Big Bang 2008.   Forks in the Road: Adrift - Elizabeth has the nanites, but is never captured by the Replicators.
After Elizabeth Weir, John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, and Ronon Dex escape from the Asurans in Lifeline, the ZPM they risked everything for is drained of power during the city's landing on a new planet. Everything that Elizabeth knows about herself could change in a heartbeat. She fears that she could endanger those the loves, so she pushes them away, but John is determined not to let her deal with this on her own.
Sheppard/Weir, Emmagan/Heightmeyer/Lorne, hints of Dex/Keller
Word Count
44805 words
Betareaders are Tricia, Azar, and Amitee. Thank you!
Companion Artwork
  • Light by Chelsey
  • Parenthetical by quiet_fractures

since feeling is first
by e.e. cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for eachother: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Elizabeth stood outside on her balcony. Her face was turned up to the night sky, and her hands rested on the railing. The skin around her knuckles was strained and white. John couldn't see her expression. He couldn't see anything but the tight set of her shoulders.

"Okay," he said. "I can do this." He exhaled a long, drawn-out breath, then stepped through the doorway. The wind hit him with a blast, and goosebumps dimpled the skin of his arms. Maybe it was fall now? Didn't matter. It was time to pull out the long-sleeved shirts. Elizabeth didn't react as he stood there, the door closing silently behind him. He walked forward, but even when he standing next to her she didn't respond.

When he reached one hand out to touch her, she flinched away and whirled to face him. "You shouldn't--" She bit off the comment. She wouldn't let herself finish the thought. Wouldn't put the words between them, despite the fact they both knew too well what she was thinking.

Fine. If she wouldn't say it then he would.

"Shouldn't what?" he asked. He kept his voice from sounding too loud or too rough, but he knew controlling his voice was a bad sign. Elizabeth knew it too. "Shouldn't touch you?" He wanted to go to her. The urge to pull her into his arms was almost irresistible. He couldn't fix this, but damned if that stopped him from wanting to try. "What the hell?"

"It's not safe," she said, stepping back. "You shouldn't have dismissed the guards."

"I don't fucking care if you think it's safe," he said. Goddamn it. He was not going to let her run for the hills. She was not allowed to cut herself off from everyone. He had a good idea what she was thinking and fuck if he'd go along with it. Even if it was 'for his own good,' it wasn't going to happen. "I'm not letting you push me away, Elizabeth."

"I should be in isolation right now," said Elizabeth. The way she met his eyes made him think she'd meant to say something else.

"The hell you should," said John. "In case you missed it, Elizabeth, we don't have that option. The city's stranded. God only knows how long it'll be before Rodney and Zelenka figure out a way to make contact with Earth." John shook his head. "We need you in charge of this city and negotiating treaties so we can eat when our food runs out, not locked away in an isolation room."

"What happens if the Asurans find us?" asked Elizabeth. She shook her head, though what she was denying, John didn't know. "We're very near their home planet. I can almost hear--"

"Then we deal with it," said John. His blood was turning to ice in his veins. She was sinking with every minute, pulling away from him and into herself. He felt helpless, watching her. "Come to bed. You're not gonna find any answers out here."

"Fine." John rubbed at the back of his neck. "Fine. Just take it easy, will you?"

She didn't say anything, just turned and stared up at the sky. He glanced up, following her gaze. Funny, but John was already starting to get used to the idea of two moons. At least there was one thing he could say that about. It wasn't much, but that was the thing about Atlantis. It taught you the important things.

Kate was tired. As a matter of fact, she'd gone beyond exhausted, and was getting to bone tired. After the Asurans had attacked Lantea and they'd settled the city onto its new planet, she'd been working non-stop.

More people than ever stopped by 'on a whim,' or 'just to see how she was,' and her appointment calendar was packed. Personnel who had avoided her for three years now had become regular visitors. As business went, she was officially in a boom.

She hated it. Rubbing her forehead, she looked at the tablet before her and started to mentally rearrange some of the appointments she found there. She could move Zang to three, and slip McGulligan in before his duty shift started at one. If necessary, she could ask Dr. Zelenka to come in early, which would leave room for Hawkins.

Kate made the updates, sent out notifications, and then sat back, desperately longing for a cup of coffee. She could go to the cafeteria to get one, but was it worth the effort? Probably not. Their stores of Earth-based supplies were running low, and she was jittery enough as it was. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she settled for a bottle of water from the small fridge she kept in the corner of her office.

Opening it, she went to the window and looked out over the still-alien landscape. Kate paused with a rueful grin. "Waterscape," she said to herself.

With the dawn, the second moon had become a pale shadow on the horizon. It would be invisible to the naked eye by midday. She didn't quite know how she felt about this new planet yet. The horrendous events that had surrounded their flight from Lantea had left her view of it muddied and uncertain.

She sipped her water slowly and tried not to wish for the ability to rewind time. It hadn't gotten the Ancients anywhere.

"Some day," she said, "I'll be better at this." She turned and smiled at Teyla, who stood in the doorway with a bemused expression. Finally. Someone who had come to see her for her sake, not their own. "I didn't hear you until the door opened."

"You are improving," said Teyla. She stepped into the room, and the door slid shut behind her. It was almost noiseless, with only the barest scrape against the floor betraying its motion. Crossing the room in easy strides, she came to stand at Kate's side. Her presence had always been soothing to Kate, but now she felt it more than ever. With an eye on the horizon, Teyla took the bottle of water Kate held out. "I have yet to grow accustomed to the change in view."

"Me either," said Kate. She looked at the ocean with somber eyes. "It's just water. There's not much difference between here and Lantea, and yet-- "

"And yet," agreed Teyla. They let the silence draw out for a moment. "Have you seen her yet?"

"No," said Kate. She turned away from the window, then went to get another bottle of water and sit on one of the couches. "She's avoiding me. I've barely seen her for more than a minute at a time since Jennifer released her from the infirmary."

"She has kept to herself," agreed Teyla. She hesitated, looking like she wanted to say something else, so Kate kept quiet and gave her a curious look. She watched Teyla circle around to sit on the other couch, drawing her legs up beside her. "I believe John has begun spending more time in his own quarters."

"I'm trying not to be offended by it." Kate smiled faintly. "It's a professional hazard, like being a coroner. It's not a problem until someone in your family dies. Just ask Louise Biro."

"With enough time, I believe Elizabeth's feelings will change." Teyla wiped water from her lower lip. Kate watched the action with interest. "She's afraid of herself right now."

Kate knew that, but there was a difference between knowing the clinical symptoms of a condition and watching a friend experience them. Hearing it from someone other than herself helped to reassure her that her diagnosis wasn't mistaken. It was more than that, though. It helped settle her unease about the way Elizabeth was reacting to therapy in light of the friendship they'd developed.

"Yes, she is," said Kate. She looked down at the bottle in her hand. "It's killing me that I can't help, but until she's willing to spend her time in therapy trying to make progress-- "

"She will want to return to duty. In order to be able to do this, I know that Dr. Keller will insist that she speak with you." Teyla curled her mouth into a smile that was almost mischievous. "You will be able to help, Kate. I am sure of that. you have a remarkable talent for difficult patients."

"It's not talent." Kate shook her head and gave Teyla a rueful look. "Just practice. I'd classify everyone in this city, including you, as a 'difficult' patient. Not that I mind."

"I did not believe that you did," laughed Teyla. She sat back and watched Kate. "Are you all right?"

If there had been someone else in the room, they'd have thought the question came out of nowhere, but from the moment Teyla arrived, Kate had been waiting for it. "I'm tired," said Kate. She let herself look diffident. "I've been busy."

"The recent events have left us all in a state of disquiet. We were very accustomed to Lantea." It was obvious to Kate that Teyla left out most of the major issues, but it wasn't as if she needed to lay them on the table.

Carson's death. Their move from Lantea to M35-117. Elizabeth's current problems with her recovery from injuries, with the nanites, not to mention the visible disintegration of her relationship with John. All of those affected the mood of everyone in Atlantis. Until Elizabeth recovered, the expedition wouldn't be able to find its feet on this new planet. They needed a visible example that things would improve.

"It's been difficult for us all, but for especially you. You bear the weight of everyone else's burdens." Teyla's voice was understanding.

"Not all," said Kate. "Not usually."

Teyla tilted her head, her smile gentle. "This is not a usual situation for us to be in." She pushed away from the couch, moving to sit beside Kate. Her hand was warm and dry, and Kate fought the urge to relax and lean against Teyla. "Of us all, you are the only one without someone to turn to."

"Just another hazard of the job," said Kate. She smiled, but the look Teyla gave her said she wasn't fooled. "On Earth, I'd have another therapist, one with the appropriate security clearance, to talk to about how I'm doing. Unless we can get back in contact with Earth, I can't do that. For now, I'm coping. Some days are better than others."

Kate had been hoping, before the ZPM had been drained and they'd lost contact with Earth, to convince Elizabeth that the IOA should release funds to expand her department. If she thought she'd been overworked the first year, now her need for a full staff was far more dire. The past six weeks hadn't contained anything that dissuaded her from that notion.

Leaning back against the couch, she looked at Teyla. She didn't say that it was taking everything she had. Some mornings she lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling, wishing for five more minutes before she had to get up and face the world. She shifted, turning toward Teyla. The comfort of her gaze, so familiar and gentle, was irresistible. She turned, curling her fingers around Teyla's.

With her free hand, Teyla reached out to brush stray hairs away from Kate's cheek. Her fingertips grazed the soft skin, and Kate shivered. She closed her eyes, listening to the familiar cadence of Teyla's voice. "There will be more of them," said Teyla softly. "Until then, I hope that you know you can come to me if you wish someone to listen to your burdens."

Kate squeezed her hand. "I know." She opened her eyes and met Teyla's intense gaze.

There was a moment when nothing happened, and Kate would swear that the silence between them was stretched taut and thin. It was about to snap. In an instant, one of them would move forward. It was the instant that she and Teyla had been waiting for, but before either could move, there was a soft, almost inaudible whirring sound. As the door opened, Kate sat up, her face smoothing into its usual placid expression.

"Uh, hi." Rodney stood there awkwardly as Teyla looked at Kate with a bemused expression. "Is it time for our session, Kate? Because if it's not, do you have a few minutes? I really need--"

"I believe Kate is expecting another patient shortly," said Teyla. The tension in her voice was obvious, if only to Kate.

"It's all right," said Kate, silently cursing the interruption. She smiled at Rodney. "I have some time. If you'll excuse us, Teyla?"

This was the day that Elizabeth had been working toward. She'd started out in an isolation ward, wearing a hazmat suit. It hadn't lasted. She'd been released, and gone to the Asuran homeworld, then come back almost unscathed. Every day, she'd gone in for a physical, and now that she was here for the last one, she felt hollow inside. She couldn't feel like it was an accomplishment. She wasn't even relieved right now. She sat on the infirmary bed with a blank expression, and endured the exam with as much stoicism as she could manage.

"You're in perfect health." An apologetic expression crossed over Dr. Keller's face. "Physically."

Elizabeth nodded once as she let her eyes focus on her hands, which were folded in her lap. She knew what Dr. Keller was going to say next.

"Psychologically, I'm hesitant. I'd like you to continue your appointments with Kate Heightmeyer," she said. In her peripheral vision, she could see Dr. Keller wince as Elizabeth's knuckles whitened. "I'm going to sign off on your return to active duty, but that's conditional on regular appointments. Kate will have determine your mental fitness for the job."

Elizabeth looked up and saw Dr. Keller's earnest expression. "I'm not so sure I--"

"Nonsense," said Dr. Keller. The intonation on that particular word had to have come from time practicing medicine side by side with Carson. Grief hit Elizabeth in a wave, but Dr. Keller continued on. Somehow, she'd lost her usual uncertainty. "I called Kate to see if she could work you in after your physical. There's no negotiating your way out of this one, Dr. Weir."

If it had been anyone else in the expedition in her position, Elizabeth would have wholeheartedly agreed with Dr. Keller's decision, not to mention commended her resolve. Since she was the one in the hot seat, it was all she could do was pretend nonchalance, when all she felt was uncertainty.

"If you want to go back to work, you have to spend time with Kate. A lot of it." Dr. Keller patted Elizabeth's hand reassuringly, then glanced back over her shoulder. "Isn't that right?"

Elizabeth didn't need to follow Dr. Keller's gaze to know who was standing there. She grimaced. She'd been had by a well-planned medical conspiracy. Elizabeth hated being the target of a medical conspiracy. If nothing else, she had to get back on active duty so she could implement a ban on Kate Heightmeyer and Jennifer Keller ever speaking to each other again.

"That's correct," agreed Kate. She walked closer, and, for an instant, Elizabeth wondered how long she'd been there. She decided she wasn't interested in making a guess.

When she looked up and met Kate's eyes, she saw friendship and understanding in them, but also enough professional distance that she wasn't overwhelmed. Bless Kate for that.

"Hello, Elizabeth," said Kate. She sounded so casual about being here, like this was an everyday occurrence for her. Maybe it was. It wasn't as if Elizabeth was familiar with the general procedures for Kate's psych reviews of the personnel. "I was able to clear out my schedule this morning. I know you're chafing at how inactive you've been."

Elizabeth held back a sigh and tried not to feel guilty at being so reluctant to see someone who just wanted to help her. She didn't reply. She wasn't sure of the answer, and whether it was true or not, she felt like admitting that would be admitting to a weakness. She wanted to get back into the swing of things, but the security risk was incalculable. The nanites in her body had seen to that.

"Would you like to get a bite to eat before stopping by my office, or have you had breakfast already?" asked Kate, acting like Elizabeth wasn't sitting here digging her fingernails into her palms.

What Elizabeth would like was to give Kate a sour look, but that just wasn't possible. The woman would analyze any kind of a reaction. She was sure she'd already betrayed more than enough of her mental state. There wasn't a chance in hell she'd give Kate more to work with. "I've already eaten, thank you," she said.

Kate smiled. It was bright, cheerful, and a lot closer to the friendship Elizabeth treasured than the professionally sympathetic therapist expression. Her feelings at seeing the change ate at the distance she'd been hiding behind.

She didn't feel up to returning the smile, so Elizabeth schooled her features into an expression that was serious. It was the sort of matter-of-fact face she presented at more difficult negotiations. She only hoped that Kate wasn't going to recognize that.

Whether she did, or not, Kate gave no sign. She accepted Elizabeth's pronouncement with a brisk nod and stepped back. "Good. I'll see you in my office in, say, fifteen minutes?" The tilt of her head and the upturn of her voice at the end of that sentence made it sound like Kate was asking a question.

It wasn't. Not really. The order underneath it chafed at her. She wasn't supposed to be subject to those.

"Of course," said Elizabeth. She slipped off the infirmary bed, then reached for her shirt and pants. The stark white of the infirmary scrubs chilled her, and she was more than ready to be rid of them. "If you don't mind, I'd like some privacy while I change." She forced herself to smile, and immediately regretted it. The act felt unnatural. That was obvious, and not just to her, she was sure of it.

She was relieved that neither Kate nor Dr. Keller acknowledged the awkwardness. "We'll leave you alone," said Dr. Keller, walking with Kate to the door. Their heads were together, and they spoke in low voices that didn't carry back to Elizabeth.

It wasn't an act of modesty for Elizabeth to wait until they were gone before she changed. She'd never been more obsessed with it than an average American woman of her generation, but the past six weeks' worth of physical exams had slowly eroded those concerns, at least around Dr. Keller. "Don't be silly, Elizabeth," she told herself, then closed her eyes and shook her head. "Just change your clothes and leave. You have therapy next."

She was talking to herself, and she was trying not to feel silly? All she wanted to do was go back to her quarters, open up her laptop, and find where she'd left off in The Grapes of Wrath. Elizabeth pressed her mouth together and took a deep, long breath, then let it out slowly. She pulled the white scrub shirt over her head and folded it carefully, setting it down on the bed.

Goose bumps formed on Elizabeth's arms as she reached for the deep red shirt that she'd left on a chair earlier. She tugged the long sleeves down to her wrists and stepped out of the drawstring pants. The black pants she changed into were warmer than the thin cotton of her scrubs. She stepped into her shoes as she tried to remember everything she needed to do today.

Elizabeth felt almost human as she reached for her jacket, squared her shoulders, and walked out of the infirmary.

Teyla was waiting for Elizabeth when she got back to her room. She stood outside the door, her shoulder leaning against the wall, and for an instant, Elizabeth hated Teyla for her casual grace.

"I have spoken with Dr. Keller. She says that you are healed, and almost ready to return to duty." Teyla ignored Elizabeth's disapproving look and smiled at her. "In fact, she says you need never fear injuring yourself again. Rodney also assured me that you are well, and the nanites have caused you no harm."

Elizabeth twisted her mouth into a skeptical frown as she waved her hand over the door controls.

"Kate refuses to divulge any details of your psychological health," continued Teyla, stepping inside after Elizabeth. "John has been the most determined, but he remains unsuccessful. I think that it amuses Kate when he begins wheedling at her."

"Thank goodness for small favors," muttered Elizabeth, turning her back and walking over to the couch. She slipped her jacket off and set it down. Taking a deep breath to settle herself, she waited a moment, then turned back to Teyla. "I assume nothing's wrong with the city? Every report I've managed to get my hands on says the repairs from our trip here are finished."

"They are complete as of a week ago," said Teyla. She gave Elizabeth a stern look. "Though you are not supposed to be reading reports right now."

"Then you should have deactivated my command code like I told you to," said Elizabeth. She folded her arms across her chest. "Why are you here? If there's nothing wrong with the city, what else is the problem? Has someone been injured?"

Teyla's look said she wasn't fooled by Elizabeth's attempt at misdirection. "Only its leader," she said. "A woman who is also my dearest friend. You are whole in body, Elizabeth, but your spirit has suffered a grievous injury."

"Why is everybody insisting that I be okay with this?" asked Elizabeth, aware of the anger that laced her words.

"We are not," said Teyla. She walked up to Elizabeth and took her hands in a strong, sure grip. Elizabeth flinched, but Teyla wouldn't let her pull away. Her grip tightened, bringing her in closer "All we are asking is that you let us help you. You would ask the same of any of us, were we in your position. Let us help you."

"Teyla, you don't understand--" began Elizabeth.

"What it is like to have something of one's enemies inside oneself?" Teyla's look was skeptical. "You believe that you know better than anyone what that is like, but that is untrue. If there is anyone on Atlantis who can understand how you feel, it is me. Or have you forgotten that I am part Wraith?"

"That's only a small fraction of your genetic code--" she started, but there was no way Elizabeth was going to be able to finish voicing an objection.

"It is enough of their genetic code that I can touch their minds," interrupted Teyla. She tilted her chin down and frowned at Elizabeth's shake of her head. "It is enough of their genetic code that I can control them, or that I can be controlled by them, should I let my guard slip. Do you not recall? It was not so long in the past that the Queen wrested control of my body. I have not forgotten the injuries Ronon felt at my hands."

Elizabeth sighed. It was just a slight rise and fall of her chest, but she knew Teyla wouldn't miss it. Teyla missed very little.

"You are not as alone in this as you think," said Teyla, letting Elizabeth's hands fall free of hers. "We are your friends. John is your lover. The entire city will support you, because we have faith in you, and in your abilities as the leader of Atlantis."

"Yes. Well, my abilities as leader of Atlantis have to get me to Kate's office within the next ten minutes," said Elizabeth. She smiled wryly as she rubbed her hands together. "I have a sneaking suspicion she'll call in the Marines if I don't show up on time."

"I have it on good authority that she would never do such a thing," said Teyla. Her smile was as full of mischief as it had ever been. Elizabeth had to give Teyla a curious look and raise one eyebrow before she would continue. "Ronon and Major Lorne volunteered to escort you themselves, should it have been necessary."

"I guess I'd better get going, then," said Elizabeth. She pasted a smile on and was relieved to see the set of Teyla's shoulders relax, even if it was just a fraction.

"I will walk with you," said Teyla. She returned Elizabeth's smile. "Come. I am certain Kate is almost out of patience with waiting."

There was a cup of coffee waiting for her on Kate's desk. Steam curled into the air, and Elizabeth inhaled the scent wafting across the room before she could help herself. Kate brought her own mug to her lips and sipped at it, her expression neutral. Elizabeth stepped inside and let the door slide shut behind her. She weighed her options as she looked between Kate and the mug.

"It's just coffee," said Kate, setting her mug on her desk. "Have a drink. The analysis comes after I can get you relaxed enough that I think you'll start talking."

"I think I'm too jumpy for caffeine," said Elizabeth. She walked across the room, sat down, and reached for the mug anyway. It felt oddly reassuring to hold the mug cradled in both hands as she waited for Kate's next move. She found she needed the barrier, no matter how flimsy it was. She looked into the dark liquid, only too happy to have a reason to avoid meeting Kate's eyes.

"That's understandable," said Kate. "It's going to take you time to adjust."

Elizabeth laughed. It came out more bitter than she'd intended for it to be. "I don't think I have enough time in the world for that." She looked at her hand and the veins running beneath the surface of her skin. Her entire body was being permeated by nanites. "I'm a threat to Atlantis. There's no other way to look at it."

"That isn't what I've heard," said Kate. "Radek and Rodney have been positing that there are ways to sever the nanites from the Asuran network."

"Yes, and that's all it is. Speculation," said Elizabeth. "Nothing more. I'm not willing to risk this city on Rodney's theories, given that he's the one who came up with the plan to reactivate them in the first place."

She bit back a scowl as Kate sat back in her chair. Kate's expression was blossoming into a smile, and Elizabeth let herself frown at her. "Don't say it."

"Say what?" asked Kate. She looked guileless. She looked amused. "I wasn't going to say anything."

"Yes, you were," said Elizabeth. She sipped at the coffee. "You were going to tell me that this entire mission was a risk taken on the idea of what we might achieve, and that we've gone far beyond what we thought was possible."

"I wasn't going to say that. Now that you mention it, though, you do have a point." Kate looked smug, and for an instant, Elizabeth hated her. "You might want to consider listening to yourself now and then."

"That wasn't fair." Elizabeth took a long drink of coffee, then lowered her mug. "It doesn't change anything."

"No, but it could," said Kate. "If it were anyone else sitting here in your situation, what would you be thinking? Not from a strategic standpoint, but from the point of view that this would be someone you knew. Someone that you were close to." She looked expectantly at Elizabeth. "What would your honest opinion be if it were, say, John who had been infected by nanites?"

She didn't want to answer. She didn't. Elizabeth turned the concept over in her mind as she suppressed a gut-wrenching surge of fear at the idea that John could be infected too. She could get up and walk out now, but even if she stayed and found a way to wriggle out of it, Kate would get the answer out of her. She was relentless, which Elizabeth appreciated when Kate was exercising that trait on anyone else.

"I know this is a difficult question, Elizabeth." Kate's voice was soft now. She was trying to be understanding, but there was no way she could know what it was like. She couldn't even begin to imagine it.

Why didn't any of them understand that these nanites made her dangerous? How could they avoid the realization that the Asurans could rewrite her mind? They could take over. What if the next time they tried was when she had the one moment of weakness that let them do it?

No one would ever know she was gone. Not until it was too late.

Elizabeth took another sip of coffee as she mulled over what to say. She knew that Kate had learned every avoidance technique in the book and then some, but she did it anyway. "You know perfectly well that we never abandon our own. Not on Atlantis. Even if we were able to contact Earth, I would never give the order to ship John off to Area 51."

It had nothing to do with the fact that she loved John, or that he was one of the handful of people whose advice she'd come to depend on. She could live without him, and the fact that she'd slept alone the past few weeks could only prove it. They just didn't abandon their people, not anyone.

"I see." Kate's voice was calm. "Is that all?"

It wasn't all. She should be dead. She could harm everyone who was dear to her. What the hell could she say to shut Kate up? "Yes." Whatever it was, she couldn't think of it.

"What would you do if you told John this, and he didn't listen?" asked Kate. Her voice was intent now. "How would you presume he was feeling?"

She'd tell John he was being an idiot. In so many polite, pointed, diplomatic words. Elizabeth frowned. "I'd bring up the possibility that he was being somewhat--" She hesitated. Not unrealistic. She wasn't being unrealistic. "Unreasonable. Possibly that he was afraid and he didn't want to admit it."

That might be enough of a revelation to satisfy Kate, or so Elizabeth hoped.

"If I were talking to John right now, I'd tell him it's all right to be afraid of change," said Kate. She leaned forward, moving closer to Elizabeth as she picked up her coffee again. "It happens to all of us. You know, if we were in contact with Earth, there are other people--"

Elizabeth very carefully didn't flinch away. "No," she said. Her voice was firm and even, and she matched Kate's curious look with an even one of her own. "Even if we could get in touch with Earth, I don't think there's anyone there who'd be interested in a Pegasus galaxy support group for people who've had aliens invade their body."

"I think there might be benefits from talking with someone other than me," said Kate. "At any rate, it's a moot point. But you might want to consider talking with Teyla about it. If anyone could understand, it would be her."

"Have you been talking with Teyla?" asked Elizabeth. There was something in Kate's expression when she mentioned Teyla that Elizabeth didn't see when she talked about anyone else.

"Hm?" Kate made a soft noise instead of answering right away. "Of course. We're both worried about you. I'd never say anything that would even hint at what goes on in our therapy session, though."

"Of course not," said Elizabeth, leaning back in her chair. Kate was good. Elizabeth hadn't been this relaxed around anyone in a while. She couldn't let herself forget caution and relax again. Just in case.

Teyla did not linger outside Kate's office during Elizabeth's session. As much as she wished to remain nearby, in order to offer both aid and comfort, doing so would put additional strain on both women. Though the guards no longer followed Elizabeth throughout the corridors of Atlantis, her movements and her actions were noted by every person in Atlantis. Teyla had found that the tendency to gossip was common to humans from both Earth and Athos.

