Title
Variations In D Major
Prompt
Big Bang 2009.   Forks in the Road: The Daedalus Variations - A look at one of those other realities the team and ship were jumping through.
Summary
Whatever happened to the original Atlantis expedition?
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard; others in background
Rating
PG-13
Word Count
73618 words
Notes
My heartfelt thanks go out to all the people who helped me through this. The primary beta duties were handled by auburnnothenna and mischief5, while more hand holding and sanity checks were performed by Himself and mrshamill. Any remaining flaws are completely my responsibility.
Companion Artwork
  • Warlord of Atlantis by pollitt

March 06, 2005
Undisclosed Location
Earth

"Well, Richard? Do we have your agreement?"

Richard Woolsey turned his face away from General O'Neill's anger and concern, from the rest of his colleagues' detachment and expectations, to look at the papers on the desk in front of him. Shen Xiaoyi had left him for last, no doubt as some sort of 'killing the messenger' chastisement. The others had all agreed, forcing him to be the sole veto, if he dared. A veto would mean a new deliberation, another vote, one that would no doubt also end in stalemate, as someone else objected to a different proposal. Which was worse, to do the expedient (wrong) thing, or to let the decision become mired in over-thinking and procrastination, and still accomplishing nothing, at least in time for it to matter?

At no time in his life had Richard expected to become the man who's job was to pull the trigger. He was an adviser, not a leader. While his parents and teachers alike were encouraging him to grow up to become the President of the United States, it had been obvious to him that the real satisfaction belonged to those who toiled behind the scenes, to the public servants who influenced and kept things running, as opposed to the administrations and heroes that came and went. The ones up on the pedestals always ended up falling, pushed or not, but the ones crafting the pedestals always had a job.

Of course, he hadn't grown up wanting to become a bureaucrat. He'd preferred to style himself along the lines of Max Weber's definitions of the inherent nobility of public service. He must exercise his judgment and his skills, but his duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority. Even the caveat to that particular tenant: Ultimately he is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his personal judgment if it runs counter to his official duties, generated only occasional guilt, since for the most part bureaucratic duty, like the study of law, was simple and resolute.

Richard Woolsey liked things that were black and white. He had never been fond of the color gray in anything, not just in how he perceived the world and his place in it.

The color gray, however, perfectly summed up the SGC. From the walls of its concrete bunkers hundreds of feet below the surface of Cheyenne Mountain and throughout the metals of the equipment that was used (computers, guns, gate), to the interpretation of the rules, regulations and, indeed, the very laws under which its operation was supposedly governed. It was all gray, gray, gray.

At the President's behest, Richard had accepted his position as the United States' representative on the board of the International Oversight Advisory because he believed that rules and regulations were the hallmark of any advanced society, and that quasi-international organizations like Stargate Command required – demanded – impartial oversight.

It was surprisingly hard to stay impartial, when talking about hundreds of lives.

"Yes, Richard, do they have your agreement?" O'Neill needled, tone mocking and quite unpleasant, totally absent of the perforce civility the others had so far all maintained. Of course, O'Neill had already threatened to walk out should they vote against rescue, so he really had no need to keep up the fiction of politeness.

It was, indeed, something of a shock for Richard to discover that he wasn't feeling quite as impartial and pragmatic as he'd generally prided himself in being. Ultimately the monies involved; the numbers and the absolute and true needs of the many over the few… There really was only one decision to be made here, one not just practical, but necessary. Anubis might have been defeated, along with most of the Goa'uld, but there was still Ba'al. Nor were the Replicators just going to disappear.

Only those were future threats – potential threats – and the threat now coming to Atlantis was real.

"We have unscheduled offworld activation," the tape they'd just watched had begun, a common enough occurrence at Stargate Command, as it seemed everybody and anybody out in the inhabited galaxy beyond knew Earth's gate address.

"Receiving transmission," the bespectacled technician had continued, again almost by rote, only showing surprise when the Stargate closed down after mere seconds.

"Who's it from?" his companion at the next station asked.

From the overhead camera angle, it had been impossible to make out the nature of the data streaming across the computer screen. The complete shock on Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter's face and in her tone as she began to decrypt what had turned out to be a message, was easy to see, however. Especially since it had then been mirrored on the faces of Richard's peers. And Richard's own.

"Atlantis!"

Atlantis.

For nearly eight months, there had been no word from any of the two hundred people that had been sent from Earth to the mythical lost city, other than the first. That they had arrived. While the forms were still being observed and the personnel had simply been listed as missing in action, certainly Richard, along with the rest of the IOA, had written off the expedition as lost. As had most of the SGC itself, Richard had been sure, even if O'Neill's impassioned speech before this committee had belied that.

Richard took a deep breath then let it out slowly, deliberately. Just as he deliberately looked General O'Neill in the eye. Richard owed him that, even as he was also silently assuring himself that President Hayes wouldn't let O'Neill resign, not when a potential third enemy was poised to attack Earth.

"Had we some way of getting a ship to Pegasus in time, I would be the first to in line to wave bon voyage, General O'Neill," Richard spoke just as deliberately as he breathed. "Sending the Prometheus or the Daedalus only to arrive after the fact of the Atlantis expedition's foregone demise, however, would be imprudent. It would be a waste of time, of money and of resources, not to mention endangering that crew and their ship at a time when we can ill afford additional losses. I must agree with my colleges."

Even if saying so made Richard feel guilty, dirty and, for the first time in his professional life, ashamed.

To find out that the expedition had actually survived had brought a tremendous feeling of optimism, and even good will, to everyone seated around the table. To finally have access to the technologies and wonders that the Atlantis expedition had been sent to find and bring back to Earth in the first place…

Unfortunately, the giddy first few minutes of Elizabeth Weir's message quickly turned into death notices, incredible mission AARs, and personal messages of goodbye, as the expedition's demise had only been delayed. Despite the discoveries and advances Atlantis had unveiled, what they hadn't unveiled was any means in getting that technology or the expedition back to Earth.

The IOA had already decided that those personal messages couldn't be passed on. No one was ready to disclose the existence of the Stargate or of inhabited alien worlds and the clichéd reality of invaders from beyond. So what point was there to amend MIA reports when no one was prepared to release how their family members had died?

As callous as it sounded, of more concern than the expedition's failure, was the information that Weir's people had also discovered their own enemy, one on par with the Replicators or the Goa'uld. An alien race called the Wraith, who were apparently only days away from Atlantis, in spaceships the expedition had no hope of staving off. An enemy who intended to forge onward to the Milky Way Galaxy and to Earth once Atlantis had been taken. An enemy coming not for conquest but for food, as if they were locusts and the human inhabitants on millions of worlds were simply stalks of grain.

Knowing there was nothing the IOA or even the SCG could actually do aid the expedition in stopping them was a hard pill to swallow.

Ultimately he is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his personal judgment if it runs counter to his official duties.

"I am sorry, but the recovery mission is a no go."


January 12, 2006
Home of Samantha Carter
Colorado Springs, Colorado

"Carter? Carter! Are you still there?"

Sam somehow managed to keep hold of the phone despite her legs collapsing beneath her. She was damn lucky to have been next to the wall so she could just slide down, meeting the floor with a jarring abruptness and sudden pain that was still completely overwhelmed by the emotions now twisting through her.

"Damn it, Sam, I know you're there. I can hear you breathing – "

Crying, actually, but Jack didn't need to know that. Nor that Sam wasn't sure why she was crying in the first place; well, more as to whether her tears were from sorrow or from some sort of guilty joy. Over the past week, her life – the entire fucking world – had been turned on its head, full of heartache and death. And now Jack was going to reward her for her part in it?

"Yes, sir, I'm still here," she finally managed with a hiccup and a surreptitious snort away from the phone's pick up so she could breath. "I… ah… thank you, sir?" because Jack had to have bullied any number of people into giving her the promotion. She'd been a Lieutenant Colonel for less than two years. While she had numerous meritorious service commendations and other accolades in her service jacket, she was so far below the grade for another promotion that to be jumped up to the next rank now, no matter how many times she'd saved the Earth, would have to have involved the Secretary of the Air Force, if not the President himself

"Don't thank me yet, Carter." Jack cautioned her as only he could: sarcastic and cynical and just a little bit amused; not that he was laughing at her, except for the way that yes, he really was.

This was the reason why she could never think of him as anything other than Jack in her head, no matter what rank he ultimately reached. The General was her boss, had been her team leader and, yes, was very much a man worthy of her respect. But Jack… Jack was her friend, her confidant, and her own inner cynic; the attitude she lived through vicariously as she could never voice it herself. Oh, and the biggest crush of her adult life, in all definitions of the word.

"This promotion comes with something of a stick." Jack's voice was turning soft now, and almost… gentle.

A pretty damn big stick, then.

"Go ahead, sir," she prompted, glad to hear her own voice steady even if she was shaking on the inside.

"In the wake of the plague and all of our losses, you're being tapped to temporarily take over the SGC. That's why we've pushed through your promotion. In the face of this new Ori threat, even the remaining brass at the Pentagon realized we needed someone with in-house experience about what we're facing, more than we need to keep it a General's billet. The final choice was between you and Paul Davis," he added wryly, "and since he was only a Major – "

"That's not funny, Jack." Sam resisted thumping her head back against the wall. God, they'd had General Landry's wake just three days ago and, sure, he'd been a gruff old bastard and something of a thorn in the side to the type of operations George Hammond had allowed under his tenure as the CO of the SGC, but Hank Landry had still become one of theirs. And Jack knew that.

"Well, no funnier than when they made me do it," Jack continued, even more dryly, acknowledging her words but still bulldozing over them like he was fucking serious. "I know, Sam," his tone turned all gentle again. "And I'm sorry, but we need you there. I need you there."

Sam just about dropped the phone again and this time her head did end up slamming back against the wall. "Jesus, sir, this is for real?"

"As real as it gets, Colonel – Full-Bird Colonel," he chivvied her, refusing to let her wallow – or to get her bearings. "Maynard was pushing for some Force Recon Marine Colonel named Everett to be jumped up and installed – "

"Dillon Everett?" Sam interrupted. "The guy who was brought into the program to put together some kind of space marine battalion before the Navy backed off about us having all the 303 commands? I've met him. He's good and probably should be allowed to put together a first-to-ground battalion for the SGC, whether its makeup is only Marines or not."

"See, that's the kind of thinking that got Hayes to agree with George and me that the SGC needs to be run by someone who's been there, instead of by a marker in an inter-service pissing contest," Jack said, way too encouragingly. "To be run by you. Everett's getting his promotion too, but he's being tapped instead to take over the mess in Afghanistan. Still, if you want them, Space Marines can be one of the first things you authorize and we'll find you someone else to put the program together. After you give Mitchell the bad news and, ah, after you bring McKay's sister into the SGC."

"Oh, now that's the joke," Sam gusted out a strangled laugh. "Right, sir?" Only Jack didn't respond and this time Sam let her head thump against the wall on purpose. "Fuck."

"I'm not asking you to put McKay's sister on SG1 to take your place or anything like that, Carter," Jack finally started again, his voice as serious as he ever got. "But she's reputed to be as smart as her brother, and you can't deny that we couldn't use him right now if he were here. Hopefully, she'll turn out to be the next best thing. Or even better, since she's not supposed to be as… prickly. With these Ori, I have a feeling we're going to need to find out everything we can about the Ancients, and who better to struggle through McKay's notes on the tech he'd been working on out at Area 51 than his sister?"

Bill Lee? Simon Combs? Sam herself?

"I assume there's a reason why she wasn't recruited before now?" Sam asked instead of arguing or protesting further. Apparently, she really was the new head of the SGC, temporarily, with Jack mentoring and micromanaging her once more.

Of course he was, now that she thought she'd gotten over her feelings for him and had broken up with Pete.

"She dropped out of her science stuff to play families. Deep background implies that McKay hasn't talked to her since the day she told him she was pregnant, but there are public accounts that McKay first blew up when he found out she was leaving college to marry an English major. I'm guessing that the English major sin is more about books and things than about the language itself?" he asked her.

"No doubt, sir," Sam indulged Jack's penchant for sounding stupider than he was while she tried to regroup. Sometimes (most times), she felt like Zoe to Jack's Captain Tightpants, only Gina Torres got to carry a much bigger gun. Plus she got to smack Mal when she needed to.

"Further checking through her subscriptions and internet wanderings show that Mrs.. Miller is keeping up in her field even if she's not producing or publishing," Jack continued on, oblivious to Sam's semi-murderous thoughts. "And before you argue that our needs now aren't any more relevant than they were when we got saddled with the lunatic McKay version, Mrs. Miller's husband is also one of the ones who died in the Ori plague."

"It's a shitty thing to play on someone's grief like that, Jack," Sam retorted before she gave any thought to whom she was reproving. The SGC's predecessor had done exactly that same thing to Jack about Charlie to get him to come on-board, and Sam knew better than to –

"This plague has killed a lot of people and scared even more," was all that Jack said, in a tone no more hostile or cold than his standard, faint cynicism. "The IOA is authorizing the release of the Atlantis tapes to family members, although heavily redacted and no hint of how or where they were lost. The President, on the other hand, is ready for partial disclosure, at least enough to put together a commission on how to handle it. He's tasked George and Major – Lieutenant Colonel – Davis to work on the disclosure proposals while you and I deal with the Ori threat. If we're lucky, we'll get the twenty months President Hayes is counting on to figure out how to deal with the world finding out about the SGC."

Oh, that was all she needed. Being responsible for changing everyone's view of the universe and God in her spare time, between fighting the Ori, finding Ba'al, and recruiting Rodney McKay's sister into the SGC. Piece of cake.

Thanks a fucking lot, Jack.

"The other thing that's come out of this," Jack continued blithely, if also pitilessly, "is that the IOA is finally ready to consider Pegasus again. Probably because with the Ori coming, they're looking for somewhere further away than the current Alpha Site to escape to, if the time comes."

That last bit certainly wasn't faint cynicism, but then Jack had never forgiven the IOA for abandoning the Atlantis expedition in the first place. No one was better than Jack at making the hard calls, but he still had a way of expecting everything to work out despite all common sense, and had a way of imbuing that kind of thinking in the people under his command, Sam included. Losing Atlantis had been the worst point in the SGC's history, not because their deaths had been any more critical than losing all of Abydos or the Tollen, but because the teams had had to sit back and do nothing. Because they had just had to let it happen.

"They're going to allow one of the capitol ships to go to Pegasus?"

"The Korolev is the next one up, and somehow I don't see the Russians agreeing to let their first ship of the line go hunting for needles any more than the IOA is allowing the Daedalus," Jack drolly shot her down. "You're going to have to wait for the one after Korolev, the …"

"The Apollo, I think, is the name that was picked, sir," Sam supplied in Jack's obvious pause. "But that won't be completed for a couple more years and – "

"And who knows how things are going to be going by then. With the Ori or with the IOA," Jack agreed, taking back the thread. "Say, didn't that gal of Daniel's have some sort of ship? I seem to remember she had a cargo ship – "

"Vala was lost last year destroying the Ori Supergate, Jack," Sam interrupted gently, her eyes stinging again at the reminder of yet another death at the hands of the Ori. She hadn't really known what to think of Vala Mal Doran, but in the end the woman had sacrificed herself for Earth as well as many other worlds.

Just like Orlin, who was now just as lost, having been turned into a child in both body and mind. A sacrifice, like General Landry and Jean Miller's husband, along with 67,352 other people who died in the pandemic. The pandemic with extraterrestrial origins (hah – origins – wasn't that the laugh) –

"A cargo ship which Vala turned over to her friend, as I seem to remember reading," Jack interrupted right back with just the right tone of condescension to pull Sam out of her black thoughts.

"A friend who's met Mitchell and Daniel and who might know where other ships like it can be found, bought or otherwise acquired should SG1 go looking, Carter." Jack seemed to be weirdly cheery now, if still chastising her. "That's assuming that Teal'c can't come up with a spare Al'kesh that you and Mrs. Miller can somehow outfit with better engines. It's not like the IOA is going to want you guys experimenting on the ships we've got for Earth's defense, right? So, if you're going to give them bigger and better advancements, you're going to need a different source."

Oh.

Well, when he put it like that.

"I get your point, sir." And your message, Sam didn't feel she needed to add, the both of them having been together too long not to have a pretty good understanding of the way each other thought.

Okay. So, in between figuring out how to stop the Ori, defeat Ba'al, make sure the Replicators were really gone, and preparing for the disclosure of the SGC program, she was supposed to covertly put together a ship and crew with the means to get to the Pegasus Galaxy. All to discover, once and for all, what happened to the Atlantis expedition and, incidentally, seeing if they could find any spare Ancient tech lying around. All without falling back in love with her boss and while simultaneously convincing the various Powers That Be that she was 'man' enough for the job that before had only ever belonged to Generals.

Oh, plus, keeping Cam and Daniel from killing her once they found out she was leaving SG1. Again.

Piece of fucking cake.


July 22, 2008
Phoenix Bridge
Lantean Solar System

Dave Sheppard had been on the bridge for several hours when the report came in that they'd reached the planetary system that held the Atlantis gate. Unsurprisingly, Major Lorne had decided to restrict bridge access to only the necessary crew, since everyone was pretty sure they weren't going to find a thriving expedition, and certain reactions shouldn't be public spectacle. Dave half expected to be kicked off the bridge himself; as he and Jeannie were too close since their brothers had both been part of the expedition they had come here seeking. No one said anything when he parked himself behind the duty station Jeannie had commandeered, however.

Technically, Dave was the ship's owner or the closest to that on board. Maybe Lorne didn't feel he should boss him around. Or, maybe, the major just wasn't an asshole.

Jeannie, as well as being Rodney McKay's sister, had the skill to assist instead of just standing around like Dave was. "We've got two planets in the habitable band," she was saying now as she studied her sensor readings.

Once more she was fully in her element, just as she'd been two years back, when she'd first come to him with the SGC's insane plan and showed him her design modifications for the spaceship he'd just bought, ostensibly for the US government.

"We're too far out to see any life signs, but I think – "

"Major, we've got quite a debris field up ahead of us," Captain Marks interrupted Jeannie from the pilot's station. "It's… um…"

"Wow," was Dave's similar reaction, after Jeannie switched the real-time forward view to the scanned and simulated plot from the pilot's board. "What would have caused that?"

The debris field filled the screen from top to bottom and left to right. Something like what they'd managed to observe of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter on their way out from Earth. Only this one was comprised of shiny, almost metallic things instead of rocks. Though Dave thought there might be rocks there too; dark bits amidst the bright.

Pretty much everything Dave knew about stellar mechanics and space battles came from the same place: Hollywood. He knew enough physics and chem to know when he was being snowed by his researchers, but otherwise had always left the details and the actual processes to the brainiacs in his employ.

Like now.

When Jeannie adjusted the magnitude of the image, he could see there was something odd about the debris ahead of them; well, odd to him from the prep Hollywood had given him. Instead of floating along a spreading plane or even the chaotic jumble of every asteroid field the hero had to power through in his damaged spaceship, this one was surprisingly orderly. Like images of Saturn, only without a planet in the middle, and the debris forming a sphere instead of rings.

"Whatever happened, it took place on the L5 point," Jeannie informed them.

"L5 point, Ma'am?" Major Lorne, fortunately, asked the question Dave was too embarrassed to voice himself.

Dave wasn't sure if Lorne wasn't just playing the shill, asking while already knowing; being part of the US Air Force, Dave imagined Lorne knew a lot more about aerodynamics, mechanical engineering and probably physics than he'd so far let on. Of course, when you had some of the world's foremost experts as part of your crew, it was too easy to expose the holes in your education.

Hence, Dave keeping his own mouth shut.

"Sorry, one of the Lagrange points." Jeannie answered. "There are five Lagrange points in any two body orbital system, or five fixed positions where a third object is stationary relative to the other two masses."

Like most of the scientists on board, a lecturing tone seemed to be a normal response for her in this type of situation, despite Dave knowing she'd never formally taught or had even completed her degree, as she'd apologized for herself in her interview. As if he hadn't already gotten Samantha Carter's recommendation – and not so gentle nudge – that he should hire Jeannie with no regard to her not having an advanced degree.

"Back home, the solar observatory, SOHO, is in the L1 position between the Earth and the Sun while the new Webb telescope is going to be put into the opposite L2 position to make observations in the other direction from Earth. The nut jobs who claim Nemesis exists, a mirror Earth that's exactly opposite of Earth's position on the other side of the Sun, would be at the L3 Lagrange point. Points 4 and 5 are 60 degrees ahead and behind Earth's orbit around the sun."

"Like in Halo," Lieutenant Cadman spoke up from her semi-permanent position at the weapon console.

Technically the lieutenant was Lorne's XO and his back-up, with no fixed position on board ship. For the few hours their shifts overlapped, she preferred to park herself next to Marks. Dave supposed it was so she could have first crack at firing the missiles on board that were supposed to make the Air Force's bunker busters and MOABs look like fire crackers. In her Marine life, Laura Cadman was an explosives expert, as she was more than happy to point out.

"The Halo structures and the slipstream points are at the Lagrange– What, it's a fun game," she defended herself from the looks Lorne and Marks were giving her.

"The SGC's not keeping you busy enough, Lieutenant?" Lorne asked dryly. "You shoot and blow up shit for a living, but you have to do it in your down time, too? I suppose you also play Wormhole Extreme?"

"God, no," Cadman shuddered. "The video game is worse than the show that inspired it."

Dave didn't quite get it; he had little time to play video games or even to watch television. He also was used to be the odd man out, with both the scientists and with the military on board. He was neither fish nor fowl, not really even a bona fide civilian, since it had been his money and his influence O'Neill had come seeking during Patrick Sheppard's funeral. He'd been one on a very small list who had the industrial clout and infrastructure to get the covert job done, plus he had the personal stake to insure the project wouldn't be leaked to the press or to undesirable politicians.

Not civilian, scientist, or military. Just a conspirator.

"Yes, like in Halo," Jeannie brought them back on track, her lips twitching in suppressed amusement. "Or as explained by a different O'Neill's book, The High Frontier, and by his L5 Society, which was all the rage back in the 70's. The L4 and L5 points respective between the Earth and the Moon are where most current scientific speculation would place real space colonies or defense satellites if we ever develop the technology. Gee, I guess that's a given now, isn't it?" Jeannie stopped in wonder.

"Anyway, it's a lot easier to maintain communications or to send ships out to a fixed point in orbit, instead of having to constantly calculate variable orbital positions to gather data or use them for a relay," she continued after a few seconds. "Same for positioning an offensive/defensive grid by the way. If you're expecting your enemies to use spaceships, you'd set your own ships or weapons platforms out at the various Lagrange positions to keep them stationary relative to Earth, to one another, and to maintain maximum coverage."

"Wasn't there a mention of the expedition finding a left behind satellite in one of the After Action Reports?" Dave finally made his own contribution. "The one where they found the ten thousand year old ship and the hibernating Wraith?"

The one (of too many) where John had nearly died, and where some of the scientists had.

Lorne nodded, any humor leaching from his face at the implication. "Is that what's made our debris field? The Ancient's defensive weapons platform?"

"It's definitely from a created artifact." Jeannie looked more closely at her readouts, her expression also sobering. "Its destruction did not impart enough velocity to the debris to move it out of the L5 point, so it's now just a compact 'cloud' of debris, rather than being scattered all over the system."

"Go ahead and launch one of our sensor probes to take samples," Lorne ordered.

"I'm getting similar readings to some of the base metals found in the hulls of Asgard ships and in the walls of the buried Antarctic base," Jeannie finally began again, after a couple silent minutes while the probe moved between the ship and the destruction. "There are also exotic elements here, stuff I've never seen before. And organic matter."

"Organics like people?" Dave had to ask. Like Soylent Green he wanted to add, to show he wasn't completely clueless to the pop and geek culture references, though now certainly wasn't the time.

Jeannie shook her head. "It's not body parts. Well, yes, okay, some of it is. I think. Not very much, though, statistically speaking. The bits that are body parts have densities that are all wrong for humans even though they are – were – also carbon based life-forms. 'It's life, Jim, but not as we know it'," she obviously quoted with a quirky grin.

So maybe he could have gotten away with the Soylent Green reference, going by twin snickers from the front of the bridge. Marks and Cadman at least had an appreciation for gallows humor.

"The majority of the organics are comprised of some sort of resin-type polymers," Jeannie quickly grew serious again. "A mix with chemical properties similar to propolis, beeswax and honey, combined with an unidentifiable element to make something that's stronger than steel, more durable than plastic and lighter than aluminum, if I'm reading this right. If I had to guess, I'd say someone out here in Pegasus can make viable spaceships out of the inside of a honeycomb. Someone who got their butts kicked, by the way, since that's what's making up the majority of the debris, not the defense satellite."

"Didn't the CMO's reports say he suspected that the Wraith were some sort of mammalian-insect hybrid?" Cadman spoke up, acknowledging that she'd read through all of the data the expedition had managed to get to the SGC too.

Or maybe she'd just had a thing for the CMO's Scottish accent and had paid attention only to his contributions. Jeannie had certainly seemed keen on listening to Carson Beckett's reports too, almost as much as her brother's – and Dave's brother's.

"I'm sure the analysis will be fascinating, but how about we just assume it was the Wraith who were destroyed and move on," Lorne directed, then just raised his brow at the scandalized look Jeannie shot him.

"Screw scientific curiosity, Ma'am," Lorne continued with the uttermost respect on his face. "If that isn't a collection of destroyed Wraith ships intermingled with the wreckage from a weapons platform, it means there was or is another faction out here beyond what we've been told. There's no saying that they are or were friendlies, but there also isn't a damn thing we can do about it. If we work on the assumption that the Wraith were destroyed, then we can also argue that Atlantis and the expedition are still there after somehow managing to defeat their enemies. Just out there sitting pretty, but without the required power source to make further contact to Earth."

A nice thought, though Dave doubted anyone here believed it. Including Lorne.

"Fine, Major," Jeannie responded with a wry grin and a nod of acceptance. "Since we're not reading any other satellites in the system, or any more debris fields, we can also argue that these remnants are from the one mentioned in the data burst. So that should mean the planet sixty degrees behind the debris field would be Atlantis' home."

"Well then, let's see if anyone's there to answer our call. Captain Marks," Lorne ordered, "take us in. Lieutenant Cadman, start broadcasting our IFF on one of the low-band SGC frequencies."

Dave had read enough military fiction to remember that IFF stood for identify friend or foe, which sounded like a damn fine idea if there were more weapons platforms out there that Jeannie just hadn't found.

"Sir, I'm getting a ping back, but it's not coming from the planet," Cadman reported after only a minute. "It's coming from the debris field. I think. Certainly it's bouncing around through there. But it's pretty faint. I don't know, maybe it's just an echo from our signal?"

In Dave's mind that couldn't be good, but Lorne simply turned toward where Dave and Jeannie were with a thoughtful look on his face, not a distressed one.

"Ma'am, can you confirm?"

Jeannie did more cryptic things Dave couldn't follow, and the screen in front of her changed into something that looked similar to the echo-sounder readout Dave used on his boat. Only something much more advanced and extremely complicated.

"It's not an echo," Jeannie confirmed. "There is definitely something out there that responded to our ping. Laura, turn the ping off for a few seconds."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"If it's set to respond to any signal, then it should continue to broadcast," Jeannie explained. "But if it really is a message that's been left for us, then it should stop until we ping back on the correct frequency again."

A minute passed. Even Dave could understand the loss of signal reading on Jeannie's screen.

Lorne rubbed his chin. "Okay. So it's for us, which should mean it was placed there by someone from the expedition."

Dave was surprised to hear the excitement rising in Lorne's tone; so little had seemed to get a rise out of the unflappable major. Or maybe not so surprising, Dave supposed, as Lorne had been a part of the SGC for years, so undoubtedly he had counted many of the expedition members as friends.

Dave's own heart was picking up a little in anticipation.

"I assume there's an SGC protocol for activating message buoys, Major?" Jeannie's voice held an undercurrent of a thrill too.

Dave took a step closer and leaned over, placing a careful – innocent – hand on Jeannie's shoulder. He wasn't sure which of them had the faint tremor. Or if Jeannie even noticed.

Lorne nodded. "Laura, start cycling through the list of the authentication codes sent out with the expedition."

"We've got a hit," Cadman whooped after only a few seconds. "I'm getting an encrypted data burst that's registering as from Doctor McKay. Should I broadcast it?"

"Just capture and store for now, Lieutenant," Lorne ordered instead. "I want to wait on the playback until we move it to a stand alone system. The last thing we need is to download a potentially corrupted file or virus that would play havoc with our operations and trap us here."

Dave had a pretty good idea of what the major had to be thinking and agreed. It was great to assume that the expedition had had the time to set up a message relay. Virus or corrupted data aside, however, even if the file was fully safe and legit, there was no guarantee it would contain a message they wanted to hear. After all, the last message Earth had received was about an impending massacre – or at least the abandonment and destruction of Atlantis so that it couldn't fall into enemy hands. Even if this one wasn't something in that realm of bad, it could simply be a duplicate recording of what they'd already received, and all of their excitement would be for naught.

"Mrs. Miller," Lorne continued, "recall our probe and prep our own message buoy for launch that contains everything we've done and concluded up to this point in time. Captain Marks, put us in a high parking orbit once we're on station of Lantea. Lieutenant, set the F-302's to Alert Five. Everyone, keep a look out for more message buoys or some kind of sentry. Sure, it's been a few years, but the Wraith seem to be a patient kind of enemy, just like the Goa'uld. They could have gained enough intel from our people to expect that someone like us would eventually come looking, and be laying in wait for another chance to find Earth and their rich, new feeding ground. Let's make sure that doesn't happen on our watch."

The bridge fell silent after Lorne's orders and remained so over the next ten minutes, with only the background noises normally unheard: fingers tapping (Jeannie on her station's keyboard, Lorne's in a nervous tattoo against the arm of his chair), tuneless humming from Cadman, the steady thrum of the engines and a faint rush of the air circulation through the life support systems now noticeable. As was the steady increased thudding of Dave's heart. He had to keep stopping himself from holding his breath.

"Wow. It's a lot more turquoise than Earth," Cadman pronounced when Marks finally directed the ship into their slow orbital path around Lantea.

Not only was the planet more vibrant in its ocean colors, but even the cloud cover seemed shinier, more silver than the white seen over Earth.

Breathtaking, yes, but nothing could quite match the awe and significance of reaching beyond one's own backyard for the first time. Even Lorne, jaded gate traveler he'd been, had been lost in wonder for those first few moments after they'd breached Earth's atmosphere, actually halting their departure so that everyone could take a turn up on the bridge to see the sight of their own sun holding as a pinprick of light creeping up over Earth's horizon

"Earth's water bodies cover seventy percent, whereas Lantea's coverage is more like eighty-seven percent. Plus, due to surface plasmon resonance, the light is…" Jeannie trailed off in the face of the glazed looks she was getting in return.

"Simply put," she tried again, "the minerals dissolved in the water here are different than Earth's, so the colors are more vivid along the visible light spectrum."

"Are you picking up anything more than water and land masses?" Lorne asked.

For a long minute Jeannie didn't answer, then she finally shook her head. "No human life signs, and the only evidence of past habitation is the remains of a fairly primitive village on the landmass just below the equator. I'm guessing that once belonged to the Athosians."

"What about ruins or further debris fields?"

"There are definitely signs of burns and impacts craters along that coastal region," Jeannie nodded. "A lot of it's already being reclaimed by the indigenous growth so it was either from long ago, or there just wasn't that much devastation from the siege. I'm also reading an underwater structure several hundred kilometers north and west of the village, but nothing on the scale of what we were told Atlantis was like."

A small furrow appeared on her brow, that Dave found himself suddenly tempted to kiss away. More for the distraction, he realized in sorrow, something to ease his own mounting impatience and frustration. He hadn't expected they'd arrive here to find everything intact, certainly, but he also hadn't realized just how wearing the build ups and let downs would leave him feeling.

"It's equivalent to, say, Enderby," Jeannie continued her explanations, then blushed when it was obvious that no one understood her reference. "That's a river town in the Okanagan region of British Columbia that's about a sixth the size of Manhattan. There are also bits and pieces of metal spread out along the ocean bed analogous to the composition of our Lagrange debris, but nothing on the scale of ships even our size."

"So where is Atlantis?" Dave asked the sixty-four million dollar question. Someone had to.

"Well, it was supposed to be a spaceship as well as a city," Marks offered.

"If they had enough power to get the city flying, they could have evacuated back to Earth," Jeannie pointed out.

"Not if most everyone was already evacuated to their Alpha site or to a series of planets when they took off," Lorne shook his head. "Evacuation of civilians is standard SOP for potential invasion scenarios and there is no reason to suspect Doctor Weir would have ordered anything different. But once they all reconnected again – "

"Instead of making guesses, shouldn't we just listen to their message?" Cadman interrupted.

Well, duh. At her words Dave was struck by a boardroom moment, and had to laugh at himself. Lorne could have been one of Dave's research managers, with Jeannie and Marks his lead scientist and technician. Over-thinkers all; too busy speculating and justifying their thoughts instead of just going directly to the source.

He hadn't found John yet but, by God, he also hadn't conclusively lost him.


July 22, 2008
Phoenix Starboard Conference Room
In orbit around Lantea

"So, if you've found this, we're going to assume you're from Earth."

"What language is that in? Is that Russian?" Jeannie asked with a frown as she stopped the transmission. She was damn sure that was Mer's voice, but she couldn't understand what he was saying and, for all she really knew, he could be suffering from some weird aphasia thing that her own language centers were interpreting as something that maybe just sounded like Russian, thanks to the stargate's tampering with her brain.

She'd always laughed at Star Trek's Doctor McCoy for complaining about transporters messing up his molecules. While her own beaming trip hadn't been that stressful – she understood the principles behind molecular reconstruction just fine, thank you, it had been learning that her brain had been adjusted, completely without her consent and by a means no one really understood just so she could more easily communicate on the other side of the gate, that had been her McCoy moment.

