"Okay, so this is getting really old."
He could barely hear Rodney. He'd been alone in the room with what Lorne had called "the creepy-ass tentacle computer" when the roof came down, and he had to shout to be heard in return. It was starting to worry him, because he wasn't sure it was because Rodney was broadcasting at lower-than-usual volume, or because of the insistent ache in his head.
"The whole… traps. Roofs. Bombs." He could actually hear Rodney's vague hand-gesture, as he added thoughtfully: "It's really dusty in here. I think I'm having a sinus reaction."
Followed by a violent sneeze. Okay. Complaining. Good sign.
"Any chance you can get outside, doc?"
Lorne's voice; between them, John wasn't sure how far. Their radios weren't working; John could only assume the explosion had kicked up enough background radiation to make them useless. Unfortunately that also meant that the check-in from the Gate in a couple of hours – five, six? he wasn't sure – wouldn't be able to reach them.
There was a scraping sound, and John finally managed to raise his head in time to see a plume of dust explode out of the half-collapsed doorway, just a few steps to his right.
"Rodney!" he shouted, just as Lorne shouted: "McKay!" He was the only civilian with them and the only one who'd been in the room with the device. It was a natural reaction.
There was a moment of silence filled only by the nerve-wracking sound of rubble re-settling, and then Rodney's voice, smaller than before: "Okay, that's a no."
John levered himself up. He was on his front, and he ached all over, but a quick and careful check showed nothing broken. He wasn't pinned, in fact it seemed most of the falling rubble had missed him entirely. Sunlight was piercing down through what remained of the roof, showing his surroundings clearly.
"Report!" he called to the area at large, as the dust started to clear again. He got immediate replies from Wong and Morelli, a fainter retort from a third man he thought had to be Bashir, but nothing from Francis. There wasn't quite enough room for him to stand up, but he could sit up, take a look around, wonder how long he'd been unconscious. He dimly remembered it being mid-morning on the planet when they'd stormed the building, and the sun was now past overhead point; afternoon, at least. Which meant he'd been out for at least two hours, maybe longer. And that couldn't possibly be good.
"I'm in one piece, sir," Lorne answered, from pretty close by. He gave a grunt of pain. "More or less."
"There's a wall on me," came Ronon's even growl.
"Are you hurt?"
There was a scrabbling noise somewhat more cautious than Rodney's had been. "Don't think so," was the answer. "But can't get it off."
John breathed what he considered to be a provisional sigh of relief. "Can anybody get free?"
"What did I just say?" Rodney answered, peevishly.
Nobody else answered in the affirmative, and John let his head fall back to his arms. He'd lost his P90 in the explosion; it was probably buried under tonnes of rubble somewhere off to his left. Maybe his right. It didn't really matter. It wasn't as if he could shoot his way out.
"Sir?" asked Lorne. "Can I venture an opinion?"
"Hit me," John told him. It was a really good thing he was okay with small spaces, because otherwise he'd really be freaking out right about now. Come to think of it, he was pretty sure he could sense Rodney working up to a panic from where he lay.
"I don't think it was mean to kill us. Just to render the building useless."
"And why do you think that, Major?"
"It didn't start counting down until McKay started messing with it, sir."
"Hey!" protested Rodney, and broke off with a spate of coughing.
"Oh, crap," Rodney said, a moment later, in a thick voice.
"I might be - sort of - coughing up blood. Maybe."
"Shit," John said, heart hammering suddenly to twice its normal speed. "Bad situation" just turned into "critical" and he still couldn't move without bringing more of the roof down on their heads and Rodney is coughing up blood. "Lorne, any ideas?"
Another cautious scuffle, which lasted a little longer than Ronon's. "No, sir." Lorne now sounded pained.
"Major?" John tried to insert some steel into his tone, and subsequently chose to believe that it was the tone that made Lorne sigh and admit:
"Side's going numb, sir."
"Fuck," John added, to the universe in general.
It wasn't that she didn't think they would come. She was sure that they would. Or that they were trying. But it had been nearly twelve days since she'd seen them, since Michael had left Carson gasping on the warehouse floor, since a cool press of metal against her neck had sent her into fitful sleep. Since she'd felt the telltale pull of being in a ship tearing free from a world, heaviness that had nothing to do with the life growing within her.
He'd kept her dozing most of that time, and she'd woken for what she thought to be the fifth time to find herself grounded again, and alone in a room with a high, narrow barred window. No one answered when she pounded on the locked door and shouted, and she'd have wondered for the first two days, judging by the rise and set of the sun, whether she were alone on the planet – if there hadn't always been food in the room when she woke.
She tried not to worry about the others, about John and Rodney and Ronon, who she knew must be searching, must by now be frantic, each in his own way. About Carson, impossibly, Carson, who might be dead by now if Michael had told the truth. About the city, and her people, and all that might go wrong if she wasn't soon free.
On the fourteenth day of her capture, she awoke from an uneasy sleep to find the sun rising, and someone else in the room. She was on her feet in a moment, hands coming to rest instinctively on the swell of her middle, backed up against the wall beneath the window.
She found herself reaching for a knife that wasn't there, and he seemed to see it – he smiled, the gentle, condescending smile of knowing she was at his mercy.
"You must eat," he said, all graciousness, and gestured to a plate of food sitting on the table bolted to the far wall. Teyla glanced around her, a sweep of the eyes; to reach the table, she would have to pass Michael. She was not yet that hungry. They had played this game many times, and each time he would try to induce her to eat while watching her, standing at her shoulder. Each time he would give up and retreat, leaving her to her meal. It was, by now, a pattern.
It was the first mistake Michael had made.
He had, in all that time, hardly touched her. He had examined her only once, and that nearly a week ago. When he had tried to guide her from the table by her elbow, she had knocked him flat into a wall with the same arm, a reflex that broke him into uproarious laughter while she stood panting, fists raised.
But for the most part, he had left her to herself. This both relieved and alarmed her; she knew, by now, how close she was coming to her due date, how little time she had, if she wished to escape with herself and her son whole. Even with the little he told her, she knew deep in her bones that Michael's plans for her child were unspeakable – that above all, she could not let him succeed. Once, deep in the night, she had thought that she would kill her son before she let Michael use him. The certainty had left her horror-struck, but no less determined. She would escape unchanged, or not at all.
Today he was in a cheerful mood, smiling and polite, and seemed to have little interest in taunting her. When she only stood motionless beneath the window, staring at him, he shrugged and spread his hands. "As you wish," he told her, nodding. "I have a great deal of work to do."
And with that chilling pronouncement, delivered with the casual ease Teyla had heard Rodney describe running computer simulations, he slipped away, the bolt sliding home behind him.
She stood staring at the closed door for some minutes after he had gone, until she could hear no more receding footsteps and she was truly alone but for the one or two guards always outside in the hall. Only then did she venture across the room to inspect the meal.
It was the same fare as it had been every day, and as always she hesitated. She had no idea how or when Michael had acquired a supply of Earth food, but for the past two weeks Teyla's every meal had been one of the MRE packets they carried on their missions. For the first three or four days Teyla had taken it as a comfort – but now every meal was a reminder of just how far from home she was. And for the first time, she found herself associating the word with the shining city where she had spent the past four years, rather than the Athos in her memory.
She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to eat beef stew again.
She sat down to think. She had kept track of the patterns of Michael's base. She did not know where she was, what world this was, or if it even had a stargate. But she knew the rhythms of this corridor, the path between her cell and Michael's laboratory; the times of the changing of guard, and the length of this world's days. And Michael did not know the rising keen of her desperation; that now that those still unchanged among her people were safely back in Atlantis, there was nothing to keep her here. That there were few lines remaining that she would not cross, and only one that would cause her to hesitate.
John and Rodney had, in jest one evening, described Michael as a cliché. They often did this, her friends from Earth, built something up as laughable in order to dull its edges.
Teyla had not quite grasped the reference, until Rodney had laughingly recounted the overblown villains of Earth stories who paused in their evil deeds to explain themselves, to prove their worth. At first it had puzzled her – the idea of "fiction" for its own sake had been an odd, foreign one, and fiction in such volume and variety as Earth produced was baffling – but at length, as their talk grew more grave (as it always did), she had come to understand that they were right. Michael was, whether he would admit it or not, driven mainly by motives that were almost childish. Revenge. Loneliness. Once, it had made her pity him.
She sat counting the minutes, the day stretching out endlessly. Eventually she had to eat, quickly and with one eye on the door, but she remained undisturbed. At length, she heard the guard changed – presumably these creatures of Michael's needed food, and rest, and all the usual comforts. And she sat back with surprise at that, because these were her people, these were Athosians. But maybe they weren't, not any longer. Certainly she could not fight them to escape if she could not set them aside – without at least the option of doing so.
She meditated for most of the afternoon, balancing on the thread traversing between consciousness and the other place. She heard the guard change once more, and then the sun was setting.
She had passed many days like this, listening and waiting and remembering. By now she knew that the pattern was adequate to keep her here. Her only chance lay in something changing, something to buck the even line of Michael's plans, something she could use to her advantage. Tonight it was beginning to seem as though another day would pass without any change, and she would wake in the morning and begin her long wait again.
And then –
She surged to her feet, by now long used to her new shape. It hindered her hardly at all as she hurried to the door, pressed her face close to the grate. The corridor was full of sounds, different sounds, new sounds, running feet and voices. Her guard was there, only one tonight, and he was turned away from the door, looking up the hallway.
Teyla leaned back against the wall, and closed her eyes. And then she reached.
She had been practicing for weeks, ever since Michael had revealed his deception. But the fact that Michael had deceived her into believing Kanaan was somehow reaching her – that did not mean that it wasn't possible.
All around her she could sense, as she had always done, the faint sparks of minds. All dim but two – Michael, who she avoided touching too closely, lest he detect her – and Kanaan, who had always burned in Teyla's mind like a torch. But never before had she dared to touch it; always it had been a thing to shy away from, even while it drew her to the man who carried it.
And now, she reached. It felt like bitter cold at first, the cold flush of an unfamiliar mind, and she nearly recoiled. This was how it felt with a Wraith, and she wondered whether it was only the changed part of Kanaan that she was seeing. But then came heat, different, familiar, human, and she would have swayed if not for the wall at her back.
There, she thought, and paused, waiting. But all she felt was a presence. There was no awareness of her, and somewhere nearby was a pulse like a heart that she knew existed only in her mind. So she reached again, searching carefully, like sifting rice or beans in her fingers.
Another base has been destroyed, she saw, as the co-ordinates jittered into her consciousness. On some other world, not far from here. A trap set to prevent theft, or disturbance, or discovery.
Michael was there as well, not within the mind but on the edge of it, his messages swift and sharp and satisfied.
All at once, she broke away, because she had understood. He had set these traps for them: For the Lanteans, for Teyla's team. And now they had triggered one, probably searching for her.
For the space of three laboured breaths her mind was filled with images of her dear ones lying dying or dead in the rubble of some building, floating blue in airless space, bleeding red into the ground of some nameless moon.
She cowered against the wall for long seconds, frantically piecing together her situation, forcing herself calm in the wake of panic. They must be safe, she told herself, because it must be true, it must.
And then she reached again, because there was no more time.
Kanaan, she whispered, and then shouted, trusting in Michael's distraction to keep her silent to his attention. Kanaan. Hear me.
It was hard, harder than with a Wraith, for the mind she was touching had not been designed to be read or written in this way. But he was no longer entirely human, and had in the first place been more, and Teyla could push with the strength of two, her child reaching for his father as eagerly as she did.
In the corridor, Kanaan turned, his eyes bright and clear, horrified, and she pushed away from the wall.
"Teyla?" He was confused, disoriented; she could feel it as well as see and hear it. He stumbled, caught himself with one hand, and he no longer moved sluggishly as he had done before, as though he was fighting against bonds about his limbs.
"I am here," she said, and could not keep the thickness of tears from her voice as he stepped up to the door and pressed his palm to the grate.
"How can this be?" he whispered. "I thought I was dreaming of you."
She forced a breath deep, and then shook her head. "This is no dream, Kanaan," she told him. "And you know what is happening."
He shut his eyes. "Yes."
"Then you must let me go," she said. "And you must hurry."
And then his eyes were on her once again, still bright as though with fever, and as dangerous for what their clarity meant.
"Yes," he said, reaching for the door. "There is not much time."
Teyla had to stretch her gift to its limits as they hurried through the corridors of Michael's base, cloaking herself from his sight, though if it had not been for his distraction, she might not have managed. Only Kanaan's presence kept her calm in her own skin, and she had to trust him to lead her as her mind wandered, touching one presence and then another, and then another, enough to tell her that their path was clear. Michael and his creatures and his servants were otherwise occupied, deciphering the message from the destroyed base, assembling plans to search the ruins for survivors.
That thought chilled her, drove her to greater speed as they emerged into the cold night. For one moment, she drew in the breath of the open sky, delighting in it – but only for a moment, for then she was running again, Kanaan at her side.
It could never have lasted long. She had known it at the outset. Michael had three ships on the ground, small ships meant for the transport of cargo. They were guarded, but only by a few, not a match for Teyla and Kanaan. But as the last man fell, as she stepped into the nearest ship, she turned to see Kanaan stiff, puzzled, unmoving, and she knew that her time had expired. Kanaan turned to her with horror in his face, drawing to stony stillness like a machine winding down.
"Teyla," he said, and reached for her. Somewhere behind them, Michael had missed her, or maybe Kanaan, and had snapped his servant back as easily as the end of a chain, a leash twisting off into the dark.
She evaded Kanaan's reaching hands, backed up against the console with her hands raised in defence. "Kanaan," she whispered, pleading with her voice because her gift was diminished with exhaustion, with adrenaline, with terror. "Fight him. Please, fight him!"
For one endless second, she thought that her words had penetrated – been enough. Kanaan grew still once more, frozen in mid-step, eyes squeezed tightly shut, almost thoughtfully.
"I cannot fight him," he gritted out. "Ancestors help me, Teyla, he is in my bones, and I cannot—"
"Please," she repeated, hands already groping behind her for a weapon, something, anything, to save herself, to save their child.
The pale light of the compound did little to light the empty control room, but it did flash bright and cold on the blade that Kanaan drew suddenly from his belt.
"I cannot allow—" Kanaan said, his every word sounding wrung from a stone, "—I must not—"
But then she understood, in the wave of a lifetime's shared memories, in the push of his presence against her mind. She understood it completely only as the knife arced up, and up, and then down to his heart, swift as a bird.
"No!" she shouted, and closed the distance between them even as he fell, fingers slippery around the hilt of the knife. She eased him to the deck, her weeks of restraint breaking in that moment, tears streaking her face. Kanaan was limp and heavy in her arms, and after a moment he turned his face to her, smiled the same warm gleam he had always offered her.
"Teyla," he said, a whisper drained of all strength. His eyes were clear again, clear as day, all upon her and entirely free from the control of Michael. "Teyla. Please, don't fret. I could not have left him."
Teyla closed her eyes, lifting his hand and pressing her cheek into the palm. "I know," she said, because she had. She had known it from the moment she had reached for him. Michael had told her, and he'd had no reason to lie.
"I saved you," Kanaan said, pressing the hand to her rounded belly. There was no vitality in his muscles, only the tail-end of sleep. "And that is enough."
"Yes," she lied, caressing his hair. "Yes, that is enough."
When he was quite still, she pulled away, pillowed his head on her coat folded on the deck, before standing. It would be only minutes before Michael's forces found her, and she could not let them stop her. She set her hands on the console, closing the airlock and taking them up. She could see her destination clear in her mind, and the ship's memory knew it well. Not far. Less than two hours' journey. Soon enough, she could only hope.
For the rest – she wrapped it carefully up, and placed it gently at the back of her mind. There would be time for that, later. There was always time for that.
The radios were definitely dead. They'd pretty much established that, not that it had been easy. Repair efforts on the one unit not lost in the collapse of the building – Morelli's – had been slow, mainly because they had to be accomplished via shouted instructions from Rodney, with nobody able to move around. Morelli wasn't an idiot. John was pretty sure he'd done everything exactly to Rodney's specifications, if only because the kid was more than a little intimidated by all the shouting.
Rodney, on the other hand, kept having to pause for spates of coughing that grew more and more unnerving every time, and if John hadn't been sure it would bring the rest of the building down on them, he'd have been scaling the rubble after the second time. As it was, he'd levered himself to a sitting position and was more or less going insane with all the enforced stillness. That and the rising keen of blind panic when the sixth hour ticked over and Lorne stopped answering him.
"Damnit," John cursed, and shouted for another round of roll – and this time, it took a second for Rodney to answer.
"McKay!" he shouted for a second time.
"Huh?" came Rodney's voice, after a second. And fuck, he sounded groggy. Rodney was absolutely not allowed to pass out.
"Rise and shine, McKay!" John ordered him. "There will be no fainting."
That, at least, got a response. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"
John really wasn't sure how far he was from the others. He knew where he'd been when the roof came down, but had only a general idea of their location now, that amounted to under a building.
And possibly he'd hit his head, a little, because he was nursing the mother of all migraines that seemed to have waited until dark to creep up on him.
Lorne was out, probably hurt pretty bad, something slow and internal, and Rodney was… well, Jesus, that didn't even bear thinking about. They hadn't heard from Francis since the explosion.
"Sheppard?" Ronon still sounded mostly just annoyed, but even John could hear the little twist in his voice. "You okay?"
"Yeah, Ronon," John told him, trying to come up with a plan that didn't involve burying them all alive – at least not any more than they already were. But they'd been over all this, hours ago. The smart thing had been to try and repair the radio, but that had fizzled out pretty fast. Atlantis would check in within another four hours, probably a little sooner, but at this point John really wasn't sure how much longer Lorne and Rodney could last. Probably not four hours, with the kinds of injuries you got from having a building fall on you. John had only a rough idea, but it was enough for him to be sure that they had to do something right fucking now.
"We've gotta do something," Ronon said, and John knew at once that Ronon had come to the same conclusions he had.
"Any ideas?" John asked.
Ronon was quiet for a while. "Not really," he admitted. "But…"
"Yeah," John said, cutting him off. "Yeah, I know."
One of them was going to have to risk it.
This really, really hadn't been how he planned to go out. Fair enough, if someone had asked him how he'd expected to die, his answer would probably have resembled this in a general sense. Violence. Explosions. Sure. But his vague-as-possible visions of his own death – he actually tried not to think about it – had absolutely not included taking his team with him. They had not included Lorne unconscious under a heap of rubble or Ronon trapped under a fallen wall. They hadn't included Rodney, slowly running out of breath, coughing up blood. They hadn't included Rodney at all, which was, frankly, unrealistic, considering that for years now, there'd been an even chance that if he died, Rodney would be right there beside him.
But, hell. That made this whole thing worse. He wasn't hurt – not badly, anyway. But there wasn't a goddamn thing he could do to help the others, and that drove him completely insane.
Enough that he was just working his way up to doing something insane.
At least, he had been, until he realised that the ground was shaking.
Or rather, had been shaking for the past couple of minutes, and now was shaking harder.
"Is that what I think it is?" John shouted over the rising noise of – dear god let it be – engines.
"Ship!" answered Ronon, never one to waste words.
The rest of Lorne's team started shouting excitedly, but John told them to pipe down, because they didn't know whose ship it was and also because Rodney wasn't shouting, and it was making John feel restless and reckless and kind of terrified and he didn't need a bunch of Marines reminding him of it.
When it stopped, and the noise died away, they stayed quiet, waiting, and John counted, because there wasn't much else to do while they counted down to either rescue or… well. The second option was a lot less attractive.
When he heard the voices, he had a hard time restraining himself, but managed it because there was a pretty good chance he was hallucinating.
It sounded like Teyla.
But it couldn't be.
Ronon, however, seemed unconcerned by the fact that reality had just lost all cohesion.
"Teyla!" he shouted, and then John heard movement outside, scrabbling at the nearest wall, followed, again, by Teyla's voice.
"Ronon? John? Rodney?"
Holy christ, it was Teyla. Possibly the product of John's possible concussion, but at this point, he'd take what he could get.
"Teyla? What the hell?"
Her laughter was like a balm, at least for a moment, exhausted and relieved and, it was probably the smoke inhalation talking, almost tearful.
"It's me," she said, and a light shone into the darkness under the ruined walls. "I am here."
"Jesus, Teyla," John began, and then their situation came rushing back, immediate and urgent. "Teyla. Lorne's passed out and I think Rodney's—"
"Of course." And that was Teyla, calm and focused. "Of course. There is help on the way."
"Yes, John. They are coming." She paused, and the light faded away, tucked safe somewhere, not wasting energy, which was good, because – god knew how she'd gotten away, how she'd found them, reached them in time. He hoped it was in time.
"I am here. Everything will be all right."
She said it with conviction, with certainty, with the ever-steady serenity that defined her. He let his head fall back on the floor, finally letting his eyes closed. Because the crazy thing was, he believed her. She was here, and help was coming. Right now, that was all that mattered. After all this time, he knew to take the good news as it came.
He was buried closer to the wall than the others, so Ronon saw the watery daylight before Sheppard did. He wasn't panicking, wasn't fidgeting, wasn't going dizzy with inactivity the way he did sometimes being forced to sit out a mission. Nothing like Sheppard, anyway, who'd been yelling impatiently since the rescue crews had showed up and begun picking their way painstakingly through the rubble to reach them. Ronon got that, he did, but seven years depending on no one but himself had pretty much beaten panic out of him, so instead he waited, he stayed calm.
He still wasted no time to crawl up into daylight as soon as it was possible, ignoring the caution of the Marines and the medic presiding over this section of the building. There was patience, and then there was restlessness borne from purely nervous response, and there was not being able to take another second of Sheppard radiating growing frustrated panic over the fact that McKay had stopped answering them more than an hour ago. It was worse in Sheppard's soldier voice, carefully-bound worry that was more personal than it was strategic, and Ronon sympathised with that as much as anything else. It was what made him shake off a coat of dust, then turn to look out over the rubble to see if he could figure out where they were digging.
He shrugged off the medics and ignored the Marines, pointed them to the spot, a couple of feet to the left of where he was buried, where they'd find Sheppard, and then made his way around the perimeter, stomping gravel out of his boots.
He knew where to go because he saw Carter, pale hair gleaming gold under the search lights, heard her shouting directions as she rummaged through a toolbox on the ground. He stood over her for a few seconds before she noticed him, and when she looked up her eyes were a little bit wide and crazy, blinking as she shifted mental gears, a look he'd seen on McKay about a hundred times.
"Ronon," she said, uncertainly, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand and leaving a long smudge of dirt down her temple. She glanced over his shoulder like she expected to see a detachment of Marines and a harried medic trailing in his wake, but he knew they had better things to do than coddle him when he was up and walking around. Somewhere behind him, an unconscious Lorne and what was left of his team were being loaded into one of the jumpers. "Shouldn't you be getting checked out by…"
"I'm fine," he interrupted, shrugging and nodding over her shoulder, where two engineers – one military and one of McKay's – were crawling over the rubble like ants, yelling over the noise of the heavy equipment. He spied Jennifer then, standing below them, bent over a tablet with the scanner flashing, looking worried and shouting at them through cupped hands. He couldn't make out the words.
He looked back down at Carter to see her giving him a long, studying look, the rest of her gone still, hand clutching the complicated-looking wrench she'd been digging for hanging heavy at her side. He knew she'd been wary around him at first, differently from how Weir had been, because to Carter he'd never been an unknown quantity, just an unknown – she didn't know him. Which was simpler, but harder to work through than just taking him at Sheppard's word. Because she hadn't known Sheppard, either, not really. The closest she'd gotten to any of them was to McKay, and McKay didn't exactly broadcast it when he trusted people.
Apparently she had a soldier's respect for taking stupid risks for good reasons, though, because when Zelenka came hurrying up, hair in greater-than-usual disarray, gesticulating wildly, she glanced at him with raised eyebrows as Zelenka was still saying: "We have found him, Colonel, he is—"
And not only didn't she try and stop him, try and remind him of the sensible thing, but she followed him, making her way to the base of the spider-legged Ancient crane that perched astride the fallen wall. She gave Zelenka a hand up as he reached a skinny arm into the guts of the machine and adjusted something with the enormous wrench. Ronon knew where they were looking now, watched Carter and a few others fasten the cable around the cracked slab of concrete, test the line with an almighty tug that lifted her feet off the ground for a second. "Okay," she shouted, over the noise of the crane, waved an arm as Zelenka scrambled back down the rubble to take up the remote. "Everybody ready!"
Ronon stood clear, and there was a terrible screeching noise, gears fighting against gravity, a long screeeeeeeeeeee sound that made his teeth hurt, and he saw Carter's face falter as for a second it looked like the slab wouldn't move, was wedged too tight.
But then it did move, making the other rubble shift under their feet, and they all staggered for balance as Zelenka, eyes fixed feverishly on the huge slab, navigated it out of the way.
Ronon saw the arm, first, followed the line up from the bare hand to dust-coated shoulder to pale face. McKay was unconscious, face white and streaked with blood mingling with dust, but it was still the shock of colour that distinguished his body suddenly from the surrounding rubble.
It was what had him picking his way down the slope of collapsed wall as carefully as he could at any speed, crouching down next to McKay as Carter pauses at the top of the slope.
"Is he—"she called, didn't finish the sentence, but Ronon squinted up at her, half-blinded by the lights.
"He's alive," he shouted back, and watched her shoulders sag for just a moment in relief, before she cupped her hands to shout back down:
"Okay, we're going to bring the crane closer, just hang on…"
But he wasn't listening, had already surveyed the situation and was moving to take action. Another chunk of broken wall was lying right across McKay's torso, not big but heavy, and it took Ronon a minute to get his shoulder under the higher edge.
"Ronon!" Carter yelled from above him, "just wait a minute—"
But she was already scrambling down to join him, followed by three Marines, and she pushed up next to him glaring, as together they belatedly put muscle into shifting the slab. It took a couple of heaves, but in one massive push – and a sense of something shifting in his shoulder – it came away, crashing down on the other side with a noise like an earthquake. McKay was free, though he didn't look any better from this angle, covered in dust and unnaturally still. Ronon got out of the way as medics came stumbling down into the hole, got a look from Jennifer as they passed on the slope that said he'd pay for that later, let Carter force him to a seat back down on the ground.
She sat down beside him, still breathing hard. "That was kind of stupid," she observed, though she didn't sound particularly angry about it.
He shrugged, then hissed with pain, which at least got a grim smile out of her. "Let me guess," she said, "shoulder?"
"Yeah," he admitted, as more medics swarmed around them, and Carter just looked kind of meanly triumphant and let them look at her scraped-raw palms without complaint.
"I did that a couple of times," she told him, wincing as one of Jennifer's medics applied something antiseptic-smelling to her hands. "Hurts like a bitch, doesn't it?"
He grunted an affirmative, clamping his mouth shut as the medics probed his shoulder, which he was now sure was dislocated.
"Yeah," she said, nodding as if he'd agreed with something he'd said. Then she fixed him with a Look on par with the one McKay had given him when he'd accidentally shot the console for the Ancient geothermal scanner on M91-226. "That's why we have machines," she said carefully, with a lot less of McKay's condescending superiority, but just as much exasperation.
He couldn't help but grin down at her, right up to the point where Jennifer's biggest nurse (the big blond one McKay called "Arnold," nothing but muscle and a hand taller than Ronon) gripped his arm and his shoulder in hands the size of ploughs, and pulled, and he blacked out for a couple of minutes.
There wasn't much he could do after that, with his arm numb from the shot the medic gave him, strapped tight to his chest in a sling. He hated those things, but Jennifer had given him such a stern look, her face pinched and white before hurrying off to tend to McKay, that he hadn't dared protest. So he left the medics down in the rubble trying to lift McKay safely out, and went to find his team.
John and Teyla were sitting together, perched on a piece of fallen wall, out of the way. Teyla was stiff and watchful, while Sheppard, on her right, looked drained, though his head was up, eyes scanning the rubble and following the angle of the lights shining down on the spot in the collapsed building where the marines and the medics were still digging. They still hadn't recovered Francis's body. Ronon sat heavily down on Teyla's other side, only glancing at Sheppard, who just grunted in acknowledgement after giving him a close, assessing look. Then he turned back to stare at the crews as though he could will them to work faster.
Ronon himself looked at Teyla for a long moment, until she turned and met his gaze, and he didn't need to say what he was thinking, because as always, she could see it there in his face. She laid her small, cool hand on his injured shoulder, let it slip down to rest on his spine. She smiled, a little tightly, glanced at Sheppard, and Ronon understood that, too. Sheppard was tight-strung like a bow, every line of his body tense and humming with frustration. They had to watch him, they'd have to watch him, if things went badly. She'd said that to him early on, explained their strange equilibrium, explained that Sheppard was their leader but sometimes they had to make their own calls. That sometimes Sheppard let his loyalties get in the way of other things. It was what made him a good leader, Ronon had always thought, what made these people from Earth such a strange prospect, because they were such a mass of contradictions.
Ronon remembered thinking that in the beginning, finding it odd, that sometimes they seemed soft, or they wasted time talking, or they fixated on things that seemed trivial or stupid or nobody else's business. So many of them were soft in body if nothing else, were used to being safe, or more, to believing in safety. It was such a foreign prospect that at first he'd thought them weak.
By now, though, he was used to it. He'd come to understand that while they were slow to act, they acted with conviction. That living so long so safely had let them create this deep-set notion of the universe, abstract and detailed as few Pegasus societies had leisure to envision, with the Wraith a constant looming certain threat. They were all so different, and yet all of them who'd come to Atlantis had in common that there were more important things than safety. Maybe they had only come to that decision because you could only discard the things you had, but it still lent them a certain reckless boldness that had saved their lives, the lives of countless other worlds, more times than Ronon could count. They were crazy, sure, but they were brave. They were smart. They still believed the world could be saved.
And his team – Sheppard and McKay and Teyla – were the constant, they were family. Had been slotted into the place in his head where the rest of it didn't matter.
Even McKay, he thought, with gruff affection, sitting up straight as the crew made their way carefully, finally, up out of the rubble, balancing the stretcher between them. He could hear Jennifer's high, strident voice, what he thought of as her Serious Tone, because she only ever used it when somebody was really badly hurt and she wasn't sure what was going to happen.
Sheppard knew it, too, because he'd been sitting for half an hour with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped, head hanging down, but at the sound of her ordering the Marines "careful, careful, I mean it!" his head shot up. For a second there was panic there, only a second, because Sheppard never let it show for long, and Teyla, who was sitting bracketed between them, slipped an arm around his shoulders.
And yeah, it had been a long day, but it was still kind of jarring to see how Sheppard didn't pull away – didn't lean into it, but didn't pull away – just sort of wilted a little. It was almost enough to make Ronon say something, but Teyla was already saying it, knew how to do it better than he did, than any of them did. It did make him angry, the way he got angry these days, deep-down and grandly resentful with the universe, to let him be one with these people only on the condition that one of them was always hurting.
Teyla was really the smartest of them all, he knew that; they all knew that. She slipped her other arm around his shoulders, pulled him into her side and whispered that it was all right, that they were all here, like that was all it took to set things in order.
Ronon had been too long, too far, from a dead Sateda to believe that, but he wanted to, and that was something. He smiled at her as they helped each other to their feet, smiled at Sheppard, showing his teeth. Without a word they rearranged themselves so it was Sheppard, now, bracketed by them, eyes fixed ahead on the hull of jumper, reflecting the sun as it crawled laboriously across the dingy sky.
Rodney wasn't sure he'd ever seen anything more beautiful in his life. Seriously, nothing more beautiful. He kind of wished he hadn't said so, because there were some things you just shouldn't say out loud to your team-mate even if she was radiantly beautiful and extremely pregnant and had just saved your life, because even when all those conditions applied, Teyla could still kick his ass. Fortunately he had forgotten most of the details and Teyla was a good enough sport not to mention it. He'd been pretty badly injured, strapped to a stretcher, and on a lot of drugs as they carried him to the jumper, Teyla pacing them all, and by now he knew that bought you a lot of forgiveness.
They'd lost Francis. He'd been killed in the explosion; standing right next to one of the charges. Lorne was still in surgery when Rodney woke up, and John was sitting next to his bed, dozing in one chair while Teyla sat in the other, serenely reading a book. He couldn't see the title – the spine was cracked and illegible and the cover was faded.
She lowered it as he lifted his head, leaning forward to clasp his hand even as she tilted her head at John and put a finger to her lips.
"We should not wake him," she said, not quite a whisper, but close, and then turned a warm smile on him. "How are you feeling?"
"Of course I won't – " Rodney began in an indignant whisper, because he and John had been doing this mutual bedside vigil long enough that he liked to think they had the etiquette down. But he started to sit up, stopped only by her hand on his arm. Turned out she needn't have bothered, because a stab of debilitating pain sat up to remind him why one shouldn't move around with broken ribs, especially when they'd punctured things.
"Ow, ow, owfuckow," he panted, and when he got his breath back, he hissed at Teyla: "Should he even be up?" glaring at John while he inspected the elegant slouch of the man from head to toe. He seemed relatively unharmed, but for a few scrapes.
"He is all right," Teyla assured him quietly, pushing him back down into the bed. "He was somewhat more argumentative than usual. I do believe, however, that Doctor Keller was more accommodating to his refusal to stay in bed when he refused to leave the infirmary anyway."
She smiled the smile that always made Rodney feel like he was missing some important cue, warm and inclusive and meant even for John, despite the fact that he was snoring very quietly into his chest.
"Oh," said Rodney, uncertainly. "Okay." Teyla, of course, was generally exempt from bedside vigil etiquette. She didn't know or didn't care that there were certain things one wasn't really supposed to talk about, like his and John's unspoken habit of infirmary-loitering for one another. His mind, of course, latched in self-defence onto the next-most-uncomfortable topic.
