just destroyed the Replicator homeworld?" Rodney asked. "And now you want to go trotting off to a meeting with them?"
"They are not Replicators as Oberoth and the others were," Teyla said. "They have all of our memories, our thoughts. It is only that their bodies were not created in the same way."
"They stole a ship to come here," John added. "That can't have been easy. We owe it to them to find out what they want."
And it was a chance to see Elizabeth; or, not Elizabeth, but someone who was as close to her as they were ever going to get. Maybe she'd even want to come back, to the SGC, or to Earth.
"Sheppard and Teyla are right," Cameron said. "There are still a number of Replicator ships in the galaxy, and if they have information that could help us track them down, we need it."
"Fifteen minutes to gear up," John said, standing up. "We'll head straight out."
He saw Cameron rise as well on the edge of his vision. He knew it was selfish, but he turned quickly and left; he couldn't look at Cameron right then.
John honestly wasn't sure which was strangest: watching himself watch over the two Rodneys as they worked on the core drive, or watching Elizabeth opposite him as they talked. Knowing there were two Ronons and two Teylas out patrolling the woods didn't make it any less strange. At least they were well away from the research station on the far side of the planet. The last thing they needed was an audience.
"I'm still having trouble believing they appointed Colonel Mitchell in my place," Elizabeth said, smiling faintly.
"Yeah, it's…" John trailed off. He should have gone back to the city when Rodney went to pick up his equipment, and now the guilt was starting to kick in. It couldn't be a lot of fun for Cameron to be left behind while John went running off to visit with the woman he'd replaced. "It's different."
"I'm sure," Elizabeth said, her smile turning wistful. "I suppose the two of you have fewer arguments than we – than you and she did."
"Yeah," John agreed, looking away. It didn't matter how many time he told himself, he still couldn't think of her as anyone but Elizabeth. He just wasn't sure what that made their Replicator versions, when the real them were still around. "Look, you could come back with us. Those little nanite things infected the other Elizabeth and we figured out how to stop them. Maybe we can do the same for you."
"So we wouldn't be a security threat?" Elizabeth asked, sounding so much like the other Elizabeth had that John's throat ached.
"You can contribute," he said. Assuming Landry would go for it, instead of pulling her back to Area 51. She wouldn't be allowed to be in charge, not when she was essentially a Replicator creation. "It'll just be… different."
Elizabeth shook her head. "That's not really the issue, John. Even assuming you could find places for us – which won't be easy, even on Atlantis – you'll always consider us to be less than really human."
"That's not true," John said. Elizabeth, at least, would be easy to consider human. It was the others who would be difficult, and he was starting to get the impression that they, not Elizabeth herself, would be the deciding factor in what happened, in what she chose to have happen.
"Of course it is," Elizabeth said gently. "I don't blame you. I don't know if I can ever think of myself as fully human any more, even when I feel that way."
John's radio activated before he could say anything. "Sheppard, this is Atlantis," Cameron's voice said. "Colonels Ellis and Caldwell are back in the city, and they're requesting you return to explain what's going on." They had to be with him; Cameron sounded too formal.
"We're kind of in the middle of something," he tried.
"Leave McKay to work on the core drive," Cameron suggested. "Ronon can stay behind to watch him, you and Teyla come back to the city."
John felt his jaw tense, wanting to argue. Opposite him, Elizabeth's mouth twitched for a moment like she was trying not to laugh. "On our way," he said with a sigh. "I told you Caldwell's in the city?"
"You did. And Colonel Ellis as well."
"Right. Teyla and I are going to head back, walk them through what's going on. Ronon and McKay will stay here."
"I'm sure we'll be fine," Elizabeth said. "Give the colonels my regards."
John tried to imagine how that would go and decided maybe he'd be better off not imagining. "Sure," he said, tapping his radio to call Teyla back.
He knew something was wrong the moment the two of them stepped back through the gate to the planet. He raised his P-90 automatically, Teyla doing the same next to him, the argument with Ellis and Caldwell forgotten.
Teyla shook her head. "I can see nothing. But something is –"
"Wrong," John said. He thought about sending her back to the city, but something was wrong and they might not have time to wait for backup. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard."
"Go ahead," Chuck said. Apparently Cameron was still caught up with the colonels.
"Something's off here. If you don't hear from me or Teyla in half an hour, send a team through, understood?"
"Yes, sir," Chuck said.
John waited for the gate to shut down, the silence sudden loud in the late evening stillness. "McKay? Ronon? This is Sheppard, come in."