Major Lorne and Jennifer Keller shook their heads, not disagreeing with her, Jeannie was sure, but in a 'I'm-not-sure' sense.

"Da, it's Russian," Dave surprised her. "He said, 'so if you've found this, we're going to assume you're from Earth'. Oh, don't look so surprised," he then muttered although his ears were starting to redden along their edges. "Yes, I understand Russian. I had the choice of learning it or Chinese in college. Have you ever listened to Chinese?"

"Only in Firefly," Jennifer grinned, while Lorne chimed in with:

"Does watching Japanese anime count as close enough?"

"I'll just play the message again, shall I?" Jeannie couldn't help but roll her eyes. She understood the need for lightness, for wanting to put off what they might hear if only for a few more seconds. After all, as much as she wanted to know what had happened, not knowing kept Mer alive just that much longer.

"So, if you've found this, we're going to assume you're from Earth," Dave repeated his translation as Jeannie queued the tape again.

"And if Sam Carter's not on board, you better have a way of contacting her. Or hope you have someone nearly as smart with you. In addition to needing to translate a couple of different languages, you're going to need some advanced thinking to get the numbers right. Don't worry, we'll wait."

Jeannie barely needed the translated for that last bit to hear and understand Mer's bitterness. Then they'd only been waiting eight or so months. How was he going to feel with the wait being fifty months?

"So if you're the Wraith or Genii who have found this first," was suddenly offered in English – or maybe just gate standard, that only sounded like English to her, "you can just fuck off. 'Cause you're getting nothing from us."

"Jeez, McKay, you can't say that on an official report," they heard another voice complain off mike, also in 'English'.

"Shit, that was John!" Dave sputtered.

Jeannie stopped the tape before it got too far ahead to translate. Dave suddenly looked so damn relieved that, only now, did she realize that he hadn't really believed he was going to find John alive. Not that this message guaranteed they would find any of the expedition still alive, but it did seem to indicate that at least Mer and John had survived the initial Wraith attack. Which was still something. Which was a whole damn lot, Jeannie held to herself fiercely.

When she started the message up again, the next was also in English, with Mer again speaking.

"This isn't an official anything, and the likelihood of anyone finding it is – "

"The odds are good enough to spend the time, Rodney – "

Rodney? Oh, well, of course, Dave's brother called Mer, Rodney. That was his grown up name, his American name, his scientist name.

The name of someone who really wasn't Jeannie's brother.

Sheppard's voice still sounded faint, like he wasn't near Mer. Still it was loud enough to make out that he could project calm and even amusement in the face of Mer's bitching; something Jeannie had rarely heard when people interacted with her brother. That was also a nice thought. That Mer had found at least one friend to stand with in the end.

"– but we don't have that much of it, so you need to keep going; we'll be in the optimum position to launch the buoy in less than … four minutes. So try to keep the mental gymnastics to a premium, okay?"

Sheppard's tone stayed light, but was maybe losing a bit of the calm. Giving into the pressure or to something else? It was obvious there was something going on with him while Mer was doing the recording, but neither of them sounded remotely panicked, as Jeannie would have expected if they were still under some form of attack.

"I've got it covered, John. You just concentrate on the chair and leave this part of it to me."

Oh. Jeannie hadn't heard that voice from Mer since she'd been crying about Billy Whitaker standing her up for her prom, when he promised her that he would take her instead, and that Billy Whitaker would come to regret hurting his little sister. For a few seconds Jeannie actually felt jealous of John Sheppard, but then rationality set in. She'd been happy that someone liked Mer, but was jealous that Mer liked John back? How very Madison of her.

Jeannie ducked her head, but of course, no one could know what she was thinking. Lorne, Laura, and Jennifer were all looking thoughtful and sad in turn. And, especially in Jennifer's case, uneasy. Even if they didn't have a connection to those disembodied voices, finding a lost record like this would have been fascinating as well as heartbreaking. Jeannie had never before put much stock in words like closure, but she'd been with Kaleb at the end, and had at least known there had been nothing that could have been done for either of her parents. Mer's loss, on the other hand, had been a black hole in the center of her universe for a long time.

"Okay," Mer was back to Russian, and Dave back to translating. "The city really is a spaceship and we're leaving Lantea. If you're from Earth and you're going to look for us, we've gone to these coordinates. Luna designate, first composite number of the form p-squared q."

"The hell?" Dave stopped.

"He's switched to French and the first number is twelve," Jeannie explained after she stopped the message, with a small smile to herself. She'd automatically translated both the French and the equation when Mer changed languages. "But Luna designate?"

"M for moon," came from Lorne. "The SGC classifies gate locations by p for planets and m for moons, followed by the galaxy spatial coordinates and finally which planet within the system is at those coordinates. Don't worry; we've got a copy of the program Colonel Carter wrote to translate them into a flight path. Unless they're adding something weird here in Pegasus, there will be six total, so we've already got the first three. Em, one, two."

She nodded and made ready to play back the next part. While she really doubted Mer would have used too cryptic a reference, she wouldn't put it past him trying to be clever. As Mer or Rodney, he just couldn't help himself.

The two of them had loved all types of puzzles as kids and had spent years trying to out-think one another, a pastime he also seemed to have enjoyed with Colonel Carter, going by his opening warning. Or Mer had simply been trying to impress Sam, especially after those disastrous first two meetings that Jeannie had been told about. Mer really couldn't help himself there either, having a thing for smart blondes, even if he called them dumb.

"Followed by the integer that's a Fermet, Sophie Germaine and a Wilson prime."

"Ah, okay," Jeannie stopped the playback again. Mental gymnastics indeed.

"That's…"

Damn it, Mer. Prime/Not Prime was a stupid game and who in their right mind cared about the subset collections outside of actually using them? Who cared enough to have them fucking memorized?

"Oh, right," she suddenly remembered. Okay, so maybe she had memorized a few herself. Once upon a time.

"The Wilson primes are only five, thirteen and five hundred and sixty-three. So the next number has to be five. Em, one, two, five." Jeannie then looked up to see the others all smiling at her, her turn to be in the spotlight it seemed, like Dave with his hidden talent for Russian.

"What? Come on, you can't be surprised that my brother's a geek and, I guess, by default this means so am I," Jeannie chided them. "You have to admit, someone from this galaxy isn't going to be able break his encryption even if they did manage to figure out the language. Well, not unless they're telepathic. Names like Fermet or letters like pee or cue aren't going to mean anything to someone not from Earth, no matter how much babel-fish gets channeled into your brain."

"So I guess this means you're not just a geek, but you're about as smart as Samantha Carter?" Dave teased, the Hitchhiker's Guide reference obviously shooting completely over his head. He definitely wasn't a geek, but she kinda liked that about him.

"You should have known that already, Mister," Jeannie wagged her finger at him. She didn't have the heart to tell them she was having more trouble with the French than she was Mer's mathematical abstracts. "Why else would Sam have maneuvered you into hiring me to work on your secret project?"

Dave looked bugged-eyed at her, and now that she let it slip, Jeannie could feel the blush crawling up her neck. Oh, yeah, that was supposed to be their little secret, hers, Dave's and Sam's. Secret deals between the SGC and Colson-Sheppard Industries pretty much spoke of a collusion going back a lot longer than Lorne or the others had probably been aware of, and hinted that the government might have been involved in the conspiracy.

Well, it wasn't as if Lorne didn't know the IOA was out of touch on this when he'd volunteered. And maybe this bombshell would let him feel a little better about things, being able to assume it wasn't just his CO that wanted to right a couple of wrongs.

"Good thing that you're on board, then, Ma'am," was Lorne's only response, along with a smile turned into a grin as she blushed deeper.

"Please, call me Jeannie. Ma'am makes me feel old," she grimaced.

He nodded and gestured for her to continue with the playback.

"Next would be the team of cowboys when Chris and Vin saved the town from Calvera."

The smile in Mer's voice brought Jeannie up short as much as the obscure reference. John Sheppard could be heard in the background again, laughing.

"Didn't think you'd made it to Elizabeth's 'we're-all-going-to-die-so-we-might-as-well-watch-a-movie-night."

It was only at this point that Jeannie realized that the younger Sheppard brother wasn't having the same trouble Dave had had with Mer's French, speaking it back just as fluently, though with a Paris accent, not Mer's Québécois.

"I knew it long before it became number fifty-three in the rotation," Mer sniffed back at Sheppard. "I was a fan of Kurosawa well before Lucas ripped him off for Star Wars."

Jeannie had to wonder if Mer had ever figured out John was responding to his French with nary a pause.

"What, when you were ten? You know you saw Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai because your girlfriend was into art or foreign films. Or was it in Film Studies, your cheat through your Humanities requirement?"

"Boyfriend, actually and, yeah, I thought that would shut you up, Major," Mer snipped back. "May I finish?"

This time when she stopped translating, Jeannie wasn't the only one with red cheeks.

"Ah, I do know that one," Jennifer finally offered. "Chris, Vin and Calvera are from my Dad's favorite movie, The Magnificent Seven. So that's five of our six coordinates, right?"

Jeannie was holding her breath when she started the message again, concerned about how Major Sheppard might have responded to Mer's little revelation. Even now, with the changes at the SGC, very few soldiers had outed themselves, even after General O'Neill and Daniel Jackson had very publicly proved that sexual orientation didn't mean anything when it came to saving the Earth or especially, in just doing their job. Back when the Atlantis expedition had left, DADT had still been very much in place, and military gay-bashing, while uncommon, had too often been deadly.

"How about the last designation being from the name of the movie about Shoeless Joe?"

Jeannie breathed out with a private smile. The major hadn't sounded shaken by Mer's sexual revelation. Hadn't sound like it had even been a surprise, and the tone of amused camaraderie hadn't lessened in the least.

"You mean Field of Dreams?"

Mer, on the other hand, sounded bewildered and Jeannie wondered if it was just the reference, or because of Sheppard's apparent easy acceptance.

"Baseball's wrong, Sheppard. Mer was continuing. That's about nine players – "

"The last number is eight," came, surprisingly, from Dave.

Or maybe not so surprising, since it had been suggested by his brother.

"From the movie Eight Men Out. The book the movie is based on is one of the few things John took with him from home when he left for college. So our coordinates are Em, one, two, five, seven, eight."

Jeannie reached over to lightly grasp Dave's hand, understanding his sudden melancholy and feeling it herself. This communiqué and their memories might be all they had left of their brothers.

Lorne nodded and tapped his comm. "Captain Marks, set a course for em one two five seven eight, then go ahead and call the shift change. I'll be out in a few more minutes."

"Go ahead and play the rest," he then directed Jeannie.

"Don't worry about it McKay. Someone will get the D.B. Sweeney reference. You need to finish this up 'cause we're here."

"Already? You really are pretty good at this flying thing, aren't you – "

For a couple of seconds Mer's words were smothered by a surprised bark of harsh laughter, then:

"– for some reason we're not where we've said," Mer was finally speaking in English again, "go to the planet where we made our first, first contact, according to the AARs. If we can, we'll leave another message for you there. And if you find nothing at either planet, go home. You can't stay here too long or you'll attract attention, which is something neither you nor home wants. Don't forget us, but don't mourn too long either. We beat the bad guys, even if it was more luck than skill. Every extra minute we have now is just gravy. Oh, and please give my formal apologies to George Lucas, for when I called him a hack about the ending of Star Wars – the original Star Wars. Deux ex machina really does happen it seems."

Another laugh from John Sheppard. "Say so long, Rodney."

"Goodbye, John."


July 26, 2008
Phoenix Bridge
On approach to Athos

"Sir, I have multiple space-born contacts," Captain Marks called out abruptly from the pilot station down in front of Evan's command chair.

Evan whipped his head up from the electronic notepad he'd been reading through, not for the first time feeling a hell of a lot like Captain Kirk sitting here on the bridge of a freaking spaceship. Unfortunately, the person currently playing the part of his yeoman was a balding cook and not a blonde bombshell in a short red dress. So did that make him just a poor man's Captain Archer?

Sending the crewman off with a wave of his hand, Evan rose and moved down to end up behind Marks. "What have you got?"

"Ships, sir," Marks answered as he altered their heading, to stay oblique in his approach if Evan was reading the pilot's plot correctly.

"I'm picking up eleven different contacts. One single large spacecraft and two sets of smaller ships, comprised of six and four."

Also not for the first time, Evan blessed Colonel Carter for giving him some seasoned veterans amongst his crew instead of just the current crop of volunteers the SGC was vetting to man their new space fleet. Martin Marks was one of the too few survivors who had served under Lionel Pendergast on Prometheus. He'd been Colonel Caldwell's initial pick for taking over the primary pilot's position on Daedalus, until Carter had convinced Marks (and the Daedalus' prickly commander) otherwise.

Evan just hoped this little quasi-sanctioned field trip didn't ultimately hold up Marks' promotion (or anyone else's other than his own), which actually should be going through now. Well, at least by the time they got back home.

Evan had been confident enough to move out of the XO spot under Colonel Edwards in SG11 to take command of Phoenix when he'd been asked, but he'd known he'd been tagged for this post primarily to wrangle the petty squabbles between the scientists, the civilians and his small command of soldiers. A one time command in prelude to being assigned one of the new, first contact gate teams upon their return. He was good at organizational stuff and the people management, and so far had managed to keep a cool head under stressful conditions, but he wasn't a particularly brilliant tactician, nor did he have significant experience in commanding anything other than a Texaco flight crew from back when he'd been in the Big Air Force. He certainly did not have any experience in taking his ship into some kind of fucking space battle.

In fact, General O'Neill had expressly told him not to get involved in any space battles before he'd sent them off.

"Hostiles?" he asked out of habit although Marks wouldn't know any better than he did, since their 'Handy Guide to Enemies in the Pegasus Galaxy' was pretty sparse and three years out of date.

Just in case, he decided he better not be on his feet if first contact was in the form of a missile. As he retook his seat, he silently cursed at himself. Despite every time he watched a science fiction movie or show – and yelled at the screen for them not installing something as simple as seat belts – he'd never followed up for that be done for Phoenix either.

"Hostile certainly to each other, sir," Marks answered after a few seconds of observation of his tactical plot. "I am registering weapons fire. From these readings, I don't think either side belongs to the Wraith."

Well that wasn't good. From what little intel they had gotten from the expedition, the reports had implied the Wraith were the only major space-faring race out here, something about the vampiric aliens culling the planets who developed high technologies first. Of course, in McKay's 'fuck-off' message, he'd referenced the Genii as having the capability to find the message buoy. From those first year AARs, the Genii had definitely proven themselves hostile to the expedition.

Only Phoenix wasn't supposed to find Atlantis here in the Athos system. They'd gone to M12-458 and found nothing, so headed on to Atlantis' first, first contact coordinates, just as McKay had suggested. To Athos. Where they were supposed to find some old, maybe Ancient ruins, a destroyed settlement of more recent vintage, a stargate and, hopefully, another message buoy.

What they certainly weren't supposed to find was additional spacecraft. The expedition hadn't reported discovering any craft outside of those belonging to the Wraith beyond a small fleet of gateships like the one O'Neill had brought back from his last confrontation with Maybourne.

So who the hell were these guys? Were either of these guys?

"Go to weapons hot," Evan ordered Cadman as she slid into position. "You do not have to wait for my command to fire if we are fired upon. Send the Cockpit Ready Alert to the F-302s." Just like Lantea all over again, only this time everything was immediate instead of precautionary. They only had two of the fighter craft aboard, so he was only intending to use them for additional point-defense in back up for the cobbled together counter-measures they'd added to this old girl.

"Mister Sheppard, Mrs. Miller, I suggest you retire to your quarters," he turned his attention next to the civilians on his bridge.

"You might need me," came the not unexpected response from Jeannie Miller. "I'd like to stay."

Which meant Sheppard would be staying too, though the man didn't bother to respond beyond something like a grin and a shrug at Evan's look their direction. Theoretically, Evan had full authority during impending military action and he could have them removed, but it wasn't like they were in the way. Mrs. Miller – Jeannie – could probably help again, too. Nor was it as if the bridge wasn't better shielded than the crew quarters anyway.

"If you'd take over sensors again, then, Ma'am," Evan directed. Technically, Jeannie was an adviser, the design engineer who was on hand to make sure that if the ship didn't perform to specs, she could address and fix the problem before they found themselves drifting thousands of light years from home. They'd also discovered she could decipher sensor data more quickly than the scientist initially tasked to the job.

"Marks, set our shields to maximum. Let's see how long we can stay in their blind spot on our approach. Take whatever actions you need to keep us out of the line of fire if that doesn't work. Jeannie, can you give me anything on ship or species identification?"

"We're too far out for actual visuals. What little sensor data we're collecting without launching a probe, shows readings from the same types of metals we scanned near Lantea, attributed to Ancient designs. Plus a few more elements that are currently unidentifiable." She frowned before punching a few more buttons to bring up a different screen.

She then offered: "Okay, size-wise, the set of six small ships are on par with our F-302s and definitely not built to carry much. Probably no more than two-person crafts. It's just as likely a single pilot fighter with room for a little cargo, or maybe just for their weapons system. Short-haul vehicles, I'd guess, with the type of high energy outputs that denote extensive offensive and or defensive capabilities."

The set of four seem to be allied with the larger ship, Evan observed on his own screen now mirroring Marks' tactical plot; two of the four were involved in separate one-on-two dogfights, with the remaining two defending the larger ship against strafing runs by two more of the raiders.

"As for the second set of ships," Jeannie continued, "I … okay, I am getting something back through the ship recognition profiles. They're registering as ninety-eight percent likely to be gateships."

"Gateships?" Sheppard asked from the seat he'd taken next to Jeannie. "Like Lantean ships? Does this mean you are planning on taking sides?" Surprise and maybe a little concern was clear in his voice.

Evan gave the two of them a look, wondering if they were regretting staying just now – and if he was going to have problems with one or both of them freaking out should he indeed take sides.

"As far as we can determine from the research on one of the gateships we found in our own galaxy, they were indeed built by the same race that built the stargates and Atlantis," Evan nodded. "Lantean, Ancients, Alterrans, whatever you want to call them. The unique thing about them is that only people with a particular gene, one that can be traced back to the gatebuilders, can get the gateships to work."

A gene you also carry, just like your brother, Evan didn't add. He hadn't particularly agreed with O'Neill and Sam when they'd made the decision to keep Sheppard in the dark about that, lest Sheppard think that his brother had been volunteered instead of willingly volunteering on the potential one-way trip. Sam and O'Neill had been damn concerned that this Sheppard could turn against the SGC, and they'd needed Sheppard's influence and money too much to take the chance. And his silence. Of course, Evan figured that if they did find Atlantis, the gene thing would take care of itself.

"The odds are one out of ten million people on Earth in having this gene. That's about twice as hard as picking the first five numbers, but not the power ball," he drew an easier analogy as he kept a close eye on the flight path Marks was taking them along, and on the combat they continued to approach. "General O'Neill and a few more people, both who'd been including in the Atlantis expedition and who are still working back with the SGC are the winners we know about. It stands to reason that it might be more common here in Pegasus since we think this is where the Ancients first came from, yet I don't think it's too much of a stretch to argue that the people using those ships could be Ancients themselves or descendents. Or, at least, allies. That could mean they have contact with or knowledge about Atlantis and our people. So if I were going to pick sides…" He stopped and let Sheppard draw his own conclusion.

"They could also be an opportunistic race who has taken Atlantis from our people," Cadman pointed out from her weapons console. "After all, the Genii already tried to do just that a couple of times in the first year, and if the Wraith attack left Atlantis vulnerable…" She, too, let her voice drop and let them all draw their own conclusions.

Considering he'd also given that some thought, Evan couldn't fault Cadman's conclusion – or find fault with her pointing out the pitfalls in his thinking, since that was certainly part of the XO's job (although maybe not in the middle of a potential conflict and in front of the civilians). He suddenly felt a lot more sympathy for Edwards, however. Well, maybe not sympathy, but he could now better understand why he'd pissed Edwards off so often.

Yeah, there absolutely was no reason to assume the gateship pilots were friendlies just because the Ancients had been … well… more or less. Hell, these guys could be Ori for all Evan knew, and wouldn't that just take the cake? The smart course would be to avoid the confrontation entirely; to hide while they waited and watched how it played out.

"How likely can we ping the message buoy and retrieve the data burst without the combatants catching on or tracing either signal?"

"Very unlikely, sir," Cadman shook her head. "It's always possible that they won't notice if we do so, since they're so distracted with each other, but you've got to figure someone out there is looking for reinforcements. Or ambushes, and we'll end up being the ship in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Are you actually registering the presence of a buoy?" Evan only now thought to ask. With the weapons fire being exchanged out there, the buoy could easily have already become an unintentional – or intentional – casualty. If that had or did happen, he didn't have a fucking clue as to what to do next. It was a damn big galaxy, with lots of different planets Atlantis could have gotten lost amongst.

Best case under that scenario, he supposed, would be for him to send a team down on one of those numerous planets– like Athos here – and use its stargate to dial the address they'd had for Atlantis back on Earth. They'd have to devise some sort of recognition code the expedition could validate, since, according to the reports, Atlantis had a shield preventing unauthorized inbound gate travel just like Earth. If he was lucky, Atlantis would get curious and send out a MALP, which Evan could then use its cameras to prove he really was from Earth.

"I'm not picking up any evidence of a buoy," Jeannie frowned. "If it was ever here, it isn't any longer – wait. I am picking up some power readings on Athos' surface. Not from our buoy, but there is something more than just the stargate down there."

"Wasn't Athos supposed to have ruins of an old city on its surface?" Sheppard asked and proved he'd done his homework too.

"They could have hidden the message near or in the ruins so that those innate energy readings would mask the presence of a pod or buoy."

Jeannie's tone said that would have been her decision, had she been the one leaving the next breadcrumb.

"We were told to expect to find one, but this way no one else would, except by extremely random chance," she continued.

A new possibility and another option. Except Evan wasn't any keener on sending down a ground force to go hunting for snipes while two enemies were slugging it out overhead. "Captain – "

"Sir, I've found the freqs being used for chatter between ships," Cadman suddenly interrupted.

"Let's hear it." Sure, they wouldn't be able to say, hey, that's English (or Unas or Furling) to help them decide which might be the innocent party here, but there was still a chance that one side could be spouting stereotypical evil overlord dialogue and make it easy for them to figure out which side was what. As far as Evan was concerned, they deserved a little easy.

"–ries, you've got one on your tail!" they heard first.

Then, from a second, just as agitated, voice: "I've got it, Ger'nrk. You look after your own ass. Larrin, when are the reinforcements due?"

"The Warlord is on his way from Atlantis now, Ares,"
a woman answered. "Keep to your wingmen. Fall back to us when you can. Zelenka's almost got our shields back up."

So Larrin was in – or was the name of – the bigger ship, Evan surmised. Failed shields would definitely account for the defense formation the gateships were trying to maintain in front of the cruiser.

"Did she just say Atlantis and Zelenka?" Even if it was contrary to the Captains Kirk and Archer handbook of just charging in without consideration, Evan wanted a little encouragement from his crew before he charged in.

"That's what I heard," Marks responded and the others nodded all around. "Aries too, which could be one of ours, like a call sign. But Ger'nrk certainly isn't an Earth name and Larrin is at least uncommon."

"Not one of the names on the expedition's manifest," Sheppard stated quite firmly.

So not just having read all the AARs, but Sheppard had also taken the time to memorize the two hundred and thirty-four names belonging to the expedition. Well, so had Evan.

"Last we knew, Atlantis didn't have a warlord," Cadman chimed in.

Evan vowed again to come up with something special as payback to Sam Carter for recommending Cadman for his XO. Sure, he might not have been (nor now wanted) a completely by-the-book, tight-ass XO himself, but he'd also never been a smart ass to Edwards, not to the extent, at least, that Sam seemed to have decided he deserved in return. Cadman was like a female O'Neill, only without all of the experience – and baggage – that kept O'Neill out of the stockade for most of his career.

"Jeannie, are you reading the presence of any other ships in the area that aren't currently involved?" he ignored Cadman even though he was also bothered by the thought of a Warlord on Atlantis.

Both sets of small ships seemed to be the types that wouldn't travel great distances on their own; either coming in on the cruiser or something bigger like a carrier – or perhaps by traveling through the stargate. The ones not gateships seemed too big to be easily maneuvered through a gate.

"Negative," Jeannie answered. "That could just mean they have cloaking technology however, and not that there isn't one lying somewhere in wait."

Like the gateships had cloaking tech. Or negative could mean that the carrier could be keeping the Athos between it and the combatants, and Phoenix wouldn't find them until they moved out of their own protected spot. Or another ship could be using the energy readings coming out of the ruins to mask a planetside presence, like they hoped for the message buoy.

Regardless, it didn't look like the not-gateships were going to need backup to help them harass the others. "Okay, take us – "

"I've got stargate activation, Major," it was Marks' turn to interrupt. "Three more contacts. Tracking as additional gateships."

Likely the promised reinforcements and Warlord from Atlantis, then. For good or ill.

"Marks, come about to – "

"Shit," Marks cut Evan off again, his shock so obvious that Evan couldn't consider calling him on the unprofessional and out of character reaction.

"I've got eleven more contacts rising up from the area near the ruins. All matching the initial bogies, sir." Marks definitely sounded shaken.

"Ah, we are still being ignored," Jeannie offered in a small voice.

Thank god for small favors, Evan thought, definitely shaken himself. Seventeen versus eight…

Even if they weren't assuming these new gateships had come from Atlantis, Evan had never liked bullies.

"Laura, put me on ship-wide, then switch comms to Watson's station." Watson had moved to Damage Control when he'd given Sensors over to Jeannie.

"Go, sir."

"May I have everyone's attention?"

God, next time no civilians, please, so that he could just give orders and be done. If they were going to be any help, Phoenix needed to engage now, as the tide of battle was definitely turning to the worse for the outnumbered side. One of the original gateships just disintegrated beneath concentrated fire from four of the new arrivals.

Evan flinched even though they weren't positive that had been one of the white hats. He worked to make sure none of his unease came through in his tone. "We have encountered hostilities amongst two factions, one of which seems to be connected to Atlantis. All crew to battle stations. All civilians to your emergency stations. Civilians stay in place until you get the all clear, or if a crew member tells you differently."

Considering the military on board were outnumbered three to one by the civilians if you counted the scientists amongst them, the likelihood of any of this actually taking place…

"Until further notice, comms are for emergency use only," Evan finished up. "Medical, prepare to receive casualties." He then signaled Watson to cut the comm before the inevitable questions or complaints started filtering through. Watson knew comms (and Evan) well enough to just clear the boards.

"Captain Marks, take us in. Doctor Watson, you might as well send out our IFF ping. If Atlantis is still friendly, someone should respond to our arrival with something other than weapons fire. Lieutenant, you have still have weapons free if we're fired upon, but try to take out their engines or something instead of destroying anyone, at least until we know for sure we aren't firing on our own people."

"Signaling now, Major," Watson said from behind him, while Cadman began entering new firing solutions into her console.

They had rail guns and a few Carter-improved Goa'uld Buster Warheads, but if they got into a sustained battle, they were going to have to rely on their defensive measures more than their offensive capabilities to keep themselves alive.

"Ancestors take you! Unknown ship, identify yourself."

"That came over our IFF frequency," Watson confirmed.

To Evan's ear, it sounded like the second voice speaking out, one of the gateships tentatively identified as Aries. Aries and the two surviving initial pilots had moved to fly protective detail around the cruiser and each other, instead of trying to stay engage against the enemy directly. Six of the new raiders had caught up to the new gateships, with two more moving on toward the cruiser/escorts. And three were now heading toward Phoenix.

"Launch the F-302s." Evan then paused and took a deep breath, turning his attention to laying out what he was going to say to the gateships in his head. He had to come up with something that identified them as from Earth, as if there was someone out there who knew what that meant, but still wouldn't give everything away.

"Route my headset to ship-to-ship, Doc," Evan ordered as he thought he had it. He then adjusted his comm unit to change his broadcast from ship-wide on his end.

"You are set, Major." From Watson.

Evan metaphorically crossed his fingers. So far the raiders weren't firing on them, appearing to be content with taking sensor readings only, but his next words would probably change that.

"This is the Tau'ri vessel Phoenix," Evan began. "We are engaged in SAR operations at this time and request – "

"Phoenix," a new voice broke in over the bridge speakers, "what was Doug Flutie's Hail Mary – "

Evan froze for a moment, recognizing the voice and maybe the reference, but not quite able to believe he was hearing it. "Ah, in the movies they're always asking who won the Super Bowl or the World Series," he stalled, feeling completely off guard and overwhelmed that they really had found someone from the Atlantis expedition.

Suddenly Sheppard was leaning over his shoulder, practically close enough to kiss. "Nineteen eighty-four, Flutie threw his Hail Mary pass to Phelan with no seconds left on the clock, for Boston College's win over Miami," Sheppard spoke toward Evan's mic. "Allison made me promise to take her to the ballet before she'd give us those tickets. And then you spilled your Coke all over her lap, you son of a bitch."

Sheppard gave Evan a sheepish grin when he was done, but Evan simply unfastened his headset and handed it over.

"D-dave?" again over the main bridge speakers.

No mistake then, and the relief that flashed through the people around him at that stuttered confirmation was palpable. Jeannie Miller's face held a trail of tears and even Evan's tough, Marine XO seemed a bit dewy-eyed, something he'd normally find a way to tease Cadman about later, only he had his own rapid blinking going on.

"In the flesh, little brother," Sheppard was also obviously working at staying composed. "Along with a whole bunch of other people who came along just to find you. How about you confirm for us which side you belong to, so we can help take care of things and commence with the reunion?"

"The cruiser and puddlejumpers – er, gateships – are mine. Feel free to blow fucking holes in the guys with the big exes on their hulls."

As the major was most likely now doing himself with a volley of Ancient drones that appeared out from amidst the late arrivals' formation to stream toward several of the raider contacts. Two of the raiders disintegrated.

"You heard the man, Lieutenant, pick your targets," Evan gave the go ahead, then gestured Sheppard to hand him back his comm. "Captain Marks, Captain Griffith," he added in the lead F-302 pilot, "lets see if we can take some of the heat off the cruiser." The cruiser that was taking a pounding now, although several of the raiders were back to trying to cut one of the gateships off from its wingmen, and a couple more were angling to join their brethren starting to hassle Phoenix.

"Major Sheppard, this is Evan Lorne of the SGC," Evan continued on the ship-to-ship. "Can you give me a SITREP?"

While they had been fitted with more weaponry than the troop ship had first carried, Phoenix wasn't a battleship by any stretch of the imagination, and Evan had no idea how long he could effectively slug it out with so many ships, even if they were only fighter equivalents. Cadman's first couple of shots discouraged the raiders, but they weren't eliminating them like the gateship drones had done in their first volley.

"Watch out for kamikaze runs," Major Sheppard warned.

Almost too late, as suddenly Evan had the two newest raiders peeling off to reveal a third that their point defense system was having trouble tracking. Griffin, in the lead F-302, caught a piece of it, however, and it also veered off, sluggish and spewing atmosphere and debris, but not necessarily out of the fight.

"They seem to be scavengers and they'll ram and then board you if they can," Major Sheppard continued as the four fighters now came back around Phoenix's two to port and two to starboard. They sent their own volleys, using some sort of energy weapon that flared out against Phoenix's shields, doing next to no damage.

"Our command net is freq one three seven point eight two five, with the fighter wing on channel two zero two five. If you need to bug out, the rendezvous point is mike seven golf six seven seven."

"Roger that, Major," Evan nodded automatically to the voice. A second stream of energy came their way and impacted with little affect again, not even rocking them in their chairs.

"Doc, command channel to me, and feed the fighter freqs to Marks, Griffin and Cadman directly," Evan ordered next; micromanaging the people actually responsible for piloting and firing was never a good tactic in his mind. He wouldn't have had them on board if he couldn't trust them to do their jobs.

"–pard, who in the hell are your friends?" Evan now heard the cruiser woman's strident voice in his ear instead of echoing throughout the bridge from Watson's actions. "And what took you so long? Did you bring McKay? Don't get me wrong, Zelenka's good – great even – but he's no McKay and our shields are – "

"Larrin, shut up or at least give me a chance to answer one question before you asked your next," Major Sheppard shouted down her down as the Phoenix shields flared for a third time. "No, I didn't bring McKay. You're not supposed to be taking any of my scientist into battle, so why would you think I'd loan you two? What in the hell did you do to attract the Toasters?"

Toasters? Shit, like Cylons? Kamikaze Cylons? That didn't sound good.

"That's something else I could use McKay for. We think we've been tagged with one of their transmitters, but we can't find or block it. Which means there's likely more Toasters on the way. We really could use more than the three – four – of you, Warlord."

Oh, god, John Sheppard, Major, US Air Force, was the Warlord of Atlantis, at least as far as a bunch of locals were concerned. Talk about going native.

"When are your own people due, Larrin?"

"I don't have anyone else nearby and I'm not about to run to get help and lead them to one of our worlds. This was supposed to just be a shakedown run for the repairs you've helped us with, in an empty system. You need to get rid of these bastards so I can have the time to find how they found us."

"I show a couple of different Tangos disabled and going to ground," Evan broke in as the raider the F-302 had damaged was now trying for a controlled landing onto Athos' surface, along with one damaged from Major Shepard's wing engagement. "Would a squad of Marines get someone who might talk?" He still didn't want to send a squad to the planet, but –

"Negative, Phoenix. These Tangos blow themselves up if they get cornered. If you've got one going down, take it out to make sure it stays down."

Evan couldn't stop his brow from rising at the ruthless casualness in the major's tone. He'd read enough of Major Sheppard's file to guess about some of the blanks in his record, along with learning about General O'Neill's disregard of the black mark everyone else seemed to focus on instead. O'Neill wouldn't have approved Sheppard's inclusion to the expedition if he was incompetent or trigger happy, no matter how strong his ATA gene had expressed. Nor did black ops experience automatically guarantee a callous and thrill-seeking soldier. Still…

"Ah, Major?"