"So are you – is the…" He gestured vaguely towards the still-obvious curve of her belly, where one of her hands rested protectively.
For the first time since he'd woken up, he saw a shadow pass over her face, and she glanced down, and then back up, forcing a smile. "We are both well," she told him. "I, myself, am… as well as can be expected."
Rodney stared at her, trying to think of something comforting to say and remembering, for the hundredth time, that this was why Teyla was the emotionally intelligent one on the team. "I guess…" he swallowed, realised his throat was dry, and looked around for the ever-present water jug for a minute before Teyla handed him a cup from a side table. He took a sip and then continued: "…I guess you don't want to talk about it, huh?"
He kind of hoped she would say no. He'd been mostly unconscious since being pulled from the rubble, but he'd been awake enough for brief periods to answer questions, and to ask a few. What he remembered was slightly hazy, but he knew that Kanaan's body was waiting in the morgue for when they could take him to the mainland, set him alight the way the Athosians did, and it wasn't the only one. A team had gone back to the world where Michael had been holding Teyla, and had found a dozen bodies and an empty base. Supposedly, Michael had decided that the Athosians among his hybrids could no longer be trusted. Rodney couldn't imagine anything he could say that would do anything but make her feel worse, and he had a pretty active imagination.
Instead, the forced smile became a genuine one, if tinged with sadness. She squeezed his arm. "Not yet," she told him. "But when I do, I will think of you."
"Oh, good," he said, faintly, filing the assurance away under "certain doom."
"I'm really glad you're okay," he said, sincerely, looking down at his hands.
Teyla just squeezed his arm again, as Ronon appeared around the curtain and grinned at him. "Hey, you're awake," he said, rather pointlessly, and came around the other side of the bed to shake Rodney companionably by the shoulder. His left arm was bound in a sling, and he was wearing BDUs with one of his own shirts. The wall must have ripped up his snazzy leather pants beyond repair, Rodney thought, as Ronon sat down in the last chair and raised his eyebrows at Teyla.
"I am fine, Ronon," she said, with a hint of exasperation, as if it was becoming a tired question. Ronon grinned unapologetically and turned back to Rodney.
"Jennifer says you can check out as soon as she can come look you over," he said, glancing across the bed at Sheppard. It had taken Rodney a minute to realise that Ronon's voice sounded strange because he was keeping it down, in a deliberate attempt to keep from waking John. It made Rodney look at him again, trying to see if there was anything worse wrong with him than fatigue.
"How long's he been sitting there?" he asked Ronon and Teyla, a little archly though he was only speaking in a loud whisper.
Teyla cast John's sleeping form an indulgent smile. "Since very early this morning," she said. "Jennifer finally ordered him back to his quarters right after you came out of surgery, but he returned as soon as he awoke - not nearly long enough." She frowned. "I would think the position would be uncomfortable, but he seems to be sleeping peacefully."
And indeed, he did. But then, John could sleep just about anywhere, floors to ledges to vertical seats to hanging upside down in a giant butterfly net (which Rodney knew from experience), and never seem to know the difference.
With his always-impeccable sense of timing – or maybe his weird ability to know when he was being observed – John chose that moment to twitch awake, all at once, as he always did. Rodney had always found that a little unsettling, the way that John could go from deeply asleep to completely conscious in a couple of breaths.
His eyes swept the room – gauging threats, Rodney knew – then lighted on Teyla, on Ronon, and then on Rodney, where they lingered. Rodney, inexplicably, felt his face growing warm, because there was some intensity in the way that John was inspecting him. Well, Rodney thought, they had just been trapped in a gigantic pile of rubble for several hours, and he knew he'd lost consciousness at least once. Knowing John, he'd worked himself up into a really good freak-out over the time they'd been trapped. John did not deal well with helplessness.
"I'm fine," Rodney snapped, when the staring had gone on a bit longer than was strictly comfortable. John started, blinked at him. "Really," Rodney emphasised, shrugging with one shoulder – which turned out to be a mistake. Ow.
He looked owlishly at John, who still looked a little like he'd been hit over the head – which, okay, fair, he had. But it was no excuse for all the staring. "If you want to be helpful, you could go get me some food. I haven't eaten in…" he looked at Teyla, mouth open, and she provided:
"Two days," with that little quirk of her lips that meant amusement was battling her customary dignity. "Though Doctor Keller was quite clear that you have been provided with…"
"Yes, yes," Rodney said, rattling the tubes of the IV – saline, a painkiller, the godawful sugar-water that kept him from dying of hunger while he was unconscious; he hated it, it made him feel jumpy and restless. At least there wasn't a bag of blood. The idea of transfusion always made his skin crawl, even when he knew it was necessary.
"Not the same thing as actual food," he said pointedly, turning back to John. He meant his tone to be wheedling, or maybe snappish, but the way John's face closed up made him wonder what else had gotten through. He couldn't tell what, and this struck him as extremely unfair.
"Sure," John said, slowly, getting to his feet. Rodney watched him carefully, but John seemed only a little stiff, and he didn't seem to be hiding anything more serious. Over the years Rodney had gotten used to spotting it when he did that – as had Ronon and Teyla, and it was something unspoken but mutually understood. John could really be an idiot sometimes.
"And that's very good timing," said Keller, slipping in between the curtains. "I was just about to kick you all out."
She looked her usual unbearably cheerful self, something that had annoyed Rodney at first, but by now he'd gotten used to it, realised that Keller's cheer was like Teyla's calm. A way to subvert the chilly, quiet panic that took up residence in your chest when you finally realised that nothing was truly safe.
"Major Lorne is stable," she announced, addressing them all, but directing it mostly to John. "He's resting comfortably – at least he will be, once he wakes up. Thought you'd want to know," she added gently, and Rodney saw a fraction of the tension in John's neck and shoulders ease.
"Yeah," he said, "thanks."
Keller shrugged. "Come on, everyone out," she said, clapping her hands briskly. "I've got to examine Doctor McKay if he wants to be out of here any time today."
"Of course," Teyla said, rising to her feet, gracefully accepting the hand John placed under her elbow in what was apparently unthinking reflex. "We will be outside, waiting." She disappeared through the curtains, and Ronon followed her with just a grin and a nod. John lingered a moment longer, looking uncertainly between Rodney and Keller, brows drawn together.
"I'm just gonna…" he said, eyes falling to the blanket, shrugging in an absurdly boyish way – Rodney could actually see the way John wanted to rub at the back of his neck, duck his head.
"Well, yes, go on," Rodney said, gesturing with the arm not full of tubes, and wishing he was better at controlling his face, his voice – he could hear how flustered he sounded.
Once John was gone, Keller was silent for a while, through the unpleasant process of removing the needles from Rodney's arm. Feeling squeamish, he shut his eyes and turned away, because it hurt – needles always hurt more coming out than they did going in, and that didn't make any sense at all. But it was over quickly, and then she took his other hand and told him to press, there, with the gauze she pushed into his fingers.
"Is there really no way to anaesthetise that?" he complained, still determinedly not looking at where he was pressing the gauze to his inner arm.
She chuckled quietly, pulling down his collar and then raising the stethoscope into her cupped hands to breathe warm air on the metal. Rodney was oddly touched by the gesture – Carson had never done that. Keller never accused him of acting like a baby, either.
He was distracted by the spike of grief long enough for her to press the stethoscope to his chest, worm her hand under his collar and press it lower, eyes distant, nodding to herself. It had passed by the time she slipped hands under his shoulders. "Come on, sit up," she said, pushing him forward. He was obedient, eyes shut, breathing in, breathing out as she told him.
"You know," she said eventually, once she had looped the stethoscope back around her neck and was pressing fingers to Rodney's wrist, "you could have just told me."
She'd been quiet through most of the examination, unusually gentle with him, and so it was something of a surprise to hear her speak with such careful casualness – something she pulled off no better than he did – a tone that carried such meaning.
And at first he had no idea what she meant, but he wasn't a genius for nothing, and… "I don't know what you—" he blurted, and he was sure he was flushing bright red, all over, and god, he hated his complexion sometimes.
And her, too, he added bitterly, because she just smiled at him, brightly, the I-am-smarter-than-you-are smile that annoyed him so much because she always refused to take any credit for it.
"Rodney," she said, again with that very annoying casual tone, and this was like Carson – they probably took a class in being really frustratingly difficult to read, "I know I haven't been here that long, but reading body language is kinda one of those things they insist on you learning in medical school."
And now she was being self-effacing, which was something else that Rodney really hated.
"Do they teach minding your own business, too?" he snapped. But a lot of what he said seemed to roll right off her, and this time seemed to be no exception. He also hated that. This was why they could never date, he reminded himself. She didn't even argue back.
She tilted her head to one side, tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. "You guys are kind of lacking in subtle."
If he'd been red before, now he had to be paper-pale, and he jerked his head around to stare at her. She must have seen the astonishment on his face, or maybe some of the bone-deep chill of – he wasn't even sure what it was, the threat of the ground opening up under him, the reason he'd never – fear, maybe, but it didn't matter. She patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.
"Don't worry about it," she said gently. "Everybody knows you're not good at subtle, McKay. They probably just write it off."
"Well, neither are you, if you were wondering," he returned, in a hiss just above a whisper. He really wanted to be out of here, but he couldn't just barge his way out – she had to release him.
At length, she let him lie back. She stepped back and crossed her arms, regarding him critically. Rodney had no idea how she could do that, just look at him and make him feel like an idiot.
"He's not stupid," she told him, raising her eyebrows, and it was enough to make him look away. She was trying to be kind, he knew that, but somehow that just made it worse. There was a reason they didn't talk about it, why it was never more than something they could laugh off, and this was it.
"No," he said, tiredly, to his hands. "That's me."
After a minute, he heard her sigh, and looked up again. "I want – can I go?"
She looked thoughtful, frowning. But this wasn't hers to fix, even if she would have liked to try. She was kind of a meddler, and she'd been meddling, carefully, since their ill-fated journey to the centre of the… well, actually, he couldn't remember the name of that planet, now that he thought about it. He just… didn't want another friend right now, and he couldn't think of any way to explain that to her.
"Jennifer…" he pushed. "They're waiting for me. They—"
"Yes, you can go," she said, rolling her eyes. Smiling again, stepping back. "Go on. You're taking up space."
Standing up still hurt quite a lot, at least while he was moving. Getting dressed was a tedious process of lifting his arms just enough to realise he couldn't lift them all the way, of finding he couldn't bend at the waist without gasping. So in the end it took him twice as long as it usually did, and he supposed it had been a very long time indeed because Ronon stuck his head inside the curtain just as Rodney was trying to figure out how to pull up his pants without passing out. He was an engineer, for god's sake, he should have been able to figure this out, and really, he had a ridiculously low threshold for pain. With all the life-threatening injuries he'd suffered since coming to this galaxy he'd have thought it would sort of even out, but no. His body always knew just the right moment to tick off into unconsciousness.
"Problems, McKay?" Ronon asked, and Rodney scowled and clutched his pants in front of himself, blushing from head to toe.
"Have you ever heard of privacy?" he sputtered, but Ronon didn't move. There was something warm in his eyes that might have been amusement, but Rodney was crap at reading people without devoted practice and Ronon was harder than even John was, anyway. The big man didn't laugh, though, and Rodney knew Ronon's derisive laugh, loud and booming with abandon. He just shook his head and stepped inside the curtain, pulling it shut behind him. He snatched the pants out of Rodney's nerveless fingers without ceremony, and then held them out. It took Rodney a few seconds to realise that Ronon was waiting for him to step into them.
Ronon tilted his head impatiently. "McKay."
"I – um – right," Rodney stuttered, and did. They were pulled up briskly, and he buttoned them as Ronon picked up the grey t-shirt from the bed and waited for Rodney to hold out his arms in front of him.
Rodney was silent throughout. He felt a little silly, like a two-year-old who couldn't dress himself, but he couldn't dress himself, and Ronon seemed to be treating the whole thing very matter-of-factly. He certainly didn't seem even remotely embarrassed; it was as if he did this sort of thing every day. Then again, maybe he had, back on Sateda. Maybe this was the sort of thing military men did for each other when they couldn't lift their arms. Certainly John had done this for him more than once, but that was… that was different, somehow.
Ronon helped him into his jacket and then waited for Rodney to slip on his shoes. "Um," said Rodney, feeling that something was called-for, "thanks. I don't—"
Now Ronon did smile, a bright white grin like a flash of clean metal in his scruffy face. A lot about Ronon made Rodney think of knives, sharp, tidy and shining, sheathed in worn leather. "It's no big deal, McKay. I know you'd rather have had Sheppard."
There was definitely the hint of a leer behind the possibly-fond smile and wow, Rodney's face was never, ever going to be its normal colour again.
"I'm hungry," Ronon added, with emphasis, "and you're slow when you're hurt."
"I. Right," Rodney agreed, as Ronon turned and swept the curtains aside, letting in the cold yellow light of the ceiling strips to mingle with the sunlight on the floor. Teyla was waiting for them outside, head bent close to Keller's, and they were both smiling soft, private girl smiles. Rodney wasn't sure why they were girl smiles, they just were. They both looked up as Rodney and Ronon approached.
As she always did, Teyla lifted her hands to ghost them over Rodney's shoulders, eyes travelling from Rodney's shoes to the crown of his head – Rodney stood still, feeling her scrutiny, but no longer uncomfortable under it as he had once been. Usually when people looked at him that closely it was to criticise, something that early on had left him uneasy about being observed for himself alone. But when Teyla felt you didn't measure up to something, she simply told you, and told you why. This scrutiny, as she finally let her hands fall on his shoulders and smiled at him, was concern, was satisfaction that he was upright, under his own power. Was matter-of-fact, expected, like Ronon helping him dress. Matter of course.
"You are looking much better," she said, letting her hands fall away. Beside her, Keller nodded, looking sunny.
"Take it easy for a few more days. Most of the breaks have healed, but there's only so much even Ancient medical tech can do for soft-tissue damage. It's going to hurt like hell for a while yet." She sounded so cheerful about this, and Rodney felt his mouth twisting sourly, but she just beamed at him and patted his shoulder. "Cheer up, McKay. Go have some protein."
They left, Ronon reaching out to unsubtly clasp her hand as they did, and Rodney rolled his eyes but he saw Teyla's soft smile, turned to share with him, as Ronon caught up with them.
"Vegetable stew," said Ronon, rubbing his hands together with such anticipation that Rodney's stomach rumbled in agreement. Ronon grinned at him again.
"Do you think we should wait for John?" Teyla asked – and then she stopped, hand falling easily to the curve of her belly, looking… puzzled.
"Teyla?" Rodney asked, when nearly a minute had passed and Teyla was still standing frozen and silent, face working and turned inward. Slowly, she raised her eyes to them, eyebrows arched and face tight with what even Rodney recognised as forced calm.
"We should return to the infirmary," she said, voice rigidly even. "I believe my water has just broken."
"Huh?" Rodney said, intelligently, but Ronon was already sliding under her arm, eyes almost comically wide.
"What are you waiting for?" he snapped, when Rodney just stood there gaping. "Run ahead and tell Keller!"
The snap was what Rodney needed to get him moving, and he did, reaching for his radio as he stumbled into a run that made his sides throb. He reached John just as he skidded to a stop inside the infirmary door. "It – I – Teyla's gone into – she's –"
"Rodney! Breathe!" said John in his ear, even as Keller caught his elbow and asked:
"What's the matter?"
Rodney took as deep a breath as he could without it hurting – focus focus focus – and told them both: "She's having the baby. Teyla's having the—"
But that was as far as he got, because then Keller was shouting for nurses and John was telling him: "Stay right there, stay there, I'm coming." And Ronon was helping a white-faced Teyla back in through the infirmary door as Keller and her team swarmed around them.
Rodney sagged against the nearest wall and tried not to panic. So far it wasn't going so well.
Sam stared at her tablet screen for several minutes after the recording ended, General Landry's face frozen on the screen. His expression was grim, frustrated, but resigned, three things that no one who had not witnessed the man under worse circumstances would likely have seen.
"I know you're not going to like this, Sam," he'd said, frowning and looking anywhere but directly at the camera, "I don't like it either. But it's the way things are, at least for now."
Landry had nothing on George Hammond for inscrutability, nothing at all. She could see the toll of two bad choices in his face, even paused and motionless. It didn't make her feel any better.
She remembered what Jack had told her before she left Earth, before he himself had left for Washington. It had been an uneasy conversation, like so many things between them had been over the preceding months – but he'd still been Jack, smiling through it all, reminding her that sometimes command was more about going along in the right way than it was about leading.
"If an order is so stupid it makes you mad enough to spit – especially you, Carter, you don't get mad nearly often enough – it's probably a bad order."
The important things, he hadn't had to say. They'd known each other far too long for that.
Right now, she was mad enough to spit. She felt not only angry but disappointed – especially after the things John had told her, the things they'd both told the SGC and the IOA. Knowing what they knew – knowing what might happen – how could they possibly propose to do what they had? Hadn't Earth learned its lesson by now, that things they'd seen might happen probably would happen? Hadn't they learned to trust them by now?
She pushed the screen away and put her head into her hands. And now, after everything they'd just been through, she was going to have to find a way to break it to her staff. Her staff, because after the last few days she'd actually begun to feel, instead of hope, that she actually belonged here, that they trusted her. And now…
…Sheppard is going to blow his damned lid, she thought.
"Colonel Carter?" came a voice in her ear.
Sam sat up straight, already standing as she reached up to tap her radio, and long-conditioned response had her halfway to her office door before she had consciously registered that it was Jennifer, breathless, against a noisy background of voices.
"Carter here. What's going on?" Because in Sam's experience, hurried-sounding doctors really only ever equalled bad, with very few exceptions.
Jennifer ignored her for a second, shouting to somebody in the background. When she spoke to Sam again, it was with a new tone, a smile Sam could almost hear. "Um, not sure of the protocol on this, but I figured somebody should tell you Teyla just went into labour," she rattled off, and paused to shout at someone again. In the background, Sam could make out some of the voices now, one of them Teyla's, speaking with iron calm, the individual words indecipherable.
"Colonel?" Jennifer said, and Sam blinked, realised she'd stopped dead in the middle of the control gallery, mouth gaping open, because oh god, Teyla and labour and there was a baby being born right now. She shook her head. She really never knew how to deal with these things.
"Uh, right," she stuttered. "Yes. Good. Thanks. Um, let me know how…"
Jennifer chuckled. "Right, I'll keep you posted. Keller out."
Sam leaned against a console, taking a second to pull herself together.
Really, she thought, this was one of the things they should have warned her about when they'd offered her command of a flying city in another galaxy, but then again, flying city in another galaxy. The list would never end.
John had bailed out of the infirmary about thirty seconds after Teyla started screaming. Not that he hadn't heard Teyla scream before – he had, and didn't that have fun associations? But there was something uniquely disturbing about this focused, determined screaming. There was something more unsettling about the way that half a dozen Athosian women of varying ages had come pacing swiftly into the infirmary fifteen minutes ago, tittering and chiding each other into more solemn expressions and failing. John was pretty sure they were chanting, now, but he'd escaped before he'd had to find out. He had seen Keller beaming around at everybody like it was Christmas morning, though, and that was pretty weird, too, especially since they'd draped her in some kind of intricately-beaded vest before letting her near the bed.
Another drawn-out scream brought Ronon stumbling out, and John was marginally comforted to see that the big man was a little paler than usual under his beard. "Okay, women are nuts," he said, and then slumped against the wall.
"She can probably hear you," hissed Rodney, who was sitting on the floor, propped against the opposite wall with his legs stretched out in front of him. He had one arm wrapped protectively around his sore ribs, and the other hand was covering his face. He looked up as he spoke, peering suspiciously at the infirmary door through his fingers. "She has a whole coven in there, they have knives, I saw them."
"Rota," Ronon grunted, and John looked at him askance.
Ronon slumped a little further. "Not knives. Rota. The midwives use them to cut the tie." He glanced at the infirmary door. "Jennifer probably won't let 'em use it, though. She's always worried about germs."
"It's her job, to be worried about germs," Rodney pointed out, covering his face again. "And why do you know that?" His tone was halfway to accusing.
Ronon shrugged, with an unconvincing attempt at nonchalance. His left eye was twitching. "Saw a couple births in the Athosian settlement, couple years back when you guys were sent back to Earth," he said. "Asked me to help once. It's sort of a… everybody helps."
Rodney covered his face again and muttered something that sounded like "oh, god, don't remind me," and John smiled despite himself before turning to Ronon.
"They didn't do it that way on Sateda?"
Ronon snorted. "Nah, we had hospitals. My mother said once that if my father had been in the delivery room when I was born, she'd have broken his arm." He smiled a fond, faraway smile. "She was a weaponsmith. Could bend a trinium bar in half with her bare hands."
"They wanted us to chant with them," Rodney moaned, softly, and John crossed the hall to sit down next to him. Ronon stayed where he was, nervously watching the infirmary door. The eldest woman of Teyla's impromptu entourage – Solda, John remembered – had given them all a flinty sort of look as they fled, one by one, and Teyla had been a little too busy to defend them. As it was, John had a feeling that their reprieve was a temporary one.
"I do not deal well with pain, certainly not mine and not all that well with other people's, especially when I don't have to," Rodney said into his hand. He'd actually held out longer than John had, trying valiantly to stay in earshot for several minutes. "Seriously, there has got to be a better way than—"
He paled as another loud scream issued forth from behind the closed door.
"I'm with McKay," Ronon said, fidgeting with the strap of his sling.
John swallowed back his anxiety and patted Rodney comfortingly on the shoulder. Rodney just glared at him.
"Oh, don't look at me like that," he snapped. "You turned a really unique shade of green back there, don't think we didn't see."
"I was trying to… be culturally sensitive!" John protested, feebly.
"You were trying not to pass out," Ronon observed, and when John looked at him he saw Ronon grinning. Traitor. There was something just so completely wrong with the fact that Ronon was dealing with this better than either of them.
"Oh, relax, Sheppard," Rodney said, letting his head fall back against the wall. "Your manly cool is probably undamaged. I'm sure there are exceptions for impending childbirth under non-emergency conditions and chanting women with knives."
John opened his mouth to retort indignantly – because really, there ought to have been. The three of them had made sure they knew what to do when Teyla told them she was pregnant, and John was sure that if this had happened off-world, if they'd had to, they'd have managed it without blinking. But there was a world of difference between that and this.
Before he could explain this, he was interrupted by the infirmary doors whooshing open, and then Solda was standing there, hands folded, majestic in a deep saffron robe.
"It is time," she pronounced, looking imperiously down at John and Rodney, and glancing at Ronon. "Come."
"Uh, time for what?" asked John, uncertainly, with a feeling of definite dread.
"We near the last moments, and Teyla requires her fellows," Solda explained, with an air of strained motherly patience. Then she repeated, firmly: "Come."
It had to be something genetic, John thought, because all three of them scrambled to follow without another moment's hesitation. Something all mothers programmed into you early. It was a little creepy.
Solda led them to the bed, where it was most certainly not time, and John stopped, causing Rodney to walk smack into his back and then rub his nose, complaining. Teyla lay in the bed, knees bent under the draping sheet, mostly sitting up, surrounded by women in colourful robes whose front panels were all heavily-embroidered. Two of Keller's nurses hovered nearby, wearing similar, lighter-coloured robes over their scrubs, and Keller stood at the foot of the bed, wearing a green vest heavy with beads, a scrub cap, latex gloves and a huge grin.
"What are you so happy about?" demanded Rodney, in affronted tones.
"Are you kidding?" Keller said, grinning wider. "Babies are way more fun than stitching up gunshot wounds and treating burns. This is great!"
John tried to hide his snicker as Rodney gave her a look that suggested that he seriously doubted her sanity, and failed, utterly, judging by the way that Rodney turned to glare at him.
"If you do not mind," said Teyla, in a warm, weary, breathless voice, and all three men fell silent. John hadn't snapped to attention so fast since flight school. But Teyla, supported by the arms of two young Athosian women, hair damp with sweat and clinging to her face, just smiled at them. John had never met another woman who could so easily reduce him to a guilty ten-year-old, not even his ex-wife, but then again Nancy had never known him as well as Teyla did.
"Do I have your attention?"
"Uh, yeah," John said, just as Rodney muttered "sorry," and Ronon ducked his head and murmured an apology that was too quiet to be heard.
"Good," Teyla said, nodding. "Now. I would like to ask a favour of you all. "
She paused again, just to make sure they were listening, and carried on: "There is a tradition among my people – the word we use is doken. It is… a person chosen to mentor a child, should something happen to its parents."
She tilted her head questioningly, and Rodney said: "That's an Ancient word. It means…" he shut his eyes, snapping his fingers, and said: "Uh, teacher, I think." He opened his eyes again. "Oh. Like, like a godparent?"
Teyla furrowed her brow thoughtfully. "I believe the two terms are similar, yes." She nodded. "Typically there is only one doken, sometimes two – but in this case, I believe it would be appropriate for my child to have three such protectors."
For a third time, she paused, and John saw Ronon's bright wide grin, saw the flash of terror cross Rodney's face before a cautious smile broke through. "You want us to…"
"Yes," Teyla said, now looking straight at John. "I realise that I have discussed this with all of you only in passing, but if you are willing…"
John stared at her. She had talked about it, at least with him, probing questions like she was about to ask something she never actually asked. But she had to have known what they'd say, or she wouldn't be springing this on them at the eleventh hour. Unless this was just how they did things on Athos.
"Your baby will always have a family here," he'd said. He'd meant it. He'd definitely meant it. Somehow there was something a whole lot more terrifying about giving it a name, though.
"No woman should be alone in birth," Solda added, severely, with an imperious eyebrow-twitch that John was beginning to suspect was some secret Athosian code for you are a great big chicken. John wilted, even as he felt gibbering panic start up at the very back of his head.
"Sure," he heard himself saying, and if his voice sounded unusually high, nobody said anything. "Of course."
Teyla sighed, still smiling, even as her face contorted with pain again. "I am grateful," she said, voice tense. "Now, if you would please take your places…"
The "before I kill you with my bare hands" was unspoken, but heavily implied, as several Athosian women bullied the three of them to the head of the bed where, mercifully, they were out of sight of everything happening at the other end. The two teenagers who had been flanking Teyla slipped away and Solda bullied them into their "places," John and Ronon each holding one of Teyla's hands – or more specifically, letting Teyla crush their fingers painfully between her own as the next contraction started – and Rodney behind the head of the bed, supporting her shoulders.
"Uh," John said, feeling a little weak-kneed again, because Teyla was panting and those were Teyla's smooth brown knees just visible above the fold of the sheet and there was going to be pushing going on any minute now, he just knew it. "Teyla, on second thought, are you sure you really—"
"Yeah, I mean, we're not really qualified to—" Rodney agreed in a thin, panicky voice, and John could see his hands shaking from where he stood.
"John," Teyla said, in a voice like diamond. "Rodney."
"Yeah?" said John, as Rodney shut his mouth with a click of teeth, his eyes almost comically wide. Ronon made a noise that, if it had been anyone else in the galaxy, John would have described as a whimper.
"Be quiet now."
"Right," John said, "right," and glanced at Rodney, who had his eyes screwed tightly shut. Ronon was staring in fascinated horror until Teyla squeezed their hands, and then they were distracted by the pain of their fingers being crushed beyond any future usefulness. Keller started babbling encouraging nonsense and flipped back the sheet – John's eyes snapped shut in automatic self-defence, following Rodney's example (smart man, brilliant man). Rodney himself was muttering "oh my god, oh my god," on an endless loop.
Teyla leaned forward, and let out an almighty scream, and the chanting started up again.
Between Teyla's fingers, something went pop in John's wrist, and he winced, thinking, desperately, about being somewhere else, anywhere else, like under enemy fire or flying a Jumper through an asteroid belt.
Somewhere, he thought, with less stress.
"You're kidding," Sheppard growled, and Sam sighed. Her headache was coming back. John stared down at the tablet in his hands for another thirty seconds, scanning the message top to bottom, before scowling.
"I wish I was," she said, massaging her temples. "I read it three times. There's also a video message from General Landry you should watch when you get the chance. He…" she paused, anticipating the deepened scowl on Sheppard's face as she said it, "…apologised."
Ah. There it was.
To Sheppard's credit, he was keeping his temper in check better than she'd expected. Then again, that might have been more to do with her having chosen to have this conversation right outside of where Ronon and Rodney were hovering over Teyla as Keller gave the baby a check-up than any restraint on John's part. As it was, she could see his knuckles whitening around the edges of the plastic casing, and reached out to tug her tablet free before he could do any permanent damage.
"Apologised," Sheppard repeated, looking at Sam's tablet as if it was somehow to blame. His hands were clenching and unclenching at his sides – Sam doubted he was even aware he was doing that. "Apologised – how are we going to explain this to – we're housing almost three hundred refugees! What are we…" He shut his mouth, casting a wary glance back over his shoulder, but the group around Teyla's bed seemed undisturbed. "Look, I'm sorry. I know you and Landry are friends."
Sam sighed again. "I think he meant it," she offered. "This came from the IOA, not from Stargate Command."
"Of course it did," he muttered. "After everything we told them… after everything I…" John looked back at her, rubbing the back of his neck, eyes downcast. Sam had come to realise that he did this when he was uncomfortable, which he doubtless was, but his other hand was still tightly fisted at his side.
"Look, you're preaching to the choir, here," Sam reminded him. She'd been in the same position, not that long ago. But it had been hard enough to convince the Air Force to learn from the lessons of another reality once, and it was proving impossible to convince the IOA a second time. They preferred to imagine John's experiences as only a possible future, never mind all Sam's arguments, as well as Bill Lee's, about the difference between possibility and probability. She could have done the math. She had done the math.
She shut her eyes for a moment, suddenly imagining Rodney's tirade when he found out. He'd probably have charts. And she wouldn't even be able to shut him down, because she'd agree with him. Just because Michael wasn't interested in Earth – yet – didn't mean he wasn't a threat, but the IOA wouldn't see it that way. It took going through the stargate every day for years for anyone to see it that way, to understand how easily you could become tied to places and people you never imagined you would care about, let alone be willing to die for.
He glanced at her for a moment, his shoulders drooping, Sam imagined, with the weight of a whole galaxy. "Right," he agreed. "I forgot." He dropped his hand. "Doesn't really make me feel any better."
"Me either," Sam admitted. "Look… I've forwarded everything to you. Don't worry about this right now – tomorrow's early enough. You're all on stand-down for the next week anyway, and you look like you're about to fall over. Get some rest and we'll…"
She shrugged, feeling helpless, as he stared at her in frank bafflement. "I'm not saying it's going to be any easier tomorrow," she added. "But it'll be… y'know. Tomorrow."
John nodded, and then looked over his shoulder again. Teyla was watching fondly as Keller made ridiculous faces down at the baby in her arms. "We can't just stop," he said softly, so softly that Sam wasn't sure she was meant to hear until he turned and fixed her in his gaze. She actually jumped. She was running on about two hours sleep in the last forty, and she'd been starting at loud noises since the last databurst had come in.
"We have to fix this," he said then, and it was just as quiet, but had a note of… she wasn't sure what. Something, somewhere between stubbornness and entreaty, but she was too tired to work it out, just now, even if she wanted to. She reached out a hand and gingerly patted him on the arm.
"Get some sleep, John," she said, and went to seek her own bed.
John had tried to sleep, he really had, but a few minutes of lying flat on his bed and he was restless again. So he grabbed a shower and a change of clothes and made his way back to the infirmary. He had to tell them Sam's news sooner or later, and better to do it now while they were still winding down and had the presence of a newborn to mellow the impact a little.
Despite this reassurance - repeated to himself as he stepped out of the transporter nearest the infirmary - he felt the knot of frustration tightening in his gut again as he stepped into the empty infirmary, empty but for the soft voices coming from the private room on the far side, where Teyla was.
Halling and a couple of the engineers had produced a cradle that seemed to have been cobbled together from parts of broken mess hall tables and cured leather thongs. John almost collided with the group as he reached the door, and hung back while Rodney loudly insisted on looking it over from top to bottom before letting the baby anywhere near it. His fussing was kind of endearing. Teyla obviously thought so, sitting surrounded by blankets and colourful cushions probably brought in by the other Athosian women and smiling down at him while he tested the cradle for stability with an expert eye. John slouched against the doorframe, watching as Teyla laid her son carefully inside.
She was wearing a smile John had never seen on her before, one verging on soft, not like Teyla's usual smooth gleam of a grin, brief and then gone. This smile was a glow on her whole face, gentle and safe, as she leaned back into the pillows. Rodney was more entertaining to watch, crouching on the floor, bent over the cradle, looking fascinated and uncertain, glancing up at Teyla every few seconds.
When he stood up, he winced, wrapping an arm around his right side, getting to his feet with care. Teyla saw the grimace and said something that Rodney waved off, blushing. It's not that bad, John read from across the room. He couldn't hear what they were saying, not all of it, but in four years he'd become proficient at reading his team. It should have been worrisome that Rodney hadn't complained about his injuries in almost five hours - and broken ribs hurt, John knew, Ancient bone-healing or no. But instead it struck him that Rodney was trying not to complain, was trying not to be a burden, which was… totally not like him.
John found it interesting; like Rodney was trying to live up to Teyla's example, unfailingly strong. Or maybe he just felt bad complaining about splinters and busted ribs to a woman who'd just been kidnapped and experimented on by a genocidal lunatic. John supposed that it had put a lot of things in their proper perspective. And oddly enough, the sight was enough to loosen the knot in his middle a little, for a moment making him feel as close to relaxed as he'd been in months.
"You going in?" Ronon loomed up next to him, one hand deep in the pocket of the new BDUs. The other arm was still in its bright blue sling, and John had to assume that was due to Keller's influence; even a dislocated shoulder usually wouldn't keep Ronon from sparring, let alone wearing the sling for more than a day. But then again, none of them had been far from Teyla's side in the past couple of days, so it was possible that Ronon really hadn't gone anywhere but the mess hall and back.
