Big Bang 2008.   Sequel to a 2007 Big Bang story.
Rodney McKay thought his biggest failure was the Arcturus Project and the destruction of 4/5ths of a solar system. John Sheppard thought losing his confidence in Rodney was the hardest loss he would ever face.

But their most terrible failures were yet to come, and they would each face losing everything, including themselves.
Word Count
85901 words
This is a sequel to Aegis, which was our entry for last year's SGA Big Bang, and takes place in the same universe. Here, the Ancients' genes didn't just confer the power to activate their technology. For ten percent of Earth's population, the ATA gene also gave them Gifts: special abilities that made them admired, envied, and feared, and that came with a price….

We highly recommend that you read Aegis first to be able to understand Enthrall.

There are also three other stories set in the Gifts universe, which may be found here. They all take place after Aegis, but aren't related to Enthrall.

We've used dialogue from the following Season two episodes: "Trinity," "Conversion," "Aurora," and "Epiphany." The Sub Tuum was taken from this web page, at the bottom.

Warning: Dark in places, including non-consensual sex (non-violent).

Dedication: This story, especially the epilogue, is dedicated to Sealie (jimandblair on LiveJournal), who asked for an Aegis sequel, and specifically the scene in the epilogue. We finally did it. :)

Many, many thanks to our wonderful Betas ardent_muses and tesserae_, with special thanks to Squeaky, for Alpha- and Beta-ing far above and beyond the call.
Companion Artwork
  • At Peace by ileliberte
  • Isolation (cover for Enthrall) by Crysothemis

1. to captivate or charm
2. to enslave

--Adapted from The Free Dictionary


There was a polite, gentle rapping on the frame of the open door. Athema Sal Kor turned her head and nodded, inviting the man to join her on the balcony.

"Is it true?" she asked him without preamble. Her hand closed reflexively tight over the ridge of decorated wood that ran the length of the balcony wall. It was smooth and warm under her fingers, still holding the heat of the day. The wind tugged at the panels of her dress, making a sleeve slip a little on one shoulder. She moved it back with a quick, impatient tug, wishing she'd thought to wear her robe. But she'd lost track of time, standing there waiting, and there was no point in getting it now.

"It is, Daema Kor," Irik said. He reached into his pouch and pulled out a piece of thick paper, carefully rolled and bound. He unrolled it for her, angling the picture so that the light of the gas lamp behind them would fall on it.

Athema looked at it, and gasped.

"The picture is recent, my Daema," Irik said needlessly. "And the one who sold this to me said this man goes through the traveling water often. It should be easy enough to find him."

Athema nodded absently, her attention absorbed by the man in the electric portrait. He was smiling, squinting into the sun, real and so impossibly alive that Athema could barely bring herself to tear her eyes away, as if the picture might change before she looked at it again. She reached out almost unconsciously and traced the oval of his face.

"The resemblance is remarkable," she said thickly.

"Yes, my Daema," Irik said.

Athema stared at the portrait a moment longer, then forced herself to look up at her thrall. "Have you contacted them?" she asked.

Irik nodded. "I will be meeting a…representative later tonight." He took the picture back and rolled it carefully before returning it to his pack.

Athema looked back out over the balcony so she would resist asking Irik to see the electric portrait again. Her garden was truly splendid in the moonlight, with the deep red of the heartflowers stained nearly black by the night, and their leaves silvered over the green. She couldn't see the fountain, but she could feel the faint touch of heat from the hidden billows of steam, and the constant trickle of water sounded like the soft splashing of rain.

She wondered if the man in the picture would find it beautiful, as she did, as Merrin had done, when he'd had it made for her.

"Excellent, Irik," Athema said, meaning it truly. She turned to him and smiled. "You have done well. Bring me the portrait, when it is done," she said.

Irik inclined his head gravely. "As my Daema requests," he said. He straightened and backed up a step, obviously preparing to withdraw. "May I take my leave of you?"

Athema was about to nod, but she hesitated. "Irik," she said, and he stopped, waiting for her. She tightened her fingers around the balcony wall again, suddenly feeling something that was too much like fear. "Are you happy?"

Irik blinked, and Athema looked away from him, back out at Merrin's garden. She realized too late that this was not a question for which she actually wanted an answer.

Irik seemed to consider his response for a very long time.

"No one has ever asked me that before, my Daema," he said finally.

"I'm asking it now," Athema said, anxiety making her voice harsh. "Please," she added, more gently.

Irik nodded. He licked his lips. "I was told I was found in the ruins of Sateda," he said carefully. "If that's true, then I'm lucky, not to know what I lost." He turned his head, until he was looking out over the night garden, the way Athema had been. "Sometimes I would like to know who I was," he said quietly. He looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers. His hands were very large. "What stories these scars tell."

"Scars are best forgotten," Athema said.

Irik nodded again. "As you say, my Daema." He touched his fingers to his forehead, a gesture of deep respect. "I will report back in the morning."

"Very well," Athema said. "Thank you." She didn't watch him leave.

She went back inside her rooms as soon as she was alone, shutting the door tight and drawing the curtains. She could have called her maidservant to do it, and to help ready her for bed, but the young woman was indentured, rather than a thrall, and Athema sometimes found her irrepressible chattiness difficult to tolerate. Tonight she just wanted to be alone.

Athema unknotted the ties of her gown, then let it fall from her to pool on the floor. Kelli would have to take it to the laundry in the morning, in any case. Athema slipped her sleep robe over her head, shivering a little at the coolness of the silken cloth. She washed her face and hands in the basin Kelli had provided, then slid under the covers of her bed. She would call for a proper bath in the morning, with sweet oils and heartflower petals. Merrin always said he loved how her hair smelled, and how soft her skin felt, when she bathed like that.

"Merrin," she whispered. "Merrin. My Mer."

She rolled onto her side, then pulled the second pillow to her and clutched it against her chest. Sometimes she pretended she could still smell him on it, but Merrin hadn't lain in that bed for a very long time.

It had been six years since the Wraith had taken him.

Some scars could never be forgotten, no matter how much one wished to.

Peter Grodin stepped off the ladder into the control room of the Ancient outpost, gasped out a small, truncated cry and dropped to his knees.

"You okay?" Rodney McKay asked casually, not really expecting an answer. He assumed that Peter had just turned his foot the wrong way or something on the last rung. It wasn't that he didn't care, but he was deep into the schematics of the Dorandian weapon/power source, trying to figure out how to recreate the connection between the power generator and the primary capacitor.

He would regret that, later: that moment of near-indifference to a colleague and a good friend. Later, he would regret a lot of things.

Now, though, he only slowly realized that this wasn't something Peter was shrugging off, that this wasn't even an injury. Peter hadn't gotten up. In fact, now he was lying on the cold metal floor of the outpost, curled up like someone being kicked, his hands in hard fists and trembling. Nearly everyone else at the outpost had gathered around him--everyone except Rodney--and Simpson had folded her jacket and put it under his head. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, gently running her fingers through Peter's hair and speaking to him too softly for Rodney to hear.

Radek was kneeling next to Simpson, both his hands wrapped around one of Peter's, though it was still clenched. Peter's normal olive complexion was so pale Rodney was sure he could see the dark blue of his veins. The only sound Peter was making was agonized, hitching breaths that tore in and out of his heaving lungs.

"He's having a vision," Radek said as soon as Rodney was close enough, looking at Rodney accusingly.

"I can see that," Rodney snapped to hide his guilt. He hesitated, looking down at Peter's pale face, the frantic twitching of his eyeballs beneath the grey lids, then kneeled next to Peter's head, ignoring the dark look Simpson threw at him.

"Peter," he said softly, though the words echoed like cannonballs through the sudden, unnatural silence of the large room. "Peter, what is it? What are you seeing?" Rodney heard a small change in Peter's breathing. "He's coming out of it," he said.

Simpson and Radek were closer, so they gently helped Peter sit up. He was still panting, still grey as dry rock. He lifted a hand blindly and smeared away a line of saliva that had drooled out of the side of his mouth.

His eyes cracked open, red and dull with pain.

"Rodney," Peter said. He swallowed, then gagged, and Rodney reached for him, cringing inwardly at the idea of Peter puking on his clothes. But Peter just clenched his eyes shut for a long moment, swallowing convulsively until he seemed to have himself a little more under control. He took a breath, then looked right at Rodney. "It's not going to work," he said, breathing fast. "If you don't stop this now, you're going to destroy the solar system."

"Oh, great, you're here," Rodney said, sounding so relieved that John Sheppard felt his guts clench like someone was twisting them. Rodney walked further into the room, yanking off his jacket and chucking it in the general direction of John's desk chair. "You wouldn't believe the day I've had." He glanced over at John, squinting a little. "Not, of course, that you've bothered to actually contact me all day long or anything, to find out. Like usual."

It was easy to see Rodney's hurt as well, behind the customary irritation. It was bright and clear as the color of Rodney's expressive eyes, and John could imagine it coiled inside him like a vine of thorns, imagine how it must have grown, spread out and stabbing as the days wore on, until the only buffer Rodney had against it was his anger. Which was why he had come here, finally. Rodney would never go down without kicking and screaming all the way. That much John was still sure he knew.

And John did feel guilty about that: ignoring Rodney for so long that he'd forced the inevitable confrontation. But he could live with that, since he'd been avoiding Rodney on purpose and not even Rodney was too dense to have figured that out. It was easy to shove the guilt away, bury it under John's own anger, the lingering sense of betrayal that he couldn't shake, no matter how many times Rodney apologized. Some things just couldn't be fixed that easily; maybe some things couldn't be fixed at all.

"I've been busy," he said flatly, and he kept staring back, right through Rodney's incredulous blink, his surprise that turned to a steadily darkening glare.

"I can see that," Rodney snapped. He looked angry, then uncertain, then angry again. He stalked the few steps between them until he was glowering down at John, his arms crossed over his chest. "Good book?"

John was reading a comic. He caught the insult, but didn't bristle at it. It didn't mean anything, couldn't even touch how he felt.

"Did you want something, McKay?" he asked, as if he didn't already know what Rodney wanted, why he was there.

For a tiny moment Rodney looked devastated, then his expression shifted back into the all-too familiar annoyance. "Yeah, I 'want something', Sheppard. I want to know why the hell you've been ignoring me for nearly four days. What's your problem?"

John burst out laughing, he couldn't help it. Rodney looked so confused, along with the irritation. So fucking typical. But Rodney really didn't know. And abruptly it wasn't funny anymore.

"I'm glad you find this so amusing," Rodney snarled, though John had stopped laughing. "It warms me that your sense of humor is as rich and complex as ever, despite the fact that you've apparently lost the ability to use your radio. So," he spat, "if you're done with the hilarity, do you think you could manage to answer the question?"

"You blew up most of a solar system, McKay," John said levelly. "And nearly blew up both of us in the process. That's kind of hard to overlook."

"I'm not asking you to overlook it!" Rodney burst out. "God, do you think I've overlooked it? Do you really think I don't care that--" He cut himself off abruptly, looking startled and suddenly terribly sad. John resisted the urge to reach for him. He slowly clenched his fist instead, feeling the comic crumpling in his hand.

He waited, saying nothing.

"I apologized for that," Rodney said. His voice was too quiet. "I thought--I thought you'd forgiven me."

John swallowed. How Rodney felt didn't matter, not right then. "Peter Grodin told you that the Arcturus project wouldn't work, but you convinced me you knew what you were doing anyway," he said flatly. "But you didn't. And we almost died."

Rodney blinked. "So, what? Now you don't think I know what I'm doing at all anymore? You've stopped trusting me?"

John watched him, and he didn't speak, and he could see the exact second that Rodney finally got it, realized what it meant.

"You've stopped trusting me," Rodney said.

"Yeah," John said. The word was softer than he'd meant to make it, less decisive. But it didn't matter. It wasn't like Rodney hadn't heard it anyway.

For a moment Rodney looked like John had hit him, his eyes wide and betrayed. John made himself hold his gaze, not look away, not reach for him.

Rodney blinked, his eyes big and sad. "Can I earn it back?" he asked.

John looked at him. "That may take awhile," he said.

Rodney's expression collapsed, as if that was the only answer he'd been expecting but he hadn't wanted to believe it. "I see," he said.

John made himself smile, though he was sure it was tight and angry and maybe even cruel. It was the best he could do. "But, I'm sure you can do it, if you really want to try."

Rodney didn't smile back, and there was nothing but blank pain in his eyes. "I do," he said. He took a breath. "What can I do?"

Don't fuck up, were the first words in John's mind, but he didn't say them. "I don't know," he said, because it was true. He wasn't even sure If there was anything Rodney could do, if there was anything that would fix this. Rodney had failed.

Rodney nodded slowly. His lips curved in the most painful smile John had ever seen. "I suppose you're aware that a relationship predicated on a lack of trust is difficult to maintain."

It felt like a long time to John before he answered. For some reason he had trouble getting the word out of his throat.

"Yeah," he said.

"Right." Rodney licked his lips, nodded again. "Well." He pulled himself up, tilted his chin in that wonderfully defiant way he had, daring the galaxy to do its worst. Normally it made John grin, to see that. It was the best indication he had that they would survive, that Rodney would fix everything; save everyone. But Rodney had failed.

"I'm pretty sure I told you I wasn't letting you run away again, Sheppard," Rodney said, and John could see how he grabbed his anger and hauled it back to him, held it like a shield. "And I know--I know I screwed up badly, here, and I understand that you're still angry. And…." His voice dropped, and for a moment his face showed nothing but remorse. "And maybe you have a right to still be angry." Then Rodney's eyes narrowed in definite, furious challenge. "But you do not get to run away because of it. You hear me, Sheppard? Not again."

He didn't wait for a reply before he turned around and stalked away. He forgot his jacket. John would have to return it to him. Leave it outside his quarters. Something.

John waited a long time before he got up and locked his door. And if part of him was still hoping Rodney would come back, he didn't acknowledge it.

"I'm not running," he said to the silence of the room. But part of him knew that he was.

"Rodney," John said, voice low and wary, "don't look now, but we've got some admirers."

Rodney looked at him, mouth still full of the surprisingly good bagel-like thing he'd been eating. He swallowed with unpleasant difficulty. "Where?" he asked in a whisper. John's slight grimace probably meant that Rodney hadn't been quite as quiet as he'd hoped.

"Near the door," John said. He lowered his voice until it was so soft Rodney had to strain to hear it, leaning in close until his unruly bangs brushed Rodney's temple, and Rodney could smell the sharp, astringent scent of his hair gel. "Check their table."

Rodney gave a single, tiny nod, then glanced over at the table near the door as quickly and casually as he could, then almost wished he hadn't. There were three men sitting there, all dressed in dark, heavy cloth and leather, thick gloves on their hands. They looked nondescript, the kind of men you might never remember, except for the hardness of their eyes, and the way they were staring at him. And John.

There was a badly-worn photograph on the table, pinned under one of the men's hands. It was a black-and-white picture of Rodney, squinting happily into the sun. Rodney thought he might even remember when it could have been taken, not that he'd been aware of it at the time, obviously. It looked like it had been written on in several scripts Rodney didn't know.

It looked like a 'Wanted' poster, like the kind you might see pinned to the bulletin board at the local post office. Rodney had no idea who had taken it, or why, but he could guess what the men were doing with it.

"Bounty hunters?" Rodney asked John, incredulous, only just remembering to keep quiet. "What the hell? Who--"

"Shut up," John snapped, harshly enough to make Rodney blink, though for once John's eyes were tight with worry, not anger. He tapped the radio at his ear. "Teyla," he said quietly. "You and Ronon need to head back to the gate." He didn't say why, and he didn't have to. Rodney heard Teyla's simple, calm agreement, though he wondered if she would be pissed at having to leave before her negotiations were finished. She'd been trying to trade her people's labor for some kind of protein animal. At least she and Ronon didn't have strangers gunning for them. As far as Rodney knew, anyway.

They'd barely been on the planet a full day. So of course something had to go spectacularly wrong.

"Should I, uh…." He made a quick gesture, open hand in front of his chest, but John just gave his head a tiny, quick shake, like a ball player throwing off the catcher's signals.

No shield, then. Rodney swallowed. John still wanted their Gifts to be kept secret. That was a good thing, mostly. It meant the shit hadn't quite hit the fan, yet. That was something.

John gave a quick glance right and left--less casually than he probably hoped--and grimaced. "They know we're watching them," he said very quietly. Rodney had time to think no shit, Sherlock, before John hissed at him, "I think one of them just used a radio. We need to go. Now."

Rodney gave him a tense nod, and tried to follow his lead, stretching in what he hoped was pure nonchalance before sliding out of the uncomfortable chair. John threw some of the coins Teyla had given them, probably too many, onto the table, and started for the door of the tavern. He nodded goodnight to the typically beautiful young woman who had been serving them. She seemed disappointed John was leaving. Figured.

Rodney wasn't disappointed they were leaving, not even because he was terrified and desperate to get back to Atlantis where they would be safe, Teyla and Ronon with them. They had been going to spend the night, much to Rodney's misery, since he and John had been forced to share one of the little rooms on the second floor of the tavern. Rodney had all but begged Ronon and Teyla for either of them to share with him instead, but Teyla had insisted it was forbidden for her to spend the night in a stranger's bed with a man she hadn't 'chosen'--whatever that meant--and Ronon had flatly refused to share his bed with anyone.

Rodney and John hadn't spent the night together since the fiasco of Doranda. Rodney knew the only reason John was with him now was because he didn't want Rodney to be alone.

Not because John wanted Rodney's company, of course, and not because he wanted to make sure Rodney was protected. And not even because it was required, as the leader of their team. Rodney was sure John would have at least spoken every so often if he had been here out of duty.

No. John had sat grim and silent next to Rodney's side all through their meal because he didn't trust Rodney to be on his own. A subtle difference, but enormous all the same. Like the few centimeters between them that hid the true gulf of distance. John didn't trust Rodney anymore.

And Rodney's inability to win back John's trust was a failure worse than anything he'd ever done. It was like a thousand Dorandas. A million.

The fact that Rodney still trusted John, that right this second Rodney was--as usual--willing to put his life in John's hands, was apparently completely irrelevant. Part of Rodney wondered why John even cared if the bounty hunters or whoever the hell they were got him or not.

But Rodney didn't want the bounty hunters to get him, so he stood and followed John, and tried very, very hard not to look in the direction of the three men again, though he was almost certain they were all getting up as well. The tavern, and the tiny collection of stone houses that surrounded it, were about a half-hour walk from the gate. Hopefully they'd be able to get that far without a fight.

John pushed at the heavy wooden door of the tavern, and for half a second Rodney actually thought that the sudden, astonishingly loud bang was normal, just the sound of the door opening. And then John turned slightly, staggered back with his face white and open in shock, and fell against Rodney.

Rodney's arms went around him automatically even as he stumbled, John's weight and the awkward angle taking them both to the floor. Rodney fell heavily onto his butt, still holding John in his arms. John was gasping, clutching at Rodney like he was trying to get up, but he couldn't.

"John?" Rodney's hands were wet. Wet and warm. It seemed to take an astonishingly long time to realize what that meant.

Someone--the serving girl, probably--started screaming.

"John?" John was looking up at him, his mouth open, straining to talk or just to breathe. He coughed, and blood flew out of his mouth, spattered Rodney's face and neck. "Oh my God," Rodney said. He looked around wildly. "Help! I need help here!" But no one was listening. They were screaming and running, charging through the heavy wooden doors and out into the perceived safety of the night. All except the serving girl, brown eyes wild with fear, who had her apron bunched up against her mouth as if trying to muffle herself. And the three men who had been watching them. The ones with the photograph.

And the fourth man, small and scruffy and dressed head to foot in black, like death, who had fired when John opened the door and was still pointing his gun at him, as if John could possibly do anything to him now.

No one was going to help them. And John was bleeding and bleeding and bleeding.

Rodney tore his eyes away from the four men. They hadn't shot him yet. He supposed it was only a matter of time. He shifted so he could lay John on the hard dirt floor, as gently and as quickly as he could. John gave a broken wheeze when he moved and the sound felt like it was shattering Rodney's spine, but he ignored it. Instead he shoved aside the panels of John's grey and black jacket, already becoming dark and heavy with John's blood, and then yanked up John's soaked black t-shirt until it exposed the pulsing wound. And Rodney used his Gift to shield it, to keep the blood in. There was a flash of gold, and then finally, finally, the bleeding stopped.

John was pawing at him, trying to get his attention, and Rodney had so much fear in him at this point--for himself, God, for John--that it was like his mind had overloaded, shorted out. He could feel his heart thudding like a jackhammer but everything else felt distant, inconsequential, except for John's blood on his hands, John's desperation as he stared up at him. His hazel eyes were very wide with pain, the blood astonishingly red as it dripped from his twisted mouth.

"Sh…." he gasped, trying to speak, "You. Shi…Rod--"

The serving girl shrieked something, and then Rodney felt a sharp jab to the back of his neck. He reached for it automatically, slapping at it like it was a bee (oh God, not a bee. Not now, not now), but there was nothing there. Just one of the men, grinning down at him with a mouth full of dirty, crooked teeth.

"Got you," he said.

Rodney had a second to wonder what the hell that meant before his strength gave out all at once and he keeled over heavily onto the floor. He was looking at John's face, but it was blurring, white and red going soft, indistinct.

"No. Rodney…." John said, panting the words out. He reached out. Rodney could see his shaking hand, and he wanted to grab it, but he couldn't. He couldn't move.

He saw the faintest flicker of gold as his shield dropped. The burst of panic was like lightning through his heart, but he couldn't move, he couldn't move, and he couldn't make his Gift work again, no matter how hard he tried, how much energy he put into it.

"You didn't have to kill him," someone said mildly. "I have my darts."

"I know," someone answered, and there was laughing in it.

Rodney fell unconscious looking into John's dimming eyes, still trying to reach for him.

Capitano del 'Nono' Tulio Olivetti ran down the corridor leading to the gate room. Carson was right behind him, with the rest of the medical team and a gurney, but Tulio ignored them. He ignored everyone except Anders Johansen, loping along at his side like a large, anxious wolf. The two of them had to get to the gate first, where right this second he knew at least half the gate room would be trying to keep Colonel Sheppard from drowning in his own blood. If they weren't fast enough, not even his and Anders' combined healing Gifts--not all the healing Gifts in the universe--could keep Sheppard from dying.

Sheppard had been shot in the chest, at close range. And the exact words Weir had used on the radio were, 'he can't breathe, and he's bleeding out on the gate room floor'.

Tulio occasionally petitioned for the Archangel Raphael's intercession when he was helping the wounded: asking for his Gift to be strong enough, that he could use it well enough, to keep the injured alive and stop their pain. He'd done that already, as soon as Weir's call came in. He'd begged Saint Barbara to help him while he was running, because Sheppard had been shot, which technically put him under her patronage. Now, as he entered the gate room and saw the Colonel lying in what looked like a small lake of his own blood, he blurted, "Mother of God, help him!" Because Tulio had no idea how they were meant to fix this, if there was anything short of an actual miracle that could save him.

Beside him, Anders whispered something in Danish; Tulio had no desire to know what it was.

And then the two of them were there, finally. Anders dropped to his knees in Sheppard's blood like a tree felled into a pond, his large, capable hands already removing the sodden bandages. Tulio knelt at Sheppard's head, so he could put his hands on either side of the Colonel's face, his thumbs pressing gently against his temples. Sheppard was unconscious, his chest heaving as he fought for breath. His lips were blue with anoxia, where they weren't stained bright, terrifying red.

Anders always went right to the site of the wound, Tulio knew. But his own Gift didn't work like that. Anders had said once that it felt to him like he was coaxing the cells back together, or cajoling them to work properly again. It was long, painstaking and exhausting work for him. Anders was the slowest Healer Tulio had ever met, but also the most thorough. Anders' patients never relapsed, or had their wounds reopen, or re-broke poorly-healed bones.

But for Tulio, it didn't feel so much like he was using his Gift as channeling it. It was like his soul opened and his Gift poured though him into the soul of the person in distress, going wherever it needed to without his conscious control or direction. That was why he always had to hold the other person's head, because that made a straight path from his body to theirs.

Now he opened himself entirely, channeling his Gift like power, strength, light, like Grace itself, until it surged through him like a river, a torrent, and into Sheppard. And Tulio Olivetti prayed:

We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God. Despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen….

Over and over and over again, until the words blurred and became indecipherable, rising and falling in a steady wave of sound. And he poured his Gift into Sheppard, washing him in light.

Tulio could feel Anders' Gift touching against his, gentle but inexorable as a rising tide, persuading the wound to close, the cells to repair themselves and multiply. And his own Gift surging underneath, a bright river, flowing…and somewhere nearby were the rest of Carson's medical team, working quietly and efficiently--giving Sheppard oxygen, saline, blood, but not moving him, letting the two Healers work.

Tulio felt Anders' Gift falter, stop, and he glanced up to see Ronon grab Anders by the back of his shirt and haul him away before he could topple over. Ronon lay Anders carefully onto the floor, and Tulio kept watching just long enough to make sure that his friend was still breathing before he returned his complete focus back to Sheppard. He was the only chance the Colonel had now, and he still wasn't healed enough.

We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God….

The exhaustion started first as a small pressure behind Tulio's eyes, ignorable, until suddenly it wasn't anymore and he had to concentrate to keep his body steady, his hands from shaking. He was starving, so empty it was like he'd been gouged out from the inside, and cold where his sweat was sticking his shirt to his back. He blinked sweat out of his stinging eyes, tasted the salt of it where it slid into his mouth. He was panting now, too, faltering over the words of the Sub Tuum, and he swallowed and stopped talking, repeating the prayer silently instead.

Someone, maybe Weir, maybe Teyla or Carson, he didn't know, slipped a glucose tablet into his mouth, and then another, and another after that. They tasted terrible but Tulio chewed and swallowed them. It helped a little. Someone offered him a canteen, but he just shook his head. Drinking would take too much concentration.

He had no idea how long he'd been there, kneeling on the gate room floor with Sheppard's head, Sheppard's life, between his hands. It felt like hours, but it might have been minutes, even less. It didn't matter--he was failing, his body giving out. His head kept bobbing forward then snapping back as he fought to keep himself conscious. And then without even being aware of the transition, of any passage of time, he was lying on the floor looking up at Teyla Emmagan. She had his head in her lap.

"Hush," she said, as if she knew what words he would speak. "You've done enough. He is being taken into surgery now. They will send a gurney back for you."

"Are you sure?" he asked, because he hadn't been able to finish. He wasn't even sure he'd pulled Sheppard far enough away from death that he would survive an operation.

"I'm sorry," Teyla said, frowning. "I don't understand what you are saying."

"Sorry," Tulio whispered. He was so tired he hadn't realized he'd spoken in Italian. He swallowed, wishing someone would offer him water, now that he could take it. "I asked, are you certain? He will live?" he said in English.

As if she had read his mind, Teyla lifted him until he was leaning against her, and she held a canteen to his mouth. He could only manage a few swallows before the effort of drinking exhausted him.

"You and Sgt. Johansen did enough," Teyla said again, after she had helped him lie back down. She held one of his trembling hands, and she smiled, but Tulio could see the unease in it.

"Colonel Sheppard is strong," Teyla said, but that didn't answer his question.

Tulio nodded, a slow, clumsy movement, then he let his eyes close and waited for the medics to come back for him.

"Mother of God, help him, please," he prayed. "Please, help him."

He woke up in what was obviously a cell: four wooden walls, heavy metal door with a square hole and a hinged cover that opened from the outside. Rodney supposed he'd get fed through it, if they fed him. The floor was hard-packed earth, with a bucket in the corner that stank of its purpose and made the whole cell smell like a portable toilet. There was something that looked vaguely like a mattress along the opposite wall. Rodney didn't know if it meant they didn't keep prisoners here long--which might be very, very bad--or if they didn't care, which might be even worse.

He was groggy, weak and shaky like he'd just gotten over being sick, so it took him a few moments to work out why he was alone, and then the rush of horror and adrenaline had him rocketing to his feet, pounding on the metal door until his fist was numb and his head was aching with the noise.

"Hey!" He hollered it until his throat ached, but it was nothing compared to the ache of terror in his chest. "Hey! Come on! I need to talk to someone! Hey!"

The door suddenly swung violently open, knocking into him and sending him sprawling painfully on the dirt floor. Three men shoved their way into the cell. Rodney tried to put his shield up, but it didn't work, crackling and fading in almost the same instant. The first man--Rodney thought he recognized him from the tavern--gave him a swift, brutal kick to his ribs before Rodney could do more than try to roll out of the way. The blow was hard enough to flip Rodney over, and by the time he'd landed on his stomach, gasping, the other two men had grabbed him and hauled him upright. The first man hit him in the stomach. Rodney gagged, tried to double over, but he was being held too tightly.

The man grabbed Rodney around the throat, jabbing his thumb just under Rodney's jaw, making him gasp in pain. He was at least a head shorter than Rodney, but thick and scruffy as an ox, and now he stepped close enough so that he could sneer up into Rodney's face.

"Be quiet," he snarled. "You're giving me a headache."

Which was so absolutely absurd that Rodney might have laughed, if he wasn't currently held very painfully immobilized. He kept trying to make his shield, but now nothing happened at all. The remnants of whatever they'd knocked him out with at the tavern he guessed, hoping to hell that's all it was, that his Gift would come back. "Where am I?" he managed to ask, though each time his mouth moved it felt like Ox's thumb was grinding through his jaw. "Where's Sheppard--the man who was with me?" He wanted to shout, 'you shot him, you son of a bitch!', since he'd realized he knew Ox because he'd been the one with the gun, the one laughing. But he knew better than to do that. He was already in terrible pain, and he didn't want to die.

Ox sniffed, as if he was considering the question. Then he dug his thumb in a little harder, and Rodney barely managed to keep the moan between his teeth.

"I killed him," Ox said simply. He turned his head enough to grin toothily at the man on Rodney's left. "That's right, huh, Ethro? We left him choking on his own blood."

Ethro shrugged, chuckled, obviously getting into the spirit of the game while Rodney felt like he was the one choking--his breath frozen, gone. "Dunno, Nat. Maybe somebody helped him."

Nat snorted. "Naw. They were all running around screaming. Useless." He turned his grin on Rodney, who barely managed not to recoil. "They trampled your friend like a herd of orok." He smiled more widely. "Must've hurt, with that big hole in his chest--"

"You fucking bastard!" Rodney lunged for him, or tried to, shocking himself with the vehemence of his rage. Nat just bobbed back with a delighted guffaw, and then Ethro and the other one wrenched his arms so hard that Rodney cried out, dropped to his knees in an automatic reflex to escape the pain. At least he'd made Nat let go of his throat, though it still hurt like a bitch.

Nat followed Rodney down, squatting easily on the dirt. "Hey," he said, voice quiet and friendly, like they were sharing a secret, "know what?" His grin was huge and thrilled, like this was some wonderful surprise. "Not only did we kill your friend, but Sasa's coming, and you know what's going to happen then?" Nat tilted his head, touching the cord of his artery with a forefinger, as if in illustration. "She's going to inject you with a drug we call 'loser'. Right here." He winked. "You want to know why it's called 'loser'?"

Ethro sniggered.

Rodney gritted his teeth. "Because of who made it?"

Nat's expression didn't change, but he cuffed Rodney across the face, hard enough to make Rodney's ears ring. "Funny man. I hope you can keep that." He smirked. "It's called 'loser' because it makes you lose everything. You understand that? What that means?" Nat's eyebrows rose, as if he expected an answer, but he went on immediately. "That means there will be nothing left of you, my friend. Nothing. You'll be lying here soft and smooth and empty as a baby, begging us to help you, to tell you who you are." His grin became positively incandescent. "And you'll believe everything we tell you, because you won't know."

Nat reached up and caressed the same cheek he'd slapped, then grabbed Rodney's chin with his other hand when Rodney flinched away, holding him still.

"The best thing," Nat went on, in the same almost-sweet, secret voice, "is that loser makes you sleep, very hard and for a very long time. And you know what I'm thinking?" He leaned in a little closer, his damp, meaty hands holding Rodney's head completely still. "I'm thinking that maybe I'm going to have you, while you're lying asleep, helpless like a little baby on the floor." He passed his thumb over Rodney's lips. "Or maybe I'll do it right after Sasa gives it to you, when you're slipping away and can't fight me, so you'll feel it. And I'll make it hurt. What do you think of that?"

Rodney swallowed. His heart was practically vibrating in terror. "No," he breathed, not too proud to beg, not for this. "Please, no. Don't do that."

"Stop screwing with him, Nat," the one who wasn't Ethro said in mild rebuke.

Nat was still smiling, but his eyes--a deep, vibrant blue that reminded Rodney sickeningly of Carson--had gone cold, and now all of his obvious displeasure was focused on the man holding Rodney's left arm.

"Spoil my fun, huh, Matet."

"Where the hell's Sasa, anyway?" Ethro asked sullenly. "My arms are starting to hurt."

"Shut up, Ethro," Matet said, with the same mildness he'd used for Nat, but it nonetheless made Ethro stop speaking. "She told us she was fixing it up. That always takes a while."

"Should've left him alone, then," Ethro said like a sulky child.

Nat ran his hand along Rodney's jaw as Rodney tried to pull back again. "Plenty of ways to pass the time, Ethro," Nat said, his smile undimmed. "Not like he'll remember it."

Rodney woke naked and cold, in a place he thought might be a cell. It had four wooden walls, a heavy metal door with a square hole, and a hinged cover that opened from the outside. He hoped that meant he'd get food, since he was hungry and thirsty. The floor was hard-packed earth, with a bucket in the corner that made the whole cell stink. He was lying on some kind of mattress that felt like burlap against his stomach.

He didn't know where he was, or why he was there.

The door opened while Rodney was lying there, trying not to panic. Two men came in, and a woman. Rodney instantly blushed and tried to cover himself, embarrassment momentarily winning over fear.

One of the men--short, scruffy and mean-looking--brayed with laughter, showing a mess of ugly teeth. He prodded Rodney in the hip with his foot, then laughed some more when Rodney tried to scramble away, only to be trapped by the wall.

"Leave him be, Nat," the woman said. She sniffed, and rubbed her nose with her fingers, as if it itched. She was a little shorter than the one she'd called 'Nat', and plump in a way that should have made her seem warm and pleasant, except for the shrewdness in her sharp gaze. "You know Wellogh'll tan your ass if he sees you've bruised him again."

Rodney blinked, and tried to look at his body without exposing any more of himself. His jaw and throat were sore, he realized, and he had purple bruises on his arms and two much bigger ones on the side of his chest and over his stomach. He didn't remember getting them.

He swallowed, looking wildly between the woman, Nat, and the other man. He had no idea who they were, but just looking at them made him horribly afraid.

"Who are you?" he asked. "What am I doing here? What do you want?"

The woman sniffed again, and Rodney wondered distantly if she had a cold. "What's your name?" she asked.

"My name?" Rodney asked, bewildered. "You kidnap me and you don't even know who I am?"

The woman's lips thinned. She gestured at the second man with her. "Urve," she said.

Urve's mouth twisted in what looked like distaste, but he took a step forward and kicked Rodney in the ribs, on the opposite side from the bruise. It wasn't terribly hard, but it was more than enough to make Rodney gasp, try to struggle away from him. He yanked up his legs so that he was exposing as little of his belly as possible.

Nat smirked. Rodney already loathed him.

"What's your name?" the woman asked again.

"Rodney," Rodney said quickly. There wasn't any harm in letting her know that, was there? It wasn't like he was anyone important.

Was he?

"Where are you from?" the woman asked, cutting like a scalpel into Rodney's growing alarm. Her expression was sour, like he'd said something she hadn't wanted to hear. "What's your job?"

Rodney opened and closed his mouth, feeling like a fish, a water-creature, drowning in air. He didn't know. He didn't know. All he knew was his name.

"I…I work with machines," he said, because that felt right, somehow, even if he didn't know what kind of machines, or even if it was true. He had a brief, incomprehensible image of looking up at stars--a picture of stars, projected onto a giant, curved black screen--but he didn't know where that came from, or why. "In Ontario," he added, because that was where the black dome was. He was certain of it, even though he had no idea what 'Ontario' meant.

The woman's face went ugly with anger. "Nat," she said, snapping her fingers.

Nat just stared at her for a moment, then seemed to realize what she wanted. He pressed a bundle of cloth into her hand.

The woman tossed it at Rodney. "What's this?" she asked.

He recoiled from it as if it were a grenade she'd lobbed at him. The cloth--a shirt, maybe?-- hit his chest and slid onto the floor, and Rodney kept himself from frantically pushing himself away from it through sheer force of his quickly eroding will. There was a portion of it that looked darker than the rest. Stained, maybe. Rodney had no desire to touch it at all. "Why am I here?" he asked. He couldn't take his eyes off the cloth, like it was an animal waiting to bite him.

"Urve," the woman said.

"Wait! Wait!" Rodney cried. He automatically threw up his arms to defend himself, crossing them in front of his face. He couldn't pull his legs in any tighter. "All right," he said when Urve hadn't kicked him again. "All right." He swallowed, staring at the cloth. "I'll look at it."

He slowly reached for the cloth. He had to sit up to unfold it properly, but at least he was able to put it over his lap, like a blanket, so he could hide his genitals from Sasa and the sniggering Nat. It was definitely clothing, but a jacket, not a shirt. It was dark grey, with two large black panels on either side of the zipper. Most of it was stained through with blood, more blood than Rodney had ever seen.

Blood. Blood. On the floor of the tavern, soaking into the wood while John reached for him, trying to speak. Rodney's shield flickering, dying.

John dying--

"John!" Rodney screamed, clutching at the jacket. He looked up at the woman, frantic. "John! He was shot! Where is he? How did you get this? Is he all right? Is he all right?"

The woman closed her eyes, as if in frustration.

"Nat, Urve," she said.

Nat grinned, and came at Rodney, but when he reached down his hand hit against a barrier, something flickering gold, right next to Rodney's skin. He yanked back his hand, shaking it and cursing.

Urve danced backwards before he got close enough to touch. He looked at the woman, eyes huge with shock and no little fear. "Gods' teeth! What is that?"

"I don't know," the woman said. Her eyes were also wide, though they went narrow almost immediately, calculating. "Maybe he's got Ancestor blood in him."

Urve looked like that was worse than the barrier. "Ancestors?" He shook his head in obvious terror. "We have to let him go, Sasa!" he said. He looked around the small cell, as if expecting something or someone to pop out of the woodwork and attack him. "What if they know he's here?"

Nat cuffed him across the back of his head, hard enough to make Urve stagger. "Shut it," he said. He grinned. Nat never stopped grinning. "It's nothing. It's a trick, like that old man Matet's always talking about, the one who can tell the future without laying cards. Doesn't make him Ancestor stock." He shook his head at Rodney, his smile almost fond. "Doesn't make him anybody."

"If the Ancestors gave dog stones about him, they would've been here by now," Sasa said. She shrugged. "Maybe the trick will up the price, that's all." She studied Rodney for a moment. "Can't touch him with it, though." She looked at Nat. "How long do you think it'll last?"

Nat looked at her, puzzled, then shrugged. "How should I know? He'll get tired, maybe." He grinned. "Gotta sleep, sometime."

Sasa seemed to think about that, then gave a decisive nod. "We'll come back, then." She glanced at the jacket, still clutched in Rodney's hands. "Get that later."

"Wait!" Rodney called after them, as Nat opened the heavy door. Sasa turned and looked at him, and Rodney tried not to shrink back. "Where is John? Please, tell me! Is he all right?"

Sasa kept looking at him. "John's dead," she said.

"Oh no," Rodney said softly. "No, please."

His eyes started running with tears, all at once. He heard Nat's quiet chuckling, before the door was shut and locked behind him and the others.

"John," Rodney said. "Oh, God." And he crumpled himself up inside his golden shell, held the empty jacket to him, and wept.

He woke naked and cold, in a room with four wooden walls and a heavy metal door with a square hole in it. He was very hungry and thirsty. The floor was hard and cold, with a bucket in the corner that smelled. He was lying on some kind of rough mattress.

He didn't feel well, and he was covered with bruises. Maybe he'd been in an accident. He didn't know where he was, or why he was there.

He didn't know who he was.

The door opened while he was trying not to panic, and a woman and a man came in.

"Hello," the man said. He was taller than the woman, with a beard and almost no hair. He had a nice smile, and he was carrying a tray with food. "How are you feeling?"

"Who are you?" he asked. He swallowed, and his throat was so dry it hurt. "What am I doing here?" It was possible that he hadn't been in an accident, that these people were the ones who had hurt him. He shrank back a little, but it made his stomach and his ribs hurt a lot, and he winced and hissed in pain.

"We found you," the man said. He put the tray down on the floor, but not near enough to be threatening. He smiled again. "My name's Wellogh." He gestured at the woman, who was plump with a sour, angry face. "This is Sasa. You were hurt. We've been helping you."

"Hurt," he said. Somehow that didn't feel right, but he didn't know why. There was a pitcher and cup of water on the tray, and he grabbed it and drank it eagerly though it tasted old and stale. Wellogh watched him, never losing his thin smile. Sasa just glared, but didn't speak. She sniffed, then rubbed her nose.

He wiped his mouth when he'd finished drinking. "I don't remember what happened," he said. He looked at Wellogh hopefully. "Do you know my name?" He grabbed the bread on the tray and wolfed it down, tearing it into pieces with shaking hands.

Wellogh's smile grew even warmer, and even Sasa smiled a little bit. "We were hoping you could tell us that," Wellogh said. "Do you know where you're from? Who you are?"

He thought about that. "Um," he said. There was a word--a name, maybe? "Meredith?" He blinked at Wellogh. "Is that my name?"

Sasa's smile changed instantly to a glower, and Wellogh's smiled faltered a little bit. "That's a fine name, Meredith," he said, and Meredith bristled slightly, despite his fear. He didn't like being spoken to as if he were a child. "Just one more question." Wellogh had been carrying a bundle of cloth tucked under his arm, and he handed it to Meredith now. "Can you tell me what that is?"

Meredith reluctantly put down the remnants of the bread so he could take it. "Is it mine?" he asked. He looked back up at Wellogh. "Can I have some clothes?"

"In good time," Sasa snapped, earning a swift glare from Wellogh. "Tell us what that is," she said, more gently, "and then we'll bring you more food and let you have a nice bath, all right?"

"Okay," Meredith said. He unfolded the cloth. It was a grey-and-black jacket, covered in blood.

He began to shake, pushed it violently away from him. "I don't want to look at it!" he said, then louder, "I don't want to look at it! Take it away!"

Sasa made some noise that sounded like exasperation.

"Shh, shh, it's fine, it's fine," Wellogh said gently to Meredith. He crouched down so that their faces were level. "Can you tell us who it belongs to, Meredith? Do you remember?"

"John," Meredith said. He was crying, wiping uselessly at his eyes. "John." He took a shuddering breath. He didn't even know who John was, except that the grief, the loss, was like his soul had been torn out, like something he couldn't survive. "Please," he begged. "Take the jacket away. Please."

"Of course we will, Meredith. Of course. Thank you." Wellogh took the cloth and bundled it up again, so Meredith didn't have to see it.

He muttered his thanks, his hands pressed over his eyes, tears still leaking beneath them. "Can I have some clothes, please?" he asked in a small, wet voice. He'd feel less vulnerable if he could wear something.

"We'll bring you some right away, I promise," Wellogh said. Meredith heard him stand.

"Another dose?" Wellogh said to Sasa, and his voice was entirely different.

Meredith moved his hands, looked up. Wellogh was staring at him again, but this time his face was like stone.

"Yes, another, pit tear it," Sasa said. She reached into the pocket of her dress.

"What?" Meredith asked, blinking, just before Wellogh grabbed him.

He woke up cold and naked in a small, stinking room. His body hurt. He was thirsty, and he didn't know where he was.

A woman came in. She seemed angry; he didn't know why. "What's your name?" she snapped.

He thought about it, staring at her. He swallowed, suddenly afraid. "I don't know," he said. His hands twisted together on his thighs. "Can I have some clothes, please? I'm cold."

"In a minute," the woman said. "Rodney? Meredith?" Her mouth twisted in a cruel smile. "John?"

His breath caught at the last name. "No," he said quickly. "Not John." That wasn't his name, it couldn't be. He felt awful just hearing it, like something terrible had happened. He closed his eyes, searching for the other names in his head. He thought maybe he had heard them before, but that was all.

"I don't know those names," he said. He looked at the woman again. "Are they mine? I don't remember."

"It's all right," the woman said, though she sounded like she didn't really care. He decided he didn't like her. "Here." She shoved something at him. "What's that?"

It was a jacket, grey with black panels on the front. It was nearly covered in something that had dried almost black and smelled bad.

He looked at it for a long time. "It's a jacket," he said. "I think…." He blinked at the woman. "Is this blood?" His eyes widened. "Is this my blood? Is this…. What happened?" His chest tightened in a sudden burst of terror and grief, and he shoved the jacket away from him. "What happened?" he asked again, but he didn't want to know. He didn't want to remember. All the blood….

"He's dead," he gasped, and he didn't even know who he was talking about, but it was like he'd been sliced open, like someone was tearing him apart inside. He felt tears on his face, overwhelmed with horror and loss and despair. "He's dead!"

"God's teeth," the woman hissed. And she reached into her pocket.

"What's your name?" the small man said. He smiled a lot.

"I don't know. I'm thirsty."

"Rodney? Is your name Rodney? How about Meredith?"

"Is that my name? I don't know. I'm sorry."

"Where are you from? What's your work?"

"I don't know. Can I have some clothes, please?"

"Sure. Soon. What's this?"

"It's a jacket. I think there's blood on it." He gave it back to the smiling man as quickly as he could. It made him feel sick, he didn't know why. "Is it mine?" He didn't want it to be his. He didn't want to have to look at it anymore, it made his chest hurt.

"No," the man said. "It's not yours." He grinned. "Don't worry about it." He turned back to the woman, who was standing behind him and smiling. She didn't look like she smiled much. "Think he's ready?"

The woman sniffed, then nodded. "Yeah, thank all the God's little children." She gave a single, sharp nod at the small man. "Get your hand off him, Nat. You can see he's spooked already. Don't need you crowding him."

"Ready for what?" he asked. He didn't know what they meant. "Do I have to leave here?"

Nat laughed, loudly, and patted his cheek again. "Oh my sweet little one. Don't worry--we'll miss you too."

John came out of sleep like a man surfacing through rough water, with the same sense of being dragged under forever if he didn't fight hard enough. It was tempting to just let go again, allow himself to rest, but the sense of urgency wouldn't leave him, rising like his heartbeat until he was feeling something close to panic when he finally wrenched open his eyes.

John knew where he was, could feel the uncomfortable pressure of the canualla in his nostrils, the arid rasp of the oxygen in his sinuses every time he breathed. He knew why he was there, understood why his chest hurt, why sleep was still pulling at him like a restless child trying to get his attention.

John remembered sitting in the tavern next to Rodney, ignoring him. He was still angry, still so fucking angry, because Rodney had abused his trust and nearly killed them both for his arrogance, and it was so much easier to clutch the anger to him than to admit that Rodney was human, that he was allowed to be wrong. So much easier than to admit to himself how much John missed him. How much he wanted him back.

He'd been angry enough that maybe he didn't notice everything he should have, didn't look in the right places when it mattered, didn't hesitate before he shoved open the door.

He remembered being shot, the look in Rodney's eyes when he knew John was dying. He remembered trying to breathe through the unbelievable pain, the hot slide of blood in his mouth. He remembered trying to tell Rodney to use his shield, to protect himself, and that Rodney had used it on John instead, to keep him from bleeding, and then--

"Rodney!" John's throat hurt. He tried to sit up. "Rodney!"

Someone touched his arm and he flinched violently, before he realized it was Elizabeth, remembered that he couldn't hurt her like that. "It's all right, John," she said. "You're in Atlantis. The infirmary. You're safe."

"Rodney," John said. His throat hurt and it was hard to speak, like he couldn't get enough air into his lungs even with the oxygen. His chest ached, too. "Where is he?"

Elizabeth looked pained, stress lines around her eyes like she'd been sitting next to him a long time. When he asked where Rodney was her face collapsed in a way that made John's eyes widen, his chest constrict and hurt in a way that had nothing to do with an injury.

He's not dead, John thought, as if his will alone could make that true.

"The people in the tavern said the men who shot you took him," Elizabeth said. Her hand tightened a little, like she was trying to hold him down. He forced himself not to yank his arm away. She just wanted to help him, and his emotions were probably hurting her.

Calm down, he thought. But he couldn't. "Taken," he said. He swallowed. His throat was so dry it felt like sandpaper, scraping down. "Not dead." A statement, as if that meant she couldn't contradict him. Not dead. Just gone. Just gone.

Just gone.

"Yes," Elizabeth said. She took a heavy breath. "The woman Ronon and Teyla spoke to--she definitely saw two of the men pick up Rodney and drag him out of there. He was unconscious but alive. And we have every reason to believe that they would have kept him that way."

John nodded, hope like a ferocious thing, gnawing at his pounding heart. It made sense. It had to make sense. If they'd wanted Rodney dead, they'd have just shot him like they had John. He looked at Elizabeth. "Why?" he asked. "Were there demands?"

"No." Elizabeth shook her head wearily. "No one's contacted us. We haven't heard anything." She rubbed her eyes, obviously exhausted. It ratcheted up his fear, and he saw her tiny flinch.

"Sorry," he said, and she gave him a faint smile. "How long?"

"You've been here four days," Elizabeth said, understanding what he meant. "You were badly hurt, John," she continued when his eyes widened. "Honestly…." She shook her head slightly, as if at a bad thought. "When Ronon and Teyla carried you through the gate, I thought you were dead. I'd never seen that much blood. Even after Carson operated, the Healers had to work in shifts to save you, one taking over when the other collapsed from exhaustion."

John blinked. He'd figured it was bad, but he hadn't known…. "They okay?"

Elizabeth smiled at him. "They're both in their quarters resting, but they'll be fine. Captain Olivetti thinks you'll be completely mended after two more healing sessions, but Carson insisted he take it easy for another day or so."

John lay his head back on his pillow, staring up at the ceiling. He was kind of overwhelmed. He knew what it felt like to use your Gift until you were so tired you couldn't even stand. There weren't many circumstances where he would do it willingly. "Need to thank them," he said quietly.