"Switch to your first SGC freq, Phoenix."

Great. Major Sheppard had recognized what was behind Evan's question, and was pissed. One of things Evan hadn't bothered to check was which of the two of them had the longest time in service. Obviously Evan had the time in the SGC advantage, but Sheppard had become the expedition's military commander, which trumped Evan's ship captaincy. And Sheppard had the advantage of this being played out in his backyard, so turning it into a pissing contest would likely only end up getting someone killed.

"Cadman, don't go for the easy kills yet," Evan ordered anyway as he switched his comm again and signaled Watson to cut off broadcasting throughout the bridge. "Keep after the Tangos that are gangbanging for now, or any that take a run on us again." Most of the raiders were back concentrating on the vulnerable cruiser despite Phoenix's size and continued approach.

"Talk to me, Sheppard," Evan then lowered his voice lest Dave Sheppard think Evan was talking to him.

"Look, I'm happy you're here, Lorne. Ecstatic, even," Major Sheppard sounded only slightly sarcastic and no longer as angry as with that order to switch tac channels.

Though maybe that last was because he was also obviously distracted by his own part of the engagement, and in trying to get his wing in toward the cruiser where they could lend a hand.

"The Rules of Engagement are different out here. Just like the Wraith, these Tangos are not the type of suicide bombers that can ever be reasoned with, like I know you're thinking."

A pause then, and Evan frowned to see one of the gateships begin an uncontrolled spin after taking a direct hit.

"The Tangos came on the scene a few months ago and they're going after anyone who has space capabilities, including the Wraith."

Major Sheppard sounded more frustrated than scared at this point, so the spiraling ship probably wasn't his. The one that broke away from its wingmen to go to the aid of the helpless ship probably was, however, from what Evan knew of Sheppard's record. Or maybe not, a single ship alone had better have a damn good pilot in it to survive 4-5 attackers

Was Sheppard Maverick or Iceman?

"We have no fucking idea of who they are or where they come from."

Whichever type of pilot, Major Sheppard seemed able to lecture and fight at the same time; 2 more raiders became a field of debris on Evan's screen, one from each of the distancing ships.

"They simply attack anything else in space, and if they get onboard, they kill everyone they encounter. No negotiations, no prisoners, no interrogations, just systematic slaughter. And when they get caught, all you get is a big boom that, if you're lucky, only takes out the room and not your scientists. A boom that happens even when these guys are unconscious and someone is trying to remove the full body suits they wear, by the way."

Sheppard now sounded a more stressed. Either from the furball he was engaged within, or perhaps from memory of how that last bit of intel had been obtained.

"While there are some organic residue readings after one of those explosions, most of it is mechanical – what we're guessing is cybernetic enhancements on original human or humanoid stock. Hence our calling them Toasters. They might not be sentient at this point, though. They definitely aren't worth losing any more good people in trying to find out. But, hell, do whatever your conscience tells you. And excuse me all to hell while I follow mine."

Evan couldn't really protest his summary dismissal. He was definitely the outsider here, and he'd had plenty of examples while back in SG11 to know that battles against unknown alien hostiles rarely followed the conventional rules such confrontations followed between warring factions back on Earth. He'd made himself a promise, in fact, after watching Edwards screw up with Daniel Jackson and the Unas, then a vow after the debacle on P7Y-332, that he'd work damn hard at never bringing his own preconceptions and prejudices into any other-side-of-the-gate-situation. Not when he was the one calling the shots.

Nor would he disregard the value of local intel.

While the IOA made continual noises about trying to negotiate with the Ori, and with any of the remaining Goa'uld system lords, by and large the standard rules of engagement SGC teams had for the Wraith (should any be encountered in the Milky Way Galaxy) was to shoot first – a policy put into place when Landry had been running things, and never changed under Carter's command.

Every one back home had also assumed, from the expedition's reports, that the Wraith were the biggest predator around in their Pegasus hunting ground, but was it really that hard to think there wouldn't be someone else just as ruthless and intractable in competition with them? After all, the Milky Way had the Replicators as well as the Goa'uld, and now also the Ori. Not to mention the growing ambitions of the Lucien Alliance.

"Lieutenant, maintain your current targets" Evan ordered Cadman while he switched himself back into the command channel. "If – "

"Fuzzztkkk…pard," Larrin's voice was again in his ear, sounding a lot more scared than just strident. although it was hard to know for certain, with how it was also breaking up. "We're scrkkktzz …lds are down. I repppkkkttt … are do – "

'The cruiser is venting atmosphere," Jeannie sounded scared herself, but also remarkably focused despite her lack of experience in any sort of combat.

"Larrin? Shit, can get your ship out of there?" Major Sheppard called back to her. "We can cover – "

"They've hitttzzt … gines. We're deaaakkkt – "

It had been 8 years since Evan had been a part of the Big Air Force. Back then he'd been a Texaco jockey, not a fighter pilot, but he'd been in his share of combat situations and had more than his share of seeing good people doing everything right and still come out on the losing end. While he'd never been on the command side of listening to multi-channel communications and needing to prioritize the messages before now, it wasn't all that different from dealing with a group of locals while tuning out the rest of his team when they were involved in their own troubles and shouting in his ear.

"Larrin, Sheppard, how many do you have on board the cruiser?"

"Fffvvnnnnttt – "

"Repeat, I didn't get that!" Evan called back.

"She's got a crew of forty-six," came from Sheppard amidst more static – from Larrin's transmission, presumably. "Plus a couple of our engineers on board helping out. You have Asgard tech? Can you evacuate them?"

Shit, not that many onto the Phoenix. He'd been hoping for no more than twenty-five or thirty. To take on fifty or so, he'd have to jettisoned his cargo and even then they'd be pushing their life support systems within an hour unless they set down. The sixty-three they were carrying themselves was already ten percent beyond the typical crew and military capacity when this had been a Hebridian troop transport, and that increase was only possible because of enhancements in power distribution and a redesigned life support delivery system thanks to Alec Colson and Jeannie Miller's ability to interpret Asgard protocols. With that rabbit already out of the hat, Evan didn't think they had another.

None of those thoughts took into account that Phoenix was taking a pounding either, with four of the raiders mainly playing tag for now, but definitely ranging and testing his shield strength. He didn't want to make promises he couldn't keep. Even more so, he had no wish to put anyone into the position of having to pick who could be saved and who had to stay behind to perish.

So what was another option?

"Marks, tell me you can find us a position where we're in range to beam Sheppard's people off their cruiser and then onto the planet instead of here." Evan held his breath while Marks ran the calculations, and while Cadman took it upon herself to warn Engineering of what they were going to be called upon to pull off. He kept half an ear and eye to Major Sheppard as he gathered the remaining gateships to his position and took them all into an offensive strike against the remaining raiders trying to bring down the cruiser. Evan was just about to commit the F-302s to join them when Marks finished.

"If the cruiser can be at plot bravo seven niner in three minutes, we've got a shot at it, sir. But they'll be set down a few miles from the gate, and the window to do this will only be four minutes thirty before we lose the range."

"Sheppard, Larrin, if you can get your cruiser to position bravo seven niner relative to our current position from the planet, we can commence transporting your people out and onto Athos in two minutes forty-five." Evan timed his next words in between the orders Major Sheppard was giving in return to Larrin, while also listening to Cadman relay the coordinates and timing down to Engineering. Thank god he wasn't dealing with civilians here – on either side – who slowed things down with questions.

"The more people you can get close to one another, the better chance we have of getting all of them off in the shortest amount of time. I'm assuming we need to leave engineering and the bridge for last?"

"Affirmative," Major Sheppard responded again for Larrin.

Evan wasn't even hearing static from Larrin's cruiser any more, but obviously Sheppard was still talking to someone over there, as Evan could hear him continued to coordinate the rescue as well as manage his gateships.

Another of those gateships began to fall away from the battle and it took Evan a few seconds to realize that it wasn't damaged, but was heading purposely planetside. What the fuck, he almost said aloud, but then he got it; someone needed to run cover for the people who should be beginning to re-materialize on Athos – assuming everything was working to plan.

"Lieutenant, as soon as we're done with the evacuation, get one of the F-302s to back-up that gateship and send the other into the furball," he ordered. "Sheppard, do we need to send a missile into your cruiser to keep it from enemy hands?"

"Negative, Phoenix, they've taken care of that."

And one more of the raiders in a minute more, as the cruiser tore itself apart in a conflagration of light and shock waves. That still left eleven – no ten…nine raiders – however, including three who were continuing to tease and feint against Phoenix. The final seven were concentrating on the four clustered gateships, although three of them abruptly dropped away and took after the single gateship heading to the planet.

"All life signs are present and accounted for planetside except for the final group of four," Marks acknowledged and suddenly put Phoenix into some kind of twisting, sideways maneuver that Evan swore he could feel despite the inertial dampeners.

"Tango One has penetrated our sidewall shield, but impacted obliquely against us instead of completing his ram," Watson suddenly spoke up from behind Evan. "Damage is minimal, and teams are responding to the affected civilians' calls."

"I can reconfigure our shielding to compensate by overlapping coverage," Jeannie offered. "But if I mess up the timing and they find one of the deliberate holes instead of just a weak spot – "

"Shit, Warlock One is gone," Cadman abruptly cried out.

Warlock One. Griffin, in one of the F-302s, who'd been moving off station to back up the gateship flying cover for the civilians. Even if Larrin's crew were all military fit and had sustained no injuries in the battle, the best they could hope would be twenty minutes needed to make the three or so mile run to the gate. Now they only had one ship to protect them against two – no four raiders. If Evan moved Phoenix to help provide cover, he'd be bringing down even more of the raiders on those caught planetside.

He suddenly felt sick and very inadequate for his job.

That didn't mean he could avoid making a decision, however.

"Marks, move us to a point between the dogfight and the people on the planet. See if we can use the transporter again to move them quicker to the gate. Jeannie on our next hit against the shields, collapse it to its lowest viable configuration point, making it look as if they've got a chance to hit something vital. Let's see if we can't draw these fuckers in so Laura can blow them back to their gods."

"They're greedy enough that they might fall for that," Major Sheppard was suddenly back in Evan's ear.

"Are the Tangos likely to have a cruiser or carrier themselves hidden somewhere out system or down amongst the ruins like their other fighters had been in waiting for you?"

"You'd think they'd need something like that, but these guys can tow a long haul themselves, another reason McKay thinks they're more cybernetics than human. Given that they had two potential cruisers to steal here, I think they would have thrown everything they had into the battle by now, and stopped bullshitting around."

"What about the ruins? Is it really an abandoned city? Is it something that your wing can draw their attackers down toward and lose them within the environs?" The gateships/puddlejumpers were supposed to be pretty aerodynamic and maneuverable despite their chunky appearance, Evan remembered hearing. The raider ships were proving themselves pretty agile too, though, which meant that if it was a viable plan, it would come down to who had the better pilots.

"Sheppard, send your jumpers home," Larrin's voice suddenly cut in from the surface, static free.

It sounded like she was using one of the expedition's transmitters now.

"I'm redirecting my people into the ruins themselves, with a team going on through to your alpha site to put in a call for Nevik or Katana. You know you can't afford to lose any more ships or people. Lizzy's already going to be angry with me."

"No one gets left behind, Larrin, you know that. We'll all go through. Lorne and the Phoenix can – "

"Warlord, shit, help – "

"Ger'nrk look out – "

The downside of Jeannie's continuing refinement on the sensors and the visual feed was that they could now watch Ger'nrk's gateship be torn apart as if on a movie screen instead of just noting a colored blip going out on the plot like when they'd lost the first gateship – and Griffin. Only this wasn't a movie and the dead pilot was another one of theirs, even if Evan had never known as much as his planet of origin.

"Larrin, I can start transporting your people closer to the gate and escape," Evan offered. He wasn't any more keen on leaving anyone on the planet with these guys overhead than Major Sheppard was; the raiders were still going after the gateships instead of the Phoenix, which implied they were here for destruction, not bounty.

"Do it, Phoenix," Major Sheppard ordered even as Larrin may have begun a protest.

"Marks, how many passes?"

"If they hold their current positions, we can get all but a few stragglers moved in a total of four," came the immediate reply. "As for the rest – " Marks broke off abruptly.

In the next second Phoenix lurched again and this time it was just like the clichéd fakery the actors performed on Star Trek or in Star Wars, although Evan did manage to retain his seat, barely. So did Marks, either because of past experience or as he'd been the one most aware of the newest attack. And the defensive maneuver he'd needed to perform to avoid another kamikaze run.

Cadman hadn't been as lucky; she lost her seat but kept her hold on the console, so was able to pull herself back into position amidst some quiet swearing after a few more seconds of the ship's shuddering. Someone behind Evan had also taken a tumble, but no one was crying out or calling for a medic, and Evan had too much to be concerned about in front of him to be distracted by something that didn't need his attention. Damage reports started coming into Watson's station, but again, nothing sounded so serious as to warrant Evan's direct involvement.

"Marks, on my – "

"Instead of transporting the people on the planet, can't you just pluck the raiders out of their ships?" Dave Sheppard suddenly interrupted from where he was apparently clinging to the back of Jeannie Miller's seat. "You had no problem getting Larrin's people out of their ship. You could just drop the bad guys on the planet, albeit farther away or something, if you're squeamish about materializing them in vacuum."

Evan felt like all kinds of a fool, as did both Marks and Cadman, going by the incredulous and sheepish looks they exchanged. "Well?" he asked them.

"They've got their own form of shielding, but nothing that should be able to stand up to Asgard transports," Cadman called back after a read of her board.

"Marks?"

"Aye, sir. I can put them on the other side of the planet from our people and from the gate."

The first to disappear from their cockpits were the three still chivvying Phoenix. With them off their back, Marks had more leeway in maneuvering and muscling in on the dogfight between the remaining gateship wing and raiders.

"Sheppard, we're removing the enemy crews from their ships," Evan updated the pilot version. "Your people should be free to head toward the gate themselves in just a few more seconds – "

Someone on the other side seemed to figure it out themselves, or was simply a sore loser. One of the four who'd been engaging the lone gateship skimming the planet to run cover suddenly shot forward as if it was intending to ram the smaller ship, then exploded in another fury of light and concussion. Whether the gateship pilot had fired reflexively or the raider had blown himself up as Major Sheppard had warned they were prone to do, the gateship was too close to escape the destruction, and began to peel apart itself.

"Martin – "

"Got him, sir, and re-materializing him directly into Medical."

Because, yeah, he would have been exposed to at least a few seconds of explosive decompression. That was never fun – or painless. No doubt Jennifer would get the shock of her life when the pilot appeared out of thin air, but she'd cope.

That left three raiders and three gateship pilots, but for the moment they weren't anywhere near each other and Marks could finish the job before that changed.

"Sheppard, that should be a wrap on the Tangos," Evan didn't bother to hide his relief; he wasn't Kirk to feel anything but tired gratification and maybe a bit of satisfaction – not in his enemy's defeat but in a resolution with few (hopefully) casualties. "You can send your wing to the gate with the rest of your people and we can meet up at your rendezvous planet…"

"The Warlord was in that last jumper taken out," came from an obviously shocked and desolate Aries. "We, ah …"

Shit, shit, shit. Evan turned around to Watson, studiously ignoring Dave Sheppard's stricken face for now. "Give me internals."

"Go," Watson said with barely a breath away from his directions to the damage control parties he was overseeing.

"Medical," Evan asked her, "we transported a pilot?"

"He's alive," someone other than Jennifer Keller responded. He sounded harried but not as panicked as Evan had feared, given that only a couple of the medical personnel were SGC veterans. "We've got him into the hyperbaric chamber and are doing what we need to make sure he stays that way."

Dave Sheppard made a wordless noise that was soothed by Jeannie Miller. Evan slipped out of his seat and moved toward them, figuring he could direct what was hopefully now only mop up operations, from Sensors as well as he could from Command.

"Go," he told the two of them.


Day 1466 AA
Lab Designate 42
Atlantis

"Rodney."

For just a moment, Rodney froze, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to think. Nothing could keep his brain off-line for long, however. At the same time he began visualizing all of the variations of the worst-case scenario that could have unfolded (too many based on past experiences), his brain also nudged him to acknowledge that Teyla's voice, while grave, wasn't devastated. That neither Carson nor Aiden or Elizabeth had come with her. That no one was coming over to give him a hug in consolation or something. So John couldn't be dead.

Rodney let his lungs inflate, ignoring how shaky his breathing sounded. He then slowly turned around.

Teyla stood just inside the door. One of the few people he allowed into his private lab, she was also the one who never presumed upon that relationship. Currently she held his tac vest in her hands, was already kitted out for going off-world herself, missing only weapons. Like her voice, her expression was solemn, layered with concern and anticipation, and sympathetic understanding. Plus the strong, open affection that even now, after four years, Rodney had trouble believing he deserved.

As Teyla took further steps into the lab, Rodney began closing down the research he'd simply been ignoring for the last couple of hours. He'd come here after being kicked out of the Gate Room, and been as worthless here as in the gate room before Elizabeth had sent him away. He'd done no more than call up the details of several projects in succession, none of which had been able to hold his attention.

Part of his uselessness was because of his broken collar bone; while he could type left handed almost as quickly as he could with his right, he normally used both in everything, including talking. Even if he had been whole, however, he wouldn't have accomplished anything more in the gate room than getting in Chuck's way. All of them had simply been killing time while they waited further word from Larrin or John.

John, who had gone off without him, off to play Warlord and savior. Sure, Rodney looked to John for that almost as much as the rest of them, but he was also usually right at John's side, doing his own share of saving, only with his genius instead of dashing daring-do and mad pilot skills.

"He's not dead," Rodney spoke the words aloud as an immutable truth. As if saying it to someone other than himself would make it true. He had no hope that John wouldn't buy it somewhere out here, that any of them would live to retire and watch grandchildren become parents themselves, although Teyla was making a good try of it with Kanaan and Torren. After all they'd been through, all of the people who'd been lost and damaged beyond Carson's skills, Rodney didn't need the mission statistics and his revised actuarial tables to know that he and John (Elizabeth, Carson, Radek) had already exceeded the average life-expectancy of humans in the Pegasus Galaxy.

Although Teyla nodded as they met in the middle of the room and she began to help him with the vest, she was also biting her lip, which meant she didn't actually know. "John's ship was destroyed, along with two other puddlejumpers and Stars Journey."

Rodney sat down where he stood, barely catching the edge of a chair, barely able to direct his body before his legs just gave out. It was too much. John and Larrin?

How could they possible recover from that?

The agonizing tug on his shoulder as Rodney let his arm be pulled from its sling was no where near the depth of pain tearing through his heart. Ships, pilots, so many people that they couldn't afford to lose. Even if the toll hadn't included Larrin or Radek or John.

Teyla tugged him up and then moved until their foreheads were touching in her people's form of 'hello' or 'I am sorry', of 'thank you' and 'it will be okay'.

"Most of our people were rescued by a ship claiming to be from your home world," she whispered against his cheek, her tone full of wonder as well as wariness. "Most have made it on to the Alpha site, and the puddlejumpers are already bringing the most critically wounded to us. Ares came through first to pass on the information, and to gather a team to go meet this Earth ship in orbit around Lórien. It is everyone's hope that John, as well as a handful of others unaccounted for, is on the Earth ship."

Rodney stepped away as his brain suddenly replayed all that she'd said. "Is Radek accounted for? Wait a minute. From Earth?"

She nodded and offered him one of her quiet smiles, the one that could just as easily presage cautious optimism as optimistic caution, her Buddha wisdom too inscrutable for him to decipher even though he always felt warmed when he had to try. Rodney found himself echoing the same type of smile although he wasn't sure which of those sentiments he was feeling himself.

Optimism had never been a foundation of Rodney's character, certainly not before Atlantis and John and this tiny woman in front of him. John could still be lost. John could just as easily be alive, and wasn't it just like him, to personify Schrödinger's Cat.

Then there was the matter of a ship having arrived from Earth.

For himself, Rodney had given up on ever being able to return to Earth – to ever contacting Earth again (his data compression algorithm notwithstanding) – back around the fifth month after their arrival. They'd found no great treasure trove of ZedPMs, or any thing else that could give them enough power to extend the gate's reach back into the Milky Way. They'd also had no proof that anyone back there had received the data burst they'd sent just before the Wraith's first siege, no contact from Earth in return with their own miracle power source. A ship showing up from Earth at this point was much more likely the result of the IOA and the SGC deciding it was again time to try for the 'wonders' to be found in Pegasus, with little or no regard for what had happened to the original expedition.

He wasn't sure how he felt about reestablishing contact this long after being abandoned either. There was no question that the expedition members had 'gone native'; the members of military just as thoroughly as the rest of them. Atlantis had its own government and constitution now, had three times the number of inhabitants as they'd come over with, had two other entire worlds' populations living with them, and many of the laws or rules or even concerns that had mattered on Earth, held no meaning here.

He was suddenly envisioning John turning into another Buzz Aldren, brought home and feted as a hero, then pushed aside and lost because nothing could ever match the wonder of what they had here. That didn't even account for the fallout for Elizabeth and John in repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', along with many other of the fraternization rules of the UCMJ.

While Rodney couldn't picture himself happy to go back to Earth any better than he could John or Elizabeth, should it happen in spite of his wishes and expectations, he knew he could spend the rest of his lifetime doing many of the same things that kept him busy and content here. It would take an infinite number of lifetimes to study, understand and inevitably surpass the discoveries left by the Ancients. He'd been the foremost expert in Ancient technology even before he'd come here, so it wasn't like the SGC would ignore his contributions and value this time around with everything else he'd discovered.

He didn't expect that the SGC would allow him on field (rescue) missions like this, though.

Rodney followed Teyla as she led him directly to the jumper bay instead of the ready room. They past crowds of people, most of them looking as shell-shocked as Rodney was feeling, and all of them wishing them luck and prayers and all the other useless claptrap they had to offer. Only Rodney soaked it all up this time, for John's sake if not for his own.

Aiden was waiting with two 9mms as they entered, which he then handed one off to Teyla while he helped Rodney holster the other to the opposite side of where Rodney normally carried. Aiden then performed the usual checks of buckles and cinches and the overall fit of his vest and pack that John should have been doing, while Teyla buckled on her own weapons and got the checks from Bates. Rodney wasn't offered one of the shotguns they'd come up with to augment the dwindling stock of functional P-90s; he wouldn't be able to fire it due to his injury anyway and, considering that Aiden was sending along a full squad to accompany the team, it wasn't like an extra gun should be needed.

That squad of Marines and Irregulars weren't the only ones prepping and waiting for Teyla and Rodney's arrival. Elizabeth was there to see them off, of course, looking worried and hopeful and frustrated that Bates wasn't letting her go along, since this was supposedly about connecting back with Earth as much as a rescue mission. Elizabeth was never allowed on potentially dangers missions any longer, in part to keep her safe and in part because her long-term injury made her a liability, no matter how much they might have wished it different.

Keras appeared at the back of one of the two puddlejumpers being loaded, along with a pissed off and tear-streaked Ares. Ares was arguing, unsuccessfully it appeared, that he could go back out as the second rescue pilot.

It wasn't right, Rodney knew, to be pleased that Ares had survived at the expense of someone else. It wasn't as if he really liked the kid after all, and not just because Ares had once held a weapon on Rodney and his team and had been really, really eager to kill them. But John liked him (not just because Ares, like many of his brethren, had taken to Carson's gene therapy successfully and had become one of John's pilot wing). Keras liked him too, of course.

Anyone who successfully distracted Keras from his man crush on John was an ally in Rodney's book, in spite of knowing that neither Keras nor John would ever act on Keras' attraction. John thought of Keras as a little brother or maybe a son, and Rodney also knew that neither of them were the type who could cheat on their respective partners. None of that knowledge stopped Rodney from feeling jealous, though; John and Keras had a lot more in common than he and John did, the fifteen year age difference notwithstanding.

"Where is Carson?" Rodney asked when he took note of who was missing.

"He's taken his team over to the Alpha site to deal with the injured." Elizabeth relied on Ronon to help her over, once more having left her cane behind somewhere.

No doubt when the stargate activated unexpectedly and the word of disastrous encounter had come through.

Opening his mouth to protest, Rodney stopped, not needing the gentle hand on his arm from Teyla, the deepening frown from Elizabeth or the spontaneous growl from Elizabeth's dreadlocked shadow to keep him silent. With so many ships reported destroyed, of course there would have been injuries. There always was when they ran into the Toasters. Injuries and, all too often, deaths.

Rodney had been the first, in fact, to be attacked and scarred by one of the Toaster's energy weapons. Had been the second one hurt too by them too, along with Radek and Bates, when they'd successfully brought one of the aliens back to Atlantis, only to discover that the Toasters preferred to blow themselves up than be taken prisoner.

Statistically this new enemy had proven more deadly to the expedition than the Wraith, if he compared encounter versus encounter. The Wraith had the lead in total body count, but only because the expedition's fight against them had been going on three years longer.

"Right. So do we know anything about our saviors other than they're claiming to be from Earth?"

Bates scowled from where he was finishing assisting Teyla, his eyes shifting toward Ares who still stood with Keras. "The ship's called the Phoenix and it's under the command of Evan Lorne, who was a Major and a member of Colonel Edward's SG11 if it's the same man that some of us knew back at the SGC. He was an okay guy," Bates added as if the admission pained him; even after four years, hundreds of crises, and close-quarter interactions with each other, the number of people Eugene Bates actually trusted could be counted on his two gnarled hands. He liked even fewer. All but two of those people were standing in this room.

"Plus, there is someone on board who means quite a bit to John according to Ares' report. If we'd run across them on a planet, I'd think it was the Mist People all over again," Elizabeth offered, self consciously pushing back the silvered streak of hair that brushed across her cheek as she turned her head to offer Rodney a faint smile. "Wasn't running across a ship filled with the people they loved, a crappy Space 1999 episode?"

Not really a question since every expedition member could recite every line of dialogue from every piece of film they'd brought with them; one thousand two hundred and thirty-one movies, three thousand one hundred and fifty-six television episodes and specials, and five thousand, five hundred and sixty-eight sporting events. Bringing this episode up spoke to how nervous Elizabeth was that this was somehow a trick or simply wish fulfillment, however. It killed Rodney to see, once again, this evidence that she'd become as paranoid as the rest of them. Elizabeth was still their rock, their leader (voted such by near unanimous consent for the second time after proclaiming themselves a colony), but she was a far cry from the eager optimist she'd been when she'd first convinced the lot of them to follow her to Shangri-La.

"Why wouldn't your closest friends and family come for you, if given the opportunity?" Ronon rumbled from where he was letting Elizabeth lean against his body.

This wasn't the first time in the months since he'd been staying on Atlantis that Ronon Dex found the lack of ties most of the expedition had to their home world and especially to their families to be confusing. His dismay was understandable, considering Ronon's own circumstances: cut off from his home after having been culled and then marked and hunted for sport; eluding the Wraith for nearly eight years before his path had crossed with Atlantis and never having stayed anywhere for long lest he bring down the Wraith on anyone who might succor him.

"I imagine they would," Elizabeth twisted her head and gave Ronon the smile she seemed to reserve only for him, reminding Rodney to update his time frame of the two of them getting together in Chuck's Book.

"It's only that they wouldn't have the opportunity. Most of our world doesn't – well, at least didn't know about life elsewhere or about the Ancestral Rings, and we really don't – didn't – have a fleet of spaceships at our disposal."

Elizabeth seemed to be having trouble dealing with Earth past and Earth now, but Rodney knew he would do even worse in trying to explain families, and why no one on Earth knew about the stargates. He'd thought non disclosure was a stupid and short-sighted decision on the IOA's part. The amount of bad science still being encouraged because the real data and discoveries would make certain people unhappy and send the world into chaos –

Ignorant and negligently wrong was better?

"Few of our family members are part of our military or members of the governments who are aware of the realities of the universe. Our families wouldn't have been consulted or involved in a rescue, in order to keep those secrets." Elizabeth shrugged. "It's likely that if John's recognized someone, it was a fellow soldier, someone he served with prior to joining the expedition who must have joined the SGC after we left."

"His name was Dave," Ares offered as he and Keras joined the group. The kid still looked shaken, but all traces of tears had been scrubbed away before he came up to those he revered.

Rodney found it flattering when their allies pulled stuff like this, but also somewhat sad, much to his ego's surprise.

"The Warlord seemed shocked and… happy to hear him." Ares shrugged, bewildered. "Doug Flutie was mentioned between them, like some sort of recognition code."

That bit of information startled a laugh from Bates, Aiden and most of the lurking marines, while Elizabeth and Teyla's expression simply held fond exasperation and the other Pegasus natives looked on confused. Only John, who'd claimed the first time he'd shown that fucking football game, that it was the perfect metaphor for the expedition.

"Does any of this really matter?" he interrupted their brittle merriment. "It's a trap, a ruse, or the real thing. Until we meet with them face to face, we're just not going to know." He let his mouth slant downward. "Let's face it, that damn football game has been played often enough that even our allies know many of the details, and it doesn't take a genius like me to figure out that it meant something to John, especially with him being the one giving the prompt."

"Actually, it's a fucking crappy security question if you really think about it," Rodney scowled deeper, feeling his lips thin in anger and frustration. "Who's to say that the Genii couldn't have gotten a few names of people we know back on Earth from our people who've disappeared over the years? Sure, we've all been coached on giving up fictional names during interrogations, but wouldn't people we didn't think we'd ever see again serve just as well, and be easier to come up with when someone's shocking your testicles?"

"Rodney." Teyla caught his arm again and tugged, not going so far as to pull him into any version of her hug, but trying to comfort and caution him just the same. Elizabeth looked as discomforted as he'd ever seen her, while the rest either looked away or looked at him in sympathy; his penchant for thinking the worst and sabotaging his own happiness too well know for any of them to be appalled or angered by his pessimism.

"Hey Doc, let's hope for the best." Aiden punched him lightly in the arm above Teyla's hand, sounding and acting so much like his old self that Rodney had to roll his eyes.

Even more than Elizabeth, Aiden Ford had been their unassailable Pollyanna when the expedition had first arrived; had been so damn young and optimistic and just plain excited to be 'exploring brave new worlds'. More than Elizabeth or Stackhouse or Lindsay Biro, Aiden was also the one most altered by their life here in Pegasus, other than Bates. Rodney wasn't sure if those two could return to Earth without forcing full disclosure of the program.

Although, given the additionally resources of the SGC and their Milky Way allies, no doubt a synthetic form of the Wraith enzyme that Aiden took daily to stay alive could be created, just has they had done for Teal'c and the other Jaffa with the Tretonin. The scarring to his face and his eye? Well, plastic surgery could take care of quite a bit. So it was just Bates, aged so that he looked like his own father, who couldn't return. Who could, but only if he eschewed all contact with anyone who'd ever known him outside of the SGC, and what kind of life would –

Yeah, okay, dithering silently in his head wasn't serving any more purpose than ranting. Or listening to the others speculate over what everyone otherwise seemed afraid to move forward and discover.

Yes or no.

Dead or alive.

Damn Schrödinger's cat.


Day 1466 AA
Triage Center
Alpha Site P3N-556

Carson Beckett hated his job. While he'd never watched too many of the medical dramas many of his nurses and research assistants had been so fond of, he'd seen enough to expect his life to have been something like Doctor Finlay's country practice had he not decided to stay in research. Or something along the lines of the soap opera life of Gray's Anatomy. Never would he have predicted he'd become a lead in Casualty or, even worse, one of those in that old American show M*A*S*H.

"Sergeant," he called out sharply to one of the marines who wasn't currently pressed into corpsmen duties, "I need you to be getting back to Atlantis and have Doctor Biro give you more tylsa pills and all the slathyn we have."

The sergeant's "Yes, doctor," was nearly drowned out by the screams and shouts abruptly coming from one of the curtained off areas. Carson gave the sergeant an absent nod and shoved the last pot of slathyn into one of the volunteer's hands, for her to take over with Carson's current patient so he could go over and assist. Teyla's friend, Nico, was good, but she was also young and new to this calling. Especially in providing care to patients they'd already written off, despite the fact that she'd volunteered to oversee the Priority 4 cases.

While the sergeant disappeared out the tent flaps at a run, Carson dodged around the nearest beds, medics and corpsmen. He forced himself to ignore the quiet and not so quiet moaning and softly spoken reassurances that served as the soundtrack to this current drama. He also couldn't help but curse again at the very existence of the Wraith, despite the casualties this time around not being their fault.

Because the Wraith targeted advanced cultures before any others, too often the medical practices in the Pegasus galaxy were barely steps above the voodoo and shaman tricks that Rodney so often accused him of favoring. Medical advances such as modern equipment and manufactured pharmaceuticals were practically unheard of. Especially when those civilizations who might have such leanings were keeping quiet after the example the Wraith had made of Hoff.

Oh, how he could have used something as relatively simple as a burn recovery bed right now, Carson couldn't help thinking as he helped Nico calm the crewman who'd just regained consciousness. Or morphine. Or even Solpadeine. All of their Earth provided medicines were gone now, leaving him to treat too many injuries with little more than salt water, plant sap and tree bark.

Of course, even if Carson could have had a proper burn ward set-up, this poor soul wouldn't be able to use its benefits.

Accepting one more metaphorical lash against his back, Carson signaled the corpsman who'd also come in to assist to choke their patient out so they could reinsert the catheter of LR handling the fluid resuscitation. Keeping the dying man hydrated and unconscious was the only useful thing Carson could do for him.

It was quite the pity that for all of the technology Larrin and her Travelers had at their disposal, they didn't have the knowledge to do more than push a few buttons. Or that most of that very limited knowledge had come from trial and error (and kidnapping). Various members of the expedition were training the Travelers in how to properly fix their ships now, and how to deal with some of the inherent dangers shipboard life engendered, like recognizing radiation exposure, but advanced and on-going lessons were a luxury neither group could often afford the time to spend doing.