"Didn't want to interrupt," John muttered, as in the room beyond them, Teyla lifted the baby from the cradle again, and then tilted her head in Rodney's direction. John saw the flicker of trepidation in Rodney's face as she placed the baby in his arms, but like everything else Rodney knew what he was doing, dropped his shoulder to support the baby's head, holding him the right way without seeming to think about it.
"You wouldn't be interrupting," Ronon said, at the same low volume, and John glanced up to see Ronon watching not the tableau inside the room, but John's profile. John flushed as Ronon turned casually back to look at Teyla, Rodney and the baby. "Huh, look at that," he said, sounding amused. Amused, John noticed, but not actually surprised.
Then he said: "C'mon," with a slap to the back that sent John staggering a few steps into the room and into view. John stopped, looking up as if he'd been eavesdropping, but Teyla just smiled at him, her small, megawatt smile that filled the room and drew them all in. Rodney didn't look up from the baby, who was, thank god, sleeping peacefully. The whole crying baby thing was still filling John with unspecified dread. The sight of Rodney, amazed and smiling and briefly happy, on the other hand, made John pause and swallow with the wave of weird tenderness it inspired. It was, he thought, a really good thing that nobody was looking at him.
"He will not hurt you," Teyla said, voice amused, and John started. Okay, maybe not no one. But Teyla was reaching for his hand, drawing him closer to the bed. "Would you like to hold him?"
"Uh," said John, trying to make a discrete retreat and more or less failing, what with Teyla's small strong hand wrapped around his wrist. "I'm not really…"
But Rodney looked up with a petulant look, turning his body a little away from them as if to shield the baby from John's view. "Hey, I just got him. It's still my turn."
Ronon's laugh was a bright, booming thing, and he crossed the space in a couple of steps to drop a heavy hand onto Rodney's shoulder, shaking him a little. The baby, sensing his moment, made a sleepy noise and threw up on Rodney's shirt.
The ensuing chaos as Rodney leapt to his feet, trying to hold the baby as far away from his body as possible while still refusing to relinquish custody, and yelling for a towel, made John laugh so hard that he ended up clutching the bar on the side of Teyla's bed just to stay upright. Which to everyone's surprise, tipped Teyla into almost-convulsive laughter that set everyone else off, so loud and long that Keller came to scold them all for disrupting her infirmary.
Later, after Ronon had neatly captured the baby, they all settled in chairs around Teyla's bed, Rodney still muttering sourly to himself while he mopped spit-up from his t-shirt, and John dabbing tears from his eyes and trying to catch his breath. Teyla had, of course, managed to regain her usual serenity, though she still wore a twitchy little smile that kept threatening to totally destroy John's calm.
"So," John asked, eventually, "have a name yet?"
Teyla tore her eyes away from where her son was trying to weave his tiny hand into Ronon's hair, and gave John an oddly grave smile. "Athosian children are not given names at birth," she told him.
"No?" John had a feeling he was going to regret asking, but he asked anyway. "Uh, why not?"
Rodney had gone still, and Teyla reached out to tug the towel from his hands, wetting it from the jug of water next to the bed and handing it back. "Infancy is a dangerous time," she explained, as Rodney scrubbed at his shirt. "Not only because of the Wraith, but before we encountered your people, there were illnesses that took many, and sometimes both mother and child would be lost in the birthing. We are…" she looked thoughtful, and a little distant. "…fortunate to have found you."
She turned to John then, the distant look dissolving in a warm, genuine smile, small like Teyla's smiles always were, but unmistakably affectionate. It made John want to cover his face with his hands, because he'd just remembered, in a rush, what he'd come down here to tell them all.
Teyla, as always, saw right through him. "John?" she asked, suddenly serious, and a little worried. "What's wrong?"
John raised his head to look at his team, at Teyla, who was watching him with calm gravity, at Ronon, who was holding the baby secure in his good arm, and at Rodney, who looked up with wide, worried eyes, dread written in every line of his face.
John sighed, slumping back into his chair. "Carter got new orders from Earth last night," he told them, finding himself fixed, as always these days, on Rodney.
"Orders?" Ronon asked, sounding disgruntled already. "Here, McKay." He waited for Rodney to blink, and turn to him in surprise, and then he transferred the baby carefully over for Rodney to place back in the bassinet, hardly taking his eyes off of John as Ronon continued: "What orders?"
John rubbed his face with both hands, and then looked at them again. "The IOA had a special session right after we got back," he told them, trying to think of some good way of presenting it, and failing utterly. "They want…" and even as he thought about it he felt the bile of anger rising up in him again, "…they want us to…" He really couldn't say it. He actually couldn't. It was just too…
"Oh, just spit it out," Rodney said impatiently, and that made John smile, for at least a second.
John sighed. "They're talking about scaling back the expedition," he said.
Both Ronon and Teyla were silent. Rodney blinked at him. "What… what does that mean?"
"The International Oversight Advisory," John said, stiffly, recalling Landry's words from the message, "has decided that it's not our purpose here to rescue an entire galaxy."
"And what the hell does that mean?" Rodney demanded, now sounding dangerously pissed-off.
"It means they want you to stop fighting." Ronon looked deceptively relaxed, but John had been reading his team long enough to know that the big man was fighting back enormous frustration. John could sympathise.
Teyla sat up a little straighter in the bed. "Is this true?" she asked. "I was under the impression that your leaders were in support of our fight against the Wraith."
"Yeah," John said, suddenly feeling, rightly, like he hadn't slept at all. "Yeah, so was I."
The briefing had to be held off until everyone was back in the city. There had been two other teams off-world when Team Sheppard (And Company) had returned (semi-) triumphant. Team Three had been trading for the potato-like-things on M9X-629, and Elston, newly in charge of Geology, on a mission to Maru'ess with a few assistants and couple of Marines. There was some material in the cliffs surrounding the river valley that shielded the village from the Wraith, and the geologists had been swearing for seven months that it had to be useful for something. No luck so far, but they visited Maru'ess twice a month – the Maru were beginning to think they were a little nuts. Then again, Rodney had always thought geologists were a little unhinged.
After almost eighteen hours, though, it was becoming urgent, which meant that it was nearly three o'clock in the morning by the time Sam summoned them to the conference room. Everyone important was there except Teyla, but they'd promised to give her a full report once they were through, good news or bad.
Judging by Sam's face, Rodney was betting on bad.
John didn't look too happy either, but then, he hadn't looked anywhere close to happy for more than a couple of seconds since he'd come staggering back through the gate, staring around at them all like they were all ghosts. That might have been pretty close to the truth, Rodney thought, though John hadn't told them much about what he'd experienced – just that he'd seen a future where they'd lost. That was all, though doubtless Sam had more details she wasn't sharing.
Obviously the same was true for the IOA, because they'd evidently taken in all John had told them and come up with precisely the wrong answer, as usual.
None of them had slept much over the past few days, but Sam was showing it more. As they entered the conference room, she was leaning her head in one hand, propped up on the table, her other hand limp, palm-up on the tabletop next to her tablet. She raised her head slowly as they took their seats, John, Rodney and Ronon on one side of her, Zelenka, Simpson, Cadman (sitting in for Lorne) and Keller on the other, with the other seats filled by the rest of Lorne's team and various department heads, most of whose names Rodney had never bothered to learn or was currently too distracted to remember.
Everyone looked anxious and exhausted, and by contrast, Rodney felt energized and alert, well into his second (possibly his third) wind. He'd probably crash any minute now, but at the moment he was plenty awake enough that his mind was spinning out possibility after possibility, each one worse than the last. The IOA was withdrawing the expedition. They were being sent a new detachment of Marines who would dog their every step. The refugees were being evacuated. No more off-world missions.
"Good – uh, morning," Sam greeted them, reaching gratefully for the cup of coffee that Chuck placed discreetly at her elbow. "I'm sorry to call you all here so late, or early, depending on how you look at it, but I thought it was better to get this out of the way at once."
She downed half the cup in her hand, and Rodney stared at it enviously, looking around – but no cup of coffee materialised at his side.
Sam handed over the floor to John, then, and with a glance at Rodney and Ronon, John stood and gave an abbreviated version of things; a very abbreviated version of his hop forward in time, and then an overview of the failed rescue mission for those of them who hadn't been present. He spoke in an oddly flat voice, the one Rodney had come to associate with missions that had ended with abduction or death or general disaster. It was the voice he used when something had hit him hard and he was trying to keep it to himself, the voice he used with unloved authority figures at briefings back on Earth. He'd used it during the interminable meetings before his promotion, while the rest of them had been occupied in repeating the same stories over and over again for people who weren't listening and John had stood as much chance of being court-martialled as sent home to the city with the rest of them.
Afterwards, Sam thanked him and got to her feet.
"I know some of you have already been filled in on the general outlines of the new orders we received yesterday," Sam said. Rodney noticed she had her eyes fixed on the screen of her tablet, as though she didn't want to look at them. Knowing something of what she was about to say, he couldn't really blame her – all his antagonism was aimed at a body of idiots too many thousands of light-years away to be reached, which really only made it more frustrating.
"The IOA has been fully briefed on what Colonel Sheppard experienced during his…"
She paused, probably trying to choose some term to describe John's whirlwind tour of a future where they'd screwed up so badly that every one of them in this room had probably died.
She settled on: "…his visit to the future," and frowned at her hands, as though she knew how stupid it sounded. Really, no matter how many times it happened – and Rodney knew it had happened to her more than once – time travel never stopped seeming ridiculous. And frankly, Rodney doubted they'd been as fully briefed as they might imagine. John was nothing if not careful with his words when it came to the almighty bureaucracy, and he was even more careful when it was personal.
The trouble came, Rodney thought bitterly, from the fact that they couldn't know everything. They just couldn't. John hadn't told him much, hadn't told the team much of anything, and when Rodney had asked, John had just given him a shuttered look, inspiring a shiver deep in Rodney's bones. "We really lost, Rodney," he'd said, softly, to Rodney alone, as they were suiting up for their ill-fated rescue mission. "Michael killed her, and it all fell apart."
There hadn't been much opportunity for discussion since then, what with Teyla having the baby and the rest of them pacing in and out of the infirmary and generally acting like crazy people, but Rodney had a feeling that John wouldn't have told him much, anyway. There were rules about time travel – and Christ, that was a phrase he'd never expected to have thrown in his face – rules about what you could tell people in the past, rules that were about keeping from changing things that shouldn't be changed.
Which was, in Rodney's not-so-humble opinion, total crap, because if he was any judge of such things – and admittedly, he wasn't much of one, but in John's case he thought he at least had some idea – the future John had seen hadn't been one worth preserving. Not even some of it.
Not knowing was starting to drive Rodney a little crazy, he realised, when he finally noticed his right knee bouncing up and down without any direction from his brain.
It just figured, thought Rodney resentfully, that the IOA would choose now, while they were all worn out and trying like hell to find a semblance of normalcy again to start picking their lives apart. The strength of the resentment surprised him a little, and he hooked his foot around the leg of his chair to keep it still.
After the meeting, he thought vaguely, maybe some sleep. And then, thus fortified, wring out of John whatever he could, integrity of the timeline be damned. He just knew he couldn't take much more of that look on John's face.
Nobody else would have to know. Rodney could keep a secret. He'd been doing it most of his life. What was one more?
The new plan – Rodney hadn't been aware there was an old plan – went something like this:
The Atlantis military contingent would, from this point forward, avoid any unnecessary engagements with the Wraith, or the hybrid known as Michael. Atlantis would, furthermore, withdraw support from information sources that had previously been used to either encourage resistance against Michael's forces or keep track of his movements. This meant invalidating all IDCs not registered to legitimate trading partners.
Further humanitarian efforts in fighting the effects of the Hoffan drug would be scaled back – Sam had to pause here, because Keller actually leapt to her feet and started yelling. Rodney was frankly impressed, and he couldn't stop himself from beaming proudly across the table at her for a moment. He'd never seen Jennifer get that mad, that fast, but he supposed she'd gotten the same outline of the orders as the rest of them, and she'd probably been stewing over it for hours.
The refugees currently being housed on the Atlantis Base (the wording read directly from the message, Sam's voice stiff and emotionless) would be allowed to remain, "for the time being," but with an eye to the possibility that they would have to be evacuated to a different planet, off-world teams were to begin keeping a more detailed lookout for hospitable planets to be used as evacuation sites.
Next to him, Rodney saw John stiffen and tighten his hands on the edge of the table, knuckles whitening – this apparently hadn't been in the outline John had read, and he certainly hadn't told the team about it.
And finally – and this was the part that finally got Rodney's blood actively boiling – off-world missions for the purpose of research and exploration were on an indefinite hold, until further review could be completed.
The entire room exploded in shouting at that, Zelenka and Simpson leaping to their feet, and Rodney was halfway to joining them when a wave of dizziness overtook him. He was barely aware of John's hand on his elbow a second later, guiding him back into his seat, and then the whole world shrank to Rodney and John's concerned face, pushing a powerbar into one hand while Ronon slid a bottle of water to him from the other side.
"Jesus, Rodney," John was hissing, as people kept trying to shout over each other. "When was the last time you –"
Rodney waved him irritably away. "It's actually – it's not that," he protested, nevertheless tearing the wrapper off the powerbar and taking a huge bite. He actually had eaten, not even that long ago – and huh, this was the first time he'd actually come close to collapsing from exhaustion in… well, a little while, anyway.
"It's not," he repeated, as John retook his seat, looking between Rodney and the rest of the room, the tirade currently being led by Radek, who was waving his hands in the air and interspersing every English word with one in Czech and a few that sounded like Russian. If Rodney hadn't been so damned tired, this would have been high entertainment.
"Are you sure?" John pressed, in his annoyingly persistent way, and Rodney really, really wished his third wind had lasted longer, because the last thing he needed right now was to be distracted from tearing holes up and down the latest stupidity of their bureaucratic overlords by reassuring John that he was perfectly healthy. Well, except for the way his ribs were still giving him horrible agonising pain, and maybe leaping to his feet had not been the smartest thing he'd ever done.
Rodney rubbed his face, shoving the crumpled wrapper away into his pocket. "Yes, I'm sure," he said again, turning to look at John directly, and John looked intently at him for a second longer, and then ducked his head, away from Rodney, away from the room, like he just didn't want to look at any of it, anymore. Sam had a similar look on her face, still on her feet, leaning with both hands flat on the table. God, even looking at her made him feel twice as tired as he already did.
"Look!" he finally shouted, when the back and forth had driven him past all human endurance, "just shut up! Yelling about it amongst ourselves isn't going to do any good!" And had he just said that? He had to be close to comatose, because he generally didn't do peacemaking. Even Ronon, tense and angry-looking, seemed astonished. But Rodney was just too weary and too frustrated and too damn tired to stand this farce another second. "Do we have to institute every facet of this moronic plan right this second?"
This last was addressed to Sam, whose eyes snapped to Rodney with almost embarrassing gratitude, and just as much surprise. "No," she said, after a second. "We've been told to expect a more detailed overview of our new 'mission objectives' –" and she was definitely tired, because she paused to mime quotation marks in the air with the faintest hint of a sneer, and Sam Carter was usually more even-tempered than that, almost painfully so, "–with our next scheduled databurst. There's no rush. At least not for tonight."
"Then can I make a suggestion?" Rodney said, not asking at all, because he was getting the hell out of here in thirty seconds, one way or the other. But she just waved a hand for him to go on.
"Let's all go read our very important data packets from the last databurst, sleep off the resulting nausea, and then come back to this when we've all had some fucking sleep."
Rodney didn't need to look to know that Simpson and Zelenka were staring at him, probably as much for his brutally even tone as for the profanity – he swore at them all the time in the labs, but usually he kept things civil during upper-level meetings. At least, he had when Elizabeth had been around.
But things were different now, and the IOA was plotting some kind of red-tape coup, and he was falling asleep where he sat, and if he didn't get out of here soon he was going to really lose his temper, and he absolutely did not need John accusing him of being cranky because he'd missed his nap. He was pretty sure that really ineffective physical violence was only a few minutes away, and with this many military personnel in the room that could only end in embarrassment.
The meeting broke up mercifully quickly after that, though, with Sam advising them all to prepare statements for their own departments, and Rodney let his head sink down onto his arms as the room emptied. Presently someone was shaking his shoulder, very carefully, as if trying not to jar his ribs. Wow, now that the very brief rush of anger-borne adrenaline was ebbing, his ribs really fucking hurt.
"You gonna sleep in here?"
"Too far," Rodney said, but muffled by his arms it came out something more like "mmmphna," and above him, John chuckled and stuck a hand under his arm, pulling him up.
"Come on," he said, pulling Rodney to his feet. "Can't have you walking into walls." And before Rodney could protest that he'd never done that, except for that one time and there had been evil space weed and he was totally not responsible, John had already steered him out of the conference room and down the hall. Rodney looked over at him, fatigue now making serious inroads and fuzzing his whole brain. John seemed strangely more relaxed than he had during the meeting.
"Why're you smiling?" asked Rodney, knowing he sounded grouchy and too tired to care.
John shrugged, not looking at him as the transporter doors sensed their approach and opened ahead of them.
"No, seriously. You were all ready to, like, yell and hit things and…" he circled a hand vaguely in the air, a gesture uninterrupted by the flash of them disappearing and reappearing in the corridor that housed living quarters. "…you know. You know what I mean." He dropped his hand to the side and sighed. "I'm really tired."
"One of these days you're going to learn that human beings need sleep. Even really really smart ones," John told him, shooting him a sideways glance, and then shrugged again. "I don't know," he told Rodney. "I was, I've been getting angrier and angrier all day, and there we were, getting our brand-new lives handed to us, and then you…" he chuckled, steering Rodney out into the corridor, and Rodney didn't resist. It was taking all his attention to focus on what John was saying, and that left little for navigation.
"You got mad enough for both of us, I guess."
"Oh." Rodney felt absurdly pleased, sort of warmed by the words, though that might just have been the exhaustion. "Okay. You're welcome, I guess?"
"Don't worry about it," John said, and then Rodney realised that they'd stopped. He was about to ask why, but then he realised they were outside of his quarters. John reached out and palmed the door sensor, guiding Rodney inside. "I never do, anymore. I just figure… you were right, Carter was right, there's nothing we can do about it tonight."
Rodney had stalled, blinking hard to keep his eyes open, and John gave him a little shove towards the bed until he sat heavily down on the edge of the mattress. "Sleep, Rodney."
"Mmm, sleep," Rodney agreed, turning to look at his bed, his wonderful, beautiful bed, with its three filched blankets and its two extra pillows and bed. John was still standing over him, hand warm and heavy on his shoulder, and Rodney's sleep-fogged mind suggested, tentatively, that this wasn't the way this usually went, that to the contrary, this was usually the kind of thing he forbade himself even thinking about in John's actual presence. Especially not the way John was staring intently at the place where his hand rested, like trying to suss out some deep truth from the way his fingers were pressed into the fabric of Rodney's jacket, or the way his thumb was slowly stroking, apparently unconsciously, over the collar.
John started. "Uh," he said, ducking his head, and then the warm hand was gone, and Rodney blinked as he stepped back, away from the bed.
"Get some sleep, Rodney," John said, voice low and strange, and then he was gone, the door hissing gently shut behind him.
Rodney sat there a few minutes longer, pondering the strangeness of the last few seconds, but he came to the conclusion that oh god, he was tired, and his bed was here, and there was always tomorrow for analysing uncomfortable truths. Certainly he was not qualified to make sense of John Sheppard with anything less than a fully-functioning intellect and a bracing dose of caffeine.
As it turned out, John was completely full of crap. Nothing was better in the morning – in fact, it was a whole lot worse.
Well, to be fair – he hurt less. Not a lot less, but a sensible amount of sleep and a couple of the painkillers Keller had handed him on his way out the day before dulled everything to a tolerable distance. He dressed slowly, because it still hurt to do much bending, but it was no longer a gasping, greying-out pain every time he moved too fast. It still hurt to raise his arms, though, which meant that he was still trying to figure out how to get his shirt and jacket on without injuring himself when John showed up.
He did ring the chime, but as they were accustomed to doing with each other, he waited only a token number of seconds before striding in uninvited. He found Rodney standing in the middle of the room with one arm in the wrong sleeve of his t-shirt and trying to extricate himself.
He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms as he regarded Rodney with ill-disguised amusement. "Is this a new dance?" he asked.
Rodney scowled fiercely at him. "Yes, sure, mock the injured man," he snapped, shaking the shirt loose. It landed on the floor in a wrinkled heap and Rodney sighed. Now he'd have to bend over and retrieve it, and while under the power of the painkillers it was no longer breath-stealingly painful to bend over, it still wasn't something he was looking forward to.
Apparently he'd stood staring at it for too long, though, because John chuckled and pushed away from the wall. He took the length of the room in a few long strides and picked up the shirt.
"Here," he said with a smile, holding the shirt up with his hands through the armholes. Rodney gave him a cynical look.
"Are you my valet, now?"
John raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm hungry, McKay."
"Because I could do with a valet," Rodney told him, sticking his hands through the holes and letting John pull it up his arms. There was a slightly hilarious moment where John had to pull it over his head and Rodney's ears got stuck, but eventually his head popped free, and he glared at John just out of habit as John pulled the shirt down and straightened it. John smirked, but had a speculative look on his face as well, and reached out to smooth back Rodney's hair without seeming to think about it.
Rodney bore it with some surprise, but no objection, until John stepped back, fishing his jacket out of the pile of discarded clothing on the other side of the bed. He came back, shaking it out, and helped Rodney pull it on, Rodney too bemused to say anything particularly intelligent. He was pretty sure he was blushing, and he didn't feel any need to draw attention to the fact when John was smirking like that.
"I think you'll just have to make do with me, Rodney," he said, patting Rodney on the shoulder. It was nothing like the night before, no moment of stillness, and he was too awake to read it as anything but friendliness. He wasn't sure why he was so disappointed; he'd probably imagined it in the first place.
Rodney pulled his arm out of John's grip, grumbling as he pulled up his zipper. "Any new disasters during the night?" he asked, going for a light tone
"None that I know of," John said, shrugging as they stepped out into the corridor. "Though given how many we've been having lately, I wouldn't be surprised if Lorne had just stopped calling me when it happened."
This was true enough - Rodney had to concede the point. He was still somewhat surprised he'd managed to get eight whole hours of street without a single alarm going off. And right now he was feeling almost awake, mostly alert, and properly hungry for the first time in days. John was acting normal, or at least as close to normal as he ever got.
"Cheer up, Rodney," John said, patting him carefully on the shoulder. "You do this long enough, you learn to take the good times as they come."
…It was enough to make Rodney incredibly paranoid. "It's been more than a day since anybody's tried to kill us," he pointed out. "Doesn't that worry you at all?"
"Now you're just being a pessimist," John groused, and perversely, that was just what it took to make Rodney laugh, hard enough that he wince, clutching at his ribs.
"Ow," he complained, "ow, ow. Don't make me laugh. It hurts when I laugh."
John just grinned. Rodney found himself grinning back.
But then they passed into the mess, and Rodney's very brief good mood went up in smoke. There was an angry buzz in the room, like everyone within earshot was vibrating with rage.
It actually seemed to thicken the air. Rodney imagined it impeding his process; pushing him back as he and John joined the end of the food line. "Uh," he said, leaning over and lowering his voice, "so about those disasters?"
John was looking out over the mess hall - several people, Rodney now realised, were staring at them, some expectantly, some angrily. "Yeah," John said quietly, "the new orders came through."
"That tone does not fill me with glee," Rodney told him. He'd slept hard last night, hadn't had a chance to check his messages yet this morning. "So what's the bad news?"
John looked at him appraisingly, and Rodney took a half-step back; John and scrutiny - hell, John and an attention span - were only passing acquaintances, but when they met up it was always kind of intimidating. But John only shook his head and nudged Rodney forward towards the stack of trays. "Breakfast first," he said, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully before picking up a tray of his own. The next words were said with a combination of grimness and bleak resignation. "Coffee first."
And that tone was the one keyed into Rodney's survival instincts, so he did as he was told and heaped his tray with food, secured three cups of coffee, and followed John to a table. They ate in silence for a while, Rodney aware that he was eating with the same pace and focus he did when there were Wraith ships on the way. And didn't that bode well.
John's right, he thought. You're becoming a pessimist. He'd long ago adapted a certain pragmatic enlightened self-interest as his byword, but there was a difference between that and automatically assuming that only the worst could happen, no matter how many times the Pegasus galaxy had begged to differ.
He hummed to himself as he pushed away his empty tray and reached for his first cup of coffee. No point getting all negative before he had to. He was pleased with himself; this was exactly the kind of positive attitude Teyla had been trying to get him to adopt for years.
And then of course, as it so liked to do, the Universe had to go and prove him wrong. John slid the printout of their new orders across the table for him to read. The packet was headed with the words: "Practical Policy Plan" in a font that seemed unusually condescending.
Rodney took in John's tight-lined look, and with a dawning feeling of apprehension, turned to the first page. Speed-reading was only one of his many talents, and so it took him only five minutes or so to get to the pertinent part, as John chased a piece of sausage around his plate with the flat of his knife.
"They want us to what?" he demanded of no-one in particular, slamming the folder shut. "All of it?" His voice was more than a little shrill, but he was suddenly too angry to give a damn about that, or the fact that several people in the mess hall had turned to stare.
John nodded grimly. "All of it."
Rodney's mouth opened and closed a few times before managing to force out any sound. "Do those idiots realise how much paperwork we already have to waste our time on?"
"Probably," John agreed.
"And they want us to double it?"
"And that's just the first phase," John said, with blaringly sarcastic cheer. He speared the last bit of sausage with his fork and ate it, chewing viciously. Rodney stared at him. He'd probably already read the thing cover to cover.
The "policy change," as detailed in the printout, was multi-layered and complicated to the point of ridiculousness - just the sort of thing he'd have expected from a group of professional bureaucrats. But the first and most moronic stage was a "Review Period," during which every member of the "Atlantis Expedition Under The Auspices Of The International Oversight Advisory" was to conduct a thorough review of every project, every mission, every mistake, every accident, practically every breath. Apparently the idea behind this was to give the IOA a better idea of how better to "re-evaluate" the operation of the mission.
It was, to put it simply, an enormous waste of everyone's very valuable time, especially Rodney's.
He did a quick mental tally of just how much of it, and had to restrain himself from picking up the report to tear it into tiny pieces. In fact he picked it up and prepared to do just that, but John's hand landed on the back of his, prising his fingers loose from the folder and taking it away. Rodney went obligingly still, momentarily distracted by the sudden thought that except for that weird hair-smoothing thing, this was the first time today John had touched him. Even when he'd helped Rodney on with his jacket he'd been very careful not to even brush up against Rodney's arms. It had put him a little on edge, because he was so accustomed to John touching him that he'd stopped really noticing it. Not a lot of other people, aside from Ronon and Teyla, ever touched him, unless it was Jennifer and he was bleeding.
None of that stopped Rodney from scowling at him. John gave him a tired smile and slid the folder out of reach. "Paper's a luxury item now, remember?" he said. He tapped the top page with a finger, apparently not having noticed Rodney's brief distraction. "Page seventy-one."
Rodney snorted. "Oh, Linguistics is going to love that," he said nastily. "They'll stage a revolt."
"Who's staging a revolt?" asked Ronon, sliding into his seat next to Rodney, tray piled high. He began eating without waiting for an answer.
"The linguists, apparently," John said dryly. "Though they probably won't be the only ones, once the late risers get done reading their copies."
Rodney took another look around the mess hall. It was still early - only the night-shift stragglers and the first morning shift people were already up and about. He turned to Ronon. "Have you read this thing?"
Ronon looked up, and then frowned a little when he spotted the folder lying next to John's tray. "Yeah. Some of it. Doesn't bother me."
"You do realise this applies to you, too, right?" Rodney reminded him tartly, because he was a generous man: he absolutely refused to be this angry if everyone else weren't angry too.
But Ronon just shrugged. "Let 'em make me. I'll just say I didn't see it."
John frowned, tilting his head. "But you just said you…"
"Said I didn't read all of it," Ronon said, blandly. "There was an unfortunate accident with the heating unit in my room."
"You set it on fire?" Rodney asked with admiration, and Ronon just leered, before going back to his pancakes.
But John stopped his lunge over the table, still holding the folder out of reach. "Don't even think about it, Rodney," he said, easily holding him back with a hand in the centre of Rodney's chest. He pushed him back until Rodney fell sulkily back into his seat.
"Why does he get to set it on fire and I don't?" he demanded, crossing his arms mulishly and remembering only belatedly why he wasn't doing that right now; he unfolded his arms and breathed around the stab of pain. John gave him a brief concerned look, but shook his head.
"Because he thought of it first, that's why."
Rodney was sure he didn't imagine it: John looked more than a little resentful about that. Probably wishing he'd thought of it first, too.
Lorne was drugged out of the waking world for a solid three days, and when he woke up he was still pretty groggy. But that didn't stop just about every member of the military contingent from dropping by to give him their best wishes, apparently. By the time John found the time to visit, on the morning of the sixth day, Lorne's little curtained-off area was full of flowers, home-made cards, and enough illicit snack food to supply the city for a week. John tried not to take it personally that apparently, his men liked Lorne better than him – nobody but Rodney ever brought him candy when he was hurt – but they respected John. That was more important. Or so he kept telling himself.
"Hey, sir," Lorne greeted him, raising one hand a little woozily from the blanket. John was used to talking to people through the slight softening effect of industrial painkillers (John knew from experience that leg fractures hurt like a bitch), so the faint slurring to his XO's voice hardly even registered. Lorne looked genuinely pleased to see him, if a little bit drunk.
"Afternoon, Major," John greeted, casting an envious glance in the direction of a packet of miniature Milky Way bars perched on a side table. "I see you've had some company."
"In and out all day yesterday, sir," Lorne confirmed, and motioned John to a seat. "Wish I could remember all of it. I keep losing minutes at a time – falling asleep."
"Your head okay?" John asked, hovering beside the empty chair.
Lorne lifted his hand again, tilted it left, right, left. "So-so, so far as I can tell, but the doc says I'll be fine. Just kinda sleepy." He yawned, and then shook his head. "Sorry, sir," he said, looking embarrassed, though for the life of him John couldn't imagine why. It wasn't as if he expected much formality out of his command. In fact John couldn't remember a single time Lorne had ever saluted him. Not that he cared, much.
"Well, glad to hear it," John said, looking around to make sure the area was deserted, and then sitting carefully down on the edge of the chair. "Look, Major, I've got some bad news."
Lorne looked serious all of a sudden, and he tried to sit up, but John waved him back. "It's… Francis didn't make it out, did he?" He stared at John, brow furrowed expectantly, until John slowly nodded. Lorne shut his eyes. "Shit. I knew something happened, but nobody would tell me anything."
"Well, Keller says you've been pretty out of it – I figured you'd want to be lucid."
"Sure, sir," Lorne said, his eyes still shut. Under his breath he repeated: "shit."
John let it sink in for a minute or so, then asked, quietly: "You ever lost anybody under your command before?"
Lorne opened his eyes again, but they were fixed on his hands, on the blanket covering his legs, on the cast around his right leg – a simple femur fracture that had had Keller worried about clots for about ten hours. Like Rodney's ribs, the bone was mostly healed thanks to the miracles of Ancient medical gadgetry, but there was a lot of PT in Lorne's future. Hell of an improvement on times when the same injury meant six months to a year of recovery. "No, sir. Not… not directly."
John nodded. He knew there'd been plenty of times when the command of the whole city had meant losing people, and Lorne had been there, too, but there was a big difference between that, and losing somebody on your own team. "You know him well?"
Lorne blinked, and then looked up. His eyes were kind of intense beneath the blur of the painkillers, almost feverish. "I – so-so, sir. It was… not as well as the rest. He sorta kept to himself."
"Well, you'd know all about that," John said, not sure exactly what he meant by that, but Lorne seemed to understand. He nodded, swallowing. "If you want me to write the letter…"
"No," Lorne said quickly, shaking his head. "No. I was – he was on my team. It's… I'll do it."
John stared at him for a long moment, at the intensity of the Major's gaze, the flicker of anguish at the back of his eyes – he knew what that felt like, knew exactly, and he also knew that there was nothing else quite like it. It was a whole different world, having a team of your own, harder when it was your team.
"Okay, Major," John agreed, and looked around again at a sound outside the curtain. Someone pulled the curtain aside just enough to poke his head inside, and John was surprised to see it was Radek. Radek seemed equally surprised to see him, backing quickly away.
"I am sorry, Colonel – I will come back."
"Nah, Radek, it's okay. We're all done here. I was just…" He glanced back at Lorne, who exhaled, shakily, nodded.
"Yeah, it's fine, Radek. Come on in."
Radek hesitated, and now John saw he was holding one arm strangely, close to his side – more or less as though he was concealing something under his jacket. John stood up, edging out past him. "I was just on my way out," he said, patting Radek on the shoulder. The scientist gave him a queer look, penetrating and approving at once.
"Thank you," he said, and as John backed away, he saw Zelenka turn back towards the bed, pulling out a bottle from underneath his jacket; no label, just clear liquid, but John would have bet a year's pay it was about a hundred proof. Well, that settled those rumours of a still in the engineering labs. Radek Zelenka had a good mind for the needs of the community, that was for damned sure.
"I have come to commiserate," John heard him say, and he heard Lorne laugh in response, tired but grateful, as the curtain fell shut around them.
It was still a struggle for Teyla to wake without expecting the worst. It had been nearly a week since she'd found herself miraculously safe, home again in the city, and still every time she drifted up from sleep she expected to open her eyes on another place, to Michael's self-satisfied smirk, to the growing certainty that her days were growing short.