Elizabeth's smile widened. "There's a couple of DVDs Sgt. Johansen would like, and apparently Captain Olivetti's quite fond of a particular brand of Canadian beer. I told them you'd do what you could."

John flickered a smile back, but he didn't even try to sustain it. He assumed that since Teyla and Ronon brought him home they were okay, but he needed to ask anyhow. "My team?"

"They're fine, John," Elizabeth said, confirming what he knew. "They're off-world with Major Lorne's team right now, following a lead. They're due to check in about three hours. I'll make sure you get a radio so you can hear it."

He nodded his gratitude, knowing that Elizabeth would feel it even if he didn't say anything. That was one of the few ways her Gift was useful, as far as he was concerned. He remembered arguing with Rodney about who had the best Gift on Atlantis, and how ridiculously hurt he'd been that Rodney had thought Elizabeth's was better, even when John hated his Gift himself.

And now Rodney was gone. Taken four days ago, and God only knew what was happening to him.

"Want Conroy, Corrigan." he said. He meant he wanted them on his team, but Elizabeth nodded as if she understood.

"Sgt. Stackhouse is following up another possible lead with his team, John," she said. Corrigan, who could find anyone he'd spent more than a few minutes with provided they were within a few hundred miles, was on Stackhouse's team. "And Sgt. Conroy's agreed to join your team--Teyla suggested it." She moved her hand to cover John's, squeezed a little. "Finding Rodney is our only priority. And I promise you it will be for as long as I can manage it."

She meant until the International Oversight Advisory committee pulled the plug, but they'd find Rodney long before then, John would make certain of it. "Thank you," he whispered. He had to look away from her, to keep that tiny illusion of privacy when he knew she already knew everything.

Elizabeth just squeezed his hand again. "Rodney's important to all of us, John." There was nothing else she needed to say.

He swallowed. "I never forgave him," he said.

"I know," Elizabeth said; of course she did. She flicked one of his fingernails with her thumb, a nervous gesture that was so incongruous with what he knew of her that it almost made him smile. "I think," she said carefully, "that if you could have…felt his shame, how deeply remorseful he was, it might have been easier."

John shook his head. "Should have anyway."

"I agree," Elizabeth said simply. She sighed, rubbed his thumb with the side of hers. He wondered if she could feel how strangely comforting that was, then thought about how Rodney had taught him that: how to trust himself enough to let other people touch him. Rodney had given him everything.

"Rodney is a very complicated man," Elizabeth said. "I have to admit, there are times I've wanted to strangle him." But John could hear the fondness in her voice. "I think, however," she continued, her voice quiet and serious again, "that if my Gift has allowed me any insight into Rodney McKay at all, then it's to know how much he's driven by his own insecurities. If he's arrogant, it's because he fears that no one will recognize him if he doesn't do it himself."

"I know," John said. He turned his head so he could look at Elizabeth again.

"I know you do," she said. "But I don't think you realize how much he needs it, the acknowledgment. I think…." She paused, obviously gathering her thoughts. "I think what happened at Doranda was because he wanted us to be proud of him."

John frowned. "I'm always proud of him."

Elizabeth's smile was sad. "Then you should tell him, when we find him again."

"Yeah," John said thickly. He let his head loll until he was looking at the ceiling again. The urge to get up, to do something, was scrabbling at his spine. Four days. It had been four days and they still hadn't found Rodney. "How long 'til I can leave?" he asked.

"Carson said at least two days more," Elizabeth said. "You need more healing."

John pulled his hand away; she let him. "No," he said. He tried to sit up, and was instantly caught by a grip of pain like a vise around his lungs, emptying them until they felt like torn rags, fluttering uselessly behind his heart. He heard Elizabeth shout his name, felt her grabbing at his shoulder, his arm, trying to steady him, and he groped for her blindly, an anchor against the pain.

He didn't so much lay back as collapse, shuddering as the pain rolled back like a slow tide. He clutched at the bedrails, gasping, blinking sweat out of his eyes.

"I'll get Carson," Elizabeth said. He saw her stand out of the corner of his eye, but couldn't speak to acknowledge it.

Rodney, he thought, clenching his trembling fists at his sides. Failure, hot as blood, flooded his mouth, tasting like dirt and ashes.

Four days gone.

I'm sorry, John thought. God, Rodney. I'm so sorry.

He didn't remember falling asleep, but he was awake now, in a room he didn't recognize. He had no idea how he'd gotten there, and he didn't know where he was.

It was a nice room--large, white, with slatted doors that were opened onto a balcony and were letting in a gentle, warm breeze and lots of light. There was a heavy scent of…roses? Some kind of flower in the air, anyway. It was pleasant enough, though it made his nose itch. The bed he was lying in was big enough for at least two people, and also white, though the canopy above the four white posts was burgundy, moving light as gauze in the breeze. It matched the thick rug on the dark wood floor. In the corner there was a stand with a large bowl and pitcher next to it, with neatly-folded towels.

Rustic, floated through his mind like the canopy in the breeze, but he didn't know why he knew the word, or why he was so sure it matched the room. He wasn't really sure how he knew the room was nice, either, since he had no idea if this particular room was better or worse than any other place he might have been.

He didn't remember any other places he might have been.

He was beginning to realize he didn't remember much of anything at all.

The rush of panic that came with that sudden, unwelcome knowledge had him struggling upright in the too-soft bed, a feeling of run, go, get away! burning like acid in his stomach, but he didn't know where to go. An image of something round and blue--water?--flickered in his mind, but was lost before he could fasten on it, understand what it meant.

He didn't recognize his clothing, either--an off-white night-shirt thing, open at the neck--but the relief he felt at having something covering him other than the heavy duvet was so deep that it made him uneasy, knowing he was missing something important.

He swallowed heavily, trying to force down his terror. "Hello?" he called, voice creaking with uncertainty. "Is anyone there?" Someone hadto be there…Unless, was this his house? Did he live here alone? He had no idea. He couldn't remember.

And there came the panic again, making his heart hurt with pounding and threatening to overwhelm him. "Stop it," he muttered to himself. "Stop it! You'll figure this out. You always figure things out." He didn't know if that was true, but it felt right to say it, somehow, and that was comforting.

"I--I think I need help…!" he yelled, hoping desperately that he was making the right decision. So much of him just wanted to run, take his chances with the balcony and go until he found…Until he found something, some way that would get him back--

"Home?" he whispered. He didn't know where that was. Wasn't it here?

He got out of the bed--he had to move, do something. The burgundy rug was strangely rough under his bare feet, and he moved off it quickly, onto the wood, which was smooth and warm. He was dismayed to see that he didn't have any pants, just the shirt which fell to above his knees. He felt ridiculous in it, embarrassed, and he wondered if he always felt that way, or if he wouldn't if he could actually remember wearing the garment.

"Maybe I don't live here, then," he said. He had no idea.

He went through the doors onto the balcony, which overlooked an enormous courtyard. It was nearly perfectly round, bordered on all sides by the curving wall of the house--no, of the mansion, the place was incredible--so that it made a complete circle, enclosing the vast expanse of regimented, riotously colorful flowerbeds and a lawn that looked manicured to within an inch of its life, dotted with thick and drooping trees. The centerpiece was a huge, ornately carved fountain, pouring water down a series of ever-larger circles and billowing steam, hot enough that he could feel the faintest touch of it when the wind blew the steam in his direction. The grey stone was covered with elaborate scenes of winged beings hunting humanoid monsters, giants with claws and long, flowing hair. They didn't look particularly fearsome, but something about their dagger-toothed grins made him shudder and look away.

The border of the courtyard was lined with the plants he had thought of as 'roses', though he knew instinctively that they weren't. They were deep red, bobbing gently in the soft wind, each blossom nestled in a bed of dark green leaves. The flowers made a solid line along the circumference of the courtyard, broken only by the occasional door into the house, or archway that apparently cut right through the building, making a tunnel leading…somewhere. The house was large enough that it was impossible to see where the tunnels led, only that they opened onto the courtyard. Thick vines crawled up nearly half of the otherwise pristine-white building, framing the other balconies and the few, evenly-spaced windows, and working on taking over the orange-tiled roof in a riot of luxuriant green. He glanced around his own balcony, thinking that he could use the vines to climb down, escape through one of the tunnels, and…and….

But there were no vines over on this side, and he briefly wondered if he had been placed there on purpose, because he couldn't escape that way. The balcony was too high up to safely jump.

There was no one in the courtyard. The giant white mansion loomed over the trees and the flowers and the lawn and he might have been awed by the disciplined splendor if he'd felt any connection to it, or even knew where it was. Instead, all he felt was dwarfed by it all, overawed and terrified. It felt like he was trapped in a mural, like he was the last person left alive.

"Is anybody here?" he called out, voice rising with desperation. "Hello? HELLO! ANYBODY!"

He whirled away from the balcony, the panic which had been simmering under the surface bursting up again like a steam geyser through ice. He ran to the wide, white wooden door and grabbed the elegant, bronze-colored metal handle. He yanked it up and down, but the door was locked. Part of him wasn't even surprised.

"Maybe I locked the door," he said out loud. "Maybe this is my room, and, and I locked the door because I do that, and…and I have the key somewhere?" He turned in a circle, examining the room, looking for any place that could hold or hide a key. But the small wooden table and chair were plain--no drawers. The similarly-colored wardrobe was empty, and he couldn't find any compartments or any place that could hide a key when he ran his hands over and under them. There was nothing hidden behind the tasteful still-life (more flowers, in a bowl on a table); nothing under the heavy mattress or under the bed. And there was nothing else in the room.

"Okay, so someone locked me in here. With no memory." He ran his hands over his face, realizing absently that they were trembling. Maybe he'd thrown the key away, off the balcony. Maybe it was currently hidden among the red flowers. "But why?" he asked the air miserably, terrified. "Why would I do that?"

As if in answer, the door suddenly banged open behind him. He yelped and whirled around again, and was facing a man who fairly towered over him. For a second there was a flash of recognition--of someone who looked like that: large, young and menacing, that tattoo--and then it was gone, and he shrank back from the stranger.

The other man didn't move, as if he knew how intimidating he was. "My name is Irik," he said. His voice was a low, sonorous growl. "You are in the Daem of the Daema Sal Kor," he said, and the way he pronounced 'Daem' made it sound like something important and special. More than just the house, impressive though that was. "You are safe here, and you will not be harmed. I am the Daema's First Thrall, and she has sent me to make certain you are well."

He swallowed again, not at all reassured. Irik stayed still with one hand on the door handle, effectively blocking the only safe exit from the room. Irik was handsome, he noted distantly, though his arms and hands were badly scarred. He looked like he was in his early-twenties, maybe. Irik's eyes were dark brown and unpleasantly penetrating.

"I, um, I don't know who I am," he said, too frightened to be ashamed at how weak his voice sounded, or at how he was dressed.

To his surprise, Irik just nodded. "The Daema will give you a name," he said. He backed up, pulling the door closed as he did so. He inclined his head. "I will send her, and food and drink for you as well."

The door closed before he could say thank you, and he heard what was obviously a key turning in the lock. "I'll, uh, I'll just stay here, then," he said weakly.

He'd been too upset to think about eating, but as soon as Irik left, he realized he was thirsty and starving. He would have to wait for the food, but the ceramic pitcher next to the basin was filled with water, and there was a small ceramic cup next to it, so he supposed it wouldn't hurt to drink.

Now that his initial terror had dulled somewhat, he also realized that he was in pain--his throat hurt when he gulped down the warm water, and his chest, stomach and ribs hurt whenever he moved. Had he been in some kind of accident? Had the people here hurt him? Irik had spoken like he'd known about the lack of memory, like he'd expected it. Did that mean he'd caused it? Or had this Daema person?

"Fuck," he said, quietly but with vehemence. The word had no meaning for him, but it somehow felt appropriate to say it. He hated this. He poured another cup of water with increasingly unsteady hands, tried to concentrate on nothing but the odd mineral taste of it, how good it felt going down his throat, even though it was too warm.

He was taking another drink when the door opened again, and he was so far on edge that he startled violently, spilling most of the water over his face and down his shirt. Then he was panting, and staring at an older woman, nearly as tall as he was, dressed in a deep blue dress with sleeves so wide they brushed the hem. Her hair was nearly entirely white, and looped and folded into complicated braids and pinned high on her head. She was lovely now, and incredibly imposing, and he was sure she had once been extremely beautiful.

Her eyes were the color of the lawn outside, and she was staring back at him as if he was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen.

"Mer," she said, in a small, broken voice that sounded nothing like what he had expected she would. She was obviously on the verge of tears, and he wondered suddenly if she knew him, if she knew who he was. Maybe she'd thought he was dead.

He put the cup down carefully, then slowly wiped his face with the towel, feeling absurdly as if moving too quickly would shatter her, set her to crying for real, and he didn't think he could handle that. "Is Mer my name?" he asked. It felt…familiar, like he'd heard it before, somewhere. Maybe it was his name. He so badly wanted some point of reference to start from.

The woman kept smiling, doing nothing about the tears glistening in her eyes or running in clear trails down her cheeks every time she blinked. She stepped forward gingerly, as if as frightened of destroying the fragile quiet as he was. "Yes," she said. "It shall be your name."

Shall be, not was, and the kick of disappointment was like a boot to his chest, caving him in. The Daema will give you a name, Irik had said. So this was the Daema, whatever that meant.

He balled up the towel and threw it into the basin, drew himself up as best as he was able despite his fear and the pain and the growing, gnawing hunger that was beginning to make it hard to concentrate. "That's not my name," he said. He stalked towards her, angry. "That's not my name!" he said, more loudly, and she blinked, and then her expression darkened. "Who am I?" he demanded. "What am I doing here?"

The woman lifted her head, her eyes like green flints, her face as cold and angry as it had been lovely with joy. "Who you were doesn't matter," she said imperiously. "You are Mer, and you are here because I wish you to be." She stepped closer, and she was so tall that she only had to tilt her head up slightly to glare at him. "You are mine, just as Irik is mine. Just as all the servants in this palace are mine, just as this Daem is mine and all the people in it." Her eyes narrowed to dagger-like slits. "I am the Daema Athema Sal Kor, and you will take the name I give you or you will have none."

He blinked at her, eyes widening in furious amazement. "You, you what? You own me? That's what I'm doing here?" The idea created such a visceral horror in him that he almost gagged. "No," he said roughly. "No. You can't do that. You can't own people. I--I'm not--"

"You are Mer," she said again. She reached up with sudden, shocking viciousness and grabbed his chin, forcing his head down, and the flash of sense-memory that went with it momentarily made him freeze. "Your eyes are the wrong color," Athema said, "though they are exquisite." She sounded sad. "His were like a winter sky."

"Who?" he asked, bewildered and horrified. He wrenched his face away from her, and she slapped him so hard he staggered.

"Your skin is fair, and I know you have been treated roughly," she said. "I did not ask for that, but I will give you more if that is what you need to make you attend." She reached up again and stroked his cheek, as if trying to soothe the hurt she'd made. He jerked away from her, and she slapped him again.

"Stop it!" he grabbed her wrist, squeezing tightly enough that she sucked in a breath. His instinct was to let go--you didn't hurt women; that was ingrained so deeply it felt like part of his being, even if he had no idea who had taught it to him--but he didn't. "If you hit me again, I'll hit you back," he snarled, though it felt almost like physical pain to say it.

"You may try to defy me," Athema said, apparently completely unafraid, "but I have many servants who are stronger than you." The threat was more than clear.

He didn't drop her wrist. "Let me go," he said.

"No, Mer," she said evenly. "I will not." She smiled. "And if I did, where would you go?"

"Home," he grit out. "I'll find out where it is."

Athema laughed. "Who will tell you?" she asked. "No one here even knows."

Someone knocked at the door. "Dall is here with a meal," a man said, and he recognized Irik's voice. "May we enter?"

Athema didn't answer right away. She stared at him steadily until he released her wrist. Only then did she say, "Yes, Irik. Thank you. You may enter."

Irik pushed his way through the door, followed by a boy with a large basket of what was obviously food covered by a black cloth. He could see steam rising from it, and the smell was mouth-watering. His stomach growled.

Athema barely glanced at the boy with the basket. "Take it away," she said, and the boy had barely murmured 'Yes, my Daema' before he was gone.

"But--!" he protested. His stomach growled again. He looked wildly from Athema to Irik. "But, that was--"

"Quiet!" Irik barked, and he was startled into silence. "Do you require me, my Daema?" he asked the woman, and something about the deference in Irik's voice made his skin crawl.

"He hurt me," Athema said. She pulled back the billowing sleeve to show her slender wrist. There was a very faint redness where his fingers had been. She didn't even glance at him.

Irik looked at her wrist, then at the man who had caused it.

He couldn't help but swallow and step back. "I…I'm sorry! I just--!"

He actually saw the blow coming, but still wasn't able to move quickly enough to prevent it hitting him nearly full in the chest. He stumbled backwards as the air blasted out of his lungs, his back slamming into one of the bed posts before he sat heavily on the floor. He keeled over, trying to breathe.

"More?" Irik asked Athema.

She nodded. "Yes," she said. "But leave his face."

"As my Daema requests," Irik said, and hauled him up again.

He glanced at Athema at one point, after he'd fallen again, trying to protect his stomach. She was weeping openly, but she never looked away. Not once.

In the dream, a man was piloting the Jumper, trying to get to the gate in time to avoid the outpost's explosion. He knew he had to tell the man to be careful, not to fly in a straight line or they'd be hit by the outpost's weapon. Their little ship couldn't take even one direct hit.

But in the slow, trickling horror of dreams, he couldn't make his mouth move, couldn't even lean forward enough to get the other man's attention, to tell him, and he knew they were going to be hit and the man would die and this was all his fault because he'd promised he could do this, he'd promised and he was wrong…and even though he was trapped looking forward he knew there was a beam headed right at them and then it hit and--

The man was lying on the floor of the tavern, his jacket soaked with blood, and there was something, something he had to do or the man would would bleed to death, but no matter how hard he tried to remember, he couldn't, couldn't do anything, and the man was looking at him and he couldn't speak and he was bleeding, and he was trying so hard to save him but he didn't know what he was meant to do, and as he watched the man's eyes closed and he died--

His eyes opened wide to the cool light of early evening softening the colors of the room. The dream was already fading from vibrant, gold- and red-hued terror to faint shadows that leeched away before he could hold on to them. But his heart was thudding in his chest, and there were tears in his eyes when he blinked them.

He had failed, so completely, so catastrophically, that he knew he could never make up for it, nothing he could ever do would make it right. This wasn't something for which he could hope to be forgiven. It didn't matter that he couldn't remember what he'd done.

"Are you all right?" someone asked softly.

He gasped, rolled over onto his other side in the bed, then gasped again at how much it hurt. There was a woman sitting in the room's single chair, which she'd moved next to his bed. It looked like she'd been doing some kind of intricate needlework, but now she was just resting it on her lap, nestled in the folds of her skirt. She seemed to be about his age, and had a kind of regal beauty, with her sandy brown hair in a neat, up-combed hairstyle of some sort and light grey eyes. It made him want to scramble to a sitting position, try to make himself presentable.

"I'm sorry," she said, and he knew he probably looked wild-eyed and ridiculous from sleep. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I'm sure you're extremely sore. But you look like you've had a bad dream."

He nodded, then winced as he moved again. "Oh that hurts," he said. It felt like his body was one single block of pain. He was also so hungry he felt ill, he realized. He had no idea when he'd last eaten.

The woman nodded grimly. "Irik is very thorough, and you were already hurt. Here, let me help you." He knew by the commanding way she said it that he didn't really have a choice, so he let her push and pull him into a more-or-less seated position against the headboard, bolstered by so many pillows he half felt like he was going to suffocate.

"Who are you?" he asked warily. She talked about Irik as if she knew him, or at least what he could do, and that probably meant she could order Irik to do more of the same if he upset her. He reminded himself forcefully to be as polite and diffident as possible, but he had an odd feeling neither had ever come naturally to him.

She smiled, and it thawed the imperiousness to something much warmer and welcoming. "I am Daemene Amagy Val Kor," she said. She touched her fingers to her forehead. "Daughter of the Daema, and foremost physician in the Daem of Kor." Her smile became wry, as if they were sharing a joke. "At your service."

He swallowed. "Athema is your mother?" He unconsciously ran his hand over his belly. Even buried under the thick blanket, his newest bruises hurt at the touch.

Amagy must have seen him grimace, because she sobered again. "I'd like to take a look at you, if you don't mind."

He did. He really, really did. He was sick and in pain and the only thing he remembered was waking up in this room and not knowing anything, and then getting beat up by a giant. All he wanted to do was go back to sleep and hopefully not dream, and maybe if he were wildly, impossibly lucky, when he woke up the world would start making sense again.

He didn't even have a name, unless he counted 'Mer', the one Athema had given him.

But he looked at Amagy's expectant face, and he knew he had no more right to say he minded than he'd had to stop the Daema from having him beaten. So he sighed and nodded and asked, "What do you want me to do?"

Amagy smiled like that was the only thing she'd expected him to say, and she stood up, putting the needlework neatly on the chair and brushing off her skirts. He realized that what she was wearing wasn't a dress so much as something like an elaborate lab outfit, tailored to be almost ridiculously feminine. There were pockets everywhere on her skirt, all small and demure and embroidered with tiny flowers, as if daring anyone to guess their true purpose. "I need to take your sleep shirt off," she said, then smiled again, obviously trying to be reassuring. "But you may cover your lap with the blankets." As if that would be enough to preserve his modesty.

He closed his eyes in resignation, then tried to pull the shirt off, only to find that it hurt too much to lift his arms over his head.

Amagy watched him struggling with her lips pursed. "Oh dear," she said, then stepped forward, reaching to him. "Here, let me help you with that."

He flinched when she touched him, his body reacting to something he couldn't remember but that still sent an arc of horror crackling through him all the same. For the barest of moments there was a flicker of gold across his skin, then nothing.

Amagy yanked her hands back, blinking, then shook her head, apparently dismissing whatever they might have seen.

"I'm sorry," she said gently, and for a moment she looked genuinely sad. "You've been ill-used, haven't you?"

It wasn't a question he could answer.

Amagy looked at him for a moment, tapping her lips with a blunt-nailed finger. "I could cut the shirt off, then have Dall bring you another. Would that work?"

He thought about that for a moment. He didn't like the idea of blades near his skin, but he knew he was being ridiculous. If Amagy were going to hurt him, she would have done it by now. It wasn't as if he was in any position to stop her.

Still, the fact that she was even willing to do something to make this easier for him was…comforting. At least a little. He took a breath. "No," he said. "You just startled me. It's all right."

Amagy still hesitated, her hands hovering near his shoulder. "Are you certain?"

"Yes, yes," he said, waving a hand. "Just get on with it."

Amagy smiled. "Very well. Can you lift your arms?"

It felt like it was ripping each muscle in his torso off the bone, but he was able to manage it well enough for Amagy to deftly take the hem of his shirt and lift it over his head. As soon as his hands were free he yanked the blankets up to his waist, but Amagy wasn't looking anywhere near his groin. He had to admit he appreciated that. Instead, she was inspecting his neck and chest.

"This bruise is deep, but too old for Irik to have done it," she said musingly, as if she were speaking to herself. "Are you having trouble swallowing?"

"No," he said, though that reminded him of how hungry he was. "Can I get something to eat?" he asked.

"What?" Amagy blinked at him, and for a second he was worried that he'd angered her, and that she'd call Irik in. But she just looked confused. "Didn't my mother feed you?"

"She took it away," he said, trying to keep his own anger out of his voice.

Surprisingly, Amagy's expression darkened. "Why? Because you grabbed her wrist?"

He gave a tiny nod, wondering when Athema had told her. "Yeah," he said, then lifted his chin definitely. "She was hitting me!"

Amagy's mouth thinned, but he had no idea what her expression meant. "That doesn't surprise me," she said. She reached out and touched his face with her fingertips, it was brief but surprising for its gentleness. "I'm truly sorry," she said. "My mother is…. Well." Amagy looked away, busying herself by pulling instruments out of the myriad of pockets in her dress. "You look astonishingly like my father did, the year I was born," she said, examining her instruments. "She's been…different, since he was taken from us." She set the tools in a neat row on the bed, and picked up something that looked like a stethoscope, though he had no idea why he knew that. "I can see Irik was careful," she said matter-of-factly, though her expression was pinched with obvious disapproval. "But I don't like how large some of those bruises on your trunk are. I'm going to listen to your heart and lungs, and then I'm going to make sure there's no bleeding inside, all right?" She smiled at him, with the distant warmth of a professional doing her job. "And then we'll see about getting you something to eat."

"Fine," he sighed. He wanted to tell her how 'we' weren't going to be doing anything, but he thought of Irik and kept it in his mouth. Instead he sat quietly and answered Amagy's questions and told her exactly how badly it hurt when she pressed the huge, multi-hued bruises that covered his sides like an animal's pelt.

After what felt like hours, Amagy finally leaned back with a smile. "Excellent. I don't feel any breaks or anything moving that shouldn't be, and nothing to indicate bleeding in the body. Have you seen any redness when you let water?"

"I, uh, haven't," he said. He could feel himself blushing like the blood was boiling under his skin. "Um, seen blood. I mean."

Amagy smiled again. "Please have a servant alert me at once if you see blood, all right?"

"Sure," he said, nodding miserably. It felt like his face was on fire.

"Excellent." Amagy fairly beamed at him. "Just a few more tests, and then the food." She picked up something that looked like it might go in his ear. "I'm going to take your temperature now. Tilt your head, please."

There was a long, thick burgundy ribbon hanging next to the door. He'd thought it was for decoration, but it turned out it rang a bell somewhere which summoned a servant. The little one--Dall, apparently--came running in, breathless and panting, less than five minutes after Amagy gave it a single, sharp tug.

She'd ordered the boy to bring so much food that despite his hunger he was a little astonished at the excess of it. Dall had pushed in a cart, piled high with cloth-covered baskets, as well as a pitcher of water and a clay pot that was probably tea. Amagy had made Dall put what had to be a tablecloth over the bed, and then Dall had placed the baskets around him like a child's idea of a picnic.

He reached for the closest item, some kind of delicious-smelling meat, but stopped, uncertain. There was something about food, something that might be…dangerous? If he wasn't careful?

"What is it?" Amagy asked, noting his hesitation. "Is something wrong?"

He shook his head, bewildered by his own concern. "No, no, it's nothing." He tried to smile. "It all smells delicious." He picked up the meat and took a big bite. It really was delicious, and he was so hungry that when he swallowed his stomach hurt.

"Have some of the bread," Amagy said, pressing the basket on him. The thick, heavy-looking rolls were warm and smelled as good as the meat did. She smiled at his appetite. "Phagaros wrote that the best thing for an invalid is as much good, hearty food as possible." She took a piece of bread herself, picking daintily at it. "Please eat as much as you can, to regain your strength."

That advice didn't sound quite right, but he knew he was in no position to argue, and certainly eating as much as he could was nothing but appealing at this point. He ate the bread, which was also fantastic, then tried a different kind of meat ('chicken', his mind supplied, though he had only a vague image of a giant, yellow-feathered bird puppet to go with it, which had to be wrong), and that was delicious as well.

"God, your cook is amazing," he groaned happily around a mouthful. He swiped some juice off his chin, then smiled sheepishly at Amagy when she handed him a cloth.

She was looking at him a little oddly, though, and instantly his guts soured, clamping down around the food. "What?" he asked, then swallowed heavily, imagining Irik coming in again.

"Oh!" Amagy exclaimed, blinking as if she just realized she'd been staring. "I'm sorry, truly. Please don't concern yourself. It's just that…." She trailed off, as if trying to search for the right word. He watched her guardedly as he took another mouthful of bread.

She poured him a cup of water, which seemed somehow automatic, as if she were looking for things to do with her hands. He took it gratefully anyway, thirstier than he'd thought. The water was too-warm again, with the same mineral flavor, but he could see himself getting a taste for it. And then he was appalled to be thinking that.

Amagy poured some water for herself, then let out a big, gusting sigh. "You look so much like my father," she said simply, staring down into the cup. "He had crossed thirty-two summers when I was born, and died twenty-six summers later." She smiled sadly, still looking at the water in her cup. "He had gone through the traveling water, when the Wraith came. Irik--he'd fifteen summers at most, then, my parents had just bought him--said my father had hidden him and the innkeeper's daughters in the cellar of the inn they were staying at, then gone upstairs to attract the monsters' attention." She shook her head, as if she still couldn't believe what had happened. "He was the Daemor. Irik should have been protecting him, but apparently Merrin ordered Irik to look after the girls instead. So he did."

She blinked, then wiped her eyes carefully with a forefinger, and he realized abruptly that she was crying. She drew in a deep, gusty breath. "He was taken, of course." She shook her head. "But none of that is pertinent." But she still wouldn't look at him.

"My father took me to the thralltakers once, when I was a young woman. And the sleeper merchants were there," Amagy said, making him blink and look at her, because this didn't seem to have anything to do with what she'd just told him. But he could guess what she was talking about, even if he didn't know for certain.

"Where you buy people," he said bitterly.

"Yes." Amagy nodded. She shuddered, as if at a bad memory. "I hated that place. The market itself was horrible, but the merchants…." She made a face, then sipped her water as if trying to clear a bad taste out of her mouth. "There was one especially. He was a vile, unctuous man, with a pleasant smile that just meant he was about to stab you in the back. And his wife was a pudgy, disagreeable woman who seemed to hate everyone. And all the poor people there, spread out on blankets in front of their carts, fast asleep during the heat of the day, and nothing you did would wake them."

He swallowed, the food he'd just eaten churning unpleasantly in his stomach. "She bought me there," he said.

Amagy nodded. "They had all been taken--from their homelands, I guess, other places through the traveling water. But it didn't matter, since they never remembered." She pursed her lips for a moment, before continuing. "And Merrin held my shoulder when I would have run from that awful place, and he told me that since they had already been emptied, it was all we could do to fill them up again." She smiled proudly. "We couldn't restore their memories, couldn't send them back to their homes, so we had to give them a new home. It was up to us to take them in and give them as good a life as possible."

He looked at her, suddenly angry. "As slaves?" he asked, incredulous. He rubbed his stomach again. Amagy had helped him back into his night shirt, but he still knew exactly where the bruises were.

Amagy hesitated, looking at him. Then she nodded. "As thralls, yes." She took his wrist, gently but beseeching. "You yourself have suffered as they have. They have taken who you were--what future do you have now, other than here?"

He yanked his arm away, and she let him. "I could try to find my way home!" he shouted. "I could..! I--"

He closed his mouth, then sat there, stunned. "I don't remember my home," he said at last. "I don't…."

All he remembered was failure. The rest spread out around him like the space between the stars: nothing but emptiness. Nothing.

"Oh my God," he whispered, blinking at the room he didn't know. They used gas lanterns; someone had lit them while he was asleep. He hadn't noticed. "Oh my God. I, I'm nothing…."

He didn't realize he was crying--weeping--until he felt Amagy's arms come around him and he clutched at her back, sobbing into her shoulder. He was trying to say, 'I'm nothing, I'm nothing', over and over, but he didn't have enough breath to speak.

"Shh," Amagy whispered. He felt her strong hands patting his back, stroking the side of his face, carding his hair like a mother would. "Shh. It's all right. You're here now. This is your home. You'll have a good life here, Mer. I promise. I promise. I promise."

Amagy stormed down the corridor, hands fisted at her sides. She was walking so fast she nearly bowled over poor Dall on his way to Mer's bedchamber. He wasn't carrying a basket of food, so that meant it was time for the daily airing of the bedlinnen. Mer would doubtless be happy to have an excuse to stand.

Amagy bit out a curt apology to the boy, then felt badly for her rudeness. Of course her mother, the exalted Daema Athema Sal Kor, would have been in her rights to have the boy beaten for his clumsiness. And Athema might have actually done so, if she were in a dark enough mood. Amagy supposed that counted for something--that she wasn't like her mother. At least not enough to have a child beaten for nothing.

She realized she was clenching her jaw so hard it had begun to hurt, so she forced herself to relax, slow her pace. Raging like a fool would do no good here, and Phagaros devoted entire treatises to the connection between physical health and the state of the mind. There was much proof that illness was caused by a surfeit of negative emotion.

Mer will likely fall ill, Amagy thought grimly as she descended a stairwell. She also made a mental note to make sure there was enough of the bitter flower tea in the cellar, since Mer still needed it for pain and swelling, even days after Irik had thrashed him. At least she had made certain he had drunk two cups of it before she left. Amagy had always thought it was helpful to restore the spirit, as well, and Mer was in dire need of that.

She should have stayed with him longer--he constantly told her he was bored and lonely, and he was obviously crestfallen when she left, though he tried to hide it. A good physician didn't abandon her patients because it didn't suit her to stay with them, but Amagy had been too angry for too long to suppress it anymore, and the last thing the poor man needed was her inflicting her mood on him.

Amagy descended another set of stairs, this one leading to the catacombs beneath the palace. Her Sanctum was here. It used to be her father's, once upon a time. Athema had wanted to seal the rooms up after Merrin had been taken by the Wraith, but Amagy had insisted that she be allowed to use them, to honor her father's memory.

Now the first room was filled with her father's books on horticulture, art, and music, with the papers he was working on when he died neatly stacked and shelved. The second room had become Amagy's own study, where she kept Phagaros' twelve-volume series on physic and as many other books, pamphlets and parchments on healing as she had been able to find. It was also here where she made her own poultices, teas, and medicines. Above-ground was a small garden devoted to medicinal plants and herbs.

Amagy pushed open the heavy wooden door, feeling herself calming already just from entering the place. Her Sanctum was the only part of the palace where Athema had consented to let Amagy put in electric lights. A small generator chugged away contentedly in the corner, running on steam piped in via the fountain.

The lights were on, which meant that Kestine was there. Amagy found herself grinning in delight as she stepped into the room, fury at her mother temporarily forgotten.

Kestine was tending the seedlings. She looked up when the door opened, wary surprise changing almost instantly to genuine happiness as she saw Amagy enter.

"You're back early!" Kestine exclaimed, grinning.

The only reply Amagy made was to take Kestine's head between her hands and kiss her soundly on the mouth. She heard Kestine's contented sigh as her mouth opened. Kestine was as careful in this as she was in all things, tempering Amagy's restless haste until the kiss became languid, tongues nudging and sliding together with gentle insistence.

"Ah, I missed you, Kessy," Amagy said, heartfelt, when they finally broke apart. She'd last seen the woman just hours ago, but today it felt like years. Kestine was taller, so Amagy leaned her head on the other woman's shoulder, breathing in the clean scent of the earth Kestine had been working with, and the sweetness of the woman herself. "I think I'll take you on all my physic visits every day from now on."

Kestine kissed the top of her head, then gently moved away. She hadn't touched Amagy with her hands--her gardening gloves were covered in dirt. "And how miserable you'd be when all these telora seeds died from inattention! It would take months to cultivate them again."

"Don't burden me with truths, Kessy," Amagy said, but she sighed and reluctantly turned her attention to the small tray of seedlings. She gently touched one curling leaf and smiled. "You're doing an excellent job, as usual. Father trained you exceedingly well."

Kestine smiled at the compliment, then carefully pulled off her gloves. Kestine's skin was dark, and she kept her hair in short, tight curls. Amagy had always thought she was one of the most beautiful women she had ever seen. Even when Merrin had first brought Kestine home from the sleeper merchants, when Kestine was barely older than Amagy herself at twelve, and nameless and terrified. Even then Amagy had thought she was as regal as any Daema.

Thinking of Kestine's origins made her think of Mer, and Amagy felt her mood darkening again. "It is becoming increasingly difficult to hide my rage at what Athema's done, she said."

She heard Kestine let out a soft sigh. "I know," she said softly. She put her hand on Amagy's back, at the base of her spine. "But it's not healthy, this anger."

Amagy nodded, grateful as usual for Kestine's sympathy and bluntness. "I realize that," she said, working to keep her voice level, not to snap at Kestine for being honest. "But I cannot abide it. She promised my father that we would never buy a thrall from the sleeper merchants again. Irik was meant to be the last. But she did," Amagy spat venomously. "It's as if Merrin's words meant nothing!"

She saw Kestine nod out of the corner of her eye. "Years can dull promises, Ama," she said. She tucked a loose strand of Amagy's hair behind her ear. "It's still possible she thought he needed saving. You know your father would have bought everyone, every time he went to the market." Kestine smiled, with fondness and sadness both. "He had such a big heart."

"I don't know," Amagy said. She looked at Kestine, suddenly feeling anxious. "You haven't seen him yet, have you?"

Kestine shook her head, her night-colored eyes big and curious. "Not yet. I've been practically living down here, watching the telora. I've barely seen you, let alone the thrall. Why?"

Amagy pursed her lips. "I told you how he looks like Merrin did when I was born, yes? How complete the resemblance to my father's portraits. The thrall's eyes are the wrong color, and he's thinner, I think. But the resemblance is uncanny, otherwise. There's no question that's why my mother bought him."

Kestine nodded. "It is quite the coincidence, that," she said.

Amagy nodded also. "It's been days since she brought him here, and I still can't tell you how much it enrages me--that she broke her promise to my father to get this empty copy of him, when knowing she went back to the sleeper merchants would have broken his heart…!" She stopped herself before she did something stupid, like push the tray of fragile seedlings onto the dirt floor. Athema destroyed things when she was angry; Amagy prided herself on emulating her father's calm.

"Worse, is that Athema's already set Irik on him," she said softly.

She heard Kestine make a sound of sympathetic dismay, then looked at Amagy. "If she's looking for a substitute for Merrin, she'll go hard on him."

Amagy nodded unhappily. "I fear as much."

They were silent for a little after that. Amagy helped Kestine put the cultivation tools away, working in amicable quiet.

Eventually, Kestine cleared her throat. "You know," she said with deliberate care, "I have friends who might…be able to help him."

It was impossible not to know what Kestine was talking about. Amagy gasped, looked at her sharply. "I told you never to mention that here! You could be hanged for treason!"

Kestine took her hand, smiling. "The only ones to hear us here are you and the plants, and I doubt either will tell the Daema or the Daemguard of my transgression." Her smile fell away. "I am serious. We can get him out."

We can get him out. The implications were staggering, and Amagy almost stepped away from Kestine, as if that slight distance could somehow keep her from having to know about it. "It's too dangerous," she said quickly. "You'll be tortured and killed if you're caught."

Kestine smiled gently. "There are ways not to be caught."

"No." Amagy shook her head fiercely. "No, I won't hear of it. You are not going to risk your life needlessly, you understand?"

She heard Kestine sigh. "How else can we help him, Ama?"

Amagy closed her eyes, feeling like she had to physically push aside the memory of the thrall weeping on her shoulder when they met, his miserable eyes now when she left him alone yet again. She feard his restlessness would make him abandon his bed too soon, prevent him from healing. "It's not even just what might happen to you, Kestine. It's my mother," she said, because she couldn't put that aside either, no more than she could her fury. For so long Athema's sorrow had been like a ghost in their palace, haunting every room. Amagy took a breath. "You know Athema's been as fragile as these telora since my father was taken. If this…If this man can bring her some comfort, some peace, how can I deny her that?" She gripped Kestine's hand. "He's already been emptied. We can't change that. At least here he can have a home."

"Where Irik beats him because the Daema is trying to have her husband back?" Kestine asked. The casualness of her tone was belied by the flash in her eyes.

Amagy stared steadily back. "I'll make sure Irik doesn't hurt him again."

Kestine's eyebrows rose. "How? He waits on your mother's breath like a dog."

Amagy winced inwardly. Kestine's depiction was painfully apt. "He feels he owes her for not being taken instead of Merrin. But he still listens to me."

Kestine looked away. "I hope so," she said. "I can still remember the kiss of Gola's hands, and he was a sapling compared to your mother's giant."

Kestine was angry now. Amagy could tell by the stiff set of her shoulders, how she avoided Amagy's eyes. "Merrin protected you from Gola then," Amagy said. "Just as I'll protect Mer now."

"If you can," was all that Kestine said, but she gave Amagy a tiny smile anyway, which Amagy was grateful for. But then she blinked. "You call him 'Mer'? Did your mother name him?"

Amagy nodded. 'Mer' had been her father's pet name. Athema had given it to him. "I don't like it either," she said. She exhaled. "But my mother needs this, Kessy."

"What she needs is to move on," Kestine said, voice sharp. "And you know it."

"She will," Amagy said. "She just needs time."

"It's been six years," Kestine said. "And now she has a thrall who looks just like him."

"It will help," Amagy said, but she didn't need to look at Kestine to know that neither of them believed it.

JaegerKorps Sergeant Anders Johansen gritted his teeth in concentration as he healed Sgt. Blair Kaufman in the relative coolness on the shade near the entrance to the temple. He'd just finished knitting the crack in Blair's third cervical vertebra, and hopefully he'd have the strength to finish reducing the swelling from the concussion so they could carry Blair to the gate and all get back to Atlantis in one piece.

"Rattle your dags, mate," Gordon Sparks urged him, not for the first time. Anders had no idea what that meant, but he assumed that Gordon wanted him to hurry.

Anders ignored him, because he didn't have the energy to speak and heal Blair as well.

"Boom-Boom's going to be fine, Sparky," Aiden reassured Gordon. He was standing guard over them while the priests glared from the temple entrance. Anders had risked looking at the priests once, and the absolute indifference in their eyes had made his blood go cold.

He wanted to get off this planet, too. Badly. But he needed to heal Blair first. The Sergeant could end up brain-damaged if he didn't.

"Boom-Boom looks piss awful," Gordon said mournfully. "You sure he'll be all right?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Anders saw that two of Gordon's lights were darting like colored fish above his head.

"Sparky!" Aiden hissed. "Lights out!"

The glow in Ander's peripheral vision disappeared as Gordon immediately obeyed.

Anders barely noticed, his attention on his healing. It was lucky Blair had a thick skull. Anyone else would have had his brains caved in, as hard as that priest had swung Blair into the pitted stone wall.

The so-called priests of this miserable, crumbling excuse for a temple seemed to have been chosen for their size and hostility, rather than for religious dedication, and the smallest of them could look Anders directly in the eye. The people in the nearby village gave were terrified of them.

They priests all knew nothing. It made sense--the kidnappers had used a photograph, much too sophisticated for a little nowhere place like this. But Dr. Weir insisted they follow every lead, so Ford's team was here because one of their contacts thought he'd seen a man in black leather dialing this gate. It was the sixth address they'd checked today. A few minutes more and they would have been safe back at home.

They had been just about to leave, when one of the priests had walked up to Gordon and tugged a hank of his red hair, apparently wanting to see if it was real. Blair had knocked the priest's hand away.

The scarlet-robed troll snatched Blair up so quickly he barely had time for a startled yell before the back of his head hit the stone.

"He's going to be fine, Sparky," Aiden said. Being a good leader, Anders knew. "Here," Aiden told Gordon. "Give him these."

By the crinkly sound of the packaging, Anders knew that Aiden had handed over glucose tablets. He swallowed them absently when Gordon slipped them, one after the other, past his lips. He barely registered the bitter flavor as he continued the healing. His hands were shaking--a bad sign--and he was blinking sweat out of his eyes.

"Boom-Boom's going to cark it, isn't he?" Sparky asked after another moment of blessed silence. Anders didn't even try to answer him. Sparky had a tendency to babble in New Zealand slang when he was very upset. Anders had learned to mostly tune it out when he had to.

"He's going to be fine," Aiden said again, mollifyingly. Anders felt, more than saw Aiden crouching down next to him. "I don't like how they're looking at us, Andy," he said quietly. "I think they're starting to wonder what we're doing."

"Tell them I'm praying," Anders snapped. "Tell them I'm begging our God not to let our friend die."

Aiden snorted, but then his voice was serious. "I'd like to get back to Atlantis sooner rather than later. Is Boom-Boom okay to be moved? You can finish healing him once we get back."

Anders sighed. "Give me a minute." He closed his eyes and felt Blair's injury. The crack in his vertebra wasn't healed, but he had made sure it wouldn't get worse. He or Captain Olivetti could finish the job back in Atlantis. Bone was always the most difficult. Mending the damage to the nerves in Blair's spinal cord had been easier, and that was finished.

It was a bad skull fracture, though--it reminded Anders of the blow Rodney McKay had taken when then-Corporal Conroy attacked him a year ago. McKay's concussion had taken two days of exhaustive effort to heal, and Anders didn't have nearly that much time now, or the energy. But Blair was at least stable enough to move. Reluctantly, Anders pulled back, flexing his aching fingers. He hated to leave a healing unfinished, but he knew his Gift was appallingly slow.

"Okay," he nodded. He rocked back from his crouch and sat flat on the ground, abruptly woozy.

"Here." Gordon tore open a Power bar and handed it to him. "You look knackered as hell. Eat it before you chunder on your boots."

Anders took the Power bar mechanically and bit into it. "We'll need a stretcher of some kind," he told Aiden around a mouthful.

The Lieutenant frowned in thought for a moment. "Okay. Sparky and I will find something. You stay here and guard Boom-Boom, in case I'm right and those priests are going to decide that we're all offensive to their God or something."

"Yes, sir." Anders took out his pistol and laid it across his lap at the ready. He took another bite of the Power bar and chewed doggedly. Apple cinnamon. He hated that flavor. One of the infirmary nurses had brought him lingonberry jam once as a joke. He wished he had some now.

He wiped the sweat from his forehead as Aiden and Gordon walked down the dusty road toward the village alehouse.

He glanced down at Blair's pale face. It was inevitable that people would be getting hurt or wounded like this during the search, and part of him was sure this was just the beginning. He hoped one of the teams found Dr. McKay soon.

The baths for the servants and thralls were more-or-less communal, and dug into the lowest floor of the palace. They were fed by the hot springs that abounded in the Daem, which explained why the water was so warm all the time. They also felt amazing, and he had never been so grateful for anything as he was for the small block of floral-scented soap, and the help of the impossibly formal manservant who shaved him.

After taking him back to his room, the little one, Dall, disappeared for an hour. When he returned he was pushing the same cart that the boy brought the meals in on, this time loaded with more pants, shirts, and underwear than he thought he could reasonably wear in a lifetime. Dall left blowing air like a bellows. There were two pairs of boots on the lower tray of the cart as well, one for what would probably be formal events, the other for walking, perhaps. They were dark brown and sturdy and something about them made his guts clench up with a bolt of recognition that disappeared as soon as he reached for it, but he knew, somehow, that he normally wore boots like the brown ones far more often than the sleek, shiny black.

Someone he knew wore black boots. The knowledge was useless and it made him inexplicably sad.

The underwear made him think, Tighty-whities! which was unaccountably hilarious, but he put them on anyway. He relished the feeling of being fully covered for the first time in far too long. The pants were too rough against his skin and he was sure he'd chafe, but he liked the array of somber colors. He chose dark grey first.

The shirts were either like tunics, with open necks, or more sober with button-down fronts. He pushed aside all the browns, reds and grays immediately, not even questioning why he only wanted the black and the blue. He ended up taking a black tunic-style shirt.

It was much more comfortable than the pants, and he smiled when he slipped it over his head. And then he looked down and saw it on his body, and was suddenly hit with a bolt of grief and terror like one of Irik's fists, so hard and so unexpected that he was sitting on his bed, bent over and crying before he could even fully register what had happened.

"Oh my God," he gasped between sobs. "Stop, stop it. What's wrong with me?"

He's dead. It was like an indisputable fact, sharp and hot as a burning needle in his mind, though his heart, and when he looked at his hands for a moment he thought there was blood on them, that they were drenched in blood, and John was dead, dead, and he'd failed….

He heard the door bang open and he jumped badly, then registered that it was Athema and a new surge of fear overlaid what was already surging through his guts. He sniffled like a child, trying furiously to wipe his eyes and wishing he had one of the towels. He thought about going to the basin to wash his face, but he was worried he'd scare her if he moved too fast, and Irik was right behind her, looming in the doorway.

"Shh, shh," Athema said. She sat beside him, pulling him to her the way Amagy had, and abruptly he was so ashamed of his constant blubbering that it was enough to calm him down.

"I'm sorry," he said quickly. He didn't know what to do with his arms, worried that if he hugged her back she'd see it as a threat, that if he didn't she'd take it as an insult. He settled for putting his palms against her hips. She didn't seem to mind. "I'm just…." He trailed off. He didn't know what he was, what had happened.

"It's fine, Mer," she said, rubbing his back. She had her other hand on his head, pressing him gently to her shoulder. "It's just fine. You cry it out, now. Take as long as you need."

"Okay," he said softly. He took a few deep breaths until he was sure he was truly under control, then straightened, relieved when Athema let him. "Thank you," he said, being sure not to offend her.

"My pleasure, Mer," she said. She ran the back of her hand down one of his cheeks, then cupped the sides of his face and smoothed the tears away with her thumbs. She smiled at him so gently it was hard to reconcile her with the woman who had slapped him for refusing a name, but it was impossible not to notice Irik. "I know this must be overwhelming at times, but every day you're becoming used to your new life, and I know you'll be happy."

Amagy had said almost the same thing. He nodded, because what else could he do? Then stood and went to the wash basin. He wet a cloth and wiped his eyes and face. It did make him feel a little better.

"There you are," Athema said, smiling brightly, and he carefully didn't bristle at being condescended to. She took his head in his hands again and kissed him on the lips, and he was so astounded that he froze completely.

Athema stepped back, frowning. "What is it?" she asked, as if he should have expected nothing less than that.

He swallowed. He hadn't expected this. He should have, he realized. He already knew he looked like Merrin, Athema's dead husband. He already knew that he had been bought because of it, as a kind or replacement. He knew that was why she had chosen Mer as his name.

But he hadn't expected her to kiss him, somehow. He hadn't even thought about it, or how she'd of course expect him to kiss her back.

And Irik was right there in the doorway, regarding him calmly. Waiting.

He forced a smile, fearing that it did nothing to disguise the sickened pounding of his heart. "Nothing!" he said, too quickly. "Really! I just, I just didn't expect it. It was nice! Really!" He lurched forward, thinking to return the kiss she gave him. Athema was lovely, even if she was probably twenty years older than he was. But the idea of being intimate with her in any way at all made his stomach roil.