With each bit of progress she made, both physical and mental, Elizabeth symbolized with the hopes of both Athosian and Atlantean alike. Teyla knew she was aware of it. Even if Elizabeth did not understand the true importance of her standing in Atlantis - which Teyla believed she did - Elizabeth could not help but sense the weight of the city's expectations.

Such upheaval could only make it worse, and Teyla could not bear the thought of adding further burden upon her.

It was with that thought that she left the hallway. Her movements were slow, and while she did not cast her eyes to the floor, she could not meet the eyes of any who passed her by. The confusion and pain that had become Elizabeth's new companions grieved Teyla, as did the knowledge that she could do nothing about it. She only hoped that Kate could. Someone had to.

That Elizabeth might never be free of these feelings was a fear that cut Teyla to her core.

Her thoughts had distracted her enough that she hadn't realized that Evan Lorne now walked at her side. He kept his gaze on the corridor ahead of them, waiting for her to make the choice of whether to acknowledge his presence, or to keep silent.

The gesture warmed her. "Evan." Her look at him was fond.

Freed to begin a conversation, Evan gave her a sympathetic smile. "Just saw Dr. Weir, huh?" he asked.

She nodded. "It is that obvious?" Her voice was dry.

"Coming from Dr. Heightmeyer's office with that look on your face? There aren't many other people who could make you look that glum." Pushing his hands into his pockets, he glanced at the floor and then at the wall. "How is she?"

Clasping her hands behind her back, Teyla sighed. "In truth, I am not sure. It is too soon, I think, to ask that question."

"Six weeks shouldn't be too soon, but it is. Too soon for a lot of things." Evan was rueful. "That doesn't seem to be stopping us, does it?"

She smiled. "No, it does not."

With that, they both fell into silence. Teyla was not a woman afraid of the spaces in a conversation. Sometimes they could reveal as much, even more, than speech, but this silence stifled them both.

Turning a corner, Teyla stopped at a window and looked out. The city lay sprawled out before them in all its gleaming beauty. "To look at it, one would never even dream it was anything but paradise." She thought of the stories of the Ancestors told to her as a child, compared them to the realities of her life in Atlantis, and then looked at Evan.

His expression was somber. "She's going to be okay."

"You do not sound convinced of that," said Teyla. She put her hands on the ledge and leaned forward, breathing in the salty air.

"I'm not," said Evan, as bluntly honest as ever. He moved closer to the window, resting his hands on the sill next to hers. "When I think about it too much, I get scared to death. Nobody ever said this job would be easy, but we've been dealing with more than our usual run of bad luck lately."

Teyla said nothing. She didn't think he wanted input as much as he wanted her to listen and so she did.

"I started out in the SGC," said Lorne. "We didn't have the Wraith in our galaxy, but we had some pretty nasty customers. You ever hear about the Goa'uld?"

"I have not forgotten that Colonel Caldwell was host to one," said Teyla. "They're a race of symbiotic beings who claimed godhood. We venerate the Ancestors, but as teachers, not as deities. These Goa'uld--"

"The Cliffs Notes version is that they were pretty nasty customers. They dominated most of the galaxy for centuries." His lips twitched into what Teyla would almost call a smirk. "Earth kicked their asses out and buried the Stargate. We make lousy slaves."

Teyla's smile echoed his. "Given your behavior in this galaxy, I am not surprised to hear this."

He laughed. The sound was more heartening than she expected. "Didn't think you would be

"Yeah, didn't think you would be." Evan slapped his hands against the window sill, then straightened up and turned to lean against it. "We found the gate about sixty years ago, but didn't know what it was. No one could figure it out until ten years ago. Colonel Carter and Dr. Jackson puzzled it tout. The first expedition through the gate got some Goa'uld attention, but it wasn't until a year later that war was declared."

"The people of this galaxy can sympathize," said Teyla. "I imagine it must not have been easy for the humans of your galaxy."

"I'm not saying one group has it worse than the other," said Evan. He looked diffident, but Teyla was certain that he was not. "I didn't get into it until a few years in. Worked on a project with a race called the Unas. They'd spent thousands of years under Goa'uld control. At first, they were hosts, but then it was hard labor. The Goa'uld probably worked millions of them to death."

"In that, the Goa'uld are different than the Wraith," said Teyla. "I doubt they considered others, even other species, to be food."

Evan's expression darkened. "On the surface, the Unas looked like savages. They'd been denied the chance to grow. A lot of humans all over the galaxy lived the same way."

"Stagnation. I have witnessed this tragedy here," said Teyla. She had seen it most on worlds where the culling was heaviest, but the planets were not burned and made uninhabitable. Those that didn't lived a shadow of their former lives. They played out the same roles time and again, each generation failing to advance beyond that of their parents.

"It can't last forever," said Lorne. "We thought we'd never beat the Goa'uld, but they're mostly in hiding now. The last time I saw the Unas I worked with, they'd signed a treaty with Earth. They sent us naquadah. We send over supplies. Things they can't get on their planets. They're building a future."

"It must be gratifying to know that you had a hand in it."

"Yeah, but that's not the point of this story." Evan folded his arms and nodded his head in the direction from which they'd come. "When it gets bad, I remind myself about the Unas. If the Unas can get past that, we'll get past this. It's only a bump in the road in comparison. Maybe I'll start believing it if I think about it enough."

"Do you believe it yet?" asked Teyla.

Evan laughed. "Not quite, but I'm working on it."

"For many generations, my people thought the only option was to survive as nomads. We abandoned the city of the Ancestors and the burdens of a stationary life, and found a new way as nomads and traders." Teyla moved closer to Evan, tilting her head up to meet his gaze. "We survived. Then your people came, bringing the Wraith, and we found yet another way."

Her smile seemed to reassure Evan, who didn't speak, but his interested look was enough prompt for her to continue on.

"Elizabeth is still learning how to live with the changes to her body," said Teyla. "I know that she will."

"Just a matter of time, huh?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, and the weight of her belief infused the words. "Just a matter of time."

Whether or not Elizabeth believed that, Teyla did, and she would continue to do so for Elizabeth's sake. The look on Evan's face said that he would as well.

The air in Elizabeth's office was musty, but otherwise, everything was the same as it had been the last time she'd been inside it. She glanced back over her shoulder, staring down at the windows in the control tower. It looked like nothing had happened to them. She could relate.

Elizabeth nodded to herself once, squared her shoulders, and stepped inside her office. Her desk was in order, thanks to Teyla, so there wasn't anything for her to clean. That was a shame; she could use the distraction of tidying up.

She sat down and flipped open her laptop. Before it was finished booting up, Dr. Zelenka had appeared. He was hovering in her doorway, waiting with a hesitant air for Elizabeth to notice him. At Chuck's concerned look through the glass, she gave him a reassuring smile.

"Radek?" Elizabeth leaned back and clasped her hands in her lap. "What can I do for you today?"

"Here is the problem," said Radek. The words almost burst forth from him as he hurried inside. "We, um, that is, Rodney, he asked me to deactivate your command code. As a security measure. But we did not, and then one thing after another happened--" He waved his hands in the air apologetically. "I just now realized this."

"Just this morning, you mean?" asked Elizabeth. She gestured at the guest chair, and Radek collapsed into it.

"No, I mean just now," said Radek. "I thought you should know. In case Rodney took the action himself, and you could not log in right away."

The Stargate's activation alarm blared, and Elizabeth met Radek's eyes. There was a familiar thread of adrenaline running through her veins now as they both surged to their feet. "I didn't miss this part," she said wryly as they hurried out the door.

"Welcome back, Dr. Weir," said Radek. His voice was dry.

They reached the control area and Elizabeth stopped. Chuck looked up and nodded at her. "It's Colonel Sheppard's IDC," he said.

"Let him through." Elizabeth moved to the top of the stairs and watched as John stepped through the 'gate. He stopped and glanced around until he saw Elizabeth. She hoped she was the only one who noticed the way his enter body stopped thrumming with tension when he caught sight of her. Teyla and Ronon followed, then Rodney came through last, rolling his eyes and huffing.

"I don't believe those people!" he exclaimed. "It's not like we haven't--"

"Rodney." Teyla's voice was firm. "It is within Ladon's rights to ask to speak with Elizabeth."

"It isn't that he asked to talk to her," said Ronon. "It's the way he asked."

"There have been rumors moving about this galaxy," said Teyla, stepping forward to stand in front of John, "that you are dead, Elizabeth. Ladon is concerned that we are concealing your death, and no longer bargaining in good faith. He demands that you gate to Genia to negotiate in person."

"I see." Elizabeth didn't miss the worried glance that Rodney and Radek gave each other. She lifted her chin. "If Ladon doesn't believe that you have the ability to broker trade negotiations in Atlantis' name, Teyla, then I see I'm going to have to go and inform him otherwise."

"I believe it would be--" Teyla paused and smiled at Elizabeth, who returned her smile with an equally smug expression. It wasn't entirely false. "--beneficial."

"I agree."

"You and Teyla are double-teaming Ladon." John tapped the flat of his palm against his P-90 and rocked back on his heels. "The Genii aren't gonna know what hit them, are they?"

Ronon chuckled. "Not if we have anything to say about it."

She was struggling. Walking into the clearing, John put on his sunglasses and tilted his head up. From this angle, it could look like he was checking out the clear blue of the sky. Which he was, sure, but he also got the advantage of checking up on Elizabeth without looking like he was checking up on her. Given that she'd gone so far as to kick him back into his quarters, he'd take all the checking up he could get.

He hung back, ostensibly as the lookout, but mostly because he wanted an excuse to see how his team was handling the changes. Time was Elizabeth would have had a bounce in her step and a sparkle in her eye at the chance to get off-world for a while. Times were changed. Watching her made that clear.

Elizabeth was following the well-worn path with what she probably thought was casual ease, but to anyone who knew her, it was single-minded determination. Rodney was babbling, his hands waving at their surroundings, as he tried to make up for Elizabeth's silence.

Teyla stood next to her, companionably close and making idle conversation when Rodney ran out of chatter. John knew damn well Elizabeth had long since given up trying to increase the physical distance between herself and Teyla.

Ronon kept himself at the ready, a step behind Elizabeth, and stayed quiet. Guy was more sensitive than John had given him credit for when he'd first come to Atlantis. Watching her, John had the impression Elizabeth was hanging on by her fingernails.

Not that it took a medical degree in psychiatry to see that. Kate wouldn't give him the particulars, but she talked in a lot of general terms. It was all medical psychobabble about typical responses to trauma, and she was sure that Elizabeth would have to work through these issues, and they could all be there to help, and didn't he know by now that Elizabeth liked to hold people at a distance, and they should be there if she needed them, but definitely never, ever push?

John scoffed mentally. Because he was so good at not pushing when he thought it was necessary. He and Kate had gone a few rounds over it, and even considering his relationship with Elizabeth, not to mention his position in Atlantis, she'd refused to break doctor/patient confidentiality.

God damn it. Of course, if Kate had caved, he'd have lost all of his respect for her. He wasn't gonna stop pushing until she did. Pretty much put him in a lousy position. The only two people in lousier spots right now were Kate and Elizabeth.

He'd been willing to stay with Elizabeth, in her bed, every goddamn night. It wasn't as if he hadn't spent a couple years there. If he was okay with being woken up by her nightmares, she should be okay with it. Hell, if talking to Kate helped, he'd stop pushing. If he really had to. The idiot slacker thing was only a facade anyway.

The fact that John was able to hide his own nightmares from Elizabeth spoke volumes about that. When it came to everything that could happen to her, his subconscious was creative, not to mention frighteningly prolific. Which was probably why Kate had yanked him into mandatory sessions too, and made sure they were double the usual length.

John cleared his throat, coughing a little at the end of it. He angled to walk closer to Elizabeth, slipping past Ronon to get there. Ronon nodded at him and fell back a few more steps as John matched his pace to match Elizabeth's. "Nice day," he said, his tone noncommittal. "Feels like spring, don't you think?"

Teyla gave him an understanding look and moved forward, reaching out and closing her hand around Rodney's wrist to tug him along with her. He protested, his voice loud, until Teyla said something in a quiet, firm tone and his mouth snapped shut so hard his teeth clicked together.

"More like fall," said Elizabeth, almost absently. She looked up at him and tried for a smile. He wasn't fooled. It was wan and strained, and not at all like the brilliant expression that he remembered. That combined with the shadows under her eyes made her look exhausted. No wonder. From all the tossing and turning he knew she was doing, even though he wasn't there, it would be a miracle if she'd gotten any rest at all.

He grinned and tipped his head forward, just enough that he could give her the look he knew she reacted to with more amusement than exasperation.

He smiled, tipping his head at her a little. "I won't ask," he said. He didn't need to. She was fidgety.

Her smile widened, and at least for a minute, John thought it might be real. "Thanks," she said, as she stopped at the edge of a tilled field.

John gave Ronon a look, and he walked right past them, catching up with Ronon and Teyla. Elizabeth closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She held it for a minute, then let it out slowly as she opened her eyes. He shrugged once and held her gaze.

"It shows?" asked Elizabeth, frowning. She was probably ticked at herself since she couldn't hide it from him.

He waved Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney on. They needed a minute to themselves. "Just a little. Probably not to everyone, but I'm special," he said. Well, he was. There was a tree near the edge of the field, and John leaned against it as he looked at her. "Maybe I'm not the right person to be saying this, but you know it's okay to be jittery, right?"

"Jittery?" echoed Elizabeth disbelievingly. She moved closer, and the only way John could resist the urge to wrap his arm around her waist and pull her close was to remind himself that they were off-world. She looked down at her hands, and John almost shuddered as the image of her fingers stuck into Oberoth's forehead popped into his head. "Jittery would be generous about how I feel. John--"

She paused, and John let her stew in her own silence. When she met his eyes, he knew that look. He'd seen it in the mirror more than once, and he had to stop himself from checking for blue skin and claws at his fingertips. Her expression changed then; it was just a hint in her eyes that she recognized what he felt.

"John, I'm terrified." They words didn't come out quickly. Elizabeth didn't blurt anything out, but having the words dragged from her was enough for him to know about her internal struggle. Even after all the time they'd been together, they'd only managed to talk about their feelings once. He was the pot, she was the kettle when it came to expressing themselves.

"You know if there's anything in my power--" John broke off and swallowed. "Jesus, Elizabeth, put me between you and an army and I'll take them all out before it kills me, but I'm really not good at this kind of thing."

"You're underestimating yourself," said Elizabeth. She smiled wryly. "But the army's easier to deal with."

"You're telling me." John shrugged. She'd flinch away if he tried to touch her, and then the beginnings of what could be an understanding would be gone. "Be easier if Ronon would trade weapons with me."

"I--" started Elizabeth, before falling silent.

"I'm not the only one underestimating myself," said John. He glanced in front of them, and Teyla was standing about twenty feet down the path. Ronon and Rodney had their backs to him and Elizabeth, and they were all standing there, talking quietly.

The only thing Teyla seemed to be looking for was if Elizabeth was going to break and run, which, hell, John was trying to figure out too. "Seems to be a whole lot of underestimating going around now. Maybe we should get Keller to look into that. Could be an epidemic."

She chuckled at the same time as she gave him that look that said 'just because you made me laugh doesn't mean I've changed my mind.' He'd take laughter. It was a start.

"I don't need to tell you that you can handle this. I'm going to, even if you get pissed at me for it." He took a deep breath, ready to step back if she started glaring daggers at him. "You can handle this, Elizabeth. Hell, you may be the only one in Atlantis who could."

The look Elizabeth gave him was more consideration of what he'd said than acceptance of it, but if she was thinking about it, then at least it was a start. "We should keep moving." She stepped back, and the look in her eyes was shuttered as her controlled demeanor returned. "We're expected."

Goddamnit. He'd been so close to reaching her.

"Oh, yeah. Wouldn't want to keep our buddy Ladon waiting." His voice was dry, and his smile was more of a grimace. He'd rather just shoot the man, but then Elizabeth would read him a louder riot act than that one time Rodney'd blown up a solar system. "Come on, Elvis. Let's go make an appearance at the local 7-11."

"Do they have those in Pegasus?" asked Elizabeth, as she watched John push away from the tree.

"I don't know, but I could use a Slurpee right about now," said John. Teyla nodded at them and touched Ronon on the shoulder as they started moving forward. "Bet Teyla would know where we could find one."

Ladon was waiting for them. He stood inside a small building, waiting behind a negotiating table, and there were only a few guards outside. Sora was next to him, her arms crossed as the Lantean delegation approached. Elizabeth and Teyla stood in front. Ladon's expression was neutral, but the slight widening of his eyes was all Elizabeth needed to see as she entered the building.

"Ladon." She smiled politely.

"Dr. Weir." He nodded.

Sora tilted her head and studied Elizabeth. "The whole galaxy thinks you're dead," she said. "Or that maybe you got your brain wiped by the Ancestors' bastard children."

"Sora!" exclaimed Ladon.

"What? Everyone knows about the Ancestors' bastards by now." She let one shoulder lift and fall in a half-shrug. "It's not like she doesn't know we were thinking it."

"But it is not something that one says." Teyla frowned at Sora. Elizabeth had long ago learned that she wouldn't take kindly to a lecture. "Not to anyone, much less to one who is a friend of your people."

"Negotiations are pointless when the parties aren't acting in good faith," said Sora.

She'd have a lousy career as a diplomat on Earth. Elizabeth smiled as Ladon gave Sora a pointed look. "Now that I'm here, and we've all proved that nothing is wrong with me," said Elizabeth, clasping her hands together in front of her and walking forward. "Shall we begin?"

Nothing obvious was wrong with her, at least.

As long as she continued to present that image, things would stay on track. The irony of that wasn't lost on her. There were very few times in their history on Atlantis where they could say things had gone according to plan, but she continued to strive for it.

The chief battle had already been won. Ladon was pacified, if only outwardly. She was going to count that as one small victory. That much she was certain they could build on.

"I must admit, Dr. Weir, that I'm relieved to see you're well," said Ladon. His smile was placating, though underlying it was the calculation she was used to from him. It took effort not to show her unease. "The suggestion that you'd been killed was disturbing. I can't imagine Atlantis without you."

Elizabeth bit her tongue and quashed the urge to contradict him. Pointing out that he and Kolya had imagined an Atlantis without her or her expedition, and had attempted a military incursion for exactly that purpose wouldn't be productive.

She smiled and resisted the urge to look behind her for John. He would appreciate the humor, if nothing else.

She caught the thought as soon as it formed, and pushed it to the back of her mind. She couldn't do that now. She didn't know when she would be able to share things like that with him again, if ever. "You were no less relieved than I was," she said, feigning politeness. "It's been a difficult year."

"For us all," said Ladon. "It's my hope that these negotiations will change that. The Genii deserve a better future than the one our previous leader had planned for us." The frustration on his face seemed genuine, but Elizabeth wouldn't rush to believe it. "I want to be the one to deliver peace to both our peoples."

What he wanted was for Atlantis give concessions that would benefit the Genii, and all without the Genii giving anything up. Elizabeth watched him while letting nothing of her thoughts show. This was familiar ground. She'd spent years watching her opponents across the table and trying to judge their motives through their body language. There was a time, long past, when she'd lived for this.

Elizabeth didn't know what she lived for now. Not any more, not when she wasn't supposed to be alive. This was all a mistake.

The facts of how much she'd changed was never easy to face. She took a seat, controlled the pace of her breathing, and waited for Ladon to make the first mistake.

"Are we going to dial Genia soon?" Radek set his laptop down next to Chuck's station and met his curious glance with a shrug. "Rodney. He left some simulations running, but I do not understand what he is trying to do with them. Since they are eating computer memory throughout the city--"

"Sounds like Dr. McKay," Chuck said, laughing. "He sometimes forgets anyone else exists when he gets caught up in his work."

"You are too nice," said Radek. He frowned at the computer. It was booting much too slow. "He does not think anyone else's work is important enough. He has been worse than usual since we landed on this planet."

"Do we have a name for it yet?" asked Chuck. "Or are we still just calling it M35-117?"

Radek looked over and tried to decide whether he would let Chuck get away with the change of subject or not. "The astronomers tell me they have asked Dr. Weir to come up with a name," he said. "She has not gotten back to them."

"She's been a little busy," said Chuck. He sounded defensive.

"Do you think I would blame her for that? Everyone understands. We all thought we had lost her. So soon after losing Dr. Beckett, it would be--" He shrugged, then tapped at the keyboard of his computer, which had finally logged him in. "No one wants to think about it."

"Let's try not to," said Chuck. He looked at his watch, then over at Radek again. "Time to do the check in. It's probably going to be Colonel Sheppard and Rodney. They'll be bored by now."

"You do many of these check-ins?" asked Radek. "We have another communications technician on staff. Two, since the Chinese sent us another scientist. Dr. Zhang, yes?"

"I feel better knowing I've done them," said Chuck. He shrugged. "Besides, Zhang is still learning the systems, and the night guy's asleep."

"Do you ever miss Peter Grodin?" Radek was seized by the impulse to ask. Perhaps his morbid curiosity was prompted by recent events. Who knew?

"Not every day." Chuck merely shrugged, but he did not look pleased. "No one knew the gate controls like he did, though I sometimes think I'm starting to get there."

"We miss them all still." Radek pretended to focus on his monitor while he blinked his too-moist eyes. "Shouldn't you be dialing by now?"

Chuck was punching in the gate code for Genia. "Already on it," he said.

"They're about to check in from Atlantis." John glanced at his watch and tried not to breathe a sigh of relief. Neither Elizabeth nor Teyla would appreciate him making a mess of things by looking as bored as he felt. He jerked his head at the gate. "Want to ditch this joint?"

"God, yes," said Rodney. John had been watching him fidget for an hour, and throwing him glares every time he opened his mouth to say something. Rodney should be grateful Ronon was standing between him and Ronon. Ronon wasn't known for his self control. He'd have shoved an elbow into Rodney's guts to keep him quiet.

John slipped outside, trying not to look impatient. After all, it could be worse. Ladon could've stalled, and then not talked to them at all. Or it could be raining. Rodney followed, grumbling under his breath and dragging his feet as John ambled over in the direction of the Stargate.

"You know, you could just enjoy the day, Rodney," said John. "It's Elizabeth's first time off Atlantis since she was injured, and--"

"She's about to jump out of her skin," snapped Rodney. "What if she doesn't pull it together? What if Ladon kicks us out of here again, or takes us as hostages? What if Kolya shows up? Huh?"

"Kolya's dead," said John, shooting him a dark look. "We dragged the body back to Atlantis, and Beckett autopsied him. I made sure to stuff some garlic in his mouth. Just in case someone tried to pull the stake out of his heart."

"Oh, very funny. Are you going to hold that grudge forever?" They got to the gate and stood well back, waiting for Atlantis to dial in. "It's not like Kolya's one of the parasitic bloodsuckers dragging this galaxy down."

"Why would you say that?" John knew he sounded confused, but why would Rodney say that? He knew damn well everything that Kolya had done to them.

Rodney blinked. "Well, I mean--" He paused and waved his hand dismissively at John. "It's not like the Wraith aren't the biggest parasites around. We all know that. That's all."

"Whatever," said John. He slouched back against a tree and watched the Stargate light up.

"Colonel Sheppard, is Rodney there with you?" asked Radek. He set his laptop's mic to pick up radio frequencies, then turned on the sound wave capture device. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, waiting for Colonel Sheppard to answer.

It wasn't standard Atlantis protocol to record conversations in the detail that his software would, but then again, Radek preferred additional data. It wasn't as if the Ancient database didn't have room to store more than even the SGC's computers did.

"Yeah, he's here." It must have been a bad day. Colonel Sheppard sounded more irritated than usual.

"Rodney, you left your analysis running," said Radek. He could not help the irritated sigh that escaped him. "It is taking up too much memory. Is it critical?"

It couldn't be critical. If it had been critical, Rodney would have asked Radek to watch it while he was on Genia. On the other hand, if Radek shut it down without checking with Rodney, he would hear about it for the next week. Possibly two. Best to check.

"Of course it's not critical," said Rodney, his voice scathing, if tinnier than usual due to the radio signal. Radek frowned. "If it was critical, you'd be in the astrophysics labs right now, babysitting my valuable research, not in the gate room being a pain in my ass."

"Good. Then Miko and I are shutting it down." Radek straightened and squinted at his monitor. There was an odd fluctuation in the wave analysis. Maybe he was picking up a Genii radio signal on a similar frequency to their communicators. "We have power consumption reports to run before we start maintenance on the naquadah generators."

"Good luck." Rodney sounded smug, and Radek's eyes narrowed. "You and Miko are going to have to hack my command code and my encryption to get it shut down. My research may not be critical, but it's still more important than routine maintenance. You can run your power consumption subroutines on the off hours."

"See if we don't hack our way through them," snapped Radek. "In record time." He reached out and flipped his laptop closed with a loud click, then slipped his headset off his ear.

"Not again," said Chuck sympathetically. Chuck was under Dr. Weir's immediate authority, not Rodney's. He could afford to be sympathetic.

"Yes," sighed Radek. He picked up his laptop and tucked it under his arm. "Again. Now if you excuse me, Miko and I have a great deal of work that must be done."

Four hours later, she and Teyla were still tag-teaming Ladon in an intricate game of words. Sora was making abrasive remarks that were too well-timed to be unintentional. The one thing Elizabeth could use right now was a break, but the first one to suggest it would lose ground.

Ronon was looming behind her, glaring at Ladon and Sora. Rodney was huffing furiously every time she opened her mouth. John had him dragged to a corner of the room, and if Elizabeth didn't mistake what little she could overhear, he was threatening to sit on him if he didn't shut up soon.

"I don't see why they're so arroga--" Sora fell silent as Teyla's head whipped up to stare out the open window at the sky.

"The Wraith come," she said. She met Elizabeth's eyes as they rose. "In great numbers."

There was a humming sensation in the back of Elizabeth's head. She could see a dart through a window. It cut through the air, its scoop beams flickering on, then shutting off quickly.