Even now she kept her eyes closed for several minutes, waiting until the rest of her body came to itself. It was the tiny whimper from the side of the bed that finally drew her all the way awake, automatically reaching down into the cradle. Her son's cries ceased abruptly, and she turned to look upon him, blinking sleepily up at her. Toren, she thought, though she would not speak it aloud for some time yet.
A knock on the door of her room drew her attention, and she turned her head to see Rodney standing there, looking sour and being jostled from behind by John and Ronon. The sight cheered her, made her smile as she pushed herself to a sitting position in her bed. "Good morning," she greeted them, and Rodney gave her a cursory nod before turning around and scolding the other two.
"Do you mind?" he snapped, "I'm going to drop this." He stepped carefully towards the bed, setting down the laden tray he was carrying on the tray table next to the bed. Teyla saw most of her favourites there, two of some of them. Rodney did not compromise when it came to food.
Nearer the door, Ronon moved John easily to one side and came around Rodney, leaning down to wrap her up in a hug. She hugged back, and he squeezed her hard before letting her fall back into the bed, grinning widely.
"How'd you sleep?" he asked, falling back into a chair and reaching for a pastry from her overloaded tray. Rodney, who had been making for the same chair, glared at him, but said nothing as he circled the bed to sit down on the other side, next to the cradle.
"Very well," she assured him, looking up. John still hovered at the foot of the bed, eyes not on her, but on the cradle and Rodney, who was dangling one hand inside, gently touching the baby's curled fist. A smile touched her lips for a moment, for so rarely did she have a chance to see John like this, with open affection writ large across his features. She wondered if she were the only one to ever see it, for usually he let it show only when he thought no one was looking.
"John," she said, softly, and he started almost guiltily, as if he'd feared being caught looking on Rodney so fondly. Rodney, for his part, didn't even look up as John ducked his head, a gesture that meant John was embarrassed, was feeling off-balance. He'd been this way since she'd told him she was pregnant, though it had taken some time before he'd been able to show it with anything other than anger. John hated uncertainty more than anything else.
But he recovered quickly, slouching into a chair beside Rodney, propping his boots up on the frame of her bed.
"I did not expect to see any of you until the afternoon, when I was discharged," she told him, reaching for a plate of spiced potatoes. She was truly grateful for the visit, and the food. The infirmary food was bland, preserved, not at all to her taste.
"Yeah, well," John darted a glance across the bed to Ronon, who popped the last bite of his pastry into his mouth and grunted. "Busy day, today." He raised an eyebrow at her as Rodney made an angry noise and crossed his arms. "I don't know if you've heard…"
She put down her fork and frowned. "I have heard," she confirmed. "I have been awake every few hours." She nodded towards the cradle, where her son was now quietly sleeping, strangely more inclined to peaceful slumber in the bright light of day in a room of people than during the night when everyone else would have preferred to be asleep. "I heard Doctor Keller saying – I do not believe she was pleased."
Indeed, the sudden shouting from Jennifer's office had been what roused her, that time, barely five o'clock and still dark outside. She hadn't been able to make out all the words from Jennifer's office, half-complaint and half disbelief, but many of them had been words Teyla had never heard her use before, profanities that sounded strange in her clear, usually gentle voice. She wasn't sure she'd ever heard Jennifer that angry, at least over anything that was not life or death. She'd still been simmering with frustration when she'd checked in on Teyla two hours ago, forcing a smile in a way that never looked as brittle on anyone else.
Rodney let out another sound, this one a choked laugh, and she turned to face an anger matching Jennifer's – affronted dignity, the frustration of details, and in a permutation she knew to be unique to Rodney, wasted time. Rodney had an entire host of expressions meant to express his hatred of that. "Don't even get me started," he muttered, and John laughed.
"No, really," he said to Teyla, "don't."
Beside him, Rodney drew himself straight. "Oh, yes, laugh it up, Sheppard. Some of us have to do our own paperwork, and don't have subordinates stupid enough or steeped enough in your slavish military culture to do it for them—"
John tilted his head sardonically in Rodney's direction. "Oh, yeah? When was the last time you actually filled out a routine departmental report?"
Teyla could not keep the smile from her face, turned her head to see Ronon hiding his smile behind a doughnut as Rodney sputtered.
"I have better things to do than document the number of ballpoint pens I use in a month!" he said defensively.
"Like falsify supply requisitions to get yourself extra coffee rations, you mean," John said, reaching out to snag a muffin from Teyla's tray. He picked off a piece and ate it, made a face. "Seriously, I don't know why they keep putting this weird corn in our baked goods."
"Because it's full of vitamins that not much else on our trading roster can substitute." Jennifer stood in the doorway for a moment, looking around at them, before coming into the room. "And how are you feeling?" she asked of Teyla, unhooking her stethoscope from around her neck.
"I am very well," Teyla told her, as she did her usual check of heartbeat, pulse, and whatever else Jennifer deemed important.
"Yes you are," Jennifer agreed, stepping back. She still seemed irritated, though in a distant way that assured Teyla it had nothing to do with her.
"We were just discussing—" Teyla began, but Jennifer made a noise of derision very similar to the one Rodney had just made.
"I heard," she said tightly. "I spent twenty minutes this morning on an e-mail to the IOA explaining why a full half of their 'review' is going to render us all but inactive for a week, and why that would be a bad thing…" she paused, taking a deep breath, and continued: "I made myself walk away from the computer before I said something I couldn't take back."
"You're gonna have to go back eventually," Ronon pointed out, and she sighed noisily.
"I know," she agreed, smiling thinly at him. "I know."
Teyla turned to look at John – who was still picking at his muffin – and Rodney, who was glowering down into his lap, arms still crossed. Teyla would have expected Rodney to take up any opportunity to commiserate over shared hatred of the IOA this morning, but he'd been silent from the moment Jennifer entered the room. The brief look he shot her now was almost wary.
Jennifer sounded much more cheerful as she addressed him directly: "Rodney, can you…?" She nodded down towards the cradle, and Rodney seemed startled as he looked up, cheeks gone pink as they did when he was embarrassed – and Teyla was sure she did not imagine his glance in John's direction before he swallowed, nodded.
"Uh, yes. Yes, sure."
John, as ever, was oblivious, peeling the paper wrapping away from his muffin as Rodney glanced at Teyla for her nod of approval. "Please," she said, and he turned, reached down with large, careful hands, lifted the baby up into the air.
Toren, she thought again with a surge of warm affection, almost giddiness, tainted only with the knowledge that he would never know his father, except through her memories. But instead of dwelling on it, she settled back into the pillows as Jennifer laid her son down on the cushioned table near the wall and examined him, cooing and murmuring nonsense when he awoke and fretted.
"Eat," said Ronon, touching her shoulder, and she nodded, reaching again for her plate. This afternoon she would get up and return to her own quarters, make as much of their lull as she could do, for some time soon it would be over. Whatever the IOA believed, Michael would not leave them be indefinitely. And soon or late, something would happen that even they, safe in their places deep beneath the Earth, would have no choice but to step forth. Every protestation of prudence contained a limit of decency, or so she hoped.
She was growing tired of waiting for things to happen.
"So pardon me for saying so, but this is kind of stupid," John said finally, tightly, pushing a little away from Sam's desk. He was glaring down at a stack of reports in his own words, covered with little red scribbles. He waved a hand. "What exactly is the point of all this? Asking me to repeat everything six or seven times doesn't really change the details of what happened."
"They want clarification," Sam said, and he was surprised to realise there was something like bitterness in her voice. He looked up, saw her tucking hair behind one ear, and only now saw the tension in her face. "Or so they say. If it makes you feel any better, this isn't half as much nonsense as Jennifer and Rodney are getting."
On the other side of the desk, she looked up and met his eyes. They'd been doing this for almost five weeks, now, the logic being that they might as well get the bullshit paperwork out of the way now while they had time. He'd agreed with her in the beginning, but after five or six days "getting it out of the way" had degenerated into tense bickering when it turned out that in John's case the IOA's version of "review" meant "pick apart every difficult decision John Sheppard has ever made." He couldn't get around the feeling they were trying to pin something on him, and it made him want to squirm in his chair. Or shoot something, but they were all grounded, barring emergencies and "necessary diplomatic exercises," until this thing was completed and filed in triplicate. Add to that his general growing paranoia over the fact that Michael hadn't made a move in all that time, and he was slowly going out of his mind. John had never wished so hard for a trade mission in his life, and he usually spent those trying to look interested while glaring at Rodney over Teyla's head (Rodney tended to spend such missions trying not to fall asleep in his chair).
"You know this isn't personal, right?" Sam looked weary, and all of a sudden it hit John that she was having to do this all day, every day, not just the interminable mornings he'd had to sacrifice to the effort. Perils of being in charge, things he had always been glad he could foist off on Elizabeth, and Sam wasn't a diplomat – he was sure, suddenly, that this was driving her just as crazy as it was driving him, and just as suddenly felt bad for giving her such a hard time over it.
"Yeah," he said, instead of the biting half-dozen responses that sprung to mind – he'd been spending too much time with Rodney, because his first thought was to remind her that you had to have a brain to be deliberately cruel. "That doesn't help."
"I know," she said, wryly. "I've done this before, remember?"
He nodded, leaning back in his chair and stretching both arms above his head. "So how does this compare?"
"To being grilled by the NID?" she raised both eyebrows, and then looked thoughtful. "Better for distance, worse for being the person who has to double-check everybody's damn reports. So-so."
John blinked at her. He'd been hearing that phrase a lot lately; maybe it was a pretty fitting general statement for everybody's mood, balanced as they were between one crisis and an inevitable next one.
They were both quiet for some time, glaring down at stacks of paper and re-arranging their thoughts. Eventually it was her who said it, what had been lurking behind every polite argument they'd had for two weeks. "This won't last, and they don't understand that."
"Well," he said, with a slow smile, commiserating, "nobody ever accused them of being smart."
But she shook her head. "They don't understand any of this," she repeated, looking irritated, not just uncomfortable, but irritated, like this was personal. "This was always the problem. They're somewhere else, somewhere safe, most of them have never done this. Never had to make decisions where the outcome is important, right now."
"That's a point," John agreed, carefully, because he'd been wondering for a while, now, from the second she'd told him about the IOA's new plans and fear of the familiarity of the wording had set to shivering inside his bones. "It's hard to make decisions for us when they've never been here." Which wasn't all of it, of course, didn't explain how he belonged to this city, to this galaxy, how it changed how you saw things.
She set down the stylus she'd been fidgeting with, carefully, on the edge of the desk. "There was this understanding, at the SGC," she said, slowly. "It's a strange command, really, if only because nothing quite compares to being the only people in the world on the front lines with… well." One corner of her mouth quirked up in a smile. "Regular people didn't know what was going on. And that was part of it. But even inside the SGC, there was a difference between SG teams and everybody else. And people got that, even if they didn't really understand it. Because you can't understand it, unless you've been there. Seen things, known each other like that. Needed each other. But I don't need to tell you about that, do I, John?"
She raised her eyes carefully, this time, waited for him to shake his head, murmur "no, ma'am," with a faintly ironic smile – he was still working out just how much she'd let him get away with – and a weird sense that only now after all this time was he actually meeting Sam Carter. "You really don't."
She didn't ask the question – the anything you think I should know? she'd been wearing on her face at odd intervals whenever John remembered seeing something from that other future and it showed on his face. They'd had a talk about that, weeks ago, when it had happened. Before he'd even said anything beyond "we have to go" she'd sat him down and said "look, I don't expect you to tell me everything about something that might have been, because I've done this and I know there are some things that don't translate, but is there anything I need to know?" And he'd told her, and she'd seemed to know the difference, and she'd been satisfied. He'd been grateful, supposing there weren't a lot of people in the world who could sympathise with "I saw the way things might have gone and it broke my fucking heart," any more than he imagined "I learned things about you you'd probably rather I didn't know, but it wasn't really you" might go over any less than incredibly fucking awkward. Maybe nightmare-inducing. At best.
He hadn't told her everything. He'd put in his report what he thought needed to be said – about the IOA screwing things up, about everybody dying because he wasn't there, about their time here all wasted, wasted because a bunch of stuffed shirts a billion light-years away thought they knew better than people who'd bled and sweated for this place.
Nothing about the look on the hologram's face John thought he might have half-imagined, nothing about the twist in his chest every time he looked at Rodney these days, imagining him dying over a quarter-century for John's sake, old and alone. That just… wasn't necessary. Sam hadn't told him there was a way of doing this, but she'd hinted pretty strongly that there were the pertinent details and there were the things maybe better left to speculation. Bare-bones. Relevant. Hell, he'd hardly told Rodney a damned thing.
Now she nodded, just once, almost solemnly, and turned her head slightly to look out the window at her back. "Nobody forced me take this command, John," she told him, and he kept still, because this was one of those times he really didn't know what was going to be said. "It wasn't just the possibilities, here – the reasons we gave Rodney, in the beginning. The science. All that. Though I admit that was a lot of it. But this place…" She pressed her lips together, and didn't quite look at him, even though her face turned halfway back in his direction.
"This whole city, it's almost like that. Something people who haven't been part of it wouldn't understand. Can't, ever."
"So what happens when they start pulling us out, one by one?" he asked finally, surprised by the low volume of his own voice. It felt like they were telling secrets, though they weren't, really. Anybody in this city who'd been here from the beginning, who'd chosen it, would know it without being told.
She closed her eyes. "I really don't know," she admitted. "I'm not… I never really got why they offered me this post, to be honest with you. I didn't think…" she shrugged. "Maybe they didn't expect Michael, maybe they thought if things were peaceful they could… no." He saw her clenching one hand, slowly, into a fist, then flattening it out again on the desk with the same deliberation. "Judging by the kind of correspondence I've been getting, they just figured I wouldn't talk back." She was wide-eyed, her tone forced and light, face twisted like the notion pained her, but only for a split-second. She shook her head. "Daniel warned me, I think. I wasn't really listening."
And John leaned forward, just a little, elbows on knees, hands hanging down, knowing this was the only moment he'd get to say it, with her open like this, frustrated enough to tell him the truth without thinking about it for two hours. "What do you figure?"
Her eyes snapped up, studied him, and she frowned, hard. "I figure I didn't sign up to sit at home while people are suffering who we could help. I figure I'm not here just to steer a desk."
He couldn't help it – he grinned at her, and grinned wider when it was returned, briefly. But the smile faded from her face after a second, and she gave the stacks of papers a desultory shove. They wobbled, but didn't topple.
"Problem is, we've still got to work around all of this."
"Yeah," he said, glaring at his copy of the Plan, balanced precariously on the corner of Sam's desk. But she suddenly reached out and pulled it from his fingers, flipping through it. When it had been a couple of seconds and she'd still said nothing, just frowned down into the pages, he leaned elbows on the desk and cocked his head. "What is it?"
"Hm," she said, absently, still flipping. "Let me think about it." She looked up at him, just for a second, waved him off. "Go have lunch. I think we're done for today."
"Oooookaaay," he said uncertainly, pushing to his feet, but he didn't need to be told twice to escape review hell. "You'll…"
"I'll keep you in the loop, yes," she said, handing him back his own bound book and reaching for her own, producing a red pen from somewhere among the papers on her desk. "Just… I need to think."
"Right," he said, backing towards the door, kind of burning up with curiosity. But he went without another word, because he'd realised he knew that vague, distant look on her face, and it made his heart race to see it. It was the same face Rodney got when he had a plan… or was getting one.
For the first time in a month, John dared to let himself hope. Didn't let himself name the feeling, but it was a step in the right direction.
All things considered, Rodney thought he was doing a magnificent job of things. After the initial flurry – more like marathon; not for nothing were his staff the most sought-after experts in their fields – of complaints, he'd struck a sort of balance. The Plan forbade them from starting new projects until the review was complete. It said nothing at all about existing ones.
But the IOA was working under the handicap of being more than a galaxy away, and having generally no idea of just how much work the science division actually did; it wasn't all prank wars and berating underlings, though those were integral components. On any given day there were more than four hundred experiments or research projects underway across the city in more than a dozen sub-departments. Most of the time they, engineers in particular, spent almost half of their time keeping everyone from dying, running maintenance and troubleshooting and what-have-you, which meant that they didn't get nearly enough time to work on what they'd come all the way out here to do.
In the interests of general sanity, Rodney had chosen to take this as tacit permission to simply devote more time to research, getting around to the review when he got time. This didn't mean he did none of it at all – Sam still called him in to review his own reports, and the IOA expected a certain bare minimum or it started sending nasty e-mails – to Sam, again, because Rodney had just started summarily deleted anything with an International Oversight Advisory header, secure in the knowledge that he truly was indispensable. After more than a month of workdays uninterrupted by anything but minor, local crises, he was actually almost caught up with his existing workload for… well, for the first time he'd come to this galaxy, really. It was kind of satisfying.
This was not to say that he wasn't starting to get a little twitchy from not leaving the city in over a month. Which was strange, when he realised it, because back on Earth he'd gone almost as long without leaving his lab, content to dig into a problem with interruptions only for food and sleep. He'd certainly never expected to miss trudging up alien hills, falling in alien mud, getting shot at with alien projectiles, choking down unpalatable alien food.
But he did, damn it. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone.
And worst of all, his reprieve seemed to be at an end. That morning's databurst (and Christ, the amount of power wasted by near-daily wormholes to the Milky Way just made him want to scream) had included the usual slew of whingy e-mails from the IOA as well as a message from Landry, characteristically dour and threatening Rodney that if he, Landry, had to start listening to IOA reps bitch about Rodney's non-compliance, then there would shortly be consequences. That the General had left said consequences unspecified was what finally got to Rodney. He was never entirely sure whether Landry found him amusing or just really wanted to shoot him. He'd once gotten the same vibes off of O'Neill, but Rodney had been fairly sure that O'Neill would actually shoot him.
Unfortunately, though he'd been subjected to nearly a dozen mutually-torturous sessions in Sam's office picking through his own reports (the one detailing his actions during Doranda had been particularly pointless and excruciating), he'd hardly touched his own department's part of the review. It was almost lunchtime before Rodney finally knuckled under and pulled up a digital copy of the IOA's Plan and read it thoroughly.
What he found had him boggling at the screen, then throwing the paper copy at the opposite wall of his rarely-used office. After a moment, he got up, retrieved it, sat back down, and threw it again. It was kind of freeing. He went to throw it a third time, but Zelenka opened the door at exactly the wrong moment, ducking just in time.
He blinked, watched the bound Plan go sailing out into the lab (Rodney heard a crash and several muttered curses from various staff), then straightened, pushing up his glasses and regarding Rodney sceptically.
"Why are you throwing things? Or should I simply assume from context that there is a good reason?" he asked, squinting down at the digital copy open on Rodney's laptop. Rodney gestured at the screen.
"They gave us a form?" he said disbelievingly. "They're restricting our paper usage and we're supposed to fill out forms for this rigmarole?"
"Ah." Radek sighed. "Yes. I was wondering when you would realise this."
Rodney stared at him. "You knew?"
Radek shrugged. "You were doing magnificent job of avoiding the entire mess. I was not about to interfere before it was absolutely necessary."
Rodney slumped in his chair. "Oh. Well, it is, apparently. We've got to start sending in departmental reviews as of tomorrow. I started getting ominous e-mails from Landry."
Radek shook his head, muttering something that Rodney didn't quite catch – probably swearing in Czech, as it had a lot of consonants in unlikely places. "Well," Radek said tiredly, "it could not last forever." He raised his eyebrows. "This afternoon, then?"
"What?" Rodney sat up again. "Why should we start with you? Your reports are almost as long as mine. There are dozens of simpler things we could get out of the way first. Maintenance logs, upgrades…"
Radek squinted at him again, and then held up one hand, a one moment gesture. He stepped back out into the lab, and returned a moment later with Rodney's enormous printed copy of the Plan, letting the office door slide shut behind him. Then he sat down in the other chair, placing the plan carefully on the desk, as though it might explode.
"Rodney," he said, with unexpected seriousness, "I do not believe you have yet absorbed the full meaning of this."
"Of what?" Rodney was something like bewildered. "One more ridiculous bureaucratic nudge? It's not—"
He paused again, at the look on Radek's face. When Rodney missed something, Radek reacted in only one of two ways. Usually, it was with glee, in the height of discovery, where they were constantly snapping at each other, on such a high of their own genius that none of the blows stuck. But sometimes, it was with this look – the one where Radek had to stop and consider how to phrase something for maximum impact.
"Do you recall the first time Michael nearly led the Wraith to Earth?" he said finally, and Rodney made a face.
"Hard to forget, considering a spent most of the trip in a cocoon, and thanks so much for bringing it up."
Radek rolled his eyes. "Yes, Rodney. But they called Elizabeth back to Earth. The IOA kept her there for hours – do you know how she described their attitudes?"
Rodney stared at him. Hardly anyone brought up Elizabeth anymore, and the mention of her name still made something in Rodney go briefly still and wretched. Radek, though – Rodney couldn't remember him even mentioning her name, not once since the memorial service, and even now, there was something slightly brittle in his demeanour, but whether that was because of Radek's not-so-secret crush on Elizabeth or something else, Rodney couldn't tell. He just shook his head.
Radek closed his eyes briefly. "My friend," he said quietly, "a political mastermind, you are not." He opened them again before Rodney could sputter an indignant response, fixing him with a serious look. "She called it a witch hunt. I trust you are familiar with the metaphor?"
Rodney stared at him, letting all the little pieces come together in his head. "I really hadn't thought about it like that," he admitted, a moment later. Radek smiled with one side of his mouth; a little bitter, a little amused, because regardless of the situation, this still counted as him scoring a point on Rodney.
But why now? he wondered, and it must have shown on his face – Radek shrugged, leaning back in his chair.
"Consider it, Rodney. We are many, many leagues away from Earth. We are a distant outpost. What happens to us, does not happen to them. The Wraith are terrible, yes, but merely a nightmare. A bogey man. It was a fact that had no bearing on them."
Rodney blinked. "They tried to lay the whole thing at Elizabeth's feet – Michael, the damage to the Daedelus…"
Radek nodded. "That is it, precisely. Michael."
"But the Wraith were already a threat!"
"Consider their perspective, Rodney," Radek advised, and then smirked. "Though I know that is not one of your strengths."
Rodney scowled, but gestured impatiently for him to continue.
"To them, the Wraith are animals. They do not plan. They do not seek revenge. But Michael…"
"Christ," Rodney hissed, as it all came together. "Of course. As far as they were concerned, all of this was our own problem before. But Michael tips the scales."
Radek nodded. "Surely you have noticed that their influence has been steadily growing since then."
"I was kind of hoping it would go away?" Rodney said, scrubbing at his face. "I've got better things to do than keep track of irrelevant power brokering going on in another galaxy." He looked up, then, regarded Radek critically. "Where did you find the time to keep track of this nonsense, anyway?"
Radek gave him a thin sort of smile. "I was born in Prague, Rodney. Life under oppression is not unlike academia – you learn, or you perish." He shrugged, and the smile faded with a sigh. "I am nominally your second – in their eyes, I think I am at least nearly as valuable as you and I think that scrutiny of me may buy us time."
"To get ourselves in order, you mean," Rodney grumbled, and Radek nodded again. It was true – the two of them could take a lot of flak for their subordinates, and in this case a lot of minor mistakes might be cumulative. Rodney was damned if he was going to let the IOA toss out any of his people over the kind of trivial mistakes they might consider fair grounds. If anybody were getting fired, Rodney would be doing the firing.
"I don't like the way this is going at all," he muttered, turning back to his laptop and pulling up the whole directory of four years' worth of reports with a few keystrokes.
"No," agreed Radek. "We must be very careful, I think."
The door opened behind him, then, revealing John, blinking into the office with a bemused sort of expression. "You're using your office?" John asked, slouching against the doorframe just as Rodney expected him to.
"Yes, well, it's my office," Rodney snapped, mildly annoyed when John just smirked at him. "If it's damaging your world-view, I suggest you take your complaints to our bureaucratic overlords."
"Hm, I'm thinking about it, actually," John admitted, idly scratching the side of his neck. "Hey, Radek."
"Good afternoon, Colonel Sheppard," Radek greeted him, getting up from his chair. "We will discuss this later," he said to Rodney, and then slipped out past John before Rodney could stop him.
"I swear to god," Rodney said darkly, pointing at his screen so John could see the Plan open on the laptop, "if the city sinks because I'm too busy filling out paperwork, I am not taking responsibility."
"Right there with you, buddy," John agreed, pushing himself straight. "Ready for lunch?"
Rodney glanced at his watch, realising with some surprise that it was nearly one o'clock. "I – yes, just give me a minute."
He took a minute or two to shut down his laptop, then to check on a half-dozen simulations before following John out into the corridor, where they walked side by side, John with his hands in his pockets.
"How're the ribs?" John asked.
Rodney glanced sideways, saw John looking at him speculatively; the hard-to-read face Rodney really hated, because it usually meant that John was about to say something Rodney really didn't want to hear.
"Fine," Rodney said cautiously. "Why?"
John shrugged. "Well, it's been over a month since we went off-world, I think it's time for you to start training again."
Rodney groaned. "God, I knew you'd say that," he complained. "Isn't it bad enough I'm drowning in ridiculous paperwork, you have to subject me to this, as well?"
John grinned at him. "Just looking out for you, Rodney."
"Oh, sure," Rodney scoffed. "You just like seeing me hit the floor over and over. What did I ever do to you?"
John just grinned wider. "Just looking out for you, Rodney," he said again. Rodney sighed.
They stepped into the transporter, and stepped out again in the corridor outside the mess hall. "I don't know if you've noticed this, Sheppard," Rodney said, lowering his voice a little as they headed for the food line, "but the IOA seems to be working with ulterior motives, here. You should hear Radek talk about it – he thinks they're out to shut us down."
"Not shut us down," John said quietly, "just tie our hands."
There was something odd in John's tone, and Rodney glanced at him again. Like he was someplace else for a second or two, seeing something he'd rather not. Just like the last half-dozen times, Rodney had to stop himself, right on the point of saying something – but just like all those other times, he kept it to himself.
John just shook his head and stole the last cup of chocolate pudding from under Rodney's nose. Apparently it wasn't hindering his mood too much, Rodney thought sourly.
They joined Ronon at their usual table, where the big man was efficiently decimating three sort-of-ham sandwiches. "Hey," he greeted them through a mouthful of bread, as Teyla slid into her seat to his left.
"Teyla!" Rodney said, pleased to see her. "I thought you were stuck with Keller all morning."
Teyla favoured him with one of her warm, serene smiles. "I have a check-up with Jennifer this afternoon," she told him.
"Where's the baby?" asked Ronon, nudging her with his shoulder.
"He is with Evan," Teyla said, picking up her knife and fork. Beside Rodney, John sat up a little straighter.
Teyla nodded, using her fork to carefully pick the white onions out of her salad – it was one of the few Milky Way vegetables that thrived in their hydroponics bays, but Teyla hated raw onion with a passion Rodney found admirable. "Evan is very good with him. And as he is still off-duty, I think it gives him better purpose than… how did he put it?" She looked quizzically at Ronon, who swallowed his mouthful before responding:
"Twiddling his thumbs, he said." He reached for his glass of juice. "He likes kids."
"Huh," John said, and went back to his food. "Anyway, once you're done with Keller, Teyla, you should join us in the gym."
Teyla looked up, eyebrows raised in question. To her right, Ronon grinned.
"Putting McKay through his paces now he's healed up," he explained.
Rodney groaned again. "Oh, good, because I can't possibly embarrass myself sufficiently with only one of you. It has to be the whole team."
John slapped him companionably on the back, letting his hand rest there. "Aw, c'mon, Rodney," he said. "We're just…"
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney said irritably, tucking back into his meal as though it might be his last.
"Okay, just put him up here," said Jennifer, laying a clean white towel inside the bed of the scale.
Teyla laid her son in the scale, stroking his soft hair once, and stepped back. Toren sought out her eyes, waved one arm, and gurgled happily when Jennifer bent over him, murmuring to him and tickling his belly. "You are a handsome boy, aren't you?" she crooned. "So handsome. And very smart. Just hold still for ooooone second…"
Amazingly, he did, more or less, ceased his flailing while Jennifer kept murmuring softly, manipulating the controls on the scale. She never stopped talking, maintained a steady stream of words, all crooned in that low, affectionate tone. Teyla had heard her use the same voice with patients, even John and Rodney, usually while they were half-sedated and fighting her. Soft words, with little meaning, but comforting; effective, because it made the listener quiet, quiescent. It was easy to see why Jennifer had become a doctor, for this came so naturally to her.
"You are such a good boy," she told the baby, and Teyla crossed her arms, leaning back against the nearest exam table. Jennifer had set up a small corner of the infirmary as a paediatric ward, complete with the scale she'd had to order specially from Earth months ago. Teyla gathered that there was a specific protocol to the care of newborns; Jennifer had told her that on Earth, there was a whole branch of medicine dedicated to the care of children, as well as specialists in certain illnesses, in the care of the old. It never ceased to amaze her that Earth could be so deliberate, so careful in these aspects, and yet allow a body such as the IOA to direct Atlantis with such short-sighted ignorance.
"Now we're just going to listen to your heart, okay?" Jennifer said, and looked up at Teyla. "Do you want to…"
"No, go ahead," Teyla told her, smiling, and Jennifer carefully, easily scooped Toren up from the scale, carried him over to the exam table, where she pulled up the railings so he could not roll off. Not that at five weeks, he was likely to do so, but Jennifer was always careful.
"Now, this is cold, but it won't hurt, okay?" She said these things to Toren himself, as though he could understand her, or more, as Rodney had put it when she had come upon him counting endlessly from one to ten on his fingers over Toren's cradle, as though it would be understood, and they might as well begin as they intended to go on.
"It's called baby-talk," Rodney had told her, scowling formidably. Teyla had never met anyone else who could communicate distaste with such a variety of expressions, but Rodney McKay was, above all, unique. It was one of the things Teyla had always liked about him. He could be frustrating, but never dull. "People talk to infants as though they're too stupid to comprehend normal speech. All it does is handicap mental development."
"And your parents never used 'baby-talk' with either you, or your sister?" Teyla had asked, hiding her smile when Rodney gave her a look that was half horrified and half the unaccustomed vulnerability he always showed whenever he was forced to talk about his family.
"Are you kidding? My father had me learning algebra when I was three. And…" He drew himself up, crossing his arms, looking away. "Anyway. If I'm supposed to be his… his doken, I'm putting a moratorium on brain-retarding baby-talk."
At that point, Teyla had lost control of her smile, letting it show when Rodney flushed pink with embarrassment. "I mean… well, obviously, you get a say in it, I just…"
"I have not noticed anyone in Atlantis using 'baby-talk,'" she'd said, drawing the discussion back to somewhere easier.
"Oh, well." Rodney had uncrossed his arms, looking like he was back on steadier ground. "We've got a few hundred of the most highly-educated people on Earth, here." He'd shrugged. "Not the type to indulge."
Now, Jennifer was listening carefully to Toren's heartbeat, eyes closed. "You are very good with children," Teyla said, as Jennifer looked up and smiled bashfully.
"Thanks," she said. "I haven't had a lot of chances, before I came here. I only got one rotation in paediatrics during my residency – a couple of months. I enjoyed it, though."
"Would you have preferred that, to what you do now?" Teyla asked, as Jennifer looped the stethoscope back around her neck.
She tilted her head to one side. "No," she said eventually, absently letting the baby shake her little finger in one pudgy hand. She shook her head then, a firmer negative. "No. I mean," and then she smiled, "how could hospital work compare to this? I don't regret it."
She pulled out a penlight and pointed it down into Toren's eyes. "Okay, little guy, just one more test." She glanced at Teyla. "You wanna hold him?"
"Of course." Teyla moved forward to pick up her son, cradling him with one arm while using the other hand to hold out his wrist. Jennifer busied herself at the table, coming back with a needle and vial.
"This will only pinch a little bit," she said, both to Teyla and the baby. "Ancient scanners are a lot more effective than ours, so we can do with much smaller samples. Which is good," she said, now only to Toren, tickling his chin with her finger, making him coo. "Because you're still little."
Toren made only a small sound of protest when Jennifer slipped the needle in, and Teyla watched carefully as the vial filled with blood – red, ordinary-looking, but not ordinary at all. This was why Michael had wrought so much destruction to take him from her, this, what Jennifer was so easily doing. Something in her son's blood had the power to change the balance of the whole galaxy.
True to her word, Jennifer was quick, and she pressed a gauze pad to the pin-prick drop of blood on Toren's inner arm, which he protested more loudly than the needle itself. "Just hold that right there for a few minutes," she told Teyla, applying a label to the vial. "I'll be right back."
Jennifer disappeared briefly into the main medical lab, coming back with a hand scanner a moment later while Teyla quieted her son with a kiss to the top of his head. "You are all right," she soothed. "You will understand when you are older."
"Okay," said Jennifer, leading Teyla back to her office, where she turned her monitor around to show her the screen. "First things first, he's doing great, excellent health, everything where it should be." She paused to give Toren a fond look over the desk. Toren responded with a happy squeal that made her laugh.
But then she sobered. "So how much do you want me to tell you?"
Teyla took a deep, steadying breath, and looked down at her son, who had one hand fisted in the fabric of her jacket, eyelids drooping. "Tell me. I would rather know before we must present it at a staff meeting."
Jennifer studied her for a moment, and then nodded decisively. "Okay. Well, you know we did a full autopsy…"
"Yes," Teyla confirmed, more to skip this part than anything else, because it had been hard enough to have the conversation when Jennifer had hesitantly approached her, asking if they had Teyla's permission to examine Kanaan's body. Teyla had said yes, emphatically yes, because it was what Kanaan would have wanted – it was one last thing he could do to fight his murderer.