He shook off the bottle of water Nico tried to hand him when they got their patient resettled. Drinking, like deep breathing at the moment, would be tainted with the sickly-sweet taste of cooked flesh and, while Carson would not say drowning in blood smells would be better, it was more normal for him.

Maybe once he did rounds of the two other Priority 4 patients now that he was here –

"Carson!"

Oh, damn. That shout sounded like Radek's.

Nico nodded for him to go; he was the only Earth-trained doctor in the tent, with Carolyn in the emergency room they'd set up in the permanent structure nearby, handling the urgent cases while several of their field medics assisted. Carson felt that any triage should be his responsibility, one of his more onerous duties as the CMO, but not something he felt comfortable passing on to someone else.

He had the lay doctors like Nico and the two volunteers from Hoff with him, along with several other Athosians and Lóriens to act as nurses.

Nabeth was also moving to Radek's side when Carson breached the curtain. Ignoring the memories of Perna that wanted to resurface along with visions of another overflowing ward in seeing the Hoffan, Carson cast back to think if he had actually seen to Radek yet. Then remembered he had left Rodney's second with a green string around his wrist; one of the walking wounded, with burned fingers and a slice from his wrist to his elbow from a piece of shrapnel. Radek had been waiting for one of his engineers to regain consciousness; Eldon, who was another green string –

Dammit all to hell, Eldon was convulsing. Smoke inhalation didn't normally cause convulsions, but if it had included toxic chemical exposure, that was quite another kettle of fish.

"Nabeth, we'll need a tox screen," Carson ordered as the lay doctor forced an anti-convulsant through the syringe into Eldon's own ringers bag, one of the few local medicines they'd been able to produce much as it had been on Earth. They should have run the tests for toxic exposures right away, but with over twenty patients, they had neither the supplies nor the manpower to do so preemptively. Like most of his medical practice at this point, too much testing was held until after the patient presented with symptoms.

"Radek, what kind of toxins would Eldon have been most recently exposed to?" Carson knew Radek and Eldon had been overseeing Stars Journey test run after their repairs, but had had no information or interest before now in what type of systems they'd being repairing.

"Chlorides or fluorides, I would suspect. Maybe both." While Radek's eyes behind his oft-taped glasses were wide and distressed, he was holding Eldon steady so Nabeth could draw blood, with no regard to his own damaged hands.

Damn. They were already pushing pure oxygen into Eldon. "Were you exposed, too?"

Radek shook his head. "I monitored on bridge. But Eldon had three apprentices with him. One who is already black banded," he twisted his green stringed wrist toward the curtained off area Carson had just come from. "Also one with a red band –

In Carolyn's hands and most likely being prepped to make the next trip to Atlantis, assuming he wasn't already on his way.

"– and another green band. Who is… over there," Radek pointed to the left after a quick perusal of the fifteen or so beds surrounding them.

"I've got this one," Nabeth pushed Carson on like Nico had.

Carson's guilt ratcheted up another notch as he hesitated while considering whether to send Nabeth instead. He then shook himself and eased up from his crouch. As a doctor, he should be treating the strangers and not people he knew; even if he was the most skilled doctor here. Skill didn't matter if he was too emotionally involved to keep steady.

Carson knew that hesitation, the reason behind that hesitation, rather, was part of the reason for his current and ongoing malaise: burnout of the worst kind, no doubt coupled with a growing case of PTSD. Ninety percent of the time, his patients were not only not strangers, but people Carson called friends. His closest friends, in fact. He couldn't escape watching people he cared about getting injured or dying, sometimes under his own hands, because his job – because everyone in the expedition's jobs – were now not just something they did, but who they'd become.

There was never a chance to escape from the pressures and responsibilities of his job, not when every day was a life and death struggle. Even mandatory rest days accomplished little when everyone was still on call. Any trip off Atlantis meant always scanning the skies for the appearance of the Wraith, or, now, these buggered Toasters.

How many more lost today? Pilots, Travelers. Maybe Eldon. Maybe John. It was all just too much.

Only Carson would have to postpone his next regularly scheduled breakdown until he was finished here. Until he was back on Atlantis and his infirmary was cleared of patients, however unlikely that was to happen.

The Traveler's engineer wasn't presenting any additional respiratory symptoms, nor any of the neurological ones yet, but Carson wasn't going to take the chance. "I'm changing this woman and Eldon to priority red," he told Pelius, the acting nurse for this set of beds. "See if you can gather a couple of the marines to help carry her over to the ER."

"Yes, Doctor," the young Lórien nodded and snipped off the green cord, taking great care to put it away in a pocket of her smock after she'd looped one of her many knotted red ones.

Another patient for Carolyn, then for Atlantis, while the rest of Larrin's people stayed here at the Alpha site to await one of their ships to come pick them up. While they also waited for their three hopeless cases to die.

"That's it, Doctor Carson. We've seen to everyone," Pelius said, then stepped in front of him when Carson straightened with a creak in his back and knees, and began casting around for his next patient. "You need to take a break. Go outside and wash. Get some fresh air."

"I cannae – "

"You can and you will," Nabeth strode through the two rows of beds to back up Pelius. "We have things under control here. You must take a break. Unless you're going to send one of us with the jumper to the rendezvous with your people?"

Carson shook his head. "Fine. I'm going, and I'm going." He mustered a smile up from somewhere to show his appreciation for their concern. "Doctor Cole will be staying on until we can transfer all of these people to their new ship or back to Atlantis."

"Then I imagine Doctor Carolyn will be needing a break as badly as you, Doctor Carson." Pelius started gently pushing him toward the square of daylight that was blinding after working under the Ancient 'battery'-powered lights they'd brought with them. Lights that put out little better illumination than gas lamps and candles, but had lasted for ten thousand years and could go ten thousand more by Rodney's explanation, whereas their own battery-powered anything were basically dark.

"We will keep everybody comfortable and safe." Nabeth nodded.

Carson let himself be chivvied, even accepting the bottle of water thrust at him this time, though he still didn't think he was up to tasting anything yet. The contrast of light as he left the tent was indeed blinding, but the sky before him was fading to dusk. When he wiped the better-left unidentified fluids off of his watch face, Carson saw that almost four hours had passed since he and his trauma team had rushed through the stargate.

He'd performed many a surgery that had lasted longer, had even conducted triage for nearly twice as long as here in the past. He wasn't sure, however, if he'd ever felt as tired before now. Obviously, another symptom of burnout, of age, and of an adrenalin rush that was so quickly leaving him that he felt almost light-headed.

"You're supposed to be helping patients, Doctor, not becoming one yourself," Larrin scolded him as she joined and steadied him with a warm hand to his elbow.

"Aye, and how are you doing, luv?" Carson moved to pat her hand with his until he caught sight that he was still wearing his splattered gloves. He offered her the water bottle instead and stripped off gloves and his threadbare lab coat, casting about for one of the recycle bins to shove them into. Few resources, even medical ones, were disposable any longer.

"I have seven people missing, including Sheppard," Larrin scowled. "The captain of the Phoenix promised that they transported all of my crew off Stars Journey, but I had no time to complete the count on Athos or at the Gamma site." Larrin sighed. "I can hope they are all resting on the new ship, but I should lead a team to check both planets just in case someone got left behind."

"Let someone else do that," Carson suggested. Larrin had a green cord herself, another of the 'walking wounded', only he preferred that she stop with the walking. "We'll have Atlantis send out fresh people."

Larrin opened her mouth to protest, but then seemed to fall in on herself as the back of her knees came in contact with the bench Carson had been steering her toward. She dropped down with a sigh and a nod instead of an argument. In many ways, she was just like John, with a high pain tolerance and an aversion to doctors for anything she considered minor. Also like John, she took her responsibilities to her people very seriously, including not letting herself become a liability or a burden by ignoring her own injuries so that they grew worse.

"How many ended up needing evac?" Larrin finally asked, her voice sounding as tired and as beat up as she looked.

Carson frowned. "We just added two, so nine in total."

"And those too far gone?"

Carson didn't do her the disservice of promising that every patient currently alive would stay that way. His Priority 4 cases would likely have died even if he was still on Earth to be able to treat them. "Three."

Larrin nodded, eyes dry and chin firm; the face of a leader who couldn't afford to let her losses affect her.

The loss of Stars Journey would weigh the heaviest, Carson knew, not because Larrin didn't care about her people, but because to the Travelers, their ships were their homes and their children both, all precious, all vital to their survival.

"We'll come back for the bodies." A statement and a question both.

If Carson insisted, he knew Larrin would take all of her people home in the next day. Yet while they'd never resorted to abandoning any of their terminal people to the Wraith, as some civilizations did not just with their dying, but their criminals, they had few resources or space to care for the unproductive people in their society. Even their wee ones were fostered out to friendly allies until they were of an age to become apprenticed. Larrin, Carson had found out early in their acquaintance, actually had three children of her own being fostered.

"We will see to their comfort and make room for any of their family who wish to spend their last days with them," he offered her instead.

Another stiff nod.

"Carson?"

He was on his feet before he realized the new voice held none of the urgency that had kept at him earlier. Carolyn Cole came into his line of sight, looking as ragged as Larrin did, only streaked in blood instead of smoke. Yet she wasn't wearing the same blankness that would mean she'd also lost someone on her table.

"We've sent the worst on to Atlantis, and Doctor Weir requests your return. If you're still planning on heading to Lórien with Colonel Sheppard and Sergeant Stackhouse's teams," she brought him up to date. "If you'd rather keep at things here, I'll go in your stead."

Carson shook his head and let a little of the smile he always felt every time he heard or used that name himself show. The kids who'd once lived there had had no name for M7G-677 other than 'Home'. Neither designation had been particularly useful when referencing it with their allies such as the Travelers, for a rendezvous point.

It had been Radek who suggested Lórien, after hearing how the villages were housed amongst the forests, with many of the children's homes actually built up in the trees. Aiden had suggested Neverland, and Rodney, Logan Three or Nolan, but since the inhabitants were no longer killing themselves upon reaching the age of twenty-four, any reminder of that practice had been rejected by Elizabeth, even if the expedition members would have been the only one to understand those references. Ultimately Keras and the other 'Elders' picked Lórien out of a handful of names proposed, so Lórien it became. Personally, Carson thought Tolkien would have been proud.

"I'll send Silas and the handful of us still on their feet as additional escort," Larrin addressed Carolyn as she started to get to her own feet, allowing Carson's assistance only until she was upright, though she wasn't completely steady.

Ah, the need to always appear strong in front of your people, and especially outsiders. Again, another way she was just like John. Carson let her go, knowing that if she really needed it, one of her people would be there to help; the fondness and loyalty they felt for her was just as deep as the way the expedition felt for John and Elizabeth.

Carson followed Carolyn back into the triage tent, grabbing up his kit as she dragged off her surgical smock and gloves to recycle them as Carson had his own. What few lab coats and scrubs they had left were worn and faded, and they'd run out of surgical gloves sometime in the third year no matter how carefully they'd tried to ration and re-sterilize them for use in the less invasive procedures. There were several planets that wove replacement clothing they could trade for, even a couple that made rubber and cotton gloves. Nothing that gave the fine motor control of latex or neoprene, of course, but better than no gloves at all.

Most of the more advanced civilizations were overzealously protective of their technologies, as well as often resentful of the expedition's own technological development. Then there were those who found it sacrilegious or simply unfair that the Lanteans had made a home for themselves in the City of the Ancestors. The only way those societies were willing to trade was when the Lantean portion included weapons or people. Unfortunately, interactions with the Genii and the Olesians, with the Hoffans too, had made Elizabeth leery of offering even teachers. So certain items they'd thought they could never live without had become luxuries regardless. Like basic medicines. And surgical clothing.

"Is it true that Earth has made contact?" Carolyn asked as she now walked with him toward the gate. "Do you think they'll have medical supplies they can make available?"

Carson gave a little laugh and shook his head at himself. Here he'd been thinking about the Phoenix only in reference to having some of their people on board, without giving any more thought of them than as a hopeful ally. He'd been whining to himself about burnout and the inability to escape his job, about the lack of supplies and necessary equipment, but had thought only briefly about the possibility of returning to Earth for a very needed vacation, when he could actually just go back to Scotland. He'd also given no thought about what it might mean to have a restored pipeline – right now.

Maybe he was a burnout, but he was obviously a Lantean too. When, he wondered, had he stopped thinking of Earth as his home?

"Major Lorne from the SGC is captaining the ship that showed up to help rescue everyone, is what I've been told. The Phoenix," Carson confirmed for her.

"Evan Lorne from SG11?" Carolyn's face lit up, all of the lines of stress and fatigue disappearing, if only for a few seconds. "I worked with him during several field missions. I went on several dates with him too." She grinned. "No undying love between us, but we had a common interest in art, and I was a Benefactor of the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center while I lived there. We had free access over two hundred and seventy museums across the country and we spent a two week leave seeing just how many of them we could take in." She smiled to herself in fondness, then winked at Carson. "We only made it to seven of the nineteen on the West Coast."

"TMI, luv, TMI." Not that he didn't know just about everything about his people (and quite a few others), just as they knew all about him after four years of living in each other's pockets. Normally not about sexual encounters and rarely even names; he hadn't known about Evan Lorne in Carolyn's life at all, for instance. Yet Carson knew all of the pertinent details of Carolyn's residencies and fellowships, including the two years she'd spent working with Janet Fraiser directly at the SGC to pick up a specialization in xeno-haematology. Plus he knew the type of man Carolyn preferred to date, the type she liked to have sex with, and the type she still held out hope of finding and staying with the rest of her life.

It sounded like Evan Lorne had once fit two of Carolyn's three criteria. Carson found himself wondering if a reconnection from that kind of someone from Earth might give an unanticipated boost to the acceptability of the third. He and Kate, he feared, would need to be especially vigilant in keeping an eye out for understandable, but potentially inappropriate or harmful, trysts that could crop up over the next few weeks.

No doubt, there were going to be a few break-ups taking place too, as expedition members had a chance to return to the families and loved ones previously left behind. A fact of human nature (especially Earth humans), and a long established histories of consequences of overseas duty, predicted that many of their loved ones would have moved on, just as some of the expedition members had moved on too. There could also be any number of permanent losses of said family members, including his own mother, God protect and keep her, if the worst had happened in his absence.

Carson expected feelings of manic-depression to be common for the next few weeks. At least he'd probably be able to get his hands on the meds to treat it now.


July 27, 2008
Phoenix Medical Bay
On approach to M7G-677

Normally Jennifer Keller loved her job. She'd known as a child that she'd grow up to become a doctor, and had been lucky enough to have the encouragement from her family to pursue her dream. That she'd also had a little bit of luck in the intelligence and drive department to make the actual studying relatively easy, had also helped. As had the institutions willing to gamble on a seventeen-year-old making it as a first year medical student, and had provided her with financial assistance to cover what the grants hadn't. Being recruited later by the SGC had simply been the gravy on top of her internship at the Mayo Clinic and her residency at Princeton-Plainsboro; not only giving her the opportunity to practice her skills but to pass on some of her good fortune. And to make a difference, literally, in out of this world locales.

When Samantha Carter had approached her about joining the recovery mission to Pegasus, Jennifer had jumped at the chance. She'd been four years with the SGC by then and, while not a complete stranger to going off-world, she'd been uncomfortable while participating in field missions, always scared and too timid. While no one had ever pushed her to joining one of the teams, she knew that that was the future; that was where she'd be needed as more and more worlds and allies fell prey to the Ori, their plagues, and their proselytizing. Her lack of confidence made her a liability, something she was keenly aware of even if no one ever gave her a bad time about having to look out for her.

As a strong advocate of immunologic desensitization, Jennifer figured that joining the crew of the Phoenix instead of hiding under the Mountain until the next crisis came along, would be a good step toward overcoming her fears and gaining the necessary experience to be useful.

Traveling in a spaceship was the coolest thing she'd ever done, including going through the Stargate and meeting her first alien. That view from the bridge, seeing Earth rotating below her feet; it really had been just like the opening scene in Star Wars, only so much more, somehow. No matter how amazing Hollywood special effects were, the sheer awe and grandeur of seeing it for real had been simply overwhelming.

Having said spaceship get involved in a space battle wasn't exactly the kind of experience she'd been hoping for, however. On the other hand, dealing with its aftermath was exactly why she was here. The few injuries sustained by her own crew had been manageable, for the most part easily treated and none life-threatening; a nice change of pace given the normal circumstances that took her out of her lab.

At the SGC, she'd gotten used to knowing her patients, but there was a reason she wasn't part of Carolyn Lam's staff, treating her fellow members of the SGC on a day-to-day basis. So far, that aspect of her duties here on Phoenix hadn't been too stressful or onerous, although had someone she thought of as a friend been seriously endangered, she probably wouldn't be quite so sanguine about it. Just thinking about what Carson Beckett and his people would have had to deal with over the last four plus years made her shudder. She feared she wouldn't have been able to handle friends as patients, had she been part of the initial expedition.

It was hard enough dealing with Dave and Jeannie, who were only sitting vigil with the pilot they'd been able to rescue. Her coming to know them so well over the last few weeks, and knowing now that Dave's brother was the pilot who'd nearly died from explosive decompression, had been made it even harder; she had needed to send Scotty out to let them know, because she hadn't been able to face them before she could tell them the pilot would recover. She should join them now, she knew, should offer what comfort and reassurances she had, to make up for her earlier cowardliness.

While Jennifer had no doubt that her presence had been the difference between life and death for the pilot – for Major Sheppard – she still felt guilty over her initial reactions. The major had probably known better than her what he'd needed to do when his ship had come apart around him, and no doubt that was what had kept him alive until she'd rallied herself. The Air Force trained their pilots in handling explosive decompression, while Med school had treated it as an intellectual exercise, like an extra credit project and something that would likely never come up. Vacuum exposure, on the other hand, wasn't generally part of the deal for either of them, not unless Major Sheppard had once been a NASA candidate.

The major's lungs hadn't been the total mess they could have been, though they'd been bad enough. So she knew he hadn't tried to hold his breath when his oxygen disappeared. His "time of useful consciousness" as the Air Force rated it after a decompression incident, had to have been mere seconds, but long enough for the major to keep his head and take the steps his training had prepared him for, and Jennifer was damn grateful.

She'd hadn't puked like Scotty had when the major had been beamed directly into the medical bay, and had already had a hyperbaric chamber made ready from the moment Major Lorne's alert about the pending battle had come over the comms. She'd expected any decompression or vacuum exposures to be due to hull breeches in her own ship, though, and having a stranger literally beamed onto her floor had thrown her for a few crucial seconds. But she'd then recovered and broke it down into individual injuries, the bleeding out and the serious burns, the hypoxia, the onset of the bends as well as incipient frostbite and hypothermia. In the end she had done everything exactly right.

In the end, she'd also known it wasn't going to be enough, and that was what had had her refusing to face her friends, then and now.

In the end, it hadn't been her skill and anticipation, hadn't mattered that the major's training or luck had kept John Sheppard alive. Instead, it had taken a piece of technology that might as well be magic. It had taken another's luck and miracle that, months ago, one of Carter's Marines had volunteered to be a Tok'ra host, simply to get the ability to use the damn Goa'uld healing device as a last resort to save one of his men.

Jennifer stopped by Lieutenant Kemp's bed now, checking that he was still simply sleeping off the strain of bringing Major Sheppard back to life, instead of falling prey to some sort of feedback distress. All seemed well, though, Niall curled up under the blankets and sleeping easily, with a little smile on his face that Jennifer couldn't help echoing as she tucked the foot back onto the bed that had slipped off.

It was funny, but now that they'd gotten Major Sheppard cleaned up, to her, Niall looked more like his brother than Dave did; a little brother, of course, since there was probably fifteen years between them. It was obvious that each real Sheppard brother favored a different parent: Dave fairer in coloring and stockier in build, fit because he worked at it instead of having John's natural lean inclination. In Dave, Jennifer had seen the breeding and money and manners from the very first which, to be fair to John, might be there too in him, noticeable once she could interact with him.

Yet no matter if she found Dave elbows deep in engine parts trying to help Jeannie, or tearing around with Maddie and the other children, trying to channel their claustrophobic boredom and, no doubt, his own into something less disruptive, you could tell that Dave Sheppard would never be a comfortable jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. Even after too many tense hours on the bridge with basically nothing to do but worry, Dave had looked well put together when he'd come into Jennifer's domain. Had looked groomed and in control… reliable.

Although it was his own brother who'd nearly died and he was not the kind of man who wouldn't turn to a woman for comfort, Dave had also been appealingly solicitous of Jeannie and her emotional state on his behalf, instead of just being lost in his own. As her dad would have said, Dave Sheppard was the type of guy Jennifer's Mamma would have wanted to see her bring home and fall in love with.

John Sheppard, or more fairly, Jennifer supposed, Niall Kemp (since he was the one she actually knew), was the type of man her parents had warned her against. Spontaneous and undisciplined (remarkably so for being in the military), full of sarcasm and not just attractive, but what Mamma had called a heart-breaker. Jennifer realized she was obviously comparing their personalities based solely on what little she'd heard the major say on the message buoy, but coupled with the similarities between John and Niall in their physical appearance, it was hard not to imagine other mirrored traits.

A lot of it was the hair, of course, the 'style' as well as the coloration, so much darker and unkempt than Dave's. And the obvious laugh-lines, there despite the circumstances of the last few years and the touches of gray peppered throughout Major Sheppard's hair, were also akin to the ones Niall teased her with; their depth and positioning screaming charmer and smart-ass and –

"Doctor? Jenny?"

Jennifer jumped a little and snatched her hand back guiltily from where she'd been smoothing Niall's hair back from his forehead; it'd need cutting soon to stay on the generous side of regulations. "Yes, Scott," she turned to the orderly, aware that she was probably blushing.

So was he, still obviously embarrassed about the puking incident. "The major, Major Lorne," he corrected at her quirked brow – they had two of them now to be concerned with after all, "is on his way down from the Bridge."

No doubt checking up on his people and their guest, certainly not checking up on her although she'd still had that being-called-before-the-principal-or-the-review-board knee-jerk reaction to the news. Knowing that Evan was comfortable enough to leave the bridge was actually a good thing, though, had to mean that he was confident the danger to the ship had passed and that was definitely a good thing.

Out of danger, at least, until they arrived at their next destination in what was no longer a wild-goose chase, but something more akin to a treasure hunt, moving from clue to clue with Atlantis being the prize at the end.

"Would you mind seeing if the Commissary would send down something for, say five or six?" she asked Scotty. "I doubt Major Lorne has eaten anything lately. I know neither you nor Patrick have, and it's probably the same for Jeannie and Dave. Since I'm going to have to order them out to sleep, I might as well not be a witch about sending them away to eat before then."

"Lucky that I did skipped dinner," Scott agreed. "But not so good for you, since I'm thinking you skipped lunch too?" He lost his smile. "You've also been on duty since before we arrived in the Athos system, Jenny. I don't suppose you'd consider leaving the patients to your on-call staff and getting some sleep once you've eaten?" he hinted gently.

Jennifer looked off toward the private room she'd been avoiding, and shook her head. "I'll try to catch a nap in my office, but I think I'd better stay around through what's left of the night. Appropriating one or two of the corpsmen is a good idea, though, so you and Patrick can take a break. I will make that an order if I must," she then threatened, although she knew that neither of her staff were intimidated by her in the least; out of necessity, they'd become too close to properly maintain the clear lines of boss and subordinate.

There should have been more than just the three of them. The renowned surgeon out of John Hopkins, Doctor Simon Wallace, had been slated to head the small department they had here, with his wife acting as the head nurse, and Jennifer and Patrick then as their back-ups and Scott one of two orderlies. Only Allysa Wallace had had an attack of conscience at the last minute – while they'd been in orbit around Earth in fact, and just about ready to head off. She'd been the one to point out to her husband as well as to Evan Lorne, that because Simon had once been Elizabeth Weir's fiancée, his presence on the mission would taint any contact with expedition, whether Doctor Weir had also moved on with her life or not. And if Doctor Weir had not moved on, if she was instead holding on to her hope and her sanity just for the chance to see Simon again, well seeing Simon with his new wife could be a blow worse than being abandoned for more than four years by Earth.

So Simon and Allysa had been beamed back down to the SGC, leaving Jennifer in charge of a team of four, as well as a handful of corpsmen pulling double duty as security too. They'd never intended to run dual shifts in Medical, even when Simon and Allysa had been in charge of the staff. The ship's compliment was small enough and, supposedly, the danger scarce enough, that none of them had envisioned a single patient needing twenty-four hour care in the month or so they would be traveling. They'd certainly never envisioned a room full of patients, serious conditions or not. So she had Scotty, Patrick and Elaine, plus the three Air Force corpsmen and one Navy medic to figure out a schedule for now, eight of them with differing levels of skills and experience, augmented by probably that many soldiers again, who'd had some field medicine training to be able to call upon in an emergency. And then there was Niall, with his Goa'uld healing device, if things really went to hell –

Niall started stirring under the hand that had found its way back to the side of his face again. Jennifer backed away a couple of steps this time when she removed it, knowing she was blushing furiously again and knowing she was undoubtedly in for some teasing once things weren't quite so intense in here. She shooed Scotty off to forage for sustenance and made herself take the steps toward Major Sheppard's room, knowing that without further intrusions, Niall would stay asleep until morning. The lieutenant hadn't hosted the Tok'ra symbiote for more than a few days and it was well documented by Janet Fraiser first, then Carolyn Lam's continued studies, that short-term hosts had more trouble with headaches and general malaise after using the mentally-operated Goa'uld tech.

Before joining the crew of the Phoenix, Jennifer had had an open proposal before Colonel Carter to study the similar type of interface with ATA gene carriers and mentally-activated Ancient tech to see if they could find ways of easing the tech hangovers for former hosts – and for reluctant gene carriers like Carson Beckett. Since they had a scarcity of former Goa'uld hosts or current Tok'ra hosts to work with, both the returned Vala and Sam Carter being too busy in their undertakings against the Ori to spend time being test subjects, Jennifer had been left with only the slightly larger number of ATA gene carriers – four now left at the SGC since the Atlantis expedition had scooped up the majority of them – to draw upon. Along with a war that needed every advantage they could come up with, including fusing people and tech together for far longer time frames than was healthy.

Until she'd been given the 'don't let Mr. Sheppard know about his own ATA gene' command, Jennifer had been hoping to conduct a few tests on board ship with Dave to just that end –

The door opened before she'd pressed the sensor, Jeannie Miller coming out of it looking distressed and relieved all at once.

"He's waking up," she clutched at Jennifer's hand and began tugging her forward, not that Jennifer needed any prodding.

The work done by the hyperbaric chamber, and the initial pass by the healing device had kept Major Sheppard alive. They had been able to repair a significant amount of the damage to his body, though he still needed one or two more sessions with the healing device to actually be called cured, Jennifer expected. At the moment, the major still had first and second-degree burns over his hands and up his left arm and side of his chest, along with frostbite across the tips of his fingers, nose and uniquely pointed ears. He was also still at risk for reoccurring symptoms of decompression sickness. All relatively easy to treat and non-life threatening, as long as he was looked after, but also all carrying significant amounts of pain along with the damage.

Jennifer could administer only light sedatives at this point, however, due to the potential for cardiac arrhythmia from the remaining and earlier stresses his body had undergone. She'd basically been hoping that the same type of feedback hangover that had knocked Niall out would have kept Major Sheppard under for much longer himself, but apparently in that, she'd hoped in vain.

When Jennifer moved past Jeannie into the room, Dave Sheppard was trying to keep his brother from thrashing, being careful to touch as little of the burned area on the major's shoulder as he could. The various monitor lines were thrashing too, the beepings muted, however, because Jennifer found their noises invasive and panic inducing all on their own. As she expected, Patrick and Scotty both were only a few seconds behind her, and between the three of them they got the major calmed down and sedated again without him ever having completely regained consciousness.

It would take a bit longer, she suspected, to get Dave and Jeannie calmed down. Not to mention leveling out her own heart rate.


Day 1467 AA
Puddlejumper Four (Secretariat)
Lórien (M7G-677)

Rodney made himself release the breath he was holding as Keras directed the puddlejumper away from the gate and up into a gradual orbit. It was foolish to expect something to go wrong. Intellectually, he knew it was impossible for the jumper to fail as it had their first time here. The ZedPM that had powered the shield that had brought their first jumper down so long ago, after all, was happily powering Atlantis now, and nothing short of his own genius would be able to cobble up something else to substitute the absolutely most critical (and, therefore, the most rare) component in so much of the Ancient's abandoned technology.

Intellect, even a genius one, couldn't always overcome irrational fear and emotion, however. Nor was it as if Rodney journeyed to Lórien often enough to get over his conditioned response in some sort of aversion therapy. The first time he'd come through this planet's Stargate, their jumper had crashed and he'd nearly died. That wasn't something his body was going to let him forget, no matter how peaceful and abandoned the planet was now. His refusal to return here unless it was absolutely necessary was less because of that first time though, than because it had become one of the primary rendezvous points between Atlantis (John) and the Travelers (Larrin). That additional aversion wasn't something particularly rational either, but genius was allowed its little quirks. And was allowed to feel jealous over two of the many other people who wanted to get into John Sheppard's pants.

Because Teyla was the one who noticed his, perhaps, slight case of hyperventilation, and it was her hand that squeezed his, Rodney didn't bluster, glower, or even feel all that embarrassed. Other than John, no one knew Rodney better than Teyla, not even Carson, Elizabeth or Radek (certainly not his sister). The three of them were Team, with a capitol 'T', and every bit as close and indispensable as SG1 had ever been. Closer and better, in fact, as they weren't going around switching or adding new members every few years.

Although John was making noises about adding Ronon sometime in the future. Rodney figured that was more Elizabeth clinging to the outdated protocol that teams should have four members, than John's own idea. Not that Rodney would necessarily object to another person whose main purpose would be to keep the three of them alive. Out of all of the surviving Satedans, soldiers all, Ronon was actually the least scary and the most personable, despite having been a Runner.

Maybe it was John's idea, now that Rodney thought about it. With Ronon recently having lost his old Satedan teammates through betrayal and the Wraith, it was possible he was looking for new people he could trust. There also weren't too many people who could claim to be part of the I-survived-a-Wraith-feeding-club (outside of the crazy Wraith worshipers). Rodney understood why John might be reaching out despite there being an unstated thing between John and Aiden that John would prefer that the team go out as a trio than ever try to replace Aiden's place on it.

"Rodney, what can we expect from your SGC?" Teyla asked, proving once again she could read his mind.

For one, he didn't see the SGC being happy to learn that all of the teams had locals like Teyla as members, as did the security forces and John's air wing. Or that the Athosians and Keras' people, some of the surviving Hoffans, the few remaining Satedans, plus handfuls of many other peoples from many other culled worlds were an essential part of Atlantis' operations.

"After a four year absence, I have no idea," he answered truthfully. "Once upon a time they never would have abandoned us, but by the time the expedition left, Earth was fighting wars on several fronts and fighting amongst themselves – the countries that paid for the SGC's existence, that is. They had ships that could have made the journey, but only a few of them, so they might not have been in a position to send any of them away from protecting Earth. I'm more concerned with why they've come now, frankly, than why they've come at all."

"Are they a threat to Atlantis?" And to John and the missing Travelers, she didn't ask, but Rodney heard in her tone anyway.

He shrugged. Teyla wasn't the only one waiting for his answer, of course. A couple of years ago he might have couched his words a little more, but at this point he felt it far better that his people understood the worst instead of offering comforting and meaningless platitudes.

"If they've come to take us home, Elizabeth and John aren't going to allow that," he spoke with full confidence. While most of their contingency plans for this type of scenario hadn't been updated in a few months, they still had plenty of safeguards already been put in place to keep them autonomous, even from Earth.

"We're not going to stop anyone who wants to go back from doing so," Rodney waved his hand generously; he expected two or three at most would request leaving – and no one was going to miss Kavanagh. "But there will also be conditions set in place for the folks that just want to return for a visit and come back to Atlantis. We'll make sure that our people are going to know up front if coming back is going to pose a problem."

He was pleased to see the reassured glances, remembered that Teyla also knew all of this already, and that she had simply asked in order to ease the fears of the others, including Rodney's.

"And if they've come to take Atlantis," Rodney then couldn't help but add, "I think we all know how well that will go over."

The Wraith and the Genii had tried to do so several times, and had had their asses handed to them in return. Usually in itty-bitty pieces, at least when it came to the Wraith. Rodney knew that John hadn't actually given any kill-on-sight orders against the Genii despite having every reason to do so, yet Atlantis wasn't in the business of taken prisoners anymore, either. For the most part, they thwarted whatever the Genii were up to, like on Harmony's planet, then dumped the survivors back through the gate. No more prisoner exchanges or ransoms; storming the Bastille had proven a lot more effective as a way of getting their own people back, and was imminently more satisfying.

Cowen, at least, had seemed to have given up on getting his hands on Atlantis, after the thing with Kolya, John, and the Wraith that John had ended up naming Todd. Over the last couple of years, the Genii had gone after only soft targets, and had found those about as unsuccessful as their direct attacks had been; Atlantis had made a lot more allies at this point than the Genii had. The Genii were still a credible threat to the teams on the uninhabited planets (Atlantis didn't have the manpower to send out a backup squad with every exploration or recovery mission), but it wasn't like the Genii had significant resources for monitoring or exploring empty planets either.

Kolya and Cowen had to be concerned that if they returned to direct attacks instead of sneaking around and using mercenaries to try and kidnap Lantean personnel, at some point John was just going to snap and give the coordinates to Genii up to Todd as payback. John wouldn't, Rodney knew, but if they ever hurt John like that again, he would.

"Do we have any idea how long we're going to be waiting for Phoenix to arrive?" one of the marines asked.