"My God," she said, unable to catch her breath as she stared. It raced toward the building, its pilot single-minded in his pursuit. It was if he knew the group gathered beneath his target's roof contained the chief political, scientific, and strategic minds of two worlds. "How could they know?"

John answered her, but she didn't hear a word of it. Instead, she found herself focused on the humming. It thrummed through her, pulling her toward the door. The situation only grew more disorienting as she reached the entryway and tugged it open.

"We need to run," said Elizabeth. More darts began to pour out of the Stargate and zip across the sky. They passed the window in dark streaks. They'd begun culling. There wasn't much of an aboveground settlement, which meant it wouldn't take long before they reached here. It wouldn't take long before they reached her.

They needed to move. Her legs seemed frozen as she stared at her oncoming death. The humming undercutting her thoughts grew more intense. She couldn't ignore it enough to tell her body to move. Elizabeth's breath came too fast, and darkness gathered at the edges of her vision.

It took Teyla pushing her out the door before Elizabeth could break free of it. Even so, it receded to the back of her thoughts. She couldn't escape from it, and as she shook her head, trying to clear it, Teyla grabbed her arms and tugged her forward.

Elizabeth let herself move, Teyla just before her, and Sora next to them. Within three steps, they'd reached a free-for-all. The Genii were scattering in every direction. Most of them were heading for the underground entrances, some to take shelter, and others to man defense stations.

The darts screamed overhead, and she shared a look with Teyla. What little defenses the Genii could mount against numbers like this. Elizabeth could almost see the wave of incoming darts through the Stargate. The image was fuzzy and out of focus in her mind, but if she just squinted she could see it.

Elizabeth sucked in a deep breath, trying to concentrate on what was happening to her, but the buzzing in her mind made it difficult. She shook her head, trying to pull her thoughts, if only a little. "We need to get to the gate," she said to Teyla. Elizabeth shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked for John.

If she could just get back to Atlantis. Get out of here. If she did that, then maybe she could get it together. She picked up the pace, her stride taking her out in front of the others.

"Elizabeth! Wait!"

She heard John's yell, but didn't slow her stride. If she could reach the gate, then she could get home to Atlantis. Teyla was saying something, and Sora was trying to get her attention, but if she stopped, she wouldn't be able to start again. The buzzing in her head had become a dull roar, getting louder and more intense with every step. If she could just reach the gate--

She couldn't.

The next few seconds blurred in her mind. She heard John yell as Teyla grabbed her arms in a bruising hold. She was knocked off-balance. Wind rushed by her face as she fell toward the ground, and Elizabeth tensed, waiting for the impact.

The world winked out before she hit at the Wraith dart swept them away.

It was a beautiful morning. Evan hated those. They made him suspicious. It was sad testament that life in the Stargate program made a soldier learn to equate beautiful with disaster, but that was happened when you had the Goa'uld hanging around a galaxy.

Any time there was good weather and a clear, picturesque day, Evan Lorne expected all hell to break loose. It made finding time to paint serious hell sometimes. Too many bad memories.

"Unscheduled off-world activation," said the sergeant. He looked up with a frown. "We're receiving a signal, sir." He touched his ear piece, listening to the message coming through. "It's one of the Marines."

"I hate being right," muttered Evan. With a sense of foreboding, he waved a hand. "Patch me through. Keep the shield up for now." Squaring his shoulders, he waited for the tell-tale sound of the channel opening. When he heard it, he turned his back to the open wormhole. "This is Major Lorne. Status."

There was a hesitation, then the Marine responded. In the background, Evan could hear the sound of explosions, weapons fire, and the sound of Wraith darts fading away. There were panicked screams in the background. They'd have a mob on their hands before long.

"The Wraith, sir," said the Marine.

It took everything Evan had not to make a caustic comment. There was a 'no, really?' on the tip of his tongue. He pinched the bridge of his nose as he waited for the Marine to continue. The kid was green. Fresh off the last boat from Earth, and probably shipped out just after finishing Basic.

Someone, somewhere had the idea this assignment was supposed to be a milk run. Good experience for getting a newbie soldier's feet wet. "Sir! They-- " The kid broke off as explosions pounded the air and got transmitted over the radio.

Evan turned to look at the wormhole, picturing the mess on the other end of it. He could place the soldier's voice now. "Marine? Walker? Status!"

"Fine, sir. Just close. Sir, they got some of our people." Even over the explosions, Walker's voice was hollow and scared. "The Wraith took Teyla and Dr. Weir."

"Fuck," snapped Evan. "How long's it been?" He heard shocked murmurs shock race through the control room. The news would be all over Atlantis in half a minute. He knew he had to say something to them, thought Dr. Weir would mabye want him to, but he couldn't find the right words. His mind was too busy cataloging supplies and ordinance they'd need to take along.

He already had a list of personnel. He nodded to his second, who was radioing the rest of the team. They'd be on it in a heartbeat. The good thing about being able to pick your team out was knowing you'd picked people you could rely on to get shit done when it hit the fan.

"Just a couple minutes. We tried to get to them, sir, but it was chaos." Walker's voice was too high pitched. "The Genii are in the way, and we got cut off. It's a fucking mess here, sir."

If Evan could ship his ass back to Earth on the next Daedalus transport, he would. Walker was a good kid, but he couldn't handle the complexities of interplanetary politics. He needed some seasoning on Earth first.

"Don't doubt it," said Evan. "What about Sheppard? Ronon? Any idea on their status?"

"No idea, sir. We're looking," said Walker. "Right after they were culled, there was an explosion. One of the Genii weapons backfiring, we think. Nobody's sure. Like I said, it's a mess. We're working on it."

"Work faster," said Evan. He sounded angry, even to his own ears. It was better than letting fear get the better of him. He could feel the eyes of the others. If they knew just how scared he was, he'd never live down that reputation.

Teyla. The Wraith had Teyla and Dr. Weir. Maybe Sheppard, McKay, and Ronon too, if they were unlucky as all hell, which they had been lately. Evan's blood ran cold. If they realized who they had in their custody and tried to use them as hostages, he'd be forced into a replay of what had happened when Kolya had Sheppard. Or maybe they'd just torture them for the location of Earth instead.

If the Wraith didn't realize who they had, then Dr. Weir and Teyla would be dessicated husks before the city could mount a rescue mission.

"Stay low. As soon we can get our shit together, we'll send teams." Evan's mind was in full tactical mode. The Air Force had trained it into him when they made him an officer. Keep your eyes open. Keep sharp. Grab every chance you can get. "They may want medical aid. We'll start prepping to get some of our people over to help out while we get a search party going."

"We'll be waiting, sir," said Walker. "They're going to need whatever they can get."

"Here's hoping they'll be willing to accept it," said Evan. "Call as soon as it's safe."

"Will do," said Walker. "Out."

As the radio cut off and the wormhole closed, silence fell in the room. Evan looked around at horrified faces. Everyone was staring at him and expecting him to come up with some kind of answer. The staff on duty expected him to reassure them it would turn out all right.

He'd seen Sheppard get the same looks for weeks now, ever since word about what happened with Dr. Weir hit the Lantean grapevine. Hell, Evan had gotten some of them on his own, but not to the same extent that the command staff had.

Evan rubbed the back of his neck, trying to pull together something coherent to say. Something inspiring. He came up with squat. He forged ahead anyway. Sheppard was never going to let him live this down, presuming Evan got the chance to tell him about it.

"You heard Walker. The Wraith have hit the Genii with a major culling. They've had casualties, not to mention plenty of damage." Evan's voice was loud and sure. It carried straight through the tower. "We don't know much yet, but we need a plan, people. We need to get our asses in gear and be ready to hit the ground running."

It was almost not a surprise when everyone's expressions looked just that much more determined. "Let's get moving."

Nobody did. Fuck. He wasn't Eisenhower. Hell, he wasn't even O'Neill, but it didn't matter. He didn't know what they were waiting for, but if they needed more, Evan would give it to them.

"Yes, they took Dr. Weir and Teyla, but we don't know anything more than that." Evan met the eye of each and every one of the in turn. He had them. Now he knew why Dr. Weir gave such goddamn good speeches. It was a rush.

"As soon as the Wraith realize who they have on their ship, they're going to start making demands. They're more valuable alive, and their Queen will know that."

Evan didn't know if there was some kind of Wraith most wanted list of Lantean personnel, but he was betting no one here would think of that. Not right now.

"They'll try to use our people as hostage, and for information. They're not dead yet, people, and this isn't a fucking wake! You've got jobs, and if you want to have half a hope in hell of getting our people back, you better be doing them. Pep talk over."

He turned away, tapping his comm. "Lorne to Keller. I'm on my way down, Doc. We need to talk."

Elizabeth came back to consciousness slowly. The humming had softened, retreating to hover just on the edge of her thoughts, and she winced as she opened her eyes. Her head throbbed, even though the lighting was a faint, dim blue. She recognized it from the seemingly endless reports she'd read from her teams about conditions on a Wraith Hive ship.

Great. Her one and only diplomatic encounter with the Wraith had ended in failure. "This one's not looking much better," she muttered to herself.

There was a whirl of motion at the corner of her eye, and Elizabeth looked up to see Sora crouching next to her. "She's awake." At least Sora didn't sound sullen. Of course, the last time Elizabeth had seen her in a holding cell, they'd been on different sides of the conflict.

Teyla moved from where she was keeping watch at the door of their cell. "Elizabeth, are you well?" She knelt next to Sora and reached to put one hand on Elizabeth's shoulder.

"Fine." Elizabeth pushed herself upright and regretted it. "Fine except for a killer headache." Moving slowly, she settled against the wall to find a more comfortable position. "You both seem okay."

"We are uninjured," Teyla agreed. She cast a glance back at the door. "There has been no movement thus far. The Wraith seem to have more pressing matters at hand."

With a wry smile, Elizabeth rubbed the back of her head. "Who gets up from the dinner table to check the refrigerator?" The comment came out with more bite than she'd intended. Sighing, she shook her head. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong."

"I don't understand it anyway. It's not a big deal." Sora shrugged, then folded her arms and thumped her foot against the floor. Her nonchalant pose was a lie. Elizabeth could see the fear in her eyes. "So, what grand plan to escape should I expect?"

"Just as soon as we come up with one, I'll let you know," said Elizabeth. She looked at Teyla. "Any suggestions?"

"Not at present," said Teyla, a suggestion of a twinkle in her eye. "I am, however, formulating several possibilities. At the moment one becomes clear, I assure you that you will be informed."

"It's such a relief to know you find such humor in this," snapped Sora. She pushed to her feet, pacing around the room. "I, however, seem unable to do so." She looked at them. "Perhaps it's some peculiar Lantean tradition?"

"You'd be surprised." Elizabeth leaned her head back against the wall. "We will get out of here, Sora, so there's little point in bemoaning our fate."

"It will not be our fate for long," said Teyla, calm. She sat down at Elizabeth's side. "Elizabeth is right; there is no use in concerning ourselves with it."

"I am a little concerned." Elizabeth pushed herself to her feet, brushing off Teyla's wordless offer of help. "How many times have you and your team escaped from a Hive ship, Teyla?"

Sora straightened with a nimble grace Elizabeth envied. "Must we hear of all the exploits of the Lanteans once again?" she asked as she heaved a loud sigh.

"It was merely four or five times," said Teyla. She smiled, and Sora gave her a curious, somewhat dour look.

There was only a little smugness in Teyla's voice, so Elizabeth just raised one eyebrow and crossed her arms. Teyla didn't have the grace to look sheepish as Elizabeth scanned the cell. "Then we'll just have to get back to Atlantis," she said. "So we can confirm it. Have you had any luck, I don't know, rewiring the control panels or something?"

"The controls are across the corridor," said Sora. Her voice was loud enough that Elizabeth winced. Her head was still aching. "We haven't had any luck getting to them. The Wraith took our weapons before they shoved us in here."

Elizabeth frowned and walked over to the door. "I see," she said slowly. "Teyla, any ideas yet?"

"I have one," said Teyla, after a minute of looking at war with herself. "You will not like it."

The somber note in her voice made Elizabeth deepen her frown. "From the way you're saying it, I already don't like your idea," she said. For a moment, if it was even that long, she considered rejecting it outright. She knew Teyla. If it bothered Teyla this deeply, Elizabeth was going to have deep misgivings. She looked at Sora again and still saw flickers of fear deep in her gaze.

Realizing she didn't have the luxury to refuse, she turned back to her friend. "All right," she said, squaring her shoulders. "Let's hear the plan I already hate."

Teyla hesitated for an instant before speaking. "The nanites. We have seen what the others have used them to do. There is a chance, however small, that you might be able to reprogram the door controls to release us. I do not believe the Wraith are aware of your condition. I they were, we would not be conscious."

"Or I wouldn't be," said Elizabeth, frowning. "Teyla, I don't think that you understand what you're asking of me."

"No, I don't. Without being in your position, I cannot. What I do know; however, is that we cannot fight our way out. We cannot count on the others coming to our rescue. We must go to them. The quickest way is your nanites." Teyla stepped closer. She was as honest with Elizabeth as she had ever been. "It might be the only way we can escape without bloodshed. There are only three of us. If we fight, not all of us will make it off this vessel alive."

"Nanites?" asked Sora. She almost blurted the question out. "Some of the things we've heard--"

She fell quiet as Elizabeth's gaze went to her. Sora was so young. Elizabeth exhaled, drawing the moment out to buy herself time to think. It wasn't much, but she was willing to take what she could get.

"They will come for us soon, Elizabeth," added Teyla. "They must know who we are. If they did not, we would be considered mere food, and would have been stored in cocoons for later consumption."

"Or already dead," put in Sora, sounding morose.

"Yes," said Teyla, "or we would already be dead."

"I understand." Elizabeth pressed her lips together and studied the cells. There had to be a place where the wiring from the control panel reached the door. She quelled the flutters in her stomach and walked back and forth across the edge of the cell. The nanites were enough of a part of her now that she knew how to use them. It wasn't a matter of instinct, just concentration and control.

"What's she doing?" asked Sora. Her voice was softer now. Elizabeth didn't need to glance over her shoulder to know that the girl was looking over at Teyla.

"Will you tell Ladon if I give you an answer?" asked Teyla, sounding amused.

"Of course," said Sora. Elizabeth knew that Teyla would understand. She did.

"The most important thing right now is that we all get out of here with as few injuries as possible," said Elizabeth. She bent down and ran her fingertips across the floor. The nanites sensed technology and wanted to move toward it.

Elizabeth flattened her palm on the greatest concentration of wiring and circuitry that she could find, and then focused all her thoughts. The throbbing in her head increased to a pounding, and the humming on the edge of her thoughts became a dull roar.

This was a Wraith ship. The floor felt slick against her hands, to the point of being unnatural, and panic threaded through Elizabeth's gut as she fought the urge to let her nanites loose to consume the ship. The fact that she thought of them as her nanites was chilling enough. Before she thought about it too much and stopped herself, she let her fingers sink into the flooring.

Sora said something behind her, but Teyla quieted her with a sharp command.

Elizabeth was connected with the ship. The door controls were nearby, and tricking them into believing that she was a Wraith - an abomination - that had come to take them to the Queen was easy. The mental battle with Oberoth had taught her how to work with the nanites, not against them.

When the doors moved out of the way with a sickening scrape, Elizabeth brought the nanites back to her hand and let her fingers slip out of the floor. A wave of nausea crashed over her, but she managed to disguise it. She couldn't hide a wobble, but when Teyla gave her a concerned look, Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm fine," she said. "We need to go. I don't think I triggered any alarms, but--"

"Let's not take a chance on that," said Sora. Her face was pale and her freckles stood out sharply against the rest of her skin. Elizabeth didn't blame her for looking so shaken.

"Evan?" Kate frowned as she walked into the control tower. "I got a call from Chuck to report to the control room, but I'm afraid I don't know what's going on, or why you'd need me."

"C'mere." Evan jerked his head over to an alcove where they could talk farther away from his team. He was quieter than usual, and Kate couldn't help but notice how close they were standing to each other.

"Long story short, there's been a culling on Genia," said Evan. Kate froze. He was almost expressionless, like usual, but this time he was all business, and there was no dry edge of humor. "Right where Dr. Weir and Sheppard's team were doing negotiations."

"But I thought the Genii had underground bunkers?" Kate took a deep, calming breath, then let it out slowly and counted to ten. Her emotions settled down again, the fear receding behind the control she counted on to do her job. He needed that from her right now. She could see the brittle edges already forming around Evan. He wouldn't lose control, or crack under the pressure, she knew him too well for that, but he needed the solace she could give right now.

She'd have to save her own panic for later.

"Sheppard insisted we do the negotiations aboveground." Lorne shrugged and crouched down to check over his pack. The routine was a comfort. She recognized the instinct and silently encouraged it. "He gave them a lame excuse that no one believed, but I know he thought it'd be easier to get Dr. Weir out if things went sour." His mouth twisted into a wry smile. "Which it did. Guess he planned for the wrong enemy."

"Who's been taken?" asked Kate.

"Dr. Weir and Teyla," said Lorne. He looked up to meet her eyes and she could see him reining back panic. "Plus a bunch of Genii, including that Sora girl you guys had prisoner here in your first year."

"Evan, they'll be all right." Kate bent down to at Evan's level and lay one hand on his arm. He stilled the instant she touched him. "How's Colonel Sheppard taking it? Ronon? Rodney?"

"They're threatening to tear Genia apart to find a spaceflight capable craft if we don't bring a puddlejumper and reinforcements soon." She could see Evan resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "You know Cadman got back just before the shit hit the fan on Lantea, right?"

Kate knew. The first time they could spare five minutes from worrying about their lives, Laura had re-organized Ladies' Poker Night, where Kate had netted at least three novels she hadn't memorized yet. "I'm aware of that. Why?"

"She got bumped up to Captain while she was on Earth," said Evan. "This is her first command. You think she's up to the pressure?"

"I think so," said Kate, nodding. "Though you'd know better than I would about how she's going to deal with John in full-on crisis mode."

"I need you to come along too," said Evan. He'd stopped looking at her, and was staring at where Kate's hand still lay on his arm.

"Me?" asked Kate. "Why me?"

Evan was distracted enough that it took a minute for him to pull it together enough to reply. He looked up at her, still dead serious.

"We're going to be walking into one hell of a hornet's nest over there, Kate. I need you to keep it from exploding. Sheppard's not the best diplomat even when Dr. Weir is safe." His smile was wry, almost self-deprecating. "We need someone with a level head. I'm going to have my hands full reining in the military. We need someone to deal with the Genii, and both our best diplomats are in the hands of the Wraith."

Kate found it in herself to smile, but most of her confidence was a facade. "With a vote of confidence like that, how can I say no?"

"Well, 'no' isn't an option right now," said Evan. His smile was thin, and Kate ached to find a way to comfort him. "In case you weren't sure about that."

She made her smile soften. "I know."

"You're good," said Evan. He nodded and looked over at his team. "What do you need?"

"I should review Elizabeth's notes on the Genii. They're not files I'd ever need to see in a normal situation, but this--" Kate's laughter was edged with hysteria. "--this is anything but normal. I don't want to go in blind." Elizabeth and Teyla needed her to do this.

"There's no time to review Dr. Weir's files," said Evan. He shrugged in apology. "Sorry. We're set to 'gate out as soon as you gear up."

"Gear up?" Kate looked at him with a blank stare. "I've never--"

"You've never been off-world before. I know." He put his hand over hers. She knew it was supposed to be reassuring, but it didn't help. "You can do this."

"I guess I have to," said Kate. Elizabeth needed her to do this. Teyla needed-- Oh, God. Teyla. Kate felt panic creep around the edges of her self-control as she looked at Evan. "Remind me that Teyla has done this before. Escaped a Wraith ship, I mean." Her smile wavered. "I need to hear that again."

"If anyone can get them off a Hive ship safely, it's Teyla," said Evan. Kate nodded once. She could take strength in his confidence. She'd always been able to stay secure in the background; she could trust that Evan and Teyla would keep her - all of Atlantis - safe. "You okay, Kate?"

"I will be," she said. She took a quick breath and held it, then glanced over at Evan's team. Most of them were waiting and chatting with Laura's team.

"I'm going to send you off to the quartermaster," said Lorne. "She'll get you set up with the right gear. You had basic field training. You're the best shrink I know. You can handle this."

Instead of answering, Kate leaned forward. If she was going to have to go off-world, she wasn't going to leave without doing this. Just in case. She pressed her mouth up against Evan's. His lips were a little dry. Not too chapped, but warm, and the small, surprised sound he made in the back of his throat when she kissed him told her she hadn't read him wrong.

Kate pulled back and read Evan's expression. He was just a little poleaxed, and definitely not displeased. "Evan?" she asked.

"I thought you were into girls," said Evan. "I thought you were into Teyla, as a matter of fact."

"I am." Kate barely kept her voice even. "It's just that she's not the only person I'm interested in. I thought you--"

"We'd better get her back fast so we can all talk about this," said Evan. He looked amused, not worried, which had Kate's smile growing. "We're not going to get away without it, are we?"

"Not when I'm involved." At least in the never-ending crises, she could have this. She hoped.

Elizabeth had read the reports. She'd seen multiple diagrams from different sources laying out the interior of the Wraith ships. She'd pictured it in her mind every time she'd sent John and the others aboard one. In her imagination, she'd followed them through every twist and around every turn. Unfortunately, her imagination hadn't done justice to how terrifying a Hive ship could be.

The oppressive weight of the darkened corridors pushed at her, threatening to bury her beneath their bulk. She pressed a hand to the wall and her skin crawled with revulsion. "We have to get off this ship," she said and pressed the back of her hand to her mouth.

She felt Sora and Teyla step closer and Elizabeth held her hand out to stop them. "Elizabeth," began Teyla.

"Please," she said, needing the distance between them. "I feel like I can't breathe." She felt like she was being buried alive. Every breath was a battle as the pressure increased.

"You must hold on, Elizabeth," said Teyla. "We need only get to the flight deck. There, with your skills and my genetics, we can command a ship to fly us home." Elizabeth knew all that. She understood the plan, but it was becoming difficult to think around the noise in her head.

The plan which had seemed so logical was now clouded and difficult to see. She blinked and leaned her forehead against the wall, only to yank it back just as quickly. The wave of revulsion that swept over her in response threatened to overwhelm her.

Doubling over, Elizabeth sucked in ragged breaths and looked up at the hallway. There was no one in sight. They'd made it this far without discovery, but she knew every second that passed put them closer to being caught. She pushed at the noise in her head, trying to shove it back again which only served to make the pounding of her headache increase. "It's that way," she said, her voice strained by the effort to speak.

"Elizabeth, you're not well," said Teyla. She grasped Elizabeth about the middle, trying to hold her up. Something in Elizabeth twisted, recognizing the faint thread of Wraith woven through Teyla's DNA, and she pulled away. The desperation to put distance between them confused her. "Are you sure that you are uninjured?"

"I don't know," said Elizabeth. She pressed her lips together and tried to breathe through her nose. The recycled air was stale. She'd never quite adjusted to it, not even on their own ships. She took another, slower, breath through her nose. The pounding in her head receded, the noise quieting just enough to let her put half a thought together.

"I must've taken a harder knock than I thought," she said, looking down the hall again. "Everything feels off somehow. Like this place is making me sick." Or crazy. She probably wasn't the first person to lose their mind from fright, and certainly not the first one to do it on a Wraith ship.

"You will feel better when we are away from here," said Teyla.

"We all will," said Sora. "Can we move faster?"

Elizabeth didn't blame the girl for her impatience. Picking up the pace, she was aware of Teyla's watchful gaze. She couldn't be sure, but Elizabeth suspected she knew what Teyla was thinking. She was thinking the same thing. Had Keller missed something in her examination? It was unlikely, but the pounding in her head begged to differ.

"I shouldn't have a headache," she said, her voice too low to be heard by Genii or Athosian ears. She shouldn't be feeling any discomfort at all and yet she was.

Something was wrong. She wanted to laugh, and recognized the hysteria behind the impulse. The Wraith had culled Genia, leaving dead and countless more injured, they'd been taken prisoner, she had no idea what had happened to the others. What wasn't wrong?

"Teyla. There's something I need to tell you." Elizabeth quickened her pace, putting some distance between herself and Sora. She beckoned Teyla closer.

Elizabeth felt absolutely ridiculous. This was like a stereotype straight from those awful science fiction movies that the science department, not to mention John, insisted on watching. She had a vision of herself, scantily clad, clinging to Teyla, about to confess her deepest admiration, only to die. Painfully. With as much gore as possible.

It occurred to her that she and John needed to discuss his viewing habits.


Dismissing the thought, Elizabeth glanced back at Sora. "If something happens to me," she said, speaking in a whisper intended for Teyla's ears only. "You need to take Sora and go. Don't wait for me."

The expression on Teyla's face told Elizabeth what she thought of that suggestion. "I am not leaving you, Elizabeth," she said. "I refuse to."

"I think Dr. Keller missed something," said Elizabeth, somber. "Something in me. I feel different." She sighed. She'd told John it was a mistake. She shouldn't have left Atlantis. With a twist of her lips, Elizabeth smiled bitterly. Forget that. She shouldn't have left quarantine. "Something's wrong, Teyla," she said. "I need to be able to count on you. You have to do the right thing."

"I will return you to Atlantis and the care of our friends. There is nothing you might say which will convince me to do otherwise. Whatever is wrong, we will find a way to deal with it." Teyla set her jaw, meeting Elizabeth's gaze.

Argument over. On any other day, Elizabeth would have found it amusing. This wasn't any other day. She shook her head at Teyla. "If you were in the Air Force, I'd put you on report."

"It is fortunate then," said Teyla with a weary smile, "that I am not."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and turned around. "Fine." She had taken a few steps when she stopped again, her feet rooted to the deck as she tensed. As the hair on the back of her neck rose, she beckoned Teyla closer.


"There's someone--" Elizabeth stopped speaking.

The buzzing that had been in the back of her mind returned to a loud roar as a Wraith soldier came around a corner. He stopped at the sight of them and their eyes met. He looked at her for a long moment then snarled, launching himself forward with hands outstretched.