She ducked gracefully under his fumbling lips, and smilingly put her fingers over his mouth. "I appreciate your desire, Mer," she said sweetly, and his stomach lurched again. "But there is much I wish to show you today." She caressed his face as she pulled her fingers away. "But you can give my kiss back later." Her smile widened, and her nose crinkled prettily. "You look very handsome in your new clothes. I was right to pick the dark colors."

"Yes," he said, pulling back gratefully. "I mean, thank you. I like them. A lot." He didn't really--he didn't think that he thought all that much about clothing--but he knew better than to say anything else. He just wished he'd had time to take off the black shirt. He never wanted to wear it again.

"Of course," she said. She flounced back like a girl, then turned to Irik. "Have someone come to arrange Mer's clothing in his new chamber, then meet us in the greenhouse." She turned back to smile at him. "I'm going to show Mer something wonderful."

Irik nodded and went to pull the long ribbon at the back of the room.

"Come, Mer," Athema said, and took his hand.

He followed her, something close to dread twisting inside him.

He wondered how long it would take before he finally started to think of himself as 'Mer', instead of just answering to it.

"This is my greenhouse," Athema said proudly as he followed her in. She smiled warmly at him, still holding his hand. His hand was hot. He hoped he wasn't sweating too much, since he didn't think she'd like that, but it had felt like he'd been walking through a bright green oven the second he stepped out of the much cooler palace. He was beginning to think that maybe he didn't really like being outside.

"Merrin loved it here," Athema continued. She gestured at the rows upon rows of flowers, viciously bright under the sunlight glaring through the glass. "His greatest delight was perfecting new strains of plants." Her smile became wistful and sad. "Our Daem was the envy of all the Daemlands, because of his talent. It was his greatest joy."

He nodded dully. He still had no idea who he was or where he'd come from, but he had a sinking feeling he knew nothing about plants and had never cared to. "That's…that sounds nice," he said weakly.

Athema smiled with genuine happiness and squeezed his hand. "I'm sure you'll love it as much as he did," she said. She turned to Irik. "Where is Riatta?"

"Coming from the house," Irik said. He always knew where everyone was; it was intimidating. "She's bringing the new bulbs."

"Oh, excellent!" Athema clapped her hands in delight. She turned back to him. "You can start breeding them in just a few weeks. Riatta will help you." Her voice lowered a little, as if she were sharing a secret. "She's indentured, quite intelligent for a servant--her family has served mine for generations. Merrin wouldn't so much as put a seed in the ground without her help."

He made himself smile. "That's, ah, good to know."

Athema grinned back at him dazzlingly, and just then another woman pushed her way through the large glass door, her arms full of a box of plants. She was slender and pale with red hair.

"Do I know you?" he blurted, the sense of recognition so startling that he didn't even think. "From Before, I mean? You look--" And then he registered the silence around them, how the Daema Kor's face had blanched with shock and horror. Irik glowered over her shoulder, as if his words had somehow done Athema physical harm.

His mouth opened and closed a few times, wordlessly, trying to figure out what exactly he'd said that was so awful and how to fix it. And then the woman who was obviously Riatta saved him. She laughed a little nervously and said, "Of course not! How silly! Our lives before our service in Daema Kor's household are meaningless."

He nodded rapidly, taking the out for what it was and almost numb with gratitude for it. "Of course, you're right. How silly of me." He automatically went to take Riatta's burden when she walked towards the nearest table, but his hands were shaking with the stab of adrenaline and he would have dropped the box if Irik hadn't grabbed it and lifted it easily away from them both.

"Where do you want it?" he asked.

"Over by the window, thank you," Riatta said, pointing. Then she turned to Athema and lightly touched her fingertips to her forehead, reminding him of Amagy. "Forgive me, my Daema, for not greeting you immediately. It is my pleasure to welcome you to my workplace."

Athema smiled at Riatta and inclined her head with an air of indulgence. "Thank you, Riatta." She straightened. "I'm sure you won't mind showing Mer everything he needs to know."

"Of course not, my Daema," Riatta said. She inclined her head much more deeply than Athema had.

Athema turned away from her. She put her hands on either side of his face, then drew him down for a kiss. This one was far more than the brief touch of lips she'd given him in his room. This one was lush and lingering and full of certainty. "I will see you for dinner, Mer," she said, and the teasing implication in her words and the lilt of her mouth made his skin crawl.

He didn't want her. He didn't want her at all. But there was no choice, not if he didn't want to get hurt again.

Athema trailed her hand from his face and turned away. She gestured for Irik, who glanced back once before he followed her, as if to let them both know he was watching.

Riatta let out a huge breath, then wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. Her hands were clothed in thick gardening gloves. "I hate that man," she said. She smiled sheepishly. "I know it's unfair, but he scares me foolish. It's the way he looms like that, like any second he'll leap on me and tear me limb from limb."

He could only nod in mute agreement.

"So, you are Mer," Riatta said. She smiled at him, and her face was so sweet and friendly that he couldn't help smiling back. "All the servants know about you, you know. The Daema hasn't been so happy since before the Daemor was taken."

His face fell, looking at all the plants. "She wants me to…do things here. With the plants," he said miserably. "I don't think I know anything about flowers."

Riatta's face clouded with concern for a moment, then she brightened. "Well, I do! Come." She put her hand on his arm, and it felt like a friend guiding a friend, none of the Daema's imperiousness. "We'll start with the bulbs--these were the Daemor's favorites." She smiled at him again. "I'll show you everything. You'll be as good as he was in no time, you'll see."

Somehow her gentle optimism made her as familiar to him as the red of her hair, but this time he knew better than to say it.

USMC Sergeant Albert Conroy followed Colonel Sheppard's gurney at a trot, helping the orderlies move it around corners but otherwise trying to stay out of the way. He was breathing hard, pushing sweat out of his eyes and feeling kind of sick. He'd have to get something to eat soon, before he embarrassed himself by passing out in the hallway.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said. "I tried as hard as I could to find Elia by her thoughts, but she changed so fast. It wasn't really Elia anymore at the end there, sir." It was almost impossible for him to read Wraith minds as it was--that was Ms. Teyla's Gift, not his--but Al didn't bother to mention that. He'd already said so back on the planet, when Sheppard had told him to find Elia after she'd started mutating and ran off. Sheppard had just told him to try harder.

"Don't worry about it, Sergeant," Sheppard said. "Not your fault. I don't blame you." But Al could read Sheppard's thoughts too easily to believe that. Since the end of the Wraith Seige, after Al had been linked to both of their minds for hours while they all worked to shield Atlantis, it had become especially difficult to screen out Colonel Sheppard or Dr. McKay. With the rest of the expedition, it was pretty easy to mute their thoughts to a background hum these days. But the Colonel and Dr. McKay's thoughts had become...especially loud and distinct to him, and Al had to work very hard not to read them all the time.

He didn't want to. Hell, he didn't want to.

But Al was tired, and pushing Sheppard's thoughts away, especially when he was so close to him, would take more energy than Al had. So he knew damn well that the Colonel blamed him all right. Should've figured he couldn't deliver. We could have both been killed. Just glad Ronon was there. I wish Conroy would shut up his whining and stop making excuses. It doesn't change anything.

Al pressed his lips together firmly and stared at the bright red blood washing down Colonel Sheppard's arm, soaking into the fabric of his uniform. Al wasn't making excuses, he'd been explaining. This wasn't trying to wheedle out of his responsibility, he'd been telling the truth.

He almost said it out loud, then remembered that Sheppard hadn't actually told him to shut up, and would surely be pissed as hell to know Al was reading his mind. Instead he clenched his jaw tighter and kept his mouth closed.

Al knew excuses didn't change anything. He'd learned that the hard way from his Mama's fists.

He stopped short at the doors to the infirmary at a signal from Ronon Dex, then had to blink a few times when the corridor spun a bit. It had been Dex who'd saved them with his quick reflexes and firepower. And he'd disobeyed the Colonel's order and left Ms.Teyla behind by herself. With a head wound. Al would never forgive himself for not keeping her from getting hurt. Not ever.

He peered anxiously at the infirmary doors. Ms. Teyla'd been awful woozy. He hoped she'd be okay. Dr. Beckett didn't seem too worried, but a concussion could easily become serious....

"Come on," Dex touched Al on the shoulder. Al thought he might've phased out for a moment, since he didn't remember Dex suddenly being next to him. Dex didn't blame him for anything. He blamed the Wraith. "It'll be a while before they can get to our post-mission exams," Dex told him. "Weir will want a report." Dex studied him for a couple seconds, his expression unreadable. "You all right?"

Al squared his shoulders and nodded. He and Dex were the only ones unwounded and able to tell Dr. Weir what had happened. And Al knew he'd be shouldering the responsibility for how the mission had gone FUBAR. He flashed on the memory of Colonel Sheppard's bright red blood, Ms. Teyla's pained face. His fault. It didn't matter why he'd messed up. Excuses didn't change anything.

Al took two steps back the way they'd come, and then would have crashed to his knees if Dex hadn't grabbed one of his arms.

"Whoa," he said weakly, swaying against Dex. He tried to get his feet under him, but his legs didn't seem to want to hold him up anymore.

"Looked like you were going to fall over," Dex said. He unceremoniously threw Al over his shoulder. "You better not throw up on me," he added with casual menace.

"No, sir," Al agreed, swallowing down the bile pressing on the back of his throat. He closed his eyes as Dex kicked the infirmary doors open, partially because he was really dizzy, but mostly so he wouldn't have to look at anyone watching Dex hefting him like a skinny sack of grain. He took a breath. "Sorry."

"Don't worry about it," Dex said, before the world heaved and swooped as Al was swung down onto a cot. "I'll tell Elizabeth you fainted."

"Thanks," Al whispered, not bothering to open his eyes. He could hear the teasing in Dex's voice, and smiled his gratitude for it. The 'Elizabeth' instead of Dr. Weir was interesting, but Al was too tired to figure out what it meant, and whatever he was getting from Dex was indistinct and muddy next to everyone else in the infirmary anyway.

"Why do so few of you Gifted ever eat properly?" That was Keller's voice, the new physician, and Al felt guilty for her weary concern.

"Sorry," he said.

Somewhere near him, Sheppard snorted. "You get that from him a lot."

Oh, no. Carson Beckett took a deep breath. Don't panic, now. You've been wrong before.

He refocused his Gift on Colonel Sheppard while Nurse Singh cleaned the blood off the Colonel's arm with a disinfectant wipe.

There was no wound. Dear Lord, it was worse than he'd feared.

"Colonel, are you sure this is where Elia wounded you?" Carson asked, his voice calm only through force of will.

Sheppard looked confused, peering down at his own unblemished skin. "I'm pretty sure. That's what it felt like at the time, anyway. Maybe she didn't break the skin?" Sheppard's eyebrows rose, as if he didn't believe his own supposition.

"And all the blood?" Carson inquired mildly. He turned to the nurse, "Datia, lass, would you be a luv and save all those wipes? I'd like to take that blood into my lab for testing."

"Elia's blood?" Sheppard asked, hopefully. "I feel fine, Doc. If I'm not actually hurt, maybe you can let me outta--"

"What is it, Carson?" Dr. Weir's anxious voice cut across the Colonel's. He hadn't noticed, but she'd obviously come in for a status report while he was occupied with Sheppard. Her hand rested on Carson's forearm and squeezed it lightly. She'd sensed his distress, then. There was nothing for it but to relay his fears, even though he would have liked some tests to back him up.

"Before I discharge you, Colonel, there's something I'd like to discuss with you and Dr. Weir. In my office, if you don't mind." In private was what he didn't say, but he saw that Sheppard and Weir both understood by their sober nods.

When they all stood in his office, Weir with worry in her eyes and Sheppard taking stoicism to new heights, Carson just blurted it out. "It looks like you've been infected with the iratus bug retrovirus, Colonel. The one we were working on to turn Elia into a human."

"You mean the one that didn't turn her into a human," Sheppard said.

Carson felt himself flush hot. "Elia administered the treatment prematurely. It wasn't ready, it wasn't even supposed to be--"

"Hey, settle down," Sheppard said, slouching against the edge of Carson's desk. "I'm not blaming you, Doc."

Carson scowled at him. No, you're just deflecting attention because you're scared. He sighed. The Colonel had good reason to be frightened. "You're right," Carson admitted. "The transformation was into a creature closer to the iratus bug than to a human."

"How did…." Weir paused, gathering her thoughts. "I mean, Elia was a Wraith, and she took a massive dose of the retrovirus," she said. "How did Colonel Sheppard get infected? And how will his system respond to the drug?

"You must understand, Doctor Weir, the retrovirus was never engineered to be given to a human." Carson started, trying to explain. "It was never intended--"

"Doc!" John interrupted. "Just tell me the worst-case scenario."

Carson took a breath. "I saw something with my Gift," he said flatly. "The retrovirus should be breaking down in your system, Colonel. It's not. In fact, it's beginning to alter your DNA. I don't know how or why, and I have no idea how your body will react. I can't even begin to guess."

"Well, if how I feel is any indication, I'm fine." John straightened.

Carson shook his head. "It should be already breaking down in your system," he repeated, "but the wound on your arm healed unnaturally fast, and I can see the changes in your DNA already, Colonel. For all we know, you could become a creature similar to what Elia became."

Weir's hand was on his arm again. "You've told us yourself--so far, all that's happened is that John has healed unnaturally quickly from a wound. I don't think we need to jump to conclusions."

"Yeah, Doc," Sheppard said brightly. "Look on the bright side, if I get super healing out of this, it might be like another Gift, a useful one this time."

Carson jammed his hands inside the pockets of his lab coat. He had a horrible feeling about this. "I'll need to monitor the situation, Colonel. Closely. You'll need to check in every six hours."

Sheppard shrugged. "I guess I could do that, while I'm on Atlantis, anyway."

Carson shook his head, but Weir saved him from having to say it. "John, you should suspend your off-world activities until we know more."

"I can't do that, Elizabeth," Sheppard said, looking mulish and angry. "You know that. I can't be sitting here cooling my heels while McKay's still out there!"

"Colonel Sheppard, I literally have no idea what this retrovirus will do to you!" Carson made his voice as harsh as he knew how. "Rodney is my friend too, Colonel, and I know his mind. He would want to be sure that you were well. He would want you to stay in the infirmary, or at the very least on base."

Sheppard's eyes were wild. "I can't do that! What if something happened to him while I was sitting here? Listen to me--!"

Carson felt his attention sharpen automatically on Sheppard's words, and he almost didn't need to hear Weir's gasp to realize that Sheppard was trying to charm him. A truly astonishing amount of rage flashed through him, and Carson leaned forward and clapped his palm over Sheppard's mouth. "NO! You are not using your Gift one me, Colonel! You listen! When Rodney comes back, I couldn't face him if anything happened to you when I could have prevented it! You will comply with my medical advice, or I'll have you restrained and put in isolation." He made his eyes into slits. "Do we understand each other?"

Sheppard had gone pale. When Carson dropped his hand, Sheppard swayed slightly on his feet and reached behind himself to grip the edge of Carson's desk. "Yeah," he swallowed. "Oh, God. Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-- I don't know what made me…."

"No harm done," Carson tried to say it lightly, although he had to shove his hands back in his pockets to hide their trembling. He'd always read that charm was a subtle thing, and the…victim, for want of a better word, rarely knew they had been charmed. But what the Colonel had begun to do wasn't anywhere in the neighborhood of subtle. It had felt like an outright compulsion, like he'd had no choice but to attend to Sheppard's words. It had been the very strength of that compulsion that had set off his internal alarms, and given him the split-second of warning in which to resist.

Weir got that pinched look on her face that meant too many strong emotions at too close range were taxing her Gift and giving her a headache. Carson concentrating on taking deep breaths and getting his emotions under control, the only palliative she'd accept at the moment. Once Sheppard was out of the room, Carson could offer her an analgesic, and possibly something to eat.

"Colonel Sheppard." Weir's voice was firm, steady, grounding. "You will assign Major Lorne to head up the search for Rodney. You will take the opportunity to catch up on your paperwork--I believe I'm still waiting for several reports you owe me? And you'll check back here with Dr. Beckett in six hours."

"Yeah." Sheppard was still pale, but he straightened, and visibly pulled himself together. "Yes, ma'am. I'll get on it right away." He turned to Carson, but didn't meet his eyes. "I'll see you in six hours, Doc."

Carson didn't watch him bolt of the office, and after that, the infirmary.

"Do you think that was caused by the retrovirus?" Weir asked, her voice soft, meaning Sheppard's uncharacteristic loss of control.

Carson shook his head slowly. "I really have no idea."

"Okay, then." Weir took a deep breath. "Carson, what's the plan?"

Carson pulled his hands out his pockets. They were steady again. He studied them. These were the hands that had created the retrovirus that had caused this problem in the first place. Dr. Weir expected him to fix the problem as well. "Well," he said slowly, considering. "I could inject him with a viral inhibitor. It should slow down the retrovirus, at least enough to buy us some time to discover what it's doing to him, and perhaps come up with some sort of treatment plan."

"Maybe there's something in the Ancient database that can help you find a treatment," Weir suggested.

"Aye," Carson nodded, plans and possible treatment protocols unfurling before his mind's eye. "But first, I'll have to summon the Colonel back to the infirmary. We need to draw some blood and take some cell samples, so that we can examine them in the lab." He rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment. "I'm afraid I let him go too soon."

Weir shrugged and twisted her lips into an ironic smile. "Under the circumstances, Carson, I don't exactly blame you." They shared a pained grimace. Weir looked around his office. "Hey, Carson, you don't happen to have a candy bar in your desk, do you?"

With a sigh of relief, Carson began the standard lecture on the importance on proper nutrition for a Gifted person in Dr. Weir's stressful position while he rummaged in his file cabinet for a slightly healthier snack for her. And tried not to think about Colonel Sheppard, or poor Rodney, for just a little while.

USMC Lieutenant Aiden Ford followed Major Lorne as he ducked under a branch that Ronon Dex had shoved aside. "So, what are we looking for?" Lorne asked, turning a little to glance at the group behind him.

"According to what information Dr. Grodin was able to find in the Ancient database, they prefer places that are cool, damp, and dark," Teyla said. "So I believe we should be searching for a cave."

"They wouldn't want their nests out in the open," Ronon agreed. "Cave keeps the eggs away from the predators."

Gordon Sparks, who was walking next to Aiden, blinked unhappily at that. He was surrounded with the tiny lights constantly produced by his Gift, and they were flickering madly in a chaotic rainbow, showing how nervous he was. "I'd thought the bugs were the predators."

"I guarantee there's something out here worse," Ronon said, in a way that implied he'd actually seen something worse than a bug that could suck your life out through your neck.

"Really?" Sparky asked, sounding like that was the last thing he'd wanted to hear, ever. The lights around his head jumped a bit, all at once.

"They've got to feed on something," Ronon said, but Aiden didn't miss his tiny smirk.

"Thanks, man," he said sarcastically. "Like Sparky isn't spooked enough."

"You're welcome," Ronon said, deadpan. Aiden glared at him, but Ronon didn't seem to notice.

"Sorry, Sparks," Aiden said quietly. "He's just trying to freak you out. Don't stress about it."

"No, that's all right," Sparky said, though he looked like he was pretty much anything but. His eyes kept darting around like he expected a bug to leap out of the nearest tree and bite his head off. His long fingers were twitching like his lights, as if he was trying to channel out his need to get the hell away from there, rather than just turn around and bolt. Sparky was a civilian, an engineer. He'd never even held a gun before he'd joined the Atlantis expedition, and it was obvious he was terrified. But he was still there with them, and Aiden knew he would never have asked to stay behind.

"I'm fine, really," Sparky said. "It's just, I'm not too fond of bugs."

"Who the hell is fond of bugs?" That was Corporal Kaufman--'Boom-Boom'--who was walking a little behind the rest of them, helping Sgt. Anders Johansen to haul the large tank of seawater and the two hand pumps. He sounded stressed and annoyed, which was basically how he sounded whenever they were about to do something dangerous. Aiden figured that the minute Boom-Boom chilled they were in real trouble. He was speaking to Anders when Aiden glanced back at him. "You know anyone who likes bugs?"

"My sister used to collect them," Anders said. His voice already had the weary tone Aiden had begun to associate with him every time he talked to Boom-Boom for a long time.

Boom-Boom grunted as he shifted the tank. "Yeah?" he asked. "Which one was that? The crazy one?"

"The entomologist."

"All right," Lorne said loudly, "we're heading for a mountain range that starts about a mile up this way." He pointed ahead of them. "That's probably our best bet for a cave."

"Do you want me to teleport ahead and see if I can find one, sir?" That was Sgt. Ayida L'Heureux, nicknamed Happy, who was walking ahead of Aiden and Sparky, next to Teyla. Probably to avoid Boom-Boom, since he'd been making eyes at both her and Teyla since they'd come through the wormhole.

"Not yet," Lorne told her. "Save your energy for when we get to the cave." He gave her a grim smile. "We're counting on your Gift to get the eggs for us." He turned back to the group. "Okay, let's pick up the pace!"

"Great," Boom-Boom groused. "'Cause me and Thor aren't carrying, like, a zillion gallons of water, here."

"Problem, Kaufman?" Lorne called back mildly.

"No, sir!" Boom-Boom answered immediately. Aiden heard Anders laugh.

"You think this is it?" Lorne asked Ronon.

They were all grouped outside the first large cave they'd come across, which was so dark it was nearly impossible to see inside. It smelled disgusting, though--like rot and other stuff Aiden really didn't want to think about.

"It smells like something's living in there," Happy said. She made a face and covered her nose.

"Or dying," Sparky said.

Ronon knelt near the cave entrance, scooped up a bit of the weird, bright-orange dirt and put it under his nose.

"Dude, that's gross!" Boom-Boom said, screwing up his face.

Ronon ignored him. "They're in there," he said.

"So, what's the plan, sir?" Aiden asked Lorne.

Lorne was adjusting his night-vision goggles. "We go in there, we keep the bugs from killing us, L'Heureux gets some eggs, we get out."

It didn't sound like much of a plan, but it wasn't like they had any other options. Aiden put his goggles on as well, though he was worried that with Boom-Boom lighting up the place and Sparky doing his thing he'd end up blinded. On the other hand, the cave was so dark he figured they might not even find their way into it otherwise.

"Okay," Lorne said, "Ronon, Teyla, you're on point with me. Ford, Johansen, you take our six with the salt water." Aiden and Anders glanced at each other, but neither of them said anything.

Boom-Boom grinned and handed his part of the tank to Aiden. He clapped Aiden on the shoulder. "Have fun, sir."

"L'Heureux, Kaufman, and Sparks, you're in the middle," Lorne continued. He pointed at Sparky and Boom-Boom. "L'Heureux's going to use her Gift to get the eggs, Kaufman, you're going to use your Gift to keep the bugs away from her, and Sparks,"--Sparky's attention leapt to him--"try not to get bit."

Sparky smiled nervously.

Aiden looked at Sparky, then back at Lorne. "Maybe someone should stay outside?"

Ronon raised one of his eyebrows. "So he'll be all alone when a dozen of them come stampeding out here?"

Sparky's eyes, which were already pretty big, started looking like dinner plates. "The middle will be fine," he said quickly.

Lorne looked around the group. "Everybody got that?" He waited until they all nodded. "Great."

"Let's do it," Ronon said, and lowered his goggles.

Aiden watched as Lorne, Teyla, and Ronon walked into the cave, holding their weapons at the ready. Boom-Boom, Happy, and Sparky followed, leaving only him and Anders.

"If we're very lucky," Anders said quietly, "the bugs won't like the lights." He gestured with his chin at Sparky, who was looking a little like a shaking Christmas tree as he walked further into the cave.

"If we're lucky," Aiden agreed, then he and Anders followed the rest in.

It was nearly black in the cave without the goggles, which cast everything into an eerie green light. Sparky's Gift made Aiden squint every time he looked at him.

Aiden recognized the creepy-as-hell rustling and chittering noises. The last time he'd heard that, Sheppard was dying in the back of a Jumper with one of those fucking bugs on his neck. The only difference was that it was a lot louder here.

"I think we're in the right place," he said quietly.

Teyla exhaled sharply. "Yes."

In front of him, Happy tucked her arms in closer to her sides, and glanced around anxiously. Boom-Boom deliberately zipped his jacket collar all the way up.

"What good will that do?" Anders asked him.

"Are you nuts?" Boom-Boom asked Anders incredulously. "You know these things go after your neck, right?" He adjusted his collar again. "Well, they're not going to see mine!"

"Quiet," Lorne hissed, and everyone shut up.

"Where are these eggs supposed to be?" Happy whispered.

"The database said they have a central nest. My hope is that we will recognize it, "Teyla said.

"I guess we'll have to," Lorne said. "Keep sharp."

They continued on, walking carefully. Aiden held on to the handle of the water tank and the pump so tightly it felt like his fingers might snap off, but he was way, way too freaked out to make himself relax. Sparky's lights kept making little darting shadows that more than once nearly made Aiden jump out of his skin, and the disgusting insect noises got steadily louder until Aiden realized he'd started grinding his teeth in time to it, and instead clenched his jaw until it hurt.

The passageway suddenly widened to a huge cavern, and everyone stopped so fast that Aiden nearly collided with Happy.

"Holy fuck," Boom-Boom said softly.

"I think this is it," Lorne said. He didn't sound happy about it, and Aiden didn't blame him at all. There were three giant tear-shaped…things hanging from the ceiling, and the rest of the place looked like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or at least that scene where the girl was in the tunnel and realized she was walking on thousands of bugs. It was like that, but about a billion times worse.

"I'm certain that is where they keep their eggs," Teyla said, and Aiden envied how calm she sounded.

"Okay," Lorne said. He glanced back at the group behind him. "Here's how we're going to play this--Ford, Johansen, you're going to use the salt water to clear as many of the bugs as you can. Kaufman, if that doesn't work, blow the bugs up. Sparks, can you up the light show? I'm hoping it'll keep the bugs away too."

Sparky swallowed and nodded. "I'll try," he said.

"Great," Lorne said. He adjusted his grip on his P-90. "The rest of us will keep the bugs off you. L'Heureux, you ready?"

"Yes, sir," Happy said, and Aiden could see her tensing, preparing herself to teleport.

"Okay." Lorne nodded sharply. "Ford, Johansen, do your stuff."

"Come on," Aiden said to Anders, and he nodded, hefting his part of the water tank easily. They brought the tank as close as they dared, then used the pumps, spraying as much of the area leading to the first egg sack as they could. It was a hell of a relief to see the bugs scattering, though they didn't go very far, and the chittering noises got louder.

"They sound pissed off," Boom-Boom said, but no one answered him.

"L'Heureux," Lorne said, voice tense, "on three. One…two…Three!"

Happy did that weird winking out thing, where she was there and then all of a sudden not, and at the same time Sparky made a small, inarticulate noise of effort and his sparkles got a lot brighter and more numerous, until the whole group was bathed in his light. Aiden had to take a second from pumping the water to push his goggles up, because he didn't need them anymore.

He couldn't see Happy. He hoped she was okay and managing to get the eggs, since he figured she'd've had to teleport right on top of one of the giant sacks. He hoped she'd be able to hold on to the thing.

"Sgt. Kaufman!" Teyla called over the sound of the P-90s firing, then Boom-Boom yelled something and suddenly a car-sized mass of swarming bugs on the floor of the cave blew up, blasting bug-parts all over the place. Aiden felt something wet hit his face and gritted his teeth even harder so he wouldn't cry out. Or throw up.

"I think they're staying back…!" Sparky said. He already sounded tired, and Aiden winced on his behalf. But so far almost none of the bugs had come near them, which was awesome.

Then all of a sudden Happy was right there, crashing into him so that he went over onto his back, dropping his pump and nearly taking Anders down as well.

"Enlève-le!" she was screaming. "Enlève-le!" and Aiden realized that there was a bug hanging off the back of her tac vest, crawling its way up to her neck.

It disappeared in a flare of red from Ronon's gun.

"Let's go!" Lorne yelled. "Come on! Get out of here! Don't look back! Don't look back! Come on!"

Anders grabbed Happy under her arms, hauled her up and ran with her. Aiden scrambled to his hands and knees, and then was looking right into the round, faceted eyes of a bug.

"Oh shit," he breathed, frozen.

The air in front of his face was suddenly filled with brilliantly flashing lights, so bright that Aiden hollered in pain and fell onto his side so he could cover his eyes.

"Sorry!" Sparky blurted.

Someone grabbed his arm and helped him stand. He thought it might be Teyla, but Aiden was too disoriented to figure out where anyone was anymore. Sparky--Aiden was sure he could recognize those long fingers--grabbed his other arm, then he was all but dragged between his two rescuers as they ran like hell for the entrance to the cave.

He kept his eyes shut, because they were still aching, so he only had a vague impression of the world around him getting brighter until the change in the texture of the ground under his feet signaled that he was finally outside.

"I believe we can stop now." That was definitely Teyla. Aiden was gently lowered to his knees. He blinked furiously, forcing his eyes to focus. They were watering and sore and he was a little worried about the future of his twenty/twenty vision, but at least he could see, even if the world was full of spots and blurry around the edges.

Happy was lying on her back in the grass, with her arms spread, chest heaving as she stared dully up at the stark grey sky. She was covered in slime, and had the storage container of bug eggs clasped so hard in her hand that Aiden wondered if they'd have to pry her fingers open, back at the infirmary.

"Stay with him," Teyla ordered Sparky and Happy, and ran back towards the cave mouth.

"I'm terribly, terribly sorry," Sparky said. He was breathing hard, and there were so many lights surrounding him now it was difficult to see his face, which showed just how tired he was--the less control Sparky had, the more lights he created. He'd been knocked out on a mission once, and the poor guy had looked like he was on fire. Aiden would have to remind him to eat something before they started the long trek back to the Jumper.

"Hey, you saved my life, dude," Aiden rasped at him. He peered blearily in the direction Teyla was running, doing a mental head count of the others in the clearing. His eyes went wide until he remembered how much that hurt. He looked at Sparky. "Were we the only ones who got out?"

Sparky shook his head, but it was Happy who spoke, rolling painfully to her knees as she did. She looked as worried as Aiden. "The Major fell behind, and Ronon and Boom-Boom went back in to get him. Anders went back as well. He said--"

Aiden was hauling himself upright, when suddenly Sparky dove forward, wrapping his hands around Aiden's eyes. A second later Aiden heard someone--Boom-Boom?--screaming at the top of his lungs, and then the distinctive sound of a very large explosion. He wrenched Sparky's hands off his eyes, and saw Ronon and Anders supporting Major Lorne between them. Anders was nearly Ronon's height, and they were all but carrying the shorter man as they ran.

The large black thing on Lorne's neck was unmistakable.

Boom-Boom was behind them, still facing the cave, making explosion after explosion after explosion. Each time the ground shuddered, and the cave mouth vomited out noise and debris and fire.

"He's going to bring the mountain down!" Sparky exclaimed.

"Boom-Boom!" Aiden rocketed to his feet, running towards his teammate, but Teyla was already there. She grabbed Boom-Boom by the wrists, wrenching him around to face her. For a moment Aiden was terrified that Boom-Boom was so freaked out he'd blow her up too, but whatever she said seemed to snap him out of it, because he let her lead him away at a run.

Aiden met Ronon and Anders half-way, but there wasn't anything he could do, except grab the Major's feet and help them carry Lorne over to where Happy was, waiting tensely with her P-90 up and aimed in one hand, the other still holding the egg container like Beckett needed what was in there to save her life, and not the Colonel's.

Aiden helped them lay Lorne down, trying to ignore Lorne's tiny, breathless noises of pain. Aiden had been the first one to find Sheppard, when the Iratus bug had got him, and Lorne looked exactly like Sheppard had then: pale and shaky and like there wasn't enough room in his body for that much pain.

"Get it off me," Lorne ground out. His whole body clenched as what looked like a wave of agony rolled through him. "Jesus." He panted. "I didn't--I didn't know it hurt like this."

Ronon pulled his blaster.

"No!" Aiden shouted. "No!" He raised his hands when Ronon looked at him, ready to dive for the gun if he had to. "I shot the one on Sheppard point-blank, and it just took more of his energy to heal itself. It nearly killed him!"

Ronon shoved his gun back in the holster, though he obviously really didn't want to. Aiden let out a breath of relief.

Boom-Boom licked his lips. He still looked twitchy as hell and way too pale, and his hands were shaking. "I could blow it up," he said to Aiden.

Lorne couldn't move much, but he still managed to glare. "You are…not blowing…it up…next to…my head."

"He's right," Aiden said quickly. "It's too risky." Boom-Boom's control wasn't that great, and trying to hit anything smaller than a car was really hard for him at the best of times. Right now Aiden figured he'd be just as likely to blow up Lorne as the bug attached to him.

He looked at Sparky. "Do you think you could scare it off, or kill it or whatever you did to the bugs in the cave?"

Sparky didn't look too thrilled to have everyone's eyes on him, but he just nodded. "Maybe. I mean, I'll give it heaps."

"Great. Okay." Aiden looked at everyone gathered around Lorne. "We need to step back."

"Wait," Teyla said. She quickly took off her tac vest, then her jacket. Then she knelt down next to Lorne and put it over his face. "Can you breathe?" she asked him.

"Just do it," Lorne said.

"Sparky?" Aiden asked. "You ready?"

Sparky bobbed his head up and down a few times. "Yeah," he said. He rubbed his hands together. He was so anxious it seemed like he was covered in multi-colored fireflies. "Um, you might all want to close your eyes, too. This will be very bright."

Nobody did.

"Okay…." Sparky swallowed, then clenched his fists and concentrated. The nearly-permanent lights surrounding him started blinking faster, then they multiplied, and multiplied again like they had in the cave, getting brighter and brighter. Then, with obvious, heaving effort, he pushed the lights until they swarmed towards the Iratus bug, like tiny, beautiful and malevolent bugs of Sparky's own.

Aiden had to squint and turn his head away, but it was impossible to miss it when Lorne's back arched and he started screaming.

"Stop! Stop it!" Anders yelled, but it was Happy shoving Sparky that finally got him to stop. Sparky blinked, like he wasn't sure what had just happened, and then he swayed. Aiden grabbed him before he fell over.

"Sparky!" Boom-Boom tried to grab him as well, but he was too far away.

While Aiden was helping Sparky sit, Teyla whipped her jacket off Lorne's face, and he gasped, eyes wild and unseeing.

"I'm all right," Sparky said. He smiled weakly, then looked worriedly at Lorne. "Did it work?"

"No." Ronon shook his head, then looked at Aiden. "Now what?"

"There's the defibrillator in the Jumper," Aiden said. He looked at Anders. "That's what we did last time--we stopped Sheppard's heart, and the bug let go of him."

Anders shook his head. "It's a long walk back to the Jumper. I don't want to move him like this."

"Shoot it," Lorne said. He couldn't move, but his eyes went beseechingly to Ronon. "Do it--I'm dead anyway."

Ronon pulled his gun again.

"Wait!" Aiden exclaimed. He turned to Happy. "Can you teleport it away?"

Happy blinked at him. "Not all of it, sir."

"That doesn't matter," Aiden said quickly, hoping he was right. "Just, if you grab the body and teleport, even if you leave part of it behind, that'll kill it." At least he hoped to hell it would.

She nodded slowly. "I can do that, yes." She looked at Lorne. "Do you want me to try that, sir?"

"Just get it off me," Lorne said. It was frightening how weak he already sounded.

"Bon," Happy said. She handed the container to Aiden, then walked around Lorne until she was next to the bug. Her face scrunched up, but she crouched until she could wrap her small hands around its body. "God." She winced. "It is disgusting. All right, sir," she said to Lorne, "I will take it on three, yes?" She waited until she saw Lorne's tiny nod. "One…two…three--"

She teleported, and Lorne cried out, then went limp all at once. Happy reappeared in the same second, maybe five feet away. She was holding the twitching bug, which was bleeding dark, viscous fluid from where its mouth parts used to be. Happy threw it away from her. It had barely left her hands before Ronon shot it.

"I'm getting those things out of him!" That was Boom-Boom, crashing to his knees at Lorne's shoulder and reaching for his neck.

"Don't touch them!" Anders grabbed his wrist to stop him.

"What?" Boom-Boom snapped his head up. "Why? You can't just--"

"We don't know what will happen if we try to pull them out," Anders interrupted him. "He could bleed to death."

That hadn't happened before, but Aiden agreed with the Healer. Better not to risk it. There was enough blood seeping around the edges of Lorne's wound as it was.

Boom-Boom hesitated, then he nodded. Anders let go of him, and Boom-Boom stood and walked away.

Anders was busy doing first aid on Lorne's neck, looking upset, and Aiden really, really hoped that the Major wasn't going to die. Sheppard had come through just fine after having a bug on him for longer, but Aiden didn't know how much more damage Sparky might have inadvertently caused, and they still had more than a two-mile walk back to the Jumper. And Lorne was out cold, so they couldn't even give him glucose pills or anything.

"His pulse and breathing are slow, but I think we can move him," Anders said. He looked at Ronon. "We'll trade off, okay?"

Ronon nodded. "I'll go first."

Anders nodded as well, then helped lift Lorne so Ronon could carry him across his shoulders. Ronon stood waiting for the rest of them as if the Major weighed nothing.

"Start heading back to the gate," Aiden said, because it looked like they were waiting for him. It always felt weird, giving orders to Ronon and Teyla, but he was grateful that they were willing to follow him. "I'll wait for Kaufman and Sparks," he added, because Boom-Boom had braced himself against a tree and was quietly throwing up. And Sparky was sitting on the grass, looking stunned with exhaustion, mechanically taking the glucose pills Teyla handed to him.

Ronon nodded again, and began loping along the route they'd used like he wasn't carrying anything at all. Anders walked behind him, next to Happy, who was holding the container of bug eggs again, clasped like the Holy Grail between her hands.

Aiden sighed and pulled a blister pack of glucose pills out of his vest pocket. He turned and walked towards Boom-Boom, uncapping his canteen as well.

"You okay?" he asked, as soon as he was close enough.

Boom-Boom looked at him like he was insane, but nodded his thanks for the canteen, then rinsed his mouth out, spitting into the grass. He took a long drink before handing it back, then started snapping out the glucose tablets. He put five of them into his mouth at once, screwing up his face in disgust as he chewed them.

"Thank you, sir," he said when he was finished.

"No problem," Aiden said. He smiled. "Sparky was worried you were going to cause an avalanche."

Boom-Boom winced. "Sorry, sir. It's just, the Major had that thing on his neck, you know? And there were so many of them…." He took a breath, shaking himself as if trying to throw off the memory. "Is the Major going to be okay?"

"Yeah, he'll be fine," Aiden said, because there was no point in saying anything else. He clapped Boom-Boom on the shoulder. "If you're done tossing your cookies, I'd like to go home. And we need you to pilot the Jumper, since Lorne and Anders are both kind of busy."

"Yeah, sure, right." Boom-Boom nodded, managed a smile, and Aiden sighed inwardly in relief. He really hadn't been looking forward to trying to talk Boom-Boom down from a panic attack or something; Teyla was a lot better at that stuff. But right now she was helping Sparky stay on his feet.

"You okay, buddy?" Boom-Boom asked Sparky when they were close enough, obviously worried about him.

Sparky gave him a weak thumbs up. "Just brilliant, mate. Box of budgies."

Boom-Boom rolled his eyes, but he pulled Sparky's other arm over his shoulder, so he was helping Teyla support him. "When you start taking Kiwi, I know you've lost it. And you're getting your stupid sparkles in my eyes."

"Fuckwit," Sparky said pleasantly.

"The others are waiting for us," Teyla pointed out.

They started walking.

The room wasn't dark enough. It hurt his eyes.

He wanted to climb, and climb, until he was as far up as he could go and be safe. Safe and warm in the dark. But there was no dark here. It was bright and cold and he couldn't climb high enough to get away from it. And there were people outside, all the time.

Watching him.

He could smell it: the stench of their sweat, sharp as acid on his tongue, coating everything. They were all so afraid.

Afraid of him, and sometimes knowing that gave him a thrill of power so intoxicating he ended up shuddering on the bed they'd left for him, panting like the aftermath of orgasm. And sometimes he remembered what their fear meant, who he was supposed to be, and he would curl in on himself until the only sweat and fear he could smell was his own.

He was curled like that right now, knees pulled up and arms crossed over his face, trying to block out the terrible brightness. He knew, somewhere in what was left of his brain, that Beckett had dimmed the lights as much as he could, but it wasn't enough.

The son of a bitch was probably laughing at John's pain.

"You know," Rodney said conversationally, "I thought I was meant to be the suspicious, paranoid asshole. That's not a very nice thing to think about the man who hasn't slept in three days because he's trying to save your currently blue ass."

John's eyes shot open. He flipped over on the bed so that instead of facing the wall he was looking at the rest of the isolation room. He sat up in the same motion.

Rodney was standing with his arms crossed, his dark-grey uniform immaculate. He looked perfect, his skin and clothing vibrant and beautiful even though John couldn't see color anymore. There was something strange about that, something wrong, but John couldn't remember, didn't care.

"Rodney," he said, distantly surprised at how normal his voice still sounded, since speaking was difficult. "Get me out of here."

"I can't," Rodney said, smiling sadly. He looked John up and down, then shook his head. "Wow, you really managed to do a number on yourself, didn't you?" He sighed. "I disappear for a little while, and you mutate into a bug. The blue kind of suits you, though." He gestured vaguely at his hair. "Makes the black stand out, you know?"

"Rodney," John said again. His voice was thick, and this time it was hard to speak for no reason to do with the conversion. He stood up, but he didn't move, didn't dare to. "Why…?"

He meant to say, Why are you here? but Rodney seemed to understand him anyway. He smiled and stepped closer.

"I told you I wasn't letting you run away again," Rodney said simply. He lifted one hand to cup John's cheek, but John turned his face sharply away.

"No," John said. He closed his eyes. "Don't. Dangerous."

"You can't hurt me, John," Rodney said, and John felt the warm glide of Rodney's fingers against his cheek. "You won't hurt me."

John hissed in a breath. He allowed himself to relax into the touch, just a little. He turned his head so that his lips touched Rodney's skin, kissed his palm. When Rodney slid his arms around John's shoulders, John let him. It felt like forever since he'd been touched. He didn't realize just how cold he'd been.

"It's okay, John," Rodney said. "Open your eyes."

John did, and Rodney's eyes were blue as the endless Lantean sky, warm as the sun. "Miss you so much," John said.

"I know," Rodney said. His voice was horribly sad. "I miss you too."

"Come home," John said. He put his head against Rodney's shoulder.

"You're cold," Rodney said, and John realized he was shaking.

"Come home," John said again, forcing the words out of his struggling mouth, his struggling mind. "Come back. I'm sorry."

"I can't," Rodney said.

John's lifted his head. "No," he said, fear making him angry. He stepped away. "No. I'll find you."

Rodney shook his head again, smiling like his heart was already broken. "I can't," he said again. "Not until you trust me."

John's eyes widened. "No," he said. "Oh, no." He moved back to Rodney again, tried to put his hands on Rodney's shoulders, but he couldn't reach him anymore. "No!" he said again, grasping desperately, but Rodney was drifting away from him, disappearing--

"No!" John cried. "I do! I do! Rodney! Come back! Rodney!"

And then he was on his hands and knees, his claws making his fingers bend painfully against the metal of the floor. The lights were too bright and everything was cold, and Rodney was gone.

"I trust you," John said softly. He didn't even care what Rodney had done anymore. He hadn't cared for a long time. All he wanted was Rodney back.

He fell over onto his side, pulling himself into a ball again. "I trust you," he whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"John? John, are you all right?"

Elizabeth. It was Elizabeth, stinking of fear and misery, clogging his nose and touching him with her freezing cold hands and always asking the same useless, stupid questions.

John was on his feet so fast Elizabeth let out a tiny shriek of fear, and it felt good to hear it, so good.

He lashed out before she could move, grabbing her neck. Her eyes were enormous.

"Rodney," he said. "Where?" He was gone. She'd chased him away. Her fault.

"I--" Elizabeth gasped, struggling to breathe. "We don't know. We're search--"

"Let her go, sir!" John's head darted around to see the two Marines who had been outside the door. They were both inside the room now. They were carrying the large Wraith stunners, and pointing them at him.

With a snarl of rage John tossed Elizabeth into the Marines, bowling them to the floor. The reinforced door of the isolation room slammed open with a single kick, and John ran and leaped for the infirmary wall, skittering up it easily, ignoring the cries of the medical personnel.

He was going to find Rodney. He was going to tell Rodney he trusted him, and then Rodney was going to come back.

Sgt. Kaufman landed the Jumper with all the finesse of a water buffalo falling down a flight of stairs, but they were back in Atlantis and alive and mostly in one piece, so USAF Major Evan Lorne wasn't about to complain. Even if he did still have parts of a bug sticking out of his neck.

He was, however, kind of wishing he was still unconscious, but apparently Fate couldn't be that nice to him. He'd got to experience most of the journey back to the Jumper while bouncing along on either Ronon's or Johansen's back, which was both excruciatingly painful and humiliating. Evan was just glad he hadn't thrown up; it'd been a close thing. He hadn't stopped bleeding yet, either. It was seeping through the gauze Johansen had wrapped around his neck. It made the two wounds from the bug's fangs--or whatever the hell they were--itch like hell when the pain wasn't making it hard to breathe. The damn things were still stabbed so deeply into his throat Evan could feel them twitching with every thud of his pulse.

But now, because he could see Kaufman's hands trembling, Evan rasped out, "Good landing--watching my life flash before my eyes never gets old." He smiled weakly when L'Heureux snorted in a mix of surprise and laughter, then tried not to show how much speaking cost him when Teyla glanced in his direction.

"Sorry, sir," Kaufman said over his shoulder. He opened the Jumper and stood up, then abruptly sat down in the pilot's seat again. "Whoa."

"Stay put," Ford told him immediately, his mouth flat with concern. "You need more glucose?"

"No thank you, sir," Kaufman said. "I hate that stuff." He smiled ruefully. "I'm just tired, got a headrush. Been a long day, you know?"

"I hear you," Ford said. He reached over and patted Kaufman on the shoulder. "Just take it easy."

Evan was laying on one of the Jumper's benches, Sparks on the other side. Sparks had fallen asleep pretty much the second he'd hit the bench, and was still dead to the world. Because he couldn't control his Gift when he was unconscious, right now it looked like he was sleeping under a blanket of birthday candles. The multitude of tiny lights swayed and pulsed gently as he breathed.

The medical team was there an instant later, and Evan answered the new Doc's--Kelly? Something like that--questions about pain and what he could move and then forgot them the next second. He was still partially numb, which was nice only because it meant he didn't even notice the I.V. lines going in. And then the pain was swept away in a white rush that was probably morphine, and suddenly life was pretty good again. He thought he saw L'Heureux wink out, but then figured he might have hallucinated it.

"Hey," he asked somebody, "did L'Heureux go somewhere?"

"She took the eggs to the infirmary, sir." That was Ford. Good kid, Ford. Evan had always liked him.

"Thank you, sir," Ford said. He sounded amused. Evan didn't know why.

But suddenly Ford stopped smiling. He put his hand to his ear as he trotted along behind the medics pushing the gurneys carrying Evan and the exhausted Sparks. Ford looked very serious. That couldn't be good, Evan thought.

"It's not, sir," Ford told him as soon as he dropped his hand. "That was Colonel Caldwell--Colonel Sheppard escaped from the infirmary. He's somewhere loose in Atlantis."

"I'm going to have to insist that you increase the frequency of our sessions, Albert. We should discuss why you feel the need to blame yourself for Colonel Sheppard's condition, when we both know that there was no way you could have foreseen or prevented what happened," Kate Heightmeyer said severely.

She took a sip of her soup, ignoring the violent mint-green hue for the delicate fresh flavor and satisfying warmth of it. And no, you are not going to apologize to me for taking more of my 'valuable time', Albert! she thought while her mouth was full, in response to Albert's about-to-apologize expression. She had her watch strapped so that the face was on the outside of her wrist when it was usually on the inside--her subtle signal to Albert that it was both allowed and expected that he read her thoughts as well as listen to her voice. She was often the only person Albert had that freedom with. It's my job to look after your mental health, just like it's Dr. Beckett's job to look after your physical health. You wouldn't apologize to him if you came to him with a cut that needed stitches, would you?

"Oh, God, you would!" Kate covered her eyes to block out Albert's pained and sheepish expression. Sometimes, Kate thought wryly, someone watching their interactions from the outside might think she was the telepath. Albert's emotions were so open on his face, when you knew him, that he was almost as bad at hiding anything as Rodney McKay had been.

Was. As Rodney McKay was. She needed not to forget that.

Kate quickly suppressed thoughts of Rodney, hoping Albert wouldn't catch them. Given a chance, he might find a way to blame himself for not being able to find Dr. McKay yet, as well as all the other things he was feeling guilty about, most recently the fact that Carson had forbidden him to go on the current mission to harvest Iratus bug eggs, even though Kate absolutely agreed with Carson. Albert was exhausted, physically and mentally, and Carson had threatened to confine him to quarters if he didn't rest for at least two days.

Albert opened his mouth--probably to apologize for his tendency to apologize--and Kate cut him off. "Eat! You've lost weight again. You have to remember to eat more than you used to before you came to Atlantis. Your Gift puts a constant drain on your metabolism." She pushed an extra roll onto his plate. Albert never took enough food, and his friends knew to stock up and give him their 'extra' french-fries and other snacks at opportune moments. Just like Dr. Weir's, or Dr. Zelenka's friends did, although those two were looking after each other more nowadays. That pleased Kate. More of Atlantis' personnel should be forming healthy, stable relationships by now. They'd be a lot better equipped to deal with the constant stress of this place if they had loved ones to rely on.

Absently, as her thoughts wandered into the private lives of her patients, Kate switched her watch back into what she thought of as 'privacy mode,' absolutely confident that Albert would respect her wishes and control his Gift as much as possible.

Kate had just reached the bottom of her soup bowl when the PA system broadcast Sgt. Campbell's voice to the mess hall--indeed, when Kate heard the echoes--to the entire city.

"Alert! Alert! This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill. All civilians proceed to lock-down positions. All military personnel, assist securing the civilians then report immediately to duty stations. Repeat. This is an emergency situation. All personnel to report to lock-down and duty stations immediately."

There was an almost deafening rumble as all the chairs in the mess hall were pushed away from tables simultaneously and people began to move, hands to radios as they reported in to immediate supervisors.