"Well," Jennifer continued, uncertainly, but not hesitantly, "you and he both have a certain amount of hybrid DNA already."
"Yes. We both have the gift."
"Right." Jennifer nodded. "Now, we've studied a few of Michael's other hybrids, but the process doesn't seem to have been identical to what was done to Kanaan. I'm guessing because there was already a certain amount of Wraith DNA to work with. So it was probably easier for Michael to change him than the others."
Teyla glanced down at her son, who was now dozing peacefully. "That is why he wanted my child."
"Yeah," Jennifer confirmed. "He's got a much stronger expression of those traits than you do, than either of you do. I think…" and here Jennifer laced her fingers together and stared down at them thoughtfully, "…he wanted a blueprint. He would have been able to create a streamlined process. Even looking at the data I can see what he probably would have done next. There's a natural progression, and…" She trailed off, and Teyla leaned forward.
"What is it?"
Jennifer frowned down at her hands. "There's a limit to how much you can manipulate the human genome, how much you can do and how quickly. You told me that a lot of Michael's test subjects didn't survive the process."
"Yes." Teyla nodded. "He told me that at the beginning nearly half of them died. But he was having much greater success when I escaped."
"I'll bet," Jennifer said, with some heat. "Because he knew what he was doing. He knows what he's doing, now. He has a goal in mind, so it's no longer just experimentation. And he was able to get that far because he's had access to you and Kanaan. I think if he had gotten hold of the baby, he would have been able to create a process that would be almost a hundred percent effective."
Teyla stared at her. "That does not sound like good news."
"Well, it's a maybe scenario," Jennifer said quickly. "There's a limit to how much Michael could learn from him before he was actually born. Even with all the technology he had at his disposal."
"Do you think this will slow him down?"
"Not really, no." Jennifer looked disheartened. "I think it's more likely he'll go back to experimentation. Which means…"
"That more innocent people will die," Teyla said, sharply, and then stopped and glanced down at her son. "I am sorry," she said. "I do not know why I am angry."
"I do," said Jennifer. "I'm angry too. But it's not as though there was a fair trade to be made. If you hadn't gotten out of there, Michael would be out there converting whole planets at a time, by now." Teyla said nothing, but Jennifer said softly: "Teyla," and she looked up. "You got back. We have the information we need now."
"Carson always felt guilty for creating that retrovirus. He said he felt like he'd opened Pandora's Box." Teyla nodded. She'd heard this story, read it in the Earth database. One of the first things she'd done when she'd come to Atlantis was to study their legends, the stories they told each other. Charin had told her that what made a people who they were the things they chose to tell their children, and the story of Pandora's box was many hundreds and hundreds of years old.
"I promised him before he went into stasis that I wouldn't stop trying to repair the damage we did." Jennifer was holding the vial of Toren's blood; in the low light it was dark, dark red. "And now I think we might have a chance to fix this."
By the time Teyla showed up, McKay was red-faced, sweaty, but only breathing a little harder than usual, which so far as Ronon was concerned was an improvement on the last time they'd done this as a team. He'd even managed to floor Sheppard a couple of times; not that that was much of an accomplishment. For somebody so highly ranked the guy was shit at hand-to-hand – but for McKay, it was great.
"That is very good, Rodney!" Teyla said, as Sheppard pinioned McKay's arms behind his back and McKay threw his weight forward. Sheppard grunted with surprise and toppled forward. It almost worked. Sheppard hit the floor, but McKay went with him, slamming one shoulder pretty hard into Sheppard's ribs.
"Damnit!" Sheppard wheezed, as McKay rolled off him and onto the mat. He rubbed his side irritably. "Ow," he complained.
McKay lay where he'd fallen, arms splayed out on either side of his body. "Yeah, I can see the point to this. Now I can be a danger to others as well as myself." He raised his head from the mat to look at Sheppard as he pushed himself to his feet. "Sorry."
"Nah, it's cool," Sheppard said, crossing to the benches at the edge of the room and picking up his water bottle to chug down half the contents. He set it down, gasping, and wiped his mouth before grinning. "'Least that time you managed to throw me off. That's something, right?"
McKay made a scornful noise, the one that meant god, what a moron. Teyla got to her feet and crossed to where he lay, kneeling down beside him. "Rodney," she said, "you were hurt. You know you must practice. Even Ronon had to re-train after his shoulder healed."
"Hey, any time you wanna come up with a different motivator, feel free," Ronon grumbled, because she'd been here ten minutes and this was the second time she'd said the same thing in response to McKay's whining.
"Anyway, Ronon knew what he was doing to begin with," McKay said, not whining anymore, more matter-of-fact, and Ronon actually felt sorry for him. When he'd first met McKay he'd thought him smart, useful, fundamentally weak – because he complained all the time. But these days he got that that was how McKay reminded people he was around. And he complained a hell of a lot less these days than he had then.
"You're getting better," Ronon finally said, getting to his feet and coming to stand next to Teyla. He reached down one hand to McKay, and he looked at it suspiciously for a second before taking it, gripping Ronon's wrist so Ronon could haul him to his feet. "Wouldn't bother with you if you weren't."
McKay blinked at him. "Oh," he said, at length, in a small voice. For a guy so arrogant, he sucked at taking compliments, Ronon thought. "I… thanks."
"Rodney," called Sheppard, and McKay turned just in time to catch the bottle of water Sheppard threw him. As McKay took a drink, Sheppard turned to Teyla.
"How'd it go?" he asked her, and Ronon looked at her, too. She'd walked in and sat down while McKay and Sheppard were sparring, without saying a word about her appointment with Jennifer. Now she gave Sheppard a brief, closed look, like she was deciding exactly what to say. That was unusual – most of the time Teyla knew exactly what to say without having to think at all.
"What's the matter?" Ronon asked.
"It is… nothing is wrong," Teyla said at last, looking at each of them in turn as though in apology for her moment of hesitation. "It's just…"
"Colonel Sheppard, come in."
They all heard Carter's voice, and tapped into the channel. "This is Sheppard," Sheppard acknowledged, as McKay padded over to the bench to pick up a towel, pressing it to his face.
"Can you and your team join me in my office?" she asked.
Sheppard looked at them with a furrowed brow. "Sure. Anything wrong?"
"Maybe. Soon as you can, okay?"
"Sure thing, Colonel," Sheppard said, tapping out. He shrugged. "Sorry, Rodney, looks like we'll have to cut this short."
"Oh, woe," said McKay huffily, and checked his watch. "Do I have time to shower?"
"Yeah, I kinda want to sluice off, too." He looked at Teyla. "Meet you there in twenty?"
Teyla inclined her head. "I will see you there."
Ronon picked up his bag and followed her out into the hall, while behind them, McKay started complaining again as he packed up his own things.
"Y'know, it'd be a lot faster if you'd just use the gym showers," Sheppard said, interrupting the rant.
"Oh, please, don't even get me started on the multitude of bacteria that come with communal bathing," McKay responded after a pause in which Teyla met Ronon's eyes and smiled, rolling her eyes. Ronon flicked eyes back over his shoulder, saw Sheppard holding McKay's towel out of reach and grinning.
"Oh my god, what is this, high school? Give it back, John, before I drop you on your head again."
"Big talk, McKay. Just big talk. Come on, now we'll be late for sure if you go all the way back to your quarters."
Ronon didn't catch the rest of the argument, because they turned a corner and all they could hear was McKay's yelling and Sheppard's laughter, but he met Teyla's eyes and rolled his eyes right back.
He'd wondered about McKay and Sheppard when he'd first come to Atlantis, had asked Teyla, in fact, though she'd shaken her head ruefully and told him that no, she didn't think John and Rodney were together, not in that way. Ronon had been dubious, because the pair of them sure as hell acted like they were fucking. Maybe it was a good thing their cultures were so different, after all, given the weird rules Sheppard's military had. On Sateda, people would have assumed.
"Still no?" he asked, as the doors to the transporter opened in front of them. They didn't discuss it, exactly, he and Teyla, but it was something he knew she watched for, too, and a damned good thing somebody did. That kind of thing could really screw with the team, if it was handled badly, and McKay and Sheppard sure as fuck weren't any good at handling it. Any day now Ronon expected Teyla to lock them in a room together – he was amazed that she hadn't done it in the first year.
But she just looked thoughtful, fond, and shook her head slowly. "No," she said, after a moment. "But closer than ever, I think." She turned, then, and placed a hand on Ronon's arm, cool and strong, and smiled. "We are all here. We are all safe. That is all that matters, and all else will work itself out."
Ronon found himself smiling back, unable, as ever, to help himself from responding just as she wanted him to. There was a reason she was Sheppard's second-in-command, as much as Lorne was. She always knew what to say. At first, that had sort of freaked Ronon out, but he was starting to find it comforting.
"Yeah," he agreed, as they stepped into the transporter, "you're probably right."
Sam looked up from her computer, blinking in the bright light from the open door. She glanced at the clock – she hadn't realised how long she'd been working, had almost forgotten she'd contacted Sheppard to bring his team in. It was past mid-afternoon. She tapped a control to depolarise her windows, and squinted when the light from the gateroom skylights flooded her office.
"Are you all right?" Teyla asked, stepping inside; responding to another keystroke, the door stayed open.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I think I've been working too long. I'm not in the habit anymore."
Teyla folded her hands, and studied her. Sam sat there and let herself be studied. "You are worried about something." Teyla sat down, and Sam sighed.
"We've been getting updates from our allies pretty regularly since Michael started attacking populated worlds," Sam told her, pulling the elastic out of her hair and finger-combing through it before tying it back again.
"I am aware," Teyla acknowledged. "When it began, we visited most of them and told them to contact us with any information they might have."
"Well, they have been," Sam said tiredly. "All afternoon."
"Who's been what?" asked John, coming through the door with Rodney right behind him, hair damp and standing on end. Ronon wandered in at a slightly more leisurely pace.
"We got three transmissions from allies today, all wanting to deliver us a warning," Sam told him, as he, Rodney and Ronon took seats on either side of Teyla – Ronon at her right, John and Rodney to her left. As always, the other three re-oriented themselves slightly as John sat down, turning a little to face him as much as Sam herself. It was strange – she'd seen them do this dozens of times since she'd been here, hadn't even noticed it at first, but they did it, every time. She wondered if even they realised.
John Sheppard didn't come across as any kind of natural leader, but after spending months in daily contact with the man Sam could see the kind of magnetism that drew a certain kind of person right to him. Lucky that he'd ended up here, really, with a group of people as mis-fit as himself. She'd heard a lot of unflattering things about Sheppard before coming here, mostly people espousing wonder that he hadn't yet been pitched out of the service altogether.
And it wasn't a leap to imagine that if he hadn't come to Atlantis, such a thing might have happened – his assignment to Antarctica had been pretty much the bottom of the barrel, until Doctor Weir had strong-armed him into joining the expedition. Then again, Sam had been working with unconventional fellow officers for far too many years to judge anybody else for difficulty fitting in. Not everybody fit the mould the same way, and the mould probably didn't take into account things like the ATA gene. Sam herself didn't like to think about what she'd do if she were no longer part of the Stargate Program. Ordinary assignments, even the kind she'd probably have her choice of taking, wouldn't seem like much, after this.
"Apparently two villages have been deserted in neighbouring solar systems," Sam said, pulling up the report on her tablet. "On two different worlds. We got a message from the Maru, and then another from the magistrate on Ordaan."
"Deserted?" Rodney said, leaning forward a little. "Couldn't they just have… I don't know, deserted them?" He looked at Teyla, who frowned, and then shrugged.
"Such things do happen," she confirmed. "Many peoples are forced to resettle in great hurry on worlds that can not always sustain them for long – forcing them to move on in just as much haste."
"Well, I'd agree with you, but according to Magistrate Kest, these were proper villages, not camps – one of them was the settlement on P3X-191."
"Sirce's been abandoned?" That was Ronon, which surprised Sam, because Ronon rarely, if ever, spoke up in anything resembling a meeting. But now he leaned forward in his chair, looking genuinely shocked.
He turned to his team, shaking hair out of his eyes. "Sirce's two hundred years old. They've got those caves – they wouldn't leave, even if the Wraith came. They could hide."
"I remember," John agreed, a frown now creasing his brow, and turned back to Sam. "No sign of attack?"
Sam scanned the messages again. "I'm afraid none of our friends were that thorough," she admitted. "We got this in short databursts." One-way, the safest way to receive updates from most of their allies, at least the ones with real communications technology.
She looked up to see John shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Too bad we can't go talk to them," he said, a little moodily. "But I guess that's not allowed, this not being an emergency or anything."
Sam braced herself for an outburst from Rodney, but Rodney, miraculously, stayed quiet – though obviously with an effort. His mouth opened, as though of its own volition, but he scowled and shut it again, looking, instead, to John.
"Actually," she said, after she was sure they were all listening, "you're going through tomorrow. A five AM departure should get you there for early afternoon on Maru'ess." She glanced, belatedly, at Teyla. "Assuming you feel ready to resume off-world missions."
Teyla opened her mouth, actually at a loss for the first time since Sam had met her, but then Teyla just smiled, nodded.
John blinked at her, slowly. "Sorry," he said, "what?"
She just barely restrained herself from smirking.
"I thought we were all grounded until we finished our homework!" Rodney said, puzzled but with infinite scorn.
"Well, the exact wording of our new directive says we're not to enter into new agreements, initiate conflict, or expend material resources on efforts that extend beyond the upkeep of the city," Sam said, ticking things off on the fingers of her left hand. Then she reached out and picked up the red pen from her desk, twirling it between thumb and forefinger. She gave John a triumphant look. "Doesn't say anything about using ZPM power to open wormholes."
John stared at her, probably remembering their earlier conversation, and then a smile began to spread across his face. "So we can't take 'em medical supplies or crates of P90s, we just go and have a look around, talk to people."
"No getting married or anything," Rodney added, beaming at Sam. "Giving away the city. That kind of thing."
"And you probably shouldn't shoot anybody," Sam said, tapping the pen against her chin in mock thoughtfulness. "Bullets are probably material resources."
"Unless it's an emergency," John said, dryly.
"Oh, yeah," Sam said, waving a hand dismissively. "If it's an emergency, go nuts."
They spent another fifteen minutes going over details, but mostly it was just discussion of what Michael might be up to, this time. If indeed he was responsible for the disappearance of the people of Sirce, it suggested a change in tactics. He'd been raiding planets for test subjects for months before taking the Athosians, but he'd stopped pretty much the day he'd captured Teyla. If he'd started up again, they needed to know.
"Does it have to be five in the morning?" Rodney asked, as the meeting broke up. "I mean, really?"
"Unless you wanna end up helping shear sheep again, Rodney," John said, eyes wide and mock-innocent, like he was really asking a question. Rodney made a face.
"On second thought, no, five o'clock is fine," he said quickly. "Once you've gotten up before dawn to shear sheep the first time, it kind of loses its thrill."
Sheppard laughed, and clapped him on the shoulder. Sam saw Rodney smile a little at the touch, another thing she thought he did without realising it. Which… huh. Sam frowned for just a second, then shook her head, realising that that, actually, wouldn't surprise her all that much. Not about Rodney, anyway. Sheppard… well, she didn't know Sheppard all that well yet.
"Well, that's good," John was saying, and because Sam was watching, she saw him squeeze Rodney's shoulder before letting his hand drop. "Because I'm guessing we want to get this done before the Daedelus gets here tomorrow night."
"I admit, that was a factor," Sam said, leaning against her desk tiredly, because although she'd taken it into account, she'd managed to forget, for almost an hour, that tomorrow the Daedelus was arriving with the IOA's hand-picked "advisor," which was red-tape code for "busybody," coming to stick his nose into everybody's business and generally make an ass of himself. She closed her eyes and massaged her temples, briefly. It was giving her a headache just thinking about it, but her headache was nothing on what she was going to have when the Daedelus got here, god.
"In that case, we'd better turn in," John said, and gave Rodney a gentle shove in the direction of the door. Rodney glared at him, muttered about knowing the way, thank you very much, but for Rodney, went with relatively little complaint. John was the last one out, turning in the door to give Sam a nod.
"See you in the morning, Colonel," he said, and was gone.
It was funny how your priorities shifted, John thought, as he waited for the rest of the team to catch up. He could see the village from here, on the high, sharp ridge overlooking the valley. The Maru called the wide, lazy river Sesan, which meant "river." But that wasn't really all that unusual. Most river-names meant "river." Actually it was sort of comforting whenever they came across little evidences of the fact that human beings were basically the same anywhere you went, even different galaxies.
The Maru were cloth-makers, and the village - more a mid-sized town, or a small city - was bordered on all sides by long squat warehouses where they wove and dyed their goods. The cliffs above were dotted with roving herds of animals closely resembling sheep, though they were wirier, more like goats, and their fleece was long and silky. The Maru had been living off the products of their esse - the sheep-things - for generations, and had avoided culling for more than ten generations because the valley where the town lay was shielded from sensors by some mineral in the rocks.
They'd encountered the Maru for the first time three months ago almost by chance, arriving through the gate - a half-day's walk from the town - just as darts were pouring down out of the sky on one of the Wraith's infrequent searches. Later they'd had it explained that although the Wraith had not successfully culled Maru'ess for centuries, they had been appearing more frequently of late. John had guessed that with so many more Wraith, there had either been a breakdown in communication or the ships were just checking planets at random in hopes of catching refugees from other worlds.
Hell, they'd almost caught his team, would have if not for a pair of shepherds, a teenage boy and girl making their way back down the cliffs who had hurried them into the valley before they could be spotted by the ships. They'd been greeted less than warmly the first time, the headwoman – a formidable old crone named Magistrate Kest – Inspecting them coldly as the whine of darts overhead made John's neck prickle instinctively. She'd let them stay only because any human on the cliffs would alert the Wraith to their presence, and that was not to be risked.
Today the skies were peaceful and empty, and they were met at the gate by Leka and Maz, the same two who had originally rescued them from the darts. They were both the Magistrate's grandchildren, Maz dark and gangly like his father, and Leka was fair, soft, but carried her grandmother's terrifying gravity. Both greeted the team with enthusiasm and warmth, Leka's a little more genuine than her cousin's. Maz's interest in them was slightly more mercenary.
"You are late!" she cried, running up to clasp wrists with them each in turn, John first, Rodney last. Maz copied her, his dark eyes gleaming with interest as his eyes roved over their packs.
"Yeah, we had a little trouble getting started. It's still pretty early back home."
As if to illustrate John's point, Rodney yawned hugely, only belatedly covering it with his hand. "What?" he asked. "You just said."
"Do you have any chocolate?" Maz finally asked, pushing dark curls out of his face. Leka rolled her eyes and cuffed him on the back of the head, but Teyla only smiled and produced a bar from her vest, holding a finger to her lips.
"We did not come with a supply," she confided, "so this is between the two of us."
Maz, who had had a crush on Teyla since their first visit, blushed red, smiled, and tucked the bar away into his jacket.
"Come," Leka said then, smiling, tugging on John's arm. "They are holding the midday meal for us."
The team followed Leka and Maz across the wide swath of grassy plain, and ten minutes or so had them at the cliff's edge, where the ground dropped sharply away. Maz disappeared ahead of them, and then Leka, and then John was descending into the grass, the stairs carved into the cliff. They twined down the cliff-face, ten steps and then a turn, ten steps and then another, eight tiers of deep, broad steps that took them down to the valley floor. From there it was a short walk down to the boardwalk that led into the town. Leka and Maz led them into the meeting hall, where three huge tables were groaning under food, people milling about the space dressed in bright-coloured cloth.
Honoured visitors were seated at the head table with the Magistrate and her counsel. Usually they sat with John to Kest's right and Rodney on his right – a position usually accorded only to equals. It had taken John two visits to realise that to the Maru, the word "equal" was the same as "spouse." Ronon had been the one to tell him, after a brief good-natured squabble between John and Rodney one night had generated some strangely indulgent looks – pulled him aside and told him, snickering all the while. After he'd gotten done being mildly humiliated, John had gone back to table and not told Rodney a thing. It was kind of funny, after all, and the Maru seemed disinclined to pry.
And that was all there was to it, John told himself.
Magistrate Kest met them at the head table, where she bade them sit and then got to her feet to deliver the blessing on the meal. The Maru shared meals in such great numbers only for special occasions or state ones – this was nowhere near the whole settlement, but it was most of their leading citizens, as though they'd gathered just because the Lanteans were coming. So far as John knew this was not a state occasion, not a festival. That made him worry, a little.
The Maru weren't religious, precisely – they had no common belief of deity or an afterlife, but they were very… Teyla called them "spiritual." John just remembered thinking, the first time they'd met, that the Maru were constantly in deep and animated discussion about the nature of the universe and their place in it. They even had real mathematics, technology on a par, in some ways, with Earth's, though little of their science was applied. Overall, the Maru were content with their lot.
When Kest finally took her seat, the sounds of conversation and cutlery rising around them in a roar, she turned to John with a respectful nod of her head. "Now that that's over with," she said, reaching for her knife and spoon, "I have some news for you."
Of all their allies, the ones they obliged with these periodic courtesy-visits, anyway, John thought he liked Kest the best. The Maru themselves, their presence, was relaxing. But the look on Kest's face made all that ease go draining away.
Sam was waiting for them in the gate room when they arrived back that evening, looking grim. They'd missed the arrival of the Daedelus by two hours, having stayed late while the team sat closeted with Kest, wringing every last detail out of the story they'd gotten from their allies on other worlds.
"Three worlds by now," she told them.
"Four," Radek said, appearing behind her, washed pale in the light from the wormhole before it winked out. "We are now certain that M98-221 has fallen to the same fate."
"Four?" said Rodney, disbelievingly. "But that's…"
Sam cut him off. "What did the Magistrate say?"
John turned back to her, shook his head, trying to figure out how to articulate three hours of Kest's frantic gesturing, the bone-deep chill translated from any mention of the Wraith within the confines of the Maru village. But Rodney beat him to it.
"It's Michael," he said, sharp, tense, to the point, and John was grateful. "We just don't know how."
The Daedelus didn't stay long – cleared out around 0900 Atlantis time, two days early. Apparently there was some crisis with a minor civil uprising on one of the ex-Ori planets in the Milky Way. The Daedelus was being dispatched to rescue a gate-team, level a playing field, or something, though Rodney hadn't been paying that much attention. All that it had meant for him was that he hadn't had to spend any time talking to Caldwell or meeting the new crop of idiots off-ship before falling into bed.
Rodney hadn't thought much of it when he hadn't seen Zelenka at breakfast; Radek was one of those people with no sleep patterns to speak of, so sometimes he would be in the lab at the asscrack of dawn, and sometimes he drifted in at eleven o'clock, depending on how late he'd stayed up working the previous night. Rodney couldn't be bothered to care much about schedules, really; both he and Zelenka and a handful of others were above such petty considerations. Only underlings had actual schedules. Besides, Rodney had been more than willing to let Radek take on the unenviable task of doing the initial introductions for the new crop of idiots off the Daedelus. Rodney really only enjoyed the dire warnings part of the talk.
He had completely forgotten that their IOA-assigned "review consultant" was arriving with the Daedelus. Probably because he'd planned to ignore whoever they sent, or possibly because he'd expected the IOA's lapdog to spend more time harassing John than haunting the labs. He'd yet to encounter anyone from the entire organisation who could understand more than every fifth word that came out of his mouth.
So it was something of a surprise when he walked into the lab to find it full of rigid-backed, mostly-silent scientists – and Radek glowering murderously over the room from his workstation in the far corner.
For a second, Rodney stood in the doorway trying to parse the scene. Everyone he could see wore expressions of varying degrees of bitter hatred – even Miko was hunched down behind the lab table, arms crossed and glaring – with one… notable… exception.
"You have got to be fucking kidding me," Rodney said loudly.
"Ah," he said, "Doctor McKay. You're late," said Kavanagh.
He was smiling. It made Rodney have unusually violent thoughts, all together and all at once.
He ignored the greeting, looking instead at Radek, who was staring straight back, wearing all the hatred Rodney was feeling right there on his face. He jerked his head in Kavanagh's direction: I am going to kill him.
Rodney raised his eyebrows. What the hell is he doing here?
Radek shrugged, a quick twitch of his shoulders as if he couldn't spare the energy from trying to kill Kavanagh with his brain to be more expressive. There will be a riot, or possibly I had nothing to do with this or more likely: Will you kill him, or shall I? because Radek was, above all, polite.
Rodney turned back to Kavanagh, forcing himself to something closer to calm as he jabbed a finger in the other scientist's direction. "Don't. Touch. Anything," he ordered.
Kavanagh, who had deflated somewhat when Rodney refused to acknowledge him, puffed up a little. "I don't think you can—"
"That's an order," Rodney added, and turned on his heel to leave the lab, trusting that the others would make sure Kavanagh didn't blow up the city or do anything equally stupid like breathe before he got this sorted out.
Rodney stormed into Sam's office on full boil, noticing only belatedly that she seemed to be meeting with half the department heads all crammed into far too little seating and looking about as pleased as he felt. None of this, however, was enough to sway him from his course.
He'd been practicing a long and detailed rant on his trip between the lab and the main tower, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was: "Kavanagh." But he managed to imbue the name with all the hatred he could muster, which was a lot.
Carter looked up and gave him a slightly pinched look. "Rodney--" she began, but even his name was laced with the calm-down-the-crazy-person tone he hated so much, and right now he didn't have any hate to spare.
"No," he interrupted her, feeling himself slip into listen-to-me-you-idiot mode out of sheer habit, something he hadn't done with Sam in a long time, which he hoped would go some distance towards explaining just how unacceptable the state of affairs was. "I don't think you understand. Kavanagh. In my lab."
"Where it was established he was never to set foot again, on pain of unspecified torture."
Sam put her hands flat on the desk. "Rodney."
"In fact the last time I checked, he wasn't even allowed in the city."
"Rodney, you--" She was beginning to look annoyed with him. But only just, which said a lot for how well they got along these days. Rodney wished he could spare some thought to be pleased about that.
"The last time I checked, he'd been exiled to Midway because nobody wanted him on Earth, either! And then he blew it up!" Rodney flung his hands in the air. He'd worked himself up to a pretty good pitch and volume - it had been ages since he'd had the opportunity to indulge in a proper rant, but Sam was refusing to co-operate.
You're harshing my mellow, complained John's voice, somewhere in the back of his head.
He finally came to a pause, because he was out of breath as much as anything, and Sam squinted at him when he took a breath to continue. He knew that look.
He shut up.
"Are you finished?" she asked, with strained patience.
"Uh," he said, lowering his arms. "Yes. For now."
"Good," she said. "I'll add your name to the list."
"The list?" he asked, suddenly lost.
Carter gestured to indicate the other dozen people currently squeezed into the room, who were regarding Rodney with admiration and sympathy. All looked frazzled. Rodney wondered why he hadn't noticed them before.
"The list of people demanding Doctor Kavanagh be drawn and quartered," Sam explained, the hint of a smile sneaking onto her face.
Rodney was intrigued. "Can we do that?" He reflected. "We'd need horses…"
"That's only the first suggestion," Sam told him, turning the screen around to show him a two-columned list filling half the screen. "We can't satisfy everyone, of course, but I have to take everyone's input."
Rodney grinned. Sam was being evil. He loved it when Sam was evil. It was hot. Except… the grin faded.
"You're not really going to do anything, are you?"
She sighed, slumping back in her chair. "No, I'm not," she admitted, giving the other scientists in the room a genuinely apologetic look. "Listen, I don't like that he's here, either. When they told me who was coming to oversee the review, I was inclined to uphold Doctor Weir's orders and keep him out. She looked at Rodney. "I don't like the little weasel any more than you do. But he IOA assigned him. We've got to put up with him, for now."
"Seriously?" Rodney was incredulous. "But… he blew up a space station! "
Sam raised an eyebrow. "You blew up a solar system."
Oh, no, Rodney was absolutely not going to let that one stand, not from Samantha Carter. He pointed an accusatory finger at her. "You blew up a sun!"
Sam shut her mouth, glared at him for a second, and then sighed. She shut her eyes, and suddenly looked very, very tired. Rodney wondered when she'd last slept. Probably longer ago than him, if she'd been entertaining these kinds of complaints since before the Daedelus's arrival.
"Look, Rodney, we have to suffer the indignity, okay?" she said. The other scientists, who had looked riveted during the confrontation, were now sneaking out as quietly as they could, which wasn't very. "The IOA is sticking its fingers into everything, and this is just the beginning. It was all I could do to get them to send one person instead of a whole team. And believe me, that would have been the last thing you wanted."
Rodney sighed. He supposed she would know. During her years on SG-1 they'd been under far closer and more frequent scrutiny than Atlantis ever had been. It was amazing they'd gone as long as they had without their interference. Well, more or less.
"But what if he blows up the city?" he asked helplessly. "I can't be watching him every second!"
"I know you can't," Sam said, reassuringly. "He's not supposed to touch anything. Just… oversee. I know, that almost sounds worse," she said, as Rodney made a face. "But he's got a Marine escort at all times." She scowled down at her tablet. "It's one thing to let him in the city, another entirely to let him break it."
"Hmph," Rodney said, emphatically.
"Yeah, well," she answered, and looked up with an evil smile. They were alone in the office now, the other scientists having made their retreat. "If it makes you feel any better, next week he's overseeing the review of the military contingent."
Rodney blinked at her. "You mean…"
The evil smile got bigger. "He's starting with the Marines."
Rodney grinned back. It was true. Every cloud did have a silver lining, and sometimes it was the olive-drab of Marines beating the crap out of Kavanagh.
They heard more of the same stories from half a dozen planets over the next week – mysterious disappearances, allies dropping out of contact, once-populous worlds (by the standards of the Pegasus galaxy, anyway) turning up barren.
"There are stories of such a thing," Teyla said one night over dinner in the mess hall.
"And by 'stories,' you mean what, exactly?" asked Rodney, leaning forward with enough interest to soften the sceptical tone a little. John turned to listen as Teyla tilted her head, thoughtfully.
"Old tales. Very old," she hastened to add, shaking her head. "Passed down and difficult to verify."
"About what?" John pressed, kicking Rodney's shin to shut him up and ignoring the glare it got him.
"Whole cities, vanishing. Thousands of years ago, it must have been," Teyla told them, "but there is a children's story that describes a world blessed by the Ancestors, to be brought among them, to learn…" she shrugged, then looked grave, clearly trying to phrase something and not quite sure how to do it.
Ronon did it for her. "In the stories, though, the people always came back."
Across the table from John, Rodney snorted. "Yes, and we're pretty sure this doesn't have anything to do with the Ancients."
"Rodney," John chided automatically, but Teyla waved a hand to show she didn't mind.
"Rodney is right, John. I have long assumed that those stories referred to Ascension, or something like it." She paused again, frowning.
"But?" John asked.
At length, Teyla sighed. "I do not know. I feel as though something about this is familiar, and yet…"
"Can't put your finger on it?" Ronon said, and she nodded.
"I am sorry," she said tiredly. "I wish I could be of more help."
"Hey, don't worry about it," Rodney said brightly. "If it's important, it'll come to you."
Both John and Ronon turned to stare at him, and Rodney scowled at them. "What? I can be supportive!"
"Uh huh," John said dubiously, but he was hiding a smile when he turned back to his meal.
Three days after the Daedelus cleared out, a delegation arrived from Atal. Lord Czecho was a tiny leathery man with a hawking croak of a voice, and when he and his sons stepped into the gate room, their travelling robes were coated with dust, carrying something large between four of them on a frame of palm poles. Atal was a desert planet, and the city of Kenad was almost a full day's walk from the gate – maybe half a day riding the huge equines that reminded John of camels, whose true name he could never pronounce. Too many consonants.
Czecho's eldest son stepped forward, towering over his father and asked for an audience with the Speaker – the Atal's word for leader. Sam descended into the gate room and accepted Czecho's firm press of her hand before inviting them all to the conference room.
They stayed for six hours, and then dialled out again. This, at least, was a new story – no mysterious disappearances, but what they'd brought had scientists swarming over it for half an hour. A small standing stone, now blackened and cracked, with unmistakably Ancient carvings on all sides of it.
"We have always watchers," Czecho had said, in his strange, disordered cadence. "Watchers on the ring of the Ancestors. Sometimes there are visitors, but we know when they come. Two days past, eda! The ring bursts to life, and the boy, he waits, but nothing comes through. But beyond the city, this, this," he'd pointed, excitedly, at the stone lying on the gate room floor, not nearly as heavy as it looked – according to Rodney, who'd been hovering ever since the conversation had migrated out of the conference room and back down into the gate room, it was hollow, filled with machinery they couldn't make heads or tails of, at least not right away.
"This thing, it is all fire, and it falls-" here Czecho mimed a falling stone with his arm, clapping his palms together, "-it nearly kills a convoy of grain-growers. But no-one is hurt. And we think, Sen McKay asks us to tell you if we come upon such things, for we have no use for them, and this one, it seems dangerous." He'd grinned toothily at Sam, as if daring her to ask why they'd thought it was a good idea to bring it here, then, but Sam just nodded, smiling back, almost smirking.
The thing about the IOA was that they were terrifyingly fond of formalities; rules were to be followed. Even the rules the IOA itself hadn't instituted. Even ones that technically contradicted the high and mighty Plan. The alliances they had made over four years in Pegasus were still in effect, as inconvenient as they now might seem from Earth. And so several more messengers came to Atlantis over the next several days, as rumours of mass disappearances began to grow. A half-dozen worlds, and people were growing afraid.
And most of them, John couldn't help but notice, were looking to Atlantis for reassurance. There was a tone in many of the messages received via radio, even more unmistakable in the faces of human messengers who came through the gate to speak with Sam or John – it was strange, but gratifying, too. Rodney thought it was hilarious. "The IOA wants us to isolate ourselves, and at exactly the same time, every backwater planet in the Pegasus galaxy is turning to us for protection!"