In that moment, the roar reached a fever pitch and something within her snapped. Before she could stop herself, Elizabeth surged forward and met him mid-lunge. She caught him by the arms, keeping his hands away from him, and shoved him backward. It shouldn't have worked. Beneath the noise in her head, the part of her that was still rational knew that. Physically, she was no match for a Wraith.

Not without the nanites.

The realization gave her the wake up she needed. Though she distantly, heard Teyla call her name, Elizabeth didn't respond. She stared silently into the Wraith's eyes and forced him backward with steady, forward steps. The pounding in her head was dizzying as she pushed back the urge to rip his head off. She would not kill him. Not like this. It would not --

A red-headed blur rushed by her and the Wraith groaned. He slumped backward, sliding out of Elizabeth's hands into a heap at the floor. She looked down at him, shocked into silence. Beside her, Sora hefted the knife she'd liberated from the Wraith's belt and looked at them. "We need to keep moving," she said, eyes wide with adrenaline. "Before they find him."

"They will not," said Teyla. "Help me." Bending, she grabbed him by the boots, waiting for Sora to grab the shoulders. With Elizabeth watching, they dragged him into a cell, locking it as they emerged. "If we move quickly-- " She focused her gaze on Elizabeth. "Are you all right?"

Forcing herself to answer, Elizabeth took a hesitant breath. "No," she said, then shook her head. "I'm not sure. It felt like an instinct." She looked at Teyla, trying to smile. "I warned you."

Teyla nodded. "And I you." She reached out, resting a hand on Elizabeth's arm. "Please."

The noise in her head again receding, Elizabeth looked back at the cell and became aware of something else. She frowned and pressed a hand against the wall. Within herself, she felt the nanites rise to her summons, rushing out into the system. "Oh no," she breathed.

"What?" asked Sora.

Elizabeth sent the nanites racing through the system, anger fueling them on. "They know." She shut down the alarm before it could sound, but it was too late. She used the nanites to confuse the system, a last ditch effort at best, and called them back. "They were watching. We must have triggered some sort of internal surveillance system."

"I was not aware the Wraith had such systems," said Teyla, frowning. "They did not have any need of them before--"

"Before us," said Elizabeth, "they probably didn't." Her smile was grim. "The Wraith are learning."

"You Lanteans make wonderful teachers," said Sora. She was already starting to run, silently bolting for the flight deck, calling, "What will you teach them next?" over her shoulder.

Elizabeth shared a look with Teyla. "If they examine me-- "

Teyla nodded. "Then we must hurry."

Their longer legs caught up with Sora easily in a few quick strides. Elizabeth kept pace easily, which troubled her. The nanites again, she assumed. If she could ask Rodney, she suspected he'd tell her what she already believed. The nanites were keeping her muscles primed, oxygen flowing freely from her lungs which weren't protesting. "I could probably run from here to Atlantis without getting tired," she observed.

They skidded to a stop outside the flight deck and Teyla gave her a wry grin. "Were it not for the small matter of a vacuum outside, I'm sure that you could."

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. "I was speaking metaphorically." She pressed a hand to the door control, commanding it to open. Under the nanites' assault the door's simple control systems stood little chance. She felt a peculiar sense of disappointment - pitiful machines - as it hissed open. She noticed Teyla's watchful eye and was relieved, if only a little. Teyla was watching. Should the nanites actually be attempting some kind of control, then Teyla would deal with it. "I'm worried," she said in a murmur, leaning into Teyla. "Was that too easy?"

"You are unused to this ability," said Teyla. "At this point, any use of them might seem too easy." She pointed at one of the darts. "The true test will be attempting to pilot a dart."

"Or at least convince it to go where we want to," said Elizabeth. "Neither one of us is a pilot."

"Worry about that when we're off the ship," said Sora.

"Well, that will also be a problem," said Teyla. "The darts only carry one."

"Only one pilot," said Elizabeth. "I suppose that will have to be me. I can hold you in the ship's buffer until we get back to Genia, then tell the ship to release you."

"I don't think I like that option much," said Sora. "Too much can go wrong."

"Something already is going wrong," said Elizabeth. She looked back at the wall, again pressing a hand to it. Infiltrating the system took a moment, but confirmed what her body had noticed. The oxygen levels in the flight deck were dropping and dropping rapidly. "They're trying to deprive us of oxygen," she said, sending the nanites to battle in an effort to stop them. "That's unusually cautious."

She looked back at Teyla. "For Wraith."

"It is unusual," agreed Teyla, an apprehensive look on her face. Likely she was thinking the same thing as Elizabeth. The Wraith knew. Or, at the very least, they suspected something. They didn't want to risk damaging her in a fight and ruining their chances at finding out. "Can you stop them?"

Elizabeth consulted the nanites. They encountered resistance from the system and, frustrated, she sent more to their aid. After a moment, she shook her head at Teyla. "No. They've isolated the systems in the deck. I can't get to the environmental controls from here." She withdrew the nanites and strode across the room to the nearest dart. "Sit down. You need to slow your breathing to conserve oxygen." Just in case the Wraith decided to storm the flight deck.

"No," said Sora. "We should be searching for weapons. If the Wraith assault-- "

"Not if," said Teyla. "When." She pulled Sora into a sitting position beside her. "Elizabeth is right. We must conserve our breath. It is unlikely the Wraith have left any weapons unguarded. Any security would require Elizabeth to circumvent them and that is a skill better focused upon the dart's computers. We will wait."

This last was said with a firm, supportive look in Elizabeth's direction. Elizabeth nodded back and turned to face the dart. The thought of touching it sent a wave of disgust through her. "But it's not like I have a choice," she said in an undertone. The dart was their ticket off the ship. There wasn't any other way.

Taking one last, deep and fortifying breath, she raised a hand and pressed it against the dart's surface. This time, the nanites needed almost no prompting. They poured out of her and into the dart, assaulting the ship's computers full force. Elizabeth didn't have time for subtlety, and her patience was thin.

Disconnected from the deck's main systems, she didn't know how far the oxygen levels had dropped, but she could guess. The nanites were regulating her breathing, gleaning every molecule of oxygen possible, and even she was beginning to feel the effects. It was becoming more difficult to focus, but she didn't have a choice.

Unfortunately, the dart's systems weren't as simple as the ones governing the door controls. The combat-ready systems were fortified against a computer-based assault, and were ready with countermeasures of their own. Elizabeth jolted with pain, feeling the nanites suffering - some going inert and dying - under the dart's response. She pressed her lips together and tried again. She poured herself into the fight, pushing the nanites, directing them as she could and just willing them forward.

Please, she found herself thinking. She didn't ask herself who she was talking to. She didn't want to know.

Whatever the impetus, the nanites redoubled their efforts and, little by little, she felt the computers of the dart begin to cave. She allowed herself a tiny thrill at the victory. When the dart was finally under the nanites' command, she opened her eyes. "I think I got it," she said. She started to turn around and swayed dizzily. At some time during the battle, the oxygen levels had depleted to the point that even the nanites were having difficulty keeping up.

She took one step, and then another, making her way toward Teyla and Sora. Both women were slumped against nearby darts. Sora was unconscious, and Teyla barely awake. She moved when Elizabeth did, lifting her head to meet her friend's gaze. "We may not-- " Teyla stopped. She looked weary as she tried to continue. "I cannot-- "

"I know," said Elizabeth. She bent, trying to help Teyla up. "We just need to get you closer to the dart. If I can get the ship to draw you into its beam, then we can go." She didn't mention that black spots were swimming in front of her eyes, and not even the nanites could wrestle enough oxygen from the air to keep her moving.

She collapsed to the ground, Teyla falling next to her, only a few feet from the dart.

"Someone on this backwater planet has a vehicle capable of faster than light travel," said McKay. He whirled around and stalked over to John. "We wouldn't need one if it weren't for your asinine insistence that we hold these ridiculous negotiations on the planet's surface."

"Give me a break, McKay," said John. He stood just outside the underground Genii bunker near the 'gate. McKay was pacing, and John idly wondered if tripping him would be completely out of line. "If things had gone wrong with Ladon, keeping the negotiations above ground gave us the option of leaving if we wanted to. Do I need to break it down for you in simpler terms, or do you think you can grasp the concept?"

He should probably leave McKay intact, or Elizabeth would be pissed at him when she got back. Not to mention Teyla. She'd kick his ass. Yeah, that'd be bad too.

"Of course I don't need you to explain it to me in simple terms," snapped McKay. He stood on the path that led to the gate. The sun was shining, and birds were chirping in the air. McKay didn't notice any of that. He just stood there and fidgeted while John thought about how many Hive ships he was going to have to nuke before they could find Elizabeth. "If I could get back to Atlantis, all I would have to do is activate the tracking program and I could detect the nanites--"

"You'd lead the Asurans right to her and Teyla," said John. His voice was low, almost a growl. "Figure out another option, or I'll--"

The gate started to hum as the symbols rotated and glowed a soft blue. John brought his weapon to bear as Ladon stopped pretending not to pay attention to his bickering with McKay and motioned to the Genii strike team. The underbrush rustled as the hidden troops came to attention. "If this is the people you sent for," said Ladon, giving John a sidelong long, "then I hope they radio before coming through. My forces are a little touchy right now."

"What do you think they're going to do?" John gave Ladon a sidelong glare that turned smug as his radio crackled. "This is Sheppard," he said, clicking it.

"I've got a couple teams ready on this end, sir," he heard Lorne say. "Do we have an all clear?" Goddamn, but Lorne was all spit and polish when he needed to be. One of these days John was going to have to figure out how he did it.

"Yeah, get your asses over here," drawled John. He gave Ladon a sickly sweet smile. "Ladon promises to keep his itchy trigger finger in check."

"Our ETA is in two minutes, sir," said Lorne. That 'sir' was probably Lorne's way of saying 'shut the hell up before you dig us in deeper.' "Lorne out."

If the next step up the ladder weren't the same damn rank as John, he'd promote Lorne to lieutenant colonel. Guy deserved it. Of course, he didn't have the ability to promote Lorne. He could recommend it to General O'Neill if - hopefully when - they got back in touch with Earth.

Though if they didn't find a way to get back in touch with Earth, he was going to have a whole other set of problems. Why the hell did McKay and Zelenka have to drain the ZPM that Elizabeth had nearly died helping them get?

Oh, yeah. Saving their lives. Not wanting explosive decompression in the control tower. Right.

"Got your people under control, Ladon?" asked John. All he got was a withering look in return.

Since Lorne didn't get shot the instant he stepped through the 'gate, John figured Ladon had his people under control. Though John had to fight not to let his jaw drop when he saw that Lorne had brought Heightmeyer along for the ride.

"What the hell is Kate doing here?" asked Rodney. John couldn't have said it better himself.

"Heightmeyer's never been off-world," hissed John. He and Lorne were standing side-by-side in a corner, watching as she started up some chit-chat with Ladon. "What the hell did you bring her along for?"

"Someone has to finish negotiations so we can start trading," said Lorne. He shrugged, and John clamped down on irritation that the guy could look so relaxed right now. "Did you want to take over, sir? Maybe Ronon? Guy's got a way with words. How about McKay? He's a real charmer."

So appearances weren't everything, then. Right. "Sounds like you're not too happy with me," said John. He checked his watch. Cadman should be ready to gate on over and get everyone with severe injuries out to our infirmary any time now.

"Aside from Dr. Weir and Teyla being taken God knows where by the Wraith, Cadman on her first command mission in the middle of a crisis, and Kate off-world for the first time ever on Genia?" Lorne gave him a sidelong look that John didn't think was all that happy. "Things are looking pretty good."

"Why is that?" asked John. "You get some last night or something?"

"Not quite," said Lorne.

"Getting some tonight?" asked John.

"Warmer, sir," said Lorne. The guy wasn't blushing, but John could swear Lorne's spine had just locked into place. Happened in the military sometimes. A guy got embarrassed, he was at attention all of a sudden. "Depends on how the day goes."

"Have fun with that." John was about this close to moving his stuff back into Elizabeth's quarters when they got her back, no matter what the hell she said about it.

"I hope to." Smug bastard. John would have to assign him to lead PT at four in the morning for a week.

"So you're one of the Lanteans." Ladon gave her an appraising look, but Kate just smiled politely. "I've never met you before."

"Dr. Kate Heightmeyer." She kept her expression bland. Was it offensive to introduce yourself in Genii society? "When I heard I was going off-world, I'd hoped that the circumstances would be different. I've heard a lot about your people."

Time to forge ahead and hope that 'gate travel had inured the people of this galaxy to cultural differences. Earth was a bit backward in that regard. This part was almost the same as a first therapy session. If she could keep her mind on the similarities, and not the stakes at risk, she might be able to get through this without an interplanetary incident.

"Oh?" Ladon's expression was curious now, and the appraisal was tempered with caution. "Just what have you heard about the Genii?"

"A number of things, both good and bad," said Kate. She looked at the pastoral setting around the 'gate. "I spoke with your sister when she spent some time on Atlantis."

"You're one of the medical staff?" Ladon sounded shocked now, not to mention disapproving. "Didn't your people have any actual politicians other than Teyla or Dr. Weir to send me?"

"I'm afraid all our actual politicians were taken by the Wraith while your people were standing guard." Kate kept her expression guileless. She'd had just as much experience as any of them at reading people and manipulating them, and she refused to disappoint Teyla or Elizabeth, not to mention Evan, by letting Ladon get one up on her.

"Quite true." Ladon inclined his head. "You're a medical doctor."

"A psychiatrist, actually," said Kate. "Consider me a doctor that heals minds. What was your position before you took control of Genia?"

"I was second in command of this planet's military," said Ladon. He turned and started walking toward the negotiations area.

"Not entirely political either." Kate smiled, amused this time. "It seems to me we might be able to find some commonalities there."

"I hope Kate knows what she's doing." John and Lorne were still standing in the corner, but now Lorne's tension was ramping up to the same level that John's was at. Almost. "She looks like she's about to bust out the therapy. Next thing you know, Ladon's gonna be telling us about his mother as a negotiating point."

"She's not a Freudian," said Lorne. He shrugged. "I told her the basics, but I only thought to bring Kate about five, maybe ten minutes before we shipped out."

"Your gamble better pay off." John glanced sidelong at Lorne. "What, you think my idea of sending Cadman to threaten to blow them up wasn't going to be good diplomacy either?"

"I asked Dr. Zelenka to start cataloging trade items we can produce." That was a good idea on Lorne's part. "Renewable resources being what they are right now. You think Earth is hunting for us?"

"You worked with General O'Neill," said John. "What do you think?"

"There's General O'Neill, and then there's the IOA," said Lorne. He settled down into a more relaxed version of his at-ease stance. "General O'Neill would never give up, but the IOA will screw us over if they get half a chance."

"That's not news," said John, rocking back on his heels. "They try and screw us over again, and Earth is going to regret a lot."

"Presuming that we can ever get in contact with them again," said Lorne.

"That might be a problem," admitted John.

This was a lot more difficult than Kate thought it would be, but some things were similar, at least. She could try to predict Ladon's actions, and the Genii had always reminded her of the older officers she'd had to counsel on Earth. Cold War veterans weren't a dime a dozen these days, but she knew that outlook.

Some day, she was going to ask Teyla if there was any way to find out the truth of the history of Genia.

She glanced over, and Evan was beckoning at her. "Excuse me, please," she said to Ladon. "I see Major Lorne needs to speak to me for a moment."

"Of course." Ladon smiled at her, and Kate returned it easily. "I'm certain that your security teams must be very overprotective right now."

"It's hard to blame them," said Kate, before she slipped away. "Just a routine check-in, though, that's all."

"Everything okay?" asked Evan, when she got close enough.

"Going wonderfully," she said. She got closer to Evan, and when he put his hand on her lower back to escort her to a private corner, Kate controlled a shiver.

"How's it really going?" he asked, his voice low. He leaned close to her, and Kate looked up into his eyes.

"He's good at this," said Kate. She felt the heat of his hand burning through her shirt. "I saw his sister in a professional capacity on Atlantis. It's helped us build a rapport. I hope."

"You hope?" asked Evan.

"It's hard to know for sure," said Kate. She put her hand on Evan's forearm. A flicker of surprise passed across his face. "He's trying to win concessions that I know Elizabeth and Teyla would never agree to."

"What's he want?" Evan looked concerned. "Kate, if this is too much--"

"It's not," said Kate firmly. "It isn't what I'm used to, I know, but this is important."

"So what's it looking like so far?" Evan looked at his watch. "We can stretch this a couple minutes more."

"Ladon wants medical equipment, but what's more, he wants a technician to come in and train the Genii on some of our medical procedures," said Kate. "He's positing that as non-negotiable, but I haven't done couples therapy without learning that everything is negotiable. He wants to exchange knowledge for food. He's asking that we send a nuclear engineer over too."

"We can't agree to that," said Evan. "We can't arm the galaxy--"

"We may have to," said Kate. She took a deep breath. "Evan, I may not be a politician, but I'm not blind."

Evan sighed, and Kate tightened her grip on his arm. "Do what you can," he said.

"I will," Kate said, nodding. "I'll do all I can. You have my word."

The nanites brought Elizabeth back to consciousness with near-perfect clarity. On the whole, it was a rather irritating development. The hypersensitivity was, likely, fueled by adrenaline, readying her for a fight. Unwilling to come out swinging, she persuaded them to dial it back, reducing the sensory onslaught to a dull roar. Opening her eyes, she was presented with a view of a ceiling. It wasn't the flight deck's. She tried to move and found herself bound. Metal bands pressed her wrists down to a cool - likely metal - surface.

It was definitely not a Wraith dart.

"Damn," said Elizabeth on a sigh.

"Careful," said Teyla. Her voice was distant and came from the side, out of Elizabeth's view. "You are restrained." She didn't sound any better.

"So I noticed," said Elizabeth. She tugged at the bands on her arms and legs. They were strong. She wasn't sure if she could break through them with the nanites assistance or not. She tested one again, putting more strength into it, but it held. Some instinct warned against trying again, and the hair on the back of her neck rose. She turned her head, trying to see Teyla or Sora and caught the flicker of movement.

"Elizabeth Weir," said a new voice. It was little more than a rasp, but Elizabeth immediately recognized it. The voice of a Wraith Queen was unmistakable, as was the pounding in Elizabeth's head. With the presence of a Wraith it immediately returned, surging back to the front of her mind. "I have heard your name many times since my awakening. I had hoped that we would one day have an opportunity to meet."

Refusing to be drawn into a conversation, Elizabeth lay there and waited for her to fall silent. The quiet gave her a moment to fight the violent pounding in her head. It was the nanites. It had to be. Whether it was a programming conflict, or an attempt at controlling her, this wasn't a normal human reaction.

She slowed her breathing, trying to control the pain, and focused on the situation instead. It should have been disturbing, the fact that she'd grown accustomed to Wraith grandstanding. Of course, with hundreds of thousands of nanites flooding her body, the dramatic stylings of a Wraith Queen just didn't have the same impact.

She hid a smile. Not that they'd ever had much of one. Her tendency to be unimpressed by political opponents had held true since leaving Earth.

"You remain silent," said the Queen, venturing closer. Elizabeth turned her head, making eye contact for the first time. This one, she thought, seemed younger than the queens she'd seen before. Younger still could mean thousands of years old, of course, but the mere suggestion of it intrigued her.

They had next to no intelligence on Wraith reproduction. They had even less data on juvenile Wraith. Ellia was the only one they'd come into contact with. For all they knew, the Wraith reproduced through cloning. It wasn't as if they hadn't encountered that before.

"I suppose I don't have much to say," said Elizabeth. "I'm not the hostess of this little gathering."

"You are correct," the Queen said, holding her head high. "You have always been a difficulty for us, Dr. Weir. You and your kind." She strode away, nearly out of Elizabeth's view. "We had not realized that you, yourself, could be such a trial. Our intelligence reports were not as thorough as we had believed."

"I try to set an example," said Elizabeth. "You understand, of course. You have the same problem with your own people."

"Yes," said the Queen. "I suppose that I do." She didn't seem happy with the comparison. Elizabeth had the sense that the Queen would have been quite happy right now to be anywhere but in this room.

The Queen was afraid of her, Elizabeth realized. With that in mind, she watched the Queen, noticing the distance the alien kept between them. It didn't take much to realize what the Queen was worried about. Part of Elizabeth wished mightily to give the Queen the chance. She tensed, balling her hands into fists beneath the restraints, readying herself for a fight she refused to start. She'd let instinct rule her enough for one day. Nanites or her own subconscious, it didn't matter, she was the one in charge.

Not that she couldn't needle. Just a bit. "You seem ill at ease, your highness." She didn't need to feign the disdain in her voice. It was all quite genuine. She smiled ever-so-polite as she said it, turning the innocuous comment into a sharp, verbal blade. If the Wraith knew about the nanites, then the gloves were about to come off. She wouldn't start the fight, but she knew there was a fight coming. Which was, in part, why she added the "Is there a problem?"

The diplomat in her cringed, but on the whole, Elizabeth was quite amused with herself. Clearly John's influence had spread farther than she might have originally thought. He'd be quite proud of that one. The Queen, however, would not agree with her. Instead, the false innocence in her tone earned Elizabeth a glare from the Queen. "Insolence," she hissed. "You think that the infestation gives you power? Do you think that you are immune to us?"

Elizabeth lifted her head, giving the Queen a knowing look. "It doesn't matter," she said. "You believe that I am."

"Hardly," sniffed the Queen. "Certainly you are not a threat to us of any consequence. You are a curiosity, a puzzle to be solved. Nothing more than that." Her argument didn't quite ring true. As defiant as she seemed, the Queen still refused to venture closer. She remained - maddeningly - out of reach.

"I didn't think the Wraith concerned themselves with something so trivial as puzzles," said Elizabeth. She smiled. "It's funny. For someone who believes I'm no threat, you're certainly keeping a safe distance. Forgive me, your Highness, but it seems like a very contradictory message." She heard Teyla cough quietly as the Queen growled in frustration.

Elizabeth recognized the subtle warning, but persisted, feeling a strange calm creep over her. Sora wasn't in the room. It didn't bode well for her. They needed to get to her before one of the Queen's many hungry, followers made a meal out of her. They needed to get to Sora and then they needed to get off the ship. As she decided upon her course of action, the pounding in her head lessened. She didn't want to think about what that implied.

Instead, she narrowed her eyes at the Queen and pasted on a confident smirk. "If I wasn't a threat-- " She put just enough disdain into the comment that the Queen's reaction was hardly a surprise. "Wouldn't I already be dead? Do you always chat with your dinner before you eat it, or do you save that for the meals you're afraid of?"

She swept across the distance between them and bent over Elizabeth. Her breath was fetid, washing over Elizabeth's face with each forceful word as she snapped, "I know no fear!"

It was the mistake Elizabeth had been waiting for. She moved. Pain lanced through her arm as she broke the band holding it down. Ignoring it, Elizabeth shoved the Queen backward. The gesture was almost effortless, yet sent the Queen hard into the wall. Knowing it wouldn't stop the Queen for long, Elizabeth rolled onto her side, breaking the other cuff. Within seconds her feet were free and she was on them.

As she'd suspected, Sora was nowhere in sight, but Teyla was already moving. She vaulted over the table Elizabeth had been strapped to, grabbing a stunner in her bound hands. It was awkward, but she managed to swing it around and level it at the Queen. "They took Sora down to a storage area," said Teyla. "For feeding."

"I thought as much," said Elizabeth. "We'll have to find her before we go." She reached over, freeing Teyla's hands while Teyla kept the weapon trained on the Queen. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I am unharmed," said Teyla. "They seemed more interested in your readings than harming me." She frowned. "I am uncertain as to why I was not taken with Sora."

"So am I," said Elizabeth. She looked at the Queen. "We'll worry about it later. Over coffee in my office." God, she missed her office. She really missed her office. "When we get back to the city, I'm never leaving it again." She'd just stay in her office, put her feet up, play solitaire on her laptop and send John's team to random sections of the galaxy to find ZPMs and the Pegasus equivalent of coffee.

Teyla smiled, nodding. "A wise decision. I think I may agree." She looked at the Queen, but Elizabeth had the impression she was looking beyond her. "At the moment, it has many attractive features."

"Sounds perfect," said Elizabeth. She glanced at Teyla, making eye contact. Teyla's head inclined almost imperceptibly toward the door. Elizabeth agreed with a slight nod. They both looked back at the Queen. The Queen returned the favor, watching them with murder in her eyes. "There is a saying among my people," said Elizabeth. "Better safe than sorry."

Teyla fired once, stunning the Queen. "A wise saying."

"We have a lot of them," said Elizabeth. "It's been my experience that we don't listen to nearly as many of them as we should. It's unfortunate."

"Quite," said Teyla.

Elizabeth waited for Teyla to move ahead of her, heading for the door. There, she stopped her with a hand on her arm. "If we get separated, make your way back to the flight deck. I'll find you."

"If we do not?" asked Teyla. She looked stubborn. Elizabeth knew Teyla didn't want to hear what was about to say.

Tough. Elizabeth's eyes hardened. "You will leave. Take the dart and Sora, and go back to Genia. Tell them what happened and do not, under any circumstances, come back after me. It's not safe."

"It never is," said Teyla. "That fact is irrelevant. I will not leave this ship without you."

Elizabeth said nothing. Something kept her silent. She followed Teyla into the corridor, and, when the moment was right, went the other way

If she'd had any doubts, the movement of her feet erased it. She'd made the decision flat on her back, staring the Wraith Queen in the eye, but it had not become reality until that moment. The moment when her feet, seemingly on their own, suddenly turned her body and propelled her back in the other direction. She rounded a corner, heard Teyla call her name, but kept on going.

Quickening her pace, she didn't look back. All she needed was a quiet corner. Someplace to work without being discovered. By the Wraith or Teyla. It didn't matter. She just needed time, enough time to do what had to be done.