Despite it being four years and everyone left alive from the initial expedition now being like some sort of extended family, Rodney still didn't know the names of all of the soldiers. He had gotten better, though. He knew the ones who could put in some useful time in the labs doing things other than supplying manual labor. Overall, he relied on John and Teyla for the others' names; not that anyone really took exception to his lapse in memory anymore. To be given a made up name by Doctor Rodney McKay was something of a cache, like a badge of honor. Who was he to take away something like that, that made people happy?

The other thing that Rodney had mellowed about over these last years, was berating people for asking stupid questions. Not that this one was stupid per se, but it should have been covered in Aiden's initial briefing before they'd ever left Atlantis, and that was something that Rodney never forgave: sloppy research. Or willful neglect because you expected someone else to cover for you. Too many things could happen to the man standing next to you, for you not to know the basic parameters of the task or mission at hand.

"Obviously we do not," he snapped. "Did you forget to go to the bathroom before you left, or is that what you were doing instead of listening to your briefing? Once Aiden – "

"Rodney."

"Fine," he let Teyla stop him. "For those of you who missed that day in class, it would take a puddlejumper about seventy hours to make the trip from Athos to Lórien without using any stargates. Ships with hyperdrive would take about a tenth of the time, or seven hours, give or take, which means we'll get to experience each other's charming company for another two hours at least – "

"I'm picking up a ship on sensors now," Keras called back from the cockpit.

No, that was too soon for a 303 like the Prometheus. Fuck. He should have asked what kind of ship Phoenix had been, but then realized it was unlikely that even Radek could have made the identification. He rushed up from his bench seat next to Teyla, to take over the chair directly behind Keras in the cockpit. Fortunately for his sake, the marine who'd been sitting there didn't hesitate moving out of Rodney's way.

Shrinking down the 303 schematics he'd been reviewing, Rodney quickly started up an interface between his laptop and the data from the HUD that was now presenting itself at Keras' command. While they normally only ran into Toaster fighter craft, they'd seen a larger ship leaving the vicinity of engagements in the past. And given even their fighters were hyper capable, it stood to reason the capital ship would be, that it could have better hyperspace engines than the Asgard had, and wouldn't that be a kick in the balls. The Ancients had had such a system, as they'd found out with the <<>>, and the Wraith were desperate for that advanced technology. If the Toasters and the Wraith ever joined up – or the Wraith proved more successful in keeping a Toaster prisoner and were able to use their mental coercion on one of them, Atlantis – Earth – could be so very screwed.

Not a Toaster, though, according to the readout. Not of Wraith design either; the puddlejumper would have immediately identified it as such, just as Teyla would soon be able to tell if there was even a Wraith present aboard someone else's ship.

That didn't leave them too many options.

Rodney hadn't considered that the SGC might have sent a crew out on an alien ship, like an Al'kesh or something, and he really should have. Something smaller than a 303, but still with Asgard or similar technology, could have entered hyperspace much closer to Athos' orbit, and come out of hyperspace much closer to Lórien, shaving off at least an hour. And he'd just assumed they would have remained in Athos space for some time after the Travelers and Lantean team departed through the gate, to check for stragglers, but maybe not, which could have accelerated their arrival here even more.

Rodney had intended to hack into one of the backdoors he'd installed when he'd worked on the 303 program, just in case, but this was no 303, and his specifications on Goa'uld ships were back on Atlantis. So he needed new contingencies; even if this ship was their SGC 'savior' it didn't guarantee they would be completely benign.

He trusted that Keras had them cloaked, yet confirmed it through his laptop since actually asking could undermine everyone else's confidence – or make them think he had no confidence in Keras. But cloaking fields failed, and sometimes simple procedures did get ignored in the overload of doing everything else. Of course, just because the jumper was nominally invisible didn't mean they weren't going to be found, too. While to date they hadn't found a sensor technology that could penetrate the jumper's cloak, Rodney certainly didn't expect that to hold forever (he and Radek almost had their own work around finished, after all).

So far, though, it appeared that they were unobserved. At least until they reactivated the stargate, which was how the Wraith always found them.

His laptop began sending him an outline of the incoming ship, its composition and shape, the number of life forms on board and, yes, power configurations that he recognized as something similar to one he might have put together years ago. No doubt Samantha Carter's hand was in this design, crude and inelegant, but sturdy and useful in its own way. Not that he'd trust eve Sam unverified. Not that he was going to suggest that Keras to drop the shield yet, or even establish contact.

Yet if it was Phoenix, John should be over there.

Why in the fuck hadn't they established some sort of recognition protocol or code word for this type of situation? Mentioning Doug Flutie was all well and good after you've already made contact and they know where you're hiding, but –

Oh.

His fine-tuning of the sensors showed him that the unknown ship was the one already broadcasting, not a directed radio transmission and not a radar ping, but instead a simple set of numbers looped in continual repeat. He had set up the protocol for this, just without consciously being aware of the fact. His genius in action even without his brain directing it.

2, 3, 5, 11, 23, 29, 41, 53, 83, 89 … 2, 3, 5, 11, 23, 29, 41, 53, 83, 89 …

The first ten Sophie Germain primes. Someone was using a similar signal to the one he'd left three years ago over Lantea.

"It's them," he let out a breath of relief. "That's Phoenix."

"Signaling them now," was Keras' response, with not even a hint of a question that Rodney would be wrong.

Rodney really liked about John's Flight Second.

John, himself, would have smirked out an 'are you sure?', not because he doubted Rodney, but simply to piss with him instead. Because it was fun to wind each other up. Because compliments or even acknowledgments about each other's abilities were not how they interacted.

While Rodney had been busy with the new sensor data, Teyla had moved up into the cockpit too. It was funny how neither of them tended to ride in there when someone other than John – or Rodney – piloted. She was all cautious smiles now. Not ready to assume that nothing would go wrong, yet willing to believe that things would be good.

Rodney had never quite reconciled how to do that, although he was the first to recognize how often that trait in Teyla had gotten their team out of deep shit. It was John's job to be paranoid and protective, Rodney's to complain and to find or figure out the source of whatever reading had brought them there, while Teyla made nice with the natives – or gave them that first warning when things were about to turn to shit. Missions didn't always work like that, of course, but like with her ability to sense the Wraith in advance, Teyla's faith, for the lack of a better word, often gave them their needed advantage.

"Phoenix, this is Secretariat. Do you copy?" Keras had all the pilot-speak down pat, more because of his incessant movie watching than from anything John or one of the few other Earth-born pilots had taught him. Keras didn't even stumbled over the stupid race horse names John had given each of the puddlejumpers, well, except for when he was piloting War Admiral himself. But that flaw was because Keras (and Ares, along with most of the other people who also called John Warlord) thought that because of it's name, Jumper Four should be John's. War Admiral. Only John preferred Jumper Two, Gallant Fox.

Rodney complained frequently about the worthless amount of trivia that John knew; choosing the Triple Crown winners as names because they had initially found eleven gateships and there had only been eleven horses who'd won all three races… Okay, maybe there weren't that many famous elevens, and naming them after movie characters wouldn't have been any better, but there was a long tradition in naming ships, and some classic fictional names just being ignored –

Shit! By all accounts, Gallant Fox had been destroyed this time around, as had two more of their little jumper fleet. Sure, they'd managed to get their hands on some beyond the initial eleven (which was fortunate considering they'd lost six of the original ones just in their first year on Atlantis), thanks to the Lord Protector's ignorance and the Taranians' generosity, but losing one of the first ones now was like losing a member of the expedition in some ways. Like losing a piece of Atlantis herself.

John would end up moping about it. Mourning the loss of his people more, of course, but even Radek, as the jumpers' chief mechanic, had shown an unnatural affinity to the Fox over the years. So Rodney would be forced to listen to their pining. Yeah, okay, the Gallant Fox had been the first – the only puddlejumper he and John had had sex in. Because who didn't enjoy giving or receiving a blow job? Rodney was also all about indulging and being indulged in a few harmless fantasies. Steel bulkheads and chairs that didn't recline were hard on the body, however, and someone had to be consciously connected to a jumper for it to fly, as the Ancients' idea of an auto-pilot, wasn't. Plus, Rodney wasn't an exhibitionist, while the jumper (and Atlantis) was too much of a voyeur already. And for John, doing it while the jumper was on the ground might as well have been them doing it in a storage closet, which had it's own appeal, but for the most part, they'd both outgrown the find the nearest door or wall faze –

"Secretariat, this is Phoenix. We read you, but we do not see you, " a nice, bland voice responded to Keras' hail. "Are you our rendezvous? "

"Do you have our package?" Rodney countered before Keras could answer.

"Jesus, Mer, is that you?"

Holy fuck. Holy fuck!

"Jeannie?"

It was that goddamn Space 1999 episode.

Rodney studied the data unspooling on his laptop again as if the flicker of life signs it showed could actually confirm that one of them was his sister. Or which one was John's.

Keras twisted in his seat. "Doctor McKay, do I uncloak?"

"Mer, you have cloaking technology? " Jeannie whined when she overheard the unguarded transmission.

"Well, you have beaming technology," Rodney snarled right back, caught too off guard to mind his words or tone. Teleportation tech which, fuck me again, meant that if they did uncloak, the other ship could beam their whole party on board – supposedly how they'd 'rescued' John and the other pilots in the first place, beaming John on board and beaming the Toaster pilots away. If this was some sort of elaborate hoax by toxic aliens or mist people, they were truly and deeply fucked.

"No, don't uncloak yet," Rodney warned, not caring if he was overheard, though he did then cut off their radio transmission. If Phoenix had any good sensor operators themselves, they may have already closed in on Secretariat's proximity with the first transmission, regardless of the cloak. They could certainly perform random sweeps and get lucky, now that it had been confirmed they were here.

Rodney again shrunk down the computer window he'd been using to pull up another.

The teleportation tech had to be Asgard; everyone's was a derivative at least, and rings only worked in pairs. Prior to Rodney leaving Earth, the SGC had yet to come up with an effective way to block the Asgard from beaming into or out of Cheyenne Mountain, and Rodney certainly wasn't going to be able to conjure up something himself in the next few minutes. Breaking down and reconstituting matter, though, took an inordinate amount of energy, and that was something he might be able to take control of. He was confident that he knew Sam Carter's work well enough to hack anything she might have come up with. Plus, and strictly to keep up his skills, he'd already written a few back doors into some of the protocols the SGC used as a standard. Had used.

He was a more leery of something his sister might have put together, yet figured she would have used some of Sam's shortcuts herself, since four years previous, Jeannie hadn't known that alien space ships existed. Theory was all fine and good, but actual implementation on real, honest to god physical objects was something quite different. As Sam had pointed out to him quite painfully in their first meeting.

There was no way Jeannie could be better at him in this, not when his skill had been a matter of life and death pretty much every waking and, too often, sleeping moment of his current life.

Now, if it wasn't Jeannie for real, the enemy inhabiting Phoenix had either impossibly good intel, or they were reading and influencing his (and everyone else's) minds. Meaning, he'd be trying to out program himself. Which really meant that they were screwed, no matter what he did.

A quick glance up showed the rest of his crew watching him, waiting for his genius to take action, Keras and Teyla patiently; the others, not so much. Still, Aiden's people weren't questioning this being his call, not even the idiot one from before. He was Command Staff – well, so was Teyla. But this involved Earth, so it was obviously up to him with how they'd proceed.

He turned the transmitter back on, because sometimes he could recognize insane paranoia for what it really was. If these were telepathic aliens, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it from here. He'd take the bet, however, on his chances of being able to fight back once he was there amongst them. The devil was always in the details, and he'd defy anyone being able to outthink his brain long-term.

Surprisingly so, (or maybe not, because Jeannie really was almost as smart as him), the radio wasn't squawking at them, or asking stupid questions like why they'd lost radio contact. No one was making demands that they answer or show themselves. Surely the SGC had run up against this type of problem themselves; the guy captaining Phoenix was supposed to not just be some kind of soldier, but formerly on one of the teams. Even if Jeannie hadn't figured it out, the captain should have understood the Lanteans ' hesitancy.

On the other hand, if John was there, was okay, this confusion should have already been cleared up. Rodney didn't want to think about why it hadn't.

"Jeannie, what was the name of our cat when you were eight years old?" he asked abruptly, all the while thinking Fermi, Fermi, Fermi. Jeannie had never met Fermi, since Rodney hadn't gotten him until he'd been working at Area 51; years into their estrangement.

"We didn't have a cat when I was eight – or eighteen, not that you were around to know," the answer came back, in a tone both chiding and understanding. "Dad claimed Mom was allergic, despite us both knowing he just hated small things underfoot."

Wasn't that an understatement. That hatred had included his own children when they'd been young. Not that he'd been particularly fond of them when they'd gotten older, either.

"Maybe I should ask one," Jeannie countered. "You could be a trap or a telepathic alien, too, you know, Mer. I'll make it an easy one, since you've been out of touch for so long. What was the name of the first boy I kissed?"

"How in the hell would I know?" Rodney was too aware of the widened eyes now staring at him, as if he'd failed. As if he was going to get them blown up or something. "I don't even remember the name of the first boy I kissed. Why would I – "

He stopped abruptly, aware now that most of his companions' expressions had turned amused or indulgent, although idiot Marine was looking shocked and, while not completely disgusted, he obviously wasn't happy in hearing such a confession. A true fucking idiot, then, if he didn't know his CO and the expedition's Head of Science had been doing a lot more than just kissing over the last couple of years. He had to be the only one from the original crew who didn't know.

Choked off sounds came over the radio, from Jeannie but also at least one other, a male other. Sounds that was probably laughter and maybe some indignation. Sure, all of Atlantis accepted Rodney and John's relationship without exhibiting too many homophobic reactions, but he couldn't expect the same from the Earth-based military.

At least he hadn't actually outed John to them.

"And the only reason you remember April Bingham's name is because she gave you mono." Jeannie's laughter had maybe a touch of hysteria, but with that confirmation, Rodney was feeling a little giddy himself.

Doctor Livingston, I presume?

"Okay, I'm convinced you really are you. So how about me?" Jeannie asked in the long silence.

Considering it had been nearly ten years since they'd been in touch with one another, Rodney actually had nothing other than a few right answers and a gut feeling that this was Jeannie, since she sounded nothing like she had when she'd been young. A little like their mother maybe, but John was the one who relied on his gut, not Rodney. He'd seen entirely too much of John's guts, in fact, for them to be a dependable source for data collection. Rodney's real problem was that if this was Jeannie, he couldn't understand how she could be here, could be involved. She'd made quite clear back then, that her own life and family was more important than anything Rodney was involved in. Or needed.

"Jeannie, why are you here? Why did you come?" he found himself asking in spite of having an audience. Until he could reconcile that, he other conclusions were just too suspect.

"To find you, silly," came the obvious, if stupidly unbelievable answer.

"But what about Caber and, and …"

Rodney knew Jeannie had been pregnant, twice supposedly (but the first had been a false alarm). For the life of him, he wasn't sure he'd ever found out the name of the one who'd actually been born. Or if it had been a boy or a girl.

"Kaleb died, Mer." Jeannie's voice now held none of the mirth and relief from before. "Along with quite a few other people. From an alien plague. Things are different now, back home. Priorities are different. For a lot of us."

The thought of the SGC having disclosed – of having had to disclosed – the existence of aliens and stargates and wormholes wasn't something Rodney had spent much time thinking about, other than his feelings it should have been done long before now, for the sake of science if nothing else. Secrets of that magnitude could only be contained for so long, but the IOA had done a better job of it than Rodney would ever have predicted. On the other hand, predicting against the eventuality that an attack from any number of Earth's enemies would force some kind of disclosure? That was a sucker bet.

"I'm sorry," he offered, all too aware of how empty such sentiment was, given how often he'd heard it himself of late. Too, too much aware of how it would mean absolutely nothing, even expressed by Teyla, should he be the next one hearing it spoken on his behalf.

"Thanks. Ah… maybe we should hold off on any more revelations until we're actually face to face?"

"Right." Rodney nodded to himself briskly, then gave a finger snap that worked to redirect his companions' maudlin emotions as well as his own. "I am assuming you can set your ship down on a planet and still take off again?" he directed to Jeannie or to the ship's captain. He didn't care who answered; just that the answer was yes.

"We can, Doctor McKay," the bland, male voice confirmed. "You're talking about doing so here instead of moving on to yet another system?"

"Yes. If you direct your sensors toward the southern magnetic pole, you'll see a land mass equidistant between the equator and the pole that's about the size of Africa, but shaped more like Australia. Its southwestern coast has a series of salt flats similar to America's deserts; we've created something of a spaceport there, outfitted with a few temporary buildings and supplies. Pick whichever one your ship can fit on, and we'll meet you."

Rodney could have told them which two of the four flats they'd fit in, based on his own sensor readings, but he was curious to see which one Phoenix's captain would chose. One was somewhat sheltered from aerial attacks (once they lowered themselves into the bowl and jinked a little to the north and east). Or if they weren't confident enough in the pilot, they'd chose the field that made White Sands look like a child's sandbox. Larrin, of course, always landed her ships in that huge, open field, as if she had nothing to fear from above, while most of the rest of her ship captains preferred the illusion of safety the overhang gave them – and the opportunity to show off their piloting skills. Especially if the Warlord of Atlantis was one of the ones waiting for their arrival.

Phoenix chose the 'safer' after-the-fact landing spot, the pilot showing off his own considerable skills, as whatever type of ship it was (Rodney not recognizing it or its species builder at all), it wasn't quite as maneuverable as the Ancient designed ones the Traveler's had laid claim to.

Atlantis still hadn't gotten Larrin to fess up that she'd found a forgotten hanger queen graveyard, or a ship's foundry or something, to have the number of ships her folks chose to live in instead of down planetside.

Keras followed the other ship down, skimming over its top without Rodney's direction, setting the HUD to perform a full and lengthy scan and review. Once that was completed, he set them down near the Quonset hut equivalent that the Lanteans had fashioned out of materials they'd scavenged from Sateda and Hoff. At the Alpha sites, buildings were nicer, sturdier, but this Beta site location was coming along.

Rodney didn't actually expect they'd use the 'landing facilities' for their first meeting. He was prepared to give up the advantage and actually board the other ship, confident that Secretariat's drone weapons – and those in the second jumper now heading their direction from the northern continent that held the gate – would be able to take out Phoenix's N-space drive engines. After that, if necessary, Aiden's squads could storm the grounded ship and rescue him. Once he finished his override program to disable the SGC security protocols.

Teyla was prepping to come with him, while Keras was just as obviously prepping the jumper for an emergency take off; Keras would be staying on-board with one of the marines, while Rodney would have two of their military escort for security. The others would deploy themselves in the ground station building, Keras having landed so that the cloak of the jumper would block any visuals the Phoenix would have on their exodus, though Rodney didn't doubt the other ship would get a read on how many biosigns exited. Keras would also keep Rodney's primary laptop, with its override program hovering in idle mode, while Rodney took his backup and the life signs detector that he'd long ago reprogrammed to function much more like a Star Trek all purpose scanner over the simple point-and-read of its original functioning.

Because he was listening for it as he trudged out, Rodney heard the faint hum of the second jumper as it arrived overhead, happy to note it stayed hovering as silent, invisible back-up.

Getting a close-up visual of the alien ship didn't help Rodney in his identification. He was certain it wasn't any Earth design. As ham-fisted as she could be, Carter would never have designed something so… ugly. Nor did he think the ship was Goa'uld or Asgard; he'd worked with enough of their equipment, and had examined a downed Goa'uld Ha'tak once, to recognize their lines and preferences.

Frankly, it looked like a mostly dead frog, with the frog's splayed legs and ass a trio of flattened engine nacelles and the body arching up to the 'face', the obvious crew and cargo sections. Almost immediately a ramp started to protrude from the ship's belly, a ramp similar to the puddlejumper's design, only much longer and much wider. Like something that would allow a large number of people to disembark all at once. Only a handful were coming down it now, though, perhaps in correlation to Rodney's group – four and four.

One of the other four was Jeannie, recognizable more because as little as she'd sounded like their mother, she definitely looked like her mother, only curlier and friendlier. Another civilian stood too close to her. Rodney watched as this other guy quickly restrained Jeannie from rushing past. She didn't look angry about it, certainly not like Rodney found himself reacting to seeing someone put hands on his sister. When one the two military types said something that no doubt reinforced those hands, Jeannie merely gave an abrupt nod and let her mouth fall into the characteristic McKay lopsided frown, though it softened when the civilian also said something Rodney couldn't make out.

Even if he didn't have two soldiers as back-up, Rodney was confident Teyla could take out the two military types, even if the woman behind the obvious 'leader' looked as tiny and as scarily confident as Teyla.

Rodney signaled his group to halt, well out of the shadow that Phoenix threw. From here everybody would be in visual range of each other's ships, no doubt in shooting range too, but that was a risk they were just going to have to take. Mutually assured destruction was always better than a one-sided advantage when that advantage wasn't yours.

Of the three other than Jeannie, the other civilian looked familiar; Rodney could have worked with either of the two military grunts for months at Area 51 or at the SGC and never have given them a first look back in those days, much less a second one. There was something about the civilian standing beside Jeannie though, that bespoke academia or industry; that reminded Rodney of someone although he was fairly certain he'd never met the man. Probably a magazine image he recognized then, an alumni or benefactor, or even some other scientist that Rodney had connected with some article he'd read and dismissed as someone not even worth his time to acknowledge later so he could berate them.

"Doctor McKay, I'm Major Evan Lorne of the SGC," the lead military guy said as he moved out a little in front of his troop and, remarkably, held out his hand.

For a moment Rodney froze, handshakes were not the norm in Pegasus, hadn't actually been something he'd been used to on Earth either, since most of his so called peers had been too intimidated to voluntarily be introduced to the infamous Doctor Rodney McKay. Teyla, bless her wise and diplomatic soul, stepped deftly in front of Rodney and offered her own hand forward, although she let Lorne be the one to orchestrate the actual shaking.

"Major Lorne," she acknowledged, then inclined her head. "I am Teyla Emmagan of Athos. I offer Atlantis' thanks for the assistance you provided and welcome you to the… Pegasus Galaxy. It is unfortunate that your first encounter here was marred by violence, but we can all hope that the rest of your stay offers an experience more to your liking. May I introduce Solen Sencha of Sateda – "

Oh, not one of her fellow Athosians then, but one of Ronon's people.

" –and perhaps you already know Lieutenant Allison Crown, as you know Doctor McKay?"

From his expression, Rodney determined that Lorne had had enough gate experience to realize when he was being maneuvered, but also enough to accept it with grace.

"A real pleasure, Mrs. Emmagan." He actually sounding like he meant it. "I'm afraid I really only know Doctor McKay by reputation, and I've not had the opportunity to meet Lieutenant Crown before today but, in return, may I introduce Lieutenant Laura Cadman," he said of his own female Marine, "Jeannie Miller, and Dave Sheppard."

Oh. My. God.

Rodney (and Teyla, Ford, Ronon and Carson) had only found out that Dave Sheppard existed a few months ago, a couple of nights after that shit with Ronon, Tyre, and the Wraith. Finding out that Ronon had lost the people closest to him, and two by personal betrayal, had led to a Team night of drinking once Ronon had come down off the Wraith enzyme. Had led also to a night of Team confessions; about family and dreams and marriages.

Teyla was looking at the Sheppard brother nearly as closely as Rodney was, and he, although obviously aware of their scrutiny, wasn't put off by it. Though maybe that was because he was still holding onto Jeannie's hand. Rodney was about to say something pointed about the hand holding, until he noticed that Jeannie was clutching Sheppard back just as tightly.

"Jesus Christ on a Pogo-stick!" Rodney flailed. "Do not tell me the two of you are together? What about Caber – "

"Kaleb," Jeannie hissed, her tone echoing the same distress that Rodney was feeling. "He died thirty fucking months ago, not that you ever cared about him. You lost any right you may have had to care about me when Maddie was born, Mer, especially as to who I sleep with – "

"You're sleeping with him!" Rodney cringed at the shrillness of his tone. "You can't!" he blustered on, mustering as much anger as he could to override his dismay. "He's a Sheppard and I… I – "

Rodney abruptly cut himself off, too many years of not crossing that line (even if everyone already knew) to keep him from doing so even now. Especially now.

"And you, what, Meredith Ingram McKay? You don't approve? Well, I don't give a good god damn," Jeannie flailed back, completely off the mark as to what Rodney had been about to say.

"Madison likes him, and I like him. I don't actually care whether you ever do. Because it's always just the same shit from you. Or is it you don't think it's appropriate?" she pushed on. "Well, sorry to say, I've had it quite decisively hammered in, that life's too short and too damn cheap."

She ignored Sheppard's hand on her now just as Rodney was ignoring Teyla's, stepping forward to try and crowd him like the bully she could be.

Rodney wasn't about to back down. Or back away, girl or not. Sister or not.

"No," she suddenly narrowed her eyes. "You … it's … Oh my fucking god, you're sleeping with John!" She was the one now backing away, falling against a startled Sheppard and suddenly shaking in her passion, and with something that was beginning to look and sound like laughter.

"What if I am?" Rodney indignantly raised his chin, ignoring the mortification of her laughter, ignoring the whole lot of them who were standing there either horrified or embarrassed or amused, and they could all just go fuck themselves!

"And we're not sleeping together, we're together, together. As a couple, and 'til death do us part'." Which was, perhaps, not the best thing to say, for either his sake or for Jeannie's. But while she looked abruptly sad, her eyes were still crinkling as if she was pleased about what he'd said. In the next second she bounced out of Sheppard's arms and threw herself into Rodney's.

He only just managed to redirect her from his broken collar bone, upset at himself for being so concerned about not appearing at a disadvantage that he'd never grabbed up his sling again after putting on the tac vest.

"Oh, good for you, Mer," Jeannie murmured against his neck.

He floundered for a moment before returning her hug, wincing and then pulling back from the pressure against his break.

Jeannie pulled back too. "Mer?"

"It's…it's not you. I broke my collar bone. This one," he pointed out, although it was obvious since he was only really using one arm. "Saving John from his last leap into the abyss. Well, his next to last, I guess." Rodney found he couldn't look at Jeannie, at any of them from Phoenix, still not having confirmed whether John was or wasn't coming back from it this time.

"I guess now would be a good time to mention that we recovered Major Sheppard, as well as a few stragglers that had been left on Athos," Major Lorne spoke up. "The Major's injuries have necessitated a stay in our Medical Bay, but our doctor is confident of his recovery. The others checked out in good health, with only a twisted ankle amongst them."

Jeannie wasn't exactly letting go, was muttering more curses and deprecations against Rodney's lineage into a sleeve that was rapidly dampening, but she still seemed to recognize Rodney's near collapse from his relief at Lorne's words. She adjusted her hold from life-threatening to life-sustaining, helping Rodney keep his feet.

"That is most welcome news," he heard Teyla offer, along with other noises and touches that made sense only in context, because he wasn't paying attention to a single one of them. Not until Carson's brogue broke in over the chatter in his earwig. Right, Carson had come in the second jumper because Carson was like that, and Rodney once more thanked the God he didn't believe in that Carson had listened to John and instead had let the soldiers come take away the fucking unbelievable exploding tumor that would have killed Carson in addition to the couple of John's men who had succumbed.

"I'll be needing to check that for myself, laddie."

From the corner of his eye, Rodney saw Lorne take a quick step back, obviously surprised to hear someone cutting in over his headset.

"Of course, Doctor … Beckett?" Lorne responded tentatively.

"Aye, laddie, nay, Major, and I am sorry for the disrespect."

"Ah, don't worry about it, Doc."

The grin Lorne suddenly sported went a long way to putting even Teyla at ease, Rodney could see.

"We shall be happy to see our friends," Teyla drifted from Rodney's side toward Lorne. "And to see if other friends await us, I imagine," she added with a nod Rodney's way and then Sheppard's. "We were uncertain how many family members from Earth might be with you aboard the Phoenix."

Eased, maybe, but never completely letting down her guard, which was why everyone relied on Teyla so much. Teyla did nuance better even than Elizabeth. She could ferret out information that folks never figured out they'd given up, as well as being really damn good in sensing when things were about to go pear-shaped, especially standing amidst supposed allies.

"Shall we meet them, then?"


Day Unknown
Location Uncertain
Somewhere in Space

Waking up in a bed other than his own wasn't that much of a surprise to John any longer. Oh, not waking up in a stranger's bed, like Rodney had always accused him of, but as one of the first contact team first, then as 'the Warlord of Atlantis', John spent almost half of his time off Atlantis when time for sleeping came around. That didn't count the times John spent the night in Rodney's bed, which didn't count in turn, because that was as much his bed as his was Rodney's.

He took stock of self and sounds, figuring out that he was in the infirmary from the way his body felt before his nose and ears caught up to his brain. He ached, in multiple places; was wearing next to no clothes and plenty of bandages; and he had a couple of days worth of beard it felt like, when he tried to turn his pounding head. Next came the reassuring sound of Carson's quiet brogue, that was as much a part of this particular experience as was the typical lack of memory from whatever had led him here. Even more reassuring was the sound of quick and precise typing that could only be Rodney sitting vigil.

It took John a few seconds longer to figure out he wasn't in Atlantis' infirmary, distracted as he was with both the good and bad he was feeling. It took him longer to conclude he was on a ship and that the ship wasn't an Ancient one. Had it been one of the Traveler's ships or the Taranian's Orion, he would have felt the telltale shimmer of the interface all Ancient-constructed vehicles and facilities had to his throwback ATA gene. That neither Rodney nor Carson sounded particularly distressed had him concluding he wasn't a prisoner of someone like the Olesians, the Wraith… or, shit! The Toasters!

John's body jackknifed upward from the bed in pure fight-or-flight, as memory of what he'd been doing last returned in a rush. He groaned from some serious aches and skin pulling, inferring burns and oh fuck, not again, but then he also realized that his skin felt like he was already on the recovery, not the suffering side, and that level of pain he could push aside. Like the grafts and the worst of it was already over, when the damaged skin had basically finished sloughing off and was renewing itself, something he knew far too intimately as a human – and as nearly a bug-type thing.

God, that could mean he'd been out of it for days. For a lot more than the two or three he'd assumed by his beard.

"Settle down, now, Major," someone cautioned him, someone with tiny hands and understated strength like Teyla, but smelling like things John really didn't recognize any more.

Not Teyla, and definitely not Carson or Rodney. John tried to listen to her anyway as his body rebelled against what he was putting it through, in a series of cramps and spasms. By the time he blinked away the tearing and was able to squint his eyes open, Carson was there too, working with her in trying to get him to relax before he tore something. A cramp in his calf had him curling and closing his eyes again, panting through the pain, until Rodney's solid hands (recognizable even without being able to see him), started rubbing it out.

It felt like his whole body was cramping actually. The agony was entirely too reminiscent of that time when he'd gone to Australia on his first leave from active duty. He'd ignored his dive instructor and body both, taking one last dive before he'd have to catch his ride to Kosovo. Only Kosovo had turned instead into Ramstein, as he'd also ignored the local doctor's warnings about flying and the bends he'd only just avoided. Just the first in a long line of decisions that had ended up pissing off as long a line of COs. That one had only laughed at him, knowing John's own body had more effectively taught him the lesson of listening to the experts than any CO's order ever would.

Okay. He had Carson and Rodney, and a woman who wasn't Teyla. Or Larrin. An encounter with the Toasters and a body that felt like he'd gone a new round with Todd, under water. Not a prisoner, yet on a ship that wasn't Ancient. The Travelers had one or two like that, but it didn't smell like one of Larrin's ships, it didn't have that miasma of leaking fluids and burnt conduit, of too many bodies crammed into too little space. A new ship then? Or a new player –

"Take it easy, John." Carson's voice and Carson's hands worked in concert now with Rodney's instead of not-Teyla's, while hers, maybe, started placing an oxygen mask over his head to counter his hyperventilating. Another hand, and a sudden pinch against the inside of an elbow.

The pinch wasn't morphine. Not even the native remedy from Hoff that was almost as effective as morphine and nowhere near as addicting (John was unhappily familiar with the initial rush from both of those drugs). Nothing more than something to help him relax, he decided, and that as much as anything filled in what he hoped was the last hole in his memory.

He should have figured it out just from that fact that he was wearing honest-to-god scrub bottoms. He must be on the SGC's ship, Phoenix.

Like scrubs and morphine, the expedition had run out of sedatives and muscle relaxants soon after their second anniversary in Atlantis. Unlike morphine and its Hoffan equivalent, Anfalin, most of the sedatives they'd run across were highly addictive, and those that weren't, didn't generally work for the Earth natives. The muscle relaxants were worse; if not nearly pure alcohol or opiods themselves, they were adapted from Iratus venom. So most of the expedition chose to go without rather than take the chance on their unpredictable properties.

After a couple of minutes, John could breathe without thinking he was choking, and could move most of the parts of his body without feeling like he had one of Ronon's many knives filleting his muscles. He could even open his eyes without tearing, he discovered, also discovering – rediscovering – the wonder of Rodney's blue, blue eyes. Only Rodney's eyes were framed in long, blonde curls and it was probably a sad fact of John's life in Atlantis that he was trying to figure out what kind of alien tech Rodney must have fooled around with to turn himself female (those wacky, wacky Ancients), before he decided he'd been given some pretty good drugs to imagine Rodney as a woman.

It took him longer to figure out that if he was still feeling Rodney's hands (now working on John's clutched fingers) and hearing Rodney's decidedly male voice engaged in a bitchfest from somewhere down near his hip, the blue eyes now smiling at him weren't actually Rodney's.

"Who are you?" he mouthed as she removed the oxygen mask as his reward for getting his breathing back under control. John didn't bother to voice the words; he'd obviously had a tube down his throat during part of his unconsciousness, since his throat hurt as much as the rest of his body.

"Jeannie Miller – McKay," she mouthed back with a smile that was eerily reminiscent of Elizabeth's when John had accomplished something unexpectedly appropriate, like turning in his paperwork before it was overdue.