Kate tapped her own comm. "Kate Heightmeyer reporting in. Am I needed?" she asked the nurse in charge of the infirmary's communications center. Albert came around the table and gripped her elbow as she was told to report to her office for lock-down. They didn't need her immediately, but might in the near future.

"Let's go, Dr. Kate, ma'am," he told her, tugging firmly on her elbow. "I'm to escort you to your office before reporting to the armory."

She didn't question or argue, just went with him as rapidly as possible. The mess was emptying of people like water swirling from a sink with the plug removed.

Once they were moving quickly down the halls, she asked, "What's going on, Albert? Are you allowed to tell me?"

He glanced towards her as they headed toward the stairs, since the transporters were reserved for personnel directly responding to whatever emergency was being addressed. Albert's face was creased with a worried frown. "Colonel Sheppard's escaped the isolation ward and is loose on the base. Colonel Caldwell says he's pretty far gone--he hurt Dr. Weir." Albert swallowed. "We may have to stun him, or even shoot him, before he hurts anyone else."

Kate felt her own pulse jump. She wasn't the only person on Atlantis whose respect for Colonel Sheppard was tinged with a touch of fear. The base was steeped in stories about the Colonel's--then Major's--exploits during the big storm when the Genii had taken over the city, and about the way he'd terrified even their Wraith prisoner so much, the creature had almost keeled over dead just because the Major had told it to die with charm in his voice.

Kate firmly told herself that the stories were surely exaggerated out of all recognition from even being close to reality, but it didn't stop the little hairs from rising at the back of her neck, at the realization that Colonel Sheppard was wandering loose around the base, his mind and body in who knew what state from the transformation the Iratus genes were dealing him, all his normal, careful control stripped away. He'd hurt Dr. Weir. Kate didn't think anything could make Colonel Sheppard do that, not if he was even in a passing acquaintance with sanity. She supposed that was the point. He wasn't.

That message from the infirmary nurse that they might need her later suddenly became more ominous. Kate swallowed, and followed more closely on Albert's heels.

Finally, they reached her office. Here she could lock the door, so that even the Colonel's superior ability with Ancient Technology couldn't breach it. Behind that door, Kate could marshal all her resources, so that if they needed her skills to reach the Colonel's mind, she'd be able to do her best. She didn't have a Gift, but she had her training and her voice, and she had sympathy and understanding. Hopefully they'd be enough.

She turned to smile her goodbye to Albert and heard a sound above her head. A sort-of croak. She looked up, and all her resolve melted like snow on a hot day. Kate shrieked like a cheap horror-movie heroine, as she looked into Colonel Sheppard's yellow, slit-pupiled eyes.

He was hanging upside down like a grotesque parody of an insect, dangling from the ceiling over her office door. He looked far worse than she had seen the last time she'd visited him in the infirmary's isolation room. The skin on his face was grey-blue and scaled, with raised ridges of scales on his neck. His hands were completely blue, had wicked-looking claws, and the fingers on one hand had begun to fuse together under the scales.

Incongruously, his hair was just the same as it had always been.

"Help," he said.

That had been the croak from before. Kate felt her heartbeat pounding in her throat, her knees trembling. Albert grabbed her upper arm and yanked her behind him. Great, now she felt even more like one of those useless blonde horror-movie heroines, but that didn't mean she was going to get any closer to Sheppard if she could help it, or that she wasn't secretly grateful for Albert's protection. Not that Albert had anything to protect her with, since only the officers normally went armed in the city, and Albert hadn't had time to report to the armory to be issued a firearm.

"Help," Sheppard croaked again.

Now that her blood wasn't actively freezing in her veins, Kate could think, at least a little. Sheppard had come to her office. Specifically. He had come to ask for help. He'd already said so, more than once.

Kate gathered her courage, and took a deep breath. "How can I help you, Colonel Sheppard?"

"Rodney. Got to find Rodney," he said, voice gravelly. "Help me find Rodney."

"I will, sir," Albert said seriously. He sounded surprisingly calm, considering what he was looking at. Kate wanted badly to grab his arm, as if that could somehow protect her. She deliberately took a step back, both to give Albert room to move and because she was disgusted with her fear. "I promise," Albert was saying, "I'll help you. As soon as you're well again, we'll go back out and keep looking."

"Now," Sheppard said harshly, almost angrily. "Have to find him. Now."

"You will. You will find him, Colonel," Kate said, in her best calming voice. "Let me call for help now, all right?"

Colonel Sheppard a fixed bright, alien gaze on her face as she tapped the radio at her ear. "Heightmeyer to Beckett. Carson, we've found Colonel Sheppard. He's right outside my office."

"Don't!" Sheppard's bellow drowned out whatever Carson replied. He reached forward faster than thought and snatched the radio right off her ear. Kate put a hand to the side of her head. The Colonel's claws had torn out some hair as well. She didn't scream again, but it was sitting there in her throat as the Colonel smashed her radio into little pieces against the ceiling.

"Colonel Sheppard, you know that wasn't right," Albert told him. His voice was grim, tightly controlled, his back very straight. "You shouldn't have done that, sir. You could have hurt her. I can't let you hurt anyone, sir. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I have to do this."

"Albert? What? What are you…." Kate was ashamed of how tiny and scared her voice sounded.

"I'm forging a link to his mind, like we did during the Siege, ma'am," Albert answered her, although his voice was already shaking from the apparent strain. His shoulders were shaking minutely as well, and drops of perspiration were on the back of his neck. Sweat was beginning to soak the hair around his ears, although he still stood very tall, his arms loose and ready at his sides. "It's hard." He took a breath. "His mind isn't all that human anymore. Might be able to help him, though, keep him from hurting anybody."

"NO!" Sheppard's face twisted, making him look even more inhuman, then he flung himself away and scuttled along the ceiling like a very large, very dangerous, blue roach. Kate wanted to cry, so badly. She'd let herself, later, when things had calmed down. Really. She would.

"Go into your office, lock the door, and call the Control Room," Albert told her, shoving her toward the door. "I'll follow him. Go!" He looked back once, then ran after the Colonel. They both disappeared around a bend in the corridor.

Kate was trembling, badly, as she let herself into her office and carefully locked the door. Then she dutifully made her way to her desk and used her laptop's interface to contact the Control Room. She couldn't stop shaking. Somehow, in a way she couldn't articulate, this had been worse even than seeing a Wraith.

Oh yes. Crying sounded like a very good idea. She'd get around to it soon. When she could stop shaking, that was.

Al pelted down the corridor, chasing Colonel Sheppard, trying to keep his link to the other man's mind. It was hard as hell. His Gift kept touching and skidding away like a pebble on ice, and forcing it to stick, to stay, was exhausting. And Sheppard was getting away from him, crawling so incredibly fast that in almost no time at all he was out of sight, leaving Al to follow blindly where he thought he might have gone.

Al stopped, bracing himself heavily against the wall with one arm, head bent and breathing so hard he thought he might throw up the half of his lunch he'd managed to finish before Campbell broadcast the alert. He was fighting to keep the tenuous connection he had with Sheppard, but it was still there, and he was going to hold on to it if it killed him.

He tapped his earpiece, patting his chest automatically before he remembered that he was in civvies because he'd been officially off-duty before the emergency started. His tac vest was in the kitting room, and all his glucose pills were back in his quarters. It wasn't like Al had been expecting something to go wrong, but not having his equipment with him wasn't doing any good now.

"I was just with the Colonel," he gasped into his radio. "He's heading towards the North pier."

"Aknowledged." That wasn't Campbell's voice. It took Al a moment to place it as Colonel Caldwell. "He's used a transporter--he's in the South-West pier. Zelenka, shut the transporters down. Now!"

Al flinched at the volume of Caldwell's voice, momentarily glad he wasn't on the receiving end. It sounded like the Colonel and Dr. Zelenka had been arguing about that for awhile. Al thought he heard Dr. Weir's voice in the background, but the radio cut off before he could be sure.

His link with Sheppard had broken while he was in the transporter, so he closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and formed it again. It was a little easier this time, probably because he was standing still, but Al was still trembling with effort again after just a few seconds, and clenching his jaw hard enough to make his teeth hurt. Sheppard's mind was so alien that it was really hard to make out anything coherent--no words, no images, just need, so overwhelming that Al staggered, would have dropped to his knees if he wasn't still leaning against the wall.

"All right," came Caldwell's voice again, over Al's radio. "Quebec Team, Zulu Team, you're on deck. Try to cut him off."

Al gulped in more air, squeezing his eyes shut as he maintained the link. He'd been hoping he could use his Gift to influence Sheppard somehow, turn his thoughts to take him back to the infirmary, but it was like being swept along by rapids and Al could barely hold on, let alone even attempt to project anything. Sheppard needed McKay so badly that for a moment Al felt like he was choking, drowning under the weight of it, the enormity of the anguish and grief--and then, suddenly, Sheppard's mind was completely gone. It was for less than a second, but it was enough time for Al to stumble back to himself, remember where he ended and Colonel Sheppard began. He must have used a transporter again. Where was he going?

"Damn it!" someone exclaimed. Al thought it was the leader of one of the search teams, and that he might know the voice, if he wasn't so tired. "He disappeared into another transporter. I think he's headed toward the control room."

Al shook his head, then remembered belatedly that no one could see him. Blinking his eyes open, he tapped his radio.

"Control," he said. "He's trying to get to the Jumper bay. He can't control them. The transporters."

"Acknowledged," Caldwell said. "He seems to be moving randomly though the city. All right--Bravo, Tango, head to the Jumper bay. Quebec and Zulu, try to keep him from getting to another transporter. We'll shut them down once Bravo and Tango are in position."

Al pushed himself away from the wall and ran. A few seconds later he slid into the same transporter Sheppard had used first, and hit the Jumper bay's location on the map. The nanosecond of complete silence in his head as the transporter moved was fantastic, then he was out and running again.

"We just came from there," the Lantean said. Ronon Dex ignored him. He checked his gun one more time, though he didn't have to, and followed Teyla and the other Lantean soldiers they had been assigned to go with. It made him angry, that he and Teyla were always expected to follow the Lanteans, especially these boys he didn't know, when he had been a Specialist on Sateda, and Teyla wasn't just a warrior but a leader of nearly as many people as Weir.

Teyla always put up with it, probably because she was willing to take a lot of pain to keep things civil, though he didn't miss the occasional light of frustration in her eyes. Ronon didn't feel that way at all. In fact, if it wasn't for Sheppard, he probably wouldn't have stayed in the city. There were lots of places he could go, now that he didn't have the Wraith tracker in his back. Lots of places where he could kill Wraith and not have to accept people he didn't know, like, or trust telling him what to do all the time.

Ronon already knew what he'd do if Sheppard didn't survive this: he'd stay until they got McKay back, then he'd leave Atlantis, take the fight to the Wraith. Not running, this time, but hunting.

Ronon trusted Teyla, and Carson and Weir. He even trusted McKay, though the man could be so whiny and self-important it was hard to take him seriously sometimes. But most of all he trusted Sheppard. Sheppard had said his people would help him, and he'd kept his promise. Sheppard had put Ronon on his team, and gave him a purpose again. Ronon considered Sheppard his new Taskmaster, even if Sheppard didn't know it and probably wouldn't want the title if he did. Ronon might not follow all of Sheppard's orders--especially not the really stupid ones, like 'stay with Teyla and I'll go hunt the mutating Wraith-girl with the skinny telepath'--but he respected him, considered him his friend. Ronon hadn't figured he'd ever have a family again, not after losing Melena and his home, but Sheppard had offered him one, and Ronon was beginning to think that maybe, maybe he could take it.

But that was only if Sheppard made it out of this, alive and human. And if getting Sheppard back to the infirmary meant he had to follow some guy he didn't know with a striped patch on his arm who looked at him like he was dirt, Ronon would. At least until he got a better idea.

Teyla walked into the transporter. Ronon was right behind her.

Al skidded into the Jumper bay, a little amazed that he had beat everyone there. Jumper Four had been set down in the center of the bay, rather than into one of the alcoves, and it was still open. Al wondered if it meant someone from the Iratus egg-hunting team had come back injured, not that he would have heard about it.

He should have been on that team, and if he had actually remembered to eat enough he would have been. But since he'd nearly done a face-plant in the corridor outside the infirmary, Doc Beckett had ordered him to rest for a couple days.

Al's mouth quirked wryly. He didn't think Doc Beckett would much like him running around and using his Gift like this, but Al didn't have a lot of choice. Right now, he seemed to be the only one on Atlantis who could track the Colonel. If that meant he'd have to spend a couple days in the infirmary with a needle in his arm, okay. Besides, he was still pretty sure it was his fault that Colonel Sheppard was sick. If Al had just been better able to track the Wraith girl, she wouldn't've gotten the jump on Sheppard like she did, and would never have bitten him. He still wanted to make it up to Sheppard, if he could.

Al ran into the Jumper, hoping that the team might have left a weapon behind, but there was nothing except gauze pads, drying dark red. Someone had definitely been injured, then. Al hoped it wasn't Ms. Teyla.

But aside from the gauze, there was nothing he could use except the defibrillator, and even if he thought he could get close enough to Sheppard to try it, it might kill him, and Al didn't want to risk that. Using the Jumper's systems against the Colonel wouldn't work either. Beckett's gene therapy had only given him his telepathy Gift. Al couldn't activate Ancient tech any better than a normal person could, so he couldn't start the Jumper, as much as he wanted to.

There were no weapons here, so his only real choice was to see if he could forge the link between himself and Sheppard again, try to influence a mind gone near as alien as the Wraith.

And that was the moment when the quiet but steady thrumming of Sheppard's frenzied thoughts suddenly became deafening, and Al turned around to see Sheppard running up the open ramp of the Jumper, coming right at him.

Sheppard grabbed him before he could even get his arms up to defend himself. Then he whirled, and threw Al like a bag of sand out the rear of the Jumper.

Al landed on the Jumper bay floor, winded and rolling, only to be tackled again. This time Sheppard grabbed him around the throat, hoisting him. Al grabbed Sheppard's arm, holding himself up so he wouldn't choke. He swung his legs, kicking Sheppard hard in the chest, in the face, again and again.

Sheppard snarled and dropped him. Al sucked in a huge lungful of air and managed to struggle to his feet before Sheppard could kick him. Sheppard kept coming, moving inhumanly fast. Al blocked a punch to his face, only to miss the one Sheppard rammed into his stomach. Sheppard clocked him in the chin when he doubled over, and then Al was flat on his back and blinking stars out of his eyes. He was staring up at Sheppard's face, with his flat, yellow eyes. He looked like a snake, considering his prey.

Sheppard was bent over, his scaled face close enough to touch. His foot was on Al's chest, slowly pressing down. Al could hear his ribs creaking, deep inside.

Gasping for air, Al wrenched his arms up, clasping either side of Sheppard's head. It wasn't to dislodge him--Al didn't think much of anything would do that--but to use it as a physical anchor. And then he gritted his teeth and forced the link open between them again.

STOP! Al didn't try for anything more sophisticated than that. He didn't have the strength for it. But he was hoping it would make Sheppard let him go, at least.

For a moment, Sheppard's face went blank, except for the slow blinking of those unholy yellow eyes. The pressure on Al's chest didn't ease, but it didn't increase, either.

"That's right, sir," Al said, spitting the words out between shallow gasps. "Move on back now. Let me up."

He thought he heard voices, the sound of people running, but it was hard to tell over the roaring of blood in his ears. His vision was slowly filling up with black spots, and Sheppard wasn't easing up enough for Al to get a full breath.

"Move on back now," Al said again, forcing more of his Gift behind the words, pulling on Sheppard's thoughts. "Just one step, is all. You can do it…."

For a second, Sheppard's foot shifted, the pressure lifting a little, and then it was back, pushing down on Al harder than before. Al grunted in pain. "You," Sheppard said, and Al could hear the disgust in it. "You hurt him."

Images flooded through the link: Al sitting cross-legged on the floor of an abandoned room with McKay's head in his lap; Al's face, empty with exhaustion but his eyes overly-wide and insane, McKay's blood on his hands; McKay in the infirmary, with Johansen swaying on his feet as he worked to heal the damage Al had done; Beckett's miserable, worried face. And so much fear: in Sheppard, all for McKay. And so much anger and hatred, for Albert Conroy. For him.

"I'm sorry," Al said between clenched teeth. "I wasn't--"

"I know," Sheppard said. "Always sorry. Worthless. Worthless apologies, worthless boy." He leaned a little closer, pressed a little more tightly on Al's chest. "Die. You want to. Spare everyone."

The words slithered along the link, lodging like splinters in his brain. It felt like Sheppard was speaking right inside Al's head, whispering things that he'd always known, but had pushed away, locked up tight, tried not to think about.

Worthless boy. Die. Spare everyone.

Al's hands fell away from Sheppard's head to thump limply onto the metal floor of the Jumper bay. He stopped trying to fight for air, to fight at all.

He was useless, stupid. Worthless. Sheppard was right. He was no good to anybody. He had no right, no reason to be alive. Sheppard was doing a favor, for Al and everyone who'd been forced to put up with him--

Sheppard backed off him abruptly, whipping his head to the left. Al stayed on his back, gasping air, his body reacting against his will. Sheppard leapt over the Puddle Jumper and disappeared.

Al stayed where he was, just breathing, only peripherally aware of the other people in the Jumper bay now, the noise of the stunners and the shouts.

"Albert! Albert! Are you all right?"

Al blinked, looking up at Ms. Teyla. She was standing over him. She seemed upset.

"Are you injured?" she asked.

Al didn't answer. He rolled slowly to his front, pushed his way to his hands and knees. He was looking at the P-90 she was holding in her right hand, the muzzle pointed at the floor, then at her handgun, still safely holstered at her thigh. He leaned back onto his haunches.

"Albert?" Ms. Teyla said.

"I'm sorry," Al said, then he launched himself to his feet, snatching her handgun. He turned away from her so she wouldn't get hurt, then pointed the gun at his temple.

Teyla cried out and grabbed the gun, jerking the muzzle up just as Al fired. The bullet missed him entirely, hitting the ceiling instead and ricocheting somewhere.

Al tried to pull the gun away from her, or at least point it at himself and pull the trigger again, but Ms. Teyla was incredibly strong, and she kept bending his right hand until it was so painful he could barely keep his grip, and she'd managed to get one of her fingers over his on the trigger, so he couldn't release it to fire again.

"Albert!" she gasped. "What are you doing?"

"Let me go," he snarled at her. What he was doing was obvious, and if she was a real friend she would let him die. He was a waste of skin and she knew it. She had to know it, everyone did. He'd just been too selfish to do anything….

She was trying not to hurt him, which gave him the advantage since he normally couldn't hope to beat her in a fight. Al lashed out viciously with his foot, kicking Ms. Teyla in the thigh. Her body jerked and she hissed in pain. She didn't let go of the gun, but her grip loosened a little bit, just enough that when Al stepped back and wrenched his whole body into a turn, yanking on the handgun, the sudden move and his greater bodyweight let him finally tear it out of her grip. He knew he'd hurt her again, and he felt real bad about that. But he had the gun now and he wasn't going to hurt anyone anymore. He smiled in triumph, this time pressing the muzzle to his chest, right over his stuttering heart.

There was a bright red flash, and then nothing.

The days stretched out, slow as winter…somewhere. Mer remembered wearing a heavy coat in a something called 'April', knowing it shouldn't be snowing and being miserable about it, but he couldn't remember where that was, or what 'April' meant, exactly. It denoted a measurement of time, that much he knew. And right now time was all he had.

Amagy brought him books: ponderous, hand-bound things that were at once so alien and so familiar that it made his heart ache with a longing that left him gasping as if through a physical pain. Homesick, Mer thought, and he knew exactly what that meant.

The books were her texts on medicine, which touched him deeply because he knew how precious they were to her, and various histories of the Daemlands, as this place was called in its entirety, and even vast, sprawling novels of love and war and deception and all those things he was certain denoted literature no matter what the culture.

Mer liked some of them, but he discovered he read very quickly, and since the books were obviously printed using a hand-set printing press (another thing he knew, though he didn't know why), the type was very large. It took him a pathetically short time to read everything he wanted to on Phagaros' theories of medicine, and while it was interesting enough, some of it was so wrong it was frightening. Even though he didn't know why he was so sure it was wrong.

Amagy insisted that he rest as much as possible, even though his work in the greenhouse wasn't all that taxing. In truth Mer didn't mind her instructions so much, since it got him away from the awful humidity and the overwhelming vegitable smell of the plants. He was allowed to take walks around the palace courtyard, provided he had at least one house servant trailing along with him, or to sit in the shade of one of the ancient trees, or even sleep, if he wanted.

It was an adequate life, he supposed. He had work to do, and if it wasn't meaningful or satisfying it at least kept part of his days occupied. He had people to talk to, even if he couldn't stand most of Riatta's ebullient chatter or put up with Dall's useless gossip half the time. Amagy and Kestine visited with him when possible. Amagy was as renowned a physician as she said she was, apparently, and Kestine helped her, and so they were almost always away from the palace, tending to the people in the surrounding villages. But they came when they could, which was nice of them.

The food was good, even if it was hard to have an appetite after doing amost nothing all day. Mer had come to realize he became ill when he didn't eat enough, however, so he always forced down something.

He didn't understand why certain words would pop into his mind: Naquadah; ZPM; Fission; Wavelet; Millirem; Jumper. Or why some things seemed so familiar--the particular shade of blue in the sky, the way the water rippled in the fountain, the mix of dark browns in Dall's hair--without Mer ever knowing how they were familiar, what any of it meant. Sometimes Mer felt it might actually be easier, without these near-constant reminders that this was not where he was supposed to be. And sometimes he was sure it would be even harder, without the flitting, random memories to give him a whisper of hope that he might find his home again, find himself.

Home, to him, was washes of cool blue, like water, and glimpses of silver towers shining in sunlight. And a smiling face with hazel eyes that always faded whenever he tried to concentrate on it.

Athema spent less time with him than Mer'd expected, which he was constantly grateful for. Irik was always standing just behind her, full of implicit threat, and Mer really didn't want to be beaten again. He hated being scared and being in pain, but most of all he didn't want Amagy to force bedrest on him afterwards. He didn't think he could take being stuck in a bed anymore.

Amagy's overweening concern for him aside, Mer actually quite liked her. And that scared him, because he didn't want to become used to her, or to this place.

He was bored here, and so lonely.

He was in Merrin's former room now, next to Athema's, and the balcony was covered with thick vines. He had tested them one night, to see if they would take his weight, and came away with palms so punctured by thorns that Amagy had raged at him, frightened that infections would take his hands. Mer considered risking it all the same more than once, or leaping over the balcony. But when he was away from his room someone always watched him. And when he was alone he always thought of broken bones--or of Irik and more broken bones--and lost his nerve. He hated himself for his cowardice, but what if he fell badly and got brain damage? Phagaros' instruction on how to deal with brain injury was to keep the person warm and then open up the skull in a few days if they didn't regain consciousness, to let any excess blood out. The idea of damaging his brain was more terrifying than even how Amagy would try to fix him, and he knew already just how much he hated pain. Walking out of the palace was even less possible, considering everyone recognized him and would never let him leave. So he stayed where he was.

Some days he thought he thought he might lose what was left of his mind because of the boredom and loneliness, and some days he thought that might not be so bad.

"It's kind of boring, watching people sleep."

Teyla Emmagan jumped, yanking her hand out of Albert's lax one. She spun to see Ronon standing next to her.

"Yes," she said quickly, over the hammering of her heart. "But Doctor Heightmeyer told me they will wake him up tomorrow morning." Kate Heightmeyer had called the artificial coma a 'reset' that would allow Albert's mind to heal. If it failed, they would keep him safely restrained until John was lucid enough to try to reverse the damage he'd done. And if that failed…. She took a deep breath. "How is Colonel Sheppard?"

Ronon shrugged, but Teyla already knew him well enough to see the casualness was just a pretense, hiding a fear as cutting and deep as what she felt for both John and Albert. "No change as far as I can see. At least he's not trying to rip his arms out of the sockets anymore."

Teyla's mouth flickered in a tiny smile. "That is definitely an improvement." John had been placed in his own coma so he wouldn't hurt himself trying to escape from the infirmary again, or hurt anyone else.

Ronon grunted, but his eyes were on Albert now, lying still and oblivious. "I've never seen anyone who wanted to die that bad," he said, and there was something like awe in his voice. "'Way he fought you for his gun."

Teyla nodded. She smiled again, a little more widely, though no more lingering. "He is certainly tenacious." She looked at Albert, wishing irrationally that he would move, do something that would indicate that he was all right, or at least that he would be.

"I'm afraid he will die, Ronon," she said, surprising herself. "I'm afraid that he can't be healed of this, and he will find a way to take his life before anyone can stop him."

Ronon put his big hand on her shoulder, engulfing it in warmth. "He'll be okay," he said. "Sheppard'll fix him. You'll see. And then we'll get McKay back, and I'll kill the people who stole him." There was nothing like doubt in his voice, and Teyla wished she could share his conviction, his absolute certainty.

But she nodded anyway, because what Ronon said was exactly what she wanted. "I should go sit with him," she said, looking over to John's bed again.

"There's no hurry," Ronon said. He patted her shoulder, nodding at the other side of the infirmary with his chin. "Ford's still there, reading some book about a war to him. You can stay here and hold your friend's hand."

When Teyla looked at him, startled and embarrassed, he just gave her a huge, white grin.

"I think he moved some," Aiden said, when Teyla came later to sit next to him at John's bedside. He gave her a quick, exuberant smile. "The doc says he's going to be well enough to talk again in a few days, when they wake him up. That'll be so cool."

Teyla made herself smile back, because that would be a good thing, an excellent thing. When they had been hunting John through Atlantis, she had feared that he was lost to them, nothing but an animal in human form. When she had aimed her P-90 at him, preparing herself to fire, she had wondered if it wouldn't be the kindest way to end it--a quick, merciful death while even part of John remained human.

She was so glad now that Ronon had stunned John before she could pull the trigger.

"Um, do you want to be alone with him?" Aiden asked, and Teyla realized she hadn't spoken, was likely unnerving him with he silence.

"I'm sorry," she said, forcing yet another smile. "Yes, I would like that, if you wouldn't mind."

"Sure, no problem," Aiden said. "I need to go meet with my team, anyway." He put the book he'd been reading--War and Peace, as Teyla had guessed--on the table next to John's bed. He gave her a polite nod and another blinding grin. "Later, Sheppard," he said to John, then left, walking swiftly out of the room.

Teyla settled into the chair in Aiden's stead.

John was sleeping as quietly and as still as Albert, with the same tubes in him. Teyla wondered what sustenance he could receive like this, and how Carson had discovered it. Perhaps the cure had already begun to work.

It didn't look like it. John's face was still blue-grey, his neck scaled on either side like a lizard, and his hands were blue with long, sharp black claws. Teyla was certain that if she pried his eyelids open she would find his eyes were yellow as an animal's, with slit pupils. Ancestors only knew when he would be completely himself again.

Carson had said it would take weeks. And who would John be, when he was human again? What would John do now, after the creature he'd briefly become? After he'd done such damage with his Gift?

She reached down to take John's hand, not hesitating despite the color and formidable claws.

"We are still here," she said quietly, her words for him alone. "Your friends do not blame you. None of this was your fault."

But she didn't think he could hear her, and she doubted he would believe her if he could.

She missed Rodney like a constant, raw ache, like an unhealed wound. They were as different as night and day, and sometimes he infuriated her beyond endurance, but he was her teammate, and good friend, and she wanted him back safe and sound and home, and she wanted to kill his captors as fiercely as Ronon did.

She missed Rodney every day, but she hadn't felt his loss as keenly as she did this moment, when John had almost been lost to them as well, and when he had yet to wake up and be returned to them.

In his delirium, John had been so desperate to find Rodney that he had attacked Elizabeth. And soon he would be lucid again, but Rodney was still not found, and they might never find him.

John would have no lover, no anchor, nothing. And Teyla was sure that the knowledge of the injuries he'd caused--deliberate or not--would eat at him like a cancer, like she knew every mistake he'd ever made did, like every bad decision, real or imagined. He would be gnawed by his own conscience until there was nothing left. And Rodney wasn't there to help him, to stop the cycle before it started with a few choice insults and affectionate derision. And Teyla wasn't sure that she or Ronon could help John without Rodney there, if he would allow them to. John would certainly never let anyone else get close enough to even try.

"I won't let you run from us, John," Teyla said. And she gripped his hand harder, because in a few days he might not let her touch him at all.

Evan hated it when the Daedalus was in orbit over Lantea. It meant that Colonel Caldwell was on base, and all the men under Sheppard's command felt the heightened tension. Especially now that McKay was missing and Sheppard was…incapacitated.

Speaking of the devil, there Caldwell was, knocking on the doorway of the ward. Luckily, the only patient occupying this section of the infirmary other than Evan was one of the botanists, Dr. Katie Brown. She was in the bed by the far wall, sleeping off the drug hangover from dealing with a severe reaction to a Pegasus galaxy insect bite. Evan had no doubt that at least his military visitors would have made a joke about that, probably called this the "bug ward" or something, except a joke like that would have been in monumental bad taste, considering their commanding officer's current condition. Not that Evan doubted that they made the joke anyway, bad taste or not, outside of his hearing.

"Major," Caldwell called, as he stepped closer to the bed. "Good to see you looking better."

Evan gave him the best salute he could and struggled to sit up. "Good morning, Colonel."

"As you were, son," Caldwell said cordially.

Evan relaxed slightly, letting himself ease back down onto the hospital bed. He was feeling better than he had been, but the wounds on his neck were still oozing and sore. Beckett had said that he'd developed some kind of infection from having dead bug parts stuck in his neck for so long before returning to Atlantis, but with a few antibiotics, and a bit of Johansen's Gift, he was almost cured.

He'd probably get out of the infirmary tomorrow, if Beckett went easy on him.

Just then the orderly--Corpsman Downes, if Evan remembered correctly--entered, pushing the breakfast trolley. "Breakfast time, boys and gi-- sir!" Downes came to attention and saluted.

Caldwell smiled. "As you were, Corpsman. Do you happen to have an extra cup of coffee on that thing?"

Downes blinked. "Let me get one for you, sir. I'll be right back." He dashed out the door, abandoning the breakfast cart. Evan's stomach rumbled.

Caldwell's smile broadened and he winked at Evan before going over and tugging the cart closer to Evan's bed. "Which one of these is yours?"

Evan's stomach rumbled again, embarrassingly. "Um, the eggs, sir."

Caldwell lifted covers until he spotted the tray with the eggs and toast, then he maneuvered that onto Evan's bedside tray table, along with the cartons of juice and milk. Caldwell inclined his head towards the still-sleeping Brown. "What about her?"

"The Corpsman will wake her if it says to on her chart. Otherwise, he'll just leave the tray by her bed for when she wakes up on her own," Evan told him, while locating the cutlery and napkins. "Feel free to take one of the breakfasts if you haven't eaten yet, sir. I'd be pleased if you would join me." It wasn't a lie. Evan didn't mind Caldwell; he just didn't like how unpleasant his presence made things.

"If you think that would be okay," Caldwell said dubiously. "Don't they need these for the patients?"

"It's fine, sir!" said Downes briskly, sweeping in with Caldwell's coffee and swiftly depositing one of the breakfasts on the table next to the visitor's chair by Evan's bed. "I'll just get another breakfast from the messhall."

Caldwell bemusedly allowed himself to be fussed over and situated. Downes briskly glanced at Brown's chart before depositing a breakfast on her bedside table, then he scurried out of the room.

Evan dug into his food. One good thing about the Daedalus's visits was that the food in the mess included a lot more Earth staples for a few weeks afterwards. "Mmmm, good eggs," he said. "Thanks for bringing these, sir. And real bacon!" He ignored the 'ping' his Gift caused him as he ate the eggs. The scientist who was allergic to them was fully aware of it, and unlikely to eat them any time soon. He took another bite.

Caldwell frowned. "I hate to break it to you, son, but the eggs are powdered, not fresh."

Evan took a sip of his juice before saying, "True, but they're the right color. The lizard eggs we normally get from PR9-447 are blue. There are chicken-like birds here in Pegasus, but we don't get to trade for the eggs all that often."

Caldwell blinked at his toast, as if he expected it to suddenly turn another color. "I suppose that might be disconcerting."

"It's not that bad," Evan said. He took another bite of his scrambled eggs, grinning inwardly to himself at Caldwell's discomfort. That never got old. "You add enough Tabasco sauce and anything is edible."

Caldwell snorted and took another sip of his coffee. Then he carefully put the cup down.
"I'm glad to see you looking so much better, Major." His stance shifted subtly, and Evan knew the pleanstries were over. Caldwell took a breath. "I wanted to inform you privately, before it comes through official channels. Considering Colonel Sheppard's…situation, and your own current incapacity, Dr. Weir has asked me to take over interim command of Atlantis Base."

Yeah, there went the pleasant breakfast. Evan put his fork down. "I appreciate your letting me know personally, sir. And I'm grateful you were here yesterday, to coordinate the search for Colonel Sheppard." Mostly because he'd been barely conscious at the time, but it was true enough.

"I'm just glad we were able to catch him before he gained control of one of the Puddle Jumpers." Caldwell rubbed the back of his neck. He sighed. "Major, I also wanted to talk to you about the search for Dr. McKay. How is it going?"

Evan held back a wince and put down the juice he'd been about to drink. He'd been enjoying his breakfast, too. Now the eggs sat like a stone in his stomach. He pushed the plate away. "We're following leads and eliminating possibilities, sir," he said carefully.

Caldwell looked at his hands, as if he didn't particularly like saying this any more than Evan wanted to hear it. "I'd been expecting to have this conversation with Colonel Sheppard, but under the circumstances…" He shook his head. "Major, I realize that Dr. McKay is a valuable resource for this expedition. Nevertheless, the SGC and IOA have determined that the chances of recovering him don't justify the resources Atlantis is committing to the search. They've directed Dr. Weir to assign a new chief of science and resume normal operations." Caldwell played with the handle of his coffee cup, not meeting Evan's eyes.

The news wasn't surprising, but that didn't make it any easier to hear. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, how did Dr. Weir take it?" Evan dared to ask.

"Not well." Caldwell rubbed his temples. That had probably been a severe understatement.

Evan hesitated. "Forgive me, sir, but once Colonel Sheppard recovers, he won't take it well either. Dr. McKay was a friend as well as a colleague."

Caldwell looked up, his face startled. "You believe Sheppard will recover? From being turned into a bug?" he blurted. Then he grimaced, as if embarrassed the question had come out of his mouth.

"Of course, sir," Evan said a little testily. "I wouldn't have led the mission to get those eggs and risked the lives of my people on a wild goose chase. Dr. Beckett can pull off medical miracles almost as easily as Dr. McKay can pull off technological ones. They'd all been so careful to keep to the present tense, as if McKay had just stepped out for another cup of coffee….

He squelched that line of thought. "Sir, I'm afraid calling off the search for McKay won't be good for the morale of the base in general. Dr. McKay was well-respected, and people here counted on him, even if he wasn't always well-liked." He paused, took another drink of juice so he could avoid asking the question for one more second. "If I may ask, sir, have they declared him KIA or MIA?"

Caldwell sat back in his chair, looking off into the distance behind Evan's left shoulder, as if he was uncomfortable. Probably the whole mess did make him uncomfortable. Strangely, Evan found he didn't have a whole lot of sympathy for him at the moment.

"They've declared him officially MIA for now," Caldwell said slowly. "And, yes, they've sent notice of that status to his family. I can bring back a more personal note from you, Colonel Sheppard, Dr. Weir, or any of his other friends, when the Daedalus goes back to Earth."

"We appreciate that, Colonel," Evan murmured. He was already dreading the idea of having to write a personal note, even though he knew he would. He wasn't McKay's biggest fan, but he respected him, and he thought McKay's family should know that. "That said, I would advise not calling off the search until Colonel Sheppard is on his feet again."

"That's what Dr. Weir said." Caldwell nodded, seemingly content to agree.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Caldwell added, "I think Colonel Sheppard will deal with this better than you're all anticipating. Dr. McKay may have been Sheppard's friend, but he's gone now. We've all served in wartime, Major. We've all lost friends to combat. Undoubtedly, Colonel Sheppard has dealt with the necessity of moving on and honoring his friends' memories before. I believe he'll understand, and do what's right."

"You may have a point, sir," Evan allowed, although privately he thought Caldwell couldn't have read Sheppard's service jacket very thoroughly if he believed Sheppard would consent to leave a man behind without a fight. And he didn't know John Sheppard at all if he thought Sheppard would ever give up on finding Rodney McKay.

He didn't have the luxury to speak his mind aloud, though, so Evan toyed with the remainder of his breakfast while Caldwell ate, and answered the Colonel's questions on details of running the base.

Between Sheppard's rampage, and Caldwell's news from the IOA, Evan almost didn't look forward to Sheppard's recovery anymore--the recovery he'd almost died to secure.

He sure didn't want to be in Sheppard's vicinity when he heard the news.

"Carson," Teyla said quietly, though her voice carried quite well in the silence of the near-empty infirmary, holding an odd combination of wary and hopeful. "I believe the Colonel is waking."

Carson had been analyzing the latest samples of Sheppard's blood, mostly using his Gift with the computer for backup. Sheppard's DNA was definitely repairing itself, which was an incredible relief, even if the process wasn't quite as fast as Carson would have liked. He had ceased the medication keeping Sheppard in an artificial coma early the day before, allowing him to surface into natural sleep. He hadn't expected Sheppard to wake up right now, however, though it was certainly welcome.

Carson dropped the samples on his lab table and rushed to Sheppard's bed, nearly slamming into the bedside table as he slid through the gap in the privacy curtain. Teyla smiled at him, quick and anxious, and he gave her a brief nod in return.

Sheppard was moving restlessly, as if fighting his way out from unconsciousness or unpleasant dreams. The scales on his face and neck were nearly gone, leaving only light blue ridges. Sheppard's hands had lost their scales as well, though they were still blue, and his right hand still curved menacingly into black claws. All the claws had fallen off his left hand, however, and the first translucent shells of normal fingernails were growing back over the nail beds.

"John," Teyla said softly. She stroked Sheppard's forehead and cheek with her fingers. "It is time to wake up now. Dr. Beckett and I are here. Open your eyes."

As if on her command, Sheppard's eyes flew open, and Teyla pulled her hand back. Sheppard's eyes were more yellow than brown or green, but the pupils were wide ovals, becoming round again. Now they darted around wildly, as if not sure what to settle on or what he was looking at. Carson wasn't entirely sure that Sheppard was able to see properly.

Teyla smiled warmly at him. "You're safe, John. You're in the infirmary."

Sheppard blinked several times, and swallowed. His mouth moved, as if he was trying to remember how to form words.

"Take your time, lad," Carson said, smiling as well. "It's been a few days since you've broke breath, I'm sure you're not yet used to it."

Sheppard's eyes fastened on him as soon as Carson spoke, and while it was good that Sheppard could apparently see--at least enough to make out faces--it would have been unsettling all the same if it wasn't so obvious that his intense focus was born from fear.

"Rodney?" he asked, and his voice was unused and creaking.

Carson let out a slow breath. "He's still missing," he said. "I'm so sorry."

Sheppard's face crumpled like a child, his unnaturally yellow eyes going liquid and bright. "I thought…." he started, but seemed unable to finish the idea. He looked at Teyla, his face imploring. "I was looking for him."

Teyla nodded. "We know, John," she said. "No one has stopped looking for him. We will find him, I promise."

Sheppard closed his eyes, swallowed thickly, though he nodded. He looked at Carson again. "You said 'days'?"

"Aye," Carson said. He kept smiling, trying to reassure him. "We had to keep you unconscious, so the anti-viral medication could work. It's been six days, or thereabouts."

"Anti-viral?" Sheppard asked, and Carson couldn't tell if he wanted confirmation, or if he couldn't understand.

"Yes," Teyla said. She smiled at him, and it made her exquisitely beautiful. "Dr. Beckett was able to make a cure for you. You have already begun to heal--soon you will be yourself again."

Sheppard blinked again. He looked back and forth between Carson and Teyla, and Carson saw Teyla's smile falter a bit. Sheppard didn't seem relieved, let alone happy at the news, but it was possible he wasn't yet lucid enough to grasp what it meant.

"Ronon," he said slowly, as if making sure he said the word properly. He looked at Teyla now. "He isn't here. Did I hurt him?"

"No," Teyla said immediately. "Ronon is fine. He was here all day. Dr. Beckett ordered him away to sleep." She lifted her hand so that her fingers hovered over the earpiece of her radio. "Do you want me to call him?" She widened her smile again. "I'm sure he would like to see you."

"No," Sheppard said. He shook his head in an unnatural, jerky movement. "Later. Let him sleep." He rubbed his eye with the side of a hand, then held it in front of his face, looking at it in the dim infirmary light.

"It's not nearly as…different as it was," Carson said quickly, trying not to stammer. He had been going to say 'not nearly as bad', but had barely managed to stop himself. Teyla shot him a brief glance before refocusing on Sheppard.

"You are improving very quickly," Teyla said.

Sheppard was still looking at his hand, with as much disgusted fascination as if he'd not seen it before. Maybe he couldn't remember. He turned to Teyla again. "I think…I think I hurt people," he said. He dropped his hand to his stomach, and the fingers clenched, as if trying to form a fist.

Teyla took a deep breath. "There were injuries," she said carefully. "Elizabeth had some bruises, and there were a few Marines who required healing."

Sheppard kept looking at her. "What else?" he asked.

Teyla glanced at Carson, too quickly for him to really catch her expression, but Carson knew what it meant--it wouldn't do the lad any good to know about using his Gift. Not now, possibly not ever, though he knew they couldn't keep it from him for long.

Carson stepped a little closer, and Sheppard's eyes darted to him again with unsettling quickness. "No one was seriously hurt, son," Carson said. It wasn't a lie if he only meant physical injuries.

Sheppard sat up, never breaking their gaze. "What else did I do?" he asked. His voice was cold, but Carson didn't miss the slight tremble in it.

"You did nothing else," Teyla said staunchly, lying with far more ease and facility than Carson would have given her credit for. Sometimes he forgot she was a political leader, as well as warrior and guide.

Sheppard's yellow-tinged eyes narrowed, and his expression darkened. "No," he said, lips curling back. "Stop it. Stop lying." He turned his full attention to Carson again. "What else did I do?"

Carson tried not to swallow or step back. "Lad…."

"It is very late," Teyla cut in smoothly, her voice gentle and reasonable and completely calm. "We should talk in the morning--"

"No," Sheppard snarled, cutting her off. He bared his teeth, surprisingly human and very white against his skin. "Tell me what I did. Now."

"You charmed Albert Conroy," Carson said immediately. "You convinced him to commit suicide."

"Carson!" Teyla looked at him, shocked.

"What?" Carson asked, blinking. "I just answered…." He broke off, eyes widening. "Oh my God." He clapped his hand over his mouth, as if that could somehow help now that it was far too late. He lowered his hand, clenching it, watching it start to shake with the spike of adrenaline. He stared at Sheppard in shock. "You charmed me? You bloody charmed me? What the hell--?"

Sheppard paled. Carson could see it easily, how the blue color of the ridges faded. "I'm sorry!" he said. He looked just as poleaxed as Carson felt. "I wasn't…I didn't--"

"It wasn't your fault," Teyla said quickly. She looked momentarily at Carson, and he saw that her own eyes held no small amount of fear, but she kept her voice gentle and kind. If she felt any of the same revulsion churning through Carson's guts, she didn't show it. "You're not wholly in control of your Gift. John," she said, because it was obvious he wasn't listening. "John! No one blames you."

Sheppard's breathing sped up, his awful yellow eyes widening, glittering like cat's eyes in the infirmary's semi-dark. He groped blindly for a bedrail, gripping so tightly that Carson was worried he might still be strong enough to break it. His face was an absolute rictus of horror, and for a moment he looked frozen with it, unable to move. Then he started to gag.

There was an emesis basin on the table, in case Sheppard had a bad reaction to the medication, and Carson grabbed it automatically, thrusting it into Sheppard's hands as he began heaving, emptying out the meager contents of his stomach.

"John--" Teyla reached for him, putting her hand on his shoulder, over the short sleeve of the hospital gown.

Sheppard jerked away so violently that the basin shot out of his hands to land clattering and spilling on the infirmary floor. Teyla yanked her hand back.

"Don't touch me," Sheppard said, desperation in his voice. He gripped the bedrails on either side, holding on like the metal was the only anchor left for him in the universe. His entire body was shaking. "Is Conroy dead?" he asked. He swallowed thickly.

"No!" Teyla exclaimed. "John," she said forcefully. "You must listen to me!" Carson saw her clench her hands, probably to keep herself from trying to touch him again. "You did not kill Albert. He is alive." She took a step closer, and Sheppard visibly flinched. Teyla swallowed and moved back. "He is alive. Do you understand?"

Sheppard nodded numbly, but he was breathing far too fast. His face had gone grey, sweat coming out along his forehead where he was purely human. He looked like someone on the verge of passing out from shock.

"Son, you need to calm down!" Carson barked, earning another unreadable glance from Teyla. He grit his teeth, forced himself to push his own anger aside. He tried to remind himself that Sheppard wasn't rational yet, that he would have never used his Gift like that if he were. It did very little to quell the sick sense of violation.

"Look at me," Carson said, managing to make his voice more kind, and he was both surprised and thankful when Sheppard turned his head towards him. "Take deep, slow breaths, like this." He breathed in and out slowly, twice, hoping Sheppard would understand and follow him.

Sheppard nodded jerkily, but he managed a single, shuddering breath, then another one. After the third he no longer looked quite so much like death, and Carson began to relax a little. He'd been concerned he'd have to sedate him.

"That's it," he coaxed. "Deep breaths. You're all right, son. You're going to be fine."

Sheppard just shook his head mutely.

"You shouldn't touch me," he said to both of them, still shaking, and Carson was hit with a wave of recognition so strong he almost gasped.

You shouldn't touch me, Sheppard had said to him, standing in the infirmary nearly a year ago. After Sheppard had finally allowed himself to touch Rodney, only to believe he had psychically damaged him, certain that his touch, combined with his Gift, would drive Rodney to suicide.


Dear God, Carson thought. John Sheppard was probably thinking he'd been dropped back into hell.

"Colonel," he said, slowly and clearly, "whatever you think happened--whatever you imagine you did, it wasn't you, do you understand? You were terribly sick from the retrovirus, barely lucid--"

Sheppard made a noise that might have been a laugh, but sounded like nails on stone. "Who was it then, Beckett?" he asked. "That was my Gift! That was me! And, and I…." His breath hitched. He let go of the bedrails, only to cover his face with his hands. "I did it to you, too. I didn't even think about it."

"John…." Teyla said. She stepped closer, but still didn't move her hands towards him.

"Can I be alone, please?" Sheppard asked.

"I do not think that is wise," Teyla said.

"She's right," Carson said. "You've had a bit of a shock, and I don't think you should be alone right now." He put his hand to his ear, but didn't tap his radio. "I'm going to call Doctor Heightmeyer, all right?" It wasn't really a question. "Teyla will stay with you until she gets here." He looked at Teyla as he spoke, and she nodded.

"Of course," Teyla said. "It will be my pleasure."

Carson called Kate. The poor woman had just gone to bed, but she said she would come to the infirmary as soon as she was dressed, bless her. He just hoped she'd be able to help.

He expected he'd have to speak with Kate as well, eventually. He wasn't looking forward to it.

"I really want to be alone," Sheppard said. He swallowed. "You can't trust me." He dropped his hands from his face, but kept looking down and away.

"We can always trust you," Teyla said. "You are unwell right now--that changes nothing."

Sheppard shook his head, but he didn't try to argue. He glanced up at Carson. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right, lad," Carson said, trying to mean it. It's not his fault, he told himself viciously. If anyone caused this, it's you. It was Carson who had made the mistake of bringing the unfinished retrovirus to where Elia could find it. If his stomach was still knotted with revulsion he'd only himself to blame.

But it was very hard to let go of the sense of betrayal.

"I know you wouldn't've done it under ordinary circumstances." That much was true at least, even if he had to force himself to say it.

"Sure," Sheppard said, but he let out another awful non-laugh again, like he didn't believe it. "Whatever you say."

"…And that's the First Daemor there. See the way his robe sweeps across the sky?" Dall pointed.

Mer squinted, but he really didn't see it. He grunted in acknowledgement anyway. Telling Mer about the constellations made Dall happy and it meant they could be outside on the balcony, in the relatively cooler night air, looking up at the stars.

Dall grinned at him, his teeth flashing in the darkness, and pointed again. "Behind the First Daemor are his Three Thralls, see?"

"Yeah," Mer said softly. Unlike the Daemor, who had various stars delineating his robes and shoes and staff and eyes, the Thralls were just three individual stars, less bright than most of the stars that made up the Daemor, appearing to sit in a row behind the Daemor's figure. "What about those?" He pointed at some twinkling stars in a cluster over in the southern quadrant.

"Those are the Dancing Sisters. There's a story about why they dance and how their lovers were sold into indenture, but there's a lot of mushy girl stuff in it about True Love and things like that," Dall said, his voice sounding resigned.

Mer's heart had thumped hard in his chest for an instant over the "True Love" comment, but he ignored it. If he'd ever had a true love, they were gone forever. He just hoped they hadn't been hurt or killed when the slavers had taken him. "They're not really dancing, you know," he informed Dall, to distract himself from his own thoughts.

"But look, they are! See the way they move?" Dall said, appearing interested again since his audience hadn't insisted on hearing about the 'mushy girl stuff.' "There's a song it's said they dance to. It goes, 'Heya, when the Sisters dance all night, when the heaven's lights are bright, heya'--"

"Stars don't move like that," Mer insisted, interrupting Dall. "They just look like they're moving, because we're seeing them through layers of atmosphere."

"What is 'at-mos-fear'?" Dall asked.

Mer tried to answer, but his tongue stuck in his mouth. How had he known that? What was atmosphere? He bludgeoned his useless memory for the information. "I…uh…" he took a deep breath, and it hit him. "It's the air!" He waved an arm in emphasis. "The stuff we breathe, Dall. How far up do you think it goes?"

The faint light reflected from Dall's eyes as he rolled them. "To the Crown of the Heavens, of course!"