It might have been a mistake for Rodney to say this during sparring practice, as he'd been working with Teyla and she'd promptly slammed him neatly to the mat, but it was true. It was one thing for the IOA to counsel "a more cautious strategy," but it was another entirely to shut themselves off from people explicitly seeking them out.
It was certainly driving Kavanagh crazy, to the point of almost daily dial-outs to Earth for his unending litany of complaints. But the IOA's own words had instructed the Lanteans to maintain existing diplomatic relations, and that included accepting visitors and talking, talking, talking.
John was getting a little worried, though, that if they just kept on talking and talking and not doing anything, they were pretty much just going to end up looking like jerks.
And he was still stuck at home.
Maybe the most infuriating thing about being (mostly) grounded was that not everybody was. Sam's creative interpretation of their new directives meant that two different teams were out while John was stuck behind his desk, with Kavanagh smirking at him from the other side. At least, at least, he kept reminding himself, this meant that something was being done, even if he wasn't the one doing it. Both Cadman and Vega's teams were out following up leads on the mysteriously deserted villages, and John was planning on sending out Lorne with what was left of his team (he still hadn't replaced Francis, but John wasn't going to rush him) once they were done here.
Next to him, Lorne was trying to be diplomatic. Not for the first time John sent an absent thanks to whatever higher powers might be listening, because if it weren't for Lorne, John probably would have surrendered to baser impulses by now and wrung Kavanagh's neck.
He was really starting to sympathise with Rodney and Radek's hatred of the guy, because Rodney didn't actually hate many people. Disliked them, considered them beneath him, sure – but actual hatred was often outside of Rodney's radar; he didn't consider it worth his time. But Kavanagh… John was beginning to see why Rodney might have made an exception in his case.
"I don't think you're really taking into account how this will streamline the process," Kavanagh was saying, tapping repeatedly in a rhythm that was starting to work its way right into John's skull. It was a gesture almost reminiscent of Rodney's finger-snapping, what he did when he wanted people to pay attention, but it was somehow endlessly more irritating. Possibly because Kavanagh had spent more time explaining his planned process for going through reports than actually going through reports, and this was somehow more torturous than re-living every command screw-up with Sam facing him across the desk. It probably didn't help that Kavanagh clearly didn't know much about military operations, and John remembered that from when the idiot had been assigned here. He'd had to practically threaten life and limb to get him on the firing range. Kavanagh had been under the impression that it was the military's job to protect him, which okay, was true, but they couldn't be everywhere, all the time. Hell, by that time even Rodney had given in and was doing exercises twice a day, because it was just stupid not to.
"I don't think you're taking into account how much this is disrupting our normal operations," Lorne said, smiling tightly. And John even caught it that time before seeing it reflected in Kavanagh's face – he turned to Lorne and raised an eyebrow, and Lorne gave him a tense look. Okay, so Kavanagh was starting to crack Lorne's Zen, now. That was a bad sign.
"We can't literally bring in every member of the military contingent for this. We need some of them running security and training, Doc."
And was there an edge to that "Doc?" Usually Lorne didn't pull out the "Doc" except to be friendly. Kavanagh shook his head – and Rodney was right, John realised, he did look better without the ponytail, but there was a distinct AV Club vibe about the new 'do – and started in on his demands that they stand down all non-essential operations until the review was complete. John didn't bother to point out that they'd already done that, that Atlantis didn't have a lot of non-essential operations that weren't pure research, and by now there wasn't a lot of that left, given how many people on this expedition held two degrees and at least one of them in something applied, which meant they were always in demand. He'd already said it, and then Lorne had said it, and Kavanagh just. Kept. Talking.
"What part of 'complete review' didn't you understand, Major? This is meant to detect errors and omissions, and with more than five hundred people now filing reports, there's a certain amount of ass-covering going on. If I don't interview everyone…"
"You do remember you're only here as an observer, right?" John broke in, making a fist under the desk where Kavanagh couldn't see it. "As in, to observe."
Kavanagh made a face – well, really it was his only face – as though there was something nasty-smelling under his nose. "Observer and consultant."
"Which means you're not actually empowered to interview anyone. Just make suggestions. To us. Not run your own version of the McCarthy Committee."
Next to him, Lorne made a noise that might have been a cough, but probably wasn't, because for a second he covered his whole face with one hand.
"So if you don't stop harassing my people, I'm going to let Rodney lock you in your quarters like he keeps threatening to do."
Which wasn't true – Rodney had threatened to do much worse than that. But John figured he had a responsibility to find a middle-ground, here.
"You know, I'm here in good faith," said Kavanagh sharply, drawing himself up in his chair. It was kind of amazing, really. The guy had been kicked out of the city, run off Earth on a rail, blown up a space station, and even here, where he was pretty much just being kept out of the way, he still couldn't pull his foot out of his mouth. It was like some totally insane, inside-out McKay-esque defence mechanism, where the guy would rather make an increasingly bigger ass of himself than just admit he didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Even Rodney always, eventually…
…John had the sudden, disorienting realisation that actually, Kavanagh and Rodney had that in common. Except Rodney'd had John, and the team, and the constant threat of impending doom over his head for the past four years. Weirdly, it inspired a split-second of something almost like pity for Kavanagh.
It was disturbing. So John made a show of glancing at his watch, shaking his head to clear it. "Y'know what? It's almost time for you to ship out of here, Lorne, and I've got another meeting. We'll have to pick this up later." He gave Kavanagh a look meant to communicate leave, now, but Kavanagh just made the sour face again.
"You're not supposed to be sending out gate teams at all except in emergencies, Colonel. Why wasn't I informed of this?"
John had to work to keep the look on his face non-threatening and innocent. "You're an observer, Kavanagh. Observe," he said.
"I haven't been informed of any further missions. For that matter I didn't get any report about what you're doing sending two other teams off-world while you're supposed to be—"
"We're investigating possible security threats, Kavanagh," John gritted out, starting to lose his patience.
"If you want to be informed, Doc, you can always deploy with a gate-team. Put you right in the middle of the action." John turned to blink in surprise at Lorne, who was wearing a bland smile that John didn't buy for a second. Kavanagh blanched.
"Uh – no. I've got too much important work to get done right here in the city. I'll be going now." He gathered up his papers and tablet, and turned to go. "But I expect a full report as soon as you…" He hurried out of earshot, the tirade trailing off, and John let out a sigh of relief.
"Thanks, Major. I didn't think of that," he said. Lorne shrugged.
"Figured it was the one thing that'd shut him up, sir." He was staring after Kavanagh with an odd look on his face, but John was saved from asking. "It's funny. You'd think that after all this time a guy that smart would work out that you get along better if you aren't such a…" Lorne gestured, vaguely, but John understood.
"Makes you wonder if he'd been dropped on his head or something," he muttered.
"Almost makes you want to feel sorry for the guy," Lorne mused, but turned to John quickly and added: "I said almost," and backed towards the door. "I'll just…"
"Yeah, you do that, Major," John said, raising an eyebrow. "I'll try and keep Kavanagh from sinking the city before you get back." Which was only half a joke.
"Yes sir," Lorne said, and disappeared up the corridor with a little mock salute.
While he'd been trapped in a room with Kavanagh, Cadman's team had returned, and this time with something actually useful.
Edwards was the first member of the team to be released from the after-mission infirmary workup; he was co-incidentally also the team's tech go-to guy. John arrived at the labs to find Sam, Radek and Rodney bent over something on a table while Edwards explained to the rest of the room what they'd found.
"…the Halians have ships. Not big ones or fast ones, no weapons, but inter-planet ships that work within a single solar system. They've colonised most of the inner planetoids around that star, so they do short hops between the home-world, Esta, and their colonies. There are three major planets including Esta, Temo, and Dorlan. We've been there a few dozen times – we trade with them for purified neutronium."
John sidled up next to Rodney, looking down at the table. The find was something that looked a little like the black box from a plane, except bigger and with more dials and buttons. He knew the Halians; they'd been allies from their first year, their alliance negotiated by Elizabeth. Their tech was rudimentary compared to Lantean tech, but population pressure had forced them out into space much earlier than Earth.
"We were on Temo, getting a tour of one of their new mines, when the Handman – he's kind of the governor of the colony – called us back up to the surface. They have alarms for meteor storms, among other things, and they were all going. We got brought up to their planetary defence centre – screens all over, monitoring every inhabited planet in the system. They don't have satellites, but they've got subspace down, so they get real-time updates. They were all pretty freaked out, sir," Edwards added, nodding to John. John hadn't even known anyone had seen him. Rodney blinked and looked up, obviously only just noticing him. He smiled briefly before bending back over the device on the table.
"So what is this thing?" John asked. Sam still didn't look up. She was focused on the scanner in her hand.
"Some kind of storage drive from their monitoring system, sir," Edwards said. "They sent us back through the gate as soon as we got there. Said the city needed to be warned."
"Warned about what, exactly?"
"A weapon," Rodney said finally, straightening. He looked at John. "Remember the Great Temple on Esta?"
John thought back. Sure he did. They'd thought it was some kind of research base, but the Halians hadn't let them investigate very closely. But they'd offered them a good deal on neutronium, so they'd let it go.
"Well, it turns out we were right about what it did. Or, part right, anyway."
"It was a weapon?" John asked. Because okay, that was the kind of thing they maybe should have insisted on checking out.
"Maybe it's a weapon," Sam corrected him. "All we know right now is that it seems to have been activated via the stargate, and created an incredible EM disturbance."
"And vaporised about a thousand people in the vicinity of the gate," Rodney snapped. "I don't know you could call that harmless."
"Whoa, whoa, vaporised?" John interrupted, waving a hand for silence. He pointed at Rodney. "Explain."
Rodney scowled at him, then sighed. "Whatever it was, it made people disappear, but not buildings, streets… just living things. More than a thousand Halians just…" He snapped his fingers. "Poof. Into thin air." He turned to Sam. "I need to go to Esta, have a look at the thing. If there are more of these weapons, one of them is probably where Michael's set up his base. We might be able to get the locations from the databanks in the research station. I think the Halians might see fit to let us into their temple now, hm?" He turned to Edwards, who nodded, slowly.
"They did send us back for help, ma'am," he said, nodding at Carter, who was frowning.
"What I don't understand," she said, "is why he'd go after Esta. Why do it like this? There aren't any Ancient ruins on any of the other planets with vanished villages, are there?"
"Not that we know of, but we don't know that there need to be. Maybe he was destroying evidence. Maybe it was an accident. I don't know!" Rodney threw up his hands. "That's why I need to go and look at it. Surely you understand the concept."
"Yes, Rodney, I understand, thanks," Sam snapped. "I'm just trying to…"
"Look," said John, soothingly, because as funny as it was when Rodney actually wore Sam down enough to the point where she yelled at him, they really had more important things to deal with right now. "We'll go back with some Marines, have a look around, while you get your team together. Then we'll…"
"I really don't see the point in this," came a voice from the open doorway, and John saw a frisson of tension actually ripple through the room – scientists, soldiers, everybody – before he turned to the door and saw Kavanagh standing there with his arms crossed belligerently. Apparently he hadn't taken John's hint to heart.
"Which part are you having difficulty understanding?" Rodney asked sharply, glaring. "Maybe I can explain it in smaller words."
And it was a really good thing that Kavanagh was only here as an observer, because it meant that Rodney could say things like that and Kavanagh wasn't allowed to take it into account. Otherwise by now he was pretty sure even Rodney would have lost his temper enough to deck the guy, and John had had enough of the military contingent coming to his office and telling him, earnestly, that there was really only so much a red-blooded human being could take.
Kavanagh waved a hand to encompass the lab, the storage drive, the cluster of people by the table. "This is all an incredible waste of resources. Especially when we're in the midst of trying to make this operation more efficient. And I'm not at all sure it falls within the guidelines of the Plan."
John gritted his teeth, opened his mouth, but Sam cut him off, voice calm and reasonable, though John could see her clenching one fist, white-knuckled, behind the table where Kavanagh couldn't see. "I beg to differ. I've read it pretty thoroughly, and there's nothing in it about restricting gate-travel."
"No, right, ZPM power isn't a material resources, and it wasn't mentioned specifically in the Plan, I've figured out your little loophole, Colonel," he said waspishly. "Very clever. As long as you don't waste supplies on any of it, there's nothing prohibiting you from investigating. What I'm saying is that there's no point in any of it. It's unnecessarily drawing attention to this base. It makes no sense," he added, with emphasis on the last word. "All you're doing is asking for trouble – it's none of your business. The smart thing would be to withdraw into Atlantis and cut off contact with these people."
Withdraw into Atlantis, thought John, suppressing an involuntary shudder. The older Rodney in the other timeline had said that, that the IOA had all but abandoned the Pegasus galaxy to its enemies. He'd told the higher-ups that part specifically to prevent this from happening, this thing he still couldn't help but seeing as the first domino in the pattern that other future had represented. That wasn't why they were here, damn it, and he wouldn't let it be.
The room was silent for a second, Sam looking kind of incandescently pissed – and surprised about it – but saying nothing. This was exactly the kind of thing that had always gotten Kavanagh in trouble when he'd been here, what had gotten even Elizabeth to the point where she'd confided she wanted to push the guy over a railing on occasion, and it usually had mostly taken stuff on the scale of genocide to even get her to raise her voice. Kavanagh wasn't just a coward, but he knew he was one, and thought it was the better course, and struck out at anybody who made him admit that in a crisis he'd rather be hiding under a desk. Worse, that he thought he deserved to be.
"Hi, excuse me, but have you forgotten that there are thousands of people out there that are basically defenceless against these attacks?" Of course Rodney would speak up first. John groaned inwardly. Way to prolong the agony, McKay, he thought, even though he couldn't stop himself from smirking, just a little.
"Yeah, and if you guys hadn't set Michael loose in the first place, you wouldn't have this problem now. This is exactly what I'm talking about. Beckett was the worst of the lot of you – sticking his nose in where it didn't belong, doing research with no foresight, no oversight. There's an army of monsters out there right now because he decided to play mad scientist – hey!"
Kavanagh took two big stumbling steps backwards, arms thrown up in front of him, and it was only then that John saw Rodney, white-faced with fury, advancing on him from across the lab.
John threw himself in the way just in time, catching Rodney around the middle and hauling him back, just barely avoiding getting an elbow in the face when Rodney pulled back an arm, probably to clock Kavanagh in the face.
John knew Rodney was stronger than he looked. The guy wasn't a fighter, but he'd been working hard to get better, and if nothing else Rodney had some arms on him – John had taken a stray punch from him once when they were training, hard enough to send him to the mat, his head ringing. Rodney had been torn between smug and horrified, apologising as he helped John up even as a grin tugged at his mouth.
He stopped when John grabbed him, but he was shaking with repressed rage, and John didn't quite dare let go, murmuring "deep breath, buddy," into Rodney's ear as Rodney dropped his arm to his side. Kavanagh stood stock-still, eyes comically wide, mouth open, as Sam came up and laid a hand on Rodney's shoulder, squeezing hard as she turned to Kavanagh.
"I think we've all heard enough from you, Kavanagh," she said tightly, "get out of here before I have you removed."
The words were razor-edged, and for a second Kavanagh looked like he was about to argue, torn between staring goggle-eyed at Rodney and rebelliously at Sam, but in the end his mouth snapped shut and scurried away.
John was still holding Rodney, one arm around his middle and the other hooked around his right shoulder, and he had to crane his neck to get a look at his face. And Rodney's face was… furious, but other than that it was almost blank, eyes wide, and he was still shaking.
"Rodney?" Sam said, after a minute, shaking him gently by the shoulder, and Rodney dropped his eyes to the floor, shaking his head, jaw clenched. Sam frowned, then looked at John, telegraphing clearly with her eyes. Get him out of here. John nodded, and then grabbed Rodney by the back of his jacket, pulling him out of the lab and down the hall.
It took Rodney three corridors, a transporter to the east pier, and a flight of stairs to protest, snapping out of his weird silence with a sputtered: "Where are you – what are you—"
But John dragged him out onto a deserted balcony and locked the door behind them, and Rodney struggled against him, furious again. "What the hell did you do that for?" he demanded, and John raised one eyebrow incredulously, keeping a hold on Rodney's arms.
"You were about to punch Kavanagh's lights out, Rodney. And as much as I'd kinda like to see that, I thought it might be better if I got you out of there before you actually did it."
Rodney scoffed. "Oh, I was n—" He paused, eyes going wide. "Oh my god, I was! I was going to hit him right across his smarmy little rodent—what the hell is wrong with me?" He sagged back against the wall, covering his face. "My god, I'm turning into you. Or, or Ronon."
He no longer looked angry – his shoulders slumped and when he took his hands away, his face was pale and tired. "You never hit anybody just 'cause they deserved it?" John asked, quietly. Rodney looked up at him, shook his head.
"Amazingly enough, Sheppard, it's only recently I've been in a position to be able to best anybody in a physical contest, and historically I've preferred to simply bludgeon people with my intelligence. It's much more efficient." John could tell the tone was meant to be snappish, but it mostly just came out weary.
"Gee, Rodney," John drawled, "I never would've guessed."
That got him a glare, but it was half-hearted at best.
"It's no big deal, Rodney," John said, after a moment, because there was something wrong with the world when Rodney McKay couldn't muster up a good glare. "He crossed a line. Anybody would've done the same thing. And you didn't actually do it. Don't worry about it." John slouched against the wall next to the balcony door. "I'll try and keep him out of your hair for a few days. Hell, after this, he might lay off you on his own account."
And that – that got him a smile, as faint as the glare, but an improvement nonetheless. John tried not to think too hard about just how pleased with himself that made him feel, but only partially succeeded.
"Well, that's a point," Rodney admitted, sighing. He glanced at John, mouth twisting a little. "Thanks for…" He shrugged with one shoulder.
"Nah, no big deal," and "better you than me; if I slug him it looks a lot worse," John said quickly, realising only belatedly that he still had Rodney shoved up against the wall of the balcony, his hands on Rodney's upper arms – and that Rodney had made no move to get free. And that Rodney was staring at him thoughtfully, like – like he looked at Ancient artefacts whose function he was trying to figure out. Staring at him, blue eyes wide and curious.
Let go now, he told his fingers, realising where this might go, any second now. He could stop it, if he kept his mouth shut and just let go, stepped back and…
"Hey," Rodney said, much quieter now, "is this weird?"
John swallowed, hard, closing his eyes briefly – trust Rodney to ruin a perfectly good plan by asking the obvious question. John had assumed Rodney understood what he was doing, that they weren't going to have this talk, ever, but either Rodney hadn't clued in or he'd decided he just didn't care.
"Is what weird?" he asked, his voice completely giving him away. And okay, this was why sparring was okay, but he'd been carefully structuring the circumstances in which he let himself touch Rodney, because this was unplanned, and this was dangerous.
"I don't know," he said, honestly, hating how his voice sounded, soft and strained. "I can't… I have to step away, here, Rodney."
"So do it," Rodney said, still quiet but with a challenge in his eyes when John looked. But John didn't move. He stayed where he was long enough for Rodney to shake his head, once, and lean in just enough to brush their lips together.
It wasn't much, not even a second long – of oh god, oh god Rodney'smouth – and Rodney pulled back, frowned at him as if trying to work out what he was going to say next. John gaped at him. But then he did it, let go, stepped back, scrubbed at his face with both hands.
"Rodney," he said, sharply, and just like that he remembered again, the hard shock of realisation, standing in the red-lit gate room in a dead Atlantis, that Rodney had, in another future, given up his whole life to bring John back here. And it was too much, to fucking much to deal with right now, to maybe screw up by getting pulled into this, when they were supposed to be stopping a mutant super villain from taking over the galaxy.
Rodney was still leaning against the wall, blinking rapidly, looking confused. "I – sorry," he stammered, "I just thought…" He stopped there, licking his lips, and it was a real effort for John to stay where he was, out of arm's reach, instead of moving in to carry on with what they'd started. And when had this started? John couldn't even remember anymore. But it was different now, clearer, somehow, which sort of just made it worse.
"Don't be – it's okay," John told him, clearing his throat, trying to make his voice sound normal. "We shouldn't," he said, more evenly, and then immediately felt like a total bastard, because Rodney sort of deflated again, face falling for a few seconds before he pulled himself back up as if by strings, into the horribly fake cheerfulness that nobody who knew Rodney at all well would ever buy. John almost reached out again – almost – but stopped himself just in time.
"I should probably get back to work," Rodney said after a time, not looking at him. "We still don't know if whatever Michael's using is some kind of disintegrator or just a transporter."
"Or that it's Michael," John added, seizing gratefully onto the change in subject. "Wait – you said it only took people, no buildings. Since when do the Ancients have transporters like that?"
Rodney grinned, his this is so cool grin, and this time it was real, and John felt something loosen, just a little, deep in his chest. "They didn't, as far as we know. That's why I need to get back to work. This might have been an experimental—yes?" He raised one hand to his ear, eyes going vague for a moment, and then nodded. "Yes, I'm on my way back," he said, and dropped his hand again. "I've got to…" he said, and he was hesitating again. But John nodded, he hoped encouragingly.
"Yeah," he said. "See you at dinner."
"Right," Rodney agreed, turning away, "right," and then he was gone.
Rodney stayed in the lab until nearly eight o'clock, hunched over his computer and the translation module from the Halian storage device. He was getting to the point in the workday where his eyes were beginning to cross from staring at the same screen for endless hours, but at least he was getting somewhere.
"It's done," Simpson said from a far corner of the lab, and Rodney leapt to his feet, hurrying over and shouldering her away from her workstation. He scanned the part of the directory that Simpson was converting, and pointed at a line three-quarters of the way down the screen.
"Did you run this through the—" he began, but Simpson just rolled her eyes.
"Of course I did. That's why I called you over—"
"And it matches up with—"
She nodded, tucking a strand of blond hair behind one ear. "More than a ninety-percent correlation." She paused as Rodney nodded, turning back to the screen to scroll down several times. "This is good news, isn't it?"
"Relatively speaking, I suppose," Rodney said distractedly, looking up. He yelled across the lab to Zelenka: "Radek! Copy the converted output from Simpson's workstation here and double-verify, will you?"
Radek waved vaguely at him and started typing. Beside him, Simpson had her eyes fixed on the screen. "What do you mean, relatively speaking?"
Rodney rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "It's the difference between frying pan and fire. Think about it. Abduction or death – in this case, there's not a lot of difference."
He stared at the screen again. But even before Radek had finished verifying the results – which he had, a moment later – Rodney knew what he was looking at was right. The sensor logs from the Halian recorders spelled it out, clear as day. "They weren't killed. They were taken."
And if it was Michael, that meant he'd abducted upwards of ten thousand people, by now. What could he possibly be doing with that many test subjects?
Rodney shuddered. On second thought, he was pretty sure he didn't want to know, not before he could help it, anyway.
"I will upload the results to the main server, for you to access from the—" Radek said, and Rodney nodded.
"Right. I should probably—"
Rodney walked back to his own laptop, raising one hand to tap into the command channel as he did. "Sam? I think we've got something here."
"Bring it up," Sam said, "I'm calling senior staff. Ten minutes."
Rodney glanced at his watch – realised what time it was, that he was supposed to meet John for… shit. He'd gotten caught up in his work, and the fact that John hadn't come to drag him away suggested maybe things weren't as okay as Rodney had hoped they would be. Why the hell had he done it, anyway? Exactly what he'd been reminding himself not to do since they'd arrived in this benighted galaxy. Kissing John Sheppard was on his top ten Bad Ideas list, right up there with blowing up solar systems. And now everything was going to be horrible and awkward.
But Sam seemed unaware of his plight. She just added, with a hint of snark, "bring dinner with you, if you have to."
"Oh," Rodney muttered. In the background, he could hear the gate dialling. Probably Vega's team coming back. "You're very funny, as if I didn't have enough to—"
The floor rocked under his feet. Simpson shouted and fell off her stool, and equipment rattled all around them.
Rodney steadied himself with a wild grab at the table. "Sam?" he yelled into his radio, "what the hell was—"
There was a sudden garble of orders coming over the intercom, ordering military personnel to defence positions, and Rodney shared one astonished glance with Radek, before he was running out the door.
The gate room was in chaos, people yelling and acrid smoke hanging heavy in the air. But even as Rodney charged into the gallery, the air vents were kicking in, drawing out the smoke. Rodney pounded up to where John and Sam were standing, looked both of them over to make sure they were whole and healthy, and then looked down into the gate room.
No explosions. Just a strip of scorched floor that led from the gate all the way to the foot of the stairs, and the lights in the bottom two steps were dead. "What the hell happened?" he demanded. The gate was dark, but the alarm was still going. As he spoke, Sam made a sharp gesture to Sergeant Campbell, and the alarm stopped, too.
"We dialled out to Ordaan, to get an update from the ruling council, see if they'd heard anything" Sam told him. Her hair was a little wild, and she looked tense, "But we didn't get a response right away. We were just about to send a MALP through when something hit the shield – burned it right out." She shook her head as Rodney stared, open-mouthed.
"And we're still here? " he said faintly, and looked at John, to find him glaring down at the gate as though it had done him some personal wrong.
"There was a blast wave," Sam said. "It extended all the way…" She pointed, and Rodney suddenly got it, what had done that to the floor.
"Oh my god," he said, "was anybody—"
"Nobody was hit," John said, only now turning to look at him. "It came from Ordaan."
Rodney blinked, his brain trying to go in two directions at once, one of them situationally inappropriate, but John didn't look mad at him, or awkward, or anything. "Jesus," he said. "Do you think they're…"
"One way to find out," John said, turning to Sam, but Sam was already nodding.
"Yes," she said, and called to Chuck: "Tell Teyla and Ronon to gear up and report to the gate room." She looked at Rodney. "Zelenka can—"
"Esta, yes, fine, good," he agreed hastily.
Rodney was halfway to the stairs purely out of reflex when he stopped, turned back, John stopping on the top step. "What about Kavanagh?" Rodney asked bitterly. "You don't think he'll tattle on us, do you?"
Sam looked surprised, and then actually forbidding. "I'd really love to see him try," she said coldly, and that, of course, was when Kavanagh came skidding into the gallery, trailing his Marine shadow, breathing hard.
"What happened?" he shouted. "I was knocked right off my feet!"
"We were attacked," John told him, crossing his arms, and Kavanagh whirled on him as though just realising he was there. Then he spotted Rodney, and took a half-step back towards the door.
"Some kind of energy weapon. Knocked out our shield," Rodney told him, taking some pleasure in the flicker of uncertainty Kavanagh gave him.
"Come on, Rodney, time to gear up." John had turned and was making his way down the stairs. Rodney turned to follow, but stopped again when Kavanagh asked:
"Where do you think you're going?" He whirled on Sam. "This is not a fact-finding mission. You're not to expend resources on off-world efforts except under emergency situations!"
"Yeah, well, I'm just gonna call this one an emergency," Sam said tightly. "Anything that could send that kind of energy surge dematerialised I'm pretty comfortable classifying as clear and present danger. Besides, if this is anything like Sirce, there won't be anybody there to help." She gave Kavanagh what could only be described a daring look, but Kavanagh sort of wilted and took a third step in the direction of the corridor.
There followed a tight-wound moment in which Kavanagh scowled at her, and Sam just stared, eyes narrowed. For a minute or so, Rodney thought that Kavanagh would say something stupid and Sam would make Rodney's day by punching the moron in the face, but Kavanagh just spat out: "This is going in my report!" and fled.
"While you're at it, write that you're barred from the gate room except when coming and going!" Sam called after him, and then turned back to where John and Rodney were standing, frozen, at the top of the stairs. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get going!"
"Yes, ma'am," John said, grinning, and dragged Rodney away to the locker room.
Ronon and Teyla were there when they arrived, which gave Rodney no time at all to ask John – or rather, to intuit whether things were going to be weird – but John checked the straps on Rodney's vest like he always did, chatted with Ronon and Teyla, and they were back in the gate room in about ten minutes.
Sam stood above them as the gate dialled, and Rodney watched her fingers clenching and unclenching around the rail. She got like this sometimes, and he knew it was because she was still used to being the one going through, not the one sending other people. He wondered if she'd ever get over that. Somehow, he doubted it.
And then the wormhole burst into being, and they were going through.
This was becoming alarmingly common, these days; stepping through the gate onto a planet that was quiet as, appropriately, a tomb, as the grave. These were words Rodney was starting to avoid by reflex, which bothered him. He'd never been one to avoid knowledge because it made him uncomfortable.
But the terms fit; Ordaan was silent where once it had been bustling with activity. They'd traded here dozens of times, a market world with few regular residents all centred around the small village at the mouth of a river valley. The market spread out across the floodplain on the western bank, coming and going with the seasons. On any given day Ordaan's population fluctuated between a few hundred villagers and two or three thousand vendors, all carrying their wares through the stargate at the mouth of the Takas River in the early morning hours.
Usually when they came through it was noisy, crowded, as cheerful as any world in Pegasus had any business being. Sheltered as it was, and with sentries posted high on the cliffs, there was plenty of time for escape through the gate if the Wraith were sighted. Ordaan had little technology, but like many Pegasus worlds they were skilled by habit: always be ready to run.
But something had happened here. There were a few dusty, abandoned, half-assembled market stalls still scattered along the riverbank, but not a living soul in sight.
"This is creepy," Rodney said, swallowing against the dry air. "It's like a ghost town."
"Wraith?" Ronon asked, under his breath, mostly to himself. He looked tense, dangerous, and very young, the way the Wraith always made him look. Dangerous, though. Still dangerous.
"No, I think not," Teyla said, softly, moving down the bank without waiting. The others followed her without a word.
Nobody asked what she was looking for. They never did, anymore. One of them caught the scent of something – Teyla caught word of old acquaintances, Rodney detected something interesting and wandered off; the others always followed them, at least at first, without questioning. This wasn't like his wild goose chases after interesting energy signatures, though. This was Teyla in solemn mode, eyes fixed on something none of them could see. Even John didn't question it, just shot a wary look around them and took up their six.
They followed her as she picked slowly through market stalls, sifted through discarded wares with the tip of one boot, all without talking, asking any questions.
The village was as deserted as the market, but here there was no disarray; everything was still and tidy, only a little askew as though it had been hastily abandoned. Rodney was uncomfortably reminded of old stories heard while languishing in Nevada. Whole villages of people vanished in the blink of an eye, their cook-fires still burning, food still on their plates. He'd never really believed in stories – smallpox, probably – like that until coming to work for the SGC, and even then, those particular kinds of alien abduction stories had faded into fancy when he'd come to know exactly how real aliens functioned.
But now, as they moved through the village, looking into one house after another, that familiar chill crept up the back of his neck, and he saw it settling similarly on the rest of his team.
"Okay, I was wrong, this is creepy," he said loudly, just to hear a living voice. Nobody else had spoken for some minutes, and the pressing silence was getting to him. They were standing in the middle of the village's main road, and next to him, John started and then slipped off his sunglasses.
"Jeez, Rodney," he said, tucking the glasses away in his vest pocket. "Give a guy a heart attack."
"Sheppard," Ronon called then, and they both looked up to see him standing in the middle of the street, beckoning to them. A little way ahead, Teyla was moving at a faster pace, apparently drawn by something further out, closer to the river, farther from the market. They hurried to follow, and finally she came to a stop on the water's edge, looking around for a moment before disappearing down the bank. Ronon shook his head and followed.
"Hey, Teyla!" John called, and he and Rodney broke into a run, catching up with them down on the beach.
She was kneeling in the gravelly sand, and Ronon was just getting to his feet. He was holding a little boy, maybe four years old, who was crying incoherently into Ronon's shirt. All three of them were cast in the shadow of a wind-worn standing stone, sunk into the ground between them and the village.
It was dormant. He was sure of it without even pulling out his scanner – in the way he could usually tell when an Ancient device was broken or nearly dormant. This thing had the sense of potential.
And just like that, Rodney understood.
Studies of the standing stone confirmed what Rodney said he had already suspected. It stood right on the line of where the ground dropped away to the beach. Scans revealed that it had some kind of relay inside it, something designed to interface with the gate, scan the village, and relay co-ordinates of every living thing within the confines of its parameters. The boy they'd found – now under Halling's care – had been only a few metres beyond it, standing on the beach as he watched his mother and brother disappear in a flash of light.
It was identical to the stone Lord Czecho had brought them from Atal.
"We never had any explanation for why the Ancients didn't have better transporter technology," Rodney explained in the debriefing. "Site to site, yes, but only if you were inside a set of boundaries defined by sensors. No targeting to speak of. Asgard beaming technology is twice as effective."
John nodded, because he'd always wondered, himself, how the Ancients could do so much with genetics, with time travel, for fuck's sake, but not manage to transport anything unless you were standing inside a box.
"If it was supposed to teleport us, why did it almost blow a hole in our floor?" John demanded. He was still smarting over that. He didn't like it when people marked up his city. "For that matter, why'd the stone on Atal explode instead of snatching up the city?" And that was a real city, John remembered, with multi-story buildings and streets and plumbing and everything. It would have been a prize for Michael.
Rodney shrugged, rolling his eyes. "As far as we can tell, the Atal stone suffered an overload. Machines break, even Ancient ones. As for our gate..."
Radek cut in: "I believe that when the beam attenuated our shield, the wavelength changed – so that it came out as a blast-wave instead of a focused beam." He made a sweeping gesture with one hand. "And then – boom."
"You're saying this was an accident?" John was amazed. Michael hadn't often screwed up, but John supposed even mutant supervillains had their off days.
"Not exactly. More like bad luck," Rodney corrected him. He had the old light in his eyes again, the infectious excitement that made even evil weapons of mass destruction seem kind of cool. "Another twelve hours, we would have opened a wormhole on an empty village and no side-effects."