It was a woman's smile, a mother's smile, and it was actually a lot more reassuring than the typical doctor or nurse fake pleasantry he'd normally be getting about this time. Of course, he'd also be getting a sip of water or an ice chip or two at this point, if she'd actually been a nurse, so it was maybe not quite the favorable tradeoff he'd been thinking.

"Ah, there you be going, laddie," Carson chuckled when he noticed that John had his eyes open again. Carson turned his massage into a pat before he moved to grab up a handy glass. "Do you think you can take a chip without choking this time?"

John nodded, not worried about not remembering having choked earlier. He'd gone through this type of thing often enough that he didn't get embarrassed anymore about involuntary reactions, or the words he supposedly said during periods of semi-lucidity; Rodney undoubtedly made up at least half of that shit anyway. He was also preoccupied by discovering the real Rodney, in any case. There were the proper eyes John had been expecting, the scowl that meant relief in Rodney-speak. The quick punch to his arm that meant 'I'm glad you're alive', as well as 'don't you ever fucking do that again'.

The ice chip found its way to John's mouth without him having to turn from Rodney. He couldn't contain what was probably a goofy smile, one that no doubt revealed too much. That was confirmed by the sigh and something like a squeak that was much too feminine to have come from Carson. John tried to ignore the blush he felt starting, but it was hard to disregard the corresponding flinch in Rodney as his eyes flicked from John's to the woman standing near John's shoulder.

"Oh good," came from over Rodney's shoulder, however, with the opening of the door to John's room. A new, remarkably young and perky looking woman came in holding a chart and a tray holding a set of additional needles. "I guess we won't need these then, Carson?"

Carson returned her smile. "Aye, Jennifer, the Diazepam has seemed to do the trick. Our John here is also pretty resilient, a good thing considering how often he's been in my care, and that we dinna have the medications we once had."

"If by resilient you mean foolhardy and reckless – "

"Now, Rodney, at least wait until John is out of our care and into yours before you begin with your foreplay – "

John's 'Hey!' might have been a little more strangled than Rodney's, but it came only a cough behind. It may have also held a touch more panic than Rodney's, which was all indignation, but that was surely understandable given what John had to lose here.

"It's all right, Major," the woman identified as Jennifer assured him with pinked cheeks and a sympathetic look, while the other woman – right, fuck, Rodney's sister – was the one now patting him on the arm.

Both of them looked rosy and delighted.

"I get that you're uncomfortable with people knowing about the two of you." Jennifer did her own patting. "But no one here is going to raise a fuss."

John caught Rodney's gaze again, his own not quite so open though he was doing his best not to appear accusing. In turn, Rodney's face was now bright red, in indignation and also guilt.

John closed his eyes. If he was honest, he'd known this was going to come up at some point if they'd really renewed contact with Earth; too many people knew about his and Rodney's relationship for it to be kept secret – too many people who wouldn't get that it should be a secret. He'd also decided the consequences were worth it a long time ago, whether it ended in a dishonorable discharge or something else, as long as it didn't end with Rodney. He'd been hoping that they'd have more time to deal. Time to come up with one more Rodney's fool-proof plans to save his ass.

Why he would have ever expected to get that, since he still lived in Pegasus…?

Nor, being honest to himself again, was he sure he'd ever be ready for this. Not after the fallout with his father.

"It really is all right, Major. Doctor McKay," Jennifer tried to reassure them. The hand that squeezed his shoulder belonged to Carson, John was pretty sure, an offering of his own silent reassurances and support.

"One of the first things Colonel Carter did when she took over command at the SGC was to ask President Hayes to adopt the IOA's conduct rules for all SGC, which in essence, amended the portions of the UCMJ that were contrary to an international – an interplanetary – coalition," Jennifer finished with an earnest smile.

"Sam Carter is in charge of the SGC?" Rodney sputtered, missing the point entirely and sending John's heart rate climbing with a completely unreasonable bout of jealousy that he was immediately working to control, since the damn machine next to him was announcing it to one and all.

"Seriously?" Rodney continued, still oblivious, as per normal when it was one of his own past 'conquests' being discussed and not John's. "What happened to Landry? To O'Neill? And if she's in charge, why isn't she a General?"

"General Landry died in the Ori plague." Jennifer sounded cross as well as sad to John's ears, although he still felt no urgent need to open his eyes again.

The news didn't make him feel sad so much as tired. No doubt aided by the drug. And his initial need to be alert and follow what was going on around him, which at this point wasn't quite so critical, parts of him were deciding as that last adrenalin rush left him even more quickly than it had spiked his heart rate.

"I already told you Mer," another woman spoke up, Jeannie McKay, he suspected, although John wasn't sure about the Mer part. "A lot of people died in the plague. Not 1918 flu pandemic type numbers, but significant all the same, especially for how quickly it happened."

"And significant for how much it devastated the various military and governmental leaderships," Jennifer was speaking up again. "We're pretty sure the targeting part was intentional, but it might have just been horribly bad luck. General Landry had participated in the mid-year ceremonies at the Air Force Academy, as did quite a few other officers and Pentagon luminaries; no one knew he'd been infected – or that he was infectious. Some of those people then went back to DC or their overseas commands and, well…" She fell silent for a moment, to let what she'd said be grasped.

"The Ori prefer peaceful conversions but they're not above waging wars to get them," Jennifer eventually continued. "Taking out those who could best oppose them is often their first strike. As for the other people outside the military who were infected and killed – "

John opened his eyes here just in time to see a significant glance pass between Jennifer and Jeannie.

"– well, it's not surprising it spread into the general population. As I said, it was communicable well before anyone started showing symptoms. Closing the borders, airports and schools was pretty much just closing the barn door after the horses had already escaped. The only reason we didn't lose half the population was it killed those it infected so quickly."

"What – who – in the hell are the Ori?" Rodney frowned. "When you first mentioned it, I thought it was a designation or disease, like Ebola or something, but you're talking about another alien race, aren't you. Another enemy?"

Jennifer bit her bottom lip and nodded. "They're Ancients, we're pretty sure, some sort of renegade faction that broke off from the others, whether before they all ascended or after, not even Daniel Jackson knows for sure. The Ori believe in using the advances and abilities they've mastered to cow all non-ascended into worshiping them in some sort of play for enough power to take on our Ancients and kill them for good. Those planets who won't convert to their religion, Origin, they kill off. With plagues. And warships, although because they're in yet another galaxy, they've not made full military incursions into the Milky Way yet and are mainly using agents to spread their message – and their destruction."

Christ, as if the Wraith weren't bad enough. A civil war between the Ancients would pretty much do it for humanity, and somehow John figured Atlantis would end up right in the middle of them, given it seemed to be the last intact stronghold of 'our' Ancients.

"So far, SG1 has been able to thwart the attacks against Earth," Jennifer was trying to sound upbeat. "Colonel Carter's friend Orlin, a descended Ancient, gave them a hand and tricked the cure out of the Ori prior who'd administered the plague to stop any further spread. Just not quickly enough to keep Landry, a buttload of other military, and England and Japan's IOA representatives, plus France and Russia's presidents, alive."

That was a damn impressive first strike. John could only imagine what kind of chaos had followed. He opened his eyes finally, to meet Rodney's.

"It's all a bit Extended Universe Jedi and Sith," Jeannie added, her own eyes bright with tears. "Only instead of fighting the Jedi directly, they're attacking the innocents in an attempt to draw the Jedi out of hiding."

"Hey, there are a few other people who are going to be pretty mad that we're keeping Major Sheppard to ourselves now that he's awake," Jennifer painfully changed the subject.

Of course. If Rodney was here, so too would be Teyla. Maybe Keras. Plus, he needed to get the lowdown on how bad their losses against the Toasters had turned out. Only he wasn't sure how much longer he was going to be able to stay awake to find out.

"Oh, right." Rodney's sister had a sudden, weird smile, genuine instead of just trying for the faux cheerfulness Jennifer was offering.

Rodney formed his own weird smile, which had John starting to frown himself. All he could think that would be deserving of those kinds of smiles was some sort of joke at his expense. Like O'Neill being on board or something, which didn't make any sense. If O'Neill was even still alive, he was obviously doing something even more important than running the SGC, and that wouldn't be participating in a wild goose chase in another galaxy. Daniel Jackson's presence would have elicited a frown from Rodney, not a smile. Plus, John hadn't really gotten to know the guy before they'd left for Atlantis, so he didn't see the others being all anticipatory for a reunion between the two of them. Come to think of it, there weren't any people that Rodney and John had in common outside of the SGC, and most of those had come along on the expedition.

Oh. Well, there was Sam Carter, John supposed. Her presence would certainly account for Rodney's grin. But he should have also been uncomfortable, at least on John's behalf, which was maybe what John was seeing right now, in Rodney's averting his gaze. Only it made no more sense for Carter to have come to Pegasus than O'Neill, not if there was such a huge threat hanging over Earth in the form of the Ori. Sure, Carter could be looking for Ancient tech – O'Neill could be here for Ancient tech too, since he was the one with the best manifestation of the ATA gene as well as the most experienced –

Well, actually, after four years in Atlantis, John supposed that accolade now belonged to him. Rodney and Carson had both decided that John's gene could hold its own against O'Neill's, if not surpass it.

Jennifer and Jeannie were looking pleased, with Carson's expression turning almost smug, and Rodney's definitely was saying the joke was on John. "Rodney?" He reached out, awkwardly grabbing for Rodney's hand. Rodney seemed to get that John was becoming uncomfortable, with all of the attention if not the weirdness, and the look Rodney gave him now was soft and reassuring.

"I'm not leaving," Rodney warned as Carson began shooing the others from John's room, brandishing their clasped hands as if daring Carson to pull them apart.

"Of course not, laddie," Carson soothed. "There be no one here who's saying that you should. But don't be being too selfish when the others come in. You're nae the only one wanting to see John alive, that he be well on his way to recovery."

Huh. John still hadn't asked, and Carson wasn't being forthcoming with exactly what it was the John was recovering from. He supposed if it didn't matter to his doctor, it shouldn't matter to him. It wasn't like he was blind or paralyzed, or anything like that, after all. Frankly, only something of that level would end up sidelining him – working as one of the walking wounded was par for the course in Pegasus, as they'd all had to learn after Gene, Aiden, Elizabeth, Stacks and Lindsay Biro.

The door soon opened again after the others left. After Rodney had had the chance to lean over and convince John that he was really there, thank God.

It wasn't Keras or Teyla who walked in.

"Jesus," John stuttered. He'd decided that whole Flutie part of the encounter had been an auditory hallucination or a mixed up memory. Rodney's sister being here could almost make sense, if she was half as smart as her brother, the SGC would have done worse than recruit her. But Dave? He couldn't begin to comprehend what Dave's presence meant.

He caught himself gripping Rodney's fingers too hard in an involuntary reaction, not that Rodney was protesting or even squirming that much. John chose to focus on that for a few long seconds instead of his brother.

"You didn't break them," Rodney looked down at him with knowing eyes. He then looked over to Dave when John still didn't, raising their clenched hands in his typical way of speaking and gesturing. "I don't know if it was the same when he was young, but John's not too good with his feelings," Rodney apologized for him.

Rodney apologized for him.

Dave huffed out a small laugh back. "Nor with surprises. That's a trait all the Sheppard men had in common. Despite everything our mother tried."

Looking sideways, John saw that Dave was looking down when he said the last, not quite ducking his head but close enough; another common trait between them no matter how much their dad, and then the military, had tried to train it out John.

Dave then took the few steps toward John's bed to be able to reach down to grip John's ankle through the blanket. Like doing that much was safe. Not because John was or wasn't injured there, but because it was a neutral touch. Enough to show he cared, but not particularly demonstrative. John managed to keep himself from twitching it away.

"You look good, John."

That could mean in spite of his injuries or for being at war in the Pegasus galaxy over the last four years. Could even be because they hadn't seen each other in nearly… wow, fifteen years. Or maybe it was simply Dave's way of showing he wasn't disgusted by seeing him holding Rodney's hand. Whichever reason, John wasn't sure how to respond.

"So do you," John decided was a fair reply. One that felt true, surprisingly. Pegasus had put a lot of things in perspective for John.

Not that he'd ever spent much time thinking about it, but John guessed he'd been expecting his older brother to be a mirror to what he remembered their father looking like when he'd walked away. All buttoned down and distinguished, with the proper amount of gray hair at the temples to show the proper amount of authority and gravitas. It wasn't just that the Dave in front of him was in jeans and a Henley instead of some sort of suit or ship specific clothing; when they'd been young, Dave wore jeans only when they were riding though even then he preferred proper jodhpurs, and all of his sports play had been on uniformed teams.

No, this Dave looked happy and relaxed, harkening back to when they'd been real kids. Like back before Mom had died. Even in high school and college, when Dave had been pleased about something it had almost always been at the expense of someone else. Or because of what else the accomplishment might mean for Dave and rarely in sheer pleasure over something for its own merit.

Never remembering having seen unguarded happiness on adult Dave's face before, for a moment John wasn't sure he would have recognized his brother on the street. Which then had him grappling about the possibility of mirror universes or mist people or –

This time Rodney did squawk about his so very valuable fingers.

"I've checked, John. No pods, no mist and nary a goatee amongst them," Rodney then added with fond exasperation, proving not just that he could read John's mind, but that he'd had the same thoughts himself already. "I haven't been able to check for snakes, but – "

"But if this was an elaborate Goa'uld plot, I doubt they would have picked me when they had access to your sister, Mer… uh, Doctor McKay," Dave corrected himself off of Rodney's look of displeasure. "Her knowledge would have been a lot more useful than my money."

Okay, so Dave wasn't just here out of the goodness of the SGC's hearts from feeling guilty about abandoning them for four years. Dave knew about the Goa'uld, knew how smart Rodney's sister undoubtedly was, had money involved and –

What a minute.

"Mer?" John gave a little tug on their still joined hands. "What's up with everyone calling you Mer, Rodney?"

Rodney blushed clear from his forehead and down his neck, his expression turning into a scowl that he then didn't seem clear on whom he should direct at, Dave or John.

"Rodney?" Dave asked in returned surprise. "Jeannie said her brother's name was Meredith."

"I had it legally changed when I immigrated to the States," Rodney said stiffly, his chin going up in that defensive way he could never help. "All of my doctorates list me as Rodney Ingram McKay, as does my passport. As will my Nobel."

Crowing about a Nobel meant Rodney wasn't quite as upset as he was projecting, though it was obvious that he was still deeply embarrassed. John was a little too fuddled and horizontal to be properly soothing but, surprisingly, Dave backed off, with no trace of the cruel teasing Dave had excelled at when they'd been growing up.

"I have no problem with calling you Rodney, or Doctor McKay if that is what you prefer," Dave offered with an upraised hand in peace. "The others in the crew only know you as Doctor McKay or Jeannie's brother, so they shouldn't be too much of a pain either. But I think you'll have a problem with Jeannie herself, and most especially with Maddie. She's been very excited about the possibility of meeting her Uncle Mer."

Rodney's mounting expression of smug satisfaction turned swiftly to confusion. "Maddie?"

"Jeannie's daughter, Madison," Dave supplied, his own face softening by an alarming degree.

Someone was obviously smitten. It was odd to think that Dave might have an interest in kids. Might actually have a kid by now himself and, wow, how did John ask about that without sounding like an asshole who'd cut off all contact with his family for over fifteen years?

"You haven't met her yet, because all of the kids are being sequestered in one of the dorms until everyone was sure you guys weren't… ah… well, a threat," Dave blushed himself. "She's seven. And she's here with us because Jeannie wasn't about to leave her behind, not even with Kaleb's parents. Actually, several parents made that same decision, mainly the various family members to your expedition who came along, John. Since little about this trip was officially authorized, Colonel Carter didn't see how breaking a couple more rules would matter. That decision prevented a lot of additional stress."

It was John's turn to be staggered and confused. "This is a rogue mission?" he coughed out hoarsely.

Dave shook his head. "Not rogue, exactly, but those in the know end with President Hayes and several top people in his administration, along with the necessary people in the SGC. No one from the IOA was involved. It's probably not my place to say, but my opinion is the IOA can just go fuck themselves since they're the ones who abandoned you guys in the first place. Nor is it like they can court-martial or even censor me as, technically, I own thirty-five percent of this ship and it was Sheppard money that got the ball rolling. Alec Colson, of Colson Industries owns another thirty-five percent, as he provided some of the expertise and off-world contacts."

The look Dave's face held now was one John recognized well from their father, the one that said he knew how the game was played and where enough of the bodies were buried to be able to play to win.

"The SGC holds the last thirty percent, mostly from having the wherewithal to have obtained the ship we retrofitted in the first place," Dave continued. "And because they gave us the trained manpower to get it into space. If the mission does blow up into a political scandal, we're just a private operation that exceeded the mandate of our governmental oversight. Hayes will stay clean, as will, hopefully, O'Neill and Carter, although I expect the American IOA rep will figure out no one was really in the dark."

"So the IOA really did turn their backs on us." John pulled his hand from Rodney's before he really did break any fingers. John knew how the game was played too, from both the military and political end of things. He didn't really care, for his own sake, as he had no intention of ever returning to Earth. But that wasn't necessarily everyone else's decision, plus the lack of support and contact had nearly killed the expedition before they'd managed to turn things around.

None of that mattered, though, in the face of actually, consciously, being left behind.

"Yes, but no," Dave looked like he understood at least a portion of what John was feeling. He certainly was showing more empathy than John expected.

John had been his own kind of asshole when they'd grown apart, never even trying to figure out where Dave had changed, or why.

"No one is saying they didn't made mistakes, and certainly their decisions were based more on their own collective ass-covering than anything else," Dave temporized. "But I'm convinced that the war Earth is currently involved in is taking all of our available resources. Eventually this trip will be written off as a search for something we can fight the Ori with, but we, the families, were brought in to make sure the ultimate goal didn't supersede the immediate one, which was to find you."

"To find Atlantis, you mean." Rodney's expression said he wasn't mollified either.

"To find the expedition," Dave reiterated and squeezed John's ankle as if he could impart belief and trust with his touch.

"Even if we found Atlantis, it's not like we could bring it to Earth or anything," Dave continued. "Even if we could find a power source to make that happen, the brain trust at the SGC is pretty sure that would only bring the Ori en masse to Earth in an immediate response, instead of the way they're gathering enough followers elsewhere first."

Dave looked away for the moment then, obviously gathering his thoughts. Or maybe he was just figuring out how much he should say. John doubted this would be the way the SGC briefing would go.

"O'Neill and Jackson are convinced that Earth is the Ori's last stepping-stone, or last obstacle if you want to think optimistically. Because of allies like the Asgard, because we've had direct contact with a few Ancients, and because some of our people can handle their tech," Dave better explained his statement with a deprecating smile. "The Ori are continuing with feints against Earth to keep us too busy to come up with anything offensive, but O'Neill isn't expecting a direct attack until they're sure they can roll over us like road kill."

He shrugged. "No doubt there is a whole lot more nuance to it that I've not been made privy to, but O'Neill and I came to an understanding from the very first, after I convinced him that I would actively work against them unless they told me more than just that my brother was missing from fighting in a war no one else knew about. It was the same with Jeannie," Dave looked suddenly to Rodney.

"We were told about your sacrifice, and asked if we'd be willing to help, but neither of us were willing to just blindly or blithely work with the people who'd held back news of your loss for a couple of years. That was the IOA's second big mistake."

The original one being abandoning Atlantis in the first place, John could read in Dave's face, and felt warmed by Dave's regard after all that had passed between them. Maybe…

John decided to pull the Band-Aid off all at once. "What was Dad's reaction?"

Dave's expression grew shuttered and it was all John could do not to laugh.

"No." Dave gave his ankle a little shake. "It wasn't like that. Dad… I'm sorry, John, but Dad didn't live long enough to learn anything about this. About you." Dave looked angry and remorseful enough for it to be true instead of a lie to spare John's feelings.

"It was at Dad's funeral, maybe because of Dad's funeral, that O'Neill first approached me and handed me part of the message that you guys had sent back to the SGC before the Wraith had arrived at Lantea."

For a moment, John let his eyes close and tried to figure out what he was feeling. Angry? Definitely. He always was when he thought about Patrick Sheppard. Remorseful? Maybe. Dave had been given their original data burst message to hear, but John hadn't recorded any words for his family.

He felt cheated too. Because there had been a part of him just waiting to be able to shove his rank, his responsibilities, and his accomplishments back in his father's face. Cheated, because a part of him still wanted his father's fucking approval. Only now, there would never be a chance to be told that his dad was proud of him. That he mattered, instead of just his name and his assumed place in the family's legacy.

But never the confirmation that he didn't matter, either.

Dave and Rodney both stayed silent while John tried to sort it out, touching him, grounding him, and offering comfort like he was fragile. Lost.

Maybe he was.

No, not lost, not while he had Rodney, had Atlantis. But definitely vulnerable. Which he chose to blame on the drugs and not his emotions. The Warlord of Atlantis didn't do emotions. Major John Sheppard of the United States Air Force didn't have feelings.

Dave's brother and Patrick's son and Rodney's lover? Well, that guy might suffer from the odd feeling or emotion, but his body was also suffering like a motherfucker right now, and just John was the one Dave and Rodney would let escape into the black with just a soft kiss and a gentle squeeze.

Even if it proved that just John was a fucking coward, he let go.


July 28,2008
Phoenix Captain's Cabin
Space Between Lórien and Atlantis

"Good night, Madison."

Dave watched Jeannie helped Maddie get comfortable on the couch, arranging the pillows and blankets in what had become a nightly ritual, until both were satisfied. Jeannie then brushed a kiss on Maddie's forehead, fussed once more with the blankets, prompting Madison to gave Jeannie a shove.

"'m fine, Mom," she whined, eyes closed. "Sleepy now. Go bed."

After Jeannie nodded and backed up a step, Dave took her place and kissed Maddie's forehead too. "Night, munchkin." He brushed her banks back before straightening.

She opened her eyes just wide enough to level on him, what he now realized was the McKay glare, just as prodigious with it as her mother and real Uncle. Then, "night, Uncle Dave. Mommy." Whispered because Madison was already mostly asleep

He received another patented McKay expression at that, the crooked grin from Jeannie, when he turned around. He offered a shyer smile back, before moving to Jeannie and reshaping both their mouths into something more intimate.

"Go bed?" he repeated as a question, feeling like a fool and a teenage boy, yet happy for it. Happy and so damn thankful that Jeannie had finally agreed to move in – to his bed and as a part of his life.

Jeannie grinned again and nodded, moving quickly toward the second room in his 'Captain's' suite. Dave paused, not because he wasn't anxious himself, but simply to watch her for a few seconds, and marvel again that she'd advanced far enough in her grief to allow her heart to open again.

He'd spent nearly twenty-five years searching, and giving up, on ever finding someone better than the gold diggers or one of the trophy wife wannabes that it seemed was all he'd been able to attract. Allison Stewart, whom John's Hail Mary question had dug up out of Dave's buried memories, hadn't been the first, or the last, or even the most serious of those kind of women, though he'd dated her all through college. Two and a half years longer, in fact, than he'd dated and been engaged to Tiffany Ellison Edwards.

For all that their marriage had ended badly, Nancy had at least been in love with John, and he her, after a fashion. Theirs had been the only match-up outside of the boardroom that Patrick Sheppard had gotten right – or would have gotten right. Had John not, apparently, been repressing his homosexuality.

Oh, god, could he sound more like their father? Homosexuality? Dave made himself stop to think about that, to think about his own parochial views.

John was gay. He preferred sex with men. While that might be a crime in his chosen profession, it wasn't any reason to feel uncomfortable around him. Or with John's partner. Who just happened to be Jeannie's brother.

Though he would have hated knowing the truth about John, Dave had a feeling dear old Dad would have at least appreciated Doctor Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay. Patrick Sheppard had respected confidence and competence, which Rodney had in spades.

"He's not what I was expecting." Dave finally made his way in after Jeannie, closing the hatchway behind them. Jeanie had mentioned her brother, of course, back when they'd first gotten to know each other and as they'd found out more about Atlantis. Dave, in turn, had mentioned John in passing. But neither of them had gone into many of the details of their mutual estrangements; something too painful, he'd decided on Jeannie's part, and something just too damn confusing with regard to his own.

The information and impression he'd gotten from Samantha Carter about Rodney McKay, had been just as sparse and even harsher.

Jeannie looked up from where she was brushing out her hair." I'm assuming you're talking about Mer, since we didn't get too much of an opportunity to meet John." She gave him a soft smile that went a long way to making him feel reassured about John's recovery; more even than he'd gotten from either doctor, even if that didn't make much sense. Jeannie had her brother's confidence, without the accompanying arrogance, and tempered by something uniquely feminine.

"He's not really what I was expecting either," she finally admitted. "He's harder now, harsher. But he's also so much… more. I can see how much he really cares about things, things other than just his science, and I don't know that I really ever expected that of him. He was so driven when I was younger. He'd always been absolutely assured of his own genius, but he welded it like a bludgeon instead of wearing it with pride." She tried a grin, but it held more sadness than pleasure.

"Everyone only noted his arrogance and, after a time, he just let them have their assumptions. He actively encouraged them by becoming the bastard they'd always accused him of being. Even, eventually, with me, though I'd been the only one who'd figured out his arrogance was just a front, was his way of hiding how uncomfortable he was interacting with other people. That he preferred everyone was angry with him instead of laughing at him. Or pitying him."

Dave pulled her up into a gentle kiss, then walked them over to the bed. They sat down, leaning against pillows, the wall and each other.

"It's like when I was in grade six," Jeannie elaborated and tucked herself sideways in Dave's lap. "People were always making fun of his name. So he told them Mer was short Merridoc, after the hobbit in Lord of the Rings." Jeannie's smile grew fonder. "Not that the bullies had ever read something as involved as Tolkien to make it any better. But then he could call them morons and illiterates, and at least the other picked on kids thought he was cool."

"How did he come to be named Meredith in the first place?" Dave asked.

Jeannie giggled. "It was Mama's maiden name. She didn't like giving up her own identity when she got married, but back then not too many women kept their own surnames unless they were 'making a statement'. The compromise between our parents was that their first born would be named Meredith, no matter a boy or a girl, and Mer got there before I did."

Dave dropped a kiss to the top of her head. "For which I am very thankful."

Jeannie tilted her head for a real kiss.

"After Mer successfully emancipated himself from our parents," she continued after Dave granted her request, "he dropped the Meredith and legally changed his name to Rodney. But he'd been Mer to me for our eight years at home and, frankly, I thought Rodney was a pretty stupid name too. Boring. As he explained it in an email, boring didn't get laughed at. Or have unrealistic expectations and unfortunate consequences, like Biff or Bradley or Bruce."

"I would have figured he would have considered something like Albert or Edward or Richard."

"As in Feynman?" She grinned up at him, surprised. "I'm impressed."

Dave nodded; it wasn't like he hadn't gone to college himself. Harvard, in fact. He didn't mention that the only reason he'd known about Feynman, though, was due to his interning for his state's junior senator during the time of the Space Shuttle Challenger's disaster. He'd needed to sit in on the hearings, for which Feynman was one of the panel investigators. Actually, that might not be a bad cred to claim –

"But, no," Jeannie then shook her head. "I've always felt that the real reason he chose Rodney was because there haven't been any famous Rodneys in physics before him. He isn't… wasn't, at least, very good at sharing any of his accomplishments."

"So were you Pip growing up?" Dave asked, hoping to impress her once more.

"Up until Rodney went away to University." Jeannie frowned. "After that, it wasn't very fun to be a Pippin without a Merry."

Her grin suddenly resurfaced. "So, did you actually read the books or do you just know that name from the movies?"

"Both. Mom read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to us over the summer John was nine and laid up with a broken leg. I was bored for a lot of it," he admitted. "But the movies were pretty good."

Jeannie gave him a hug, for his honesty, Dave guessed. Or maybe she'd just read his mind and anticipated the next words he found himself saying as he buried his face in her hair. She'd known his mother was dead, of course, just as he'd known about having lost both of her parents, but they'd never talked about when. Or how.

"She died that winter in a car accident involving a drunk driver. And, well, things were pretty bad after that for a while." He took a deep breath that was aborted when Jeannie hugged him tighter. He hugged her back, surprised to find that it didn't hurt as much to talk about that time as he thought it would be. To find that his memories were more wistful than sad, as he could now remember more of the good times than the bad.

"John use to reread all four books every year afterward, as a way of staying close to Mom's memory, I guess." He gave a little laugh. "For a while, John had every damn song and poem in those stupid books memorized, could recite the lines no matter where you quizzed him from. His girlfriends – hell, my girlfriends – thought that was extremely cool."

From the look she gave him, Jeannie thought it was cool too. Until she one-upped John.

"Mer became a nuclear power in grade six, not that I was around to know at the time. But I grew up hearing about how he'd built a functioning-sans-plutonium nuclear bomb as his science fair project, from our parents and from our mutual teachers. I guess they were trying to warn me off making the same type of mistake or something." She shrugged, her turn to then give a wry laugh.

"So I repudiated the existence of God and posited that organized religions were one of the greatest hoaxes of civilization when it was my turn. We do not mention that to Madison, by the way," she abruptly shook her finger at him as she went off tangent. "I may not believe in a supreme being, but I do believe that most individuals need faith. I want Madison to make her own decisions instead of just absorbing mine."

Dave nodded. "Okay."

He and John had been raised Catholic, but that had been their Mom's thing, again, and it hadn't taken him long to figure out their Dad only went to Mass for her sake, then afterward, to the local Protestant church because it was good for his reputation and for his business, not because he was a believer. As for Dave himself, he was lapsed but hopeful, he guessed.

"I, ah… made my first million in the stock market by nineteen."

Jeannie gave him a full-throated laugh. "I knew I liked you for more than just your body."

"Not me," he laughed back, and started to tickle that marvelous body, only to get an elbow in his chest in return.

"Oh, shit, Dave, I'm sorry," she apologized as he started wheezing.

"S'my fault," he coughed out.

"Yeah, it really was," she smiled impishly, but rubbed against the bruise until he could relax again. "But it's also a conditioned reflex that I should have warned you about. Dad used to do it to both Mer and me and, well, when you're a kid, it's hard to fight back. So I convinced Dad it was uncontrollable."

"You always were the clever one, weren't you?"

"Actually, Rodney figured that one out first and taught me. It was things like that that made it so hard to forgive him when he walked away after I'd met Kaleb." She stopped rubbing at Dave's chest and settled her head there instead, cuddling, but also seeking comfort.

Dave dropped his head to her hair again, and let her talk it out.

"Mer's opinion was the only one I'd ever cared about."

"Because he was the only one who'd ever cared about you."

She nodded against him. "Until I met Kaleb. Who didn't care that I was youngest on a research team up for a really important grant and award. In fact, Kaleb hated my involvement in NSERC, since our work guaranteed my posting to the CFHT. The Canadian-France-Hawaii Telescope up on Mauna Kea," she explained before he even had to ask.

"That sounds pretty big."

Another nod. "Kaleb was being considered for a librarian position at Malaspina at the same time, though. Vancouver and Hawaii might be on the same side of the world, but they're not what you could call close," she finished with a hiccup that was part sob and sigh.

"So I quit the team before the award was given. Because I didn't think it was fair to be part of something I was just going to walk away from. And Mer, well, he was already working for the SGC by that point, though I only knew he was working for the Americans. I guess he'd been counting on that award and my posting to be enough to get the SGC's attention, along with his recommendation, of course. And I walked away from it. Away from him and all he'd done for me. To marry Kaleb. I… I thought Mer would be happy for me, you see. Happy that he could just be my big brother from then on, instead of being the one who had to take care of me."

Dave tightened his hold and let her cry, though she didn't do so for very long.

"When John…" he began when she stopped trembling, then swallowed, choked on it, and eventually tried again.

"When John told our Dad that he was turning down the scholarship from Harvard to go to Pepperdine in Southern California instead, well, I was the one that brought up all of the beaches, that John had already bought a surfboard, and that he'd been talking to the Air Force ROTC recruiters," he admitted for the first time to anyone outside of his own head.

Jeannie made a weird little sound, but tightened her hold on him when Dave tried to pull away.

He decided to take it as support, and continued his confession. "I never bothered to mention to Dad that John had told me he was planning on enrolling in Pepperdine's Law program, or that he was considering transferring up to Stanford once he'd established in-state residency and got most of the GE requirements out of the way. We were only a year apart and I didn't want John in the same school again, showing me up again. I also didn't want him to get away with turning away from Dad's plans for us, though, when I knew I didn't share the guts to do the same." He buried his face.

"John and Dad were both such stubborn bastards. I knew that Dad would threaten to cut John off, which would only cause John to leave even faster. All part of my grand plan. Not for the money, but because I was jealous. It's my fault they hated each other."

"You told John that your Dad regretted their estrangement," Jeannie reminded him softly. "If that was really true, wouldn't your Dad have found a way to make contact sometime in the what, twenty-five years they never talked? And John didn't leave a message for either of you, when he was sure he was going to die in another fucking galaxy, Dave." She sounded a little angry, now. "Do you really think a rift that wide was just over surfing? Or, hell, even over a need for independence?"

Dave pushed her back a little, not letting go of her, but needing to see her face. To show her his own. "What are you saying?"

She kissed him, then tilted their heads together, like they'd seen Mer's friend Teyla, and John do before they'd left John with his friends. It was surprisingly intimate, not sexy or sexual, but comforting.

"Actually, it's likely your dad knew about John's sexuality, even if you never figured it out," she then smiled at him. "But what I was really thinking about was what you said yourself. John was obviously close to your Mom. How did you and your Dad react to her death?"

"Sheppard men don't cry," Dave choked out and she nodded, moving her hands from his shoulders up to cup his face.

"But nine year old boys probably really wanted to. Nine and eleven year old boys should have been allowed to. By not showing your grief, I can only imagine that John felt neither of you loved her like he did. That would be a pretty hard thing to forgive. But not something impossible, I think."