Mer snorted. He wanted to argue with Dall again about the simplistic notion of the heavens sitting like a physical cap on top of the world, but he didn't want to lose the argument. Dall had the fanatical conviction of the truly ignorant, but Mer only had his broken memory to provide answers for rebuttal, and it wasn't enough.

"What's over there?" he asked instead, pointing to the western sky. "What are those big stars called?"

Next to him, Dall shivered.

"What?" Mer asked, putting his arm around the child and draping some of the unnecessary blanket over him. "You can't be cold, can you? Are you sick?"

"No, I'm not cold," Dall shook his head, pushing away the blanket. He pointed with an unsteady hand. "Those are the Wraith in their ships. See the light that sweeps away the people? There--those are the people running away."

"I'm sorry," Mer said softly. Dall had already told him that his former neighbours had sold him into service when Dall's entire family had been culled.

"No, it's all right," Dall said, shrugging one shoulder up. "See over there? That's the terrible Queen Wraith. See her hair? And her red eyes? And that dark circle, do you see that, Mer? We call that Wraith-Heart, because it's empty, except for their hunger for death."

This time Mer shivered, some phantom memory of a Wraith's eyes tickling the edge of his mind. He spoke without thinking, "That's probably another planet in your solar system, blocking the light of the stars behind it. Actually, I wonder if that might be a black hole? I wish we had a telescope so we could see the stars better."

Dall was still beside him for a long beat.

"What? Are you okay?" Mer asked, finally looking away from the stars to his young companion.

Dall tilted his head. "Mer, what is 'so-lar-sys-tem'? And what are 'black-hole' and 'tele-scope'?"

Mer opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again when his mind stayed blank. He sighed. "Things I've forgotten, Dall. Things I've forgotten." He shut his eyes, the sight of the stars abruptly painful as well as beautiful, and swallowed hard. He didn't want Dall to see him cry. He didn't want to weep again, and the boy had seen too much of his pain as it was.

Dall just sighed, leaned against him, and began to sing softly, "…and then they dried their eyes, heya. And jumped to the skies, heya. And began to dance, heya…."

The door was locked, which Teyla had only expected, but the fact that John continually refused to answer the chime was making her both concerned and irritated.

"Colonel Sheppard!" she called again, keeping neither the exasperation nor the anxiety out of her voice. "Please, open the door! John!" There was still nothing.

Sighing, Teyla tapped her earpiece instead, opening a private channel. "John," she said, clipped and distinct, "if you do not open your door immediately, I will be forced to claim a medical emergency. Which means a medical team will come here, as well as Radek to open your door, and probably several Marines. And considering you were just released from the infirmary I doubt very much you would like to go back there this soon." She crossed her arms and waited, wondering if John even had his radio on, or if he would believe her threat if he did. She hoped he would, considering she was fully prepared to carry it out.

The door opened so suddenly that Teyla almost jumped when it slid aside. But John had only come to the door long enough to unlock it. He didn't even speak to her before he turned and disappeared further into the room.

"Oh, no," Teyla breathed. John was wearing long-sleeves again.

Teyla followed him quickly. He didn't acknowledge her.

The room was neat in general, which made the small, incongruous piles of clothing on the bed and floor that much more obviously wrong. John had evidently been searching for something in his clothes cupboards, but with such haste and carelessness that he had ended up shoving his clothing onto the floor.

"What are you looking for?" Teyla asked, because that was what John had gone back to doing as soon as his door was open. As she watched, John yanked open a drawer and began pawing through it, scattering more clothing. He made a noise of frustration, then slammed the drawer shut.

"Heightmeyer send you?" John asked suddenly. Teyla blinked, because she had been certain he wasn't going to speak to her at all. He pulled open a final drawer without waiting for an answer, but shoved it closed again after only glancing in it. "Damn it!"

"You missed your scheduled appointment," Teyla said. She moved closer, careful not to step on the clothing on the floor. There wasn't all that much of it, really, reflecting the Colonel's asceticism. Most of the piles were of black t-shirts, some still rolled up neatly, and seeing the crushed, innocent shirts, abandoned like John would never wear them again, made something in Teyla's chest go cold with fear.

"So you're her messenger girl now?" John asked, but the question seemed perfunctory. John was standing among the piles of clothing, looking at each of them as if the object he was trying to find would appear if he just stared hard enough. He ran his hands through his hair.

"She thought my presence would be more welcome," Teyla said truthfully.

That made John look up at her, as if seeking something in her face, but he didn't reply.

He looked awful. He had been permanently released from the infirmary less than two hours ago, but it still seemed like he had gone at least a night without sleep. He was pale, almost startlingly so against the black of his long-sleeved shirt, carefully fastened closed to his neck. And he was ragged, care-worn. He looked even worse than he had since Rodney had first gone missing.

"Carson will confine you to the city if you don't speak to Kate," Teyla said. John already knew this, of course, and his venomous glare wasn't surprising considering how real that threat was. He had been unable to hunt for Rodney for over a month already because of the retrovirus, and Teyla knew John wouldn't forgive himself for that. Nor did it matter how diligently the other gate teams had searched without him. She was sure John would never stop wondering if Rodney might have been found by now, if he had been able to lead his own team.

"I'll apologize later," John said. He looked away from her finally, back down at his clothing. "I just have to find something first." She saw his head move as he scrutinized one pile then another, then he finally gave up with a small noise of anger. He stalked towards the door.

Teyla followed him, hurrying to keep up with his longer legs. "Where are you going?" she asked, because she was certain it wasn't to Kate's office.

"To stores," John said, biting out each word. He didn't look at her, but she saw that he kept at least a body's-width of space between them as they walked, so they wouldn't accidentally bump each other.

Teyla had been anticipating this: that John would retreat from touch.

"You don't have to do this," she said, though she gave him the distance he so obviously needed. There was no one else in the hallway, but she lowered her voice all the same. "You are no more a threat to anyone now than you ever were. Nothing that happened to you changes that."

John just laughed, but it was thin and completely unreal. "Tell that to Conroy."

Teyla tightened her jaw for a moment, thinking of her friend pointing her gun at his heart. His hopeless, relieved smile while he did it. "Albert doesn't blame you."

"Good for him," John said.

He stepped into a transporter and Teyla followed him. "Why are we going to stores?" she asked, as John pressed a destination on the map.

John's smile was grim and as stark as his eyes. "I need to get something," he said, as the transporter doors opened again. He deftly moved to the side, away from the possibility of her touch, and balled his hands into fists, walking faster.

Perhaps it was his fists, perhaps it was the shirt or the circumstances or even the way John was walking, but all of a sudden Teyla realized what he thought he needed, and she felt her eyes go wide even as she gasped.

"John--!" she started, but this corridor was well-used and she held the words back, made herself nod cordially at the scientist who passed. "John," she said, far more quietly when they were alone again, "they will not help you." She gestured at his sleeves, but didn't touch. "None of this will help you."

John didn't answer, and then they had reached the large storeroom, and Teyla followed John in as the doors slid aside.

The lights went on at their presence, the way lights in Atlantis always did, and John wove his way through the stacks and metal shelves as if he knew exactly where to go.

The uniform items were at the back, and Teyla watched as John shoved boxes aside so violently that she had to catch one before it tipped and spilled blue shirts out onto the floor.

"Come on…come on…." John was muttering to himself. "I know they're here, come on…. Yes!" he finally said in triumph. He pulled a much smaller box out from where it had been crushed into a corner. He grabbed it off the shelf and set it on a crate on the floor, kneeling next to it. Then he used his field knife to slit it open.

"This will change nothing," Teyla said, hearing the mounting desperation in her own voice.

"You don't understand," John said. He dug through the contents of the box with barely-controlled haste, until he found what he was looking for. He pulled out a pair of shooting gloves, black and made of some kind of tanned animal skin. He checked something on the inside of the wrist, then smiled thinly and used his knife again, this time to cut the tie that held the gloves together. He carefully re-sheathed his knife.

"Rodney would not want you to retreat this way," Teyla said, before he could put them on. She knelt down across from him, so he could see her face. She wanted very badly to reach for him as well, but she knew contact would only make it worse.

John froze, then squeezed the gloves in a fist. He closed his eyes briefly, as if he was in pain.

"Rodney's not here," he said thickly.

"No," Teyla said. "But this won't help find him, and he would be terribly upset to know you were wearing this clothing again." She dared to grasp the gloves in John's hand, as if by touching them she could also touch him. His eyes slid to her hand, then back to her face, but he said nothing. "He will be very upset to see it, when we find him."

John looked away, his mouth moving silently as if over words he refused to speak, though she knew they were there. We're not going to find him.

Rodney McKay had been gone for a long time.

But instead Teyla saw John's jaw clench, and he said, "Yeah, probably." But he didn't put them down.

"Then why?" Teyla asked. She was still holding part of the gloves, gently tugging, trying to encourage John to let go without making it a fight, but he wouldn't.

"Because Rodney was wrong," John said, and his eyes were as hard as stone when he looked at her. "He told me that I couldn't hurt anyone with my Gift, that it was impossible." He smirked humorlessly. "He said he was the smartest guy in two galaxies, and that I was an idiot if I didn't believe him." His voice dropped. "I wanted to believe him so much. I made myself believe him."

Teyla shifted on her feet, moving a little closer to him. "He was not wrong," she said. She let go of his gloves, reaching for him. "You can't think--"

John leapt to his feet and backed up so quickly he hit a row of shelves with a sharp clatter. "Don't do that," he said, his voice rough.

"I am sorry," Teyla said immediately, standing also. "But John," she said, "you can't think that because you behaved uncharacteristically when you were ill that what Rodney told you is meaningless!"

"You don't get it!" John shouted, loudly enough that Teyla abruptly remembered where they were, that it was possible people could hear them in the corridor. "Of course it's meaningless!" He lowered his voice again, evidently hanging desperately to his self-control. "He told me I couldn't hurt anyone, and I did," he said, sneering over the words. All his loathing was directed inwardly, at himself. "Someone almost died, because of me. Because of my Gift."

"Yes he did!" Teyla shot back, surprising herself with her own vehemence. She didn't blame John for what happened any more than Albert did, but that didn't mean she was prepared for how frightened she had been. "But you would never have used your Gift that way if it hadn't been for the retrovirus! Carson doesn't even think you could use your Gift in such a fashion, if you hadn't been changing--!"

"But he doesn't know, does he?" John said hotly, interrupting her. "Rodney said that, too--that I couldn't make people do anything they weren't inclined to do first, that no Charmer could do that. But I did!" He took a breath, scrubbed his free hand over his face. "I did," he said again, more softly. "And maybe, maybe it wasn't the retrovirus. Maybe I could always do that." His mouth twisted in a small, bitter smile. "Maybe I just needed to be pissed off enough. Maybe I just needed to lose my conscience."

"John," Teyla said urgently. "You must not think like that!"

"The thing is, I was touching Conroy, when I told him he wanted to die," John said as if Teyla hadn't spoken. He stretched his arm out, but stopped well short of her. "He had his hands on the sides of my face. I don't know if you saw that or not. And I made him do exactly what I wanted." He looked away from her. "Suicide," he said softly.

Teyla's eyes fastened on the gloves, in John's clenched hand. "That is why you want them," she said, no question in it.

John nodded. "Yeah."

Teyla looked at John's face again, the etched lines of his features in the city's harsh light. He had told her once that the gloves were a reminder and a warning, for himself. He was moving away from his friends, from contact again, and she was horribly afraid that if he put on the shooting gloves they might never coax him back.

At least these gloves didn't cover his fingertips, though that seemed such a senseless little thing to pin hope upon: being able to see the ends of John's fingers.

"You have no proof that your touch augments your Gift," Teyla said. But she knew she might as well not have spoken.

"John," she said. "Please."

"I'll make another appointment with Heightmeyer later," John said, and he slid his hands into the gloves, right then left. Teyla watched mutely as he adjusted the closures at the wrist, flexed his fingers. The relief in his tiny smile was heartbreaking.

"It's okay, Teyla," he said gently, perhaps because he'd seen her face. "I'm used to it."

"Oh, my!" Riatta gasped, covering her mouth with one pale hand. "What happened?"

Mer slumped in defeat. "I killed them all, didn't I?" The irrigation system he'd been working on must have leaked. That was the only explanation he could think of. The trays of plants had been flooded. Hot water was sluicing out onto the floor, making walking treacherous and the greenhouse feel like a steam bath. The flowers were all wilted, with sickly yellow leaves.

"I must have made a mistake," he said, voice dull with horror. "Oh, God. Athema is going to kill me." He wasn't even sure that was an exaggeration. He still remembered her joy when she'd told him about Merrin and his plants. He walked to the nearest table, touching one of the flowers numbly. The petals broke off in his hand. "I don't understand it. It wasn't even turned on."

"It might not have been you," Riatta said quietly. Her bright, pretty eyes were very big. "I turned on the irrigation system last night. Do you think that I…." She broke off, as if she couldn't even bear to contemplate it.

"Oh, no," Mer said. "Riatta, it wasn't finished yet! I hadn't calibrated it!" He looked around wildly, fully registering the steam drifting upwards from the trays. "The water was still hot! You've scalded them!"

Riatta covered her mouth with both hands. "Oh, no," she said. "Oh, no. Oh, no." Over and over. "She'll have me beaten! She'll throw me out! I won't be able to work anywhere--my family…!" She began to cry.

"Don't cry!" Mer said. "No, no, no. Please don't cry!" He went to her, putting his arms around her automatically and awkwardly patting her back. She clung to him, weeping. "Look," he said, thinking quickly. "Maybe, maybe they're not all dead. Maybe we can save some of them." He gently pushed her away from him, holding her shoulders. He made himself smile. "If anyone can save accidentally-scalded and drowned flowers, it's you, right? You're the best gardener in the Daemlands."

Riatta hiccupped, then she sniffed and wiped her eyes, smiling wetly back. "Flatterer." She took a few deep breaths. "All right, maybe they're not all dead. Let me see." She nodded firmly, then stepped away from him.

She twisted her hair into a knot at the back of her head and did something female and obscure with it to get it to stay there. She pulled on a set of gardening gloves, and something about her profile as she did so--a pale, red-haired woman with a greenhouse as her background--triggered a flash of memory behind Mer's eyes. Memory at once so clear that he could almost touch it, and so formless that he had no idea what it was. All he knew was that he was almost sure he'd known someone very much like Riatta, Before. Maybe the phantom woman had been his wife, or sister. Not that it mattered here and now.

Things had been…tense…for a little while after they first met, because of that shock of recognition. But soon that particular faux pas had been buried by several of his other blunders. He never knew the right thing to say.

Or the right thing to do, either. He'd already almost killed all the plants in the greenhouse by forgetting to water them sufficiently. Athema had made it clear that this was not acceptable. The Daema's beloved Merrin had been an accomplished gardener, and Athema expected Mer to emulate that. So he'd hit upon a plan to repair the greenhouses' broken automatic irrigation system, which had fallen into disuse. Unlike with plants, his hands knew what to do when they held a broken mechanical system. Perhaps he'd been a repairman of some sort, Before.

He'd been sure he'd told Riatta not to use it, but it looked like he'd screwed up, again.

"I these can be saved, Mer!" Riatta called to him, three tables down. She sounded much more hopeful now, and that gave him some hope in return. "Come help me move them!"

"Really? They're not all dead?" Mer hurried over and helped Riatta lift one of the long planter boxes and move it to a clear table at the end of the row. Water poured out of it as soon as it was off the table. "Maybe Daema Kor won't have us beaten, then!" He smiled at Riatta, who looked pained.

"The Daema is kindness itself!" she said, though her face looked like she hardly believed her own words. "Surely she wouldn't have you beaten for my mistake?"

"Of course not. How silly of me!" Mer laughed, trying to reassure her, but he knew it sounded false. Riatta looked away from him. "It's just that I'm very anxious to please her," he said quickly. "Her husband was supposed to be this genius with plants, and she wants me to do well with them too."

They put the tray down, and Riatta began expertly extracting the least-wilted of the flowers.

"Oh, yes, the Daemor was extremely talented," Riatta said, nodding. "Many of the plantings on the estate were of his cultivation." She began to relax as she spoke. "He developed many of the strains of the grain crop we grow. He made one strain hardy enough to grow in the winter."

"Do I-- I'm supposed to look like him." Mer looked down at one poor drooping plant so that he wouldn't be able to see the expression on Riatta's face.

"Well," she said, her voice sounding thoughtful. "You greatly resemble him. Surely you have seen the portraits?"

Mer nodded. "But I'm nothing like him under the skin," he said softly, stroking a wilted leaf. "And I don't know how to be."

Riatta gnawed on her lower lip. "Oh, Mer, I don't know what to say." She looked around at the greenhouse, at the damage he'd inadvertently helped cause. "Maybe if you try harder?"

"I will," he promised her. She smiled worriedly, and turned back to the other end of the greenhouse and the sacks of dry potting soil.

Mer looked around at the rows and rows of dead and dying plants. "But I think I'm going to fail," he whispered.

Radek Zelenka had come to the staff meeting early, both to make a good impression as the new chief science officer, and to make sure he got a seat between Dr. Weir and Colonel Sheppard's team. He didn't like the way that caveman, Ronon Dex, had been looking at Elizabeth. And, while Carson had assured them all that Sheppard was fully cured, Radek still remembered the bruises on Elizabeth's throat, even though they had faded to nothing.

Radek knew that nobody would consider him an asset in a physical fight, but he was the survivor of thousand battles with schoolyard bullies, and a veteran of the Czechoslovakian army. He might not look like much, but he was scrappy, and more vicious and prone to dirty tricks than anyone fighting him would think. 'Harmless' was good camouflage, and Radek cultivated it assiduously, not the least because it was mostly true unless he felt cornered. Or, recently, if he felt that Elizabeth was being threatened in any way. He didn't fool himself that he'd be a match for a warrior or a professional soldier, but he could get in their way for long enough that Elizabeth could escape, if need be.

Next to him, Elizabeth must have picked up on the aggressive tone to his thoughts, because she touched his wrist lightly and raised an eyebrow in silent question. Radek blushed. "It is nothing. When will Colonel Sheppard arrive?"

Elizabeth looked at the door. "Right now."

Sheppard entered the conference room, mumbled a "good morning" and settled in on the far side of Teyla with a cup of coffee in his hand. He was dressed as he used to, before the Wraith Siege: long-sleeved shirt zipped to the collar, shooting gloves on his hands. Everyone around the table had tensed a little at his entrance, but relaxed again after a few moments when he continued to act perfectly normally, sipping his coffee.

Two minutes later, Dr. Beckett bustled in and grabbed the last empty chair. "Sorry I'm a wee bit late!"

Elizabeth nodded at him. "Very good, people. Now that we're all here, we have a full agenda this morning, so let's get started." She turned to Radek. "Dr. Zelenka, if you would, start us off with the report from the science department."

Clearing his throat nervously, Radek stood, and activated the large conference room screen so that the data from his tablet was displayed there. But his nervousness soon faded. He had attended many of these meetings along with Rodney in the past, and had substituted for him on many occasions as well, as he had been substituting all along since Rodney's kidnapping. Just because he had a new title this time didn't mean anything else had changed.

Elizabeth hadn't made a big deal about his new position--she had announced it in an e-mail to the department heads, but she hadn't reiterated the information for this meeting. Radek's ego twinged slightly, but he understood her reasons. He didn't want to appear to be profiting from Rodney's absence, and he especially didn't want to do so in front of Rodney's team. And in truth, if it meant that Rodney would return home safely, he'd give up this promotion in a heartbeat.

When he'd finished his report, Radek twirled the electronic pointer in his fingers anxiously for a moment before clearing his throat. "Ah, there is one last item. Colonel? I would appreciate your input." He pulled up the image of the scanner screen. "One of our scanners has picked up the signature of an Ancient ship called the Aurora. With the ZPM now powering the city, we've been able to reactivate many dormant systems. This system was one that tracked the location of Ancient ships during their war."

Sheppard sat up from his slouch. "So it's a warship?"

Radek nodded. "We believe so. We have cross-checked the logs. The Aurora was on a reconnaissance mission. We theorize that when we activated the ZPM, the city may have sent out an automated subspace beacon recalling these ships back to Atlantis."

Elizabeth sat up too, eyebrows raised. "Will that be a problem? How long before it gets here?"

Radek shrugged, grimacing. "Our best estimates at its current rate of speed? Forty-two million years."

Sheppard resumed his slouch. "So, not anytime soon, then. How about we take a Jumper through the nearest Stargate, check it out?"

"Unfortunately, Colonel," Radek said. "There are no nearby Stargates within Jumper distance."

"Not a priority, then," Sheppard said.

Radek stifled a stab of disappointment. An Ancient warship was no small find, and he had been looking forward to being on the team sent to investigate it. He also knew that Sheppard would be eager to explore the Aurora under normal circumstances, but these days his only priority--perhaps the only thing sustaining him, if Radek wished to be honest--was the search for Rodney. Radek was sure that wouldn't change until or unless Rodney was found, alive or dead. And dead did not bear thinking about.

"Let's put it on the mission rotation for the next time the Daedalus is here," Sheppard continued. "Maybe give Caldwell something to do besides making supply runs."

"John!" Elizabeth said chidingly.

Sheppard shrugged, unrepentant, and looked back over at Radek. "That all, Dr. Zelenka?"

Radek put his pointer down. "Yes. Unless Dr. Weir has questions?" He raised an eyebrow at Elizabeth.

"No, that's fine. Thank you, Dr. Zelenka," said Elizabeth. "Dr. Beckett, do you have a report for us?"

With some relief not to be the center of attention, Radek resumed his seat and attempted to focus on Beckett's report. It was going to be a long meeting….

"Do you have a problem with that?"

Colonel Sheppard's sharp tone brought Radek out of the latest power distribution reports he'd been going over in his mind. He'd tried to pay attention during the other department heads' presentations, but his thoughts had drifted during the more military-oriented portions of the Colonel's report. Radek sat up straighter. Sheppard was glaring at Beckett.

"Well, I…." Beckett sputtered a bit before he settled on, "Not personally, but I suspect the lad himself may object. You did try to kill him after all, Colonel." He swallowed uncomfortably as Sheppard's eyes narrowed. "Not that you were in your right mind at the time--"

"But I'm fine now," Sheppard snapped, implacable steel in his voice. "You cleared me for duty yourself. Conroy's been cleared for duty for weeks, so he can go off-world with my team. He's tough. I doubt he'll voice any objections."

"It's just…." Beckett cast a beseeching look at Dr. Heightmeyer.

Sheppard followed his gaze. "What's your psychiatric opinion, Doc?" Sheppard asked Heightmeyer, leaning back in his seat, the threat of a leopard in the languidness of his posture.

Heightmeyer tilted her head. "Without disclosing information covered by patient confidentiality," she said with a touch of admonition in her tone, "I can say that, generally speaking, I agree with you, Colonel." She smiled. "Sgt. Conroy is tough. Far from objecting to joining your team, he will appreciate the confidence you're showing in him and his abilities."

"There. You see?" Sheppard raised his eyebrows in Elizabeth's direction.

"Sgt. Conroy is my friend, Dr. Beckett," Teyla added. "I will not allow him to come to harm if I may prevent it." Her calm, steady voice carried in the emotional currents and eddies in the room. It held affirmation and warning both.

Radek watched as Elizabeth slipped a couple of pills into her mouth, washing them down with a quick sip of water, and rubbed her temples, sighing. If they were alone, he could massage her neck, stroke her forehead until the tiny lines etched there disappeared. He shook his head, wanting to sigh himself. He tried not to show his surprise when, underneath the conference table, where no one could see, the side of her shoe pressed against his.

After the meeting, Radek thought he would use some excuse to pry her from her duties and take her for a walk outside, in the sea air and sunshine. And make sure she ate something. And he would tell her a funny story to make her laugh. Elizabeth needed to laugh. He felt Elizabeth press their lower legs together, ankle to knee.

"Very well, then, Colonel," she said. "As long as there's no medical objection, and, I assume, no objection from Major Lorne--"

"He's not going to object," Sheppard interrupted, in as cold a voice as Radek had ever heard him direct to Elizabeth.

"I'm on your side here, Colonel," Elizabeth said simply, steadily, meeting Sheppard's eyes. Sheppard looked down, then away.

Radek massaged his own temples. It was going to be a long meeting.

It was Ms. Teyla, outside the door. Al knew it by the particular cadence of her thoughts even before she announced herself.

The way his heart went boom was embarrassing.

"Coming!" he hollered in the general direction of the door. He rushed over and palmed it open, then realized his grin was too big and probably stupid when he saw her. "What can I do for you, Ms. Teyla?" he asked, trying to school it.

"Good evening, Albert," she said. He'd asked her awhile ago to call him 'Al' like everyone else except Dr. Kate did, but she never did it for long before she went back to using his full name. Normally he hated the way 'Albert' sounded, but she made it…nice, like she didn't mind hearing it. And when she said it, Al didn't mind hearing it, either.

Now she smiled back at him, but it wasn't really at her eyes, and the thread of her thoughts he couldn't entirely not hear was worried and uncertain. Teyla was like Dr. Kate, one of the few people who said she didn't mind if he read her mind sometimes, but that didn't mean he wanted to violate her privacy. "May I come in?" she asked.

"Oh! Of course. Sorry." Al shook his head at himself and moved aside, letting her into his room. He gestured at his couch. "Do you want to sit down? Can I get you anything? He gestured at his electric kettle. "You want some tea?"

"I'm fine, thank you," Teyla said. "But I do need to ask you something." She smiled again, but the whisper of unhappiness in her thoughts didn't change.

The word mistrust floated into Al's mind from hers before he could stop it, and he didn't know what that meant. Teyla mistrusted him? God, he hoped not. He felt okay now, after coming out of the coma, but a lot of folks, even his own team, were still treating him kind of strange--like he was fixing to take a run for the nearest balcony any second. He didn't want to do that anymore, but so many people thinking he did made him nervous, like they knew something he didn't. He really didn't want Teyla to be one of them.

"Go ahead," he told her, though most of him didn't want to know what she was going to say.

"Colonel Sheppard wants you to return to our team, while we hunt for Dr. McKay," Teyla said. "But I am concerned you would find that…difficult, after what happened. So I wanted to speak to you before he did, to make certain you know this is your choice, not an order."

"Oh," Al said. "Huh." He'd been sure that Sheppard wouldn't want him back, not after everything that happened. And he'd been kind of relieved, to tell the truth. He had missed being with Teyla, but it was good being back on Major Lorne's team, and away from the Colonel. Sheppard had apologized--and he'd meant it--but Al still found it…uncomfortable to be in the same room with him. It was hard to forget those lizard-like eyes, those words like poison in his head, telling him he had to die….

"Albert?" Teyla said. She put her hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"

"What?" He blinked at her, pulling his thoughts back. A shudder went though him and he knew she felt it. He smiled, though he was sure it was lopsided and weak. "It's just, I was getting used to being back on Major Lorne's team, you know?"

"I realize that," Teyla said solemnly, nodding. "And I know this can't be an easy decision. But if you have been around the Colonel recently, you will know that…." She broke off, sighing. "He's changed," she said. "And not for the good, but it is because of how he used his Gift while he was…not himself. I promise you that he will never use his charm to influence you again."

"I know that, Ms. Teyla," Al said. He'd seen what Teyla was talking about: the Colonel wearing a zipped-up shirt and shooting gloves like he was cold all the time. But it was his thoughts that were cold--so dark and full of misery, anger, and fear that Al was willing to risk constant headaches just so he wouldn't have to hear them. If he joined Sheppard's team again, he'd have to put up with that, too, no mistake. And he wasn't looking forward to it, not a bit.

He knew Sheppard would want him to use his Gift a lot more than Lorne did, and he wasn't looking forward to that, either. But he was so used to the exhaustion and the hunger shakes by now they were like old friends. He had to remember to eat more, get as much sleep as he could.

"Who'll he get if I say no?" he asked. "Corrigan, right?" The Anthropologist was the best choice, Al figured, since his Gift worked like a lifesigns detector, only in an area that was as big as half the city or something.

"That is likely," Teyla agreed. "But no one else here can find his captors, or even anyone who's seen Rodney, as easily as you could."

Al knew that. And Teyla was right, though he didn't like to admit stuff like that. He could help the search better than anyone.

And that was what made the decision, more than anything. Sheppard needed him because Al's Gift had the best chance of finding McKay, and there was no way Al would refuse to use his Gift if it could help, no matter whose team he was on, or what it cost him.

"All right," he said. He nodded, made himself smile. "Sure. I'll do it. You can let him know, all right?"

Teyla grinned at him. Her thoughts were relieved and bright and happy, and it was suddenly a lot easier to smile back. "Thank you, Albert," she said. "Colonel Sheppard will be very pleased."

Al didn't think the Colonel would be 'pleased', particularly, though it looked like Sheppard trusted him, at least some. That was damn good, but it wasn't like they were friends, or anything. Al didn't think they ever would be.

Al did like Dr. McKay, though. Not that they ever interacted much, but McKay had never treated him any differently, despite how Al had introduced himself by breaking the man's skull. He knew McKay forgave him for the attack, but it just didn't sit right that Al hadn't been able to make it up to him. Maybe staying on Sheppard's team would give him that chance.

"You're welcome, Ms. Teyla," Al said. "All I need to know is when we're heading out again."

She reached up and gently cupped his head. "I am very glad you are well, Albert," she said, then pulled him down to her until their foreheads were touching. They stayed like that for what felt like a good while, while he closed his eyes and just breathed in her warmth, the sweet scent of her hair, and wondered if he should put his hands on her waist or on her shoulders or if the polite thing would be just to leave them hanging. He settled for moving them to her shoulders, barely touching her. He pulled his Gift in so far back that he could feel a headache forming, like a small rain of static between his eyes.

When she finally stepped away it was like his forehead had been branded, like he'd carry around her mark for the rest of his life. He didn't think he'd much mind.

He had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Thank you."

She smiled. "I will see you later, Albert," she said, and turned and glided from the room.

Al stood blinking at the closed door for far too long, wishing she'd come back, wondering if she'd wanted him to go after her. It'd be so much easier if he could just read her mind, but he wouldn't do that to her, not ever.

But he'd be with Teyla now, every time they went though the gate. Maybe staying on Sheppard's team wouldn't be so bad.

The sound of the sea was a soft shush, shush just outside the open window. A breeze stirred the sheer drapes, rays of early morning sunlight dancing through to paint warm patterns on the pale skin of the man before him. The dark-haired man's sharp features looked calm in repose as he lay naked on his back on the sleep-mussed bed. Dark stubble shadowed his face, highlighting the sweet lushness of his mouth.

He leaned forward, drawn to the dark-haired man like a planet to its primary. Greatly daring, he traced a fingertip down the faint lines that still marked the man's brow, over the arch of the eyebrows, across to the downy skin at the man's temples.

The man's nostrils flared and his ribcage expanded sharply as he drew in a sudden, deep breath. Hazel eyes blinked open and their lids lowered to half-mast as they met his own. "Morning," the man remarked, one side of his mouth curling into a lopsided smile. Abruptly he yawned, and stretched--arms flung over his head, legs extended and toes pointing downwards, back arched and mouth stretched open wide. Delightful.

He caressed the tender skin at the man's temple again when he settled, abruptly desiring to seek out all the tender, secret places on the man's body. All the fragile, sweet places where the skin would be baby-soft, where perhaps the man would be ticklish, where perhaps he could be induced to sigh and moan. Following some obscure instinct, using the barest brush of his lips, he began to mouth his way from the man's temple, fuzzy with short hair, to his earlobe, velvety-soft, to the skin hidden behind the ear. Yes! There was the moan he was looking for, and an unexpected arch of the neck.

An invitation.

He accepted promptly, nuzzling the lovely sweet skin behind the man's ear for just another moment before following the tendon down, nipping lightly, carefully, until he reached the join of neck and shoulder. He inhaled the warm musky fragrance of the man's scent there, slightly different than it had been at the temple and ear, but just as delicious. He bit and licked gently, lightly, not lingering too long before following the slope of muscle to the rounded jut of a shoulder. The skin there was surprisingly soft, close-grained and pale, and sheathing a powerful swell of muscle.

He followed a trail of strong muscle and softest skin down the inside of the man's arm, lingering on the inside of the elbow and getting a chortle. That made him grin, and he lifted his eyes to see the other man grinning as well, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled with it, his eyes sparkling. 'Go on,' he was told. And so, he did.

The skin on the dark-haired man's inner forearm was also smooth and soft, marred here and there by faint scars, but otherwise enchanting, and he stroked and kissed the length of it, lingering at the wrist, where the pulse beat rapidly just below the skin's surface. There was something significant about the man's hands. It made him pause, hesitate for a moment, and then another. He glanced up and met the man's eyes again. This time they were solemn.

"Yes," he said softly. "For you. Go ahead."

So he swallowed down his hesitation, and brushed his lips against the man's palms. The skin was not particularly soft, but it was warm, and smelled good. He gently traced the swell of muscle at the base of the thumb, licked at the webbing between thumb and hand, and heard the man gasp. He smiled and began to kiss, and lick, and gently nip, the palm and each of the fingers in turn. The man continued to gasp and moan softly. He met those extraordinary hazel eyes again as he began to suckle on the long index finger. The man groaned, letting his eyes slide shut and his neck arch back to expose that beautiful throat.

With a last, lingering kiss, he abandoned the hand and revisited the throat, kissing and nuzzling, feeling his heart swell with tenderness.

At last the man begged him, 'Please', took his hand and placed it right on the man's hard, hot cock. The feel of the delicate, soft skin stretched over the hardness reminded him of his previous mission. He stroked it once, slowly, firmly. Then he just held it loosely while he abandoned that gorgeous neck, and explored further south in his quest for the softest skin he could find. The man's nipples distracted him for a little while, and he managed to get the man to make some really interesting sounds while he played with them, but soon they made little hard points, and the skin wasn't really soft anymore.

He found a long, smooth expanse of soft skin along the man's sides, from underarm to hip. He couldn't help nibbling a little, here and there, and discovered the man was ticklish at the waist and along his ribs. He indulged himself a little too much, and was almost pushed away for his efforts. He stroked the warm cock in his grip a few more times in apology, and settled by the man's hip, tasting the smooth skin there, and nuzzling the warm, musky-scented crease between leg and torso.

That led to the incredibly tender skin along the inner thigh, and he lingered once again, giving it plenty of attention. He was rewarded by sighs and moans, and restless shifting of the body beneath him.

Finally, he worked his way up the thigh to the scrotum, licking slowly, wetly, almost lazily. The man was moaning continuously, pelvis rocking in shallow thrusts as he sought more friction, finally both begging and commanding, "Come on, please!"

He licked up one side of the cock and down the other, making it wet, making it glisten. His mouth was watering for the taste and weight of it. He looked up, and yes, the man was looking at his face again, those hazel eyes glittering with desire, those pink lips rounded into a soft "o" of pleasure. He smiled and engulfed the man's cock with his mouth.

He rode the rise and fall of the man's hips, thrusts which seemed timed to the shush, shush of the ocean outside the windows. He was sunk deep in sensation--the flex of muscle in the hips and thighs under his hands, the heady scent of musk and sex, the feel of warm, soft skin, the sound of the man's gasps and stifled cries, and finally the salty, bitter taste that filled his mouth. He swallowed and swallowed, drinking it down, wanting to somehow take it all inside--the room, the bed, and the beautiful, sexy man in it.

He sighed as the soft cock slipped from his mouth, and nuzzled the hairy belly before laying his head on it, listening to the sounds of breathing and digestion and heartbeat below his ear.

A moment later, the man's hand began petting through his hair, stroking the nape of his neck, and scratching lightly at his scalp. He sighed again and felt a great sense of peace descend over him. This was where he belonged. Here was home.

"Hey," the man's voice urged him, scratchy and warm. "Come 'ere." He came willingly, to sink into long, luxurious kisses, sweet as honey and twice as delicious, the man's powerful legs wound around his own, the man's broad hand cradling the back of his head, the hairy chest and belly warm and delightful against his own.

The man's other hand cradled his erection and he startled, almost surprised that he had an erection, as focused on the other man as he'd been. But now he felt the thrum of urgency in it. Unashamed, he rutted into the man's firm grip, encouraged by the man's ardent kisses and murmurs of appreciation.

Bliss spiked through him. He opened his eyes and looked into hazel eyes filled with affection and happiness, looked into a beloved face creased in a delighted smile. "That's it. Give it up for me."

He cried out as pleasure whited-out the world.

Mer sat up, cock wet and sticky in his hand, dream already fading out of reach. He looked down at the mess on his belly and snorted to himself. Well, at least this time it must have been a good dream.

He got up and fumbled for a cloth and water to clean up. Fragments of the dream teased his mind. Some of the images felt almost like a memory. The sound of the ocean, the feeling of home, warm skin, strong hands, the smell of sex, happiness.

Mer abruptly dropped back onto the bed. Happiness. He'd made someone happy, once. He swallowed the lump in his throat. He wished, how he wished he could remember….

The gate flared open and Teyla came through first at a dead run. As soon as she was a safe distance from the shimmering blue she turned and faced the gate, her P-90 ready and aimed.

Albert came through next, running shakily. He saw Teyla and tried to turn to join her, but one of his feet skidded out from under him and he fell. He scrambled to his knees, raising his own P-90 the way Teyla was.

"Were Ronon and Sheppard behind you?" Teyla asked him tersely, never taking her eyes from the gate.

He nodded, coughing. "Yes, ma'am. They were--"

Ronon fell through the gate backwards, wrestling furiously with a monster of a woman nearly his size. She was screaming in affronted rage. They tumbled together over the grass, each fighting for control of the wickedly-long blade quivering in the woman's hand. Both Ronon and the woman's arms were already gashed and streaked with red.

Teyla lifted her weapon, trying to get a clear shot. She didn't want to kill her, but she would certainly wound the woman to make her cease her attack.

"Hey!" Albert hollered, and the woman glanced at him, her focus lost, and in that precious instant Ronon wrenched his wrist out of her grasp and brought his fist up like a hammer into her jaw. The woman rolled away from him with the force of the blow, unconscious by the time she hit the grass.

John came through the gate then, walking backwards, firing his P-90 in a wide arc. There was blood on his temple, and his black tac vest and shirt were sliced down the side, showing glimpses of liquid red.

The gate finally shut and he stopped firing.

"That went well," John said faintly. He tried to fumble the strap of his weapon back onto his vest, but ended up dropping it, and when he bent to pick it up he didn't straighten, rather collapsing onto his side.

"John!" Teyla ran to him, falling to her knees next to him. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Albert struggling to stand, Ronon slowly sitting up, but John was obviously the one in most need of aid. She helped him roll onto his back, and he stared up at her, panting.

"No!" John apparently realized what she was doing, and tried ineffectually to slap her hands away. His fingers were stark white next to the black material of his shooting gloves. "I'm fine, stop it!" John snarled. "Check on Ronon."

Teyla scowled back at John, and pulled her hands away from him only long enough to glance in Ronon's direction. He was dialing the gate with bloodstained fingers, but he seemed no worse than after an unusually violent sparring session. "He is fine," she told John curtly. "You are the one who requires attention." Teyla's hands were shaking as she pulled his vest and torn shirt away from the wound. The last time she had done this, John had been dying on a tavern floor; this was far too close to that memory.

But this wound, while long, was superficial, and Teyla let out a breath of heartfelt relief. He would definitely need healing, and possibly stitches besides, but nothing more than that.

"God damn it, Teyla!" John yelled. "I'm fine, all right? I was dazed for a minute, okay? Quit touching me!" He pushed her away again--never touching his fingers to her skin--then crawled backwards on his elbows away from her. "It's nothing, just a cut."

The gate blossomed in a flood of water. As soon as it had opened, Ronon grabbed the woman up by the front of her ripped shirt and shoved her through. He turned to Albert, grinning. "You use your Gift on her?"

Albert, standing unsteadily, nodded. "Yeah."

Ronon sniffed, wiped his mouth, then grimaced when he realized he'd spread blood onto his face. "Thanks," he told Albert, and clapped him on the shoulder so hard that the Sergeant fell over again.

"Take some God-damned glucose before you have a seizure," John called to him tiredly, and Teyla heard an immediate, weary, 'Yessir!' in response.

"You shouldn't be so hard on him," she said. She took off her own tac vest and yanked a pressure bandage out of a pocket with considerably more force than necessary. "He's been using his Gift for several hours."

"'Never said he hadn't." John sat up slowly, wincing. Teyla grabbed his tac vest and helped him with a single, sharp pull, making him yelp in pain.

"Here," she said, and thrust the bandage at him. "You may tend to your wound yourself."

John held the bandage to his stomach so it wouldn't fall into the dirt. "Hey! What was that for?" he asked angrily.

Teyla, eyes narrowed, moved closer to him so that she could drop her voice. Her eyes became slits when John shifted further back. "The Menicol are known to be suspicious, distrustful and violent," she hissed at him. "You will recall that I did not wish us to come here, and only relented because that one man we found said he thought he had seen Rodney with a group of Menicol traders. We were greeted with hostility from the moment we stepped through the gate, and yet you would not use your Gift to smooth the way for us. You can see how successful we were without it--forced to flee so quickly we could not go back to Atlantis."

John glared at her, eyes glinting. He was still holding the bandage in one gloved hand, and his waistband was slowly collecting the blood from his side, trickling down. "I didn't think the situation warranted using charm," he snapped. He pointed at his head with his free hand. "My Gift, my call, all right?"

"No," Teyla said acidly. "It is not all right." She snatched his free hand by the wrist before he could move it away. She waved his gloved hand in front of his face, as if she were trying to shame a particularly truculent child. "This is not all right! This is causing you to second-guess yourself, to make bad decisions, to not use your Gift even when the situation desperately warrants it!" She lowered her voice, but made her grip crushing when John would have jerked his hand back. "Your Gift is the most unnerving I have encountered among your people, but I have come to realize it is perhaps the most necessary, here. You won't hurt anyone by making them less murderous, John," she said almost gently, then hardened her tone again. "But you'll hurt us by not doing so! Do you understand me?"

She relaxed her hand enough for John to yank his wrist away, then sat back on her heels as John awkwardly tied the pressure bandage around his waist. She looked over to Ronon and Albert. Ronon was cleaning his cuts with antiseptic, his mouth twitching every so often from the sting. Albert was lying on his back in the grass with his arm flung over his eyes, apparently asleep. Teyla sent a small smile to Ronon when he caught her eye, then went back to watching John curse and struggle with the bandage.

"I will help you, if you let me," Teyla said quietly.

"I'm fine," John said. He smiled grimly as he was finally able to tie a knot.

The planet Teyla had chosen in their mad flight from the Menicol was one of the alternative Alpha Sites, discarded because while lush, the temperature was warmer than what the Lanteans could stand. Teyla already felt the sweat dampening her hair at the back of her neck and running down her temples. She tasted the salt of it when she licked her lips.

John had to be miserable, in his long-sleeved shirt and tac vest, but he didn't remove either of them, stubborn and as unreasonable as a boy. He lifted his canteen and drank deeply, hand clutched to his side in obvious pain. Teyla sighed and looked away again.

"We should return to Atlantis," she said to Ronon.

"Yeah." She hadn't been speaking to him, but John was nodding anyway. "Dial the gate," he ordered Ronon. He took a breath and began getting to his feet.

Teyla went to wake Albert, because she knew John wouldn't ask for help, and would refuse it if she gave it anyway, regardless of how injured he was or how much pain he was in.

It reminded her bleakly of how John had collapsed at the end of the brief Genii invasion of Atlantis, during the terrible storm. How he had been prepared to rest on the floor, rather than allow anyone to pull him to his feet.

Rodney had been the one to convince John to take his hand.

Teyla shook her head, then gently lifted Albert's arm off his face. She smiled at him when he blinked sleepily up at her. "We're returning home," she said. "You'll be able to rest there."

"Yes, ma'am," Albert said. He let Teyla pull him upright, then let her hold him steady until he had his feet firmly under him. Such an easy thing it was, to help a friend when they allowed it.

She stopped Ronon before they followed John and Albert through the gate.

"This must not continue," she said, and Ronon nodded.

"It won't." He said it like a certainty. "We're not going to let it."

"What is this?" Athema asked. Her voice was strangely mild as she took in the wilted, yellow-leafed plants, the still-wet wooden tables that refused to dry in the humidity. The wide sleeves and the hem of her long, regal dress were getting muddy.

Irik was standing at her shoulder, like always. His large hands were set comfortably behind his back, his scarred face unreadable.

For a moment Mer felt like he couldn't breathe. He glanced at Riatta when he saw her move out of the corner of his eye. The poor woman was white as his bed sheets, visibly trembling. Her mouth was moving, as if she was trying to find the courage to speak.

"W-we were able to save some of them!" she blurted with desperate brightness. She pointed at a single table of plants, all of them drooping but still alive. "See, my Daema? They're not…." Her words seemed to die in her mouth as the Daema looked at her.

"What do you have to do with this, Riatta?" Athema asked. Her voice had the same horrible gentleness.

"Nothing!" Mer said immediately. "She didn't do anything! It's my fault. This is all my fault."

Athema turned to him like a snake on prey.

"What?" she asked. The single word felt like a knife.

Mer made sure not to look at Riatta again. He was terrified that she'd be beaten as well if he so much as reminded Athema she was in the greenhouse.

"For-forgive me, my Daema," he stammered. "I was-- I was just…." He took a breath, hating how much his voice was shaking. The Daema's lips were trembling like a young girl's. "I repaired the irrigation system!" he said quickly, hoping that might please her. He gestured at the plants. "Now you can automatically water the flowers…."

"I can see that," Athema said thickly. She blinked and two tears ran down her cheeks. "I can see what your 'repairs' did." She looked around again, at the dead plants and the mud. "You've killed his plants," she said softly, with the same detached horror as if Mer had killed her children.

"I, I was trying to please you," he said quietly. He stepped forward, reaching out to her, knowing even as he did so that it was pointless. The Daema stepped back like she couldn't bear the thought of his hands on her. "I wanted to make you happy."

Athema composed herself with obvious effort. "I do not see," she said carefully, "how drowning the plants Merrin spent half his life cultivating could make me happy, do you?" She swallowed, blinked, and more tears rolled down her face. Mer knew he would feel awful about that if he wasn't entirely focused on just how much Irik's fists were going to hurt. "Do you?" Athema asked again, more forcefully, and Mer realized she had expected an answer.

"No," he said. He swallowed. "No, of course not. I'm so sorry."

Athema shook her head slowly. "I don't think you could be sorry enough for this, Mer. I don't think you properly understand the depth of your transgression." She looked at Irik, and Mer's heart plummeted.

"Irik," she said.

Mer was shaking, but he made himself stand upright. "Please," he said, "you don't have to do this. It was a mistake. Just a mistake! I'm sorry!"

Behind him, Riatta made some kind of noise of dismay, but both Athema and Irik ignored her. Thank the Ancestors, Mer thought. If he could keep her safe, then it would be worth it, what was about to happen. He just hoped she had the wherewithal to go out the greenhouse's second door. He didn't dare call attention to her by turning to see.

Irik stepped forward, but he hesitated. "My Daema," he said, "Your daughter, the Daemene--"

Athema's eyes snapped to him. "Who do you belong to, Irik?" she asked. Her voice was icy calm.

Irik touched his fingers to his forehead. He bowed his head. "You, my Daema," he said. "Only you."

Athema nodded. "Then do what I tell you."

"As my Daema requests," Irik said. He strode forward and grabbed Mer by the scruff of his work tunic. Mer heard Riatta's small, miserable, no! as he was being dragged along, was fleetingly annoyed she hadn't been smart enough to run, then Irik shoved the glass greenhouse door open with his free hand, and casually threw Mer to the ground.

Athema exited the greenhouse behind them. She gave Mer a single, betrayed glare, then looked at Irik. "Leave his face," she said. "But make certain he never disappoints me again. I will be in the palace."

"As my Daema requests," Irik said again. She was already walking away.

She had stayed to watch, the last time. Her leaving could only be bad, Mer was sure. Very, very bad.

Irik pulled his leg back.

"Wait!" Mer yelled, putting up his hands. Unbelievably, Irik did. "Look--you don't have to do this! Amagy didn't want you to, right? So, so you can do what she wants. Instead."

Irik stared at him. "I belong to Daema Kor."

"Come on!" Mer said, his fear making him belligerent. "She's a crazy old woman who's going to kill me because I over-watered some plants! You can't tell me that--"

He never got to finish. Irik's foot slammed into his side so hard Mer had been thrown onto his stomach even before he heard the crack from deep inside his body. Then the pain came in an arc of lightning, and he couldn't speak at all.

"I was nothing after the sleeper merchants had me," Irik said. His voice was hot with anger. It was the first time Mer had heard any emotion from him at all. "I was a sniveling, wretched youth with no past but these scars, and no future but what my new owner would give me."

He kicked Mer again, even harder, forcing Mer onto his back again. Mer stared at Irik wildly, no air in his lungs to scream. He rolled slowly onto his stomach, felt something give in his side and cried out in shock and pain.

He tried to crawl away. Irik watched.

"My Daema gave me my life," he said. "She gave me a name. She gave me purpose. I am hers." He stepped on Mer's back, leaning forward so that his foot pressed down.

"You will not insult her, thrall," Irik said. He pressed down so hard that Mer's sight went grey for a moment, before Irik stepped away.

"Come," Irik said with his usual dispassion. "I'll take you to the Daemene." He grabbed Mer by the scruff again, yanking him straight up to his feet. Mer screamed as his newly-broken rib was wrenched. He tried to push away from Irik, but the big man pulled him across his shoulders anyway.

Mer passed out somewhere between the greenhouse and the palace. He dreamed of a golden light that would protect him, if he only remembered how to use it. And he couldn't remember, no matter how hard he tried.

Ronon could see Sheppard's eyes narrow with suspicion when he strolled into the gym, since he'd only been expecting Teyla for this sparring session.

"Hey, what's up, guys?" Ronon was impressed with how casual Sheppard sounded, but it was betrayed by the tightness around his eyes.

Teyla ignored him. Instead, she looked past Sheppard to Sgt. Bates, who now stood in the open doorway of the gym. "Thank you, Thomas."

Bates nodded in that kind of unfriendly way he had. "No problem, Teyla. I'll see you aren't disturbed."