Teyla turned slightly so John could see her troubled expression as she touched her own radio. "Dr McKay, this is Teyla, please respond."
"Crap," John muttered. What the hell had he been thinking, leaving Rodney and Ronon alone with Replicators? As good as Ronon was, they were out-matched two to one, and one of the two was Ronon's doppelganger. Just because they looked like people he knew…
"We do not know that anything has happened to them," Teyla said. "There may be a problem with the radios."
"Right," John agreed, well aware that he was grasping at straws. "Come on, their ship's this way."
It wasn't a long walk from the gate; just long enough for John's stomach to tense, not long enough for him to talk himself into believing they were fine.
"We should be able to see their ship from here," Teyla said when they'd been walking for ten minutes.
"Or some evidence that it has been attacked," John agreed. That had to be a good sign, right? Anyone who'd attacked them would have blown up the ship, not taken it.
A horrible thought struck him; when he glanced across at Teyla, he saw the same thought on her face.
"McKay!" he yelled. "Ronon!"
Teyla added her own voice, both of them speeding up as they neared the clearing the two Rodneys had been working in. "Dr McKay! Please respond."
Teyla's raised hand cut him off. "I thought I heard something," she said, her P-90 coming up again.
John raised his own weapon, turning to scan the other side of the path, straining to hear something. "There," he said, catching the sound. A male voice, he was sure, maybe calling his name. Whoever it was, they were in the same clearing John and Teyla were heading for.
There was no missing their teammates as they ran into the clearing. Rodney and Ronon were tied, back-to-back, against one of several tree stumps. Still in their uniforms, Ronon's blaster lying near his hip, the rest of their equipment was gone.
"What happened?" John demanded, dropping to his knees and fumbling at the rope with his knife. Teyla stood with her back half to them, scanning the area. "Wait – how do we know you're the real Ronon and Rodney?"
"Because we're tied up and the ship is gone, as is the core drive?" Rodney suggested sharply. Sure sounded like the real Rodney.
"Last movie night was The Fast and The Furious," Ronon said, tugging one hand free and starting on the ropes round his ankles.
"Yes, and we've built two Replicators," Rodney added. "Both of them named FRAN."
"Good enough for me," John agreed. "So what happened?"
"Apparently, you're no less stupidly heroic when you're a Replicator," Rodney said. The last of the rope fell away from his wrists, which he promptly started to rub, even though they couldn't have been tied up for much more than an hour. "Elizabeth told him why you'd left, and the next thing I knew, they'd over-powered me and Ronon, taken the core drive, and left."
"Gone after the rest of the ships," Ronon said.
"Perhaps they feared what would happen if they were to be forced to return to Earth," Teyla suggested.
"Yeah," John agreed, giving Rodney a hand to stand up, only half-listening to the mutters about pins and needles. He thought Teyla and Ronon were both partly right, but not completely. He knew himself, after all, knew that he would have wanted to be doing something, in his counterpart's place. The threat of Caldwell or Ellis showing up to take over would have been enough. "Come on, let's get you home."
Teyla and Ronon drifted ahead slightly, leaving John to listen to Rodney complaining about the indignity of being attacked by himself. Rodney, as usual, was too engaged in his own monologue to pay much attention to John, which was fine by him. He needed a few minutes almost alone, fighting down the weird, bubbly sensation inside.
Okay, she wasn't their Elizabeth, not truly, but still – she was still out there, somewhere.
It was strange to stand in Kanaan's room without his things there, mere days after their copies had set off to rid the galaxy of the last of the Replicators. Teyla had grown more used to his presence than she had realized, was not quite ready for this change as well, though the thought of her people leaving did not bring with it the ache of their first departure.
Kanaan completed his final survey of the room, moving to stand in front of her. His smile was touched with sadness. "Are you certain you will not come with us?"
"My place is here," Teyla said, as she had said the last time he had asked, and the time before. "I can do great things for our people, here."
Kanaan nodded, though Teyla was not fool enough to believe the gesture signified agreement. "I will miss seeing so much of you," he said, his smile taking on a hint of tease that made Teyla's face warm. "The next time will likely be when our child is born."
"I assure you, you will see me much before that," Teyla said firmly. "You extracted a promise from me to visit at least once every week, when you were on New Athos, or has that been so long that you have forgotten?"