Dave sighed and accepted her comfort, accepted that she didn't think he was unforgivable. There was no going back, of course, no way to forget the mistakes and the misunderstandings, but maybe they could go forward. Not just John, and not just Mer, but all four of them.

And Madison, of course.


Day 1468 AA
Phoenix Starboard Passageway
Space Between Lórien and Atlantis

Rodney put up with the idiots for thirty minutes. At thirty-one, he'd been out the door and moving, with no idea of where he was going to go and not caring other than to get out. Carson had insisted he take a 'break', in essence banning him from John's room or even investigating the equipment in the tiny infirmary as a way of killing time. He'd gone, only because John was sleeping (again!), and because his own body had been trained out of sitting in the lab for fourteen or fifteen hours a day without turning on him.

Unfortunately, Phoenix was too small to have much in the way of places to escape to or to even move around in as some form of exercise. The bulk of it was comprised of shared quarters for the ship's complement of crew, soldiers and civilians, along with cargo holds which, in this instance, were completely filled, deck to deck and bulkhead to bulkhead. Rodney had already investigated the bridge and engine room during the first evening, was spending most of his time in the infirmary for when John did awaken again, and had been banned from the galley just as he was from the infirmary now, or at least banned from getting more coffee and what else was the point, except maybe some fresh fruit, though it was probably all citrus.

As if a forty-eight month, thirteen day and x number of hours caffeine deficit could be addressed after a mere five cups. And maybe most of a carafe.

He had two hours and twenty-four minutes left until he could return to the infirmary.

He supposed he should be grateful he'd been given a berth in 'officer country', in one of the only six person rooms, instead of being trapped in one with nineteen other 'roommates'. Only he was thinking now that if he'd had to shared with the SGC grunts, they, at least, would have simply ignored him, unlike those other five so-called 'peers'.

No doubt the SGC had been eager to send this bunch away. To begin with, they were treating this journey of a lifetime like they were in summer camp. Not one of the almost acceptable Math Camps, oh no, but instead one of those horrible back-to-nature travesties, where bonding was supposed to take place outside of the labs and between things other than excitable molecules. Like they intended to bond with him!

Rodney could, of course, understand the cachet the five he was stuck with would feel in having a scientist of his caliber in their midst. He could also understand their desire to ask a myriad of questions of him; the Pegasus galaxy was overwhelming even when its denizens weren't trying to kill you.

The self-aggrandizing was also understandable, if extremely annoying. As if he'd have any use for a timid botanist, even if she was cute. Or the asshole architect that immediately assumed his insights into Ancient building forms and styles could assist Rodney's understanding of the Ancients or Atlantis.

As if Rodney needed anyone's help in the first place, then that he'd turned to someone whose 'discipline' wasn't anything more than being able to draw straight lines and understand perspective.

Asshole that Kavanagh was, he was still a real scientist, with doctorates in electrical and mechanical engineering.

More annoying were the three sycophants belonging to Jeannie's fan club and extolling her virtues to him like Rodney didn't know how smart she'd once been. If he hadn't known and nurtured that spark in his baby sister, he wouldn't have cared that she'd given everything up for the life of their parents, to become one of those types of people worried more about mortgages and PTAs than the way the universe worked.

Ignoring the looks he was now getting from the crew he kept passing as he paced outside one of the cargo holds, Rodney finally gave up and headed toward the galley. He still had two hours and sixteen minutes to kill, and enough busy work on his laptop that he could lose himself in something. Maybe Teyla would be there, although she seemed to be spending most of her time with that Cadfael girl, learning about Earth and the SGC as if preparing for working with a new ally – or a new enemy.

Three more minutes passed as he made his way, and seventeen minutes spent walking should be enough exercise. For his body and for taking one of the cans of Coke to stay hydrated. Carson had only banned him from coffee, after all, not from caffeine.

"Oh no, you don't, young lady," Rodney heard suddenly from the other side of the open hatchway he was approaching. He moved quickly to one side, having already been run into on a couple of occasions by crewman late for duty shifts or something; these passageways were actually quite claustrophobic and two people could only pass when one flatted himself against the bulkhead.

Quickly, but not quick enough, as suddenly he found himself reeling back from a three-foot tall tornado of curls running straight into then bouncing away from him. In the next moment he was aware of a sharp jab, then a piercing pain against his inner thigh.

"Oh, you did not do that!" he shrieked when he caught sight of the pencil sticking out of his leg. "I can't believe you did that. Who in the hell lets a child run with a damn pencil? Don't you know you can poke your eye out? Or other very valuable things in someone else?"

He grasped at the spear of wood, knowing he shouldn't remove from the interminable field emergency training sessions Carson made him undergo periodically, then shrieking anew when it fell away as he brushed it. Leaving the tip of lead inside his body.

"Oh goodness," John's other doctor stood caught up in the hatchway, as if unable to figure out which of them needed her more. As if it wasn't obvious that Rodney was bleeding and succumbing to lead poisoning, whereas the tow-headed terror was simply hiccupping and maybe crying a little. He couldn't tell for sure, since she was refusing to get up from the heap that she'd thrown herself into.

Of course the doctor moved to the child, first.

"Hello, man with a stab wound here!" Rodney chided and silently bemoaned Jennifer Michelle Gellar's lack of triage skills. He only just aborted the gesture toward his groin as he abruptly had the attentions of the six? year old and a twenty-something woman kneeling right in front of him. "She stabbed me," Rodney defended himself, not quite as stridently, this time pointing to the pencil. "And almost caused me to drop my laptop."

Four plus years knowing he could never replace it, however, had pretty much turned his fingers to Velcro when he had a laptop in hand.

"Can you hold on for a minute, sweetie?" Gellar traded solemn looks with the child, who nodded.

No tears that Rodney could see finally, and he really hoped the dark splotch across the child's cheek was from pencil dust or something, and not a blossoming bruise from his own bruised kneecap. He might not like kids as a rule, especially ones who ran around with sharp weapons in their hands, but he also didn't like seeing them hurt. This one also reminded him of someone, probably Cleya, although now at ten, Cleya looked nothing like she had when Rodney' had first met her, living in her trees and playing in dirt.

Gellar knee-walked over the step or two separating them, until she was suddenly right there, fingers reaching for his pants.

"Er, wait, what are you doing?" Rodney slashed his own hand out, missing Gellar's forehead but snagging some of her hair. He dropped his hand as her hair was flames, grateful the child was too young to get the implication, then frowning when he caught Gellar's smirk as she was not. Mortification then set in when his body began to react all too predictably.

He'd found everything he'd ever wanted in John, as a partner and a lover both, but that didn't mean he could simply turn his brain off when faced with a pretty woman. He could never just turn his brain off, although John did his best and, oh god, definitely not something to use to distract himself from Doctor Buffy. Especially not when it had been almost a week since John had last been able to try to melt Rodney's brain.

"Mer, is that you?" Jeannie's voice came from behind him, completing his humiliation.

"Jennifer? Oh, Madison!" Jeannie suddenly called out as she came closer, close enough to see everything, obviously.

Madison? Of course this little girl was Madison – Jeannie's Madison. Because his day just couldn't get worse.

"Mommy!" Madison was on her feet like a shot. "Uncle Dave!"

So he'd been wrong. It could still get worse.

Jennifer laughed at his groan and sat back on her heels, those dangerous hands moving away from him and to her lap before she'd made things completely indecent. "Unless you want to drop trou here, or have me tear a larger hole there, Doctor McKay – "

"No," he interrupted immediately. He was already going to have to sweet talk Miko into mending the small one he'd made worse sweeping the pencil away, and Miko charged by the length as well as the difficulty. Teyla was even worse, if you considered the lecture you'd get along with the service. John would take care of it without even being asked, and his stitches were almost as tiny as Miko's, but John already did most of the household chores in exchange for Rodney handling the cooking (when they had the luxury of time and privacy), and certain other favors.

If possible, Jennifer's smile grew even more wicked as she nodded her head Jeannie's direction. "You should stop by the infirmary then, when you're done here. To make sure nothing vital was affected."

She then rose easily to her feet and joined the other three. "Dave, you want to help me and Madison clean up in the galley before you take her home?"

Sheppard's brother had obviously been the one who'd inherited the self-preservation genes John was lacking, as he didn't even hesitate in nodding, then in grabbing up Madison from Jeannie and setting her on his hip like Madison belonged there.

"Did you make a mess, Maddie?" he asked her.

Madison was nodding her head even as she said no.

"We were working on multiplication tables, but I didn't bring enough paper," Jennifer explained.

"I only got through the thirteens." Madison's voice and expression both said she was frustrated as well as somewhat angry, and that was enough to transfer the glare Jeannie had been lasering Rodney's way from him and into something more patient for her daughter.

"That's okay, sweetie. I'll help you finish your tables after I've had a chance to talk to your Uncle Mer here."

The wide, soulful eyes abruptly turned Rodney's direction had him searching his pocket for chocolate before he caught himself. Yes, Madison was another Cleya, but she was also Jeannie now that he really looked at her, in porcelain miniature. The only hint of Kaleb he saw in her now was the total lack of McKay chubbiness that should have been there at that age.

"You're my Uncle Meredith?"

Rodney nodded. Correcting her on his name didn't seem important, not when she said Meredith with so much affection despite never having met him before.

She nodded too, in the way Rodney sometimes still did and Jeannie at least had, as if the physical motion helped cement the image and the words in her memory. "I'm sorry I scared you, Uncle Mer."

"You stab – " Rodney caught himself. "I know you didn't mean it, Madison. Like you said, you startled me."

"I said I scared you," she twisted her head Jeannie's direction. "Does startled mean the same thing as scared, Mamma?" Then, before Jeannie could answer, Madison was turning and talking to Rodney again.

"Mamma teaches me lots of different words that mean the same thing. Did you know investigate is another word for look and search and hunt? We're out here investigating where my Uncle – where you disappeared to, Uncle Mer. In space like on Enterprise!"

Rodney couldn't help himself and turned on Jeannie. "You let your daughter watch Enterprise?"

Jeannie narrowed her expression at him. "It was the only Star Trek that was still on the air for her to watch." Jeannie's defensive hissing was as much as an admission of guilt.

"Don't tell me you don't have the DVDs of the Original Series and Next Gen ," he said scornfully. "Granted, DS9 was probably too old for her, and Voyager was at best a good set of characters in search of a decent story, but I would have thought the Animated Series would have been perfect – "

She lifted her chin. "I even have the remastered, hi-def TOS version, with all of the updated special effects," she tried to sound superior. "But she liked Enterprise." That admission was made like Jeannie was trying to excuse it, like it was a secret and that her daughter wasn't right there next to them, listening.

"I liked Tripp," Madison spoke up. "And Porthos!"

Rodney ignored her; he'd preferred thinking of Tripp with Malcolm, himself. "They redid the original special effects?" he asked Jeannie instead. "Who did? Don't tell me it was like the Lucas and Spielberg travesties. Han definitely shot first."

"Yes, Mer, he did," Jeannie agreed, then shook her head. "Really, the Trek ones were good. Very well done. The Okudas oversaw everything and – "

"And we'll see you in a couple of hours," John's brother interrupted, startling Rodney again, as he'd pretty much forgotten he and Jennifer were still there.

Jeannie turned to receive a quick kiss to her cheek, then bestowed one on Madison, before she stepped back to wait and watch them disappeared through the hatchway, along with Jennifer.

"We can talk in my quarters, Mer," Jeannie pulled Rodney's attention back from scowling at the other Sheppard.

"You're not staying with him?" he had to ask.

Jeannie blushed. "Yes, we, ah … Maddie and I are sharing the Captain's quarters with Dave, but I've kept my original room too. It wasn't like we were expecting to pick up passengers along the way for it to be needed, Mer. Yes, I know, I could have offered it to one of my staff, but it wouldn't have been fair to pick one over the others."

"You could have offered it to me," he let his scowl deepen, but tucked her against his side as they headed off their own direction. "I was assigned a bunk. I'm sharing a room with five other people. No, not people," he corrected himself. "Idiots. One of them was an architect, for pete's sake."

"Penrose," Jeannie nodded, her expression of horror matching his.

"He's one of Daniel Jackson's protégés," she explained. "Apparently the SGC is getting pretty desperate to figure out what they could do against the Ori and are trying everything. SG1 is out looking for the Sangreal, the Holy freaking Grail, right now. That's actually real and Merlin's been involved. He's an ascended Ancient, of course."

Of course.

Rodney resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

She suddenly frowned. "I don't know if Kaleb would have been excited to know that so many people in our myths were real, albeit, aliens or whether he'd just be disappointed."

She then shook herself and started up again before Rodney could do anything other than give her a squeeze. "SG1 thinks the grail is some kind of Ancient-created weapon, hidden away just in case their brothers did get uppity, I guess. Like brothers so often do."

"Firstborns don't, can't, get uppity," Rodney argued back automatically, much more comfortable with the out she'd given him than dwelling on the Ori and all of the other threats never that far away from his thoughts. Or on Kaleb. "Uppity describes the people that come after. Like little sisters who get too big for their britches."

"Are you saying my ass is fat?" she turned on him, eyes accusing.

"I said no such thing," Rodney protested. "I… oh, very nice. Yes, so glad to see you, too. Brat."

"Booger."

Although they'd stopped, in front of her room Rodney supposed, Jeannie didn't move to open it, instead twisting around until she could hug him, and lay her head against his shoulder, the same one she'd watched in such fascination as it was healed with a Goa'uld device, since he hadn't been about to allow such a thing to be used on John again without investigating it himself. Even if it had, as Jennifer claimed, been what had kept John alive.

Goa'uld sarcophagus, anyone? Who the fuck knew what kind of side affects the hand device could have produced.

"I'm so glad we found you alive, Mer," Jeannie said fiercely and tightened her hold.

Four years with Teyla had pretty much conditioned Rodney in how not to screw this up. He hugged back tightly too, let her lean and shake from her emotions, not trying to break away until she gave a little sniff and lifted her head.

He frowned and looked down at her. "You're the booger-head, going by all the snot you just wiped on my shirt."

"That's not snot!" she pulled back and whapped his shoulder, then started giggling, mouthing the words snot, snot, snot a few times. "Somehow, I've managed to avoid that bit of childhood with Maddie. I wonder how?" she asked herself as she punched the keypad to grant them access. "Isn't is-not-snot one of the rites of passage for a child?"

"She seems like she's pretty smart," he offered tentatively as he followed her in and looked around. Jeannie's quarters were small, barely more than two beds, bunk-type also, plus room for a desk and a wardrobe. And nothing else.

It was obvious that no one was sleeping here any longer, as there were papers and books strewn over every available flat surface other than the floor. Not all of the mess was Jeannie's, not unless she had taken to writing out calculations in crayon now.

"She is."

As he was trying not to read the papers Jeannie started stacking to clear the bed, and thinking that Madison seemed a little too fascinated with words (probably Jeannie's doing and understandable), he was slow in picking up that Jeannie was frowning when she turned to face him, not looking proud of Madison's intelligence.

"Jeannie?"

"I haven't had her tested, because she seems happy in her classes right now and I don't want to take that away." Jeannie shrugged and kept sorting and stacking papers, although there was plenty of room for them now. "She doesn't have too many friends other than her teachers though, and she spends a lot of time making up stories, worlds really, that she interacts in, with her dolls and stuffed animals and blocks instead of with other kids. Kaleb was scared she was autistic when she was little. Even now she doesn't talk too much. Tonight with you was quite the speech, in fact. But I've always known that she saw me, that she knew both Kaleb and me, no matter where else she pretended to be."

Ah, the escapes of a genius child. For Rodney at Madison's age, it had been his music as much as the pure world of math and physics. Jeannie had been a lot the same, substituting dance recitals for piano ones, and putting on stage shows for an audience of one other than herself – after the two of them spent days sketching out the scenery. Rodney had save a few of their pages from their mother's compulsive cleaning; even being so many years younger than him, Jeannie's skill in conceptualizing and translating designs to paper had been on par with his own. Somewhere in a Colorado or Nevada storage unit, he had a box of them still.

"Are you good, Jeannie? Are you okay?" he asked.

She gave him a tremulous smile and finally set down the papers. Then set herself down on the lower bunk and patted the blanket next to her. She nodded as he joined her. "I really am, Mer. I loved my life with Kaleb, and I miss him fiercely every single day, but I know he'd be the first to be happy for me, that I've found someone else. Dave Sheppard is a good man."

"I'm happy for you too," Rodney offered in a small voice.

She frowned. "Because I'm back doing science."

"No!" he protested automatically. "Well, yes, but that's not the only reason," he floundered, trying to think of how he convince her that he wasn't the same man he'd been. "You don't look scared anymore," he finally came up with. "Or like you don't know what you're going to do."

"Of course I was scared back then, Mer," she said, exasperated. "I was nineteen and I thought I was pregnant. Mom and Dad had plotted out one life for me, you another, and nowhere in there had anyone asked me what I wanted my life to be. Hell, even I didn't know what I wanted my life to be. But Kaleb still asked. And listened. Then offered to help me find out. No one had ever done that for me."

"I…"

"I know, Mer. You, at least, were honest in your ambitions for me, and I do love science, loved working with you. I just loved him more. I'd like to think I would have made my way back at some point, even without these extraordinary circumstances." She bumped his shoulder with her own. "But it's easier not to do it all alone, you know?

"Yeah," Rodney smiled to himself. "Yeah, I really do."

"So you and John, Mer? 'Til death do you part?'"

Rodney knew he was blushing, but wore it as a badge of honor as revered as the single dog tag he also wore. "We've had seven different marriage ceremonies; the cultures here are really big on families and proving trustworthiness, so if you're one, you're also the other. It's played off as a joke in the After Action Reports we're still filling out, which I guess is a good thing and I don't even want to think about the debrief the SGC is going to want to conduct."

He let his hand flutter more than getting an actual wave out of it to brush away his digression. "Anyway, a couple of the ceremonies have been really nice. Meaningful in a way I'd never expected or really understood before. Before John. Mom and Dad's marriage wasn't exactly something to inspire others with, after all."

Jeannie laughed, but there was no humor in it. "All I could hear in my head as I was getting into my wedding gown, was Mamma saying how she'd given up everything that she'd ever wanted in her life. How much she sacrificed for Dad – and for us. Only, looking ahead to a life with Kaleb didn't feel like a sacrifice. I'd found myself feeling liberated, like I was finally in charge of my own destiny instead of being a leaf on the wind – "

"Oh, my God!" she interrupted herself, turning toward him on the bed, eyes widening. "You never got a chance to see Serenity! It's the big screen movie follow-up to Firefly," she explained off his blank look.

"Oh, Mer, we're going to have to plan a movie night – hell, a movie week or month. There are so many things you've missed, like the two new Batman films with Christian Bale and some really cool, really cute, animated things. The new Star Trek movie will be out next year, but there are a couple of trailers out already and I bet Dave Parrish has a .wav file. He is so a closet Trekkie – "

"If it's anything like the last fewStar Trek films," Rodney frowned, "I'll pass – "

"No! No, it won't be." She actually sounded excited. "This one's being done by J.J. Abrams. You know, the Lost guy? Or no, I don't think that had come out before you left. Alias? Did you ever watch Alias?"

He shook his head. "They never kept Jennifer Garner blonde. Did the last Star Wars film suck as much as Episodes One and Two?"

"Some parts were cool." Jeannie shrugged. "Ewan McGregor. And the special effects Yoda wasn't as bad as everyone worried about. Anakin was still a whiny brat – "

She stopped abruptly again, hit him again, although no harder now than she had previously during the whole is not snot routine. "Stop distracting me, Mer. You were telling me about John. About how the two of you got together."

Rodney was pretty sure she'd been the one going off on the tangents, but he was just out of date working with that, not surprised.

"I'd have to say we got together the first day in Atlantis," he finally said after thinking about it for a minute or so. "Not in the way you're thinking; I might have accused him of being slutty before me, but he really wasn't. And I wasn't. Not when it might matter," he clarified before she could argue anything different.

He'd been too worried about her being coerced into having sex too early to have been mortified being the one to explain the facts of life to his little sister, once it became obvious that was one more parental obligation his folks had failed at, back when Jeannie had been twelve or thirteen. And he'd always believed that facts were better than gross speculations and misinformation. Not that he'd ever told her actual details, of course, but she'd had an awareness of his preference for a large sample field for his own data collection back then that was embarrassing to think about now.

"Of course not," was all she said though. And gave him another shoulder bump. As weird comfort or a prod, he wasn't completely sure.

"The thing was, John was never awed by me or resentful even when we'd first met," Rodney went with prod and comfort both. "Never scornful. Not like everyone else."

Rodney closed his eyes, thinking back, trying to recapture what those first days in Atlantis had been like. "He got me, I guess is the best way to describe it. He knew I was smart but he didn't care. Well he cared, but he thought it was cool, not just useful, and he wanted to know who else I was other than the genius." Even now, it still bewildered him, that John had seen the person, not the genius.

"John was – is – smart too; though even now he hides it most of the time. I wasn't a rival to him though, or a tool, or anything else but the guy next to him, knee deep in the same shit. From the start we worked together. He could follow along pretty well on the basic stuff, didn't resent having to ask about the more advance concepts, and he actually mocked me when he was able to do some basic math in his head faster than I could." Or maybe not so basic, but Jeannie didn't need to know that.

"I realize it doesn't sound like much, but it's only because I'm crap at explaining stuff like this." Rodney ducked his head to look down at his hands sitting in his lap. In the next moment Jeannie's hand appeared in his field of view. She wrapped her fingers around his, and waited.

"John treated me like he treated everyone else, I guess. Like I was a potential friend. Like I could be a buddy. In spite of me treating him like I treated everyone else. I'd never had someone expect to just like me, right off the bat. And certainly never someone who still did after they got to know me."

Staying silent, Jeannie just squeezed his hand.

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "I was your big brother," he frowned. "You are genetically obligated to like me and even then, it was more out of self-defense with your choices limited to me, or to Mom and Dad. In a way, it was the same with Elizabeth, Radek, and Peter Grodin," he went on.

"They had to work very closely with me in Antarctica, and our lives depended on cooperation, so they learned to tolerate me. We got along professionally, but we didn't hang out together or anything. We never talked about films or books or music or played chess, at least not outside of the lab when we weren't waiting for test results. They all liked what I could do, and accepted the rest of what came along with that as the price for my results. But with John, the rest of it was what seemed to be important with my genius just being the bonus."

She bumped his shoulder this time, just like John would have had he just said that, and oh boy, that was not a comparison he needed to be making right now. He had not fallen in love with a surrogate of his sister.

He scowled at her. "You could say something here, you know. Maybe help out?"

She only grinned, hugely, and took up both of his hands to squeeze, remembering all too well that Rodney had had a compulsion when they were young to fill in silences.

So Rodney tried once more to describe the indescribable. "I think it was because Atlantis was just so huge, you know? She lit up for John, like she was welcoming him home. I was the only one who could translate her secrets, though. She overwhelmed everything, everybody else. Carson had been afraid of even the little pieces of her tech we'd run across, as far back as Antarctica. Being surrounded by a city-full, even if we hadn't found the Wraith right away, he would have been scared all the time in those first months. But for me, for John, it was Aladdin's cave and the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and we couldn't wait to see what she could show us."

"She, Mer?"

Oh, sure, now she had something to say, when it was something to call him on instead of helping him while he'd been so badly floundering.

"I thought you hated when people anthropomorphized inanimate objects."

He didn't bluster, though, because she was right. Except in this particular instance, she was so very wrong. "You'll understand when we get there. First off, there is nothing inanimate about the city. Secondly, when something responds to just a thought, I defy even you not to think of it as alive too. I'm not saying she's sentient, but she… it's like she has the best traits from both cats and dogs. Happy to see you and eager to show you things, but also guarded of her secrets and just teasing you into believing you can ever understand her." He stopped for a moment, because that was someone else's description too.

"That's John, too. A better description of what I was trying to say before. Sure, I might not have known Dave Sheppard existed until earlier this year, but I know who John Sheppard is. Now I'm left with finding out how he came to be that way. It that's like reverse engineering one of the best projects, frustrating, tantalizing, and never-ending."

She abruptly beamed at him. "You really are in love, aren't you?"

Rodney smiled back and nodded. "I finally told him that after one of the entirely too many times he almost died. The Wraith, well…" He furrowed his brow, not sure he could explain them properly either. "You know about them from the reports, right?"

She nodded, looking intrigued and no where near scared enough. He remembered reading about the Goa'uld when he'd been at Area 51, about the Replicators and the various other threats out in the Milky Way, but none of that had prepared him for the Wraith, and even hearing about the Wraith had in no way prepared him for his first encounter with one.

"No words on paper can convey even a fraction of how awful they really are, Jeannie," he tried to explain. "The Wraith are like great white sharks, only they enjoy killing their food. They get off on it, which is probably why they've not bother to see if they could find whatever it is they draw out of us in some other fashion or by consuming animals instead of people. They inject this damn enzyme from their bodies into yours that jumps up your metabolism so you'll stay alive longer while they feed. It's obscene and so fucking personal…" Rodney shook himself as if he could simply shake away the terror they still invoked in him.

"Anyway, you also read our reports about the Genii?"

Again Jeannie nodded, looking more frightened now, smaller because of his words or his tone, because she was too smart herself and visualization had always been her forté. Rodney tugged her closer to him.

"Well, the main general or whatever rank he actually held, was pretty pissed off when John thwarted his attempt to take over Atlantis – and shot him to boot. From what we understand, that failure lost Kolya a lot of his power in their government, and most of his followers. So he spent months trying to find a new power base, and to figure out a suitable revenge. For whatever reason he, or a pet scientist, decided that capturing, keeping a Wraith, and threatening to let it feed on them was a great way to get what you wanted out of your prisoners. And when Kolya finally got his hands on John again – "

"Oh, Mer," Jeannie clutched at him, not just scared but filled with compassion.

The others in the expedition had been horrified too, of course, especially when given a pay-per-view special showing of the feedings. Their responses had been based on the too real fear that it could have been them, coupled with the knowledge of how much worse off Atlantis would be without John to smooth the interface between them and the city. And not just the interface with Atlantis, but also with Rodney. Not a completely selfish fear. Or sympathy, exactly. But in some ways it had been exactly that, because it wasn't John they were worried about, but the military commander – their Warlord and their lightswitch.

It had been completely different for Rodney, only until then, he hadn't realized that John was neither of those things in his eyes any longer. He hadn't realized just how much John had meant to him, until he was faced with knowing that John was really lost this time, aged unto death before their eyes.

Jeannie's sympathy now, conversely, was born simply out of her love for Rodney and her acceptance of John on Rodney's behalf. It was just for them, without any expectations or baggage. That was unexpected. Awkward. But nice.

"So how did…" She paused, licked her lips, and started again. "John doesn't look like he'd been fed on."

Rodney huffed a laugh. "With everything else that he is, John is also the luckiest son of bitch alive in two galaxies. It seems that that particular Wraith wasn't any happier at being a prisoner of the Genii than John was." He then shrugged, because he still didn't really understand it. Not without having to change his fundamental belief about the Wraith, and one aberration did not necessarily invalidate the rest of the available data.

"Despite everything we'd heard or learned about the Wraith, well, they are sentient creatures," he tried to explain. "Some of them have something like a sense of honor, even a sense of humor, apparently. To most of them we're just lesser creatures, simply clever food stock, but this one… Todd… Well, he understood the concept of the enemy of my enemy is my friend immediately, and agreed to form an alliance with John so they could get free of the Genii. They managed an escape before we caught up. We got there in time to discover that Wraith don't only take life, they can restore it."

He didn't mention that finding that out had been almost scarier than watching John being killed so fucking slowly in front of them. That after their experience with Aiden and with various Wraith worshipers, they'd feared that John had been restored, but also compromised. Bates, Elizabeth – even John himself – had been so scared in spite of their relief. For months they'd waited for the other shoe to drop. For John to turn on them or run off or to start turning back into a Wraith/Bug hybrid. Eventually they'd been forced to accept it as simply the miracle it appeared to be, and Rodney was pretty sure no one expected John to turn on them any longer, not even Bates. Well, not from that.

There was no sense borrowing trouble, as Carson tended to say. The likelihood of finding some piece of tech, or something even more malevolent than the crystal entity that made everyone only think John was evil, was much greater than that of John having some sort of PTSD flashback of being fed on sometime in the future and then going berserk.

Especially now that Ronon had done exactly that, and John had been one of the ones to talk Ronon down and to help him through the enzyme addiction.

"I don't think either of them expected their alliance would extend beyond that brief interlude," Rodney refocused his thoughts to the good that had come of the incident, not the nightmares that still plagued him and John both. "But it has, much to everyone's discomfort. The Wraith are pretty damn territorial as a species, so right now Todd is happy to help us get rid of his rivals and, frankly, we're willing to let the ends justify the means in the interim. Once it's just down to him and us?" He shrugged again.

At this point, even he was dreading that eventual confrontation. Todd might not be an actual friend, but John had his own sense of honor, and Todd had helped them – still helped them and not always because he needed something in return. Despite all of that, Rodney had no doubt: John wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger when it became necessary.

Jeannie shifted closer, cuddling – no, more like burrowing, as she was trembling a little in reaction. Rodney found himself putting an arm around her and pulling her into his lap as he'd done when she was little. He only hoped his brain was still up to defeating the monsters under the bed, now that they'd found out they were real.


Day Unknown
Phoenix Infirmary
On Approach to Atlantis

"Major… John, I need you to wake up now."

The tone registered more than the words, a tone John was well trained in responding to when it came wrapped in Beckett's accent. He pulled the blanket down far enough to uncover his head, but without baring his shoulders (this damn ship was cold). Only Carson wasn't there. Eventually he twisted his head to raise bleary eyes and scan the room, finding Carson standing at the end of John's bed, almost in the doorway. He had his arms crossed, looking more amused than stern, at least.

"Crap. Don't tell me Jennifer tried to wake me last time," John groaned. "How much trouble am I in?"

"You gave her a lovely shiner and damn near broke her nose, but it was nothing her young man couldn't take care of," Carson grinned back. "Nothing you canna fix, with an offering of one of your baubles from Mara or maybe that necklace that Shiana of the Tribes of Santhal gave the Warlord for his wife's adornment? Not that I don't think Rodney wouldn't look fabulous in it, even if blue is more his color than red."

"Very funny, and I already gave that to Elizabeth for her birthday," John groused. "Besides, I don't think I should be on the hook to Jennifer alone. You could have mentioned the slight problem I sometimes have when someone other than Rodney or Teyla come up on me while I'm sleeping," John pointed out, yet still thinking what he might have that would work as an appropriate apology. To someone else's girlfriend, apparently, and that did trigger limitations.

"Aye, I should have," Carson owned up. "So I covered her infirmary shifts over the last couple of days while you stayed sleeping. The wee girl be the only doctor they have and, after the likes of you and Rodney giving her fits, t'was only fair I look after my own patients."

"Something happened to Rodney?" John asked, already beginning to rise up from the bed and feeling guilty that he hadn't noticed that unlike the last few times he'd awoken, Rodney was missing from his bedside vigil.

"Nay, John, and I'm sorry for worrying you." Carson finally moved into the room. "He's fine, as fit as a fiddle, if it be one that refuses to sleep in a real bed or leave to get some real food instead of living on power bars and MREs. I'd thought I had broken Rodney of his bad food habits when I finally acknowledged that his hypoglycemia was real enough, since the symptoms were there despite no underlying cause."

"I think he's had a reason to backslide, don't you?" John scowled and looked at Carson pointedly. He knew Carson and Rodney had actually known each other longer, and that Carson was a damn good friend, as well as being a damn good doctor, to the both of them. Still didn't mean he liked to hear Carson get on Rodney's case, especially when Rodney wasn't here to fire back.

"I do understand, and I apologize again, John." Carson nodded, his expression remaining somewhat apologetic. "I guess it's been a few long days for me, too. Rodney definitely had good cause to do what he has, but I have to do my duty to the both of you. I let him sleep here in your room the first two days, and only made him leave for a mid day break and then during the nights for the rest. I've not ragged on him today at all. I only sent him away because we're about a half an hour out from Atlantis and I figured he, well, actually, that the both of you would appreciate a chance to clean up and look presentable. So that you won't unduly worry Elizabeth."

John looked down at the scrubs he was in, only now caring enough – awake enough – to realize that the weirdness he'd felt being in his own skin might be as much from the machine-woven cotton blend he was no longer used to wearing, as it was from the newness of so much of that skin after the burns. He was still freaked about someone using a Goa'uld device on him. His body didn't so much feel new, as it felt detached, like it wasn't his any more. He couldn't be sure if it was all in his head, was a side effect of the device, or because this type of infirmary was no longer a comfortable environment. No one had expected living in field conditions all of the time to feel natural, but it had taken surprisingly little time to adapt to making do.

"I don't suppose any of you brought a change of clothes for me from Atlantis?" John asked hopefully, thinking that getting back into what passed as his uniform these days would go a long way to making him feel better. To feeling more like himself.

Carson shook his head. "Your brother has volunteered some of his things. Unless you'd rather have one of the SGC uniforms?" Carson offered the last suggestion like an after-thought, like he already knew John's answer but felt amiss for making his assumption. Even though Carson himself was wearing one of the SGC's medical uniforms like it was something he'd missed terribly, especially his shiny new lab coat.

John shook his head.

"Aye, Dave's things will be a wee bit big, as your brother has not only a few pounds, but a couple of inches on you, but I think everyone will understand how wearing an SGC uniform might be a tad uncomfortable for you at this point."

John's first inclination was to deny it; his standard response to just about everything being that he or it was 'fine', even when they were not. Carson knew better, of course, not just on the medical front but also the psychological one, as John was more prone to talk to him than to Kate Heightmeyer; although for a psychologist, Kate had made a damn good colonist and pioneer. Teyla liked Kate, as did Rodney, and there was no denying that Kate and Carson had both gotten the expedition members through some unbelievably tough times.