"Side-effects from what, exactly?" asked Lorne, who was leaning forward on the table, arms crossed.
Rodney looked at Zelenka, who hit a few keys and made a sensor log pop up on the screen facing the table. Rodney pointed. "The Ordaan gate had the same residual charge as ours – it was translated through the gate when we established a wormhole. It was certainly exposed to the same energy spike. The village was deserted days before we got there. I think anyone dialling in to Ordaan would have gotten the same feedback – it's just that in all the other cases – Sirce, and on Esta, the charge had time to dissipate before anybody tried dialling in. We located Esta's relay – the stone – at the edge of the old Ancient structures immediately adjacent to the gate, but the newer parts of the city were untouched. Because they were out of range."
"There are – I don't even know how many planets in this galaxy the Ancients graced with their presence," Rodney said irritably. "There could be dozens of these relays. But they never perfected the system." He pulled up the data they'd recovered from the temple on Esta. "Esta was the base of operations. But they had to abandon the project before they could get it working properly. So, giant transporter, relays all over, but no stable power source."
"Michael got it working, though," John pointed out.
"Yes, well, motivation is key in these things," Rodney agreed. "Look, the point is, he's apparently managed to duplicate the mechanism on Esta. Built his own, I don't know. But he's obviously managed to key into the relays somehow, and he's using them to kidnap people. Whatever he was doing on Esta – and my guess is that he had a spy in the Halian government, letting Michael's people come and go – he couldn't do anything but access the temple records without alerting the Alian authorities. The records are still there. So, I mean," he trailed off, shoving his hands into his pockets and looking expectantly around the table, "we should do something about that, right?"
There was a brief silence, and Sam asked, in the voice that said she already knew the answer before she asked the question: "What exactly are you suggesting, Rodney?
Rodney grinned. "We can locate every one of these relays. Every one in the galaxy, the same as Michael's done."
"Rodney—" Sam began, but Rodney talked over her.
"We can crash the thing from a safe distance! I'm pretty sure, anyway. We can certainly disable the relays, now, make it impossible for him to teleport any more people to who-the-hell-knows where – and I think we might be able to use the Estan transporter to locate Michael's! We can track the bastard right to his lair! We can—"
Rodney had the look on his face he got when he had a really good idea, and John had to admit it, it was a really good idea – if they could get the gate address to wherever Michael was working from, this wouldn't be like tracking Teyla to the building that had subsequently fallen on their heads. If Michael had put this much work into building his very own Ancient teleporter, he wouldn't abandon it easily. They might finally be able to—
"Oh, I really don't think the IOA would approve of that," said Kavanagh, from the far end of the table. He'd been silent up 'til now, probably knowing that interrupting might get him punched by any one of half a dozen people currently in the room, but now he was leaning back in his chair, looking generally belligerent. "That sounds an awful lot like a military offensive, which I know is prohibited under the new guidelines."
"Kavanagh, why don't you just sit there and observe?" John said, meanly. But this time Kavanagh wasn't cowed.
"Prohibited except in direct response to immediate threats," Kavanagh said, tapping the table with his index finger as though there were a copy of the Plan under his hand. "And this doesn't qualify. Sorry," he said insincerely, to Rodney, who was rapidly turning a shade of red that bordered on puce, "but this just isn't going to fly."
There had ensued another near-screaming match between Rodney and Kavanagh (with Radek making his contribution pretty loudly), followed by John and Ronon dragging both scientists from the room as Sam adjourned the meeting. Unfortunately Kavanagh's peevish scepticism was backed up, the following morning, by a message from the SGC confirming that Rodney's plan qualified as "unnecessary risk," and reminding them that their first priority was the completion of the review.
The endless fucking review.
This had sparked another argument, that wasn't really an argument so much as Sam and John yelling at each other over how Kavanagh needed to suffer serious accident, about how they couldn't just sit on their asses and do nothing, while Rodney watched them, silently, approval written clear on his face as though he was glad he wasn't the only one yelling, anymore.
"Soon they're going to start taking away our TV privileges," Rodney muttered, causing Sam to roll her eyes at him, beating John to it.
But there was no wiggle-room, this time, and they had no choice but to scrap the plan. Fortunately it seemed as though Michael had kidnapped all the people he needed for the moment, because the disappearances ceased abruptly after the team's visit to Ordaan. John still spent two hours after that meeting getting his ass kicked by Teyla in the gym, just to work off the incipient tantrum that he seemed to be getting, these days, every time he even heard the word "IOA."
So they settled back into the review. It went okay for a couple of days, but after two weeks of exhaustive and pointless paperwork and little else, John was starting to get twitchy. This was Rodney's word for it, but John had to admit that it probably applied. All he did, these days, was get up, eat breakfast, and then spend his whole day doing paperwork, sometimes with Sam, sometimes without. Sometimes he had to pull together every team leader in the city, one by one, to clarify a detail in some report and bring it in line with the new format being required by the IOA. He was well aware that most of what they were doing involved making near-identical copies of reports and pasting them into different forms, and every time he did it, he got a little more restless.
It had been almost two full months since the IOA had sent them their new "plan," and that was another thing. Not counting the near-disaster with the Ordaan gate, the city had never, not since their initial arrival four years ago and change, been this quiet for this long. Usually, they'd just settled in for a little well-earned time off when a siren started blaring or somebody started firing on them from orbit. The day after they'd been ordered to abort Rodney's plan, John had started expecting something else to happen, because fate was pretty reliable at giving him exactly what he wanted, in exactly the way he didn't want it. But nothing did happen. Not that day, not the next, not for fourteen days.
It was starting to make John paranoid.
And he knew it was paranoid. Probability said that this was certainly possible – it just wasn't like Pegasus to give them this much peace and quiet all at once. John found himself wondering, two or three times a day, whether this was someone playing an elaborate joke on him, and suspecting that the moment he bought into it, let down his guard, something terrible would happen.
"You're losing your mind," Rodney told him cheerfully over lunch, after John had explained his theory – and that was something, at least, that they were back to normal, the two of them, at least as normal as they ever got. Not that John ever stopped thinking about it. In fact that seemed to be a lot harder than it had been before Rodney had kissed him. But he was handling it.
They were in John's office, mainly because neither of them could stand the frustrated buzz that was now the norm for the mess hall at every mealtime. That, and every time one of them ventured into public places, a subordinate came rushing at them to complain about something in the Plan. And while John was usually pretty good at brushing people off and/or dealing expediently with complaints, Rodney had started getting a hunted look every time he saw anybody hurrying in his direction clutching a file folder.
"Yeah, I was afraid of that," John replied, glumly spooning tava bean stew into his mouth. "It's all this quiet. It's starting to get to me."
"Well, don't feel too bad," Rodney said bracingly, but with a hint of smothered hysteria that had become his normal expression over the last two weeks, "apparently one of the linguists broke down crying this morning, so you and me, we're still ahead."
This had at least proven one of John's long-standing theories about Rodney, that even he could sustain a low-grade bout of fury for only so long before madness started trickling in. John could sympathise; he was starting to get the shakes every time he saw a yellow highlighter. According to Lorne, there was a running bet as to which one of them would crack first; John, Rodney, or Sam. John hadn't bet, because he had the unfair advantage of being pretty sure that Rodney and Radek had kept working on the transporter project whenever they could steal a few minutes from interminable paperwork. Besides, Sam had been looking a little crazy around the eyes since the botanists had staged their two-day strike over seed inventory. None of them, John thought fervently, had been built for this bureaucratic nightmare.
John leaned forward, interested. "Which one?"
"Asbjorn," Rodney told him, with an evil grin, and held up one hand way, way above his head, palm-down, when John just gave him a puzzled look. "Swedish, blond, about eight feet tall? Built like a rugby player?" He dropped his arm as John nodded. "Apparently he just sat down in the middle of the language lab and started weeping. The linguists have to attach three separate translations to everything they submit in a mission report."
John shook his head sympathetically. Most of what the linguists did involved analysing photographs of architecture taken off-world and then translating it for the engineers or the anthropologists, they rarely followed protocol and did multiple translations before submitting them to their superiors. Since the linguists usually earned their accolades by translating something that was counting ominously down or beaming out a message of doom and destruction with a deadline of fifteen minutes, or else, they very rarely got called on it.
"Mark my words, John," Rodney said, pointing emphatically with his spoon, "it's only a matter of time before somebody snaps for real."
"It might be me," John said darkly, dropping his spoon onto his tray.
"Oh, no, it'll be me," Rodney said with a scowl into mid-air, "if that little puke Kavanagh doesn't stop reading over my shoulder. I know I'm not allowed to throw him out of the lab, but what do you suppose I'd get if he 'accidentally' slipped and fell into the ocean? Or, or," he said with sudden enthusiasm, snapping his fingers, "was mysteriously vaporised by an Ancient artefact? I mean, that's actually happened, there's precedent, it wouldn't be our fault or anything."
"Depends on who he's pissed off back on Earth to get sent here," John said, smiling at the look of yearning in Rodney's eyes. "If it's somebody in the IOA, they'd probably throw the book at you. If it was O'Neill…"
"Nah," Rodney said, waving a hand dismissively, "O'Neill wouldn't have inflicted this on Sam."
John thought about that, and nodded, slowly. "You're probably right," he admitted. "Still… accidental dismemberment might have promise."
Rodney beamed at him. "I knew there was a reason I liked you," he said, reaching out to pat John's hand. Then he looked down, saw what he was doing, and snatched his hand back as though he'd been burned. John looked up, bemused on his own account, to see that Rodney was blushing. "Um…"
John opened his mouth to say something – that it was okay, no big deal, and there was a small, insistent part of him that wanted nothing more to reach out and pull Rodney's hand back, and he had just about settled on just changing the subject –
–and that, of course, was when the off-world activation alarm started screeching.
"Unscheduled off-world activation," came Chuck's voice over their radios, and both Rodney and John were up and out into the corridor before John could say a single word.
"It's time enough," Halling had said to her. "If we are here again, and here to stay, we will need space for a school. It is simpler than doing it in our quarters."
"I am sure that Colonel Carter would agree," Teyla had told him, meaning it. She liked Colonel Carter - could not yet call her "Sam" as John and Rodney did, but felt that the time was coming, soon. So she had made an appointment, to ask Colonel Carter if a space could be set aside for the children's daily lessons.
And then, their meeting had been interrupted by an alarm, the gate flickering to life, by a rush of adrenaline.
"It's Maru'ess," Colonel Carter said to Teyla, reaching out to press a key on the console before raising a hand to her radio.
"This is Colonel Carter of Atlantis. Please go ahead."
Leka Kest's voice came through distorted, rushed, high-pitched. Teyla frowned, feeling apprehensive - their regular report from the Maru wasn't for another week. If Maru'ess was contacting them early, it could not be for a happy reason.
"My grandmother had me come to the gate to warn you - we are about to fall under attack by the Wraith."
Teyla stiffened, meeting the Colonel's eyes as she turned in surprise. "I'm sorry," said Carter, "can you repeat that?"
"We have detected a hive ship in orbit," Leka said, the transmission fuzzing in and out. "We believe they have detected the village - else they are simply aware of our presence. If this is true, then someone has betrayed us, and they may betray you as well…"
Carter shook herself, going suddenly straighter and more focused. "How long ago?" she asked.
There was a moment of static-filled silence, the sound of discussion with someone out of range of the microphone, and then: "I don't know," she admitted, young and frightened. Leka was not yet fifteen years old. "The bell began ringing less than two hours ago, but I don't know if--"
"One moment," Carter said, and silenced their end of the connection. She turned to Teyla. "The terrain near the gate - is it defensible?"
For a moment, Teyla only stared. "I -" and then realised precisely what it was that the Colonel was asking, staring at her expectantly, blue eyes wide. Teyla could already see, as John said, the wheels turning, as the Colonel's mind began calculating variables, planning the next move. "Not easily," Teyla said. "There is a small hill immediately behind the gate, but there is a stretch of open plain between the gate itself and the steps leading down to the valley. Any rescuers would be vulnerable to attack."
"Damn," Carter swore, and shut her eyes for a moment. "If the hive ship's been in orbit for two hours, what's taking them so long?"
"It is possible that they have not yet detected the exact location of the settlement," Teyla suggested. Her heart was pounding as she considered the possibilities. She knew as well as anyone that this should not be possible - even the Earth ships could not detect the Maru settlement from orbit. The minerals in the rocks made it impossible. But somehow, this hive knew of its existence. How? Had someone told them? Or perhaps they had finally located it from the air.
But it didn't matter how. Teyla shook her head. There was no easy way to evacuate - and she was sure that was what Colonel Carter was planning, despite the IOA's expressly forbidding such a thing. The long flight of stairs was navigable, safe, but there were nearly three hundred people on Maru'ess, and it would take too long to bring them all to the top of the cliffs, and then across the vulnerable stretch of open ground to the gate. From the sound of Leka, there were no darts in the skies of Maru'ess yet, but there could be, at any moment.
Colonel Carter seemed to have run through the same roster of obstacles in half the time it had taken Teyla, though, and she was telling Leka: "Is there anywhere safe for you to hide, in range of the gate?" When Leka didn't answer right away, Carter added: "We may be able to help. But I need to consult with my people."
"I--" Again, someone was talking in the background - it was probably Maz, Teyla thought, more prone to panic than his cousin and probably frightened, babbling. "Yes," she said, firmly. "We can hide. You won't be long, will you?"
"Not long," Carter, promised. "As fast as I can."
And it was certain, strong, and Teyla was heartened, though she wasn't sure what they could do. Time and physical limits were working against them.
For a moment after the wormhole winked out, Colonel Carter stood very still, staring down at the console, or perhaps at nothing. "Colonel?" Teyla finally asked, reaching out a hesitant hand to touch her arm. Carter blinked at her.
"Sorry? Oh. Sorry," she said, shaking her head. She turned to Sergeant Campbell. "How far out is the Daedelus?"
"Still five or six days, ma'am," Campbell replied, and as though he were reading Carter's mind, he added: "not passing near Maru'ess, either."
"Damn," Carter cursed. "Okay, get McKay and Zelenka up here, and the rest of team one, let's see what we can figure out."
"I hate to say this," Teyla said, quietly, "but I can think of no way to effect an evacuation without risking any force we might send."
"I'm having the same problem," the Colonel said, dragging a hand through her pale hair, pulling out the tie. She irritably bound it up again, and Teyla, feeling anxious and frustrated, was reaching for something else to say as the rest of Teyla's team began trickling into the gate room, followed by Radek.
They stood in the gallery as the Colonel filled them in on the situation, her mouth growing grimmer as she spoke. When she was done, John shook his head. "It's bad terrain for that kind of rescue," he said.
"Yeah, we've already worked that out," Carter agreed, with a nod to Teyla. "I was hoping there was a way around that, but the Daedelus is still too far away to help."
"They wouldn't do us much good anyway," Rodney reminded her. "They couldn't get a lock on anybody in the village with that weird mineral in the rocks. There'd be no signal cohesion."
"It is a pity we cannot tag them all with transmitters," Radek mused, cupping his chin. "That would allow the beam to locate them, even through interference. But we have only thirty or forty in the city. And how to choose who stays and who goes?"
"And as previously mentioned? We don't have a beam to start with," Rodney snapped, and Teyla laced her fingers together, clenching hard. To be so close, and so powerless…
"Sure we do."
It was Ronon who had spoken, and Teyla was not alone in turning to openly stare at him. He looked around, shrugged. "Or the Halians do, anyway."
It took Teyla several seconds to realise his implication, but Colonel Carter and Rodney comprehended almost at once. "The temple still has a working beam! We could…" began Colonel Carter, and Rodney interrupted:
"Except there's no relay on Maru'ess to pick up the signal, the device is useless unless…"
And then Radek clapped his hands together excitedly. "But we have several of them here!" Which was true - Teyla remembered that teams had retrieved the camouflaged devices from several abandoned worlds, after Czecho's visit and before the IOA had ordered them to stand down from any more such missions. "We could…"
Teyla had long ago grown accustomed to the way that Rodney became caught up in his ideas, the way he waved his hands and snapped his fingers and rambled at great speed until suddenly lifting his head and stating a plan - she was even used to the way he did this in tandem with Doctor Zelenka, and found it somewhat dizzying, the speed with which they could function, pulling ideas from the very air. This time, it was not only Rodney and Radek, but Colonel Carter, who led the two men over to a console, gesturing as she talked, pulling up a diagram of something as Teyla, John, and Ronon stood behind, at the main console, staring bemusedly at one another.
John gave her a smirk. Same old, same old, said his face, and Teyla could not help but smile in response. "That was very wise, Ronon," she whispered, and Ronon smiled at her faintly, shrugging one shoulder.
"Seemed the thing to do," he said, turning to watch as Rodney emerged from the discussion with his arms waving.
"Okay, okay, okay," he said loudly, talking over the other two. "But what about Michael?"
"What about him?" John asked impatiently. "Think maybe we should worry about Michael some other time?"
"Oh, you mean when the IOA decides to go back to letting us do our jobs? " Rodney said scathingly, and turned to Sam. "You saw the numbers. You know those people are probably—"
"Yeah, Rodney, just shut up for a second and let me think, okay?" Sam interrupted him, squeezing her eyes shut and massaging her temples.
Teyla took in the worried expressions on Colonel Carter and Radek's faces, and the determined one on Rodney's. "Rodney, what do you mean?"
Rodney turned to her. "Well, I don't have time to go into the specifics, but how would you keep that many people imprisoned? Assuming you don't have a whole planet full of cages, I mean."
Teyla stared at him. "I don't understand."
"Studies of the device on Esta showed that it could hold patterns for an indefinite period of time – much like a Wraith dart."
"You mean they are trapped – inside a machine?" Teyla asked, feeling slightly ill. Rodney looked as though he sympathised, and he gave her an uneasy shrug. Both of them had had the unpleasant experience of being beamed up into the belly of a dart, and while Teyla could remember nothing of the imprisonment itself, she had never been held for long. The missing village people had been prisoners for… months, she thought, if they were still alive at all.
"Yeah, that's exactly what I mean," Rodney confirmed, turning back to the Colonel, who was staring around at all of them with growing frustration. "This may be the only chance we get, Sam. We can get them back. "
And finally, the Colonel nodded, slowly. "Yeah," she said, "yeah. Do it."
That was all Rodney needed to fly into action. "It'll take us at least half an hour. Yeah?" he glanced at Radek for his opinion, and Radek nodded quickly.
"Yes. At most. Perhaps twenty-five minutes, but we must go now."
"Can Maru hold out that long?" John asked of no one in particular, hand hovering in the air next to his earpiece, clearly waiting for only the go-ahead to begin summoning his soldiers to the gate room. They would have to contact the Halians, warn Esta that they were coming. At least this time there would be no argument about the Lanteans entering the temple. The Halians now avoided the place as though it were cursed.
"I don't know," said the Colonel, shaking her head. "I got the impression they were still searching for the village. We'll have to move fast."
"Right," John said, turning half away before she even finished speaking, rattling off orders into his radio to bring two gate teams and a squad of Marines to the gate room to deploy to Esta.
When Rodney and Radek had hurried out of the room, Ronon following close behind, Teyla lingered. John finished giving his orders and came to stand with Teyla, face suddenly uncertain.
"Sam," he said, looking around - to see if anyone was listening, Teyla thought, but everyone was too busy. "If we do this--"
"I'll take full responsibility," said Colonel Carter, crossing her arms and looking tense. Teyla looked between them, at John, who frowned.
"They'd rather get rid of me, and you're--" he began, but Colonel Carter shook her head, sharply, and put on a stubborn face to rival one of Rodney's.
"It's my call, John," she said quietly. "Besides, do you really think they'd believe this was your idea, or did you get a degree in particle physics while I wasn't looking?"
"Surely they would not punish you for this," Teyla asked as John sighed, but did not really hope for much. Indeed, the Colonel gave her a dry sort of smile, and shook her head again, this time slowly.
"This isn't about common sense, or even decency," she said, still quietly. "This is political. As far as the IOA is concerned every one of us is a resource to be exploited. If we do this, somebody has to be sacrificed. And it can't be you, John," she said firmly, as John opened his mouth to protest. Teyla saw the anger, the frustration on his face, and felt a sympathetic frustration of her own.
"You're needed here," said the Colonel to John, and repeated, doggedly, when John went on looking stubborn, "you're needed here. More than I am. Besides, I can take the heat a little better than you can."
Her voice was steady, firm, but Teyla could see the misery in her eyes, the sense of wonder in this place that had not once left her expression since she'd come here. Samantha Carter may not have been one of them from the beginning, but she'd wanted to be, had tried, had fought for this place and now…
"She is right, John," Teyla said softly, and John let out a heavy sigh.
"It's your call, Sam," he said, with a fair counterfeit of calm, but Teyla could see his hand clenching and unclenching at his side.
They were all quiet for a very long moment, and then Colonel Carter looked at her watch. "If I'm about to be relieved of command," she said, slapping her hands on her thighs and straightening, looking suddenly much more cheerful, "I might as well get something done. I'm going down to the labs. I've been in this city how many months? And I've hardly had a chance to do anything useful." She looked at John.
"On my way," he said, and disappeared down the stairs.
"I will stay here, Colonel," Teyla offered, "In case Leka dials us again."
Colonel Carter shot her a grateful smile. "Thanks. And Teyla?" she said, pausing at the top of the stairs and turning back halfway, "I may not actually be the boss around here much longer. I think you might as well call me Sam."
Teyla found herself smiling, warm and true. "Yes," she agreed, "Sam. I may as well."
And Sam grinned at her. "Great," she said, nodding. "You're in charge."
"Is there any chance I could convince you to return to your office?" Rodney asked irritably, but Sam ignored him, still typing away at break-neck speed.
"You saying you don't need an extra pair of hands?" Sam shot back, eyes scanning the screen in front of her. "Cut me a break here, McKay, I'm probably going to get fired tomorrow."
Sam's words were casual, light, but Rodney felt his stomach plummet anyway. He covered it with an irritable: "Oh, you will not. You're the SGC's second favourite person in the whole world. You really think your boyfriend's going to let them fire you?"
That, at least, got him a dirty look. "Mind your own business, McKay." Sam pointed to his laptop, where his hands rested, still, on the keyboard. "Work. Come on."
"I thought you were fired," Rodney said, scowling. "Make up your mind."
"Not yet," Sam said, and smiled sweetly at him. "Until tomorrow I can still kick your ass and not get in trouble. Now work."
"Rodney!" Radek snapped from across the room, where he was also typing at speeds beyond normal human capability. "She is helping. We have little time remaining. Cease arguing and work!"
"Oh, fine," Rodney grumbled, because he was almost done, anyway. "There," he said, saving and uploading the patch to the server. As soon as Sam and Radek were finished re-writing their parts of the relay protocol, they'd transfer it to the relay itself, and they'd be ready to go. The tracking program to locate and interface with Michael's control device would have to be written on the fly on Esta.
Rodney fidgeted as Sam finished, and uploaded her code with a few keystrokes. "Are you sure you're sure about this?" he asked uncertainly. "I mean, maybe we could find somewhere else to send the Maru. Somewhere that won't get you--"
"It's not your problem, McKay," Sam said sharply, and then sighed, her voice gentling a little. "This is more important than my job, okay? At least I get to do something important before I go."
"I sincerely doubt they'll agree with you at the court martial," said a voice from the doorway, and Rodney froze, filling with a strange mix of dread and violent anger.
"Kavanagh," he greeted icily, pushing back from his workstation, as Radek crowed "done!" from the other side of the room.
"I thought we had this talk - you aren't allowed in here anymore."
Kavanagh sneered. "And I think the guidelines spell out pretty clearly that you can't keep me out of anywhere." He was belligerent, but Rodney noticed, with some satisfaction, that he kept a safe distance between himself and Rodney, striding, instead, over to Sam.
"I don't know what it is you think you're doing, but this only proves what I've been saying all along about your assignment to this base."
Sam crossed her arms, and Rodney saw, getting to his feet, that her face was strangely blank. "And what have you been saying?"
And okay, that wasn't good, that was Sam's dangerous voice, Rodney recognised it, was intimately familiar with it. He debated about whether he should warn Kavanagh - but really, who the hell cared what happened to Kavanagh?
"That you're too emotionally involved to do your job," Kavanagh said, with a smug smile. He looked at Rodney. "You were right about her in the first place, McKay. No focus. No perspective."
"Hey, leave me out of this!" Rodney protested, but Sam was paying him no attention at all. Rodney glanced at Radek, saw him watching the proceedings with a look of pure glee. Maybe at least they'd get some entertainment out of this.
"And if you think you're going to squeeze out of this one, Colonel, like the other hundred times you and your team should have been court-martialled back at the SGC, you can think again. Things are a lot different now than they were when you had Hammond watching your backs, covering for your screw-ups."
Sam leaned forward, just a little, a tiny, terrifying smile appearing on her face. Rodney blinked, opening his mouth, shutting it again. Kavanagh seemed to have no idea of the danger he was in, because he just carried on:
"And don't think that your boyfriend is going to help you, either, because—"
And then Sam punched him.
Rodney didn't even see it coming. One second, Sam was sitting down, arms crossed, apparently at ease except for the chilly smile on her face, and the next, Kavanagh was clutching at his jaw, eyes rolling back in his head. "You… you…" he sputtered, and then passed out cold on the floor with a dull thud.
Rodney looked up again to see Sam shaking out her right hand, flexing the fingers. She was breathing hard, as Rodney shot to his feet and shouted: "I'm not allowed to punch him, but you are?" and Sam looked up and pointed at him and yelled back:
"You have no idea how close I came to punching you the first time we met, you are so lucky I am in a good mood!"
Rodney flinched back and bellowed: "Well, fine then!" not really sure what he even meant by that.
But then Sam grinned, relaxed and delighted and apparently insane, and if it hadn't been for his increasingly pathetic crush on John Sheppard, Rodney would have found it incredibly, insanely hot.
"Well," said Sam contemplatively, looking down at Kavanagh, who was drooling on the floor, "if I wasn't fired before, I'm pretty sure I am now."
Radek, cackled and staggered to his feet, bounding across the room to shake her hand. "And your sacrifice will go down in the history of this city."
Sam grinned a little wider. "Well thanks, Radek," she said, and then stepped briefly out into the hall. "Corpsman," she called, and two enormous Marines appeared. Rodney only knew one of them by name - a tall, weedy kid named Anders, who saluted Sam crisply when she gestured to the prone Kavanagh. The other, burlier Marine scooped him up off the floor.
"Take him to his quarters, and lock him inside," Sam told them, and paused, while the two Marines looked at each other uncertainly. "Do you have a problem with that, Marine?" she asked Anders.
Anders blinked, and then snapped to attention so fast Rodney feared he might sprain something. "No, ma'am!" and they both disappeared, double-timing it up the corridor and out of sight.
Sam made a show of dusting off her hands, and then calmly returned to her workstation. When Rodney and Radek just stood staring at her, she looked up and raised en eyebrow.
"Something to say?"
"I'm totally over you, but if I weren't, that would have been ridiculously hot," Rodney offered, and then blushed hotly. He meant it, though. "Uh."
But Sam just looked up and gave him a weirdly soft smile, face speculative, and then understanding, and Rodney had a strange flash of holy shit, she knows which didn't make any sense at all but he was nevertheless sure was completely accurate. But all she said was "Yeah, Rodney," and "thanks."
She smiled down at her keyboard for a second, and then glanced up again when neither of them moved. "Anything else?"
"Not that I can think of," Radek said, shooting a funny look in Rodney's direction.
"Great," Sam said, cracking her knuckles. "Let's get this thing done."
It was a team of twelve, including SGA-1, that gated to Esta and set up shop in the Temple of the Ancestors. The Halians were wary of their presence, but friendly with the ease of old allies, and they helped the Lantean teams in setting up the transporter to connect with Sam, Rodney and Radek's updated relay device, re-routing power and running messages to the engineers working round the clock in the catacombs under the temple.
It took them an hour and change to reconfigure the system to transport the Maru, with Rodney, Radek and Sam working non-stop in a control room that had long worn the guise of a place of worship. The reek of incense made Rodney sneeze, but he was too busy to complain.
Ronon left with Lorne's team in a puddlejumper to Maru'ess to install the relay on the far side of the village. Easy enough, since "installation" in this case involved nothing more complicated than "put it on the ground." Then they held the gate open with the jumper while Sam made the uplink.
It took less than ten minutes to beam the whole population of Maru'ess, as well as most of their livestock, into the buffer in the Estan research station. The jumper slid back through the gate to safety just as the first darts started raining down. All things considered, it was kind of anticlimactic.
"Hey, we should do it this way all the time," said John, who had been loitering throughout the evacuation, going a little nuts with inactivity. There wasn't much he could do when an evacuation mostly involved upgrading a ten-thousand-year-old computer, but he had to be there. Teyla was back on Atlantis, waiting for their contact, keeping half an eye on the imprisoned Kavanagh. Nobody seemed all that upset about him being "accidentally" locked in his quarters, but even John hadn't expected Teyla's firm nod and the "good," when Sam had told them what had happened.
"If that man were my pupil, I would knock him to the floor to teach him humility," she'd said, seeming almost angry. But then she smiled again. "We shall see how he fares tomorrow, when he must explain to his superiors how he failed to report this breach in protocol." Which was a point. At least, John thought, they might lose Kavanagh in this deal, even if they had to lose Sam, too.
He decided not to worry about that for now. They had enough to deal with today without worrying about what might happen tomorrow.
"Yeah, I'd rather not, thanks," Rodney said, and John came to stand behind him, hovering in just the way he knew drove Rodney crazy. "Now they're all… buffered," he said, flapping a hand towards his screen. "Bits and bytes. It's sort of…"
"Creepy. Okay, I see your point," John agreed, squirming a little.
"Anyway, we're not done yet," Rodney said briskly. "This only proves we can re-program the control device. Now we just have to hope I was right , and we can use this station to make contact with another."
John leaned against the console as Rodney typed, pausing every few seconds to scan the screen before carrying on. "Do you really think Michael's keeping all those people stored on some giant computer?"
"It's the most efficient method of containment I can think of," Rodney confirmed. "Bringing them out only to… anyway," he said hurriedly, "that's actually good news, if we can use this station to track down Michael's device."
"I thought you said he created his own transporter," John said slowly.
"Yes, but it still has to use the same… well, frequency is entirely the wrong word, but it's the closest I can come without explaining the entire set of equations behind it. We're pretty certain we can use this station to key into the frequency. And if we can do that… well, I've never met a computer I couldn't make roll over and beg." He grinned up at John. "And once I've done that…"
"With Sam's help," John said dryly.
"Yes, yes," Rodney said quickly, frowning. "And technically it was Radek's idea. But still."
"Yeah, it's a pretty good plan," John allowed, even though it was actually a brilliant plan.
John looked down at Rodney, the enthusiasm warring with resentment on his face, and felt an embarrassing swell of fondness that he had to cover with a cough. Now was not the time, he reminded himself. They had a village of cloth-merchants and a few planets' worth of kidnap victims to rescue – all before Earth made their scheduled daily dial-in and maybe got around to asking why Kavanagh wasn't there to give his report. "Well, go on, bring 'em out," he said, nudging Rodney with his shoulder, and if he was standing a little closer than was strictly appropriate, there was no one around to notice. Except Rodney, who definitely did notice, staring up at him wide-eyed for just a second before turning back to his screen. "We can send them through the gate to Atlantis on foot."
"Yeah, I can just imagine how everyone is going to love this, the Maru and a thousand alien sheep. This is going to be great," Rodney muttered, but he did as John said, and John ventured out to the top of the temple steps, looking down into the square. There were a few hundred people and quite a few more esse milling about where a moment ago, there had been no one but a handful of Marines.
Okay, John thought, so that was cool.
"It's only 'til the Daedelus arrives in the morning, Rodney," John reminded him. "Then they can beam the livestock to the mainland. They don't need many people there at once to manage the flock. Kest said…"
"Yes, I know what Kest said," Rodney said, pushing back from the console and glaring in the direction of the door. They were alone in the control room, Radek and Sam having gone down to the square to dial the gate.
"Just, excuse me if I'm not exactly thrilled with this situation. She plans on letting Kavanagh out tomorrow, you know, and then the IOA's going to…"
"Yeah, I know," John said, rubbing the back of his neck. He wasn't crazy about all this, either, but Sam had been right. They couldn't have just left the Maru to their fate, and in the end, it had been Sam's call.
Rodney turned back the console, pulling up a diagnostic screen and typing rapidly. "At least this seems to be working. We should be able to disable the rest of the relays from here, so Michael won't be able to vanish anymore villages."]
"That's good," John said, one eye still on the door.
He should have seen it coming when Rodney kept silent for almost twenty seconds, but he didn't. That was his fault.
"Something happened, didn't it?"
For a second, John just blinked stupidly into the daylight coming in from outside. Then he turned, saw Rodney twisted around in his chair, staring at him.
Rodney rolled his eyes a little. "In the future, while you were gone. Something happened. Or you saw something. That's why you've been…" Rodney paused, then gestured between the two of them. "This," he explained, more quietly. "That's why this has been different."
John opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again, trying not to panic, because he'd been under the impression that they were past this, that they weren't talking about it. But Rodney never followed the rules, really, and John should have remembered that. He certainly knew Rodney well enough that he should have remembered that.
"'This,'" John repeated, stupidly, without a hope in the world that Rodney was this stupid. "What are you…"
Rodney sighed, noisily, pure irritation. "Look, not to diminish Sam's noble gesture or anything, but we both know there's a fifty-fifty chance that the IOA hates you as much as the Air Force does. If I'm going to have to move back to Earth, I'd really like to know now, so I can prepare myself, because I kind of like it here, and I…"
"Rodney," John said, and wondered when his voice had gotten all choked, like that. He coughed to clear his throat, and tried again: "Rodney. We can't…"
Rodney's face turned red. He stood up, crossed the room in a few long strides, and pushed right into John's personal space. "Oh, don't even try that, all right? I get why you… we've been doing this a really, really long time, and I understand why, I think I've been very patient, considering, but we're kind of out of time, now!"