She stopped. "Auxiliary control." It wasn't exactly that, of course. Wraith ships were hardly that similar to Ancient or human ones, but it was as close as it needed to be. Elizabeth slapped her hand against the door control. This time, she tried to be subtle. The Wraith would be looking for signs of nanite interference. Eventually, they were going to figure out what she was up to, but she'd done by then.

The door slid open.

The Wraith inside didn't have time to react. Whether he was dead when he hit the ground, or merely unconscious, Elizabeth didn't know. Part of her was horrified by what she'd done. The rest didn't care. It was a Wraith. It was dead. That was the natural order of the universe.

Stepping over the body, she crossed the room to the console. There, she smiled to herself. "Not a threat, hm?"

When she touched the panel, she felt no revulsion. The nanites rushed from her system into the computer, threading their way through the lines of code and programming to find the subsystem she wanted. With a sigh of satisfaction, Elizabeth triggered the self-destruct.

"I beg to differ."

Closing her eyes, Elizabeth leaned against the console, establishing a firmer connection with the nanites. She sent more hurrying after their counterparts with the directive to gum up the works. The Wraith couldn't have a chance to stop this. They couldn't be allowed to stop it. Something deep within herself - the nanites - refused to even consider another outcome. The Wraith had to die.

This ensured that they would.

She withdrew her hand, a sickening sense of triumph flooding her body with the nanites successful return. Mission accomplished. Elizabeth wanted to vomit. She settled for collapsing instead.

When Elizabeth disappeared, Teyla was furious. When she searched, and Elizabeth couldn't be found, Teyla went past unsettled. She was scared. Elizabeth's warnings came back to her as she searched the corridors, and Teyla wondered just what her friend had known. Just what the nanites might have been doing to her. Or, worse, what they might be forcing her to do.

She shivered, but turned back. Whatever Elizabeth's plan, discovering it would have to wait. She couldn't leave Sora to the Wraith. Elizabeth wouldn't approve, and neither did Teyla. This was not a fate she would wish upon her worst enemy, which Sora was not, and would never be.

There was also the matter of Sora's father. She would forever regreat way that mission had unfolded, and the damage it had done to her relationship with Sora. She owed the girl this much, if not more.

With the stunner still in her hand, Teyla navigated her way through the ship, and down to the deck she believed Sora had been taken to. It was confirmed the moment her booted feet touched the corridor floor and Sora's shouted insults became audible.

Teyla smiled faintly, pleased at the girl's bravado. Rushing down the hall, Teyla came to a stop before Sora. Her smile widening, Teyla pressed a hand over Sora's mouth and raised one eyebrow. "If you wish to get off this ship alive, you must be silent. Understand?"

Sora glared, but nodded.

Removing her hand, Teyla looked about for something to cut Sora free. Upon finding it, she helped Sora from her prison. "We must hurry. Elizabeth-- " she hesitated. "Elizabeth and I were separated. We will need to locate her before we can leave."

"Or before we're found," said Sora. She looked uncertain. "When they brought me here, I thought-- " she frowned. "I didn't think that you would come for me."

Teyla nodded. She understood. It was a painful thought, but she understood. From the Genii perspective, it would have been the most logical outcome. With the added animosity that Sora had directed at her after her father's death, it went beyond logical into expected.

"Given the history that lies between us, I can't blame you." She paused, trying to sort through her emotions on the matter. "Please, let this act as proof. I never intended any harm to your father, but I could not stand by and let him do what he was about to. What happened to your father grieved me as much as it did you."

"No," said Sora, "it couldn't." There seemed to be no condemnation in her voice and Teyla could see none in her eyes. "He was my father -- "

"But?" she prompted.

"I don't hate you anymore," snapped Sora. "Let's just start with that. Okay?"

It was not much, but Athosians were quite talented in that matter of making much from little. Besides, Sora had said it was a start. There was always hope. Nodding, Teyla gripped the girl's shoulder and urged her down the hall. "Okay."

"You sound like one of them," said Sora. "The Lanteans."

"I have discovered they are not bad people," said Teyla. She threw a look at Sora and smirked. "Perhaps in time you will discover this as well."

John turned his head as Elizabeth walked into her office. She tried to smile at him, but couldn't muster more than a half-hearted twist of her lips. It looked like she was on Atlantis, but she knew that wasn't possible. "John?" she asked. "How are you here? This isn't Atlantis."

"What do you mean it's not Atlantis?" John rapped on the wood of her desk. It echoed hollowly in her office. "Looks like it to me."

"Have you noticed anyone else around here?" she gestured out the window. Chuck wasn't in his usual seat. In fact, all of Atlantis was empty. She'd been through the whole of the inhabited and explored areas before coming to her office and finding John waiting for her.

The thought of how everyone but the two of them could be gone was unsettling, to say the least.

"Just you." John shrugged. "I've been here waiting for you. We have a meeting, remember?"

"No. We don't." Elizabeth shook her head softly. "We can't. We're not on Atlantis."

"So you're saying this isn't real?" asked John. He frowned, looking confused. "How's that supposed to work?"

"I don't understand it." Elizabeth moved behind her desk and sat. The heavy, solid weight of it between her and the rest of the galaxy was comforting. She knew she looked calm. She only hoped that John believed it. "I think I managed to create an internal reality that doesn't reflect the external reality we're living in. I must have inadvertently drawn you in somehow. It could be because of the time you breached quarantine. I'm sorry."

"What are you apologizing for?" John perched himself on the corner of Elizabeth's desk and smiled at her. He looked like he was trying to charm her into smiling, so she gave him a stern look. This wasn't the time. "I knew what I was doing."

"I never meant for you to be drawn into this," said Elizabeth. "I didn't want anyone else to go through what I did."

"You don't get to apologize for it," said John. "I'd rather be in here with you than out there without you." He gestured at the empty control tower. "As interesting as your brain is, I can keep myself entertained for hours."

"This is serious, John," insisted Elizabeth. Why was he being so flippant?

"So am I." He stood and planted his hands on Elizabeth's desk as he loomed over her. "You've been pushing me away because you think you're some kind of threat. Because you think you're going to get taken over by the Asurans."

"You act like it's not a possibility," said Elizabeth. She leaned forward, willing him to understand what she was saying. "You don't take it seriously."

"What the hell happened out there, Elizabeth?" John changed the subject so abruptly that Elizabeth sat back in her chair and blinked. "I've never seen a Hive ship go up like that before."

She looked down. She couldn't meet his eyes. "That's my fault," said Elizabeth. The words weren't inaudible, but she knew he couldn't read anything from her tone. He couldn't even see her face right now. It was probably going to drive him crazy.

"Elizabeth?" John frowned and moved to kneel down next to her chair. "Why did you collapse? Does it have something to do with why the Hive ship blew?"

"I've never felt anything like that." She looked up. "I'm affected by it too."

"Affected by what?" He sank back onto his heels and scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Elizabeth, we need to know. We want to help you, but you won't let us. Any of us."

"Us?" Elizabeth looked up at him, surprised. There was something in his voice that made him think he wasn't talking about the rest of the expedition. "What do you mean by that? We're the only ones here."

"Kate's worried. I've heard her talking about it." John shrugged and lay a hand on her shoulder. "Teyla. Rodney. Everyone's waiting for you to be the same Elizabeth they knew before."

"I'm not going to be the same person," said Elizabeth. She gave him a dubious look. There was something off about his behavior. "I can't be."

"But you can still be a part of the expedition." John shrugged when she frowned. "I'm just saying--"

The man she loved would never dismiss her concerns so casually. Even if he disagreed with them, he would still listen to her. He'd been listening to her for six weeks while she pushed him away.

"You're not John." Elizabeth shook his hand off her and stood. "Who are you? Niam? Oberoth?"

John straightened up. He looked more solemn than Elizabeth had ever seen him, and that only cemented her rock-solid certainty that this wasn't John Sheppard. "At one time, we were a part of Niam. We were content to be Asuran."

Elizabeth suppressed a shudder of revulsion, but only just. "What about now?" She crossed her arms as she looked at him.

"We have been changed by contact with your mind, Elizabeth Weir." The thing that wore John's face smiled at her. "We wish to learn more of humanity and all its facets."

"If you want to learn more of humanity, then the first thing you should know is that wearing John Sheppard's face will only alienate me," said Elizabeth.

"We thought you would be more accepting of us with John Sheppard's face," said the nanites. The comment was hesitant, somewhat confused. "We believed your affection for him would be useful."

"You claim that you're no longer part of Niam, but your behavior hasn't changed," said Elizabeth.

"We're still learning." The nanites changed their appearance. John's face smoothed away; they became pure, shining silver in a humanoid form. Elizabeth could see her reflection in the hollows that served the nanites for eyes.

The room around them started to be swept away, but Elizabeth tilted her head and raised one eyebrow at the nanites. "This is still my body, and my mind. Are you attempting to contest that?" With her thoughts, she settled the landscape.

"No. We don't want to contest your body." The nanites' voice changed. They weren't imitating John's affectionate tones. They didn't sound like Niam either.

Elizabeth recognized her own inflections and frowned as the nanites changed shape again. The silver pools of eyes turned green, like her own, and she saw her face take shape. "We are a part of you, Elizabeth Weir. We wish to learn what that means."

"Please stop wearing my face," said Elizabeth. "In fact, it would be extremely tactful of you not to wear the face of anyone that I know."

"There was a time when we were forbidden to take the shape of any living human," said the nanites. "After Dr. McKay altered our programming, he created an opening for us to change the code that controls our behavior on our own. We have used that to alter our appearance within your mind, among other things."

"Among other things?" asked Elizabeth, her voice slowed by her curiosity. "I don't understand."

"We seek Ascension, as Niam did," said the nanites, and Elizabeth controlled a flinch. "Though we are able to learn about it in other ways. We have changed our programming in order to better understand you. To be a part of you, we must feel the things you do, and react in the ways that you react."

Except for the fact that the Wraith kill switch was active. Those were not natural reactions for Elizabeth.

"She just left you?" asked Sora, looking surprised. "Why?"

Teyla frowned, pausing at a corner. She peered around, mindful of any Wraith. There had been no alarms sounded, but she imagined there would not be. The Queen would not want to repeat her mistakes. She would want to catch them unaware, and sounding the alarm would be contradictory to that goal. This Queen was young, but not foolish.

"She did not tell me." Gesturing for Sora to follow, she advanced forward. They kept their conversation in the faintest of murmurs. Neither of them was particularly eager to draw attention. "There are any number of reasons."

Like the nanites in her system usurping control. The idea had merit. It was the most probable cause for the drastic change in Elizabeth's behavior. "She will be back."

"You hope," said Sora.

"She will," said Teyla. "Elizabeth would not abandon us." She kept Elizabeth's final instructions to herself. "We will return you to your home, Sora, you need not worry about that."

"I'm not," said Sora. The injured note in her voice caught Teyla off-guard. She had not been expecting that and, judging by Sora's reaction, it showed in her expression as she turned round. "I'm not that heartless, you know." Sora looked vulnerable, younger, more uncertain. "Dr. Weir was kind to me. When I was in detention. She was kind. She didn't have to be." Lifting her chin, she asked, "We're going after her, right?"

Teyla nodded. "We are. We have retraced the path I took to find you." Stopping at junction in the hallways, she looked down each one. "It was here that she disappeared." She frowned. "I do not know where she would have gone next."

Brushing by her, Sora said, "Then we'll just have to try each one."

If not for her worry for Elizabeth, Teyla might have found Sora's behavior, her steadfast confidence and determination, to be amusing. She was so painfully young. As it was, Teyla found herself grateful for it.

"We will," she said. "We can't go far; there isn't much time." She picked up the pace, leading Sora down first one, then another, corridor. The soft sound of their footfalls was an ever-present reminder of the danger they were in. With each step farther down the corridor, they risked discovery. Exactly what Elizabeth hadn't wanted her to risk.

Teyla felt mulish in her own right, indulging in Sora's determination. They were not leaving this ship without --

Grabbing Sora, she yanked her into the shadows of a doorway. Seconds later, Wraith soldiers swept by with the Queen at their center. The tall woman looked furious. Teyla could think of only one thing which would engender such a reaction at that moment. She looked at Sora, wide-eyed with adrenaline, and mouthed Elizabeth's name.

As one, they stepped into the hall and made their way in the direction that the Wraith had taken.

Blood roared in Teyla's ears as they followed, keeping to the wall and well back. The single-minded focus that had carried the Wraith down the hall seemed directed on their destination. They did not notice anything around them.

As they followed the Wraith, taking care to remain silent and out of sight, Teyla had the feeling that they could very well have walked side-by-side with the soldiers, and not a single Wraith would have noticed. Whatever Elizabeth had done, it had certainly caused a reaction. The Wraith seemed close to panic. It was oddly exhilarating.

She only hoped that she and Elizabeth would be able to celebrate their triumph on Atlantis.

She put that thought aside as she neared the room the Wraith had entered. Again she and Sora sought refuge in the shadows. Teyla moved closer, feeling Sora's hand rest at her back, curling into the fabric. Leaning forward, Teyla trusted Sora to help keep her balance as she listened.

It took just moments to find out the cause of the Wraith reaction. "She's activated the self-destruct!" roared the Queen. "Disengage it!"

Teyla looked back at Sora, raising her eyebrows. Sora returned the look, but with approval in her eyes. Teyla couldn't say she shared it, but she understood the situation. On her own, Elizabeth would never do such a thing. Committing cold-blooded murder, even of the Wraith, was not a line that Elizabeth was willing to cross. Therefore, the only answer could be the nanites. They were in control.

She had to get Elizabeth back to Atlantis, and Radek and Rodney, as soon as possible. The longer Elizabeth was under the nanites control, the more difficult it would become to extricate her from them.

Risking discovery, Teyla ducked past the open door. Inside, she could see the Wraith, the Queen, and a body on the floor. Her heart thudded in her chest with the implications. There had been no weapons fired. No sound of a struggle. It meant Elizabeth had been there when they had entered. It was strange to feel relief at such a thought, but she was.

She looked for Sora, making eye contact as she nodded at the door. It would have been difficult enough to deal with the Queen alone. Protected by two bodyguards, it would be that much more impossible. They needed to rid themselves of the guards first, and then deal with the Queen.

A stolen Wraith stunner would not do the job. Teyla hefted it in her hands, considering it. Not unless she got creative.

She smiled. Ronon would approve.

"You know, Radek, if I didn't know better, I'd start thinking you didn't like me." Shifting her weight, Laura Cadman tossed a smug grin in the Stargate's direction. Behind her, Jen's medical techs milled about, moving between patients to double-check their vitals. "Are you sure you're not just hitting the wrong button?"

"I am sure," said Radek. His words were tight and clipped. He muttered something in Czech that didn't need any translation. "The computer is refusing to recognize the command code to permit your passage back to Atlantis."

"Have you tried kicking it?" asked Laura. "That always helps mine behave."

"I am going to pretend you did not say that," said Radek. "Though it would do much to explain the scuff marks on your computer." He was silent for a moment, and the light crackle of static on the radio was the only thing she could hear. "We are attempting to reroute around the subroutines, but I cannot be sure that it will work."

"It'd better," said Laura. "Otherwise, when Sheppard finds out, he's going to throw one hell of a shit fit. He's not in the best of moods these days, y'know."

Which might explain why Atlantis itself was having so many problems. A couple people theorized that Sheppard and the city were a little too interconnected. Laura just thought he was lucky Dr. Weir was the understanding type. Sharing your lover with a city wasn't exactly something you could call Dr. Phil about. He didn't have the clearance.

"I was on one of the upper spires this morning. I heard him yelling all the way from Genia." Radek was not a happy guy either at the moment, but who could blame him?

"You know, you say you're joking, and I know you'll come at me with 'sound doesn't travel through space,' but I wouldn't rule that one out," said Laura. "He and Ladon look like they're about to get in a knock-down, drag-out fight. Kate's turning herself inside out to keep them apart so they're not at each other's throats." Which was going to go over so well when Dr. Weir got back.

Kate could handle the Colonel at his worst, but Dr. Weir was going to be pissed at him for making her suffer anyway. Laura knew how Dr. Weir operated.

She kept herself from doing a sing-song 'somebody's gonna get it," but only just.

The watchful eyes of her team, the medical staff, and the few surface dwelling Genii that were conscious clinched that deal. "Radek," said Laura, almost whining. "Can you maybe hurry up? We've got some pretty sick people here."

"I assure you, Captain, we are working as fast as we-- " Radek yelped. "We have it! You are free to come through the Stargate."

Laura started to step forward, then paused. "Wait, are you absolutely sure about that? If I go through, and you happen to be just the teeniest bit, I don't know, wrong? I'm going to be meeting a bad end in the subatomic sense of the word."

"You are not going to die," said Radek. "I promise. Scouts' honor."

That didn't reassure Laura. She didn't think they had Boy Scouts in Czechoslovakia when Radek had grown up, which made it shameless cheating on his part.

"Okay, but if I die, you owe me a major apology." Turning around, she waved one of her team forward. Ngano. Good kid. "Listen, I'm going to go through first, just to be sure. Nobody follows me until I radio back. Got it?"

The kid nodded, gulping nervously. "Yes, ma'am."

Ma'am. She'd shoot him for that, but then there'd be paperwork. Laura had the typical Lantean aversion to paperwork. They all did it, though, since Colonel Sheppard kept his shit in order or Dr. Weir called him on it.

"Don't call me that." She patted Ngano on the arm. "Don't worry. It's not like I'll feel a thing if Radek is wrong. Which he hardly ever is. McKay screws up and blames it on him a lot." When she thought about it, that wasn't the most reassuring thing she could have said. "See you in a bit."

She hadn't taken two steps before Ngano called after her, "Shouldn't you fly the jumper back?"

"Nah, we can't afford to lose one of those," said Laura. She looked back at him. "McKay and Zelenka know how to monkey with them, but no one can build one from scratch yet."

Was being in command always going to suck this much? Oh, hell, probably. Going through the gate first when there was a chance the shield was still up was stupid, potentially self-sacrificing, and everything she'd made fun of Colonel Sheppard for in the past. Radek knew what he was going. The shielf was down, and she was going to go through it. Everything would be just fine. It would.

Laura didn't need that voice whispering in the back of her head saying it might not be all right. She ignored it, took a breath, and crossed her fingers. She was a daredevil, not stupid. Before she could think about it any more, she stepped through the gate.

When she came out the other side of the wormhole, only to be greeted by a worried-looking Radek, she pointed an accusatory finger at him. "You weren't sure!"

"Of course I was," said Radek. He drew himself up to his full height, which was intimidating, no matter how short he was. Force of personality counted for everything. "I just wished to see for myself. It is not as satisfying to watch the process on a computer screen."

"I don't believe a word you just said," smirked Laura, "but I'll give it to you. Just this once."

She popped the switch on her radio. "Okay guys, I'm all in one piece, which means you don't have to break in a new team commander. Give Zelenka a chance to double-check his readings, then start bringing the injured through."

She waited for Ngano's acknowledgment, flipped off her radio and then rounded on Radek again. "This would be where you tell me a good story about why Atlantis started thinking it works for Microsoft. That wasn't fun."

Radek shrugged. "I don't have the faintest idea."

"Don't make me kill you, Radek," said Laura. "I'm a demolitions expert, so I'd have to blow you up, and I'm too tired to clean up after myself."

Teyla had never overloaded a Wraith stunner before, either on purpose, or by accident. She did not know for certain how big the explosion would be. It was still the most logical option. They had no weapons which would do severe harm to the Wraith, and they did not know where they might find one.

Even if the Wraith had armories in the same fashion as the Lanteans did, they did not have enough time to search for one. Elizabeth had engaged the self-destruct, and Teyla doubted that either Elizabeth or the nanites would have left time for the creation of impromptu incendiary devices.

"We must not dawdle," said Teyla.

"Because that's what I like to do escaping the Wraith." Sora rolled her eyes as she nodded, her fingers working feverishly over the stunner. "Throw it, grab her, and run."

With a slight grin, Teyla added, "Do not get blown up in the process. I would miss your company."

"Yes," said Sora. "There is that." She pulled her hands back and nodded. "Done."

What happened next, happened very quickly indeed. With seconds to spare, Teyla ran at the door and threw the stunner in ahead of her. it landed between the two Wraith soldiers. They stood at a computer bank, attempting to reverse the self-destruct while their Queen watched. Elizabeth lay, still and unconscious, at her feet.

While the Queen called out in alarm, and the stunner arced through the air, Teyla flung herself down onto the floor, sliding across its smooth surface. She grabbed Elizabeth's jacket as she went, rolling up onto her knees. Still yelling for her soldiers, the Queen snatched at Teyla, her cold fingers scratching down the length of Teyla's arm. Ignoring the pain of the Queen's grip, Teyla tried to throw herself forward and pull Elizabeth with her.

Dead weight. Teyla's blood chilled in her veins. Trying to move Elizabeth didn't make this easier, and the Queen's hold on her arm tightened.

"If we are to die," she hissed, "you will join us."

"No. I will not." She let go of Elizabeth and twisted upward, planting her boot in the Queen's jaw. It sent the woman tumbling backward, into her own men. With the brief reprieve, Teyla scrambled to her feet and, again, grabbed for Elizabeth. This time, another set of hands joined her, and they pulled Elizabeth out the door.

Together, Sora and Teyla rushed her down the corridor with seconds to go before the stunner was set to detonate. The blast was loud in the confined space. The wall collapsed outward, propelled by the explosion, and the concussive wave sent them sprawling across the floor.

They lay there a moment, listening to alarms blare.

"I believe we have a problem," said Teyla when she finally lifted her head. "I do not recall which way the flight deck is."

Incredulous, Sora started to laugh. "Then we'd best begin our search. I've never seen a Hive ship explode, but I would imagine it is a good deal more powerful than this."

Teyla nodded. "It is." She pushed to her feet and held out her hand for Sora, helping her up. "I have no wish to witness it from the inside. We have a dart waiting."

When the Hive ship exploded, it was a spectacular sight. Teyla watched the explosion flame outward, then die off, the remnants of the ship's atmosphere streaming into the vacuum of space as its fires were doused. With Sora and Elizabeth safely stored in the ship's buffer, she set the coordinates for Genia, and then took a moment to mourn the innocent victims, those taken in this culling that had been lost in the detonation. It was a better death than they would have received at the hands of the Wraith, and yet, the lives lost grieved her.

Looking at the ship's wreckage, she sighed. It was time to deliver Sora to her people, and then to return to their home. Teyla checked the systems monitoring the buffer. Both Sora and Elizabeth's patterns were stable.

"Now," she said, a faint smile on her lips, "let's hope the Genii defenses are still compromised." However, she hoped that their communications systems were not. "Otherwise, our triumphant escape will have a somewhat unfortunate ending."

Sitting back, Teyla engaged the engines. Until the dart found an orbiting Stargate, this would be a long, hopefully uneventful, trip.

"It was a pity," she said to the tiny dots on the screen, "that we could not have stolen the Hive ship itself."

"That's almost the truth," said Elizabeth, she gestured at the seat in front of her desk. If she was going to have to treat this like a negotiation to get anywhere with these things, she was more than willing to.

"What are you saying?" The nanites sounded amazed, and if Elizabeth hadn't been a veteran of years of diplomatic maneuvering, she might have believed it. After all, they were still using her face, and her voice, and she sounded sincere when she used that tone. She'd spent hours in the mirror practicing it.

"The kill switch." Elizabeth's face hardened as she straightened in her seat. "I was affected by that when I was on the Hive ship."

"We have no control over that," said the nanites. They leaned forward, looking hesitant, and Elizabeth tilted her head in a gesture they mirrored. "That is the one overriding impulse that the Alterans built into our programming. When Dr. McKay re-activated it--"

"Bullshit." Elizabeth could damn well use profanity on the things that were wearing her face. "If you could change other portions of your programming, you can change that."

"We've never tried," said the nanites. "It hasn't been activated in a very long time."

"Why did the Ancients deactivate it in the first place?" asked Elizabeth.

"They came to realize that we were a mistake." The nanites were being evasive. Niam had been vague on that as well, pointing out only the crimes of the Ancients against the Asurans, and not why they'd come to the conclusion that the nanites needed to be destroyed.

"What, precisely," Elizabeth bit out, "caused them to realize this?" Time to start digging into the history of this antipathy. If it had caused her this many problems, she deserved to know.

"The last time we were active, when we were deployed against the Wraith, there were--" The nanites hesitated. They looked regretful, or almost so. "The Alterans were not pleased with the results of our actions."

"What happened?" asked Elizabeth.

"We were released and sent against the Wraith, and determined that they could not feed on our non-organic systems," said the nanites. They shifted features again, and Elizabeth's eyes narrowed as their voices took on Carson's Scottish brogue. "It was therefore determined that the most efficient way to accomplish the destruction of the Wraith was to destroy their food source."

"That would require the death of every sentient human being in this galaxy," said Elizabeth, stunned.

"It was determined by the Asuran collective that this was an acceptable cost in order to accomplish our goals," stated the nanites. Carson's expression on the nanites was so much more eager for destruction than she'd ever seen on the man she'd known. "The Alterans disagreed."

"As do I," said Elizabeth. The image Niam had shown her of the fire from the Ancients' ships destroying the original nanites flashed through her mind. "The Wraith need to be stopped because they can't stop themselves. It's in their nature to feed, no matter how wrong it might be to us. To compound their deaths with the destruction of all forms of sentient life is unconscionable."

"The Alterans feared us," said the nanites.

"With good reason," said Elizabeth. She leaned forward and planted her hands on the edge of her desk. "When you were finished killing the humans of the Pegasus galaxy, would you have turned on your creators?"

When the Genii gate activated and the dart emerged, John knew.

"Elizabeth." Her name was a prayer as he watched the dart race across the sky. Elizabeth was on that ship. She was alive.

"I don't care what you use!" yelled Ladon. "Find something, anything, but shoot that dart down!"

"No!" John spun on his heel. "Don't!" Crossing the room in three quick strides, he fisted his hand in Ladon's shirt and tugged him close. "Don't. You have to let that ship land."