Then the doors to the gym closed, and locked. Ronon smiled.

Sheppard spun to the door and dropped his gear. He turned to Teyla. "What the hell is going on? Come on, Teyla, this isn't funny."

Teyla folded her arms. "There is no problem, John. I merely asked Sgt. Bates to make sure no one interrupts us today."

Sheppard made his eyes into slits. "I think I liked it better when you guys hated each other."

Teyla narrowed her eyes right back at him. Ronon thought it was funny how Teyla was way scarier when she did it than Sheppard was. "Did you believe, John Sheppard, that we would simply give up our efforts to bring you to your senses?" Teyla lifted her chin. "You will find that Ronon and I are not easily dissuaded."

Sheppard glanced over his way, and Ronon allowed himself to lean a bit more menacingly against the padded wall. He lifted the fingers of his left hand from his folded arms and wiggled them in a friendly little 'hello' as he smirked at Sheppard. He had stuff to say. too, but he was letting Teyla go first, like they'd planned it. She was the better talker anyway.

Sheppard gave them both dark looks. "Listen, Teyla, I don't have time for this. You don't want to spar, fine. You don't want to work with me, fine. I'll assign you to another team." He turned to face the door and tapped the communicator at his ear. "Bates, this is Sheppard. I order you to--Bates? Sergeant?"

He caught on pretty quick that it wasn't working, then tapped on it to switch channels. "Control, this is Sheppard. Control? Sgt. Campbell, come in." Switched channels again. "Dr. Weir, this is Sheppard. This is an emergency. I need a team to--Elizabeth, are you there?"

Sheppard whirled on Teyla. "Dammit, that was the command channel! What if there's an emergency?"

Teyla didn't even blink. "If there is an emergency short of a Wraith incursion, Major Lorne will deal with it. If the Wraith have come, Sgt. Bates will disable the lock on your communicator and the door. Before you decide to signal for help, the security cameras have been blocked as well."

Sheppard swore. "That son of a bitch, Bates! I'll have him thrown in the brig so fast--"

"He was merely following Dr. Weir's orders to assist me." Teyla raised an eyebrow.

Ronon could hear Sheppard grind his teeth. "Elizabeth, too?"

"Based on Dr. Heightmeyer's advice, yes. She has leant her support. Dr. Heightmeyer says you refuse all the help she can offer to you. I have discussed the problem with her, and she suggested an…'intervention'."

Sheppard darted looks between Ronon and Teyla, maybe getting worried. Good. "What are you talking about?"

Ronon straightened up from his lean against the wall. "The gloves," he said flatly. "Teyla says you used to wear 'em all the time, then you stopped. Now things are hard and you went back to wearing 'em. Like a hoonweed junkie who can't stay off the flax."

Sheppard barked a mirthless laugh. "Believe me, it's for your protection, not for any--"

"That is a lie, John!" Teyla snapped. "We don't need protection from you. We are your friends. You would never hurt us in any way that mattered."

"Tell that to Conroy. Or Beckett." Sheppard's voice was stone cold.

Teyla took a step forward. "That was not you, John. That was the Iratus virus. You were not in your right mind. You would never have deliberately hurt anyone with your Gift if you were yourself."

"Oh, no. That was me, just with the gloves off." Sheppard bared his teeth in a fake smile at his little joke and flexed his hands to show off the gloves he wore. "You don't know me as well as you think you do, Teyla. I'm not a safe person to be around."

Ronon smiled grimly. Looked like it was time to step in.

Ronon circled around so that he was on Sheppard's other side. "I don't think so, Sheppard," he said. "You looked pretty harmless to me, first time I saw you." He smirked, and said in an aside to Teyla, "McKay got him to take his shirt off. Real skinny."

"That was different," Sheppard bit out. He was up on his toes, his body tense. Sheppard knew he was surrounded. That was good, too. He wasn't getting loose until Teyla said they were done.

"Yeah," Ronon agreed. "You believed McKay when he told you that you wouldn't hurt anyone."

"Well, McKay was wrong, wasn't he?" John snarled. His eyes were still moving back and forth between Ronon and Teyla, waiting for one of them to do something. "About a lot of things."

Teyla tilted her head as if she didn't get it. She was great at pretending. "Are you still angry with him about the Doranda incident? I believed you had forgiven him."

"Yeah, I forgave him." Sheppard nodded, still turning his head to watch Ronon behind him. "Doesn't mean he wasn't wrong about Doranda. And he was wrong about me too. I'm dangerous."

Teyla nodded, all serious. "Yes, John. Your Gift is dangerous. Rodney was wrong when he thought it couldn't harm anyone."

Sheppard's whipped his back to Teyla when she said that. He looked relieved, which was stupid. He wasn't getting it. "There, see? So why don't you--"

"But just because your Gift can be dangerous, does not mean that you are a danger to the people you care about," Teyla continued, like he hadn't said anything. "Rodney wasn't wrong about you."

"The Gift's a weapon," Ronon agreed. "Like a gun. Just 'cause you carry it, doesn't mean you'll shoot us with it."

"But if I went around shooting my friends and neighbors, you'd put me in jail, not pat me on the back and pretend everything was okay!" Sheppard spat.

"You just had a bad day, like McKay did on Doranda," Ronon told him. "Anyone can have a bad day."

Sheppard made one of those weird faces that were supposed to mean something.

"John," Teyla said, and waited until Sheppard was looking at her again. "You are using what happened when you were sick as an excuse to run away from us. We cannot allow you to do this. Those gloves, this clothing, you can't hide behind them. They do nothing to protect you from dealing with other people, or from making mistakes that might hurt them. They merely allow you to pretend you are untouchable. You are not."

Ronon took advantage of Sheppard's focus on Teyla to grab him from behind and pin his arms behind his back. "Bet you are touchable," he said right in Sheppard's ear. "Bet we can touch you." Ronon lifted his head. "What do you think, Teyla?"

Sheppard went berserk.

Of course he did. Ronon had expected that. He fought harder than Ronon thought he would, though. Some people might say Sheppard fought like an animal, but Ronon had fought animals before. Sheppard had the savagery down, but he also used his brains, and every skill that his people, and Teyla and Ronon themselves, had taught him.

He fought hard enough that Ronon figured Sheppard had been holding back on the sparring--or maybe that Sheppard drew a big fat line between 'sparring' and 'fighting'. And even though he wasn't sparring anymore, he still drew a line between fighting enemies and fighting people he cared about. Even when he was scared, which he was.

He'd given Teyla a bloody mouth, and she was favoring her right leg. Ronon found himself squinting through a rapidly swelling eye, and his neck and scalp were sore from the grip Sheppard used to slam him into the wall. But Sheppard had forgone all the killing or crippling blows, even when Ronon had deliberately left him an opening. Sheppard never went for the sticks in his gear bag, either. He hadn't even hurt them that bad.

And of course he and Teyla weren't trying to hurt Sheppard at all. Just hold him.

But it was two against one, and those two were younger, and had more training in unarmed hand-to-hand combat, while Sheppard had been busy learning things like flying machines in the air. Ronon and Teyla wore him down until his responses were slow enough that they could pin him.

Ronon was slumped against the wall with Sheppard's back tight to his chest, Sheppard's arms held back so he couldn't punch Teyla in the face as she stood in front of him, too far for him to kick at her. She wiped the blood from her mouth. Teyla had made Ronon promise that he wouldn't use his superior weight to trap Sheppard on the ground beneath him. "He will be frightened enough," she had said, and Ronon had agreed. Now, with the drumbeat of Sheppard's racing heart against his chest, Ronon could feel his terror like another presence in the room. That was wrong. You should scare your enemies, not the people you loved.

"Hey," he told Sheppard conversationally, trying to calm his own breathing. Sheppard grunted in response and tensed against him, still struggling. But nothing he did could get his arms free.

Ronon moved his head so that the side of his face was pressed against the side of Sheppard's. "See? I'm touching you," he whispered, his lips against Sheppard's cheek. Sheppard began to thrash wildly, the back of his skull almost busting Ronon's nose, but Ronon just kept moving his head, keeping them skin to skin.

"John," Teyla panted, sweat running down the sides of her face. "Please, John. It is not our intention to hurt you."

"Then let me go!" Sweat was pouring down Sheppard's face as well. His hair was dripping and his shirt was sodden with it. "Let me go, NOW!" It was like the air rippled with the command.

Teyla had warned him that Sheppard might try to use his Gift, and Ronon figured he'd be ready for it. But he hadn't been ready for this, a need to obey so strong that he started relaxing his arms without even thinking about it. Sheppard's simultaneous lunge forward nearly got him free, but Ronon managed to tighten his grip in time.

He'd had no idea Sheppard could do that, anything like that. Now he knew why Sheppard was so scared.

"Can't let you go. Sorry," Ronon said. He tightened his grip a little bit more. "I still got you." He pressed his face more deeply against Sheppard's wet hair, felt the soft skin at his temple, breathed in the scent of this man who had come to mean home and safety to him. "You can always use your Gift to tell me to fuck off and die," he offered.

"Shut up. SHUT UP!" Sheppard yelled.

"If you're as bad a guy as you think you are, you'll do it," Ronon said, unrelenting. "Go ahead."

In reply, Sheppard threw his head back and screamed, a wild sound full of rage and grief and terror. He was trembling continuously in Ronon's arms.

"John would not do that, Ronon," Teyla said when Sheppard finally stopped. "We all know that." She looked sad. "If only he would acknowledge that to himself. He has had many opportunities to misuse his Gift and has never done so. A man who would release unharmed even an enemy such as Kolya is nowhere near the monster John imagines himself to be."

Sheppard made a wordless keen of frustration and abruptly relaxed in Ronon's hold, going limp. Ronon slid them both down the wall until they were sitting on the floor, Sheppard still trapped against his chest, his legs folded awkwardly beneath him as he sat between Ronon's knees.

"You're the best man I know, John Sheppard," Ronon said seriously. "Why'd you think I stayed here, if not for you?" He spoke softly now, right into John's ear. "You don't need a Gift to make me die for you. Just give the order. I trust you. You won't let me die for nothing."

Ronon felt John swallowing, hard. Felt his ragged breathing.

"Let me go, okay?" Sheppard said, his voice only cracking a little.

Teyla knelt in front of them and looked at Sheppard earnestly. "No, John. Not until you stop running away. Not until you realize that we care for you, always, and we will not leave you. Not until you remove those gloves."

For a second, Sheppard tensed so much Ronon thought he was going to try to get away again, or even start another fight. Then Sheppard sagged back against Ronon with his head hanging.

"Everyone leaves me," Sheppard said.

"Rodney did not leave you, John. He was taken." Teyla said fiercely. "He is not dead. And we will not rest until he is returned to us. To you."

"I don't think our chances of finding him are so hot, Teyla," Sheppard said quietly, still looking at the floor.

"Do you think our team is the only one that includes the search for Dr. McKay on every available mission?" Teyla asked gently.

Sheppard sighed, and rolled his head back against Ronon's shoulder. "Well, I'm sure Ford and his team do their best, but--"

"And Major Lorne's team," Teyla cut in, "and Sgt. Stackhouse's team--Dr. Corrigan exhausts himself using his Gift to search for Dr. McKay wherever they travel beyond the Ancestor's Ring. And all the other teams search as well, John. None of us have given up, no matter what the official ruling says. All that has changed is that Dr. Weir no longer asks for status reports during the debriefing. We tell her informally instead."

"I--I didn't know," Sheppard said. Ronon had slowly shifted his hold, so that he was no longer so much restraining Sheppard as hugging him. Sheppard didn't seem to notice.

"'Cause you never asked," Ronon told him. "Just tried to push us all away."

Teyla got up and got her bag from the corner of the room. "Here, John. You must eat something." She held a telda fruit she'd pulled from her bag out to Sheppard.

Sheppard startled in Ronon's arms when he noticed his hands were free. He didn't try to pull away, though, just reaching for the fruit instead. Teyla also handed him a blister pack of the little pills Ronon had seen the Gifted people taking sometimes. Sheppard sighed, but took that too, and chewed up a couple of the pills before biting down on the sweet fruit.

"You got something to drink in there?" Ronon kept one arm around Sheppard's chest, but with the other, he reached for the water bottle Teyla passed him and drank.

"John," Teyla said casually after a few moments of silence. "I'm afraid the telda fruit has made your gloves…sticky. It would be best if you removed them." She held out her hand.

Ronon felt Sheppard go still. He could feel the drumming of Sheppard's heart against his chest again, maybe even worse now than right after the fight. He squeezed Sheppard briefly, in comfort, with the arm he still held around him. "Come on," he urged gently. "It's just animal skin, Sheppard. You can do this."

Sheppard took a deep, shuddering breath, and they all pretended his hands weren't shaking as he slowly fumbled his gloves off and handed them over to Teyla.

"Thank you," she said calmly, but her eyes were shining as she put the gloves away in her bag. She handed Sheppard a towel, and Ronon splashed some of his water on it so Sheppard could wipe the sticky fruit juice off his fingers.

They were all quiet a moment, looking at Sheppard's bare hands. Ronon hadn't realized he'd missed seeing them so much. It was weird.

Ronon's stomach rumbled. "I'm hungry," he announced. "What about lunch?"

Teyla smiled. "A splendid idea. John?"

Sheppard patted the arm banding his chest and Ronon released him. "Showers first, guys. We reek." He carefully took Teyla's offered hand and groaned as he got to his feet.

Ronon got up without any help. But then, he was younger.

Sheppard winced when he looked up into Ronon's face. "Ah, and maybe the infirmary too." He gestured at Ronon's eye. "Sorry there, buddy."

Ronon touched the edge of the swelling gingerly. It didn't hurt too bad. "After we eat," he decided.

"Okay," Sheppard agreed, and barely hesitated before clapping him on the shoulder. "Lunch it is."

Teyla signaled Bates to unlock the door, and she and Ronon followed Sheppard out of the gym. It was strange. It felt like Sheppard was home again, even though he'd never actually left.

"How is he?" Amagy asked as she came into the room.

Kestine glanced over her shoulder and gave Amagy a small smile. "Better," she said. "He was complaining of pain earlier, so I gave him more tea. He fell asleep shortly after." Her smile slid away as she looked back at Mer. Amagy leaned over the bed and automatically put her hand on Mer's forehead.

"The sleep is the best thing for him, but he's sweating," she said, speaking the obvious. Kestine saw her grimace in concern. Amagy looked at her again. "He's warm--is that the heat in here, or is he feverish?"

"I can't tell for certain yet," Kestine said. The room was almost unbearably hot, even with the slatted doors flung fully open to let in the breeze. Weeks ago, Mer had been moved into Merrin's chambers, which connected directly to Athema's. The sun fell full on them for most of the day. Kestine fanned her face with her hand, but it barely stirred the humid air.

"Heat is good," Amagy said. "A warm body can better heal itself." She moved her hand on Mer's face, cupping each of his cheeks, feeling his neck. "But a fever is too much. It could damage his organs." She moved back as she considered, wiping her hand absently on her dress. She took the bed covers and yanked them back, exposing Mer's body to the air. He was naked, his body glistening in places with sweat. She moved the sheet up just enough to cover his groin.

Mer tried to roll over in his sleep, but made a soft noise of pain.

"Shh," Kestine said to him. She rubbed his chest gently, far above where Irik's boots had been. "Lie still. You're safe." She was gratified when he quieted again.

"Dall told me you said one rib is cracked, the other broken," Amagy said when it was certain Mer wouldn't wake. She looked at Kestine for confirmation, and Kestine nodded. Amagy's mouth tightened. "Which one moves when you press it?"

"On the left," Kestine said, pointing. "I've been monitoring the movement of his blood--it's steady, but faster than I like."

Amagy nodded, her attention on the spreading bruises on either side of Mer's chest. Athema had spared him nothing, it seemed. Kestine saw Amagy's mouth tighten as she saw them. "That's probably due to pain," Amagy said, "though his blood has always moved too quickly. He has a nervous disposition."

"He spends too much time in the sun, then," Kestine said. It was well known that too much sunlight sped the blood. "He shouldn't be working in the greenhouse."

"He shouldn't have been kicked like an animal," Amagy retorted angrily. She let out a long breath, running her fingers over her face. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm upset, but you don't deserve any of it." She shook her head. "Irik promised me he wouldn't hurt him," she said quietly.

"You aren't anyone to take his promises, Amagy," Kestine said gently. "Irik isn't yours, he belongs to the Daema." She lifted Mer's limp arm, pressed her fingers to his palm to check the blood flow again, now that his body was cooling. It was still too fast. "I feared this would happen."

Amagy didn't answer. She was touching Mer's left side, where the bruising was worst, her concentration total. Mer whimpered and tried to move away, but he thankfully kept sleeping. Amagy had noted that he responded to the bitter flower tea almost alarmingly well, which meant they had to be careful not to give him too much.

Kestine had already preformed a full examination after Irik carried Mer back to the palace, but she wasn't surprised that Amagy wanted to verify his condition for herself.

Amagy's hands stilled after Mer's reaction, then she continued once he quieted again. Kestine saw her wince, but Amagy didn't speak until she'd checked over Mer's right side as well.

Then she stood upright, face grave. "It doesn't seem to have broken completely through, but I don't like that it moves at all. If it cuts or stabs his kidney I'll have to remove it, and that might kill him." She looked at Kestine, worry making her determined. "Has there been blood in his water?"

Kestine shook her head. "No, nor any from his mouth. And he didn't say his chest or flanks hurt."

"Excellent," Amagy said, nodding. Her tense expression relaxed a little. "He must be kept as still as possible until it mends. We need to inform the servants who will tend to him."

Kestine made a face, but nodded. "He won't like that," she said.

"He'll have no choice," Amagy snapped, her face momentarily hardening. It softened again when she looked at Mer. For all that he was Kestine's age, he seemed childlike in sleep, achingly vulnerable.

"Not that he ever has a choice," Kestine said.

Amagy looked at her sharply.

"He's a thrall," Kestine said flatly. "Your mother could have him killed if she so chose, and you know how much would be done for it." She wasn't trying to be cruel, and it wasn't her place to criticize, for all that Amagy allowed her unheard-of freedoms. Thralls were beaten for less than what she'd just said, and the irony wasn't lost on her. She gestured at Mer's flushed, sweating face, creased with pain even as he slept. "He killed some flowers--flowers, Ama--and look what's become of him."

"I know," Amagy said tightly. "I'll speak to Irik again."

"You already spoke to him," Kestine said. "It did nothing. How much more of this do you think he can survive?"

"Then I'll speak to my mother!" Amagy hissed. She was mindful enough to keep her voice low, despite her anger, but Mer shifted again all the same. Both women stayed in tense silence until he settled once more.

"I'll speak to my mother," Amagy repeated more quietly. "She has to see that this can't continue. He'll be unable to attend her for at least a full moon cycle now. That might deter her, if nothing else."

"It might," Kestine said. "Though the sevenday he spent in bed two cycles ago didn't deter her." She looked at Amagy. "I think you know this will only get worse, Ama. He's bound to make another mistake." She kept her gaze steady. "How long are you prepared to let him get beaten? Until he's crippled? Until he dies from it?"

Amagy blew out a breath through her teeth, as furious as Kestine had ever seen her, but she didn't deny it. She looked away from Kestine, down at Mer again. "What would you have me do, Kessy?" she asked, very quietly. "When he…when he is able to do what she wants, I have never seen Athema so happy. Not since Merrin was taken."

"And you're willing to risk his life for her happiness?" Kestine asked.

Amagy closed her eyes. "Again, what would you have me do?"

"There are my friends," Kestine said. "There is the Sanctuary."

"And I told you no," Amagy said coldly. "I'm not risking you."

"It's moot anyway, I suppose," Kestine said. "He's not going anywhere for a good while, poor man."

"Yes," Amagy said. She sat carefully on the bed next to Kestine. She felt Mer's forehead again, gave a slight smile. "He feels cooler." She pulled the sheet up to his waist.

"Good," Kestine said.

Amagy smoothed the wet hair back from Mer's forehead. It had grown since he'd first come, and now was beginning to lie against his scalp instead of sticking up the way it had when he'd arrived. Kestine was sure Athema would have it cut soon, since Merrin always kept his hair as short as a Daemguard.

"I think he's happy here, most of the time at least," Amagy said. "I've seen him smiling."

"He seems to enjoy talking to you," Kestine agreed. "And me and some of the other servants. But this isn't his home. And pleasant conversation isn't enough to make it so."

"It's the only home he has," Amagy said, her voice sharpening again. "It wasn't my mother's fault that the sleeper merchants took him. Do you think life would be better for him now, anywhere else?"

"I do," Kestine said honestly. "Your mother didn't buy Mer to save him."

"I'm not going to allow you to endanger your life to take away the one thing that makes my mother smile," Amagy said, and now her voice was as vicious and imperious as Athema's ever was. "You will speak no further of it."

And Kestine knew there was no point in continuing the argument. She might have unheard-of freedoms for a thrall, but she still was one. And in moments like these, despite how much she loved Amagy, and how much she knew Amagy truly loved her in return, Kestine was all-too aware of how little, ultimately, her freedom meant.

Kestine supposed she could ignore Amagy's demand, but she didn't dare. Gola's fists had taught her the price of disobedience, and even with him twelve long summers dead she had never been able to unlearn it. She was certain Amagy would never hurt her…but she could never be certain enough.

So, "As you wish, my Daemene," she said, and waited for Amagy to tell her she didn't have to use the honorific, and knew that Amagy would not.

Mer was sitting on the side of the bed in Merrin's room, looking out over the balcony with his arms wrapped around his ribs to lessen the constant, dull ache. There was a cup of bitter flower tea on the bedside table from a pot Kestine had brought. It was still steaming, but Mer didn't touch it, even though it would make him feel better, help him sleep.

He was sleeping a lot, lately, but he didn't want to right now. He didn't want to do much of anything, really, but there was something compelling about watching the steam billowing up from the fountain in the courtyard, how it dissipated with the early evening breeze. Fluid dynamics, he thought. There were ways to use numbers to describe how the steam moved. Mer knew that, somehow, if he could just remember them. If he wasn't so tired.

Well, not tired so much as weary, really. Weary of the constant pain, weary of being in his room day after day after day, weary of the overabundant food and Dall's well-meaning but limited conversation, weary of everything.

He even missed the greenhouse, though he was sure he'd never be allowed back there again. At least it was something to do, and he'd enjoyed fixing the irrigation system. He didn't like digging and transplanting and being dirty all the time, but he did like using his hands.

He hadn't seen Riatta in more than fourteen days. He hoped she was all right.

Mer didn't move when he heard someone coming into the room. It was either Dall with another meal he didn't want, or Kestine to make sure he'd drunk the tea, or Athema. Athema would be the worst, but he knew she wasn't going to set Irik on him again until his ribs healed, so it gave him a bit of freedom.

Not that she wouldn't keep meticulous track of any offence, of course, but right now he really didn't care.

"Mer!" came the unmistakable sound of Athema's voice, and he took a resigned breath. "You should be in bed, my sweetwater. You might get chilled."

"Yes, my Daema," he said. Mer stood dutifully, then pulled back the bed covers. It made his ribs hurt a little more, but there was no question of Athema doing it for him, and it was ridiculous to call a servant just for this small task. He moved some pillows so he could lean against them, then sat back in the bed. He expected Athema to pull the blanket up, but she didn't.

She climbed on the bed next to him, heedless of her beautiful grey dress, and knelt so that her knees touched his thigh. She was holding a large rectangle wrapped in brown paper, and she smiled at him, her green eyes shining with excitement.

"I bought you a present," she said gleefully. "A very expensive one. Do you want to see it?"

Her voice and smile had gone coy. And while Mer was vaguely interested in what she'd brought, he doubted he'd like it. He also knew he wasn't going to like what he'd have to do to get it, because he was absolutely certain that she'd make him do something.

He forced a smile, not particularly caring if it seemed genuine or not. "I'd love to. Thanks."

Athema grinned. She leaned closer, then put the present behind her back. "What will you do for me, to make me let you have it?"

Mer blinked at her, his smile fixed in place like something dead. Athema loved this game. He wondered if she had played it with Merrin, if Merrin had put up with it. Everything was a negotiation, and the terms were always hers. "Whatever you want me to do," he said, because he'd end up doing whatever she wanted anyway. He always did.

Her smile turned to something he might have thought was sexy, if he cared about her. "Oh," she purred. "You must want it very badly."

He heard the present drop to the bed behind her, and Athema put her hands on the wall around his head and leaned forward. She didn't actually touch him until their lips met. That was nice--he hadn't expected her to remember that his ribs would hurt if she put weight on his chest.

Mer kissed Athema back in the way he knew she liked: surprisingly forcefully for such a seemingly delicate woman. He cupped her face in his hands, which always made her sigh happily, and did his best to invade her mouth with his tongue, pushing at hers and slapping against her teeth. He closed his eyes as if he were enjoying her tongue in his mouth, and he imagined that he could feel the insistent rasp of stubble against his jaw, and that the hair his fingers were threaded through was shorter, more coarse, and that the cloying scent of heartflower oil was actually clean skin, with the faintest whiff of gunpowder and sweat.

He didn't know where the fantasy came from, but it felt so real he sometimes wondered if it was a memory. Thinking about it too much always made him sad and afraid, though, like something terrible had happened. And that wasn't a good way to give Athema what she wanted.

Athema finally pulled back. She was smiling, and inwardly Mer sighed in relief.

"I can see how much you want your present, Mer," Athema said. She looked up at him through her eyelashes. She probably thought that made her appear alluringly innocent, but she was too old to carry it off. She moved her hand to his erection, embarrassingly obvious in his loose pants. He tried to look like he wanted her hand there.

It seemed to work, because Athema began to caress him through the cloth. She moved her head closer, until Mer could feel the wet heat of her breath next to his ear.

"Lie down," she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "I promise I'll be gentle."

The fact that he knew she would actually be gentle didn't make Mer any more interested, but at least he was hard this time, so she wouldn't berate him and sulk like a little girl. And he knew exactly what to do to make her come.

"I'm going away soon," Athema said as she slowly undid his pants. The ends of the drawstring tickled as they trailed over his belly, and he concentrated on not flinching or trying to itch. He didn't want to disturb her. "The Parliament is meeting in a tenday, and I'm expected at the Capital." Mer obediently lifted his hips so she could pull his pants down and off. It felt good dragging over his cock, and he fixed his mind on that, instead of her straddling him.

She leaned over him again, close enough that the smooth fabric of her dress slid across his chest and stomach and cock, and he bucked involuntarily, then hissed in pain.

"Shh," she said. She kissed his lips, then each of his eyes. "I'll think of you, while I'm away," she whispered, speaking between kisses. "I'll put my hand between my legs and imagine you there, your thick cock, and how much you're missing me." She pulled back and stepped off the bed. Mer watched her undo the shoulder ties of her dress because he knew she liked that, him admiring. The dress slipped down her body to the floor.

"You're beautiful," he said. She was--she was fit, with breasts that were still lush and full, generous hips and a flat belly. Mer had no problem finding her attractive, but it was difficult to want to fuck someone when you didn't have a choice.

She smiled at him. "You are so like my Merrin," she said. "Such a treasure you are, my heartflower." She climbed back on the bed, putting one strong thigh on either side of his hips, positioned him and lowered herself down, hissing in pleasure. "Oh, yes," she breathed, as she began to move. "Show me how much you'll miss me, Mer. Show me how much you want what I've brought you."

This part wasn't so difficult, at least. Mer could close his eyes again, pretend the legs pressed to him were longer, and that Athema's hands on his thighs were larger, with longer fingers. He let her move on him and thought about fucking a man. Someone with dark hair and eyes both brown and green. Someone he really wanted.

He slid his hand between the two of them, circled the exact right place with his fingers until he heard Athema cry out and felt her shudder around him, and that made him come too.

Athema kissed him again, gentler now that she was satisfied, then pulled off him and lay next to him on the bed. She propped her head on one hand, using the other to rub circles over his chest and stomach. She was careful not to press on his ribs.

"Would you like to see what I bought for you?" she asked, smiling sweetly at him.

Mer had forgotten the package entirely. "Of course," he said, smiling back. "My Daema is too generous."

Athema giggled, pleased with the compliment, then put the package between them. "Go ahead, open it," she said.

Mer lifted the package onto his stomach, feeling the weight of it. It was thin, not very heavy. He was careful when he took off the paper, because it was good quality and expensive.

"Oh," he said, in genuine surprise. She had brought him a fountain pen and a leather-bound notebook. He stared at her, amazed. "This is for me?" Mer looked back at the book before she could answer, which was a rudeness he hoped she'd forgive. He ran his fingers over the slightly-rough, off-white pages. So many things he had in his head: words he didn't understand, tantalizingly meaningless numbers and symbols. But if he could write them down, then maybe, maybe….

"Thank you," he said, and meant it.

Athema laughed in delight and kissed him on the cheek. "Just think of all the ways you can repay me for it."

It was so dark that Elizabeth Weir wasn't sure she would have seen him, even with the optimistic glow of the small orange lights. Most likely, without her Gift to lead her here, she would never have noticed him at all. That was probably the way he wanted it.

But she was Gifted, and here he was: out on the balcony, alone, and she only hesitated for a second before stepping forward and letting the doors slide open.

"It's late, John," she said.

John Sheppard was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the balcony, looking out at pure darkness, since it was impossible to see the water at this hour, even with the light of the stars.

"I know," he said. He took a long drink from the square bottle in his lap. His emotions were raw and distinct tonight, blazing to her Gift. She wondered if it meant he was drunk. John's emotions were never the tumultuous chaos of Rodney's, but this felt like she could reach out and hold pieces of John's soul in her hands.

"You're in pain," she said.

She saw John's head turn to look at her in the dim light, but she could barley see his eyes. "Nope," he said. He grinned, large and white and awful as he held up the bottle. "Feeling no pain at all, as a matter of fact." He took another drink before he put the bottle back in his lap. Elizabeth could see him grimace, either at the taste or the burn.

"You know that's not what I meant," she said. She walked over and sat beside him, curling her legs and leaning on one hand. John glanced at her but didn't say anything, either for her to stay or go. But she could easily feel that her presence was offering some comfort.

Wordlessly, John passed her the bottle. Elizabeth made a glove out of her sleeve and wiped the lip off, then drank. She'd thought it would have been some of Radek's rotgut, but it was Scotch whisky, probably expensive given the peaty taste. She hadn't even known John liked it.

"I know how you're feeling, John," she said. He smirked, because yes, she meant it literally. "And I admit, it looks…it doesn't look good, right now. But we're still searching--everyone's still searching. Every team. No one's going to give up until we find him."

"What if we don't?" John asked. His voice was as bleak and empty as the oppressive darkness surrounding them. He gestured at the sky with the neck of the bottle. "Lots of planets out there."

"We'll search them all, if we have to," Elizabeth said.

Another smirk, this one brittle and sad. "You know we can't." He took another long drink, as if to drown what he'd just said, maybe drown the thoughts that had gone with it. His despair was like a cloak, like another layer of darkness, smothering.

"John," Elizabeth said. She was so bad at this, always had been. Even when she knew exactly what people felt, she had never seemed to know what she could say to help them. Instead, she put her hand on his arm, felt his minute flinch before he let her. And then she almost recoiled when she realized he had on a long-sleeved shirt. She hadn't thought about it, about the extra shadow of his arms on the darkness.

"It's not that," John said quickly, maybe because he'd heard her gasp. He held up his free hand, so that she could see the white, uncovered palm, the long, pale fingers. "See?" She saw his head move as he looked away from her, back out at nothing. "I'm just cold," he said. He drew in a heavy breath, and she knew exactly what was churning inside him as he stuttered it out.

"We'll get Rodney back," Elizabeth said. It was all she could offer him.

"I had a dream that he was dying and I couldn't find him," John said. He swallowed. "He was screaming and screaming, and I was running through Atlantis, trying to get to him. And I knew if I didn't, he'd die, but I couldn't find him. I couldn't--"

He gave a roar like he was in agony, and threw the bottle against the balcony railing. It exploded in a burst of glass and noise. His whole body was like a pyre, burning in grief and hopeless rage. For a moment it consumed Elizabeth as well, intensifying her own emotions until it was all she could do not to scream.

In the end, John was the one who screamed for her. "God damn it!" He rocketed to his feet, forcing Elizabeth to let go of him. He ran his hands violently through his hair, then stalked back to the doorway.

"Wait!" Elizabeth ran to catch up with him. She put her hand on his arm, but he didn't even slow down, though he didn't try to shrug her off. She pulled on his arm until he finally slowed. "Wait," she said again. "Where are you going?" She could feel him nursing his rage until it eclipsed his other emotions, folded around them like a shield. He was dangerous like this, so angry that he might believe he was thinking clearly when he wasn't, and Elizabeth didn't know how much he'd drunk out there, before she found him.

"I'm going to go over the mission logs again," John said. "There has to be something, some clue. Something one of the teams missed when they wrote their reports."

"Fine," Elizabeth said. "I'll go over them with you."

She didn't miss the surprise that was echoed in the glance he gave her, like a brief flash of light.

"It's fine," he said curtly. "I can handle it on my own."

"John," Elizabeth said, then again when he wouldn't look at her, "John!" Sharply enough that he stopped, turned.

"Do you think you're the only one who loves him?" she asked him quietly.

She felt his emotions flare like stars as John looked at her: shock, anger, embarrassment, disappointment. Relief.

"I know," she said simply. "I can't not know. I'm sorry."

He stared at her for a long moment as she looked steadily back. Finally he nodded. "I guess you would," he said. He looked away, started walking again. "So you never told the SGC." It was an assumption, not a question.

"I would never betray you like that," Elizabeth said. "Not you or anyone."

"Thanks," John said

They walked on in silence.

"The scotch was for him," John said suddenly, as if he had to blurt it out or he'd never say it at all. "We were….It was for his birthday. And then Doranda happened." She saw the muscles move as his jaw clenched.

"I was going to give it to him when he came back," John said.

"I'll get some more," Elizabeth said, and she tried to smile. "It can be from both of us."

John didn't say anything.

Amagy rushed into Mer's room, clutching the skirt of her dress anxiously in her hand, lifting it inappropriately high so she could run. She didn't stop until she was next to his bed. "What is it? What happened?" She was panting, frightened. Dall had come yelling for her, told her it was urgent, and all she could think was that Mer's broken ribs had stabbed into his organs, even though they were more than half-healed and shouldn't have moved at all.

Mer was wearing pants under his sleep shirt, and sitting up on the edge of his bed, despite how often Amagy had demanded that he lie quietly, or even threatened to tie him down. The notebook Athema had spent a small fortune on to please him lay on the mussed bedclothes. The open pages were covered in numbers and odd symbols. The fountain pen had leaked onto the bed. Amagy made a mental note to have the sheets replaced before her mother came home and saw it, otherwise she knew Mer would be punished again, healed or no. That down blanket had been her father's favorite.

Mer was oblivious to the inkstain. Indeed, he seemed oblivious to everything except the picture frame he was holding in his hands. He started badly when Amagy burst in, then gasped in pain and pressed his arms to his sides.

"I'm sorry," Amagy said quickly. "Dall said I needed all haste."

Mer blinked at her, as if pulling his mind back from a great distance, and there was something about the resigned sadness in his eyes that worried Amagy greatly. He had grown thinner, she noted, despite her insisting on the best and most copious meals for him. Dall constantly reported that Mer had no appetite, and only his writing could hold his interest for long. He also slept a great deal, which was something Amagy normally prescribed. But too much sleep was a sign of a dangerous, unrelenting melancholy which even Phagaros had not been able to cure.

Amagy had thought Mer would be pleased to be away from the greenhouse, but his spirits had fallen further the longer he'd been required to rest because of his injury. And he seemed to suffer from ill dreams, but could never remember them.

"Oh!" Mer said at length, as if finally noticing her. "Oh, well, it wasn't an emergency. I mean, it's urgent, but, I'm not dying or anything. Sorry."

He looked anxious, and Amagy hastened to put his mind at ease. She smiled. "Dall was so adamant that I was concerned you had suffered an internal injury or were in terrible pain. I'm just pleased to see that you're well."

He smiled back, though the uncertainty remained. His eyes looked shadowed, despite the abundance of sleep, the lovely blue color somehow faded. She could see how the bones in his face had sharpened, how his fingers seemed to have lengthened as he lost weight. "Well, ah, thank you," he said. "Yeah, I'm…I'm doing fine." He looked momentarily hopeful. "Will I be able to go for a walk tomorrow? Just down the hall, I mean. Kestine said I could if you thought I was well enough."

Amagy smiled. Normally she wouldn't even consider letting the patient move that much until he'd been bedridden for a full moon cycle at least, but Phagaros had also stressed suiting the cure to the needs of the invalid whenever possible. And he was so eager she could scarcely deny him. "I can't see why not, provided you take Dall or Kestine with you." His smile was gratifying.

"So," she said, stepping closer, "why did you send for me?"

He swallowed. "I, um, I may have gone into Athema's chambers without her being there."

Amagy gasped before she could catch herself. "Oh, Mer," she breathed. "You know that's forbidden!"

"I didn't touch anything!" he exclaimed. "I mean, I moved one thing. But, that was all, I swear! And I remember exactly where it goes." He looked at her pleadingly. "I'll put it back right where I found it, I promise. It's just…I'm so bored!" he said indignantly. "No one comes to talk to me, and you won't let me out of here. I have nothing to do."

Amagy knew for a fact that she and Kestine visited Mer whenever they could spare a moment, and that Athema herself had ordered her other personal servants to spend time with him while she was away in the Capital.

"Parliament is in session," Amagy said, though Mer was of course aware of it. "Athema will be back in another half-cycle, and then I'm sure you'll be busy again."

She had meant the statement to be flippant, a joke, but there was nothing even close to a smile on Mer's face.

"Is the Daema so terrible?" Amagy asked quietly.

"No!" Mer said, too quickly. He looked down at whatever picture it was he had in his hands. "She's…she's great." His voice belied the statement so badly that Amagy didn't bother to call him on it. "It's just, sometimes it's very hard to please her."

Amagy put her hand on his arm, squeezing gently. "You make her happy," she said. "Never think otherwise."

"Really?" She thought that might have pleased him, at least, but he only looked relieved.

"Of course," Amagy said, but then she remembered why she had been called there and she frowned. "But she must never find out you were in her chambers, Mer. Are you sure this was the only thing you touched?"

Mer nodded quickly. "I wouldn't have taken it, but it's so weird--I had to show it to you." He turned the frame around, so she could see the picture in it. "Is that…is that me? I thought it might be Merrin, but I wasn't sure. Do you recognize it?" He looked confused and sad. "It's just that I think I remember that jacket. So I thought you might know when the picture was taken. If it's really me or not." His voice had a terrible hope in it.

"I don't know this picture," Amagy said truthfully, but she couldn't take her eyes off the electric portrait. It had been carefully framed under a thin sheet of glass, which spoke volumes to how precious it was, but Amagy knew that wasn't Merrin. She'd seen every picture that had ever existed of her father, and not one of them had been produced by a machine. She ripped her gaze away from the smiling man to Mer, and she knew they were the same person, there was no question of it. "You say this was in her room?" she asked, then had to swallow down the thickness in her throat.

Mer nodded again. "It was on the table next to her bed." He looked at Amagy, his eyes bright and puzzled. "I don't remember anyone taking it," he said. "I think it comes from Before. Before I came here, I mean. Why does she have it?"

"I don't know," Amagy said softly. She could feel the horror creeping into her chest, her throat, until it threatened to choke her. "Excuse me a moment."

She went to the back of the room and tugged the ribbon that would summon a servant. It felt like at least two cycles of the moon had passed before Carah arrived, primly and unnecessarily touching her forehead. "As my Daemene requests," she said.

"Find Irik," Amagy snapped, too upset to be civil. Carah blinked in surprise at her rudeness, but turned immediately and left to fetch him.

"No!" Mer's sudden cry had Amagy jumping and turning to him in alarm. Mer's face was bone-white, a mixture of accusation and fear. "I-I haven't even finished healing from the last time…!"

"Oh, no! No, Mer!" Amagy rushed forward, cursing herself for her stupidity. She grabbed the picture frame before he slid from Mer's lax fingers and threw it on the bed, then she took his shoulders in her hands. It was far easier to feel the bones than it had been before. "Mer, Mer, listen to me! He won't hurt you! Do you understand? I want to ask him about the portrait, that's all! You're not being punished, do you understand?" she told him. "I need to ask Irik something. He won't go near you. Do you understand me?"

Mer nodded slowly, his breathing quieting. "I understand," he said.

"I won't even speak to him in this room, all right?" Amagy waited until he nodded again. "I'll wait for him outside." She straightened and picked up the picture, then quickly left the room before Irik arrived. It wouldn't do for him to see the ink on the bed clothes, anyway.

Irik trotted up less than two minutes later. In his own stoic way he looked almost as miserable as Mer did--he hated being left behind when Athema when to the Capital. But bodyguards and servants weren't allowed, for fear the Daema would use them to assassinate the Daemanar. Elida was the most nervous, paranoid Daema of Parliament Amagy had ever heard of; Merrin had always hated the woman.

Amagy shoved the electric portrait at Irik before he could speak. "Why does my mother have this?" she demanded.

Irik blinked at it, then down at Amagy. She knew he wanted to ask what she was doing in her mother's chambers--not even he went in there, and probably felt they were sacred--but he didn't dare do it. "I bought it for her," he said simply. "When she told me to accompany Kestine for that trip to the seed-sellers." It would never occur to Irik to lie.

Amagy concentrated very hard on keeping her face and voice composed. "Because the man in it looks like Merrin?"

Irik shook his head. "No. Because she wanted proof that there was really a man out there who looked like the Daemor." He gestured at the electric portrait. "That was proof."

"I see," Amagy said. She really didn't, not yet. But she was beginning to, and it was hideous. "And why did she want this proof?"

"So I could tell the sleeper merchants who to hunt for," Irik said.

Kestine looked up, shocked, when Amagy stormed into her chambers, shoving the door so hard that the heavy wood slammed into the wall.

"Ama?" Kestine left her sewing table immediately to go to her. The Daemene was crying, great, fat tears sliding down her cheeks in wave after wave after wave. "Sweetwater, what's wrong?"

She tried to put her arms around Amagy, but the other woman just stepped back, shaking her head. "No," Amagy said. She wiped ineffectually at her eyes with her palm. "You need to take him to the Sanctuary, Kessy." She sniffed, swallowed hard. "She doesn't--" She broke off, too overcome by emotion to speak.

"What happened?" Kestine said, truly alarmed now. "Is Mer all right?"

Amagy nodded. "He's fine. As well as he can be, considering what she had done to him."

Kestine blinked, confused. "What? Do you mean what Athema had Irik do? I don't understand."

Amagy took several deep breaths, obviously struggling with herself until she was under control. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm the Daemene--I shouldn't be sniveling like this. It's just that I never…." She gulped air again. "It's like I never even knew her."

"Tell me, please, Ama," Kestine said. She took Amagy's hand. "What happened?"

Amagy wiped her face again, and this time when she spoke her eyes and voice were steel. "That bitch who calls herself my mother didn't find Mer at the sleeper merchants," she said. "It's not a coincidence that he looks like Merrin."

Kestine felt her eyes widening. "What?"

Amagy nodded. "It's just what you think. She had him taken, on purpose. And emptied." She stopped speaking again, and for a moment she looked like she was going to be sick, but she just shook her head when Kestine tried to have her sit down.

"She did it on purpose, Kessy," Amagy said. "Whomever he was, the sleeper merchants didn't steal him from his home at random. Athema paid them to."

Melsch, John thought. Melsch. That's a fucking awful name. Even Teyla's pretty mouth spread sourly around the word, like she couldn't spit it out quickly enough.

He looked away from her and down at his hands, white and naked on the table of the briefing room. He hadn't put the gloves back on since the…thing with Teyla and Ronon in the gym, and he'd been forcing himself to wear his tee-shirts again. Everyone was smiling at him like he'd accomplished some prodigal feat by showing his arms, but John still felt raw, vulnerable in a way he hated but was all-too familiar with.

He didn't really think he could kill people with his Gift anymore. At least that's what he had told Kate Heightmeyer when he'd seen her. Ronon had shown him pretty effectively that people could still resist him, even if he was putting all of his strength into his Gift. Even if they were touching his skin.

But part of him, maybe most of him, still wanted the gloves back: the smooth, comforting warmth of the leather, and the barrier of long sleeves. It was…safer, that way. Easier. He still missed it, sometimes. He'd been missing it a hell of a lot, lately.

He wanted Rodney back so badly.

John sighed, loudly enough that Teyla turned her head abruptly to look at him.

"Sorry," he said quickly, smiling in apology. "It wasn't you. Please go on."

Teyla nodded and continued. "Melsch is known for its Grand Market and the benevolence of its political leaders," Teyla said. "It is likely that we will find many foodstuffs there to reduce our dependence on deliveries from Earth. There is also the possibility of Ancient artifacts, or other technologies that would benefit Atlantis." She smiled at Elizabeth.

What Teyla meant, of course, was that they might find another lead on where Rodney was. If they were lucky. They hadn't been lucky for a long time.

They'd been reduced to showing locals pictures of Rodney McKay and asking, 'Have you seen this man?', as if they were in some kind of cop show. So far no one had, and not even John's charm or Conroy's telepathy had ferreted out a spark of recognition when anyone looked at it. But they hadn't been to Melsch yet, and apparently a lot of people converged there during market time. It was possible they'd find something, someone who saw the picture and knew who John was talking about.

Elizabeth listened as Teyla finished describing the wonders of the planet that sounded like an epithet, then smiled and nodded. "Excellent. I'll put it on the roster for your next mission." Something about her smile made it obvious that Elizabeth knew damn well all his team would do there was look for Rodney. The fact that she was letting them go anyway meant more to him than he figured he could ever tell her. Elizabeth had been doing this for weeks--basically letting John's team go wherever the hell they wanted, using Teyla's honeyed descriptions to make it sound like they were toeing the line for the IOA.

He knew his smile wasn't much when she glanced in his direction, but he tried to feel as grateful as he could, knowing she'd sense it. He caught her tiny nod of acknowledgement, so that was all right.

"Uh, Ms. Teyla?" Conroy put his hand up like a kid in school, then smiled crookedly when she looked at him. "How many people are we talking, here? I mean, on average?"

Teyla pursed her lips as she thought. "I believe it would be comparable to one of the smaller villages on Earth, from what I've been told. Perhaps one or two thousand?"

Conroy sucked in a small breath, and his smile was tight and unhappy as he nodded. "Thanks." He looked down at the table, rubbing the back of his neck.

Elizabeth's mouth quirked uncomfortably.

John licked his lips. "Sergeant," he said.

Conroy's head snapped up. "Yessir?"

"You don't have to come," John said. "I know how hard it is for you to suppress the thoughts of that many people at once. You can sit this one out if you feel you need to."

Conroy blinked, and John suppressed both a bristle of irritation and a slap of shame that the kid should be so surprised that John gave a damn about him.

Conroy straightened his back, coming to seated attention. "I'll be able to do my job, sir," he said, with the unswerving certainty John had come to expect from the Marines.

"He does have a point, Sergeant," Elizabeth said to Conroy. "That many people will be considerably taxing to your abilities. You might become ill."

And by 'ill', she meant have a nervous breakdown, or go into hypoglycemic shock. "You could die," John said bluntly. "If you start having problems, we might not be able to get you back in time."

"I'm aware of the risks, sir, ma'am," Conroy said stiffly. He turned his head to look at John. "I'm willing to take that chance, sir, if it means finding Dr. McKay."

John swallowed down some nameless emotion. Appreciation, maybe.

"I'll be fine, sir," Conroy added. "We've been to other planets with more people than Atlantis before, and I've done all right. I think you can trust me to come though this one too."

Teyla was still standing at the front of the room. "I don't believe this will overtax Albert's Gift, John," she said seriously.

"Okay," John said. "You're on the mission." He hesitated, wondered what Conroy was getting from his head, if anything. "And for the record, I do trust you. You've been doing a good job, and you're an asset to this team."

"Thank you, sir," Conroy said. He sounded more assured--more adult--than John had ever heard him. Then he smiled at John like he wasn't sure he could, but wanted to anyway. "That means a lot."

"You're welcome." John smiled back, and if it was too self-conscious to be real…well, Conroy still knew that he meant it.

The door to his chambers creaked open while he was pulling his pants on, and Mer turned around in surprise, nearly tripped, then had to lean against the bed and just breathe for a little while until the pain stopped.

He was used to people coming in and out of his room at all hours by now, and most of the time he was lucky if they thought of knocking first. Even the other servants just pushed their way in more often than not, and Mer had given up on any semblance of privacy weeks ago. It didn't mean that he liked it.

The fact that it was Amagy and Kestine made it a little more bearable to be standing there in his sleep shirt and underwear, with his pants around his ankles, but only a little.

"Can't you knock? he demanded. The words were out of his mouth before it occurred to him that such insolence could earn him another beating, and he froze.

"You need to get dressed," Amagy said quickly. "We're leaving here."

Mer blinked at her and Kestine, only then really registering that they were both wearing light summer cloaks over their dresses, as if they were planning on going out into the early morning.

He wanted to snap that he had been dressing, thank you very much, and then Amagy's words hit him. "Leaving?" he asked as he yanked his pants all the way on. He'd learned better than to disobey, even if he was fairly certain Amagy would never have him punished the way the Daema would.

"Where are we going?" He didn't even hesitate before he pulled off his sleep shirt and dropped it on the bed, though he had to move slowly because his ribs still hurt like a bitch if he moved too fast. Both women had seen his naked torso so often at this point that modesty felt ridiculous, like refusing to take off his shirt in front of his sister or something.

And that thought staggered him for a moment--he had a sister?

Mer shook his head, dismissing the thought. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. He'd never know and there were other things to worry about now, like the tense, anticipatory silence of the two women waiting for him. He could add the possibility of a sister to all the other grief and fury he had over what had been ripped from him, and have a nice, indulgent freak-out about it some other time.

He grabbed the first shirt his hand came to, one of the open-necked tunics, then saw it was dark red and quickly discarded it for a dark blue one. He liked the blue. And he still couldn't make himself wear black, couldn't even make himself think of why. The shirt was almost too loose on him now, which frightened him a little. Everything he ate tasted like ashes these days, but it felt somehow like losing the weight meant losing more of himself, whomever he had been. As if his personhood could somehow melt away like fat. It was a stupid, crazy notion and he never told anyone, not even Kestine, though he thought she might understand. He resolved to eat more, even if it never tasted any better.