"Merely allowed it to momentarily slip my mind," Kanaan assured her, drawing her close. It was difficult, now, for him to get his arms fully around her. "A house has been set aside for you. Though you will always be welcome in my own home, as though it were yours."
"As you will in mine. In either of mine." Teyla returned his embrace, hoping that he would not speak of what would happen once their child was born. Though she was certain that Kanaan did not expect her to live in the settlement with him and raise the child together, she suspected that he wished it nevertheless.
Kanaan held her for a moment longer, Teyla allowing herself to soak up the comfort. There were few on Atlantis who would embrace her so closely; only Ronon truly seemed to both understand and undertake the proper execution of an embrace, though she was determined that John could be taught the method, and Rodney learn to demonstrate it. Perhaps they would both be more willing with a child than an adult, despite Rodney's vocal dislike to children.
"I must go," Kanaan said finally, stepping back slowly. "Or I will be left behind."
"That would not do," Teyla laughed. He did not belong in the city. "I will walk with you, to see everyone off. And tomorrow I will come to the settlement, to lend a hand, as you insisted." Not that Kanaan had needed to talk her into not spending the first day in the new settlement; the weight of her child made her back and her feet ache, and she had not enjoyed the thought of lifting and carrying so much during the settling. By the second day, the jobs would be smaller in scale, and able to be done while seated.
"And I will have a welcoming gift for you," Kanaan assured her. "Unless all was destroyed, along with the snakes."
"Athosians settled in okay?" Cam asked, looking up from his laptop when John wandered into his office late in the evening, his black uniform dusty.
"No problem." John sat down on the edge of his chair and leaned back carefully. When he finally caught Cam watching him, he sagged backwards and winced. "I'm getting too old to be dragging giant rocks through forests."
Cam bit his lip, trying not to laugh. "Poor John," he said unsympathetically. He wondered if he could sneak off with the marines going over to help out in the morning; not that the view from his office in Atlantis wasn't far superior to the view from his office in the Mountain, but he was really getting sick of looking at it every day.
"I should have stayed with the Athosians," John grumbled, the corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. "Matha was offering to rub soothing ointment onto all my bruises and pulled muscles."
"Was she really?" Cam double-checked that the door really was closed, then went to sit on the arm of John's chair. John tilted his head to rest against Cam's arm, letting Cam ruffle his hair with his other hand. "I've got some Deep Heat in my quarters, I could rub some of that into you."
"I can think of better things for you to rub into me," John said, getting almost all the way through the sentence before his voice cracked and he laughed.
"And here I was thinking you were above such obvious puns," Cam commented to the empty air.
"What made you think that?" John asked. He shifted forward slightly, resting one hand on Cam's knee. When Cam turned to look at him, he grinned and tilted his head up to kiss Cam, very quickly.
"Not in the office," Cam said immediately, aware that the way he was smiling probably didn't make it very convincing.
"No. I don't think either of us wants Chuck to walk in on us kissing."
John tilted his head to one side, apparently giving the question deep thought before nodding. "Okay. But there's a shower with my name on it, and I could really use someone to scrub my back." He gave Cam an exaggerated look from under his eye-lashes. "I have very good locks."
"How can I resist a man with good locks?" Cam asked, offering John a hand out of the chair, and wincing in sympathy as something crunched. He was never admitting it to anyone, but all the time behind a desk had managed to cut down on the number of niggling aches from previous injuries.
"That's what I was hoping you'd say," John said, and lead the way out of the gate-room.
It took Cam a minute to spot an empty seat, standing at the end of the line with his breakfast. The mess was crowded with the breakfast rush, even with the Daedalus and the Apollo finally on their way back to Earth after sticking around for nearly two weeks, trying to find the doppelganger team. He'd expected it to be quieter since the Athosians had moved to the mainland, but apparently they really hadn't spent much time in the main part of the city.
"Sir!" Cadman's voice called, cutting across the chatter like always – she'd have made a great drill sergeant – though he couldn't see her until she stood up and waved.
She had, it turned out, pushed two tables together to accommodate the group gathered round her: Dr Keller sitting between her and Ronon, Lorne on Cadman's other side, opposite Parrish and Zelenka, the latter involved in a debate over something with McKay, next to him. Opposite them, John and Teyla were quietly eating their own breakfast, watching the argument with almost identical expressions of poorly concealed amusement.
"Come to join the mad house, sir?" Lorne asked, grinning.