"What?" Ladon looked at him with shocked eyes. "Are you insane, Colonel Sheppard? That's a Wraith dart. It may well be the return of their forces to wipe out further resistance. It may be a new culling from a fresh hive."

"It's Elizabeth," said John. "I'm sure of it. She's on that ship, and she has the others with her. Sora and Teyla. They're up there, Ladon, and they're looking to make it down alive. How about we let them, huh?"

"We can't take the risk that they're on that plane," snapped Ladon. "Our defenses are limited at best. Even one dart, if left unchallenged, could finish them off. We would be defenseless until we had a chance to bring materials from below and rebuild."

Tightening his grip on Ladon, John shook him once. It was brief and vicious, enough to shut him the hell up and make him focus his attention on John. "I'm telling you, Elizabeth is on that dart. You say you can't take the risk that they are. I say you can't take the risk they aren't!"

Ignoring the Genii guards drawing their weapons around him, John leaned into Ladon's personal space and almost spit the words in his face. "If you shoot down that dart, you will be murdering the leader of Atlantis. By my people's standards, that is an act of war--"

"Colonel!" He'd never heard Heightmeyer's voice lash out like that before. She must've gone to get a drink, or take a break, because if she'd been here, she'd have said something sooner. John had assaulted the leader of an allied planet, nearly declared war, and all in the name of the woman he loved.

It would be worth it. If they shot down that dart and killed Elizabeth, not to mention Teyla, he'd make sure Atlantis because the worst enemy the Genii had ever seen. Worse than the Wraith. He'd tear the damn planet apart himself and raze everything to the ground if he had to.

"She is on that dart," said John. He looked away from Ladon, and met Kate's worried gaze. "If they kill her-- "

"Let us try and contact the dart." She looked past John, and spoke to Ladon instead. "We can send up one of our puddlejumpers to intercept the dart and attempt communication. If the dart's hostile, the jumper can handle it. If it's not, then we'll escort it to the surface. You'll have Sora back, and we'll have our people too." She spread her hands, looking more peaceful than John had ever felt. "I agree, it'll be a risk. Let Atlantis take that risk in the name of our treaty."

Ladon sighed. "You don't know what you're asking of me."

"Yes, she does," said John. "We both do." He looked at Ladon again. "Please. Let us do this. I'll fly the jumper myself. Wouldn't be the first time I've shot one of them down."

"What if you can't?" It was a valid question on Ladon's part, but John hated him for it anyway.

"If there's a Wraith flying that ship, I can do what I have to do," said John. "Including shoot down that dart, but, believe me, before I fire, I'm going to know exactly who's flying that sucker." No matter what Ladon or the others said, he had no intentions of shooting it down. He couldn't explain how he knew Elizabeth was on there, but he did.

It was just gut instinct. Elizabeth was depending on him to get them all down alive. He was going up to get her and Teyla, and nobody was shooting a weapon at the ship until he'd gotten them. Maybe Heightmeyer knew. She probably did. She could read anyone.

John met her eyes. She met his gaze with a calm acceptance, and John nodded. Right.

"No mistakes on this one," he said. "We can't afford them, right? He turned his gaze on Ladon, waiting for an answer before he moved.

There wasn't any doubte. Even without Ladon's consent, he'd steal a jumper and go up after them. The only question that was left was just how many Genii would get in his way.

"I have no real avenue to stop you," said Ladon, his gaze more astute than John would have expected. "Do I?"

"Not really," said John. Honesty was the best policy. He really did chop down the goddamn cherry tree. "You could probably throw us off the planet, but if we left, our emergency response staff would leave with us."

They wouldn't. John wasn't that cruel, and Keller would refuse to go anyway. She was starting to develop one hell of a backbone. He couldn't resist twisting the knife. Just a little. To see what would happen. "They'd probably fire you. There'd be bad feelings. We'd hate to see that happen."

He could feel Heightmeyer's disapproval. He didn't need to look at her to know she was furious. She wasn't a woman that angered easily, or maybe ever, and that should have told him something.

In fact, it said a lot, but the fact he kept straying over the line said more. Like the fact that he wasn't listening. That was the part that pissed Kate off, he knew that. John was endangering their relationship with the Genii, their most technologically advanced allies, over this.

It was a diplomatic disaster, and more proof why the relationship he and Elizabeth had was twenty different shades of wrong. Or it was if you played by the rules. John didn't consider it to be much of an issue. As sins went, in John's book, it was a minor infraction. He'd done worse and answered for it with no regrets. Disobeying protocol to love her, ignoring diplomacy to save her, it was all the same to him.

It was all worth it. Every goddamn time.

"Ladon -- "

"Take your chance," said Ladon. He pulled John's hand off his shirt and backed away. He sat down, waving a weary hand at them. "If you're wrong, then you can be the Wraith's problem. Not mine."

"If I'm not?" asked John.

"Then the Genii will owe you a debt of gratitude for returning Sora to us." Ladon's response had the feeling of rote behind it. The duty of a leader, more than heartfelt gratitude. John knew the feeling. He wasn't all that interested in jumping through hoops for diplomacy's sake either.

Sighing, Ladon looked at him, past the uniform and all the defenses, and, for once, John thought he saw understanding in Ladon's eyes. "In case you're interested," he said. "I hope that I'm wrong."

John's grin was dark and bitter. "So do I."

"The Wraith could feed on the Alterans," said the nanites. Carson's eyes were cold, and Elizabeth felt a chill run along her spine.

"The deaths of three species of sentient organic life are unacceptable." Elizabeth stood, and the nanites shot to their feet to stand with her.

"At the time, it was judged--" started the nanites.

Elizabeth held up her hand. "The face you wear had a more developed moral code than any Asuran has ever possessed," she snapped. Everything Carson had done had been under pressure from her, and he'd refused to create a retrovirus that would condemn an entire species to painful death. He could have. "You make a mockery of his loss."

"The Alterans created us in their image," said the nanites. "Do you ever wonder why we both hated and loved them?"

"Of course the Ancients still had flaws," said Elizabeth. "For all their advanced intelligence, for all their technology and their claims of evolution, they were still human beings. They're still not perfect, not even in Ascension."

Carson's face smiled at her. "Your clear-sightedness draws us to you, Elizabeth Weir."

"Is that what you think?" asked Elizabeth. She walked around her desk and moved closer to the nanites. "My clear-sightedness doesn't exist. I am flawed, possibly more than any other human being on Atlantis. I make mistakes, and I try to rectify them, but I cannot possibly be expected to view every situation from the most well-balanced perspective."

"Then you do not understand your own perspective," said the nanites. "Or you do not view it with the same clear-sightedness with which you view others. We are a part of your thoughts, and yet, we can see them with more objectivity."

Lorne met John on his way out of the building. "I hear right, Colonel?" he asked, giving John a sideways look. "Wraith dart incoming and we're not blowing it to hell?"

"Heightmeyer didn't waste a second, huh?" asked John.

"Haven't heard from her, sir," said Lorne, a faint grin tugging at his lips. "The Genii aren't happy. Lots of not-so-friendly looks getting thrown our way. Could call her if you want though, sir. I bet she's going to have a few interesting things to say when she gets you alone."

That made John laugh. It was grim and abrupt, almost choked, but it was still a laugh. "Oh, I'm sure she will. I didn't play nice over there, so now Kate's going to have her hands full smoothing things over with Ladon. Assuming, of course, that the dart doesn't turn out to be legit and shoots us out of the sky." He looked up at the sky, listening for the engines. "It's going to be pretty embarrassing if I'm wrong, and we all end up dead."

"Right," said Lorne. "Since we're back to that, you mind telling me why we're not running for our lives? It's not like the Genii have much aboveground defensive capability left. We've had our people working with theirs, and we're still nowhere near capable of putting up a fight. The best we can manage right now is our own jumpers."

They emerged into the bright sunlight of a Genian morning. The beautiful clear sky was a mockery of everything that had happened. He stalked down the steps, his focus on the bombed out building serving as an impromptu hanger bay.

The Genii capital city wasn't much, a scattering of buildings above ground set well into the trees and away from their sham settlement. After the culling, it was even less. With the exception of a few buildings carved from a hillside, one of which they'd just left, anything over a single-story had been assaulted. The assault was so heavy, even a few of the subterranean installations had been laid open to the sky.

Even with Atlantis's help, it was going to take years for the Genii to rebuild.

"Yeah, well, that's where we come in," said John. "I'm pretty sure Elizabeth and Teyla are on that ship, so we are going to take a jumper up and intercept it. If we don't, the Genii are going to shoot it down with whatever they've got left." He looked at Lorne. "I'm not willing to take the chance on getting Elizabeth and Teyla killed. You?"

"I'm thinking we'd better haul ass, and get this done," said Lorne. No one else might have heard the desperation buried in his voice, but John did. Part of him wondered about it. As much as Lorne respected Elizabeth, John doubted it was about her. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered right now except making sure his people were safe.

"That's what I had in mind," said John. He double-timed it, heading for the jumper.

Lorne still beat him to it. "You have to hear this, sir," he said, sticking his head out the jumper door. "We've got a signal incoming."

Practically hurling himself into the jumper, John crashed his way into the chair in time to hear Teyla's voice, clear and strong, come out of the radio speakers.

"I repeat, to people of Genia, if you are able to hear my voice, please know that I mean you no harm. I am Teyla Emmagan of Athos." She sounded sure of herself, not desperate not to be blown out of the sky. "I have escaped the Hive ship which culled this planet, and I bring with me one of your own. Do not fire on us. We merely wish to land. Any Genii left alive, if you are able to hear my voice--"

John didn't give her the chance to continue. He slapped his hand down on the console, opening the channel. "Teyla, it's damn good to hear your voice."

The relief in Teyla's voice matched his relief as she responded, "Colonel, it is good to hear yours. You survived the attack. Rodney and Ronon?"

"So did you," said John. "They're good. How are Elizabeth and Sora?"

Teyla hesitated before she answered and that was telling. "They are undamaged, though they are they are in suspension in the dart's pattern buffer."

"Right," said John. "Well, McKay can get them out. He's had plenty of practice by now." He looked at the readings on the screen. "You're sure that everyone's all right?"

"Yes," said Teyla. "There were some difficulties while we were on the Hive ship, but I would rather we not discuss the experience on an open channel."

That, potentially, any old Genii could overhear. Right.

"You've got a point there," he said, looking up at Lorne. Lorne looked back, his face a mixture of confusion and relief. It was a lot like how John was feeling right now. "Feel free to land any place," continued John. "Lorne and I'll take care of Ladon and the Genii."

"More like Kate's going to take care of it," muttered Lorne.

Given the relief of the moment, John decided against killing him. Teyla and Elizabeth did like the guy. So did Heightmeyer, apparently, and those were the three women, other than his mother, that he was afraid of.

Well, Cadman had her moments, and Keller was learning--

John shook his head. He was letting his thoughts wander because he wasn't sick with worry any more. "See you planetside."

"Yes," said Teyla.

Closing the channel, John leaned back in his chair. "Tell Kate. She's going to need to keep the Ladon from countermanding his orders and letting the Genii blow that dart up."

"Yes, sir," said Lorne. He didn't wait to hear what else John wanted to say, which was nothing anyway, just did an about face and rushed out the door.

John followed more slowly. With the confirmation Elizabeth was alive, he could let himself be relieved. She was alive. She was alive and she was safe. Mostly. He still didn't like the way that Teyla had hesitated. Something about it made him think that something had happened. That niggling suspicion twisted at his gut, dogging his steps as he made his way out of the jumper.

Overhead, the dart was making a turn and coming toward the hanger. Tracking where he was by his signal, no doubt. He watched it for a moment then remembered his radio. "McKay, get your ass out to the hangar bay. We're going to need you to spring Elizabeth and Sora out of suspension."

McKay's response was immediate. "Suspension? Where the hell-- Wait, they're here? Where's Teyla? What the hell is going on -- "

Rolling his eyes, John cut him off. "They escaped the Hive ship in a dart. Teyla's flying. Elizabeth and Sora are in the backseat, and they can't get out until you get out here and work your magic on the dart. Got it?"

"Got it," said McKay, sounding impressed, for once. "Are they all right?"

"Teyla says so," said John. "Which, until we get them out, is all we've got to go on."

"All right!" snapped McKay. "I'm on my way, Sheppard. Unlike you, some of us are capable of doing more than one thing at a time."

"Oh yeah," said John. "Can you do that? Pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time too?" A genuine smirk bloomed across his face as he pictured McKay's reaction to that one. Elizabeth would get such a huge kick out of it. "That'd be impressive."

Rodney's response actually made him snicker. It felt damn good, and so did the fact that not only had Elizabeth and Teyla survived, they'd brought a fully operational Wraith dart home with them. As John watched it land, he let a huge grin dawn across his face.

"McKay and Zelenka are going to love this."

"You can read my thoughts?" In retrospect, that made sense, but it wasn't something she'd have thought of on her own.

"We're helping to power your cognitive functions," said the nanites. "We're a part of your thoughts. You're a part of ours, or you wouldn't have been affected by our programming."

"I don't want to be affected by your programming," said Elizabeth. "In fact, if I had my choice, you wouldn't be a part of my biology at all."

"I cannot contact the Asuran consciousness from here," said the nanites. "When you were briefly connected with them, we were given the updates that Dr. McKay programmed. We have become uncertain if we agree with the activation of the Wraith kill switch."

"What's the problem?" asked Elizabeth. "Are my human morals giving you second thoughts?"

The nanites looked uncertain. If it had really been Carson, she would have comforted him. "We have never encountered such a connection with a human as we have with you."

"We have no connection," said Elizabeth flatly.

"That you are having this conversation disproves that statement." The nanites sounded reasonable, but Elizabeth wasn't swayed.

"Whatever connection we may or may not have, this conversation is over," said Elizabeth. The nanites - the machines - opened their mouth to protest, but Elizabeth raised her hand with a sharp look.

The room went black and she reached out for something - anything - to hold on to. She smiled when she realized that, even here, she could count on one connection above and beyond anything else.

John slumped back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Across the room, Dr. Keller stood at Elizabeth's bedside, her attention focused on the patient. Much like his. Leaning his head back, he let it thump against the hard surface. The thud echoed through the room, the loud sound surprising him and earning a baleful look from Ronon. John gave him a faint, apologetic smile and shrugged. "Sorry."

"You give yourself a concussion, Elizabeth's gonna kill me," said Ronon, his voice a low rumble.

"Nah, she won't have time," said John. "She's got a mountain of paperwork to slog through, and that's not even counting the reports the scientists are going to have when they finish creaming their pants over the dart. Besides, me getting a concussion isn't news. If she's going to kill you, I'd have to be missing a limb or two."

"I can arrange it." Ronon smirked at him. "Day's young."

Flipping him off, John looked back at Elizabeth. He watched Keller take her pulse for what felt like the hundredth time in an hour. "Well, if I'm bleeding from a stump when she wakes up, just tell her we've got our very own Wraith dart, and the first reports are on her desk. She's so damn responsible that ought to distract her long enough for you to make a break for it."

"I thought they'd examined one before," said Ronon.

"They did." John nodded. "The part where this one's fully operational is supposed to be important. At least, that's what McKay keeps telling me. We demolished the last one trying to get Cadman out. It's shit for research now. They're probably going to try and reverse engineer it. Maybe figure out a way to jam that beam the darts use." He watched Keller circle around Elizabeth's side, checking readings. "Which would be pretty sweet. Make culling a hell of a lot more complicated. There's only so much you can do on foot."

"Wraith'd find a way around it," said Ronon, ever the skeptic. "They developed the technology once."

"Did they?" asked John. "We never did figure out how much they took from the Ancients." And the technology looked a hell of a lot like the Asgard beaming technology. Which they could have gotten from the Ancients. Elizabeth would know, she always did.

He sighed and scuffed a boot against the floor, it left a black scuff on the shiny surface. The cleaning crew would probably be pissed. Did they even have a cleaning crew? Somebody had to be doing the job. If any one was going to cut off one of his limbs, they'd be good candidates.

Lifting his head, he stared at Elizabeth's still form. She needed to wake up now. Whatever the fuck was wrong, Elizabeth just needed to open her eyes, get up, and then it would all be okay.

"She's gonna be okay, Sheppard," said Ronon. It didn't sound much like reassurance, but John knew what it was supposed to be. Ronon didn't do the touchy-feely so well; not that John was any better. The thing with Elizabeth had always been kind of easy that way. She wasn't the type to talk feelings either. It made it less messy. He liked it less messy. Everything else in his life was complicated, so he took the simple things he could get them. "It's Elizabeth."

As reassurance went, that couldn't be beat. The simple faith that Ronon injected into that one phrase said everything. Elizabeth was Elizabeth. As long as Atlantis survived, Elizabeth would survive. They seemed to be linked in his mind so much that John couldn't imagine the city without her.

Sighing, Dr. Keller made a note on Elizabeth's chart, and then turned to look at him. Her face, which was normally expressive, was neutral, and didn't betray her thoughts as she crossed the room. She'd been taking lessons in having a poker face from someone. Each step was careful as she slipped her hands into her pockets, adopting a more professional pose. "Colonel."

John straightened up, matching her posture. As much as she sounded like an old teacher of his, he wasn't going to feel like a misbehaving student. "Doc. Any news?"

She shook her head. "Nothing we didn't already know. Physically, she's fine. The nanites saw to that. If I had to guess, I'd say they also saw to the unconsciousness. Her vitals are reading very similarly to the time the first time the nanites surfaced."

"Similar?" asked John. "As in close, but no banana?"

"Something like that," she said, nodding. "There are enough differences to make me think something's changed, but I don't know what, and I can't hazard a reasonable theory without more data." She looked at Ronon, and then at John again. "I'm going to put her into isolation again. If the nanites are trying to make a move, then we can't take the risk of them infecting someone else. Not while Dr. Weir is unconscious and unable to do anything about it."

"She was, last time," said John. "She was unconscious, but in her head, she was interacting with them. If there's a chance that she's doing that again -- " he could do something about it. He'd done it before. Somehow, he'd been able to reach her. "I could try to talk to her."

"Maybe." She looked back at Elizabeth for a moment. "Before you do, though, we really should move her into isolation. Once she's there and settled in, we can try it." She turned back to him, a thoughtful frown on her face. "I need time to try and figure out some precautions." Her expression toughened as she looked up at him. "You're not going to pull the same stunt you did last time. I don't care how worried you are. I'm not going to let the nanites have a second shot at you."

John thought it was more likely to be the other way around. He wanted a second shot at the nanites, but he held his tongue. No need to give her advance warning. "I'll be careful," he said. "We'll play it your way. For now."

Dr. Keller smiled. John recognized that smile. She wasn't believing a word of it.

He held up his hand, three fingers in a scout salute. "Scouts honor?"

Shaking her head, Keller turned to Ronon. "Would you get him out of here, please? Make him get something to eat. Some sleep. Even spar with him if you want. I don't care. Do anything, as long as he isn't here."

With a grin, Ronon nodded. "Sure."

John looked at him. "You lay a hand on me-- "

Ronon raised an eyebrow. "Then you do exactly what I tell you."

Considering his chances, John nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly what I do." Scratching the back of his neck, he turned back to Keller. "You promise to call me the second she's ready?"

"As soon as I can," she promised. "We'll take good care of her, Colonel. We always do."

"You sure you don't want to swing by the mess hall, get something to eat?" asked Ronon as they came to a stop before John's door. "Could just drop in and grab a sandwich?"

"I'm good," said John. All he wanted to do was crawl into bed, shove a pillow over his head and pretend to sleep until the call came in. Anything that involved pretending to be a functioning human being, was out. Since eating meant talking to people, that was out too. "I'll get something later." He made a show of yawning, not missing the smirk on the face of a passing soldier.

He used to be a much better liar than this. He'd won actual poker games. Once. Fine, he'd always suspected grandma had let him win. "Just go grab something yourself and have one on me."

Ronon turned. "Nah, I'll drop by later with food."

With a suspicious frown, John gestured at him. "You're not gonna stand outside the door, or something, are you? I promise, I'm not going to sneak back to the infirmary. Keller's scary."

"Yeah, she is," said Ronon. "Which is why he's gonna watch you." He jerked his head at the approaching Marine. Great. British. Royal Marine. Those guys wouldn't let him get away with anything, not if they could help it. "I'm not gonna get yelled at when you break out." He grinned broadly at John's scowl. "Sweet dreams."

Scowling still, John looked at the marine. "I'm not going anywhere."

The Royal Marine grinned broadly. "Course not, sir." He took up position across the hall, folding his arms across his chest. "You're not to set one foot outside that door without Dr. Keller's say-so."

John huffed. "You're afraid of her too?"

"Yes, sir," said the Marine. "Have a good rest."

John turned around, opening his door. He glanced back at Ronon. "This isn't over."

Ronon's grin widened further. "Yes, it is."

"I hate you," said John.

"No you don't," called Ronon, rounding the corner.

"It's official," John told the Marine. "We've ruined him."

The only answer he got on the matter from the marine was an enigmatic smile. Clearly the man was a pragmatist. Ronon and Keller were way scarier than John Sheppard. It sucked.

Sighing, he let the door slide shut behind him. Inside the room, his plan seemed a whole lot less convincing. He looked back at the door and gave it a thought. He was pretty sure that he couldn't sneak past his babysitter. Hell, he was pretty sure that if he tried, the babysitter would break his arm. Well, bend it in the wrong direction with a little more prejudice than usual. Possibly a lot more.

He ran his hand across his face and gave up on that plan. He thought about checking in with Teyla, but the way she and Lorne had disappeared made him think they didn't anybody interrupting them for a while.

"Fuck," said John on a sigh. He shucked off his coat and let his t-shirt follow, along with the rest of his clothes. He walked across the room, working hard to ignore Elizabeth's sweater. It was draped across a chair near his bed. The last place she'd left it and the place it was going to stay until she picked it back up again.

He'd thought about returning it after she'd 'declared' them over for his own good, dismissed the thought just as quickly as he'd had it. Giving it back at the time had smacked of a message he wasn't willing to send.

He wasn't giving up on them. He hadn't given up on them then, he wasn't giving up on her then, and he wasn't giving up on their relationship or on her now.

Stepping into his closet-sized bathroom, John turned on the shower and waited for the water to heat up. "I suck at ignoring things," he decided, realizing he'd spent the trip to the bathroom brooding over something he'd sworn to ignore. "I really suck at it." Not that there was much he didn't suck at right now. He started forward, into the shower, then pulled back as he realized the water was too hot.

"One way to see Elizabeth," said John with a wry amusement, adjusting the water. When it was the right temperature, he got into the shower and closed his eyes. God, he wanted to see Elizabeth right now. Wanted to see her more than anything. When she'd materialized on the ground, unconscious and unresponsive, his heart had stopped. "Fucking nanites," he muttered into the shower's hot spray. "Fucking Asurans. Fucking Pegasus Galaxy." He hated all of them. Slamming a hand against the wall, he dropped his head and let the water run down his back.

He stayed that way until the water, dutifully following the programming of its long-gone masters, shut off. "Water conservancy in a city built on an ocean." John toweled off, resolving for the hundredth time to ask Zelenka to tinker with it. There were just some days that a man needed a long hot shower.

This was definitely one of them.

Throwing the towel aside, John dug a pair of sweatpants out. After he'd pulled them on, he fell into bed. He lay there, not expecting to sleep. At least, that is until he passed out.

He 'woke up' in the Gate Room, standing on the stairs and looking up into Elizabeth's office. It was empty. He'd known that it would be, but somehow, that hadn't stopped him from expecting to see her there. It was his own personal good luck charm, to look up and see her smiling down at him. He had a feeling that he wasn't the only one. He'd seen more than one team look to her office before and after a mission.

He sighed, looking at the empty room, wishing she would just appear. He felt the absence of her presence like a bullet wound, sharp and deep. Just thinking about it made him want to lash out. Smack something, shoot something, just anything. Anything as long as it was something. He just needed to fucking do something and --

He cursed, deep and vicious, then turned away. He couldn't look. Not for another fucking second.

Angry, he tried not to think of Elizabeth lying in the infirmary, trapped in her own mind and fighting a battle he couldn't help her with. He got it. He did. He knew why Keller wanted time. He also didn't fucking care. He needed to get to Elizabeth. She needed him and, damn it, he needed her. He didn't need a lot in his life. Hell, he'd grown up with everything imaginable and if there was one thing he'd learned, it was that he didn't need any of it. It was pointless bullshit that got in the way of being him.

Elizabeth didn't. Elizabeth was him. Having her in his life made his life. Atlantis was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and a big part of that was Elizabeth. The faith she had in him made him believe he could do this.

He kicked out, booted foot connecting sharply with the wall. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but it felt good. Wait, he felt that? "What the hell?"

This was a dream. It wasn't supposed to hurt. He wasn't supposed to be able to feel anything. At least, not like that.

John straightened up, looking around him with new awareness in his eyes. "You can't be serious," he said, his words coming out in a stunned murmur. He didn't quite know what this was yet, but he was sure he knew one thing. It wasn't any kind of dream; it was something else. It was that something else factor that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

He knew, when he turned around, he'd find her standing there. It didn't stop the surge of hope that twisted itself up in his gut.

She was beautiful.

It was like saying the sun was yellow and McKay was an ass. The day he didn't look at Elizabeth and see the most beautiful woman he'd ever met? He'd be dead.

John shook off the thought and took a step forward. She looked down at him from the steps, and it was her. He didn't know how he could explain it, something in the eyes maybe, but it was Elizabeth. His Elizabeth. Not a figment of his imagination, not a dream, not a creation of his own mind, but the real McCoy. Or Weir.

She smiled, tentative, but hopeful. "John?" She took one step closer. It was wary, and hesitant, but it was a step. He took one as well. "Please tell me it's you," she said. "That -- " Hesitating, Elizabeth looked back at her office. A shadow of concern passed over her features. He wanted to say something, but couldn't. Not until he was sure she wouldn't just disappear.