John had flinched back, and slowly, straightened back up. Rodney didn't move back, just stood there, chin thrust stubbornly forward, eyes bright and angry. And… something else, too, that a second later, as John tried to reach past his rising panic and say something intelligent, softened into affection, and then Rodney folded his arms around John and pulled him close.
John was so enormously relieved, that he didn't have to say it, that Rodney knew him so well, and he went willingly, letting out all his terror with a breath, twining his arms around Rodney's back.
"How about now?" Rodney asked, his breath tickling John's ear, and he sounded uncertain again, just a last trace of it. "Is it weird now?"
And John laughed, burying his face in Rodney's shoulder. "No," he said, tightening his grip, and he felt Rodney do the same, with a relieved little exhale. "No, it's, it's fine."
Because it was. For the first time in four years and more, it was fine. It was all right.
"You were the last one," John told Rodney, after a while, when he hadn't pulled away.
"The last one?" Rodney asked, softly, curious, but puzzled.
"The other you. In the future," John explained. "You spent twenty-five years working on it, all by yourself. You were the last one left, and you gave up the rest of your life to bring me back."
Rodney was silent for a long few seconds. "Oh," he said, faintly, into John's hair. "You mean I… oh."
"Yeah," said John, throat tight with something he really didn't need to feel, because that Rodney would never happen - this Rodney was the one he wanted.
"So I can kind of see how that might create a change in perspective," Rodney said after a minute, and John laughed, just a little hysterically.
"Yeah," he said again, when he'd got himself under control.
"I know I never did that," Rodney said, and John pulled back just enough to be able to see his face, see Rodney fearlessly meeting his eyes as he said: "but if it makes any difference, I'd do it again."
John looked at him - really looked at him the way he never let other people catch him looking, least of all Rodney himself. But here was Rodney, now, crooked mouth, exhaustion-smudged, blue eyes wide and terrifyingly earnest, searching John's face for something John was suddenly, completely aware he had to give, and was willing to give it.
"I already knew that," John told him, and kissed him, hard and wet and sweet.
What happened next, they had known would be unpredictable. But the fallout exceeded even Sam's rather un-conservative expectations.
There wasn't much resembling order in the next few days. It was almost forty-eight hours before they managed to get the Maru sorted into quarters, their livestock beamed to the mainland by a puzzled and irritable Caldwell once the Daedelus arrived, but they didn't hear a word about repercussions until the fourth day. That was when they finally got around to releasing Kavanagh from his quarters – somehow, it had gotten lost in the shuffle. He'd actually seemed subdued for all of fifteen minutes, but nothing good ever lasted.
Kavanagh had sent his message less than an hour after they'd brought the Maru safely to Atlantis. Sam had hated doing that, had been tempted to keep him locked up, kept imagining what Jack would have said and having to excuse herself to compose her face into something more sedate. Helpless laughter was probably not what one hoped for in an expedition leader while they were struggling to organise hundreds of refugees and sundry herd animals and their unspeakable mess.
But in the end, her more responsible side had prevailed, and Kavanagh had called home to rat them out. Ronon had stood at his shoulder looking threatening, but the vile little man just kept shooting glares back at him, even though he was clearly terrified. Sam got the impression that that was fine with Ronon, however. He appeared to be having plenty of fun just watching the little bastard tremble.
Then the wormhole closed, and they waited.
She had a pretty good idea of what their answer would be. She even started packing, not that she had that much to pack. Some books, a few pictures, her clothes. She'd just been thinking about having more of her things shipped from Earth when Teyla had gone missing. The irony of the whole thing – and Sam thought maybe she had indeed spent too many years under Jack's command, because she was actually starting to find the irony funny – was that she'd just begun to settle in. She'd even imagined the city – both the people in it and the city itself (which was a silly, romantic notion she'd shared with no one and would never share, either) had started to accept her. She couldn't pretend it wasn't a wrench to lose Atlantis now.
And then the messages started coming.
Slowly at first, over a few days, and then more rapidly, and soon there were visitors, vouched-for by allies, arriving every several hours.
Some came to offer thanks. Many came from one of the worlds whose people had been restored by their efforts on Esta, who viewed their return, sudden and unexpected, as something close to a miracle. Others came to thank the Lanteans – for that was what they called them – for saving them from a terrible, unseen menace they now knew to have been Michael. Most of them only knew that they had been taken, that they had been gone for a time, and that they had found themselves suddenly home again, as though no time had passed. Only a few even had any memory of where they'd been, of the time they'd been gone. It seemed Rodney had been right, and the thousands of people Michael had taken had been kept mostly in storage. The few that had seen anything of his base were hardly reliable sources – they described a nightmare setting, dark and terrible, and a monster who talked about the future as if it were in his own hands.
But some were of a less mystical cast, from civilisations on a par with Earth (and Pegasus had very few) who came purely out of curiosity, or to share rumours from the perspective of people more like in mind than the many nomadic cultures that made up most of the galaxy's population. It was from these visitors that they learned of the destruction of P93-661.
It was this last that caught their attention. P93-666 was on the far-flung edge of the Pegasus gate network, and not within Atlantis's usual purview. They'd never been there, had never even sent a MALP, but the database listed it as one of hundreds of abandoned research projects – like most of the Atlantis database, an entry with little to no useful information.
The planet had not been entirely destroyed. But an explosion had all but destroyed the viable atmosphere, something on such a scale that it had been visible from the next nearest inhabited system, a world called Doran that boasted telescopes advanced enough to photograph the flash. It was this that they brought when they visited the city, for Sam, Rodney and Radek to pore over for most of a day. Eventually they'd sent a team to investigate, but they'd found only a blackened crater and a dead world.
"Well, we weren't sure exactly what would happen," Rodney reminded her, after their team had come back from P93-661, uncharacteristically uncomplaining as John slowly freed him from the encounter suit, piece by piece. Everyone else was already out and waiting for him. "We sent a massive surge of feedback along the wavelength used by the transporter relays, and we only now know it operates by somehow drawing power out of subspace."
"It would have been the equivalent of a ZPM explosion. Maybe bigger," Radek said, tapping his chin. "But you are sure it was the device?"
Rodney shrugged, the gesture losing something through layers of fabric and plastic and protective material. Then he shot a glare at John, who was fighting with the buckles holding the shoulders together. "Can you possibly get me out of here, now? I'm hungry."
John just rolled his eyes and snapped up the buckle so fast that Rodney almost fell out of the suit and onto the floor, but John caught him by the back of his t-shirt.
"Hey! Watch it!"
"Yeah, yeah, suck it up, McKay," John said, but he was grinning, and Rodney only looked mildly irritated as John hauled him back up to his feet, pretending to pat him down for bruises and laughing when Rodney batted his hands away.
Sam had to look away for a second to hide her smile. They'd have to watch that around Woolsey, she thought. But they probably knew that already.
"Anyway, yes, we're sure it was the same device. We took scans – well, you can look at them yourself." He pushed his tablet at Radek, who took it and began eagerly scrolling through the scans.
"And what about Michael?" Sam finally asked, before John and Rodney could start bickering again. On the far side of the locker room, Teyla went very still, and then sat down on the bench next to Radek.
"There was no one left alive on the planet, of that I am sure," she said, after a moment.
"And the feedback would have been almost instantaneous, Sam, you know that. You calculated it."
"Yes," Sam said patiently, "but you yourself pointed out there was a pretty big margin for error. What if he was off-world? What if he was warned?"
The whole room was silent for several seconds, and eventually, it was Ronon who spoke up, pushing away from the lockers. "Don't think he'd leave," he said slowly. "Wouldn't leave it to anybody else."
"I believe Ronon is right," Teyla agreed, a moment later. "Michael has shown an unwillingness to trust even his own servants with anything important. I do not believe he would abandon the device as long as it was operational."
"So…" Sam looked around at all of them, one by one. "So you mean that's it? Michael's gone?"
"Jeez, Sam, don't say it like that. You'll jinx it," John said, face caught somewhere between a smirk and a grimace.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Superstitious nonsense," he scoffed.
"Oh, I don't know, McKay," Sam replied, remembering ten years of unlikely superstitious nonsense occurring the length and breadth of the Milky Way. A mutant mad scientist who wouldn't die wasn't that unlikely at all when put up against the Goa'uld. "I've heard stranger things."
Six days after their return from Esta, they held what Sam could only call a banquet on the West Pier, host to almost a hundred guests from over thirty different worlds. It was nothing fancy, but the atmosphere was festive nonetheless. Sam had been to her fair share of diplomatic summits, even on other worlds, but it had never been anything quite like this. For one thing, she'd never been the recipient of quite so many thanks or gifts, and after a few hours she started to get a little uncomfortable with all the attention.
But she stayed, because they expected her to be there, just like Sheppard stayed, and Rodney stayed, and Ronon and Teyla stayed. These people knew them; knew that they were of Atlantis, even if they weren't the Ancients. It made something twist sharp in Sam's chest, watching them all and thinking she'd soon have to leave all this, but she wasn't sorry. She couldn't be sorry.
It was full dark and the stars coming out by the time the liquor started flowing. Sam wasn't sure where it all came from – she knew some of their guests had brought such offerings but some of it was distinctly vodka-like, or whiskey-ish. She didn't ask questions, though. She sipped, and then she began drinking in earnest when Sheppard starting matching her glass for glass, like it was a contest.
She was well into their second bottle of some kind of Athosian wine – Roos? Ruus? – when a thought occurred to her, and a giggle escaped before she could stop it. Rodney, who was sitting across the table from her, looked up with wide, startled eyes as if she'd just burped instead of let out such a decidedly girly noise.
"You know what the best part is?" she asked the two of them, covering her mouth to keep any more giggles from escaping.
"What?" asked John, reaching for the bottle and sloshing it to judge how much was left.
Sam sat back in her chair and waved a hand to indicate the tables of guests, the expedition-members, their many refugees, and a group who had produced instruments from somewhere and were negotiating something resembling music with a couple of Athosian flutes thrown in. "This is exactly what the IOA didn't want," she said. "They wanted us to hide – the last thing they wanted was… was this."
She trailed off, not sure how to describe what she meant, mostly because the words were eluding her beyond the softening haze of drink. Some part of her mind was aware that this was not command behaviour, but the larger part of her reminded the rest that this was why they had shifts. There were enough sober people on duty to pick up their slack.
Fortunately, Teyla had sat down while they were talking, reaching for the bottle John was cradling distractedly in one arm and pouring herself a glass. "Atlantis has taken up a mantle," she said, nodding, and Sam saw her look out over the crowd, and smile as though she'd found just what she'd hoped to find.
"They want us to protect them," Rodney said suddenly, as if he'd just now worked it out, but a glance at his face made Sam think he'd been mulling it over for hours, now. He looked uncertain. "They want us to fix things."
"Christ," John said, softly, and Sam looked at him. "That's kind of a lot of pressure," he said, with just the hint of a whine, but Sam could see the shocked realisation – knew it because she'd been feeling the same weight ever since messengers had started arriving bearing thanks from across the galaxy. Treating them like they belonged here. Like they could make things right. It was kind of terrifying.
But before he could open his mouth to say another word, Teyla laid a steadying hand on his forearm. "They only expect you to try," she said gently, as Rodney looked on with a worried expression.
John looked down at her hand, and Sam watched as the tension rolled out of his shoulders. And Sam watched as he looked up, met Rodney's eyes, and Rodney relaxed a little, too. Sam had to look away briefly, because the look shared between them made her more homesick than she'd been in months. Well, there was that, at least, she thought. Back on Earth. At least there was Jack, and Daniel, and Teal'c, and Cassie. She wouldn't be alone.
"The IOA won't ever be happy about Atlantis as a…" she groped for the words, but again, it was Teyla who came to the rescue.
"A beacon," Teyla said. "I believe that's the word. Hope." Again she glanced out over the crowd. "More hope than we have ever had."
"Yes, that's the word," Sam agreed, and frowned down into her glass. "As far as they're concerned, we're already too involved. They'll keep trying to stop us." Sam said after a moment, and then paused, blinking, as John, Rodney and Teyla turned to look at her with varying degrees of surprise and amusement.
"Good thing we'll have you and your connections on our side, then," Rodney said, just a little smugly, and Sam wanted to be irritated – it was her default reaction to a smug Rodney McKay – but against her better instincts, she found herself smiling back. This galaxy really did do strange things to the mind.
"We'll do what we have to do," John said then, shrugging as though it were nothing – a show, Sam could tell, but only because she'd seen it before.
"I know you will," she said wearily. And then she said: "I've got people – back on Earth. I could never have…" she lifted a hand to gesture, but let it fall again, because she didn't know how to explain, wasn't sure she'd ever known how.
"You'll come back," Rodney said suddenly, stubbornly, and Sam felt a surge of something that was almost fondness for him – not quite, but almost. "You can always…" He looked entreatingly at John, at Teyla. John answered first, another shrug that carried volumes of meaning.
"You know you're always…" he said, tipping his glass in her direction. "Y'know. Welcome here."
"I know," Sam said, with a heavy sigh. But she did known that. She'd known it already.
For some time they just sat there, silently watching the dancers, listening to the musicians of a dozen different worlds make music from almost nothing. Ronon came to sit with them, trailing Jennifer with one massive hand curled around her wrist, as above them the clouds cleared away to reveal a glittering sprawl of stars. Sam spent some minutes just looking up, realising only now that she had been here so long, and it was only now that she'd found the time to look up at New Lantea's night sky. She wasn't going to cry. She wasn't. She was – for the moment – the leader of a city in another galaxy. She could cry tomorrow. Or the next day. As soon as she knew what she wanted to cry about.
She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to burn the sight into her memory, and when she opened them again, Teyla was giving her the look she only ever gave her team-mates, sometimes Jennifer, the other Athosians – a look Sam had seen her giving her son. It was a look that made her seem to have all the answers, there for the asking.
But Sam didn't have to ask. Teyla just reached out and clasped her hand, her fingers strong and cool. "We carry home in our hearts. This is something I have been told since I was very small," she said. "But there is something I had not realised until I came here, Sam – the human heart is boundless."
Sam let out a breath she hadn't even known she was holding. She nodded. She'd known that a long time – she'd known it nearly ten years, the bonds that came from fighting for things that mattered, and loving the people who fought with you. And that was something Sam understood better than most.
Kavanagh had retreated to his quarters after sending his message, coming out only for meals, and rarely for that. Apparently he kept having minor mishaps with doors, with plumbing, with what Lorne called "mysterious tripping incidents". One evening as he slunk into the mess for his dinner he collected his meal and found it infused with four times the normal ration of erde pepper sauce. He stuck to MREs after that. He didn't come anywhere near the party held on the west pier. Which only proved he wasn't completely stupid, whatever McKay said.
It took the IOA a lot longer to get back to them than anyone had expected, which for a couple of days, was a relief. They had enough to do without worrying about a bunch of suits some unthinkable number of light-years away deciding all their fates.
As far as Ronon was concerned, the answer, when it came, was a mixed blessing. For one thing the SGC dialled in while most of them were still heavy-headed from the party, so they got it in pieces from Lorne. The booze from the party was getting thin, so they'd "adjourned" to Sheppard's quarters to crack open something he'd been saving while McKay read out "the verdict" from his laptop.
Carter was being recalled - well, they'd expected that. It had been the price of saving the Maru, of stopping Michael. And Ronon was still impressed with Carter for what she'd done. A lot of commanding officers wouldn't have made that kind of sacrifice, but Carter understood Atlantis well enough to know that it needed Sheppard more than it needed her, especially now that the galaxy was remembering Atlantis as it had once been and turning to the city for guidance. And she was a good soldier. So even though she didn't want to go, she was going.
"Tomorrow," McKay had said, glaring at the screen. "Make us wait – what, two weeks? – and now she gets twenty-four hours to pack up and move out. How very hurry up and wait."
"More the other way 'round," Sheppard had pointed out, but he'd also looked unhappy.
Kavanagh was leaving, too. Ronon had heard the scientists were throwing him a going-away party - as soon as he left, anyway.
The team spent the last few hours before dawn toasting their former commander, even after said commander had fallen asleep on Sheppard's couch and everybody else had drifted out, leaving the last of Zelenka's distilled yam liquor (tasted awful, but did the job). Teyla knocked back a fifth glass without even swaying, and told them that they would hold the naming ceremony for the baby in the morning, before Carter left.
McKay, a little drunk but less drunk than Sheppard, sat up straight enough to ask: "Is there going to be any more chanting?" with a wary look.
"Just a lot of talking, McKay," Ronon told him, shrugging.
McKay considered this, blinking slowly. "Okay," he said, "good," and then suddenly gave them both a very different look, assessing and serious and for McKay, almost fierce.
But he seemed to find what he was looking for, because he let himself slide off the couch - pretty gracefully, for McKay – without waking Carter, crawl over to where Sheppard was slumped against his bed, dozing, and resettle himself heavily against Sheppard's side.
Ronon watched him all the way, met McKay's gaze square-on when he looked up again. Challenging - if a little pink-tinted and liquor-bleary - as if daring them to say something.
Ronon just grinned at them. "It's about damn time," was all he said, and McKay, apparently not expecting this, blinked stupidly for a second before grinning back.
"Um," he said, flustered, "okay. Good," and snaked an arm almost possessively around Sheppard's waist. Ronon shook his head, thinking it was a good thing Sheppard was drunk, especially when Teyla swooped down on them both, kissing them each on the cheek, all her usual dignified distance gone with the drink, laughing delightedly. This woke Sheppard with a start, but he just blinked around at them, accepted Teyla's press of their foreheads together, glanced at Ronon, and reached out an arm to pull McKay more comfortably against him. He rubbed his cheek in McKay's hair, eyes closed.
"Guys," he mumbled, "c'n you…" He sounded almost pained, which led Ronon to think he wasn't quite as drunk as he seemed, but he wasn't letting go of McKay.
"Of course, John. Come, Ronon," Teyla said then, when her laughter had faded into a quiet smile, "help me with Sam."
Ronon nodded, got to his feet with only a little spinning of the room, and helped Teyla lever Carter to her feet, each of them taking one of her arms over a shoulder. She was pretty much out, just mumbling a little as they walked to the door.
Ronon turned back once more as they stood half-in, half-out of the room. "Hey," he said, as McKay tried to drag a boneless Sheppard to his feet. McKay paused with Sheppard balanced against him, breathing hard from exertion. Ronon knew from experience that Sheppard was heavier than he looked.
"Don't screw it up, huh?"
McKay's face turned red, and he sputtered: "I'll have you know--"
But Ronon shook his head, and McKay stopped. "Wasn't talking to you," he said. Sheppard raised his head just enough to meet his eyes; he definitely wasn't that drunk. The look was stony, careful, but he nodded.
Satisfied, Ronon let the door close behind them.
They made their way for the farthest pier before dawn; most of the city, except for those on duty, and their guests as well - though they were guests no longer. The Maru, as well as more than a hundred others, were now refugees; there was nowhere else to go. In total nearly half a thousand – the halls of Atlantis were now more like a city than they'd been in all the time Teyla had been here.
"They won't send them away," Sam told her, quietly, as they walked slowly up the pier with the first few rays of sunrise touching the highest towers of the city. Teyla had rarely been outside in the city this early, had rarely if ever been down in what must be called streets. If Atlantis had ever been a city for walking, it had not been one in a very long time. But they did it today, walking up the central thoroughfare, Teyla, her team, Sam, the Lanteans, Halling and the rest of her people, the others. A parade, Rodney called it jokingly, squinting at the still-dim dawn light and knocking back two ibuprophen tablets that Jennifer produced from a pocket after taking two, herself. There were many with sore heads this morning, and Teyla was one of them, but she wasn't sorry. All joy came with sacrifice, and a hangover was a small one.
She looked to her left, saw Ronon walking with an easy stride, the only one with no lingering effects from the night before. On his other side she saw Jennifer stroking Torren's hair absently, holding him easily in the crook of her other arm. Torren, her son, the small miracle, however it had come about.
"I don't know how," Jennifer had said, "but he's immune."
"Immune?" Teyla had said, bemused, before realisation dawned with speed and force. "You mean – like those on Hoff? He is immune to the Wraith?"
"Yes," Jennifer had replied, eyes shining with that bright excitement Teyla had seen when Torren was being born – this was discovery, this was the future. This was why Jennifer had gone into medicine, she had told Teyla once. To see such things as this. Jennifer had added quickly: "It's completely stable – I'm as sure as I can be. I'm not sure if it's some combination of you and his father, or something Michael did… I'm inclined to think it's the former. Something about him…"
"Will he pass this on?" Teyla had asked, suddenly yearning to know, because it would explain so much.
But Jennifer had nodded. "There's a fifty-fifty chance of it, yes," she'd said. "More, if one day he has children with someone who has the gift, like you do." She'd let Torren curl fingers around her thumb, shaking her head in quiet wonder, and said: "Carson used to think that maybe the Ancients gave this ability to the people in this galaxy so that they could be forewarned against cullings, but that always seemed kind of… I don't know, slapdash, for the Ancients."
"And what do you believe?" Teyla had asked her. She herself felt strangely calm, held by some deep, blooming peace that the child in her arms truly was the wonder Michael had claimed he was.
Jennifer had not raised her eyes from Torren's face. "I think… I think they were trying to make up for their mistake," she'd said. "I think that the Wraith moved faster than the Ancients expected. I think that if they hadn't scattered your people and the other peoples of this galaxy as effectively as they did, then by now no one in Pegasus would be vulnerable to feeding. I think maybe the Wraith would be extinct." She'd sounded almost wistful.
"Over ten thousand years," Teyla had murmured, and Jennifer had nodded.
"Slowly. But eventually – yes. I think this little guy right here was exactly what the Ancients had in mind. Their plans just got delayed for a while."
Then Jennifer had looked up, and given Teyla a look of alarm. "Teyla – are you all right?"
"Yes," Teyla had replied, curiously. "Why do you ask?"
Teyla had been surprised to reach up with one hand to touch her cheek, and have the fingers come away wet. Tomorrow, she'd thought – tomorrow, she would mourn. After her son had a name, and their city a new beginning – then, it would be time.
Beyond Jennifer walked Sam, face raised to the sky, her smile distant and thoughtful. To Teyla's right walked her team, John and Rodney walking close together, shoulders bumping. She looked away, hiding her smile. At the very least, she thought, something good had come of all of this, even if it was only the resolution of something that had been present and certain for many years, now. It still mattered.
She missed Elizabeth, then, missed Carson, with such keen wistfulness that her steps nearly faltered – but didn't, quite. If anything their memories served to make her stronger, these days.
They reached the water's edge just as the disc of the sun made itself known, a shallow arc of orange brilliance shimmering in the water as if half-submerged.
"It is time, Teyla," said Halling, appearing beside her, and she nodded as he accepted Torren, awake now and murmuring sleepily, from Jennifer. He walked to the edge of the pier and turned to face the crowd.
Teyla closed her eyes as he spoke, telling the story of the naming for those who had not heard it before. To most of those who stood around her, it was new, but Teyla had heard it countless times, so she could recite it almost from memory. We came from the stars, she mouthed silently, and to the stars we shall return. And in the greeting of a new life we look to the place of our genesis, bless a new beginning with the light of the nearest star.
The New Lantean sea was aglow with the rising sun, and as Halling bent down to scoop up a handful of water it seemed, for a moment, as though he drew glowing sunlight into his palm. He beckoned Teyla close, to dip her fingers into his hand and trace with wet fingertips the symbol for Athos, the same symbol that was Athos on a stargate. Home. Then she traced another symbol, a new one. Lantea.
Home, as well as the one in her blood.
Then it was the turn of her son's doken, who took him one by one and promised to care for him, to guide him, to teach him. To aid him when he stumbled. To protect him from all harm. To love him like blood.
Rodney stammered his way through the words, but finished with his cheeks stained only a little red, and traced wet fingers over the baby's smooth brow, his own brown furrowed in concentration. Teyla wondered what he was writing there; whether it was a word, or a symbol to represent some grand theory of mathematics, Rodney's proof of the divine universe. Teyla hoped so.
Torren seemed almost lost in Ronon's arms, but Ronon looked down on him fondly, his voice steady as he promised and promised, fingers quick and light as Torren began to protest the cold water and being passed from hand to hand with little whimpers.
But he fell quiet when John took him nervously into his own arms, glancing a last time at Teyla with uncertainty, but at her nod he set his face, looked down at the baby, and said the words with conviction. At the end, after tracing his own secrets on her child's head, Teyla saw him bend his head and whisper something in Torren's ear. Whatever it was, it brought an end to Torren's squirming; he blinked wide brown eyes and stared up at John as though he were fascinating.
Finally Teyla took her son in her arms, kissing the crown of his head, and turning to the sea, the rising sun, swallowing back the thickness in her throat as she remembered that these last words, in a perfect world, would have been Kanaan's.
"Your mother names you Torren Emmagen," she said to the new Lantean sun, and then turned back, facing her friends, her family, the city. "Of Athos and Atlantis."
And as though only the weight of those words had held it back, the sun burst forth in full brightness across the world.
"They're late," said Rodney, pacing again across Sam's former office.
Ronon reached out this time, caught him by the arm, pulled him down next to him on the couch.
"They're not that late. Calm down. Take a nap or something."
"A nap?" Rodney said shrilly. "They're three hours late. This isn't like driving to visit somebody's grandmother, this is hyperspace travel. There shouldn't be any late. Hell, if you don't have your trip timed down to the second you can end up…"
"Rodney," said John finally, looking up from his book. He was sitting on the edge of Sam's empty desk, trying to read War and Peace, but Rodney kept distracting him. Rodney looked up, scowling. John just smiled at him, the calm smile he knew drove Rodney crazy.
"What is that, an order?" Rodney groused, but he slumped back into the couch anyway.
"I can make it one," John said brightly, turning the page in his book. Three months since they'd called Sam back, and three months of essentially nothing but downtime was a long time. He was almost halfway through, and now he didn't know what he was going to read when he finished. Maybe he could borrow something from someone.
"It's a new ship," John went on. "Maybe they had to stop and work out some kinks."
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Rodney said. "The only reason they gave Sam a ship is because they had one lying around that didn't work properly. I've seen it, remember? It's barely operational."
"Well then isn't Sam lucky she's got you to help her fix it up?" John said, rolling his eyes when predictably, Rodney puffed up proudly.
"Yes, yes, she is, now that you mention it."
"I still think Phoenix is a stupid name, though," mumbled John, only half-intending to be audible, but Rodney made a scornful noise.
"Oh, not that superstitious nonsense again. Just because it blew up in another timeline does not mean it's doomed to destruction in this one."
After a month of nagging, John had finally admitted that that was the reason he hated the name so much. He was really starting to regret it.
"Yeah, okay," John said, snapping his book shut, about to suggest he and Rodney adjourn to his quarters to indulge in some more productive distraction, but then Teyla appeared in the doorway, cutting him off.
"They have arrived," she said, and John might have been imagining it, but Teyla almost looked nervous. Then again, it wasn't like any of them knew what to expect. That Sam had finagled herself a ship instead of a permanent desk job or a discharge was still kind of miraculous to John, even if it was a ship with as many things wrong with it as the Phoenix had. (And John still couldn't believe how fast Rodney and the entire engineering staff had started making U.S.S. Defiant jokes.) He'd never say it out loud, but he was pretty sure General O'Neill had had something to do with it. Not that he begrudged Sam taking advantage of her connections. She was a hell of a lot more use to them in Pegasus with a ship than she was sitting behind a desk back on Earth somewhere.
"I've changed my mind," Rodney said suddenly, after Ronon had preceded them out of the office. "I'm not sure I can do this."
John stood up. "Rodney…"
"No, I'm serious! I'm a terrible liar! I ruin surprise parties! Maybe I should just go back to my lab and—"
John cut him off by sliding one hand around the back of Rodney's neck and squeezing, something that cut him off mid-word with his eyes wide.
John leaned in close. Rodney still had his arms crossed stubbornly across his chest, but his eyes were fixed on John's face.
John waited a couple of seconds until he was sure Rodney was paying attention, and then he gave Rodney his laziest, dirtiest smile, the one that in and of itself was enough to make Rodney flush to the roots of his hair. Rodney had accused him of abusing it on more than on occasion.
"Look at it this way, Rodney," John said reasonably, "if we get transferred back to Earth, they'll probably send you to Nevada and we'll never get to do this—" he bent his head to press a slow, wet, convincing kiss to Rodney's mouth. Rodney resisted stubbornly for all of two seconds before he relented, arms uncrossing and hands gripping John's jacket tightly. Consequently the kiss went on for several seconds longer than John had intended, and when they finally parted they were both a little out of breath.
"—ever again," John finished, a little breathlessly, trying to remember when he'd lost control of this. Probably about four years ago, he figured.
Rodney was still a little pink in the face, but managed to glare at him anyway. "You could always resign," he pointed out, and John couldn't help but notice that when they had this conversation the possibility of Rodney quitting his job never once came up. Then again, of the two of them, it probably was more important that they had Rodney around to save the world when it came up. There was nothing on Earth that lit up just because John smiled at it – except Rodney, of course.
"Rodney…" John began, but Rodney sighed with irritated resignation and added:
"Also I suppose there are these innocent people depending on us, and everything."
John pressed another quick, dry kiss to the corner of Rodney's mouth. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, buddy," and squeezed the back of Rodney's neck once before letting go. "You ready?"
"Yes," Rodney said, looking disgruntled but no longer as nervous. "Ready."
Sam and her command staff beamed down directly into the gate room, and the team paused at the top of the stairs to hold one last whispered conference.
"Now remember, Rodney, nobody expects you to be polite, but remember we've got an ulterior motive here, okay?"
"Yeah, McKay," Ronon repeated, and Rodney looked almost offended.
"Me? Why are we all picking on me? I'm not the one who decided the two most emotionally stunted people in the city should be in charge of winning our new commander over to our cause for compelling emotional reasons!"
"Hey!" hissed John, a little hurt. Rodney rolled his eyes, giving him a consoling pat.
"Yes, yes. I love you very much. But it's a really good thing we have Teyla and the…"
"Have they beamed down?" Teyla hurried up to them, adjusting Torren on her hip. He was apparently behaving today, looking around with curiosity and no crying at all. John really just hoped he decided to hang on to that good mood. He reached out to rub Torren's fuzzy reddish hair and remind him:
"Remember, buddy, we're counting on you," but Torren just yawned and looked cute. "Exactly," John said, turning back to Teyla, who smiled fondly at him.
"Okay kids," he said, straightening his uniform shirt and turning to face the music. Sam had spotted them, and was making her way across the floor of the gate room, smiling broadly.
"Oh god, here goes," Rodney muttered, as they descended the stairs.
"Colonel!" Sam greeted him, shaking his hand, and turning to her left, where a young-looking man in a ship suit stood clutching a tablet under one arm. "This is my second-in-command, Major Marx. I believe you've met before?"
"Yeah, a few times. Nice to see you again, Marx," John said, shaking his hand.
Sam paused then, glancing over her shoulder, giving John a significant look. John sighed, squared his shoulders.
"And you remember Mister Woolsey," she continued, as Woolsey stepped out of the little knot of airmen, coming forward to accept John's handshake.
"Yeah. Welcome to Atlantis," John greeted him.
"It's good to be back." Woolsey gave him an uncertain look, then relaxed a little when John just smiled politely. He actually smiled back, then, looking around the gate room. "I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to being here."
And he was… sincere, John thought, and wondered suddenly whether the IOA had made a second big mistake. They'd assumed Sam would do what she was told - they'd been wrong, because they'd underestimated her, hadn't really gotten the psychology that came with being on a gate team, with being part of something like Atlantis.
Woolsey, on the other hand, was their man. John knew from experience that he was, above all, sincere. Believed the IOA should be running things. Here he was, businesslike, following the rules, oh, yes, but he really did want to be here. Wanted to be in Atlantis. Which as far as John was concerned was both a sign of mild mental imbalance and a point in their favour. It got into your blood in a way that most people could never predict.
Woolsey shook hands with Rodney, who was… well, himself, and then with Ronon, eyes widening as he took in, maybe having forgotten, just how big Ronon was, though Ronon smiled and said hello and was as welcoming as John could have wanted.
Then Teyla stepped forward, and Torren chose that moment - kid was a genius - to let out a high-pitched noise of delight, reaching out to fist one chubby hand in Woolsey's uniform jacket. He jumped, then looked surprised, and then smiled, big and unfeigned.
"This is my son, Torren," Teyla told him, head tilted in his direction, all warmth and welcome and god, Teyla really was an amazing diplomat. They'd all be dead by now if it weren't for her, for this, what she was doing right now.
"Hello, Torren," Woolsey said, taking one chubby brown hand in his fingers and shaking it solemnly, a smile still unshaken on his face. "How old are you?"
"He is a little over five months old," Teyla told him, adding: "He was born here, in Atlantis."
"Well, you're a very handsome young man," said Woolsey seriously, and John met Rodney's eyes over Woolsey's shiny bald head and grinned, just barely stopping himself from pumping a fist in the air.
"Do you have any children, Mr. Woolsey?"
And Woolsey, apparently taken by surprise, opened his mouth, shut it again, and said, "ah, yes. I have two daughters." He looked back to Torren, who was staring at him as though he was fascinating. "I don't see them much."
Across the room, Rodney looked up again, and it wasn't just a smile he sent John, but affection written clear on his whole face for a risky sliver of a moment, triumph and hope that they might be able to save the world yet. Warmth that filled John up to the brim until he had to look away for a second or be caught grinning goofily in front of a dozen Marines and a crowd of alien civilians and half his command.
And John thought: maybe they could work with this, after all.