"Against my better judgment," Cam said, glancing at John, who was turned away, stealing a chair from the emptying table behind him. He actually looked somewhere close to relaxed, though Cam was sure it wouldn't last. Everyone seemed less tense in the last couple of days, like getting their city back to themselves had lifted a weight from their collective shoulders.
"He loves us really," Cadman said, shoving the sugar down the table as Cam sat.
"Stockholm Syndrome," Cam said firmly, mostly kidding.
"Now that you're not busy with Colonel Caldwell all day, Colonel," Parrish put in, leaning forward to speak round Zelenka, who'd pulled out his data tablet and was scribbling furiously while McKay tried to steal the stylus and called him a moron, which made John huff out a laugh. "We were hoping you might be able to drop down to Botany this afternoon."
"Sure," Cam agreed. He took a bite of his oatmeal, then picked up the sugar Cadman had passed him. "Any particular reason?"
Parrish brightened. "We've got some lovely new hybrids that have started to bloom," he said eagerly, and Cam thought, 'Right, plants, flowers, great,' though he tried not to show it. That was one part of leading an entire city that he hadn't expected – the amount of time he'd spend on things he couldn't care less about. "They're a lot like tulips, actually, in appearance, though they're nothing like tulips beyond that. The flowers can be boiled into a tea that has amazing restorative powers for a person's health and –"
"Oh, tulips," Keller put in, looking at Ronon from the corner of her eye. "I love tulips. My dad used to send me a bunch for my birthday, every year, even when we lived too far apart for him to visit."
"Tulips?" Ronon asked.
"I believe they are similar to the Riana flower," Teyla told him. "On Athos, they were very rare, and considered a wonderful courtship gift."
"Really?" Parrish asked, leaning forward so his elbow went dangerously close to Zelenka's half-eaten bowl of cereal before Lorne reached across to nudge the bowl away. Zelenka didn't seem to notice. "Because they were rare?"
"A courtship gift, huh?" Ronon said to Keller speculatively. Cam thought that brought up some slightly odd ideas about her relationship with her father, but didn't say so, not even when he glanced over at John, who looked like he was thinking much the same thing. "Maybe I should get you some?"
"Oh yes," Parrish said, cutting off whatever Teyla had been about to say. "Come down to the greenhouses any time, we have plenty. You're more than welcome to take some as well, Colonel," he added to Cam.
Cam bit his lip hard for a second, carefully not looking at John. "Thanks, Doctor."
"You're welcome," Parrish said happily. "They're a beautiful color, they'd really brighten up your office. Or you could give them away to someone, of course, if that was what you preferred to do, I didn't mean to imply that you couldn't – that you weren't – that there mightn't be anyone in the city, or even back on Earth who you…"
Cam bit his lip again, fighting against the smile that wanted to break through, feeling John shudder with suppressed laughter next to him; at the other end of the table, Cadman was giggling helplessly, and even McKay and Zelenka had cut off their argument to stare at Parrish in something like dismay. Cam thought he ought to be worried by the fact that, at a table of ten people, only one of them didn't get why it was funny, but he was distracted by how good it felt to be part of this, to be one of these people, in this place.
Lorne raised his head from where he'd dropped it into his hands in despair. "Parrish?"
"What's that planet you've been lobbying to go to for ages, the one I keep saying no to?"
Parrish didn't even seem to need to think about it. "P6H 129. The database says that the plants there act as independent entities, moving around the planet –"
"Right, that one," Lorne said, making a face. "I'll make you a deal, okay? Stop offering the Colonel courting flowers, and we'll put it on the mission roster."
"I –" Parrish turned from Lorne, who was looking deeply earnest, to Cam, who put on his best innocent face, to, bizarrely, John, who hadn't said a word and was still grinning, even if he had stopped laughing. Cam mentally dropped the number of people at this table who didn't know about him and John from one to zero. "Of course, Colonel. I'm terribly sorry."
"No harm done," Cam said easily, which got him a raised eyebrow from Teyla, who apparently had a better grasp of the need for secrets than anyone else at this table.
"So do you have different colors?" Keller asked, getting Parrish's attention before he could say anything else, and McKay and Zelenka picked up their argument again as though they'd never left off. Cam could just hear Cadman teasing Lorne about the mission he'd have to go on now, and Ronon saying something about a similar planet he'd been to as a runner. Teyla moved her teacup away from McKay's waving arm, smiling serenely at them all, and John, concentrating on his cereal, leaned into Cam for a moment.
It really wasn't what Cam had expected, when he'd joined the SGC after his accident, but, he thought, it really could have been a lot worse.