"We're taking you through the traveling water," Amagy said, and Mer stopped dead, shirt only half-way over his head. Kestine still hadn't spoken.

Mer yanked the shirt the rest of the way down, then ran his fingers through his hair. "What?" he asked, blinking at the two women. "You mean--" Escape? He didn't even dare voice it, as if saying it out loud would somehow destroy the possibility, the fragile hope.

Getting out of the palace. No longer being a thrall. He had no idea where he'd go, what he'd do, but God, it didn't matter. He didn't care.

He looked at Amagy, blinking. "Really?"

She nodded brusquely. "Yes. But we must hurry. We need to leave before Irik takes his turn on the day watch. He won't let us go."

Mer nodded quickly. "Right, right." Yes, they definitely had to leave before Irik saw them. Mer grabbed his walking boots and sat heavily on the bed, bending over with a wince, then awkwardly lifting his leg when his ribs hurt too much to let him hold that position.

Kestine knelt on the floor and grabbed his ankle, pulling his foot back down. She set to lacing his boots with quick, graceful efficiency. Amagy went to the large wardrobe and rummaged through it until she pulled out another cloak.

"Here," she said, tossing it onto the bed next to him.

Mer nodded, putting his hand on it. Somehow the rough feeling of the thin cloth was grounding. This is real, he thought. This is happening. There was no joy in it, not yet, and part of him wondered if there ever would be, if he'd ever be happy again, even when he wasn't a thrall.

For all he knew, he never had been happy. Maybe the sleeper merchants had liberated him from some hell he should be grateful to have forgotten. But he'd never know, and he was sure that would never stop haunting him: everything he might have been.

Kestine finished tying his boots and helped him stand. Mer put on the cloak.

"Wait," he said, as they were going towards the door. His heart was hammering and he knew that every second counted here, but he went back to his desk anyway. He opened the single drawer and grabbed his notebook, then hesitated. It had felt like the only thing holding him together, these last few weeks, a barrier against the inexorable boredom and despair. But the Daema had given it to him. For a price.

He left it there.

Kestine shut the door behind them.

In the end, it was astonishingly simple, but then of course it would be--they had the Daemene with them.

Amagy led them to the main exit of the palace and demanded a coach and a packed breakfast, saying she and the two thralls were going to visit another Daem. The servant kept glancing nervously at Mer, as if he knew something wasn't right but didn't dare mention it. And within what felt like no time at all they were sitting in the coach, rumbling sedately along the very, very long and grand driveway of the palace with a basket of food sitting incongruously at their feet.

The giant courtyard was the only part of the palace he had ever seen, but now they were going down a long, winding driveway that led to iron gates that were as enormous as they were forbidding. Mer thought he might have held his breath until the two scurrying boys had shut the gates behind them. And then they were on the road.

Amagy breathed a soft sigh, then gestured at the basket. "Kestine, if you would?" she asked. She smiled at Mer. "Phagaros instructs that breakfast is the most important meal."

Mer smiled back at her, and dutifully took the bread and cheese Kestine handed him, but his stomach was tied in knots and he had to force himself to eat. With every moment that passed he was certain the driver would turn the placid, plodding harness animals around and return to the palace, or Irik would be leading an entire garrison of Daemguards pounding down the dirt road after them.

Kestine stayed tense and quiet next to him, her face taut. Only Amagy seemed at all relaxed, though Mer couldn't help noticing that she ate even less than he did, and that she seemed more and more sad with each thump of the beasts' hooves.

Eventually she pulled a ribbon hanging from the ceiling, and the coach slowed, stopped.

Mer heard the driver climbing down from his seat, then his red, friendly face popped up in front of the small, rectangular window. "Yes, my Daemene?" he asked. "Change of direction?"

"Yes." Amagy nodded. "I've decided that I wish to go to Kalinor instead. Take us to the traveling water."

"As my Daemene requests," said the driver. He looked as uneasy as the servant back at the palace, but he touched his forehead anyway and ducked out of view. Soon the coach started moving again.

"There." Amagy smiled at the two of them once the coach was moving again. It didn't even touch her eyes. "By the time the sun is at her height, you'll be free."

"You mean Mer," Kestine said slowly. It was the first time she'd spoken since she and Amagy had come into his room.

"No, I do not," Amagy said. Her smile widened, but there were tears under her eyes when she blinked. She wiped them away impatiently. "Please, my heartflower--you surely didn't think you could help with this and return." It was said as if Amagy wouldn't even consider that Kestine had planned otherwise. "We are in the process of removing the last joy from my dear mother's life. Even if I could convince her I'd done this entirely on my own, even if I'd left you behind, she'd still have you executed for treason to punish me."

"You can't be certain of that," Kestine said. Her voice was like rolling gravel.

"I think I can," Amagy said. She reached across the small space between the seats and took Kestine's hand. Kestine held Amagy's so tightly Mer was sure it had to hurt. "This was not an easy decision for me," Amagy said. "I feel as if I am tearing out my heart, telling you to leave. But it would be worse if you came back with me." She smiled again, soft and sad. "And you deserve so much more than to be a thrall in the Daem of Kor."

Kestine had started crying now, too. Mer shifted miserably in his seat, wishing he weren't there, wishing even more he knew something he could do, or say, anything that might make this better. He hated seeing people he cared about upset; maybe that had always been a part of him.

"I deserve to be with you," Kestine said. She pulled her hand away from Amagy's. "How could you do this to me? I would have gone back with you!" She turned away, looking out at the trees lining either side of the narrow road. "Let me come back with you. I don't care what happens."

"I do," Amagy said. "I love you."

"Not enough," Kestine said.

"Too much," Amagy answered.

The driver stopped the coach in the circle that ended the road right in front of the traveling water. It looked like a giant, round strip-mall parking lot, which struck Mer as funny even though he couldn't actually remember what a strip-mall parking lot was.

Amagy composed herself quickly, and looked as serene as ever when she descended from the coach. Kestine followed her, then Mer. He glanced at Kestine, but she was looking at the ground.

"I will return before sundown. You may wait," Amagy told the driver. She gestured at the small cluster of people in front of the traveling water, waiting while the first group dialed and the ring burst into a blue torrent. Mer gasped, at its beauty and because he recognized it, knew what it was.

"Wormhole," he whispered. It went to other planets. That much he remembered.

There were several men and women in uniform--Daemguards, Mer realized--and he shifted worriedly, part of him sure that any second they'd see him and raise the alarm. But all they did was look bored. He probably shouldn't be dwelling on them, but Mer had no idea where he was going, or what he'd do when he got there.

He supposed he'd be able to earn a living repairing things, since he seemed to have a talent for that, or maybe the strange numbers and symbols that appeared in his head at odd moments really meant something and he could use them somehow. He doubted it.

Kestine and Amagy were standing in front of him, waiting patiently for their turn at the ring. There were large awnings set up nearby, with couches and attendants, obviously meant for important people, but Amagy ignored them. She put the hood of her cloak up as well, despite how the day was warming, obviously not wanting to draw attention to herself. Mer shifted his feet again.

"It will be our turn soon," Amagy murmured, as if sensing his impatience. Mer didn't answer. Freedom was so close to him he could almost literally touch it, and he had been so desperate for it, back at the palace. But all he could think of right at that moment was that it meant the end of everything he knew.

Mer didn't recognize Kalinor, even though he hoped he somehow might, and even though it seemed like a place he should know. Unlike the Daemlands, Kalinor's traveling water was in the middle of a square in their marketplace, so the instant they stepped through they were assaulted by a riot of color and sound. Mer blinked stupidly, momentarily dumbfounded, and Amagy had to physically pull him to get him walking again.

The three of them went to a fountain near the ring. The water splashing down was cold, unlike at the palace, and the noise only added to the general din, but Mer guessed that Amagy had chosen it specifically because it would be difficult for them to be overheard.

Mer's eyebrows rose in surprise when Amagy shrugged out of a small backpack before she sat down. Her cloak was so voluminous that Mer hadn't known she was carrying it.

"Here." Amagy presented it unceremoniously to Kestine. "Your notebooks are in here, and your instruments. As well as letters of reference. In a few minutes you will call the traveling water again, and you will take Mer to where your friends are, and I will leave you and come back here." She stopped, obviously fighting to keep from crying again, then went on. "When you've taken Mer to the Sanctuary, I want you to go to one of the three addresses I've put in your notebook. You've been to all of those places before, and they know and trust you. They also know and trust me. You won't be turned away." She smiled, and for a moment pride eclipsed the sadness in her eyes. "You will make an excellent physician."

Kestine took the backpack unwillingly. "So you've planned my life out, then? I'm to tend to the sick somewhere I've never lived, and not see you again."

"Kessy," Amagy said. She took Kestine's face in her hands. "Listen to me. I swear on the traveling water--I swear on my name as the future Daema of Kor--that I will see you again. In a month's time, no more, I will travel to each of these places and find you. And I will come whenever I can."

"And then what?" Kestine spat, but Mer saw that she wasn't protesting anymore. But whether it was because she agreed with what Amagy was doing or just knew she couldn't argue he didn't know. "I live just to hope that you'll come visit? That I can spend a few hours with you when we used to share a bed?" Kestine glared at Amagy, her dark eyes liquid and accusing. "What kind of life is that?"

"Do you think this will be easy?" Amagy demanded. "Each day that we're apart will be as terrible for me as it is for you, but you will be alive, and free, and I would trade everything for that--my Daem, my profession, my life, my soul. Do you understand?" She smoothed her thumbs gently along Kestine's cheeks. "In five summers by our laws, Athema will step down and I will be Daema. And then, if you'll still have me, I'll make you the head Physician of the Daem of Kor."

"If I'll still have you?" Kestine snorted incredulously, though the derision was marred by how wet it sounded. Both women were crying now, and Mer turned and shuffled away a little, both to give them privacy and so he wouldn't have to watch.

He'd fallen into a kind of daze, thinking that there were numbers that would predict how the sunlight reflected from the moving water of the fountain, when Kestine suddenly exclaimed, "wait!" as if she'd just remembered something vitally important.

Mer looked, but Kestine was just digging through the backpack Amagy had given her. She pulled out her notebook and a fountain pen. She wrote something quickly, then tore the page out of the book, giving it to Amagy. She folded the other woman's hand around it.

"His name is Enil," she said. "He knows how to get to the Sanctuary. I know you believe in your mother's kindness, but if you're in danger, use these symbols and ask for him. He'll help you."

"I'm the Damene, Kessy," Amagy said, and Mer could hear a touch of exasperation in her voice. "I'm not going to leave Kor."

Kestine still held her hand, keeping the paper in it. "Promise me you'll find him if you need to leave the Daemlands," she said.

"I won't need to leave the Daemlands."

"Promise me!"

Amagy smiled, wiped her eyes again. "My sweetwater. Very well. I promise. I promise." She leaned forward and kissed her, and Kestine returned it fervently, as if she were trying to make the memory indelible. It made Mer feel like his heart would break, and he turned around again.

His mending ribs were beginning to ache again from all the standing, when Amagy gently took his hand.

"It's time," she said. "Let's go."

He didn't expect the hug she gave him at the ring, or the chaste touch of her lips, but he had a feeling he never expected things like that. He hugged her back anyway.

"Thank you," he said into her beautifully braided hair.

"Just be happy, Mer," Amagy said. "Have a good life."

And then Kestine pressed the symbols and the water flared, and they stepped through together, leaving Amagy behind.

The man she had known as Mer hesitated at the entrance to the portal. "What's through there?"

"It's called Sanctuary," Kestine answered him patiently. A man with no past was afraid to leave all he had known, even if most of it hadn't been very pleasant. Kestine could well empathize with him. "None who enter ever leave again. Even if the thrallcatchers track you here, they will not follow. They are afraid of the wrath of the Ancestors Who Came Before."

"Why? If nobody's ever returned, how do you know this thing doesn't lead to instant death?" Mer shot back, chin going up. Kestine pretended not to notice how tense he was. It took a long time to stop expecting a beating for every plain-spoken thought.

She gestured at the carved stone plaque on the wall by the portal entrance. "It's in all the legends," she said. "This sign is supposedly written in the Old Tongue, the language of the Ancestors. It promises Sanctuary, Peace, and Protection to those who enter seeking enlightenment, but warns that once you enter, you may not leave except through the Ancestor's Own Door."

Kestine smiled sadly at Mer. "To be honest, I don't think anyone knows what that really means. Generations of thralls and servants have escaped to Sanctuary, though. None have ever been brought back." She put her hand on his arm. "But even if it does mean instant death--would you rather go back to the Daemlands?" It was a serious question, she would take him back if that was what he truly wanted.

But Mer shuddered. "No," he said shortly. He seemed to steel himself to step through the doorway, then suddenly turned and surprisingly, took her hand. "She loves you. Amagy, I mean. She really loves you. She'll come for you, just like she promised. You just have to have faith in her, and wait."

Kestine yanked her hand from his grip and angrily swiped away the tears welling up in her eyes. She was sick of crying. "What do you know about it?"

Mer blinked eyes wide with hurt at her, but answered with obvious honesty. "I think I knew someone like that. Someone who would come for me. I dream about him, sometimes. But I can never remember what he looks like when I wake up."

"I don't understand," Kestine said. "Then why…why don't just wait for him instead of--"

"He's dead, I think," Mer's artificial calm, as if he was holding desperately on to his control, brought Kestine short, made her reign in her own rampant emotions. "I dream about him dying."

"Oh." Kestine sighed. "I am sorry."

"Yeah," Mer looked down, then shook his head, as if shaking sense into himself. He looked into her eyes. "Have a good life. Be happy."

"Find peace," she told him. He answered with a lopsided half-smile and stepped into the portal.

Then he was gone.

She pulled her cloak more closely around herself, even though there wasn't a chill, and began to trudge her way back to the ring of the traveling water.

Kestine went to the second address on the list that Amagy had given her, mostly because she remembered they had a good tavern near the ring. Following Phagaros' advice, she'd hoped some good, hot food and tea might help raise her spirits. It hadn't helped much.

She was on her second mug of hot, sweet tea when the strangers came into the tavern, and the liquid seemed to freeze in her stomach.

They looked like Daemguards--they had the same air of purpose and watchfulness--but she had never seen such uniforms, or weapons. When they stayed polite and quiet however, Kestine concentrated on dismissing them from her thoughts. She went back to arguing with Amagy in her mind, trying to decide what words might either convince Amagy to come join her in exile, or allow Kestine to go back to her. She already knew she wasn't foolish or brave enough to actually go against Amagy's word and return to the Daemlands on her own. But when Amagy came for her promised visit--if she came, said a treacherous little voice in her head--perhaps Kestine could persuade her to stay….

"Have you seen this man?" An electric portrait in bright colors was slapped down next to her on the table, making her jump. Kestine looked up at the tall man who had put it there. He was fierce looking, and as big as Irik, if not bigger, and had a similar tattoo on his neck. She felt the blood pulsing quickly in her throat as fear slammed into her. The thrallcatchers! She thought in terror. They've come for me! Stupid girl, Sitting in broad daylight in a public tavern! she cursed herself.

She glanced at the portrait to look at the face, not wanting to make him suspicious by not doing so, and nearly shrieked, because it was almost worse. It was a portrait of Mer. The thrallcatchers were searching for Mer.

She should have known the Daema would not take his loss easily.

The tall man arched an eyebrow at her, obviously waiting for a reply and, behind him, she saw one of his companions, a pale-eyed young man with short-cropped hair, straighten and aim a sharp look at her. She swallowed around the dryness in her throat and tightened her hands around her mug of tea to keep them from trembling. "No," she said, working to control her voice. She looked away, as if the man and his picture were of no importance.

"Thanks," the tall man said gruffly, then walked over to the next table with his picture. He asked the people there the same question. Kestine breathed out carefully, and tried not to sag in relief. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the pale-eyed boy in a whispered conversation with the woman and the older, dark-haired man who seemed to be leading them. Hastily, Kestine drank the rest of her tea in a several gulping swallows, then quickly put some notes and coins on the table and left the Tavern. She wanted to be gone from here, perhaps even to the traveling waters again. There were two other addresses on Amagy's list.

She passed the baker's and the inn, walking swiftly with her cloak hood up and looking at no one, when suddenly she was grabbed and dragged into the alley behind the inn. A large hand clamped down on her mouth to muffle her screams. She kicked and struggled, but it was too late. She was a captive of the thrallcatchers, held fast by the largest one, and circled by his companions. She sagged in her captor's arms, willing the despairing tears in her eyes not to fall

Amagy, she thought. She would never see her again--

"We will not harm you," the woman said, her tone soothing. "We simply wish to ask you a few questions."

Kestine voiced her defiance as best she could with a hand pressed to her mouth and started struggling again. The large man held her still with appalling ease.

He rumbled, "Do you promise not to scream if I take my hand away? If you scream, you'll be sorry."

"Ronon!" The woman scolded. It didn't matter. Kestine already knew her pledges were worthless. If these were thralltakers, as she was now sure they were, then she was nothing more than a bounty to them. They would treat her as roughly as they liked. Nonetheless, she nodded slowing and exaggeratedly enough so that the tall man could feel it.

He took his hand away gradually, as if he still expected her to scream. She didn't.

"Hey there," said the dark-haired one, who hadn't spoken to her before. She looked at him and didn't say anything. He nodded and firmed his lips.

"My name is Sheppard. This is Teyla, Conroy, and Ronon. We'd like you to look carefully at this picture again, if you don't mind." He held up the portrait of Mer, so that she had no choice but to gaze at it.

The portrait had captured Mer speaking. His eyes were bright and animated in a way she'd seldom seen, arms caught mid-wave, teeth gleaming from an open mouth. In the background behind him, there was an indistinct image of sky and ocean--he seemed to be standing on some sort of balcony. He was wearing a light blue shirt with an odd sort of fastening at the neck, and short sleeves, and in the image he wasn't as thin as she knew him now. But it was Mer.

"This is a picture of Dr. Rodney McKay." The man continued. "Rodney is a very good friend of ours, who was taken from us several months ago." The darkness in his tone made Kestine want to shrink back from him in fear. She almost pitied the people who had taken his friend, should this man find them. "We want him back."

Kestine's heart started pounding anew, but not with fear. Did they know him? Was 'Rodney' Mer's true name? Had his people come for him?

No, she decided in the next instant. That couldn't be true. They were thrallcatchers, not rescuers. This was a trick. No thrall ever had anyone come for them.

The dark-haired man--Sheppard--lowered the photo, but he wasn't looking at her. Instead, he was looking with an odd intensity at the boy, the one called Conroy, who nodded.

Sheppard turned back to her. "Have you seen him? Tell us where he is. I know you want to help."

Sheppard's voice was soft, but mesmerizing. His eyes gleamed in the rays of sunlight that pierced the dimmer light of the alleyway. Kestine began to open her mouth. She almost answered him, automatically, as she would have answered Amagy. But she remembered thrallcatchers, and clamped her lips shut on the words.

She thought of Sanctuary, where she had just left Mer. Even if these people were not thrallcatchers sent by the Daema, even if they were somehow telling the truth and they were truly friends of Mer from his former life, it was too late. Mer had gone to Sanctuary. There was no return.

"I don't know this man," she said instead. "I'm sorry. I haven't seen your friend. If I meet him, I'll leave word at the tavern for you, or tell him to meet you there. Is that all? Can I go?"

Again, Sheppard looked at the younger man. Conroy nodded. It was odd. He hadn't said anything, and he wasn't the leader of the group, yet they all waited on his approval.

"Thanks for your help," Sheppard said. "Let her go, Ronon." The big man released her, and Kestine allowed herself a moment of heartfelt relief before moving away from him.

Heart in her throat, Kestine turned and hurried away, every step convinced that they would change their minds and come after her again. She could scarcely believe her fortune when they didn't follow her to the traveling water.

Maybe she'd try the first address on Amagy's list, instead. For certain she would never return to this place.

"What did you see, Albert?" Teyla asked, digging a Power bar out of her pocket and handing it to him.

Albert's took the Power bar automatically, but it stayed ignored in his hand. His attention was completely on the Colonel, even as he answered Teyla's question. "A stargate address," he said, looking at John. "He's there! He's there, sir! That lady left him there herself."

And suddenly, Teyla's heart was racing. Rodney! They had never come so close to actually finding him before.

John made a small, helpless sound, as if he'd been wounded, and Teyla saw how his hands clenched into tight fists. Albert began to tell him what he'd learned from the woman's mind, and the expressions that chased each other across John's face--hope, fear, urgency, resolve, longing and desperation--made Teyla glad that she didn't possess Albert's Gift, nor Elizabeth's. Just seeing John's eyes was harrowing enough.

She exchanged a look with Ronon, and they did not need the Ancestor's Gifts to communicate without words. Ronon would make sure John didn't become reckless, so close to their goal. Or if he was reckless--which was all-too likely--that he didn't come to harm through it.

She had but one thought as they dialed the address that Albert had plucked from the woman's mind and then crossed through the Ancestors' Ring. They must find Rodney. And soon.

Teyla didn't know what would become of John--of all of them--if they didn't.

"NO, Dex!" Al yelled. He grabbed Dex' arm and hauled backwards, fast enough to stop him from following Colonel Sheppard.

Dex yanked his arm back. "Why are you stopping me?" he growled, his gaze swinging back to the stone archway through which the Colonel had just…disappeared. "We've got to follow him!"

"No!" Al insisted. "I-I can't read him anymore!" He tried to keep his voice steady, but it was hard. "You don't get it," he said quickly when Dex just glared at him. "I've always read his thoughts, ever since Doc Beckett activated my Gift. But especially since the siege." Al felt the confusion in the other man's mind at the same time as he gratefully sensed the comprehension in Ms. Teyla's.

"It was before we found you, Ronon," Teyla said. "Albert joined his mind to Colonel Sheppard's and Doctor McKay's to help shield Atlantis from a Wraith attack." She turned to Al, the question already loud in her thoughts. "What does it mean now, Albert, that you can no longer feel Colonel Sheppard's mind?"

Al swallowed. "He could be--He could be dead." Al hurried to get out the rest. "Or maybe he got himself transported off-world. The only other times I couldn't read the Colonel was when he went off-world through the gate." He looked at the clear barrier. The other side looked exactly the same as before Sheppard went through. "Maybe that thing's a kind of gate, too?"

Ms. Teyla's expression was serious, her thoughts moving so fast all that Al could get was the urgency in them. "We will assume, then, that this portal is a transportation device, and that Colonel Sheppard is alive." She went over to peer through the doorway at the cavern beyond, the way Al had. No Colonel Sheppard in sight. "Although I fear we must assume this passageway to be dangerous as well, so that it is best not to follow."

Dex tossed his head angrily, flipping his dreads behind his shoulders. "So, what do we do?"

Teyla frowned and took off her pack. "First, let us empty our packs and pockets of anything that may be of use to the Colonel. If the portal has transported him somewhere, he is without supplies. He may be trapped without the ability to find food or water."

Al collected all their canteens, MREs, and Power bars, as well as a knife, an extra pistol and ammo, a first aid kit, and one of the thermal blankets, and stuffed them all into one of the packs. He handed it off to Dex, who tossed it carefully through the portal.

The pack disappeared as if it had never existed. Al felt cold shivers run up his spine.

"Very well," Teyla said. She turned to Dex. "Ronon, you wait here in the event that the Colonel finds his way back without our assistance," she directed. "Albert, accompany me to the Puddle Jumper. I shall retrieve additional supplies from its stores, and you will return to Atlantis for assistance. Do you remember where the gate is? Do you think you can reach it?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'll get there. Twenty minutes or less," Al promised. He'd have to go on foot, since he couldn't fly the Jumper, but he remembered they'd barely flown any distance before landing.

"Good." She glanced again at the doorway. "Perhaps Dr. Zelenka can tell what the function of the portal is and we can determine the appropriate course of action. Let us go, Albert, we must not waste time."

She set off back to the Jumper at a run, Al right on her heels.

Mer looked up from his bowl of porridge when he heard the door to the hut opening. He stood up, food forgotten, when he saw Teer half-carry little Hedda inside.

"What happened?" Two steps took him over to Teer's side. It was easier to take Hedda up into his arms than try to support her faltering steps. As he carried the child over to the pallet by the far wall, her head lolled on his shoulder and her eyes slipped closed. "Hedda?" he said worriedly. "I will be very annoyed if you don't wake up this instant, young lady!" He jostled her gently.

"Peace, Mer," Teer said softly, touching his arm. "She is well. She just needs rest." Mer met Teer's serene gaze, tranquil as a moonlit lake, but took no comfort from it. Teer could be placid in the midst of all manner of calamities, but that didn't make them any less serious. Nevertheless, he eased Hedda down to the pallet, straightening her limbs and covering her with a light blanket. He felt her forehead for fever, but found none.

"What happened to her, Teer? She was just fine this afternoon, pestering me while I was working on the pump for the well." Mer stroked the brown curls off of Hedda's sleep-slack face.

"She spent herself healing someone," Teer explained. "A new member of our group. Avrid found him at the edge of the western fields, towards the Rim. My brother was attacked by the Beast and this man strove to save him. He was terribly injured and Avrid carried him almost halfway across the Sanctuary." A hint of concern entered Teer's gaze. That, and the mention of the Beast, made the porridge churn in Mer's stomach.

"What is it?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

"I have…I have seen this man in my visions. I believe he is destined to lead us all to Ascend." Teer's voice sounded hopeful, but her eyes still carried a touch of worry, her brow just barely creased.

"So you sent Avrid out to bring him here, just like you sent him to look for me when I arrived, right?" Mer made his voice soft, so as not to disturb Hedda. Teer nodded. "What's the problem?"

She met his gaze with a rueful lift of her eyebrow. "I also sense that this man is of great importance to you, personally. He will transform your life." Her brow furrowed. "Or he has transformed your life. Or, perhaps, both."

Mer scratched the back of his head. "You don't think he's actively dangerous, do you? Maybe he was someone I knew from before I was a thrall. Before my memory was erased."

Teer smiled gently at him. "Perhaps you did know him in your former life. He is no danger to us, do not worry. Would you like to see him? We need someone to sit with him until he awakes, so that he is not alone when he opens his eyes in a strange place."

Mer glanced down at Hedda, tucking the blanket more securely around her shoulders.

"She will be well," Teer assured him. "I will watch her, and give her something to eat when she wakes."

"Okay, then," Mer agreed. "What do you need me to do? Should I bring anything?"

Teer smiled. "Just yourself."

Mer crept into the darkened interior of the hut. The shutters had been fastened and the curtains drawn, to block most of the afternoon sun. Only slivers of light peeked around the edges of the windows and door, casting random slices of illumination in the small room. There was a large fire built in the fireplace. Its flickering light gilded most of the room in a warm, subdued glow, and especially the figure lying on the bed next to it.

Mer secured the door and got a pitcher of water and a cup from the table on the far wall, fumbling the cup and almost dropping it because he couldn't take his eyes off the man lying on his side on the bed, his back to the door. And it was very definitely a man. Someone--probably Teer, because she didn't even know the meaning of the word embarrassment--had removed all the man's clothing. He must have moved since Teer had left him, though, because the blanket that she'd undoubtedly covered him with was lying puddled on the floor by the bed.

Mer was incredibly attracted to him. The mere sight of a line of golden firelight dancing along the edges of this man's nude body fascinated him completely.

He crept closer.

There was something about the curve of the shoulder and flank and buttock that made Mer's fingers itch to touch, something about the soft-looking thatch of dark hair on the man's head that made him yearn to pet and stroke, something about the shadowed vulnerability at the back of the man's knee, and under the curve of his boney ankle, that made Mer's heart swell with tenderness.

The arc of the man's ribs expanded and contracted reassuringly with his breathing. He didn't appear to be injured; certainly not by the kind of wounds the Beast was capable of inflicting. Hedda had done a good job of healing him. Mer dragged a stool close to the bed with his foot so that he could sit down.

After a moment, he got up and brought everything over to the side of the bed nearest the fire, even though it was too hot. Why did Avrid always have to build such huge fires? The climate of the Sanctuary was mild and pleasant, yet this fire was large enough to battle a snowstorm's chill. Mer felt cold for a brief moment, despite the fire, as his broken memory teased him with the mental image of a snowstorm, of a land covered with ice and snow as far as the eye could see. Had that been his home once? Or simply a place he had visited through the traveling water? Mer shook off the memory.

This side of the bed was better, despite the warmth, because he could look his fill at the stranger's face. It was beautiful--or Mer found it beautiful, at least. The features were vulpine, sharp, including the pointed ears. But they were balanced by a soft-looking, full, and lushly curved mouth, emphasized by the heavy stubble of dark beard the stranger wore. Mer wanted to touch that mouth, to trace its bow, feel its softness. He gripped his hands tightly in his lap instead.

He could look, though. He looked at the long, sweet line of the stranger's throat, stubbled with beard. At the strength of his shoulders and arms, the pale chest and belly covered with dark hair. The line of hair that lead from his belly to his genitals. Mer allowed his eyes to linger, even though it was probably wrong to do so, on the soft cock lying lax on the stranger's thigh, painted pink and gold from the firelight. He kept himself from touching, though. From petting and stroking it to hardness. From kissing it and taking it into his mouth.

Mer swallowed, his mouth filling with saliva at the thought, and let himself look at the other man's balls, shadowed and vulnerable against the dark hair. He sat on his hands to keep from reaching out to cup those balls and feel the tender skin that surrounded them. Mer swallowed again, and concentrated on the strong thighs instead, that lead to knobby knees and lower legs whose calves proclaimed that this man walked and ran often. The long, elegant feet were tucked against each other and shadowed in the fire's fitful light.

He made another survey, this time from the feet up. When he reached the man's face, Mer gasped, so startled he almost fell off the stool. The stranger's eyes were partly open, the irises dilated in the low light.

The man inhaled deeply, the arch of his ribcage expanding, and reached out his hand towards Mer's face. "Rodney?" he asked in a husky croak. "Am I dreaming?"

Mer lurched to his feet, sending the stool crashing over behind him. He opened and closed his mouth, unable to draw breath to say anything.

The man's eyes opened wider, and he rose up onto one elbow, reaching out again with his other hand, fingers grazing Mer's sleeve. Mer yanked his hand back. "Rodney? Rodney!"

"No," Mer breathed. Then, more loudly, "No!" He stepped backwards, nearly stumbling over the stool. He had to get out of there, get away now. The sudden feeling of unfathomable loss and hopeless failure would drown him, if he didn't leave. It felt like Mer's heart was being torn from his body.

"Rodney?" The other man swung his feet off the bed. He came towards Mer, moving slowly, as if he could see the horror raging under Mer's skin. "It's me, it's John!" His eyes were hazel, like Mer's fantasies. But not like this, never like this--where looking at them filled Mer with such grief and terror he thought it might kill him. "Don't you recognize me?" Those eyes were luminous with a horror of their own, but Mer couldn't think about that, wouldn't think about that. He had to leave, get out, get out--

He bolted through the door on the far side of the room. The man didn't try to stop him.

"Is this the place?"

Ronon stood up from his crouch against the rocks. That had been Elizabeth's voice; she had come herself. She was a far better leader than Kell had ever been--she actually cared for her people, instead of pretending to. He strode to the opening of the cavern and caught sight of Teyla, leading a group of the Lanteans, several of them lugging equipment. "Over here!" he hollered.

They picked up the pace. He caught sight of Elizabeth's face and his heart swelled with affection and admiration. Her startled expression and widened eyes reminded him that her Gift was to know the emotions of those around her. For a moment he was ashamed and wanted to curse himself for the revelation, but then he decided not to care. So what if she knew he liked and admired her? She should be liked and admired.

Unexpectedly, she smiled, and it was like the sun dawning in the sky. Ronon went out to help haul equipment, grinning fiercely and making the nearest Marine startle. Ronon was suddenly sure they'd find Sheppard and McKay now. It was only a matter of time.

Avrid came along as John chopped wood at the edge of the Sanctuary compound. Since he was cutting wood in lieu of cutting off McKay's damned stubborn head, the chips were really flying.

"I think we have more than enough wood, John," Avrid advised him, brow wrinkled. "Come. It's time for the evening meditation."

"I. Don't. Want. To. Medidate!" John panted, punctuating his statement with solid thunks from the hatchet. "I want to talk to Rodney. But since nobody will let me, I might as well do something useful around here."

"Mer still doesn't wish to see you, John. You must respect that. Soon enough he will learn to release that burden, and your wish will be granted," said Avrid cheerfully, picking up the cuts of firewood and stacking them neatly in a pile.

"Yeah, well, I'm not real thrilled about just sitting on my ass in the meantime." John scowled at him.

"As I have explained before, meditation is not just 'sitting'," said Arvid with that particular gentle patience John had come to loathe. "You must focus your energies on the goal of Ascension."

Sometimes, John wanted to cut Avrid's head off, too.

"Look, I'm just not all that good at meditating." John sighed, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and sat down on the stump to sharpen the hatchet.

Avrid stroked his chin thoughtfully. "That is the same thing Mer says. You are very similar in many ways."

John snorted. "Tell me about it!"

Of course Avrid took him literally. "You both prefer action to contemplation, you both have difficulty expressing how you truly feel about something, unless it happens to be anger, you both--"

"Hey!" John interrupted. "You can stop. That's enough."

Avrid raised an eyebrow at him. "As you wish, John."

"I wish to talk to Rodney." John put the hatchet down and ran his hands through his hair, then scratched his beard vigorously. "My friends and I have been searching for Rodney for months, okay? He was taken from us, and he probably thought I was dead."

"As you say. Is it any wonder he was traumatized?" Avrid tilted his head, and sat down cross-legged at John's feet. "He was also made into a slave. Many escaped slaves find their way here to Sanctuary. Before they are sold into slavery, some slaves are given a drug that causes them to lose all memory of their former lives." Arvid tapped his lip. "I presume this makes it more difficult for them to escape. Or perhaps it makes them more compliant, or both. The one blessing of that is that the lack of memories gives them fewer burdens to release. Former slaves often achieve Ascension more quickly than many of the rest of us."

"But not Rodney," John said with conviction.

Avrid nodded, then perched his chin on his fist. "It is very perplexing. He does not seem to even wish to Ascend, much less to prepare for it. Why come to Sanctuary if he does not seek Ascension?"

"Maybe because he didn't have a choice," John snapped. "It was either come here, or stay a slave. He didn't know we were looking for him." He let out a frustrated huff of air. "That's why I have to talk to him, Avrid. Don't you see? I have to convince him to leave with me. Our friends are probably at the portal right now, trying to get us out. He needs to see them--maybe it will help get his memory back." He shook his head angrily. "I can't believe it's been almost a month and they still haven't come to find us."

"Perhaps it is too difficult," Arvid said.

John frowned at him and pointed an accusing finger. "You forgot to say that it was impossible to leave here, that the only way out was through Ascension."

"Since you seem determined to ignore me every time I tell you, there is little use in repeating myself," Avrid said, somewhat archly.

John grunted and stared off into the distance.

"Why do you wish to see him so, John?" Avrid asked gently. "Not the reasons you have already given--the real reason."

John closed his eyes. "We didn't exactly part on good terms, Avrid. The last time we were together…let's just say I was pretty mad at him."

Kindly, Avrid turned and leaned his back up against the stump, so that he and John were facing in the same direction, and he wasn't looking up into John's face. "I'm sure you weren't angry with Mer without purpose. What had he done?"

"He made a mistake." John squeezed his eyes more tightly shut and concentrated on breathing deeply and evenly for a little while. It helped. "I trusted him when he said he knew what he was doing. It turned out he didn't, and it almost got us both killed."

"So, then…this person you knew as Rodney--the person he was before he became Mer--he was…untrustworthy," Avrid said slowly. "I understand, then, your anger, but not why you searched for him so diligently, or why you need to see him so urgently, now. If he is untrustworthy, are you not better off free from his influence? If it is vengeance you wish, John, I must urge you to release that burden. Mer is no longer this person who betrayed your trust."

"No, dammit! I'm not mad at him anymore!" John scrubbed his face with his hands. "He's really important to me. Rodney's not untrustworthy, not at all. He just…. He had a bad day. Besides…." He stared off into the distance again, the clouds looking cool and peaceful in the blue of the sky.

"What?" Arvid asked.

"I miss him," John whispered. "I kinda miss him a lot." Irritably, he swallowed the lump that had taken up residence in his throat. "Anyway, Rodney's not the untrustworthy one around here. I've done some pretty awful things. Especially while he was gone. I did a really terrible thing." He stared determinedly out at the treeline.

"You are a good man, John," said Avrid.

John scowled at him. "How can you say that? You don't know me! Rodney knows me." He sighed. "At least, he did." He rubbed at his jawline through the beard. "I thought once I found him again, if I told him what happened and he still thought he could put up with me, then….well, that would be good. But now, he doesn't even remember me."

"I know you are a good man, John. Just as I know Mer is a good man," Avrid insisted. "It is my Gift, to know a person's heart. I don't know if the person Mer was before he lost his memory--if Rodney--was the same. But since you love him so deeply, he must have been."

"Hey!" John exclaimed. "I never said--"

"It is my Gift, John. I know what is in your heart." Avrid said. He abruptly rolled forward onto his shoulders and into a headstand. He looked up at John, upside down. "I know what is in Mer's heart as well. Right now, there is much fear. Once his fear is gone, once he has released it, perhaps the man you love will emerge once again."

"Yeah, maybe," John said, not believing it. "Maybe then you'll actually let me talk to him."

"If he wishes to speak with you, he will find you himself." Avrid pushed up from a headstand into a handstand. John blinked. The weedy little shit had to be stronger than he looked.

"What about you, John?" upside-down Avrid asked, shuffling a bit from hand to hand. "What about the fear in your own heart? When will you release that which burdens you?"

John suppressed a violent urge to kick Avrid right in the head, especially as it was so conveniently situated.

"I told you. I did something terrible. With my Gift! I've forgiven Rodney for his mistake, but I don't know if I can forgive myself." John looked down at the ground, folding his hands into fists. "For that…or for being so angry at Rodney that I let the slavers get him." Abruptly John stood from the stump and started walking back towards the compound. He didn't want to talk anymore, didn't want to think about it--all the things he should have done.

Disconcertingly, Avrid followed him, still walking on his hands. "John, wait!"

"What?" John snapped, turning around.

"Tell me," Arvid said, not even panting. "Do you think what I am doing right now is somewhat odd?"

"Yes, Avrid," John said with false patience. "I would have to say you're a pretty odd kinda guy."

"No, I meant, what I'm doing right now," Arvid explained. "Have you seen me behave this way before? Do you believe it is unusual behavior for me?" The sandal on his left foot was dangling from his big toe by its strap.

John resisted straightening it for him. "It's pretty unusual behavior for anyone, Avrid. But, you're right, I've never seen you do this before." He sighed. "Your point?"

Avrid's elbows bent deeply, his back arched, and suddenly he had bounced back onto his feet. The loose sandal went flying, but he seemed not to notice. He took a step closer to John and suddenly poked a finger at his chest. "You, John Sheppard, are a good man. Terrible deeds are as typical for you as walking on my hands is for me. You are capable of it, you have done it, but it is not your ordinary means of walking in the world."

John blinked again. "I guess."

Avrid swooped to pick up his fallen sandal and hopped on one foot to put it on. "You must know, John. It is an important truth about yourself. Once you know, perhaps you can forgive." He smirked. "Perhaps you just had a bad day. Come. Now you have something to contemplate during meditation." Without looking back, Avrid strode away toward the Hall.

Bemused, John followed him.

Elizabeth irritably pushed the sweaty hair away from her face. "Well, if I'm translating this correctly, the information you read from that woman's mind was accurate, Sgt. Conroy. I am interpreting a bit, but it seems the field was designed as a sanctuary from the Wraith, a place the last of the Ancients could travel to and hopefully ascend without fear of attack."

"A one-way transporter?" speculated Dr. Kavanaugh. "Then the Colonel and McKay could be anywhere."

"No, I don't believe so." Radek's emotions were a pleasant, focused hum of concentration as he rapidly sorted through and rejected hypotheses. Elizabeth enjoyed being near him while he worked. He was soothing. "The sensors indicate that the location we can see beyond the portal is precisely the location the traveler is transported to."

"And for all we know, that could be anywhere!" Kavanaugh argued, his voice and emotions heavy with exasperation. "Just because we can see it, doesn't mean it's really located just over there."

Elizabeth sighed. This might take a while. She shoved her sweaty hair away from her face again, and only her Gift kept her from startling when Ronon loomed up at her side, passing her a canteen of water. He was so quiet when he moved, but she could feel the swell of confidence and loyalty from him as he approached her.

She smiled at him. "Thank you, Ronon."

He nodded, and crouched down next to her while she drank the water. They sat in companionable silence for a moment. "He'll figure it out." Ronnon tilted his head toward Radek, currently in a half-hearted argument with Kavanaugh. "He's the smartest one, after McKay. We'll find them."

The certainty and admiration he aimed toward Radek did manage to startle her, but she hid it behind another sip from the canteen. She looked at Ronon speculatively. There was definitely more to him than a stalwart soldier and a pretty face. And a pretty everything else, too, she thought.

As if he had his own Gift and had caught that thought, Ronon turned to her and grinned.

He could hear the dark-haired stranger's voice. Mer ducked behind the nearest tree, his heart racing, and tried not to think about why he always thought of him as "the dark-haired man" instead of by his name. His stomach performed a sickening lurch every time his thoughts even approached the name 'John', never mind what actually hearing it did to him.

The man was strolling by the treeline, chewing on a grass-stem and arguing desultorily with Teer. Mer heard him say the name 'Rodney', and gritted his teeth. John--no, the stranger--insisted on using that name for him, so often that Mer was certain it belonged to the person he had been. But accepting the name meant accepting everything that went with it, and that meant the dark-haired man, as well.

Mer wasn't ready to face the anguish and the bitter sense of failure that just seeing the stranger or hearing his name generated in him. He didn't think he would ever be ready, despite what Teer said.

"Go away! Go away, goawaygoawaygoaway," he chanted in a whisper, for Teer's benefit, since she could undoubtedly see him with her Gift, regardless of his being hidden or not.

After a few moments, Teer obligingly turned her steps so that she and the dark-haired man were headed in the opposite direction.

Mer relaxed gradually. He peeked around the tree at the receding back of the stranger, not dwelling on why his eyes hungered for a glimpse of the man's profile, or why the man's gait was so familiar, so comforting. Mer was almost hypnotically attracted to him, but he couldn't make himself go near him; it hurt too much.

Evan leaned against the rocks outside the cavern, and offered Beckett a drink from his canteen.

"No thank you, Major," Beckett said shortly. Evan could tell it was from nerves, not rudeness.

"Have some anyway, Doc, even if you're not thirsty," he advised. "It's too hot not to stay hydrated."

Beckett sighed and took the water. "You're right. Thank you, son."

"No problem, Doc. You okay?"

Beckett swallowed and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Not really. What if we don't find them?"

"Don't worry, Doc, we'll find them," Dex said, stepping out of the cavern with Conroy on his heels. "Zelenka will figure it out."

"Have they discovered how the portal works, yet?" Beckett's anxious question was directed at Conroy, who would presumably be privy to the scientists' thoughts.

Conroy shook his head. "They sure don't, Doc. Sorry. I try real hard to stay outta those fella's heads. They make my brain hurt." He grinned. "All I know is they want some more equipment from the Jumper, and Dex and I are gonna bring it over for them."

"They were talking about a time dilation field," offered Sgt. Griffin, from his station just inside the cavern entrance. Evan had taken Griffin on his team as a temporary replacement when the Colonel had co-opted Conroy.

"You spend too much time around the scientists, Griff," Evan teased him.

"They're interesting," Griffin defended himself. "And pretty funny, too," he grinned.

Evan smiled in return. He knew for a fact that Griffin doted on McKay, and thought the former chief science officer was hilarious. The Sergeant had eagerly volunteered for the opportunity to search for him.

"Time dilation!" Beckett exclaimed. "What does it mean if Rodney and the Colonel are in a time dilation field?"

Griffin's face sobered. "It means that time might be running at a different rate where they are. If we don't find them soon, it's possible they'll be old men before they get out."

Evan frowned. That sounded bad. He really hoped the scientists figured out the portal soon.

Hedda found Mer in his hut, sitting by the window at a table strewn with small tools and various unassembled pieces of his current project. Outside, the birds were singing and the sun was shining. Most of the community was sitting in the optional early afternoon meditation session, which Mer had chosen to avoid. Mer habitually missed the optional sessions, and as many of the mandatory sessions as he could get excuses to escape.

She leaned against Mer's table.

"What are you doing here? Why aren't you at meditation?" he asked, without taking his eyes off of the tool he was working with.

"I hoped you would come with me," she said. Mer snorted in reply.

"John did the same thing when I asked him to come meditate with me," Hedda complained. "You're both so stubborn. You could reach Ascension if you just tried. Did you know that John already has a Gift?"

"La la la, I don't hear you," Mer sang sarcastically, putting down the tool so he could cover his ears. He hated to talk about John, and still refused to see him. In so small a place as the Sanctuary, avoiding each other took real skill, especially for as long as they'd managed it. And it wasn't just on Mer's part--they avoided each other. For all of John's protestations that he wished to see Mer, he never forced his presence on her friend. Hedda didn't understand why they couldn't just speak to each other, and neither Mer nor John ever explained it to her.

She scowled at Mer. "John says that your people have many different kinds of Gifts--some that we have never heard of. That's strange. The Ancestors only have a few Gifts." She ticked off on her fingers. "Healing, seeing what's far away, knowing the past and future, listening to what's in other people's hearts and minds, and moving things and people. John says your people have these Gifts and many more. That you have the blood of the Ancestors, but have e-volved down your own Path as well."

She looked up. Mer was still pretending not to listen, but he had dropped his hands from his ears and had picked up his tools again, fiddling with the parts of something she guessed was meant to be a toy for her when he was done with it.

"Avrid says that even though our Gifts are fewer than your people's, they're stronger, more like the Ancestors'. Avrid says that we don't fuel our Gifts entirely from our bodies the way your people do. We reach out to the universe itself for our Gifts and the power to use them." Hedda reached over and tugged on Mer's sleeve. "Maybe if you meditated more, you could reach out to the universe too, and it would grant you a Gift as well."

Mer shook his head, still looking down at his project. "I'd have to meditate for a thousand years to get a Gift, Hedda. I'm just not that good at it."

Hedda frowned at him again. "You're always saying the silliest things. How can you be good at it unless you practice?"

Mer winced at the word "silly," and his gaze grew distant as he lifted his head and looked out the window at the treeline. "If there's one thing I learned as a thrall, Hedda, it's that I'm not good at a lot of things. I disappoint people, let them down. I'm a failure." He sighed. "It's--it's the one thing I think I remember from my life before becoming a thrall. I dream about it. All the time. I did something, failed somehow…." He looked down at his hands. "There's no reason to think I won't fail at Ascension, too."

Hedda chewed at her bottom lip for a moment. "Then I'll help you. I'll help you meditate better now, and when I Ascend, I'll bring you with me."

Mer's eyes widened, his expression almost comically startled, the tools slipping out of his lax hands onto the table. "Wait. Isn't that--isn't that cheating?"

She tossed her hair back. "It is not forbidden, Mer. You could come with me if you wanted to. I am very near to Ascension, you know." Hedda lowered her voice. "Teer says so. I think I'm just waiting for Teer and Avrid to be able to Ascend, too."

"Then why don't you bring them with you?" Mer asked.

"Because I want to bring you," Hedda said. "Besides, they want to Ascend by themselves. They don't want their little sister to help them."

"Huh." Mer suddenly sat back, looking a bit stunned. "I think I just had a flash of memory. I think I had a--a little sister."

"Like me?" Hedda asked.

Mer nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I think. A lot like you, actually."

"Cool!" Hedda said with satisfaction, using John's word of approval.

Mer nodded and quirked a smile at her. "Very cool."

Radek frowned. "I believe the only way we can shut off the time dilation field is by disconnecting the power source." He sighed and waved at the portal. "Which is located inside the Sanctuary itself."

"That's crazy! I'm not going in there," Kavanaugh said instantly.

Radek shook his head. It frightened him to admit this, but…. "No. I must go."

"Through the portal?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yes. It is the only way," Radek took a deep breath and began to gather his equipment. He knew Elizabeth could feel his fear, but he couldn't let the fear hold him back from doing what he must. Being the CSO of Atlantis meant a certain amount of responsibility, something he hadn't truly understood until he'd had to take the mantel from Rodney. His respect for the other scientist had grown in leaps and bounds since he'd become CSO, and he planned to tell Rodney so as soon as they got him back. "I must go through as soon as possible. Minutes on this side of the portal are hours on the other side."

"Then I'm coming with you," Elizabeth said, placing her hand on his arm. He felt immediately comforted, and hoped she could sense it.

"But, Dr. Weir, ma'am," objected Major Lorne. "You're the leader of the Expedition. I can't let you endanger yourself like that."

"Radek may need me to read something in Ancient once he gets to the power source." Elizabeth informed him calmly. "If you don't hear from us after six hours, return to Atlantis and contact the SGC."

"If you two are going, then I'm going too," Dex spoke up as Lorne opened his mouth, ready to argue with Elizabeth. "You'll need protection."

"And I will go as well," Teyla added, her voice implacable.

"Me too, ma'am," Conroy said. They all turned to look at him, and he straightened under their scrutiny, resolute. Not for the first time, Radek thought it must be horrible to be always aware of what people were truly thinking about you. "If Ms. Teyla and Dex are going, I need to go too. We're a team, Dr. Weir. We stay together."

Elizabeth smiled and nodded at him, granting her permission. Radek gathered the last of his equipment. "We must go now."

Major Lorne gestured at his team. "What about my guys, Dr. Weir? Oivetti's the best Healer we have, and Sgt. Griffin and I could be good for back-up."

Elizabeth shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, Major, but I need you to stay here. You're in command while I'm gone. And we'll need Captain Olivetti on this side of the portal if anyone is badly injured."

Dr. Beckett stepped up to Elizabeth, looking extremely nervous. "Elizabeth," he said, hauling the strap of his medical carry case onto his shoulder. "While I agree that Tulio should stay behind, you may well need some medical help. I believe I should go as well."