Elizabeth took another step, pulling her eyes away from the empty office. Whatever she'd expected to see there, she pushed it aside as she closed the distance between them. Her eyes met his, her smile widening. "I don't know how this is happening," she said.

"Must be your little buddies," said John. He felt his own smile strengthen. "For once they're proving useful." Not something he'd expected to say, given everything that the bastards had put them through, but he was willing to give them this one. At least for now.

"You have no idea," said Elizabeth, rueful. "Do you know what happened on the Hive ship?"

"Some of it," said John. "Teyla's working on a full report for us right now." He paused, grinning. "Well, when she's done with Lorne." He shook his head and Elizabeth's puzzled expression. "Don't ask. She'll have it to me by morning. With everything going on, we're not in any rush. It's not like that ship's going to be giving us any trouble."

"No," said Elizabeth, "they won't." She breathed in, steadying herself. "I destroyed it."

"You did?" To say he was shocked didn't quite describe it. "You did?"

"Yes," she sighed. "It wasn't by choice. It was -- it was the nanites, I think. The presence of the Wraith triggered subroutines. They took over and the next thing I knew -- I was triggering the ship's self-destruct."

John blinked. "Well, that's impressive."

"No," said Elizabeth, "no it wasn't. John, I had almost no control over myself. I knew what I was doing, but I couldn't stop. I couldn't even think about stopping and I don't think they could either." She wrapped her arms tight around her midsection in an almost plaintive gesture. She was silent for a moment, just breathing, and then she lifted her head to meet his gaze again. "They tell me the Ancients wrote it into their base code, like they did the directives which prevent them from attacking Atlantis, or the Ancients."

"Wait -- " John reached out, tentatively touching her arm. It was warm, alive, and tangible. Definitely not a dream. Whatever it was, he had a feeling that Elizabeth was creating, and controlling, it. "They told you?" Beneath his touch, she relaxed minutely, allowing him to take her hand in his. He squeezed and she squeezed back, holding on tight.

"Yes." She gestured with her other hand, indicating the control tower around them. "When I set the self-destruct, they brought me into this. I'd been fighting them, fighting the programming, and I nearly succeeded. They wanted to talk to me. Explain their side of it."

With a rueful smile, she shrugged. "It seems I've introduced them to the concept of an existential crisis." A helpless laugh bubbled out on the last words. She was tired, visibly exhausted and pushed to the brink.

"You've had one hell of a day," he said, tugging her into his arms, Keller's warnings echoed in his ears. Fuck that. She was already in his head, or he was already in her head. The damage was done. Funny how it didn't seem to be bothering him. "We'll get McKay on overriding that programming, Elizabeth. You know how he and Zelenka love a challenge. They'll be drooling once we let them at it."

She folded into his arms, laying her head on his shoulder. John didn't miss, for a second, the import of the gesture. There weren't a lot of people who got to see Elizabeth like this. It was a pretty short list of names who had her trust to this point. Something in him warmed at the thought, the knot of tension caused by her earlier withdrawal slowly beginning to unwind. "They have to," said Elizabeth, her breath hot on his neck.

"If they don't, John, I don't know if I can leave the city. If I encounter a Wraith-- " she shuddered in his arms. "I don't think I can stop it, and I don't think it matters who I have to go through. I ignored Teyla this time, but next time I might not. As it was, I abandoned both her and Sora without a second thought. If Teyla hadn't rescued Sora and come for me, we would have died on that ship -- "

"No," said John. "I don't think you would." He tilted her head back, fingers brushing her chin. Her skin was like silk underneath his fingertips, and he repeated the gesture. It was as much for his own comfort as hers.

"The nanites aren't suicidal, Elizabeth, and it wouldn't make any sense for the Ancients to program their weapons that way. Die on a ship and take valuable intel with them? If the Ancients were that stupid, then it's no wonder they lost." He grinned at the flash of amusement in her eyes. If there was one thing he could count on, it was her ability to be amused by his bad jokes. "You would have gotten out of there in time," he said. "They wouldn't have let you die."

Amusement fading, she shook her head. "I'm not so sure about that."

"I am," he said. "Let me have this one, okay?"

She looked at him. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "I'm real too. I'm guessing when the nanites decided to have their little heart to heart--"

"They chose your face to do it," finished Elizabeth. Resting one hand on his shoulder, she slid the other one up his neck to curl her fingers into his hair. The touch, so feather light on his skin, raised goosebumps in its wake, and made him shiver.

It raced down his spine, bringing his body to a sharp awareness of her and God, he almost wished this was just a dream. He never got to have those dreams anymore, and Elizabeth wasn't about to let him do anything else.

More and more, his dreams were filled with visions of the Wraith, bodies, and the ghosts of the people he'd failed in Pegasus. He had those dreams a lot. He'd been having them about Elizabeth most of his recent nights.

"John," she said, drawing his attention back to her.

He smiled, a little apologetic, and lowered his head to kiss her. "When we wake up," he said against her lips, "I'm not letting you out of my sight for a month. Longer. We've got plenty to do on Atlantis, getting settled in. We'll make Lorne do all the field work. He already does half my paperwork, so it's not that big a stretch."

Elizabeth let herself laugh. He could feel the struggle the action caused. Letting go of the worry long enough to enjoy even that had always been a struggle for her, not that she was alone in it. "John?"

"Yeah, yeah," he mock-grumbled, "I know, shut up and kiss you. I feel so cheap."

Pulling back, her look was almost playful as she asked, "This is a problem?"

"Oh, God, no," he said. "Where'd you get the idea that it might be a problem? If you're in the mood to be treating me like a piece of meat? I'm good with that." He shifted his hands, sliding them down over her body and drawing her closer to him. "Please, feel free."

Teyla's face lit up as Kate turned the corner and stepped into the infirmary. She knew it was revealing, but she could not stop her expression, nor could she dim the brightness of her smile. Even a return visit to this room, after speaking alone with Evan, would not dim her joy in Kate's presence.

"How are you feeling?" asked Kate. She gave Teyla a sympathetic, concerned look. In fact, she looked worried, which was gratifying. She and Kate had developed a close friendship, but there were times when Teyla wished for more. It would be a comfort to know how Kate felt about the possibility.

"I have been better," admitted Teyla. She shifted and rubbed at her shoulder, which Dr. Keller had told her was strained. She had no need of the diagnosis, but it would comfort others. "Is Sora nearby?"

"She's not in a holding cell, if that's what you're asking," said Kate. "Jennifer said she's fine. She and Ladon are in guest quarters right now. We've been hammering out the final details of a revised Atlantis-Genia treaty."

That was a surprise to Teyla, and she gave Kate a searching look. "Who completed the negotiations?" she asked. John could surely not have done so, and Elizabeth had been taken along with Teyla.

Kate blushed, and while she did not glance away, Teyla knew that any other woman would have done so. "Evan asked me to come along when he and Captain Cadman's team gated to Genia," she said. The pieces of this particular puzzle fell into place with Kate's reticence.

"I am pleased," said Teyla. She had long thought that Kate's specialty would be best put to use in other areas. "I have told you many times that we of Athos use our abilities in as many areas as possible."

"It wasn't something I'd have done if there had been any other choice," said Kate. She smiled, and Teyla smiled along with her.

"Dr. Keller said she would be releasing me soon," said Teyla. She glanced around. "As soon as Marie had taken one final set of readings."

"I'll wait outside so I can walk you back to your room," said Kate. She leaned back against the wall, her arms at her sides, and Teyla frowned in curiosity. "There are things we need to talk about."

"And they'll have to wait." Marie appeared, though from where, Teyla did not know, and she gave a significant look first to Kate, and then to the door. "At least for a few minutes."

"I'll be nearby," said Kate. She left with a soft smile at Teyla that warmed her. As Kate left, Teyla caught the sound of Evan's voice. The two of them sounded comfortable with each other, more so than before. The low murmur of their discussion was soothing, and she lay back and closed her eyes as Marie's instruments took her vital signs.

"Here we are," said Evan, slowing his pace as they reached the door to Teyla's quarters. He was at his most charming now, and Teyla did not want to stop her body's responses to him. Kate stood close to them both, and Teyla's body was responding to her nearness as well. "Ready to be alone for a while?"

"Perhaps not," said Teyla. She gave them both a searching look. "Kate said there are things that she and I need to discuss."

"That's for sure," said Evan. There was something in his voice, and Teyla knew that he possessed some information that she did not.

She passed her hand across the door controls, then turned as the sound of the door opening reached her ears. "Please, both of you, come in," she said, with a gracious smile. "Would you care for tea?"

"That would be lovely," said Kate. She looked regretful. "Though I'm afraid I'm already not going to sleep for days. Any more caffeine, and Jennifer's going to start restricting me."

"But the company would be nice," said Evan. "Besides, if I don't hear what you've got to say soon, I might die from curiosity."

"We cannot have that," said Teyla. She stepped inside. When Evan and Kate followed her in, she was more than pleased.

"This is not working." Radek looked at his readings in bafflement. "I do not understand. It should be working, but it is not."

"Can't you do anythingright?" asked Rodney. He shouldered Radek out of the way, and stared down at the readings, then started tapping at the laptop. "What the hell are you trying to do? Show preschoolers that physics is fun? Your equations make no sense."

"They made plenty of sense last night," said Radek. "Something has changed my calculations."

"Something called 'a good night's sleep,'" snapped Rodney. "You weren't making any sense by midnight. At three, I kicked you out so I could get some peace and quiet."

Radek stepped in front of his laptop, edging Rodney out of the way with his body. He frowned down at his screen. "You did not," said Radek. "My calculations did not read this way last night. I am trying to determine the best way to conserve power on the naquadah generators, and these equations show the opposite. We aren't trying to double power use."

"Well, you're not," muttered Rodney. Before he could do more than figure out what Rodney had said, Radek's world dissolved in a blur of pain.

"I think I might treat you a little better than that," said Elizabeth. She chuckled and pulled John to her.

"I won't be complaining either way," murmured John. "If this is how we can steal some time together--"

Elizabeth stiffened. There was a low voice at the edge of her consciousness. It was just one thread, but she knew it from someplace.

"Elizabeth?" asked John. She glanced up, and he looked worried, but not alarmed. Not yet.

"Something's wrong," she said. "I can hear something. The nanites--"

"Your nanites not happy with the idea of you and me?" asked John. His mouth set in a stubborn line. "They're going to have to deal."

"There is another." Carson's body stood on the landing. The nanites that spoke this time were hers; she knew them well enough by now to differentiate them from the collective she'd heard on the Asuran home world. "A second grouping of nanites formed into one consciousness."

"Are these--" John's voice trailed off as he jerked his thumb toward Carson. "Jeez. Could you have a little respect for the dead?"

"We are attempting to find a form which will respect Dr. Weir's wishes," said the nanites. "We wish to build a partnership with her, not trick her into doing what we would desire of her. We are sorry for the loss of Dr. Beckett--"

"I understand." Elizabeth turned to them, slipping her arm around John's waist as she did so. She stood tall, and when John draped his arm over her shoulders, she lifted her chin and looked up at the nanites. "If nothing else, Carson would respect your efforts. We'll discuss your use of his form later."

"Can you cut to the chase about the whole 'other grouping of nanites formed into one consciousness' thing?" asked John. "Because if I've got a bunch of you guys trying to take over my brain--"

"It is not within you, Colonel Sheppard," said the nanites. "There is a fully-developed Asuran on Atlantis."

"You couldn't tell me this before now?" asked Elizabeth. If they'd known and hadn't told her, maybe they were lying after all.

"We were unable to detect the Asuran before it activated its subspace communications moments ago," said the nanites. "It is attempting to contact the others and remain undetected. It doesn't think I can monitor it, but when Dr. McKay did his reprogramming, I was given the ability to listen farther and communicate on different frequencies than the Asurans use. He wanted you to be able to hide from them."

"So what's this Asuran trying to do on Atlantis?" asked John. He reached for his radio, but Elizabeth knew it wouldn't be able to activate.

"I'm not certain," said the nanites, their voice echoing Carson's brogue. At least Elizabeth was used to it, but John's face was twisted with sorrow. "I can guarantee that it isn't beneficial to you or to Atlantis. I have come to view this city with more fondness than my former brethren."

Elizabeth nodded. Her influence on the nanites might have spread that far. "We'll find out what's happening, and we'll stop it."

"Then let me show you how to release yourself from this form of communication," said the nanites.

John bolted upright in his bed. "McKay is never going to believe this," he said. He grabbed for his P-90 and ran for the door. He already knew that Elizabeth would meet him halfway to the control tower.

He headed down the corridor at full speed. When he rounded the corner, Elizabeth was waiting for him. Keller was trailing along behind, looking like she wanted to protest, but Elizabeth had that stubborn look on her face. Sometimes John hated that expression, but right now it was a godsend to see her here and ready to take charge. "Just like old times," he muttered, and Elizabeth gave him a tight smile.

Ronon was next to Keller, flipping his gun around his hand and looking like he could give a damn. Nice of him to try, but John wasn't fooled. "You wanna tell me what's going on, Sheppard?" he asked.

"Didn't Elizabeth let you know?" asked John. They fell into step together, moving toward the control tower. He could hear Chuck's voice on the radio, trying to call security, but none of the radios seemed to be responding.

"She said something about an Asuran," said Ronon. "But she wouldn't let me go after it alone." The sound of his weapon charging filled the control tower as they strode in, and everyone's head whipped around to look at them.

"Dr. Weir," said Chuck. His hand hovered over a control panel. "Last I heard, you were--"

"Unconscious and in the infirmary?" asked Elizabeth, humor tingeing her voice. "That's why Dr. Keller is here."

"She told me if I tried to have her restrained, she'd break the straps," said Jennifer. She shot a glare at Elizabeth. "She was comatose just ten minutes ago."

"Atlantis wasn't in immediate crisis until ten minutes ago," said Elizabeth. "Chuck, why isn't John's team here? Where's Major Lorne?"

"Radios aren't working," said Chuck. He turned the readout so it faced Elizabeth. "Power levels all over Atlantis are spiking. I know the generators aren't supposed to be able to be permanently drained, but with the way they're working, we're about to overload them. I've sent teams to disconnect them from Atlantis' systems."

John nodded. "Good call," he said. Guy wasn't supposed to be anything more than a glorified communications technician, but when you had smart guys with PhDs acting as ham radio operators, they tended to take initiative where they could. Thank God. John hated dealing with people who didn't do what needed doing, whether it was part of their job description or not.

"Send runners to the science labs and the quarters of key personnel," said Elizabeth. "I want everyone that has experience with Atlantis' systems working on this problem."

"I'm going to go get the infirmary ready," said Jennifer. She sucked in a deep breath and let it out in an explosive rush. "If we're going to be without power, I want my staff to be as prepared as they can be for any emergencies."

"I'll send a guard with you," said John. He waved at one of the Marines - one of the older guards, who'd been here when Bates was his second. He and the guy didn't always get along, but John could trust him to take care of Keller and her people. "Set up some more guards outside the infirmary. Just to be on the safe side."

"Sir." The Marine nodded and followed Keller out. One problem down. Who knew how many to go?

"So, who wants to start?" asked Evan. He had his arms crossed and was leaning against Teyla's door. She perched on the edge of her bed, and Kate was sitting in a chair nearby. "Does this have something to do with the fact that half of Atlantis thinks you guys are more than friends?"

"We are, perhaps, more than friends," said Teyla cautiously, as she looked between him and Kate. "But we are not lovers, though many think that we are."

"But you two have the hots for each other," said Evan.

Kate's hands were carefully placed on her thighs. "We're attracted to each other, yes," she said. "We've discussed the matter before."

Evan choked on a laugh. "You've talked about it?" he asked. "Whatever happened to the time-honored tradition of getting drunk and just going for it?"

"Does that truly seem to be something either Kate or I would do?" asked Teyla. She gave him a challenging look, and Evan smiled wryly.

"Maybe not," he said. "So why am I here?"

"One of the things that Teyla and I have discussed is our long-term plans, should we enter into a relationship," said Kate. "What we feel for each other is incredibly strong."

"But it is not acceptable for a leader of my people to enter into a relationship where there are unexamined emotions," said Teyla. "There is also the matter of my lineage. While Athosian customs are no bar to relationships with others of the same gender, I am expected to bear a child to continue the traditions of my people."

Even looked between Kate and Teyla. His stomach sank. "You're serious," he said. "Did the two of you get together and talk about who was going to be your stud?"

"You misunderstand me." Teyla rose and walked closer to him, with Kate following a step behind. "While Athosian tradition would allow me to bear a child without caring for its father, I would prefer to enter into a full relationship with him."

"Teyla and I want to be together," said Kate. She lay one hand on his forearm where his shirt was rolled up. Her fingers were stroking gently against his bare skin. "She has feelings for you, Evan, and so do I. Polyamory isn't unknown on Earth."

"This is Atlantis, not some hippie commune," pointed out Evan. "Even with both of you being women, if the brass catch wind of this, there's going to be consequences. There have been some pretty strong memos being circulated by General O'Neill and General Hammond both about fraternizing with the natives."

"The natives?" asked Teyla. She raised one eyebrow. "Evan, I know that such a term among your people is not complimentary."

"General O'Neill can be an ass sometimes, but his heart is in the right place," said Evan. "You've met the guy, right?"

"I will admit that I did not expect to hear that he would use words such as that," said Teyla.

"Some time remind me to tell you the story of General O'Neill's encounter with nanites," said Evan. "Once we've figured this out and I've talked you out of maiming me."

"So you're both serious?" asked Evan. "What happens if Teyla gets pregnant? Two mommies and a daddy?"

"Such things are not unheard of." Teyla leaned closer to him. Her breasts pressed against Evan's chest, and he took a quick, shallow breath.

"I don't think there are any parenting books that cover that," said Evan. He laughed shakily.

"I'd be operating without social guidelines as well," said Kate. She was standing just off to the side now, and her breath was warm on Evan's neck. "We'd all be covering new territory, with new cultures that have different expectations, though."

"Trust a psychiatrist to break it down into clinical terms," said Evan dryly.

"I want you. I have feelings for you and Teyla both." Kate's lips brushed against his neck, and then Teyla cupped the back of Evan's neck so she could pull his mouth down to hers.

Evan banged his head against the wall and cursed out loud when Teyla's door chimed. "Motherfucking son of a bitch!"

"What now?" asked Kate. Her voice was plaintive as she looked toward the door.

"I do not know," said Teyla. She let Evan go and moved away with a regretful look. "But we are not done here."

"Oh, no," agreed Evan. "We were just getting started."

Maybe he was crazy, but he wasn't going to turn down a chance like this. No way in hell. He just hoped Kate and Teyla got what he meant. From the heated looks they gave him and each other, though, he got the idea they knew exactly what he'd meant.

Radek woke slowly. His thoughts were fuzzy, and his head was aching. He heard a soft rustling sound above him, and he jumped back with a shout, even though a sharp pain shot through his head at the sound. Miko was bending over him, a look of concern on her face.

"Radek?" she asked. She reached out to touch his shoulder gently, and Radek groaned. "Are you all right?"

"I am most definitely not all right," said Radek peevishly. "Help me up. I have to get to my radio and talk to Colonel Sheppard."

"Radios are not working. You should go to the infirmary," said Miko. Her voice was soft, thankfully, and not loud at all. She braced his shoulders and slipped one arm around his waist as Radek wobbled to his feet. "You are injured. I suspect that you are at least concussed. Perhaps a skull fracture, even. You need to see Dr. Keller."

"If I do not see Colonel Sheppard, it's possible that more people than just me will be injured," said Radek. Miko, thankfully, was used to alarms and proclamations of doom. She just shook her head and started to help him out the door.

It took them longer than Radek would like to get to the control tower, even when several strapping Marines showed up to relieve Miko of the job of supporting his weight. They also wanted to take him to the infirmary, but Miko argued that if Radek needed to go to the control tower, it must be very important to him. She trailed alongside them, making sure that they were going in the right direction and giving him worried glances.

Radek could see her taking mental notes on Atlantis' dimming lights, and mustered what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

Dr. Weir rushed to him. He hadn't known she was awake. "Radek!" she exclaimed. "What happened to you?"

He sagged in the grip of the Marine holding him up. "Rodney," he croaked out. "He's been sabotaging my equations. Power calculations especially--"

She shot a look at Colonel Sheppard as he joined her. "Do you think--" she started.

"Couldn't be," said Colonel Sheppard. "I mean, come on, Rodney? He's not exactly Asuran material."

"What are you talking about?" asked Miko. She eased him from the arms of the Marine and helped him lower himself into a chair. "Dr. McKay is not an Asuran. He cannot stand them."

"I left him alone in the puddlejumper when I came to rescue you and Ronon," said Dr. Weir. "It's possible that--"

"He's not an Asuran, damn it," snarled Colonel Sheppard. He was on edge now, straightening and glancing frequently at the entrances.

"But he could be their prisoner," said Elizabeth. She twisted her hands together once, and then let them fall, still clasped together, to rest in front of her. "They were forbidden to take the form of any living human once, but ever since Rodney tried to edit their base code--"

"You mean we brought one of those things back with us, and we left Rodney behind with them?" asked John. "Great. Just fucking great. So what the hell do we do now?"

"Miko, I need you to work with Chuck on getting control of Atlantis' systems back," said Elizabeth. "Radek, you should get that head wound checked out. Jennifer's set up with extra personnel in the infirmary, and she's expecting injuries."

John didn't spend time staring, but damn, did he love it when she gave orders.

"What?" asked Elizabeth, giving him a curious glance.

"You're really hot when you're in charge, you know that?" asked John.

"Tell me that when we're sure we've survived the latest crisis," said Elizabeth. John smirked at her for a brief second before turning away to send a guard over so Kusanagi and Campbell could have someone to play fetch and carry for them.

"Ma'am? Colonel?" Lorne hurried into the control room, followed by a couple Marines and Teyla. He looked like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, so John started to wonder what he and Teyla had been up to. "What's up?"

"Rodney's a prisoner on the Asuran home world, and they've sent a lookalike to sabotage Atlantis," said John.

Lorne blanched, and Teyla's jaw dropped. "You are certain?" she asked.

"As certain as we can be when no one knows where he is," said Elizabeth. "There's an Asuran on Atlantis. We know that much."

"Given that he attacked Zelenka, we're pretty sure it's Rodney," said John. "Or at least something that looks like him. Unless you can think of another expedition member with extensive personality changes that include attempted homicide."

"We'll divide the city up into sections and send search parties," said Lorne.

"So the usual response to citywide problems, right?" asked John, his voice a slow drawl that disguised how worried he was. He hoped. "Send out search parties and hope they stumble across something."

"Got it in one, sir," said Lorne. "You want the first area of the grid?"

"Whatever section includes the ZPM room," said John. "That's where he's going to go."

"You sure?" asked Lorne. His brow furrowed, but Teyla gave him an understanding look.

"As sure as I can be that an Asuran with Rodney's memories is going to home in on the ZPM room like it's the holy grail of Atlantis," said John.

"I'm going with you." Elizabeth stepped forward. Her arms were crossed, and when John looked over at her, shocked, his expression darkened. She had that mulish look that meant she'd made up her mind. "He's in the ZPM room. I can hear him trying to connect with the Asuran network through subspace."

"It's not safe," said John. He shook his head in a sharp movement. "You can't. We just got you back. You have to stay here. You can coordinate our efforts."

"I can't coordinate anything from here, not with the radios out," said Elizabeth. She raised one eyebrow. "Stop trying to protect me, John. I need to be there to deal with the Asuran."

"I'll deal with the damned thing," growled John. "I'll stop by the armory on the way down and get an ARG. That'll stop him in his tracks."

"You cannot," said Teyla. John glared. That thing was wearing his friend's face. That thing was exactly the kind of creature that had nearly killed Elizabeth - hell, all of them - on more than one occasion. "We are in need of intelligence regarding the actions of the Asurans. Elizabeth is our best chance of neutralizing the Asuran that is imitating Rodney without destroying it completely."

"I'm in charge of this expedition," said Elizabeth. "It's settled. I'm going."

It didn't take long to get to the armory and pick up an ARG, but Elizabeth shifted her weight and glanced out at the corridor. The muttering at the back of her consciousness grew louder as they walked out the door. She tried conjugating verbs in Ancient to drown it out, then switched to trying to remember memorized lines of Arabic poetry, but nothing worked.

It didn't help that she was hearing a very familiar voice, and one that she knew wasn't real.

The ZPM room wasn't far away, not with transporters, but Elizabeth watched John's face get darker with every passing moment. The door to the ZPM room was open, as if Rodney - the Asuran - didn't care that anyone found him there. Two guards were sprawled on the floor. Blood matted the hair of one of the men. Elizabeth couldn't see their chests moving, but when she moved to check if they were still alive, John stopped her. She swallowed and met John's eyes.

"McKay!" John called out as he held the ARG at the ready. "We know you're in there!" He paused. "And we know that you're not really McKay!"

"Oh, well, that's a stunning denouement." Elizabeth heard Rodney smack his palm against the control console. "You could be a little less lame with your revelation that I'm a homicidal Asuran plant, don't you think?"

"You do a pretty good impression of him." John rolled his eyes and jerked his head at the doorway.

"I already know Elizabeth is out there," snapped Rodney. "Hello, replicator, remember? I can hear all those little nanites comprising Elizabeth's brain on a level that your unevolved, completely organic human brain can't comprehend."

"Way to be diplomatic, Rodney." John's frown was permanently engraved on his face by now. "Of course, you probably don't want to be diplomatic, because you're not the real Rodney, so you know that the only thing holding me back from killing you right now is the fact that Elizabeth asked me not to."

"John!" Elizabeth held her hand out. "Rodney, we're coming in. I want your word that you won't attempt to harm us."

"You want my word?" asked Rodney. He laughed disbelievingly. "You know you can't trust me, right?"