Elizabeth pressed her lips together and nodded again, grimly this time. "We might at that, Carson."

"Let's go!" Dex said, scooping up one of Radek's heavier bags. Then he stepped through the portal, and disappeared.

Radek pushed the glasses back up his nose, steeled himself, and followed.

"We're supposed to be meditating," Hedda chided, grunting softly as she hefted Mer's tool case a little higher so that she could get past the berna bushes. She could have walked around the bushes, but chose to follow in Mer's footsteps instead. She also could have complained that the case was too heavy for her, and Mer would have carried it. But Mer had trusted her with his tools, so she was carrying them, and that was that.

"Yes, well, then the windmill won't get fixed, will it?" Mer answered her, lumpy under all the different things he was carrying: a sack of food for their lunch, as well as snacks for mid-morning and mid-afternoon ("We could get hungry! Then where would we be?" "Um…a short walk from the Sanctuary?" "Hmph!"), another tool case with bigger tools than the ones in the case Hedda was carrying, a bag with a change of clothes for both himself and Hedda ("We could get dirty"), another bag clattering with jars of unguents--for protecting their skin from burning from the sun's rays, for soothing burns should the sun burn them anyway, for staunching blood should they get injured, for soothing pain should they get injured, and for preventing infection should they get injured.

When Hedda reminded Mer that she could heal any injuries that either of them might sustain, he had shrugged awkwardly. "Then you'd get tired and I'd have to carry you back to the Sanctuary compound. At the very least you wouldn't be able to help me. Not that you don't get underfoot more than you help, anyway." His crooked mouth had twisted in a frown. "Listen, I just don't like to be hurt, or hungry, or uncomfortable. Why should either of us suffer when a little preparation would prevent it?" And that had been that.

"We could always fix the windmill after meditation practice," Hedda said. "Avrid says it's important to meditate every day."

"Well, your brother's good at that meditating…stuff, and I'm not," Mer countered. He stopped abruptly, and Hedda nearly ran into his heels. She looked up at his face, turned down to her, frowning again.

"If you'd rather….I could fix the windmill on my own and you could go back to the Hall of Ascension and meditate," he said, gesturing back toward the Sanctuary.

"No!" Hedda scowled and tugged at Mer's arm. "You promised you'd show me how to fix the windmill. We can meditate when we get back." She stomped off a few more steps along the path until she noticed that Mer wasn't with her. She turned around and saw that he was still standing where she had left him, a bemused expression on his face. "Well? Aren't you coming? If we take all day doing this, we'll end up having to meditate through the evening meal. You know how you hate to miss meals."

"Coming! Coming! Why do I bring you along, anyway? All you do is nag me," Mer complained. But Hedda saw that his eyes were brighter, and the corners of his mouth were tucked down as if he were trying not to smile.

She began to skip ahead, the tool case swinging and banging lightly against her shins.

John watched the two figures in the distance as they followed the path to the Sanctuary's windmill. He switched the grass stem he was chewing on from one side of his mouth to the other as he heard the sound of someone struggling to climb up onto the roof of the hut to join him.

He turned to look, and raised an eyebrow. He'd figured Avrid, but it was Teer's hands clutching at the top rung of the ladder, and her blonde curls peeking above the edge of the roofline. John went over and helped haul her up the rest of the way.

He was glad of the sunglasses that helped keep his expression impassive as she settled next to him, smoothing her skirts and attempting to regain that about-to-Ascend calm. There was a bit of straw sticking up out of her hair. John turned to look for Rodney again and neglected to mention it to her.

"I don't understand why I just can't talk to him," he continued the last conversation they'd had two days ago as if they'd left off just moments before. "I won't hurt him. Won't lay a finger on him, if that's what you're afraid of."

"And as I told you, John, it is not my fear that is the problem, but Mer's," Teer answered, picking up the thread of their former discussion easily. "He is afraid to see you again, and we are unwilling to subject him to that fear without his consent. Until he releases the burden of that fear, neither you nor he can move forward."

"It's been months, Teer," John said, exasperated. "I've been a good boy and left him alone. But I'm tired of playing around like we're in some kid's game--wherever I am, he's not. And his name is Rodney," John insisted. In the distance, Rodney had stopped walking and was talking about something with the little girl, Hedda. Rodney gestured back toward John--or rather, back toward the Sanctuary compound, since he seemed to prefer to pretend John wasn't around.

"It will take as long as it takes," said Teer serenely. At John's look, she amended, "I have seen that you will be the catalyst that brings us all to Ascend. And in my vision, you look much as you do today. You will not be waiting years, at any rate."

"Years? Are you kidding? My people will have rescued us way before then," John told her. As much as he wanted to believe that, he was still secretly worried that it had taken so long. And he was worried about how they were going to deal with a Rodney McKay with no memory--either of himself or of Atlantis. That was one of the things that had kept John from pushing the issue and confronting Rodney himself. What if Rodney secretly blamed him for his abduction and didn't want to remember him?

And what if Rodney never remembered? John tried to imagine a life in Atlantis where Rodney was constantly avoiding him, where nothing that they'd shared mattered anymore. It was so bleak he couldn't even think about it.

"Yet it has been many months and they still have not 'rescued' you, as you say," Teer responded, calm as always. "I do not believe such a thing is possible, John Sheppard. The Sanctuary was designed with only one entrance, and only one exit, and they are not the same." Teer made a vague gesture at the sky, indicating Ascension.

In the distance, Rodney and Hedda had resumed their trek toward the windmill, Hedda skipping just ahead of Rodney with the careless, uncomplicated happiness of a child.

"All I'm saying is that with the way this whole place is protected against the Wraith, there's got to be an alternate power source. One that's far more sophisticated and powerful than a malfunctioning windmill," said Mer.

"But what do you want with it?" demanded Hedda.

"Nothing!" Mer protested, waving away the suspicious expression on her face. "I just want to find it. I just want to see it."

The suspicious expression remained. "That's not what you said before."

"I just said that theoretically there should be a way to make the same power source serve the community at the Sanctuary as well," he explained. "Why should we depend on a windmill for our power requirements anyway?"

"Avrid says we have everything we need," countered Hedda, hands on her hips.

"Well, since all Avrid seems to need is meditation and more meditation--"

Hedda shrieked, her eyes wide, and pointed. Mer looked. And saw the insubstantial body of the Beast, obscuring the sun.

John looked back toward Rodney, ignoring Teer and her insistence that Ascension was the only way out of the Sanctuary. His people wouldn't leave him behind. At least, he'd thought they wouldn't. But it had been so long….

He sighed. They'd come for him, he just had to keep believing that.

In the distance, Rodney and the little girl had stopped to talk again, Rodney's arms swinging with broad, expansive gestures. Then the little girl screamed, and pointed, and Rodney's head whipped around. And then they were running, their bags scattered on the ground, Rodney dragging Hedda along by the arm.

John had swung himself off the roof and down the ladder before Teer managed to finish saying, "The Beast!"

He ran.

He ran faster than he'd ever run in his life. Behind him, vaguely, he heard the voices of the rest of the community as they followed, but he didn't wait for them to catch up. He couldn't lose Rodney again. He wouldn't!

He wasn't going to be able to run fast enough to escape the Beast, Mer could tell that right away.

And if he wasn't fast enough, Hedda certainly wasn't. The only way he might have been able to escape would be to leave her behind for the Beast, and he sure as hell was not doing that. So he ran anyway, as fast as he could, dragging Hedda along. Her breath came in a high-pitched, panting wheeze as she tried as best she could to keep up despite her far shorter legs.

But the Beast was faster. It was toying with them. It waited until they were almost to the shelter of the windmill before it roared, towering over them, and Mer both heard and felt the swoosh as one of its hideous claws swiped right by his ear.

Hedda gave a hiccupping, breathless shriek as another swipe ripped the hem of her dress. Mer abruptly stopped running, yanked Hedda close, and tucked her into the curve of his body as he crouched down among the ubiquitous berna bushes. He offered his body as Hedda's shield, ineffective as that might be under the Beast's rough claws. He wished with all his heart that he could protect her. That they weren't both going to die here. Mer held his breath.

The Beast roared.

But the blow never came.

Mer looked up. The Beast was more visible than it had ever been, its limbs outlined in flickering light as it beat against an invisible, golden shield.

The light! It was the golden light he had seen in his dreams.

And that's when the dark-haired stranger ran up and jumped on the Beast's back, knife flashing in the shield's light as he attacked it.

The Beast roared again, staggering back from the shield, and reached around behind itself with its clawed hands to pluck the dark-haired man off its back as if it were plucking off a tick. It lifted him high and flung him hard onto the ground. And the man didn't move. The Beast advanced on him.

Mer leaped up. "NO! John!"

The Beast brought down its claws toward John's unprotected back, but they raked instead against the shield, which sizzled and flashed like lightning. The Beast's frustrated roar was deafening.

Mer started forward. "Hedda, run! Get to the windmill! I'll distract it." The Beast was hammering stupidly at the shield above John's prone form, the reflections from the shield illuminating its contours, making it barely visible. "Hey, you!" Mer yelled at it. "Yeah, I'm talking to you, you son of a bitch!"

There was a shimmer of movement, and Mer ducked just a moment before the Beast's claws slashed right over his head.

He scrambled on all fours over to John's still form. He took a deep breath and dropped his shield, then formed it again, covering them both. He extended his hand, felt at John's neck for a pulse.

John was alive. Alive!

But there was blood all over the embroidered brown vest he was wearing, staining it dark. He was laying awkwardly, arms and legs askew, but Mer was afraid to move him in case his spine was hurt. Mer reached a trembling hand under the vest, searching for a reason for all the blood.

Above him, unnoticed, the Beast howled and thrashed against his shield.

There were several wounds on John's back where the Beast's claws had torn both fabric and flesh, but the worst wound was in John's belly, where the blood was flowing in a steady stream, soaking the earth beneath him. John had landed on his own knife.

"JOHN!" Mer's howl matched the Beast's as he cried out, his bloodstained hands clenched in the fabric of the ruined vest. It felt like his mind and soul were being torn apart.

He remembered.

A tavern, on some God-forsaken planet. The serving girl was screaming while John lay bleeding on the floor, dying on the filthy wood, reaching for him while his shield flickered and failed….

John had reached for him. Rodney McKay. Genius astrophysicist. Intergalactic explorer. Smartest man in two galaxies. Destroyer of solar systems. Former slave. Who was watching his lover die. Again.

"Let me in!" Hedda's voice was loud as she pounded on the shield. Rodney's shield. His Gift. "Let me reach him, Mer! I can heal him!"

Rodney looked up at her, blinking wetness from his eyes. "Hedda, what are you doing? I told you to get to the windmill. What about the Beast?" He looked around wildly, but he didn't see any hint of the monster.

"I don't care about the stupid Beast!" Hedda was using her most stubborn voice. "I need to heal John now! Let me in!"

And suddenly she lurched forward as the shield was gone. Rodney felt dizzy. Oh, right. He'd been maintaining his shield for quite some time. And he wasn't very good at making domes, yet. He remembered that.

He remembered everything.

Wordlessly, Hedda knelt in the grass by John's head and sank her hands into his hair, just above either ear. Rodney swallowed and watched her, his mind churning with memories, of who he was and always had been. And of how much he loved the man lying unconscious before him.

"Take the knife out now," Hedda directed, eyes closed in concentration. Rodney did, and made a quick, tiny shield over the wound to stop the blood. Remembering the last time he'd done this, and how he'd failed. How John hadn't died from those wounds was a complete mystery. How he was here was another one. Maybe he followed me here to make sure I did the job right this time, Rodney thought, a little hysterically.

Except Hedda was healing John. The blood had stopped. Rodney let his little shield drop, hesitating, but John really had stopped bleeding. Slowly, John's other wounds were closing, his limbs straightening as broken bones mended themselves under Hedda's care.

John heaved a deep breath and turned over onto his back without opening his eyes. Hedda's hands stroked gently through his hair and he sighed. Rodney gingerly took John's nearest hand in his own bloodstained one. John's fingers tightened around his and John's eyes slid halfway open. "Rodney?" he asked muzzily, "Is that you?"

"Yeah. Yeah, John," Rodney said, voice shaking. "It's me," He swiped at his eyes with the back of his other hand. "I'm sorry, John. I'm so sorry. I keep almost getting you killed."

"You remember me!" John's hand tightened its grip. "It's okay, buddy. I forgive you," John said, his voice was shaking. "Anybody can have a bad day, Rodney." He licked his lips. "Me, too. Sorry I--Sorry I didn't think you were allowed to make mistakes. Just come home, okay? Come home with me?"

Rodney laughed wetly. "Yes, of course. Sure, John. Whatever you want." He was vaguely aware of Hedda sitting back on her heels, a brilliant smile on her face as he bent to kiss John's beloved mouth.

Above them, the Beast screamed. Rodney jerked up. John sat up and put his arm protectively around him.

"Don't worry," Hedda murmured, standing up and patting his shoulder.

"Hedda, no!" Rodney made a grab for her as she passed him.

"There is no need to be concerned, Rodney McKay, John Sheppard. The Beast is ours to deal with," Teer said. Rodney looked over his shoulder to see Teer and the rest of the community from the Sanctuary as they approached him and John, then walked around them as if he and John were a rock, and they a stream.

The community arranged themselves in a circle around the raging Beast, which--oddly enough--roared and threatened, but didn't actually hurt any of them. They looked up at it with varied expressions: some placid, some determined, some defiant, a few--like Hedda--annoyed. She folded her arms and actually scowled at it.

"Go away!" Hedda told the Beast. "You're very irritating."

"The Beast is of our own creation," Teer said. "And it is long past time we sent it away."

The Beast screamed and writhed within the circle of the community, growing fainter and more insubstantial until finally, it was gone.

John stood up slowly and hauled Rodney up with him. He didn't let go of Rodney's hand. "That's it? That's all it took?"

Rodney shook his head in numb amazement. "Apparently."

"We had to release our final burdens of fear and selfishness, manifest by the Beast," Teer said. "It was always in our power to banish it, had we wanted to strongly enough. The two of you gave us the courage to face it."

Then the members of the community began to…glow.

"You're Ascending!" Rodney said accusingly. "You're just leaving us here?"

"Come with us." Teer smiled and held out her hand. "Release your burdens and come!" Behind her, Avrid had turned transparent and even more glowy. He waved, grinning, seemingly delighted by the transformation. Well, he would be.

John shook his head. "Sorry, Teer, I'm not ready for that yet. I'm not sure I'll ever be." His hand tightened around Rodney's.

"Come with us, Mer!" Hedda's glowing arms reached out, beseeching.

"I'm sorry. I can't. I just got my burdens back again," Rodney said. "I'm not releasing them any time soon. You just…go have fun. Visit that great Meditation Room in the sky. I may come join you some day, okay?"

Hedda's wave goodbye was more with a beam of light than a hand, but it was the thought that counted.

"One day perhaps, then?" Teer had also gone transparent, insubstantial.

"Yeah, one day," John said unconvincingly. "Maybe."

"Just, are you going to leave us all alone here?" Rodney asked, plaintive. "Can't you help us get back home?"

"Yes, of course we'll help you," said Teer with a smile, her features nearly obscured by the light blazing through her. "You were right, John. Your friends are trying to find you as we speak. We will return you to them, and keep the portal open for you until you are gone. The Sanctuary will remain here for those who seek it out and follow the path."

Rodney and John watched, holding hands, as Teer turned into light.

"I found her like this," Irik rumbled. He was standing next to the doorway of Athema's chambers, still unwilling to enter fully, even now. His voice sounded exactly the same. He looked exactly the same, but Amagy knew him, and she could see what he really was: staggered, lost.

She turned away from him, though that meant she had to look at her mother again. What was left of her mother. The Daema Athema Sal Kor, dressed in her finest purple robes of office, lay on her back on top of the carefully-made bedclothes. Part of Amagy, distant and cruel, wondered if Athema had called her maidservant Kelli to do it, or if the Daema had actually done it herself. Athema had her slender legs crossed at the ankle--shoeless, in deference to tradition--and her arms folded over her belly like one lain out on the pyre. Her hair was done up beautifully.

Athema's favorite portrait of Merrin was set neatly on the pillow her father had used when he slept in this bed. The electric portrait of Mer was lying on the floor, the glass of the frame shattered, spreading out like a constellation. The man Mer had been squinted and smiled up at nothing.

The rest of the room was as immaculate as always, the overall perfection marred only by the presence of the small bottle on the bedside table, the clear glass stained by traces of a dark brown liquid. Amagy knew it held essence of bitter flower, enough to make at least fifty pots of tea if dissolved correctly in water. She knew that because she'd boiled the flowers down and bottled the essence herself.

It would have made an easy death, and her mother's corpse was pretty, peaceful as a cemetery monument.

Amagy clutched her fist to her chest. Her hand was shaking. It felt like the rest of her was as well, deep inside where no one could see it. "She chose a good ending," she said, surprised at how steady her voice sounded; the physician giving just another diagnosis. "Noble. Like the poets."

"You'll have to cut her body," Irik said.

Amagy nodded jerkily. For a moment she thought she would be sick, ruin the careful spectacle of death her mother had created. "Yes," she said. The law required it for all deaths not witnessed by a physician. Amagy was certain Athema had planned to kill herself precisely when Amagy was within the palace just so she would be forced to conduct the autopsy, since it had to be done as close to the death as possible. Amagy could think of no better punishment. "I will need men to carry her to my Sanctum."

She didn't go to the ribbon, nor did Irik.

"This is your fault," Irik said. His voice was just as dead as it had been with everything he'd said before, but Amagy jumped and stared at him all the same.

"I know what you did," Irik said, with that same frightening calm, like an ocean with untold monsters lurking in the deeps. "Kestine didn't run away from Kelinor with Mer. You helped them." He nodded at her mother's corpse. "She knew it too. You took away her reason to live."

Amagy turned her head from him. "What she did was wrong," she said. She hated that her voice sounded weak and uncertain to her own ears, but she was looking at the body of her mother and felt as powerless and vulnerable as a child. She wanted to throw herself on the bed, take her mother's body in her arms and weep, but she would never have such luxury now. Instead Amagy forced herself to look back at Irik, meet his grief-blank eyes with her own. "I corrected that wrong." She drew herself up, trying to find her usual strength in the rigidity of her spine. "I never intended…this to be the result. But my actions were justified."

Irik gave a slow nod, but Amagy had no idea if he'd heard her or not, if he was even able to. Part of her was more than a little terrified he would turn on her, right there in the room, snap her neck like a flower stem and avenge his Daema. She stood her ground because the Daema didn't run from her own thralls, and she would be the Daema soon.

"She didn't have to do this," Amagy said. She didn't have to defend herself to Irik, she owed him nothing at all. But she couldn't seem to make herself stop. "She didn't have to grieve so long and so hard for my father that she ended by stealing a man so she could pretend it was him! And then she didn't have to choose the Poet's Way when I released him."

Irik slowly turned his head until he was looking at Athema. "I didn't hold with what she did," he said quietly. "Telling the thralltakers to go after one person over another. It wasn't clean." He unclenched his hands, lifted them so that they could both see the scars, a map of his history, long taken from him. "I don't wish what they did to me on anyone."

"You helped her," Amagy said.

Irik nodded. "She was my Daema."

"And when I am the Daema," Amagy said, "will you serve me?" It could have been a question, a request, even. But it wasn't.

Irik held her gaze. The room was so quiet she half-expected he could hear the pounding of her heart. "As my Daema requests," he said, which said everything.

Amagy relaxed, nodded. "I will need you to carry a letter for me," she said. "After this." They were the most gentle words she could find, since she doubted he could stomach the idea of the former Daema being sliced open like an animal any better than she could. "I will tell you where to take the traveling water." She wanted to step closer, clasp his hand, but she wasn't Athema--she would never force her touch or her presence on him. "You will find a man called Enil, and give the letter to him." She paused just long enough to make sure he was paying attention to her. "That is the last task I have for you, Irik. Then you will be free."

Kestine would be as well, and Physician of the Daem of Kor. If she wished to come back. Amagy didn't want to think about Kestine not coming back. Kestine would, that was all. She knew how much Amagy loved her, she had to.

Irik broke into her churning thoughts. "You offer me freedom in the same room the Daema lies dead?"

"Careful of your tongue, thrall," Amagy said, voice darkening. But she knew what Irik meant--she was being grossly disrespectful, disposing of the Daema's property before her mother's body had been burned. "You are still mine."

"Yes, my Daema," Irik said, his voice carrying neither remorse nor fear, no emotion to it at all. Amagy wondered if she could really feel the hatred pouring from him like steam, or if it was just imagination, filling in what she couldn't find.

"The offer is there," Amagy said. "Do with it what you will." She abruptly broke their gaze and stalked across the room. She stepped on the frame as she passed it just to hear the satisfying crunch of what remained of the glass. She gave the ribbon at the back of the room a single, furious yank.

"You may go," she told him.

"I'd like to join the Daemguard," Irik said.

Amagy looked, but Irik was standing just as still and inscrutably as before. She blinked at him. "What?"

Irik would no longer look at her; it seemed his eyes were focused on the far wall. "I'd like to join the Daemguard," he repeated, as if the problem had been that she hadn't heard him. "But I can't. I'm not free. And I need references."

Amagy blinked again. Then she nodded, unsmiling. "One last task for you, Irik," she said. "Deliver my letter, and then you shall be a Guardsman."

"So…." John said. He was standing in Rodney's quarters, watching Rodney examine his desk and every Ancient artifact on it. Rodney painstakingly lifted each one and turned it over in his hands, as if re-learning the feel. He smiled a little as one or two lit up or hummed, then turned them off immediately and set them gently down on his desk again.

He looked at John. "You had someone dust in here?"

John nodded. He smiled, but his heart was pounding for some reason and it was hard to make his voice light. "I did it," he said. He shrugged when Rodney's eyebrows shot up. "Well, I didn't think you'd want anyone else going through your stuff." Elizabeth had made sure no one boxed it up, even though Rodney had been officially declared MIA. John would have to tell Rodney that, so he could thank her. Rodney would want to contact his sister as well, but that could wait. One night, a few hours alone, wouldn't make any difference.

"Well, that's right. I wouldn't," Rodney said. It was possible he was trying to sound huffy, but he only managed uncomfortable. John supposed he was making Rodney nervous, if the darting glances Rodney kept giving him were any indication.

John couldn't help it. He'd wanted this moment for so long that now he had it he wasn't sure what to do with it, what he was allowed to do, what Rodney wanted from him.

"Thank you," Rodney said, surprising John. He put the last item down, then straightened. He stretched and yawned.

They were both still wearing the clothing they'd been given at the Sanctuary--John with his white shirt with the brown vest and trousers, all stained with blood, and his military belt and those stupid tan boots. Rodney was in shades of red. He looked pretty good, actually, though John couldn't wait to see him in his normal clothing again.

"God, I'm tired," Rodney said. He smiled sheepishly. "I know that everyone meant well, but seeing all those people in the gate room like that…it was kind of overwhelming."

John nodded. It had been for him too, actually, especially when he'd discovered that he'd only been gone a few hours. He kept expecting to see evidence of months passing, instead of less than a day. Of course, the way practically everyone in the city had thronged around Rodney had made up for that. After Rodney had been hugged and kissed and shaken hands with and patted on the back at least a hundred times, he'd looked rattled enough that John had stepped in and reminded everyone that they really needed to be checked out in the infirmary. Luckily Beckett was right there to vehemently agree. And then after a check-up that basically consisted of the doctor saying, 'come back if anything's wrong', Beckett had hugged a definitely beleaguered Rodney again and sent them to their quarters to rest. John hadn't gone to his.

He was still sort of amazed that the rest of his team--including Conroy--as well as Beckett, Zelenka, and even Elizabeth had all come through the Sanctuary portal to try to find him and Rodney. At that point they'd known what John hadn't, which was that they were dealing with a time-dilation field, and the fact that they'd all been willing to possibly spend the rest of their lives God-knew where was pretty damn humbling. They hadn't really known what was beyond the force-field, but they'd gone through anyway. For Rodney. And for him. He hadn't been left behind after all.

Yeah, John had a lot of people to thank.

"You're a pretty popular guy, Rodney," John drawled. What he wanted to say was, you're the most important person here, we love you, but the words got stuck somewhere in his chest and he settled on the easy and flippant.

But Rodney smiled like he'd said something meaningful. "I guess I am," he said, his eyes sad. "I don't think I knew that. I mean, I remember them now, but…I don't think I knew they cared about me. Like that, I mean," he added awkwardly.

"We're all really proud of you, Rodney," John said, because he wouldn't forget Elizabeth telling him how Rodney didn't always feel appreciated. He stepped forward. "We all really missed you. All the gate teams were searching for you all the time, even when they weren't able to do it officially because of the IOA."

Rodney blinked. He looked down, like he was having trouble taking a compliment. "Really? That was--that was nice of them."

"It's wasn't being nice, Rodney," John said, suddenly annoyed. He crossed the rest of the distance between them and put his hands on Rodney's shoulders. He gave him a tiny shake. Rodney's eyes snapped up to his. "You don't get it--we missed you! You were gone for months, and I couldn't find you and I thought you might really be dead, and…."

He wasn't quite sure how it happened, but all of a sudden John realized he was hugging Rodney instead of just holding his shoulders, and he had a fistful of Rodney's tunic in either hand. And he was hanging on so tightly he was sure it had to hurt, but he couldn't make himself move or let go.

Rodney was hugging him back, his own arms holding just as tightly, one hand on the back of John's head. "I know," Rodney was saying. "I know, I know. I missed you too. God, you have no idea how much. I'm so sorry, John. I'm so, so sorry."

"You wouldn't let me touch you," John said. He couldn't keep the accusation out of his voice, even though he knew he sounded like a plaintive child. "You wouldn't let me talk to you. I'd finally found you and you wouldn't even come near me."

"I know," Rodney said again. "Every time I saw you it was like the world was coming apart. That's why I couldn't go near you--it hurt too much." He pulled John to him that much harder. John went willingly. "I'm so sorry I wouldn't talk to you, John. But I didn't know. I didn't know. Can you forgive me?"

John gave a tiny, incredulous chuckle right into Rodney's ear. "Jesus Christ, Rodney," he said. "Always." He swallowed. "You get that? Always. I will always fucking forgive you."

He felt Rodney try to move away, but he wouldn't let him. "What about Doranda?" Rodney asked.

"I'm sorry," John said. "I was an asshole." He inhaled, smelling the tang of Rodney's sweat, the warm scent of his skin. "I think--I think I kind of thought you had to be perfect, because you'd saved our lives so often. And you're never wrong. I mean, never wrong. You know all this unbelievable physics stuff and you're always pulling our asses out of the fire with it, and I just…It was hard, seeing that you were human just like the rest of us."

"I never said I thought I was Superman," Rodney said quietly. "I said I thought that you all did."

"Well," John said, "when I said I didn't--I kind of lied."

Rodney snorted. "I'm beginning to get that."

John smirked in return, then he took a chance and nuzzled Rodney's ear, since his nose was just about level with it. He wasn't sure Rodney even wanted this--they hadn't done more than hold hands since he'd gotten his memory back, and that had only been a few hours ago. But Rodney was hugging him like he was the one single, steady thing in a maelstrom, and they had been lovers, before. Maybe John hadn't totally blown it. Maybe they could have that back.

Rodney's gasp made John stop, figuring that he'd pushed it, too much too soon. But before he could pull his head back Rodney turned so quickly their noses bumped. And then John's small 'ow!' was completely smothered by Rodney's mouth on his.

John groaned in relief. The sudden surge of desire raced down his spine so fast it left him a little lightheaded, but he didn't want to pull away from Rodney's mouth to breathe. Instead his hands migrated up to Rodney's head, holding the sides of his face and threading his fingers through Rodney's hair. It was much longer now than it had ever been on Atlantis, and felt sweet and soft against John's fingers. He kind of hoped Rodney decided not to cut it.

Rodney sighed into his mouth and ran his palms down John's back until they were flat against his ass, and John finally sucked in a breath when Rodney pulled him against him and John could feel the hard outline of Rodney's cock pressing against his own.

"Jesus," Rodney," John managed when they finally pulled apart. "God, would you fuck me, please? I want…you have to…." He didn't even know what he wanted to say, but Rodney just murmured something like, 'Yes, yes please', and started kissing him again, walking John backwards until John's knees hit the edge or Rodney's bed and Rodney helped lower him down.

Rodney knelt, then, sliding off John's boots, and John was laughing at how eager they both were until his mind suddenly remembered slave, and he sat up.

"What?" Rodney blinked at him, his hands still around John's left ankle. He looked so surprised that John had to hook his fingers under Rodney's leather belt and tug until Rodney bent down and they could kiss again.

"You don't have to do that," John said, when Rodney straightened. "Take off my boots, I mean," he added when Rodney just looked at him quizzically. "You don't have to…you don't have to do anything you don't want to, okay? You know that, right?"

Rodney blinked again, more slowly. "I know I really don't want to fuck you with your boots on," he said, "and this is the most expedient way to remedy that." He smiled though, slow and with such tenderness that John had to force himself not to look away. "I know who I am now. But thank you."

"You're welcome," John said huskily. He gestured at his one booted foot. "Uh, go ahead."

"Thank you," Rodney said with exaggerated patience, then yanked on John's boot so hard half of him nearly came off the bed. Rodney dropped the second boot unceremoniously on the floor then peeled off John's socks. He made a face. "Your feet stink."

"I'm sure yours are fantastic, Rodney," John said dryly. He leered. "But you know, I'm sure it smells much better up here…."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Let me finish." He put his knee on the bed between John's legs so he could easily unfasten his belt. He pulled it apart then undid the ties on John's pants. "Lift your hips," he said softly, and John shuddered, his hips rocketing into the air.

"Hey! Like I need a concussion on top of everything else!" But Rodney grabbed the top of John's pants and deftly slipped them down and off, throwing them on top of John's socks and boots. The people at the Sanctuary didn't use underwear. "Sit up," Rodney said.

John did, more carefully this time, and Rodney stripped off his vest and tunic. John pretended not to see Rodney shudder when he touched the bloodstained cloth, or how quickly he threw it on the ground. And then John was completely naked, and so hard his penis bobbed against his belly when he breathed, leaving tiny streaks of wetness.

Rodney stilled, his eyes wide, obviously just watching, and John smiled self-consciously. "There wasn't much to do there except for running," he said, because he was pretty damn boney now and he didn't like it.

"No," Rodney said, sounding awed. "You look…." He shook his head, as if there were no words for how John looked. "Amazing," he settled on at last. "You look fucking amazing."

"'Fucking' being the operative word," John said, because he always had trouble with compliments.

Rodney scowled good-naturedly at him, but finally began stripping as well. John watched avidly as the belt came off, then the dark-red, hooded shirt, leaving nothing but the pale stretch of Rodney's chest, still as appealingly broad as John remembered, but much leaner now, curved ribs showing.

"You look pretty amazing yourself," John said, though mentally he determined to wheedle Beckett until he told him if Rodney was underweight, because Rodney just didn't look right to him.

"I look like someone who hasn't had meat in a year," Rodney groused, but John could see the surprisingly shy smile.

When Rodney was naked he crawled on top of John and they started kissing again. Rodney was languid and thorough, licking everywhere inside John's mouth: his palate, his teeth, nudging gently against John's tongue. John shifted until their cocks were trapped between their bodies, rubbing deliciously every time they moved. He stroked down Rodney's flanks, grabbing handfuls of his ass then sliding back up again.

Rodney moaned, then pulled back, resting his forehead against John's. "I can't even tell you how much I want to be in you right now. Please say I can get the lube. Please."

"Yes, yes. God, go get it," John said, then lay back with his arm over his eyes while Rodney scrambled into the bathroom. He was so turned on he didn't even dare touch himself, for fear he'd go off like a firecracker.

It felt like a small eternity before Rodney came back, triumphantly shouting, "I got it!" in a voice loud enough to be heard at least three levels down.

"About fucking time," John murmured, and put his feet flat on the bed, giving Rodney better access.

Nothing happened.

"What?" John demanded, lifting his arm away from his eyes.

Rodney was just staring at him like he'd been poleaxed. "Do you have any idea how hot you look like that?" he asked faintly.

"Rodney…." John growled.

"Right, right, getting on with it," Rodney said quickly, and John closed his eyes again. He heard the tiny click when Rodney flicked the bottle of lube open, and the first gentle, wet slide of Rodney's finger against his hole made him buck and gasp.

"You okay?" Rodney asked hurriedly, "did I hurt you?"

"I'm fine!" John said immediately. "I'm fine, I'm fine." He levered himself up on his elbows so he could see Rodney's face.

"I trust you," he said.

Rodney went still for a second. And then his smile was a brilliant and beautiful as the Lantean sky.

John grinned back, feeling something ease back into place inside him. "I trust you," he said again, because he wanted Rodney to know how much he meant it. Then he let his head thump onto the pillow. "And I think you were about to insert a finger, right?"

"Yes, thank you. Because I would've forgotten," Rodney grumped irritatedly in response. John laughed. He spread his legs wider, hissing as he felt Rodney's finger push gently inside. He realized dimly that he was trying to rock back against it, fucking himself. Then Rodney twisted his finger a bit and the shock of pleasure made John cry out and arch.

By the time Rodney had a third finger inside him, John had his eyes squeezed shut, both his arms by his sides and clutching the bed sheets. He was trembling, feeling like he might fly away, break apart, except for Rodney's fingers inside him, Rodney's hand on his thigh, keeping him grounded. He smiled when he heard the unmistakable crinkle of a condom wrapper being opened, Rodney muttering about how much he missed them.

John cracked his eyes open at that, the brief flare of jealousy almost immediately replaced by the sick knowledge that whatever sex Rodney might have had before the Sanctuary, it probably hadn't been his choice.

He felt Rodney's cock against his opening, but squirmed back. "Rodney," he said, a little breathlessly. "You, uh, you want to do this, right?"

Rodney's face was flushed, his eyes nearly black with arousal. He looked at John like John had lost what little bits of mind he had. "Does this seem like something I'm not particularly keen on at the moment?" He blinked. "And didn't we already have this conversation?"

"Yeah," John said. "But…but I--" He forgot what he was saying, lost the ability to speak entirely as Rodney hauled him back with both his hands on John's legs, then pushed into him. John let his head fall back and his eyes shut again.

"John," Rodney said quietly. "Open your eyes. I want to see you."

John opened his eyes. Rodney was smiling at him--pure joy, right there. It was almost too much, like looking at the sun. There was a drop of sweat on Rodney's nose, and John looked at that instead, somewhere safe.

"Are you looking at my nose?" Rodney asked.

"I missed you so much," John said, which didn't really answer Rodney's question, but then Rodney turned his hips just slightly and John was seeing bright light, looking into the sun, sparks bursting behind his eyelids.

"You closed your eyes again," Rodney complained, and how, how could he even talk through what he was doing? John clenched around him in retaliation, and heard Rodney groan.

"John," Rodney said, panting now. "That's…I'm not…." He'd lost all coherence as well, finally. And John felt a little smug until Rodney's hand closed around his cock, and that was all it took: just that touch, and John came.

He was still trembling with the aftershocks when he felt Rodney's hand move back to his thigh, holding him still. Rodney pushed into him once, twice, and the third time Rodney was coming as well, shouting John's name.

"I missed you too, by the way," Rodney said, later. They were lying on Rodney's bed. Rodney had just lumbered back into the room after disappearing to get rid of the condom and wash his hands. He'd cleaned John up too, which was nice. "I mean, if it wasn't obvious."

"It was kind of obvious," John said. He rolled a little further into Rodney, throwing his arm across his side.

"I'm going to fall off the bed," Rodney said, but he didn't move.

"Rodney," John said very carefully. He was speaking to Rodney's collarbone, tasting sweat each time he closed his mouth. "Will you tell me what happened, sometime?" He traced the shape of the bone with his mouth, not liking how prominent it was, how much time the physical change in Rodney represented, and how John hadn't been there. I tried so hard to rescue you, he thought, but he didn't say it, because it sounded like an excuse. "I want…I'd like to know about it. If that's okay."

Rodney was silent for so long that John thought he'd fallen asleep, or just decided not to answer him.

"The worst part was the not knowing," he said suddenly. John blinked, feeling his eyelashes rasp down and up against Rodney's skin. "I mean, not knowing who I was, where I came from, anything like that. The rest…the rest was almost bearable, compared to that. It wasn't…." He cleared his throat. "Well, I know there's been a lot worse servitude than that."

"No," he said a minute later. He carded his fingers through John's hair, over and over again, like he was trying to learn it by touch. "The worst part was knowing I'd lost you, being sure you were dead, but not even knowing your name."

"I'm right here, Rodney," John said.

"I know," Rodney said. "So am I."

"Finally," John said, pulling Rodney a little bit closer. Finally home.


"Do you have enough sunscreen? I brought lots," Rodney said. "Or, if you're thirsty, I could get you something out of the cooler." Rodney looked festive in bright blue swim trunks, a loud Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and a boonie hat.

"I'm just fine, Rodney," Elizabeth assured him, holding up her drink as evidence as she lounged back in her beach chair. She smiled at him, although it was all she could do not to leap up and hug him, like she'd done several times during the first week of his return. It just overwhelmed her sometimes, how glad she was to see him again. He still looked too thin to her eyes, although Carson said he was healthy and Rodney claimed he'd gained weight in the last few months he'd been in that Sanctuary place.

"All is well. Now cease meddling and return to your Colonel," Radek told Rodney, bustling up and bumping him out of the way as he brought over a tray of sandwiches and fruit slices. Radek was dressed similarly to Rodney, except his shorts were khaki and his hat was an old fishing hat, complete with artificial flies pinned to it. Radek seemed to have visited the same supplier of Hawaiian shirts.

Radek's mock-scolding masked the surge of affection he felt, and once again, Elizabeth was so proud of him. When Rodney had been returned home at last, Radek had instantly offered to step down as Chief Science Officer. What neither of them had expected was Rodney's new humility. He'd mildly pointed out that he wasn't up to speed with what was going on in the labs, and suggested that he serve as Radek's assistant for a few months until they all felt he was capable of resuming his old duties.

Rodney turned to look for John. Elizabeth sensed the spike of anxiety when Rodney spotted him. "Oh great, he's in the water again. I told him not to go in the water. He can't swim! How a grown man never learned to swim is beyond me."

Elizabeth remembered the John Sheppard they'd all known the first year of the expedition, with just his face and the tips of his fingers exposed, and compared him with the John Sheppard currently clowning with Jinto in knee-high water, dressed only in black swim trunks. She could well imagine why John never learned to swim.

"Then you'll definitely have to teach him, Rodney," she said brightly.

"You think he'd let me?" Rodney looked wistful. Elizabeth felt a spike of emotion from Radek, and glanced at him, seeing how he had ducked his head at Rodney's words. This humbler version of Rodney unsettled Radek, and he had mentioned to her more than once that he longed for the return of Rodney's old arrogance.

"I do not believe he would allow anyone else to teach him," said Teyla, coming up on Rodney's right, Ronon Dex in tow. Teyla wore a two-piece teal-colored swimsuit that flattered her beautiful figure, making Elizabeth feel dowdy in her own maroon one-piece. Ronon wore a necklace of what looked disturbingly like Wraith-teeth, another necklace with what looked like a real knife as a pendant, and a thong swimsuit that left very little to the imagination. Elizabeth had to work at keeping her eyes on his face instead of on all the skin on display.

"Well, yes, I'm sure he realizes I'm an accomplished swimmer," Rodney smiled, bouncing on his toes as well as he could in the sand. Elizabeth grinned in satisfaction. There was their old Rodney!

"I'm a good swimmer, and he didn't let me teach him," Ronon complained, although he grinned at Rodney as he said it, and threw himself down to sprawl on the blanket right next to Radek. Elizabeth noted Radek's flash of jealousy, wishing she could reassure him now, instead of having to wait for a more private moment.

Ronon was brimming with good humor and sexual interest. Interestingly, he only glanced at her before smoldering at Radek. He stole a piece of fruit right out of Radek's hand, snatching it with bright white teeth and a too-innocent swipe of his tongue.

Elizabeth squelched her amusement at the feel of Radek's shock and confusion. She could feel Teyla doing the same thing, and met the merriment in the other woman's eyes with a widening of her own. Teyla had told her of Ronon's interest in both herself and Radek, and his desire to create a threesome. Teyla had said that Ronon told her it was traditional in Satedan culture to approach the woman of an established pair for permission first, but she had convinced him to seek out Kate Heightmeyer's counsel. According to Teyla, Kate had advised him that, in this case, it would be more diplomatic of him to talk to Radek first and gauge the other man's interest.

Elizabeth didn't know how to react, or even how she wanted to react. She could tell Ronon's interest--both personal and sexual--was directed towards both herself and Radek. That aroused and titillated her, but the last thing she wanted to do was upset Radek, who had been her rock throughout months of stress, and who was becoming dearer and more important to her every day.

"Well, I'll be going then," Rodney said, apparently not knowing how to answer Ronon, who wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to him anymore, anyway. Rodney himself was yearning toward John, both physically and emotionally, looking like an invisible rope was gradually tugging him in the Colonel's direction.

"Have fun!" Elizabeth released him with a smile and wave, and Rodney grinned at her and waved back as he trotted John-wards, his flash of happiness filling her with pleasure.

"Ms. Teyla!" Sgt. Conroy came jogging up, his olive green shorts and the flapping wings of his unbuttoned olive green shirt showing off a truly advanced case of Farmer's Tan. The paleness of his chest and legs made his tanned face and arms look almost disembodied. He came to a stop next to Teyla, standing just a hairsbreadth too close, and beamed at her besottedly. Elizabeth kept control of her thoughts, knowing that Conroy would be tuning her out, but not willing to embarrass him if he accidentally read that she could easily pick up his devotion for Teyla. She didn't particularly wish to reveal Teyla's hand either. If she hadn't informed the Sergeant that she was interested in him as well, then he wouldn't find out from Elizabeth.

"Ma'am," Conroy ducked his head at her. "Sirs." He acknowledged Ronon and Radek. "Ms. Teyla, come play volleyball with us!" He waved back at the group currently engaged in putting up a net for an impromptu game of volleyball. "Lt. Ford's team is playing against Major Lorne's team, but Sgt. Kaufman asked Sgt. L'Heureux to play on their team too, and now our team is one player short."

Teyla wrinkled her brow. "I would be honored to join you, Albert, but I do not know this 'volleyball' game."

"Shucks, Ms. Teyla," Conroy said, employing an exaggerated form of his normally mild southwestern accent. "You'll be a shoe-in. It'll be as easy as sliding off a greasy log backward, you'll see." He held out an arm, offering his hand.

Teyla raised both eyebrows high, but a smile curled her mouth as well. Elizabeth could sense Teyla's amusement and pleasure at Conroy's flirtation. "Very well. Do not blame me if we lose," she told him, taking his hand. "I will speak with you later, Elizabeth. Have fun!" Teyla's advice and wicked smile were tossed back over her shoulder as she sauntered off with Conroy.

Elizabeth peeked out of the corner of her eye at Ronon and Radek, both apparently absorbed in a murmured conversation about the flies on Radek's hat, which he had taken off so he could display them. The breeze blew a strand of Radek's wild hair across his eyes, under his glasses. Ronon solemnly removed them, tucked the hair behind Radek's ear, then carefully placed the glasses back on Radek's nose. Radek flushed red, and Elizabeth could easily read his wash of confusion and embarrassment, mixed with a tiny thrill of arousal and pleasure. It was flattering to be flirted with and courted.

She avoided Radek's eye as he glanced at her. Soon enough, Ronon would broach his proposal to Radek. She could feel him gathering his nerve. Then, if Radek wasn't uncomfortable with the idea, they would approach her. Elizabeth licked her lips and tried hard to ignore the arousal that was making her nipples tight. The breeze licking over her wasn't cold enough to cause that kind of reaction, but she pretended to herself that it had anyway.

Instead, she distracted herself by focusing on the other people who had joined them on this homecoming celebration/beach party. Everyone here was friends with John, Rodney, Teyla, or Ronon, or a team member of one of those friends. To be fair to the other residents of Atlantis, Elizabeth had decreed that small groups of Expedition members could also schedule beach parties on the Mainland throughout the summer, but this first party was Rodney's "welcome home" celebration. The participation of so many senior staff had been made possible thanks to Colonel Caldwell's kindness in minding Atlantis for them for a day.

A bit further inland, away from the waterline, Sgt. Stackhouse, Sgt. Markham, and Dr. Corrigan had put themselves in charge of the bonfire and food. Currently, they had some pseudo-lobsters cooking in a big pot, and some clam-like things baking. Sgt. Markham had also designated himself as DJ, and a Beach Boys song was blaring from the speakers attached to his iPod.

Carson, in green swim trunks, with sunglasses perched on his head, was dancing with that pretty Lt. Cadman, who was wearing a polka-dot bikini. Cadman had saved Carson's life earlier that year, pushing him out of the path of a Wraith beam at the cost of being swept up herself. She had been recovered only through Radek and Rodney's hard work and dedication to saving her by finding a way to reverse the beam. Elizabeth was pleased to see the budding romance between Carson and the lively Lieutenant.

The other members of Cadman's team were dancing with some of the medical team who had been crucial with their assistance during Sheppard's bout with the Iratus virus. Light-haired Jennifer Keller and red-head Katie Brown, Rodney's friend from the Botany department, were doing a laughing version of a line dance to the chorus of 'California Girls'. Some Athosian friends of Teyla's were dancing as well, including Merga and Heiden, the hunters who had caught the pseudo-lobsters.

Farther down the beach, Kate Heightmeyer was solemnly helping Halling build a sandcastle. Elizabeth noticed that Jinto had joined them, apparently finished playing with John, if the football by his side in the sand was any clue.

And a bit further from the sandcastle, gate technician Chuck Campbell and Kate's new assistant, Martine, were sitting side-by-side, talking softly and staring out into the waves. She guessed that Chuck's presence at the party meant that Peter Grodin had lost the coin toss, and was probably cooling his heels in the gate room, waiting for them all to return.

Elizabeth looked up and down the beach, searching for John and Rodney, and finally spotted them in the water. The waves were very shallow in this protected cove, and Rodney stood in chest-high water, his arms gently supporting John.

John lay on his back on the surface of the water, floating peacefully, his head propped on Rodney's shoulder.

"That's right, just relax. The water will hold you up. The salinity of this ocean is about 3.8 to 3.9%. More like the Red Sea than the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans back on Earth," Rodney said. The sun sparkled on the water, waves no more than gentle swells, the breeze fresh enough to feel good without chilling either of them.

John could feel Rodney's arms just barely touching him under the surface of the water, just steadying him, not holding him up at all. "So, what does that actually mean, McKay?" he prodded. The sounds of the party floated out to them over the water, but it sounded muted and far-away, like the two of them were in another world, all alone together.

He saw the flash of Rodney's grin just out of the corner of his half-closed eyes. "It means the water will have greater surface density. The human body--in other words, you--will float really well. The only way you'd drown is if I deliberately held you under. So don't tempt me!"

"Aw, Rodney, you wouldn't drown me," John said smugly. "You love me too much."

It was only after it came out that he realized what he'd said. John's eyes flew open and he saw the gleam of gold from Rodney's shield in front of his eyes just before the tension in his body made him start to sink below the surface of the water. He flailed, once, before he got himself under control. Instantly, the shield was gone and Rodney's arms were supporting him again.

"Shhh. Relax, remember?" Rodney nuzzled his temple and John took a deep breath and relaxed deliberately, his body bobbing up and down in the water. "And you are of immense, unparalleled importance to me. Of course I, ah, love you. I'd hardly drown you…although, there are occasions when you make that option appealing, you realize."

John let himself chuckle and moved his left foot, flicking droplets of water to sparkle in the sun before they landed back in the ocean. Cautiously, he reached for one of Rodney's hands, pleased that the movement didn't cause him to capsize, and hung on. He took a breath and let it out slowly. "Um, me too, Rodney. You knew that, right? And, you know, Rodney, you can't ever-- Don't--" He took another gulp of air.

"Leave you?" Rodney whispered. "You know I won't. And don't you run away from me." He squeezed John's hand.

John sighed, blinking rapidly. The saltwater and sun were making his eyes water. "Never again," he pledged. "I won't, Rodney."

"And if I ever get…lost…again," Rodney's voice was rough, saying what they were both afraid to say. "I know you'll come and find me."

"Always," John promised.

At this distance, Elizabeth wasn't sure if she could actually see the golden glint of Rodney's shield, or if she only imagined seeing it. She knew it would be there, because Rodney would want some protection from UV rays. She hadn't recognized Rodney at first without his protective hat and shirt, but he'd apparently discarded them before getting into the water with his lover. And they were very obviously behaving as lovers here at this party--nothing as overt as kissing, but no one could mistake their body language or the expression on their faces when they looked at each other.

No one at this party would say anything to Colonel Caldwell about the technical violation of the fraternization regulations. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was glad that the US military's rules about homosexuals as well as Gifted people had been liberalized early in President Clinton's administration. Elizabeth had always liked Hillary Clinton.

Sgt. Stackhouse banged a spoon on an empty pot, the sound ringing out over the music, and the calls of the volleyball players. "Lunch!" he bellowed.

There was a cheer of approval from the volleyball players, and Elizabeth smiled as Jinto pelted up the beach, heedless of his father's call to go wash off the sand. She made to get up from her beach chair, only to find herself swooped up into Ronon's arms. "Ronon! Put me down!" she protested. She was only putting her arms around his neck to keep her balance. Really.

"Only if you say 'yes'," he demanded, his smile broad but his feelings nervous underneath the bluster.

Elizabeth blinked at him. "To what?" She glanced at Radek, and saw him blush scarlet and duck his head as his feelings of mingled embarrassment, hope, and arousal washed over her.

"Oh!" Elizabeth honestly hadn't expected it to happen this fast. She wasn't quite sure what she wanted, or what was best. But she hated to answer the hope in both men's eyes with outright refusal. "How about an 'I'll consider it'?" she asked Ronon, and gave him a peck on the cheek.

"Does that mean 'yes, later'?" he said saucily, but he set her down and smiled.

"It means, 'we'll see'," she answered honestly. But she took his hand, and took Radek's, and walked between them to lunch, where a laughing Rodney was already eating sweet telda fruit from John's bare hand.

The End