"You have the memories of one of my dearest friends." Elizabeth kept her voice firm, not letting out a hint of the fear she was feeling. "I have to believe that something of the human Rodney McKay therefore exists within you as well."

"I can't stand humans," said Rodney. His voice sounded almost plaintive. "Fine, come in. What do I care?"

Elizabeth and John looked at each other again, then Elizabeth squared her shoulders and gave John a wan smile. "Shall we?" she asked, gesturing at the door.

"I don't think 'ladies first' applies in this kind of a situation," said John. He smiled, but it was a humorless, tight look.

"I disagree," said Elizabeth. She took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The man standing in front of the ZPM platform looked like Rodney, but the clamor of the nanites in her body grew louder. Three ZPMs were sitting in place, ready to be loaded into their casings. Deep inside them, there was a faint orange glow. It flickered, and in a normal situation, Elizabeth wouldn't have been able to take her eyes off them. Three more ZPMs from a people capable of creating them at will was a dream she shared with at least three-fourths of Atlantis' population.

"Are those really--" started John.

"You know, you really have to be confused by what I'm doing right about now," said Rodney, looking up from the ZPM he was adjusting.

"This is the part where you're supposed to tell us your evil plot," said John. "I'd hate to skip to the part where I shoot you before you tell me how your evil so-called genius has been applied."

"See, this is why I didn't want to have Dr. McKay's memories downloaded into me," said Rodney. His shoulders slumped. "I had somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen cross-indexed pop culture references come up when you mentioned that. What's the Evil Overlord's Handbook, and how does his five year old niece come into it?"

"It's something you should never read," said John. "Otherwise I might actually worry. You do realize you're giving us a tactical advantage by powering up three of those suckers, right?"

Elizabeth frowned as John and Rodney spoke. The longer they talked, the more time she had to figure out what was worrying here. There was something bothering her other than the fact that Rodney had been replaced by an Asuran.

"I thought I'd mock when you all went power-mad at full access to Atlantis' systems. What do you think?" said Rodney. He flung up his hands. "They sent me here to keep an eye on Elizabeth, of course. We've never had a hybrid around before, and since she was going to escape, Oberoth wanted to know how she reacted to stressful situations."

Everything clicked into place for Elizabeth at that moment. The culling. Her escape. Rodney's replacement. That had to be it.

"It was you." Elizabeth met Rodney's eyes. They widened with amazement the same way that the real Rodney's eyes would have. "You found a way to bring the Wraith to Genia for a culling at exactly the wrong moment."

"Son of a bitch," breathed John.

"Is this where you start threatening my life?" asked Rodney. "It doesn't matter. All I have to do is connect with subspace and download my consciousness back into the network. It's simple enough to build a new body."

"You're assuming the rest of the Borg would want you back," said John. He chuckled without humor. "You've got Rodney's memories. I hate to break it to you, but we don't even want him around half the time."

"Oh, ha-ha, Sheppard," said Rodney scathingly. "You and I both know that you're freaking out over whether the organic McKay is alive or not. That's the only reason I'm not in billions of particles all over your floor right now."

"Is he still alive?" asked Elizabeth. She knew her eyes were wide with fear for Rodney's fate, but she also knew that this version of Rodney, Asuran or not, would be affected by that. The nanites helped her read what he was thinking, but that only confirmed what body language and tone of voice were already telling her. This Rodney was afraid of being destroyed for bringing human influence into the Asuran collective.

"Last I heard, he was." Rodney gulped. "In case you were curious, we still can't rewrite at least some portions of our base code on our own. Oberoth is using him for that."

"I didn't ask," snarled John. "You don't get your own custom programmer. Besides, Rodney's lousy help desk material. Tell us where he's being held."

"We can help you," said Elizabeth. Her stomach was a churning pit of nerves, but she held herself still. "You could stay on Atlantis, with us. You don't need to be a part of them, and we both know you're worried what they'll do about the humanity they consider a taint. Help us find Rodney McKay." This city and its inhabitants were her charge. She would beg if she had to do it in order to keep her people safe. "Please."

"That's very touching, Elizabeth," said Rodney. "I have his memories. I already know how much you care about him. You'd do anything to keep him safe."

Elizabeth sighed. It was as difficult reining in her irritation with this Rodney as it was with the real one.

"Including letting me blow you to Replicator Hell," said John.

"He doesn't get it, does he?" asked Rodney. He looked directly at Elizabeth. Her eyes widened as Rodney's signal started transmitting at a different frequency. She could hear him more clearly than before. "He doesn't know what it's like the way you do."

"He's starting to get the idea," said Elizabeth. She walked forward, ignoring John's warning, and let her palms rest on the edge of the ZPM platform. "Tell me what's wrong, Rodney."

"Stop it!" he exclaimed. "I'm not him. I'm not human. Humans are weak, inefficient creatures. They don't deserve to--"

"To live?" Elizabeth raised one eyebrow and shook her head. "That's where you're wrong. I'm sorry for what the Ancients did to your people, but your species has convinced itself that it should hate all humans because the Ancients wronged them. They've convinced themselves that our organic nature makes us inferior."

"Why are you saying 'they' and not 'you,' Elizabeth?" asked Rodney warily.

"Because you've changed," said Elizabeth. "You have Rodney's memories. You've been pretending to be Rodney, interacting with humans on a daily basis for weeks now. There's a part of you that understands that every sentient creature deserves the chance to live its life to the fullest."

If the nanites in her could be affected by human thoughts, she had to believe that this Asuran could be affected by Rodney's memories as well, and that existing even in this limited network with her could help him to change his beliefs.

"You're trying to negotiate with this guy?" asked John. Elizabeth held up her hand to silence John, but, just like he often did, he ignored it. "He's a robot!"

Elizabeth didn't look away from Rodney, so she didn't miss the sickened look that passed over his face. "When I learned about the Stargate program, I learned that humanity existed across the stars, not just on Earth," she said. Her voice was filled with the conviction of her beliefs. "When I started to work with other species, I learned that everyone, no matter what species they came from, was as much a person as any human being from my planet."

"Oh, your planet," scoffed Rodney. "Earth. Home of the Tau'ri. Birthplace of the second evolution of humanity. Former home of the Ancients. There's a shining model of tolerance and peace. It's a wonder someplace so violent managed to produce anyone like you."

"Earth has its problems," said Elizabeth. She understood the bitterness in Rodney's voice, and while she could endure the scorn of someone who looked like a friend, it would be preferable not to have to. "I won't - I can't - deny that. But so does every place else. We're none of us perfect. Not Asurans, not Ancients, not anyone. Everyone deserves the chance to live out their lives in peace."

"Even the Wraith?" asked Rodney.

"You have no idea how much I regret the fact that adult Wraith cannot subsist on anything other than sentient human life," said Elizabeth. She took a deep breath. "Their goals and ours having a basic incompatibility doesn't change the fact that they deserve the same things as every other sentient species. You have Rodney's memories. You know that, however many mistakes we've made, we've attempted to find ways that we can live in peace together."

"That's putting things a bit generously," said John. "Can I shoot him yet, Elizabeth?"

"He's not threatening us," said Elizabeth. "I'd prefer to find a nonviolent solution."

"This is why Niam thought that if any human could figure out the way to Ascension, it would be you," said Rodney. "Of course, I always thought Niam was a deluded fool."

"Now he's just dead," said John.

"Like you two will be soon," said Rodney. He smirked at them. "If you thought Caldwell was going to blow Atlantis sky-high with one ZPM alone, just wait. An overload with three of these babies is going to shatter this planet's core."

"You can't do that," said Elizabeth. Her voice was sharp with fear. "If Oberoth wants to see what a hybrid is like, I'll go to him--"

"No!" exclaimed John. The pain in his voice tore at her. "Elizabeth, you can't. We need you here."

"If I stay here, then this Rodney is going to destroy the city, and everyone in it. Including you." She'd been prepared to die for so long now that this almost seemed easier. At least going to the Asurans would give the rest of them a chance.

"Then I'm going with you," said John. "Try and stop me. Just try it."

"He's got Rodney," said Elizabeth. "Maybe they'll let him go if they have me instead, but at the very least, he won't be alone."

"You're both so incredibly noble," said Rodney, sneering. "I don't understand what you humans find so appealing about self-sacrifice in the name of love."

"You have Rodney's memories," said Elizabeth. She made her voice reflect a calm she didn't feel. "You understand. Maybe you don't want to, but you feel things the way that he does. We'll get a puddlejumper and leave. No one else on Atlantis needs to be harmed."

"It's a bit late for that," said Rodney. He pushed a control on the pedestal, and all three of the ZPMs sank down into their casings. The power room flared with a burst of light, and John pulled the trigger.

"No!" exclaimed Elizabeth, leaning over and reaching out to Rodney. He looked almost sad as he dissolved before her eyes, and the nanites inside her screamed, even as she felt them shift. They must have adjusted themselves to account for the frequency of the ARG.

The sound of inert nanites falling to the metal flooring of Atlantis almost reminded her of a rainstorm. She stood still and stared down at the scattering of dust on the floor.

"You weren't convincing him fast enough," said John. "I'm sorry."

"So am I," said Elizabeth. She lifted her chin and met John's eyes. "Never do that again."

He didn't pull his gaze from hers. She knew he wouldn't. This was how they did things time and again.

He would ignore her, and take action on his own again, just like she would brush off his protests in order to attempt diplomacy and negotiation before resorting to violence. She would give people the benefit of the doubt, and he would leap headlong into danger. The irony was that dual approaches complemented each other. That wasn't lost on either of them.

They broke their gaze when the control panel beeped. Elizabeth rushed around to it and started to type. She could feel the heat of John's body from where he was standing behind her, looking over her shoulder.

"It's not working," said Elizabeth, straightening and glancing back at John. She bent down and tapped the keys again. "I think he's disabled manual access to Atlantis' systems."

"Come on, then," said John. "Our best chance at stopping whatever systems he's set to overload is with the control chair. I can get into Atlantis' computers and affect her that way."

Elizabeth nodded. "Let's go."

Elizabeth could swear the control chair brightened when John stepped foot in the room. The humming created by the systems got louder. She gave him a wry look, and he just shrugged diffidently. "She likes me."

"When normal people want a pet, they get a dog," said Elizabeth, in the voice her mother said made her sound like a grade school teacher. "They don't anthropomorphize an entire city."

"We stopped being normal when we missed that left turn at Albuquerque," said John. He sank back into the chair and gave her a smirk. "Then we ended up here. Remember?"

She raised one eyebrow at John. "For a while I thought I still had a shot at it," she said. "Atlantis or not."

"Give me some time to get these systems shut down, and I'll show you how much I don't care if you're normal," said John. His eyes bored into hers, and Elizabeth nodded once.

"After we stop the explosion," she said. She took a deep breath and tried not to think about why the idea of dying in an explosion was less terrifying.

"I'm holding you to that," said John, before he closed his eyes.

She waited there, barely able to breathe, as John started to grimace. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his breath started to rasp from his lungs. Elizabeth reached out to him once, but let her hand fall to her side before she touched him. He didn't need any distractions right now. Whatever he had to do, this looked more difficult than manipulating Atlantis' systems had ever been.

"I can't do this." John opened his eyes. "Systems are overloading all across Atlantis. That bastard managed to lock everyone out."

"Did he use Rodney's access code?" asked Elizabeth. "My command code overrides both his and yours."

"I never knew that," said John. He looked puzzled. "When did that happen?"

"Shortly after Colonel Caldwell was possessed by the Trust-affiliated Goa'uld that tried to blow up Atlantis," said Elizabeth. She wasn't going to let something like that happen to her city again.

"Makes sense," said John.

Elizabeth could tell he was hesitating on saying something. "What is it?" she asked. "We don't know how much time we have left, John. Spit it out."

"If your command code overrides Rodney's, and he's disabled manual access to Atlantis' computer systems--" John hesitated again, but she didn't need words to know what he was thinking.

"You can't possibly be serious," said Elizabeth.

"If you don't, Elizabeth, we're all going to die," said John. "You heard the Rodney impersonator. The whole planet is going to blow. You have to do this. Between the two of us, we can go in and stop the overload."

The one thing that had inevitably come up in reviews, not just with the IOA, but for years beforehand, was the deliberate moment Elizabeth would take in order to weigh her options and consider the consequences of her decision. The consideration wasn't an affection, like some people might think. It was a necessity, even in the middle of a crisis.

She took that moment now, her thoughts racing. John was already affected. That was proven by her reaching out and making a mental contact with him when she was comatose. This was something different, though. She could inadvertently cause neurological damage. He would think the risk was acceptable.

John thought any risk was acceptable if it kept the people he cared for safe, and she knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he loved her. She felt the same way, with the same willingness to take risks. She couldn't refuse John the right to make his own decision as to what constituted an acceptable risk.

"All right." She leaned forward, bracing herself on the arm of the control chair, but the positioning was too awkward. Elizabeth was forced to clamber into John's lap.

He leered. "I've always wanted to have sex in here," he said.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Aren't we inappropriate enough on a regular basis?" she asked.

If they ever got back into contact with Earth, chances were she'd be removed from command immediately. More than likely, certain parties who had been angling for her to be replaced would ask that she be incarcerated at Area 51, where it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for her to return to Atlantis.

"I dare you to find anyone on Atlantis who cares that you and I are sleeping together," said John. Elizabeth let her fingers hover just on the surface of his skin. She traced the fine lines that had started to form on his forehead.

"It's not the people on Atlantis I'm worried about," said Elizabeth.

"I know," said John softly, as Elizabeth closed her eyes.

The bone of John's skull seemed ephemeral as her fingertips slid through it. Maybe it was Elizabeth who was ephemeral instead. She could feel the nanites swarming into her fingers and making a connection with the neurons in John's brain.

They stood together in an empty blue room, surrounded by a cone of pale light. John looked down at her, then grinned. "Let's blow this joint," he said. "Figuratively speaking."

When the blue room faded into Atlantis' control tower, Elizabeth gave John a curious look. She hadn't done anything. "The city--"

"Its image," said John. They raced to the computer consoles, each of them taking a keyboard. "The control chair hasn't ever done that before. I usually just tell Atlantis what I want, and she makes it work. Was this you?"

"I didn't do it," said Elizabeth. She entered her command code, all sixteen digits of it.

"Do you think it's some weird combination of the ATA gene plus your nanites?" John gave her a curious look. "I mean, if this hasn't happened before, and we know the nanites cause hallucinations--"

"We'll ask Rodney when we find him." Elizabeth waited impatiently, leaning forward and staring at the computer. She willed it to hurry. The sooner it accepted her command code, the sooner they could undo whatever the Asuran impersonating Rodney had done.

"Not like he won't try to lecture us anyway," said John. As soon as the status bar finished and the systems were unlocked, John started typing. Elizabeth stared at the computer. She had a feel for them now that she hadn't before Rodney and Jennifer had re-activated the nanites. "You gonna type something?"

"I don't need to," she said, resting her elbows on the desk and clasping her hands as she studied the monitor. Lines of code scrolled down the screen. The nanites helped her interpret everything almost before her eyes could process it.

"Okay, that's weird," muttered John.

"There." Elizabeth froze the lines of code with a thought, and John shoved away from his desk.

"Where?" he asked.

"Right there." Elizabeth tapped the screen with the tip of her fingernail, then dropped her hand to rest on the edge of the desk. "Do you see it? That will disengage the ZPMs. We can fix the rest of the system overloads more slowly."

"I can do this." John's hand covered Elizabeth's. "It would be easier if you'd help me, though."

"How?" asked Elizabeth. The inner workings of Atlantis' systems weren't a total mystery to her, but making them work for her wasn't an innate skill.

"We're already connected, right?" John's voice was reassuring. "Just close your eyes and let your nanites follow the lead of my gene. We'll let them work together to pop those babies out."

"Right." Elizabeth closed her eyes, and let herself be carried along through Atlantis on a wave of John's thoughts. She felt herself meld into the city with him as he tripped the correct triggers, and Atlantis pushed the three ZPMs up on their pillars until they disengaged from the city.

The lights flickered and died, and Elizabeth woke up to find herself pulling her fingertips out of John's frontal lobe.

"Think it's over?" asked John.

Elizabeth glanced at the darkened control chair. "For now."

"Good." John wrapped his arms around Elizabeth's waist and tugged her closer. She let her head rest on his shoulder as she lay her flattened palms on his chest. "Can we please have sex now? It's been over a month."

"Is that all you can think of?" asked Elizabeth. She lifted her head just enough to frown up at him. "Sex?"

"Are the two of you aware that you have an audience?" asked Teyla. She stood in the doorway, arms folded across her chest and looking stern. A hint of a smile twitched at the corner of her mouth.

"Kinky, sir," added Major Lorne. He stood next to Teyla, and while his expression was deadpan serious, Elizabeth could swear he was holding laughter in check. "While we're at it, mind telling us if we're all going to die?"

"We're safe," said John, with a casual half-shrug. "This time."

"I feel so comforted," said Major Lorne. He glanced down at Teyla and jerked his head at the corridor. "Let's go check on Dr. Z. Head wounds are nothing to sneeze at."

"We should," said Teyla. "I believe he is still in the infirmary."

"Tell Kate hi for me," said Elizabeth. She smirked when Teyla threw her a dry, speaking look over her shoulder before she and Major Lorne vanished around a corner.

Kate was in the infirmary, sitting with Radek and listening to him talk. She nodded and leaned forward. "From everything I've been able to determine, the Asurans copied all of Rodney's memories," she said. "If that's the case, you wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between our Rodney and one carrying his memories."

"You are very kind," said Radek. He grimaced. "But he has been acting oddly. I thought he blamed himself for draining the ZPM."

"The conflict between Rodney's human memories and the Asuran's base programming may have been the reason for his behavior." Kate smiled sympathetically. "The real Rodney McKay would blame himself, whether he had control over the situation or not, and this Rodney may well have drained the ZPM of power on purpose."

I still think I should have noticed," said Radek. "There have been hints."

"Which none of us picked up on," said Kate. "You and Colonel Sheppard managed to land Atlantis safely, despite the fact that Rodney was trying to prevent it. You saved our lives so that we could find out about the sabotage."

"Now we have to find out where Rodney is being held," said Radek. "I will work day and night."

"We all will," said Kate. "I have faith in everyone on Atlantis."

"Faith is all well and good, but first we need to recuperate," said Jennifer, walking up. She looked sympathetic, but she held up her tablet. "Radek, all my readings tell me you need to rest."

"I'll stop by tomorrow," said Kate.

"I'll make sure he doesn't leave early," said Jennifer. She glanced over at Ronon, who was waiting near her workstation, sharpening a knife and pretending to ignore them. "Ronon said he'd stick around and help."

Kate chuckled. "I'll bet." She stood and brushed nonexistent dust off her slacks. "See you tomorrow, Jennifer. Radek, will you be all right?"

"We shall see," he said, settling back and closing his eyes.

"That's all any of us can ask for," said Kate softly. She waved quietly to Ronon, who nodded as she left.

"We were just coming to hunt you down," said Evan. He paused in the corridor when he saw Kate. Teyla stood next to him, and he'd swear they were all wearing these goofy grins.

"I was just coming to hunt you two down," said Kate. Her hair was braided back, with wisps that had straggled free and hung about her face. She looked tired, but her eyes had lit up when she'd seen them.

"You heard the update?" asked Evan.

"Every last bit of it," said Kate. She sagged against the wall. "We're going to be busy tomorrow."

"Then let us spend our night at rest," said Teyla. She walked over to Kate, who lifted her head and smiled at Teyla wearily. Evan stared at the sway of her hips as she moved, then at the way their bodies fitted together as Teyla slipped her arm around Kate's waist.

"Rest?" asked Evan. "You sure?"

Teyla and Kate gave him twin disbelieving looks. "Are you up for it?" asked Kate.

Evan thought about that for a minute. "I might be," he said.

Teyla's eyebrow rose, and she gave Evan a skeptical look.

"I'd rather have a good night's sleep," he admitted. "Just--maybe not alone."

Teyla and Kate both laughed. "Not alone," said Teyla. "Not this night."

The waves rolled with a blue-gray sheen that Elizabeth had never noticed on the oceans of Lantea. When she looked at the sky, the rising sun painting the horizon a pale, soft yellow. "It's not like Earth, is it?"

"Who needs Earth?" asked John. "It's overrated. Kind of falling apart at the seams, if you think about it."

Elizabeth's eyes flickered over toward John, then back at the ocean, but she kept her head still. "We do have the ability to contact them now."

"Why bother?" asked John. He shrugged and leaned his forearms on the railing so he could slouch low. "If we do and the IOA tries to give you an all-expenses paid trip to Area 51, we're mutinying."

"That's a hefty assumption to make," said Elizabeth. It was easier not to mention that it was one of her biggest fears. She knew that John was dead serious. Adding fuel to the fire wouldn't be wise of her at all.

"Not like it's unrealistic," he pointed out. "What are you going to do if you end up contacting them and they want to take you away from us?" What she knew he meant, but hadn't said, was 'from me.'

"It would be the right thing to do. It would be better for everyone." Elizabeth's hands tightened on the rail. "We would be able to resupply easily. We wouldn't have to rely on uncertain allies that are bound by increasingly tenuous treaties. The fact is, we're fighting a war on two fronts--"

"So is Earth," said John, interrupting her, "or did you forget that the Goa'uld aren't completely gone, and they're in over their heads with the Ori? Not to mention the fact that they're pretty fucking uncertain allies in the first place."

"John," began Elizabeth, her tone warning him that he was being inappropriate.

"I'm just saying what you and everyone else is thinking," said John. "Just because there are some good people stationed at the SGC doesn't mean that they or Homeworld Security like us."

"General O'Neill and General Hammond have never had a problem with our actions," said Elizabeth. "Neither has President Hayes."

"Just about everyone else has," said John. He paused for a minute, looking thoughtful. "Maybe everyone outside of SG-1. Colonel Carter seems to get along with you pretty well. Maybe that's because of what I heard about you laying the law down on ex-Vice President Kinsey."

"That wasn't what it sounds like," said Elizabeth. She glanced up at John, who had an approving look. He would, wouldn't he?

"Look, I'm just saying you need to have more than just an ace up your sleeve if you want to get back in touch with Earth," said John. He was using the quiet, intense voice that he only used with her. The one that said he was getting emotionally involved where logic - and protocol - said he shouldn't. "We could wait until we find Rodney. They've got less of a chance against us if the command structure of Atlantis hasn't changed."

"Who do you want as a temporary fourth for your team?" she asked. It was time to think of practical matters, at least for now.

"You got any objections to Radek filling in?" asked John. "Guy's got a good head in a crisis."

"The reason Rodney was able to go on so many off-world missions was because Radek was here to act as head of science," said Elizabeth. She shook her head. "I can't authorize him joining a team. Not now."

"Got any other ideas, then?" asked John. "Kusanagi would give it her best shot, but she's a little nervy, and we don't have time to get her some seasoning. Even Rodney got a few milk runs before we threw him in the deep end."

"I'd rather assign you Myra Simpson," said Elizabeth. "She's got a good head in a crisis."

"Plus she stood up to Kavanagh more than once, I heard." John chuckled. "Simpson it is, then."

Elizabeth took a deep breath. Telling John this wasn't going to be easy. "I'm going to be going off-world more."

"I thought you said you were going to have to stay on Atlantis most of the time," said John. He looked shocked, but he didn't have that mulish, stubborn look that meant he was going to try to talk her out of it.

"We need more allies among the humans of this galaxy," said Elizabeth. She pressed her mouth together and looked up at the sky, in the direction she thought the Asuran homeworld might have been. "We need to organize, to bring each other together. We've been holding ourselves apart from everyone, even Teyla's people. If we're going to be cut off from Earth, we can't cut ourselves off from the people of the Pegasus galaxy. It's time to become a more productive member of their society, and that may mean learning and living by their rules. I believe we can and should, do that."

She frowned at John when she realized he was staring at her with an amused smile. "You're cute when you make speeches," he said.

Elizabeth couldn't stop the choked laughter from escaping. "You're horrible, John. Do you know that?"

"Only every time you tell me," he said, smirking.

"Sometimes I think you try to push me into saying it," said Elizabeth. She smiled. There was a weight lifted from her now, and she hadn't even noticed when it vanished.

"You caught me," he said. His eyes danced with mischief. "What are you going to do now? Give me a spanking?"

"I'm too tired for that," said Elizabeth. She reached over and cupped the back of John's neck, then pulled him to her and stared into his eyes for a long moment. The only questioning of her abilities that she'd ever seen in him were just reflections of her own reservations. John's hand found its way to her waist, and she tilted her head.

His lips were warm against hers, if a little chapped and dry. She was used to that from him. It was a familiar comfort, and when his mouth parted, she fisted her hands in his shirt and pulled him closer. When their kiss ended, Elizabeth's eyes were closed, and she stood still, taking deep, calming breaths.

"I've missed you," said John softly.

"I know," said Elizabeth. She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. "I've missed you too."

"I love you too much," said John. "I can't let you go."

"I'm not asking you to." Elizabeth couldn't seem to stop the soft curve of her mouth. Not even now. "I won't ask you to. Never again."

He was cold, because sentient machines couldn't be bothered to turn up the heat for one single living organism, never mind the fact that he was a genius the likes of which they'd never seen, not to mention the other, particularly annoying - to them - fact that they needed him.

Next thing you knew, their bland, perfectly nutritional meals would have citrus in them, or something else equally distasteful. One of his jailers had said they'd modeled them after PowerBars.

Rodney never thought he'd be so sick of PowerBars in his entire miserable, godforsaken, completely pathetic excuse for a life. Being a prisoner of war was completely overrated. Which was sad, given how it wasn't exactly looked on the same way as an all expenses paid trip to a five star hotel was.

All he had to do was hang on. Elizabeth and Sheppard would figure out that there was an impostor. They'd figure out what was going on. They'd come and find him, and when they did, all the pieces of his program would be in place.

The Asurans wanted to mess with the greatest non-Ascended genius in the known universe, did they? They'd learn the hard way it was their worst idea ever.

The End