As a rule though, John and psychology didn't work well together, at least not when he wasn't the one using it on someone else. And since he hadn't really had a chance to think about how he felt knowing contact was about to be restored with Earth, about the fact that he'd again have the REMFs looking over his shoulder and criticizing every decision he made and would make, he wasn't prepared to admit anything to Carson.

"I guess I never realized Dave had grown taller," he said, using the easier escape. "But that will be fine. I don't suppose there could be a shower in my future? Not that Rodney doesn't give a wicked sponge bath – "

"Major, please, that is not something I need to hear or especially be imagining," Carson chided him good-naturedly. "But you are in luck. Since the Phoenix is about to land and be able to resupply various necessities, Major Lorne has lifted the water restrictions to allow five minutes of use instead of three. Again, your brother had offered his private shower, instead of forcing you to use one of the communal ones. As well as his shaving gear."

"Dave has a private shower?" God, didn't that just sound like Dave. Well, really, like their dad, but John was still superimposing one over the other, since his personal knowledge of Dave stopped when John left at eighteen.

"The perk of being the ship's owner, I guess," Carson shrugged, confirming the worst of what John was thinking.

"His cabin was likely the captain's in its previous incarnation," Carson then continued, oblivious to John's disgust.

Or maybe not, since it sounded like he was apologizing for Dave's behavior. Just like everyone else impressed with the Sheppard wealth.

"But Major Lorne insisted on bunking with his officers, and told your brother it would be stupid to waste the resources. Laura – ah, Lieutenant Cadman," Carson abruptly blushed, "mentioned half of the room is also full of some of the more delicate supplies, so it's not like he's living in any more luxury than the rest of us."

"You can tell that I'm thinking he's an asshole?" John asked, rather graciously admitting it .

"That you're being one, you mean?" Carson countered. "It's in your face, lad. Every time Dave's come by or when we speak of him. I know you two were estranged, but he did come to another galaxy to find you, which should earn him a little slack, shouldn't it?"

John gave a little laugh and nodded. "I suppose it should. I don't know him; I never wanted to, I guess, is more to the point," he admitted. He didn't want to think it. Or re-think it, actually. "Dave was the perfect son, the one who grew up exactly like Dad wanted. Sometimes I think I hated Dave more for that than I hated Dad for having those expectations."

John then gestured, trying to encompass the whole of the ship and Dave's leaving Earth and just everything. "Then he turns around and does something like this. I want to say my Dad would never have done it, but if Dave's just like him…" He stopped, took a deep breath, and started over again. "If I've underestimated Dave so badly about something like this, maybe I've been selling my dad short too."

"Aye, but maybe you weren't," Carson moved to the side of the bed and took John's hand in a quick check of his pulse; for all the equipment they'd original had, and some of the Ancient tech they'd found, there was a part of Carson that seemed almost happy to have to conduct medical checks hands on instead of using the equipment once more available to him.

"My own father was a right bastard before he died, and my mother is a living saint in spite of him. As am I," Carson inclined his head with a smile.

"Which one, the bastard or the saint?"

"Cheeky, lad. Not a good call against the one with the needles. I was going to call you a saint too, especially for taking Rodney on." Carson then shook his head and let the smile fall.

"We can only live our own lives, John, not our parents', or one for them. You being maudlin over things you canna change has its place, but now is not the time, not if you're going to want to be anything but a ragamuffin when we land. Go make peace with your brother, and lay your father to his proper rest. Atlantis still loves you, as does our daft Rodney, and that's more riches than most of us will even hope for."

John was tempted to say something like, especially here in Pegasus, only that wasn't true. Not at all. They had all found friend and family, if not the same kind of love he and Rodney had, because of Pegasus. Because of Atlantis. John didn't think there was a single person in the expedition that would express regret for coming along. Not Kavanagh despite the rest of his problems; not even Sumner, nor anyone else who'd died because here in Pegasus, had they a second chance to speak.

Instead of any of that, though, John just said thanks and got gratefully to his feet, letting the warmth of Carson's words and rough affection counteract the Phoenix's chill. He then felt like the idiot Rodney still often accused him of being, for not picking up on the actual reason he was so cold and out of sorts.

While he went off-world frequently, he almost always he had something of Atlantis with him, at least a life signs detector if not one of the other bits and trinkets Rodney normally had on hand, 'studying'. Only this time, John's detector had been blown up along with the Gallant Fox, and if Rodney had brought some piece of Atlantis along during the rescue, it wasn't something he'd had with him when he sat vigil here with John. Generally Atlantis' presence remained a whisper in the back of John's mind, even when he wasn't concentrating on her, the other pieces of her technology all echoes of her greater glory. On board Phoenix though, what he'd been mistaking as simply numbness from the drugs or his weird healing, was instead her absence, which felt even greater now that he recognized it. Going home at any time was like being welcomed in his mother's arms, but he had a feeling it would be like discovering Atlantis for the first time all over again this time; overwhelming and –

Oh, shit!

"Carson, I don't suppose you had any reason to test Dave to see if he had the ATA gene?"

"Nay," Carson shook his head, "but Jennifer did, and, aye, that he does. Not quite as strong an expression as yours, but still above mine, and –

"Goodness," Carson interrupted himself. "She also said he doesn't know. That she was instructed not to tell him. While I can only imagine what that was about, even you had had a taste of what Atlantis would be like, when you sat in the chair in Antarctica. But Dave…"

"Yeah," John stopped when his voice cracked. He licked his lips. Even the chair had been a revelation, had been a homecoming. But Dave had already found his home, or at least that's what John had always thought. God, what if he hated it, like Carson had at one time. What if he hated her?

What if she loved him more than John? He pushed that thought away.

"I don't suppose you brought anything with you?"

"I left my medical scanner back at the Alpha site with Pelius," Carson sounded remorseful and concerned both. "I've not sensed anything similar here in Phoenix's infirmary, though I'll be sure to ask in case something was off being studied elsewhere. I imagine, though, that the SGC is keeping any and all of its Ancient tech close to home, what with their new war front. Surely, though, Rodney will have something."

"Let's hope so. And let's hope Dave reacts to it more like me than like you. It would be pretty embarrassing if he ended up activating something for the first time and destroying his own ship."

"You're never going to let me forget that, are you, lad?" Carson helped John take his first few steps.

"The third best day of my life? Never."

"Aye, well, let's be seeing what we can do about making sure this one doesn't turn into one of the worst. And to be turning you back into the proper Warlord of Atlantis."


Day 1472 AA
Control Center Gallery, overlooking the Stargate
Atlantis

Elizabeth Weir had brokered several peace treaties in the Middle East. She'd sat across from Goa'uld who thought they were gods and convinced them to turn from one of their own. She'd negotiated nuclear weapons from an enemy that personally hated her and had made an ally of an alien whose first inclination had been to eat her. She'd been spit on, mugged, shot at, shot enemies, and had been trapped in a pile of rubble long enough that she'd gone hysterically blind in panic (recovered from that), with her leg twisted and broken so badly that she should have had it amputated (had not recovered from that). She'd endured all of this and more, including the senseless and noble sacrifices of too many people dear to her. But never before in her life did she think she'd felt as nervous as she did now.

Three days ago, she'd received the message from Rodney that the Phoenix had made the rendezvous, and that John was onboard and was going to be okay. The fact that the ship really was from Earth, that reunions with loved ones might now, finally, be possible – as well as restocking terribly needed supplies – had held next to little meaning, however. Not against her relief over hearing about John. She'd known for years now that she couldn't do this without him or Rodney, that if she lost one, she'd lose both, and there was a small part of her that resented her dependence. And their selfishness.

Only she also knew that it was that same selfishness she benefited from most . That benefited Atlantis. Oh, she didn't doubt her own contributions to the cause of the expedition's survival; her easy acceptance of their relationship being no small factor. As was her willingness to make the tough decisions, even if they governed Atlantis more by a council now. No one could dispute the inspiration of observing John and Rodney's love and loyalty, however, whether for each other, for their friends, or for the city and its denizens. That meant a lot more than plucky Elizabeth, who waved goodbye to the teams from her current position at the railing overlooking the gate room, because she couldn't manage walking down the stairs any longer.

God, nervous and feeling sorry for herself. If her Sorority sisters or her mentor at the State Department – if President Hayes – could just see her now. If she didn't pull herself back together, she'd have to turn in her NOW card.

"Doctor Weir, Phoenix has made orbit and is requesting landing clearance," Chuck turned her direction from his position monitoring all comings and goings from Atlantis.

Elizabeth smiled warmly in return. "The South Pier, I think, Chuck." She might be nervous, but she'd learned on some pretty scary proving grounds how to never show it. "And please notify the Senior Staff, along with Kanaan and Halling, that our prodigals have returned."

She, Aiden and Eugene Bates had discussed long and loud whether or not they should allow Phoenix access to Atlantis. Aiden had proposed leaving the Tau'ri ship (and how easy it was to think of them as the Other, as no longer her own people) on Lórien and having the SGC people simply send a delegation over to the Alpha site, keeping them off Atlantis entirely. Eugene in turn, had thought the delegation idea sounded good, but wanted the meeting here in Atlantis. He'd have more security on hand, instead of putting the burden on those soldiers at the Alpha site who were already pulling double-duty in watching out for those of Larrin's people who were still convalescing while they awaited one of the larger Travelers' ship to come pick them up.

Both men knew Elizabeth well enough, however, to also know that she wasn't about to be left behind in this meeting with Earth's representatives, which had been the ultimate factor in conducting the meetings here.

The discovery upon the return of the two puddlejumpers, upon learning that the four members of her Command Staff had elected to stay onboard Phoenix instead of coming home with Keras and Miller, had been the proverbial icing on the cake to prove their final decision had been sound. Neither John nor Rodney had apparently given any thought to denying Phoenix access to Atlantis, which, coupled with Teyla's much more impartial desire to remain and learn more of these new contacts, helped convince Elizabeth that the ship was the real deal.

That Phoenix would be more vulnerable to Wraith or Toaster attack, even on Lórien, was an additional factor to consider, since should the IOA have a second expedition in Pegasus go missing with no word, Elizabeth sincerely doubted they'd ever send a third.

Elizabeth might never want to return to Earth to actually live there, only to be shunted aside as useless, but that didn't mean she never wanted to see friends again, or to deny her people their chance to return.

Eugene was the first to arrive at her side, but then he maintained his security office just a few doors down from hers, whereas the rest of her people would be coming from all different sections of Atlantis from Chuck's call. Radek Zelenka was the next; auspicious since he and the sergeant would be the ones left behind in the Control Room when Elizabeth's own delegation would go to the South Pier to meet their visitors. She had a few things to review with the two of them, along with Chuck, any way, as the compliment coming from Phoenix weren't the only visitors on today's scheduled.

"Chuck, how much longer until the Gellona and Lozzlie factions are expected?" she asked.

He checked one of his two laptops sitting on the console housing the DHD as well as a security monitor that he could redirect to show any of the multitude of sensor screens around Atlantis. "Within the half hour, Ma'am."

"Factions?" Radek's eyes widened.

"Eldred and Mara from Lozzlie, and Nola and Baden from Gellona," she nodded. "They have asked Atlantis act as a neutral witness to their trade meeting. The agreement has already been drafted," she reassured Radek as he began shaking his head. "It just needs their signatures and Halling's, who has agreed to act as Future Arbiter. All you'll need to do is welcome them, Radek. To escort them to Halling who is acting as host and help him with the ceremonial tea service in Meeting Room A. Then you'll just need to hand out the treaty copies and sign as the Lantean witness. I promise, it's just the final formalities and a chance to eat some of Ronon's Tebu cakes."

"All negotiations are finished?"

It wasn't that he didn't trust her word, she knew; just the engineer in him that confirmed everything before proceeding.

"All the Is are dotted and the tees crossed. Both sides have agreed in principle and detail, They've already sent their first trade shipments to each other, in fact. The written treaty is simply to have something to be presented at the next Concordia. I promise, no pushing, shouting or pulling a weapon on you." She tucked the always errant lock of her hair back behind her ear in self-consciousness.

In the convoluted hierarchy of Atlantis' power structure, Teyla was Elizabeth's second to the entire population, with Rodney the senior most civilian after her to those expedition member still needing the distinction. Yet back when Elizabeth could still travel off world, most of the time she did so with John's team, which meant no Teyla or Rodney to see to the running of the city. Eugene and Aiden ran the security forces and the military respectively, both full time jobs even when John was around to be their boss, as was Carson's job in Medical. So by default Radek, as Rodney's second, had been tapped to oversee City and Civilian operations when Elizabeth was unable to. Aiden and Eugene continued to handle the soldiers since they didn't ever go off-world either, after their separate incidences with the Wraith, with Carson, Halling and Keras acting as advisers, and Fiona Simpson looking after the day-to-day running of the science and research divisions while Radek played governor.

It had simply been unlucky timing that one of the Genii's two direct attempts on Atlantis had taken place while Radek had been in charge, as he had also been during the unfortunate meeting with Lucius Lavin. On both occasions Radek had conducted himself admirably, yet he nevertheless balked at overseeing future negotiations for fear, given his record, that his opposite would once more be duplicitous.

As if those two incidents were somehow worse than the reality of John and Stack's teams spending more time retreating from hostile natives than enacting alliances with friendly ones.

"Halling and I will have your back," Eugene promised, doing his own part to reassure Radek.

"And it's not like I won't be available," Elizabeth teased, even if that might not be exactly true.

"Very well." Radek nodded, a hint of a smile showing. "I will hold you responsible, Eugene."

The sergeant snorted a laugh and Elizabeth felt her shoulders lower, the stress of this part of her job today now ably taken away.

As she finished with her two stalwarts, Aiden and Ronon showed up, both of them looking like they'd just come from the showers and, therefore, actually from the gym, she had no doubt. Quite understandable; everyone had been in a kind of limbo for the most part over the last few days, with the only missions being undertaken the critical ones: honoring trade deals or the most vital of the scheduled repair calls. With so much of her Command Staff unavailable, Elizabeth and Aiden had been loathe to put any of their remaining people in a situation when Atlantis might not be able to muster a proper response.

It was also a time for mourning those they'd lost during the most recent skirmish with the Toasters. The contingent from Taranians, here while some of the pilots had learned how to fly the jumpers, were now sequestered in their portion of the Visitor's Tower, waiting in silence and remembrance for Ger'nrk, waiting so they could also participate in the Lantean ceremonies for the others that had been put off until John and the others returned.

More empty 'coffins' to lie at her feet, Elizabeth sighed to herself. Not that they had any real coffins to use any more, save for those Halling and a couple of the other Athosians had consented to craft, for when they actually had a body to dispose of. Most of the cultures in Pegasus had developed ceremonies and rituals for their dead that had nothing to due with funerals and burials as, thanks to the Wraith normally and for the most part in this instance too, there hadn't been bodies to recover and bury. Larrin's people got their own send off, their dead placed within the blowback of a stargate's connection, but even she was planning on participating in the Lantean memorial service this time.

The last to arrive were Kanaan and Torren, both of whom looked very eager to be seeing Teyla again. Elizabeth no longer tried to discourage Kanaan from bringing along his and Teyla's child to this sort of reunion. Waiting behind while others assessed the potential dangers was another thing few societies in Pegasus indulged in, something the expedition had learned very clearly when Teyla had become pregnant, after John had felt he couldn't keep her on his team during her extra vulnerability. Once more it had been pointed out, on the receiving end of some very sturdy bantos sticks, that the existence of the Wraith had erased most of the inequalities between the sexes; that few societies could afford to sequester their mothers – or their children. Teyla and Kanaan had learned, in turn, to acquiesce to some of the protective instincts the expedition members insisted upon, but keeping Torren any longer from his mother just because someone might be hostile wasn't any one's decision to make other than Torren's parents.

"The Phoenix has landed," Chuck announced with a pompous, newsreader inflection and a silly grin on his face.

Elizabeth felt her own giggle wanted to break forth, but she managed to contain it to just a smile. They had the right to be giddy, not only to have some of their people returning home, but because this was as auspicious as the moon landing. Not just a 'first contact', but contact with Earth.

A horrendous case of nerves flushed through Elizabeth's body again, unsteadying her balance until Ronon secured her with a warm and gentle grasp. She offered him a shy smile, still unused to and somewhat wary of being so solicitously looked out for. Of being courted, she rather expected.

John, Teyla and Carson, especially, were encouraging her to 'go for it' as the ever eloquent Major Sheppard had urged. She did have to admit that it was… nice to be viewed as a woman instead of just a leader.

Even if she ultimately chose not to become romantically involved, Ronon Dex was a calm and sturdy presence, willing to aid her in getting around Atlantis without any of the guilt or sometimes cloying sympathy from those who had known her before the accident.

Not that Eldon hadn't carved her an absolutely beautiful cane that let her get around reasonably well, as long as it didn't involve stairs. She made a note to herself to stop by the infirmary to check up on the Olesian exile, after everyone was settled today. Fortunately he was the last of the casualties still needing around the clock medical care – at least until she saw for herself that John was truly on his feet himself.

"Is everything in place?" Elizabeth turned once more toward Eugene Bates.

He nodded. His men, as well as some of Aiden's, would have established defensive positions down on the pier as well as in several of the towers overlooking it; protocols established and refined from when Larrin's people were finally allowed landing privileges on Atlantis. More of Aiden's men would be manning the rail guns that Rodney and Radek had managed to engineer over the last couple of years, relevant to Phoenix's position. Elizabeth certainly wasn't convinced the rail guns could take down a ship of Phoenix's size – though they did admirably on Wraith darts – which is why Keras had half of their little puddlejumper fleet hovering skyward, all of them cloaked except for Keras, who'd volunteered to play pilot ship for Phoenix's landing.

Too much like John, that one, refusing to delegate the dangerous jobs to a subordinate.

"Then we shouldn't keep our guests waiting."


The 4th Day of the Huntress
Control Center Conference Room
Atlantis

Teyla had learned long ago the value of using ones surroundings to distract her opponents from her own actions and intentions. Not just during combat, but also while engaging in any sort of diplomatic encounter. It was not habit so much as instinct, ingrained and refined at her father's knee, a muscle memory she could rely on as much as when using her bantos sticks. That was not to say she did not also perpetuate the usage consciously, something it had taken John's months to discover and call her on when she had used such a skill against him during something as innocuous as 'movie night'.

Easiest was the distraction that came in the form of her holding Torren, and in letting her son simply be himself.

From the first moment that Kanaan had broken ranks with the others to bring Torren to her, the new people from Earth had reclassified her from John's team member to mother. To someone who was harmless. Teyla supposed their shortsightedness and their uneasy fascination with Torren came in part from so many of them being military or 'married to their science', as Rodney had once explained it. In being a people who felt they needed to chose between family and their life's work as in their world, they could not do both. Even Elizabeth was guilty of thinking this, despite all of her remarkable training and masterful instincts for dealing with divergent cultures.

Understanding the opposite to be true was one of the reasons Teyla could so often smile when Rodney or one of his people would extol their achievements based solely on their vaunted technology and advancements. The pursuit of knowledge and the desire for possessions was a child's fascination, a reflection of feeling out of control over his environment. Most children eventually learned that one could not control their environment, only themselves, and she had faith that some day such enlightenment would come to John and Elizabeth's people.

In the meantime, though, she would take advantage of their ignorance – and their innocence. Superior technology did have the significant advantage of immediacy, while wisdom was not particularly enduring if you were dead.

Not that she feared these new arrivals from Earth were a threat any longer, at least not as an immediate one. For the future, she knew there could be worry and conflict. She had overheard John and Rodney speaking of it during their trip home, while her teammates watched with wary eyes those who had once been friends and family. She saw it now in Elizabeth and in how she retreated into playing hostess and offering her guests sweet cakes and tea, instead of the confidence and independence Elizabeth normally exhibited when meeting potential allies. Again, all children's fears over belonging, of not knowing home was where you made it, and that it did not have to be the place of your birth.

Athos and Athosians would always exist as long as they had each other, no matter how many planets they relocated on.

"If you don't mind the breech in decorum, Doctor Weir, I've got to ask, how did you guys survive the first Wraith siege?" Lieutenant Cadman broke the strained façade of politeness that had enveloped the room while the two parties took sips of their teas and exchanged pleasantries over the taste of the cakes.

Major Lorne had a brief expression of pained embarrassment cross his face at his second's bluntness, but Teyla could tell he was also grateful that someone had started. He was, no doubt, just as curious as the lieutenant.

"We were sure we wouldn't," Elizabeth shook her head, her own expression one of wonder and dismay, of sadness and regret for the sacrifices that had been made during that time. Yet her face also held gratitude, for the sheer fact that Atlantis and her people were still here today to tell of it.

"We'd already evacuated most of our personnel to several planets, all of our effort to secure an alpha site having been undermined by the Wraith or simply the environment on the hoped for planets themselves. Rodney and Sergeant Miller had just returned from destroying the first of the three Wraith ships bearing down on us."

"Welcome back, Rodney," came the greeting from Elizabeth, ever conscious of her manners and decorum, Teyla observes, even if she must be nearly torn in two from grief over losing Peter Grodin, and from the thought that they are going to lose Atlantis.

"Where are we?" Rodney responds, never one for pleasantries, although Teyla is quite sure that his brusqueness is a mask for someone quite sensitive.

"Our scanners show the hive ships have started moving again, although their pace has slowed considerably." Elizabeth tries so hard to sound optimistic.

"Obviously you gave them something to think about," and that is John, always working to support Elizabeth, even if she does not always recognize it, or agree with the way he goes about it.

"Well, if they get here in two hours, or two days, it doesn't change the fact that we're out of options," Elizabeth says and frowns in contrariness, refusing to be bolstered when she isn't the one offering the comfort. "We can't hope to fight them, so unless either of you have any more ideas…"

Rodney turns his head and while John keeps eye contact, they have nothing to offer. It is this uneasy tableau that Aiden walks into.

"The last group is assembled and ready for evac," he tells them.

Elizabeth gives him a brisk nod, of decisiveness and thanks, Teyla decides.

"All right, then. Let's get this done." Elizabeth walks over to a laptop and activates it, too still to even be breathing until its screen brightens. "Ready?" she says to no one, to everyone, and it is not actually a question as she begins to type her command code before another could answer.

Elizabeth turns then to John. He takes a step up next to her, types his own code into a second laptop. An alarm begins sounding and Teyla finds her heart starting to pattern itself after its pulse until she takes a deep, cleansing breath.

"Self destruct is armed," Elizabeth makes the formal announcement, looking as sick as Rodney appears to feel, but still in control when she turns to Chuck. "Prepare to load the virus into the Ancient mainframe. Rodney, dial the Alpha site," she finishes as Chuck does his own inputting.

"Dialing." Rodney's voice is hoarse.

After two chevrons have activated the stargate begins to dial in counterpoint. Another alarm sounds and the few remaining Marines rush to aim their weapons gateward. Teyla grips her bantos rods so tight that she would lose feeling in her palm were she to continue, and again she breathes to calm herself. Surely the Wraith have not discovered the stargate address to Atlantis.

"We've got an incoming wormhole," Rodney again states the obvious and Teyla finds herself trying desperately not to laugh as it is one of the traits he most berates in others.

The stargate activates and Rodney looks at his monitors. "Receiving IDC."

"Who the hell is it?"

Teyla is sure that John would unconsciously turn to Rodney still, even if he was not the one monitoring the communications. One day these two will realize how they feel, if they are given time enough.

"It's Halling!"

Rodney sounds angry and dismayed, fearful that one more place they had sent their people to has proved to be unsafe, but Teyla is nearly falling down in relief.

Elizabeth asks, "Are you sure?"

"Positive."

Elizabeth exchanges a look with John before ordering, "lower the shield," both of them too preoccupied by their fears to notice Teyla's arrival.

Halling steps through the stargate, Kanaan and two others with him. It is Kanaan who removes the pouch from his hip, the two of them then carefully withdrawing the ZPM from its midst.

"Where the fuck did that come from?" John swears in his shock, while Rodney and Elizabeth simply look overcome.

"The children of the moon you called M7G-677," Halling answers reverently, the City of Ancestors meaning as much to him as it does to the expedition, if not for the same reasons.

"Damn it, Halling," John curses again. "We said that wasn't an option."

"It is given freely, Major Sheppard." One of the two behind Halling and Kanaan now steps forward, revealing himself to be Keras, healthy and whole, with no trace of the injury that had nearly killed him months before.

"Athos presented your case and we have agreed," Keras' companion adds as she takes her own step forward. Pelius, if Teyla is remembering correctly, another of the young 'elders'.

"But your own people," Elizabeth finds her voice. "You're only – "

Children, Teyla knows Elizabeth only just stops herself from saying.

Living under the threat of the Wraith means that no one stays a child for long.

"Like Athos, we pledge to stand beside Atlantis," Keras states formally, in the accepted way when two people agree to live side by side.

Teyla is certain none of the expedition realizes the full extent of Keras' pledge, and perhaps it will cause concern in the future since Atlantis can barely yet feed itself. In this Athos must lead, will lead. The expedition is just as displaced as any world from the Wraith, and it will only be with close ties to friends and allies that Atlantis will survive.

"That's great", John begins, meaning it but also uncomfortable; John would always prefer to accept the risks over any others, even in those times when he is not the one most suited to face the danger.

"Their relocation has already been made," Teyla announces her arrival and her complicity in this. "You can force them to go back, but you must need survive this crisis first."

"Their ZedPM is only going to give us a few extra hours," Rodney warns.

The war playing out on his face between doing what is expected of him versus what he wants, is refreshingly honest.

"A few hours should then be like days in genius-time," John throws his support now to Rodney in the way between the two of them, not against Elizabeth's feelings but instead encouraging her to acknowledge them.

"Yes, well, fine," Rodney sputters, his fingers beginning to curl in involuntary grabbing motions.

Elizabeth still looks torn, guilty, and Teyla moves to grasp her arm. "Do not demean their sacrifice, Elizabeth. Or their offer as friends."

"She's right, you know," John pushes a little stronger. "Including about being able to fix all of this afterward. Assuming Rodney doesn't waste the ZPM's entire charge."

"Hey!" Rodney protests. "You're supposed to be the strategist. If we run out of power, it will be because you wasted your time coming up with stupid plans instead of one that works."

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth cautions and steps in between the two of them. "I appreciate what you are doing, but now is not the time. Rodney, go install the ZPM. John, if you have come up with any strategies, stupid or not, I'd like to hear them in the next half hour. Teyla, Halling," she then raises her voice a little, "and friends," she adds because she had never met Keras or Pelius and there were so many unfamiliar names on the mission reports. "Thank you."

"Wow," Lieutenant Cadman's exclamation broke through Teyla's memories. "Talk about a Hail Mary," which caused John to bark with laughter and Rodney to look over at him in disgust.

Always, refreshingly, the same, may the Ancestors bless the two of them. All of them.

"Yes, well, Hail Marys only work if there is someone else there to run with the ball," Rodney sniffed amidst growing laughter, not just from John but also Rodney's sister.

Teyla managed to keep her own mirth to a fond smile; giggles had a way of setting Torren off and not always with giggles of his own. A happy baby could be a useful distraction, an unhappy one definitely not.

"The ZPM did give us options," Elizabeth added with her own smile. "And John kicked around some pretty wild ideas. The installation of the ZPM didn't just give us shields, however. It also activated some new sensors and new sensor readings. Including one for a power station buried down below the seas of Lantea that was still connected to Atlantis. Delving into those readings, we discovered turning the power station back on could either keep our shields going twenty percent longer or, if we expended the stored energy in one sustained burst, it could provide the boost we needed to engage the stardrive and launch Atlantis into space."

"You fought the Wraith off with the city?" Major Lorne asked, incredulous.

Elizabeth shook her head and shot John an amused glance. "We didn't have the manpower or the resources to take the fight to the Wraith, no matter how much John wanted to."

It had not been amusing at the time, Teyla remembered. John's 'wild' and 'stupid' ideas had been ones of sacrifice and suicide. They had all despaired that they were the only solutions, until one of them sparked the workable solution from Rodney.

"Ultimately, we pulled and jury-rigged the cloaking generators from our puddlejumpers to be able to cloak the entire city," John explained, "We then took off before the remaining Wraith Hive ships – and the twelve more friends they'd called in got close enough to figure it out."

"We?" Rodney turned a sour face John's direction. "We, was me, thank you very much. You and Elizabeth only handed over tools and food and stims," he grumbled. "It could have been we, had you two thought to bring back any of my staff, but noooo. You – "

"We weren't sure it was going to work, Rodney, including you, and we all agreed the risk wasn't worth endangering the others," Elizabeth chided him gently.

"You, on the other hand," John mocked, "were the one convinced that your genius was up to the task – "

"Well, obviously, it was."

"John, Rodney," Elizabeth reined them in, even though she was just as aware as Teyla that there was no rancor between the two despite the heat of their words.

"Sorry," John offered, subdued, then ducking his head when he saw that even his brother was looking between him and Rodney in amusement.

John's pointed ears pinked quite fetchingly, in Teyla's opinion.

"So you relocated Atlantis to another planet," Jeannie spared John further embarrassment by returning to the subject at hand.

"We did," Elizabeth nodded. "That first time was two planets ago."

"So you didn't deplete your power source?" Jeannie asked, now more interested in the technology than anyone's feelings.

From her position blocked by Torren, Teyla caught sight of several discomforted faces at that question, and felt her own expression turning to a frown, her body tightening although she let her face be buried in her son's hair and showed no evidence of her awareness of the change as she helped Torren softly clap his hands.

"We found a couple more ZedPMs before any one of them ran completely down again," Rodney responded, oblivious to the heightened tension in the room. "Turns out three ZedPMs at seven or twelve percent power works better in the long run than one at forty, but we need at least thirty-five percent expended all at once to get airborne. "

Ronon had picked up on the shift, Teyla was certain. Perhaps John, too, though he was almost as gifted as she in misdirection. In truth, Teyla had never met someone so well versed in lying with his body as John Sheppard. And no one she had still found herself trusting so completely despite the lies.

Halling had once accused her of falling for John's looks and charm, in those early days when the Athosians were not trusted by the Lanteans. Now she could say that maybe she had, just a little, finding his friendliness most welcome after the cold dismissal of Colonel Sumner. Even then, though, she had recognized the truth that had come hand-in-hand with the cheat, and had chosen to accept both as she had seen hope there, also, for the first time in a long time.

It had taken her longer to realize that John did not offer the lie as a cheat, but instead as a joke. As an invitation to laugh along with him over the automatic assumptions that pretty meant good. And longer still to admit an awareness of the same cheat within herself.

One that she would use now, if she had to.

"Some people claim we've been lucky," and it was obvious who Rodney was referring to with his drawn out 'some', even before John slugged him gently. "But if we were lucky, we would have found a full ZedPM one of these damn times instead of always something on its last leg. I can't begin to imagine what we would be able to accomplish if we found a full one."

"Like dial Earth again." Major Lorne released the elephant into the room, to use an Earth phrase, his tone and expression now recognizably guarded.

The question brought Rodney up short. Teyla watched as John shifted subtly toward his lover, as Ronon moved just enough that he could place himself in front of Elizabeth with little effort. Doctors Cole and Beckett and Radek simply looked surprised, as did Elizabeth, Jeannie Miller and Dave Sheppard. Eugene and Aiden made no pretense that they were not moving their hands toward their weapons.

"Whoa, I didn't mean it as an accusation," Major Lorne backpedaled as a couple of his own men responded in kind, though no weapons were actually drawn. "No one here is thinking anything more than amazement over how you survived, then or now. But it's been four years, guys. And you've got to admit, if you have a ZPM, the lack of communication back home is looking deliberate."

"Like the same four years where the IOA and the SGC deliberately abandoned us?" Rodney challenged.

"Oh, we didn't, Mer. At least not the SGC," Jeannie half rose from her chair on Rodney's other side from John.

"She's right," Major Lorne looked frustrated, adamant. "General O'Neill never gave up on you guys, never stopped working with Colonel Carter and others to find a way to get out here. When we got word of your situation, we had no way of getting to you, and by the time we found a reasonably charged ZPM, we were fighting off Replicators and the remains of the Goa'uld empires with the Jaffa in rebellion, not to mention establishing a rear-guard action against the coming Ori threat. Anubis' attack on Antarctica only reinforced how important the Ancient's control chair was in Earth's defense, and as you'd pretty much depleted its ZPM getting to Atlantis in the first place, you truly can't have expected the IOA to give up their only remaining power source after most of them thought you'd already been lost."

"The Prometheus?" Rodney refused to be placated. "Or the Daedalus?"

"Prometheus was lost over Tegalus to an Ori satellite weapon, along with her captain and thirty-nine of her crew. A satellite I imagine was quite a bit like yours over Lantea," the major raised his own chin in response. "The Russian's deep space carrier, Korolev, was lost a few months later in one of the first direct confrontations with the Ori, leaving Daedalus as Earth's only remaining capital ship until Apollo came on line. The IOA wasn't about to let something happen to it, not when the outcome of success in finding you was minimal. It sucks, I agree, but sometimes that's war."

At that the major looked to John for support and, as much as Teyla knew John wanted to side with Rodney, John had fought in enough battles to know that Major Lorne was right. He was honest enough to admit such to the major and the room at large with a slight incline of his head. Rodney knew it too, so Elizabeth, as did everyone in this room, although it was still a hard thing to hear that you had become a pawn in a larger battlefield, when your own battles were so very important and disheartening.
.
"We lost the control crystal," Carson blurted out into the uneasy silence that followed. "The one that made our gate possible to reach Earth," he then explained to the assorted confused looks.

For a moment Elizabeth looked cross with him for interfering, yet in another instant her face smoothed and she gave a rueful shake of her head at herself.

Carson's words were a truth that would not change no matter whether he or someone else delivered it.

"It was lost in the evacuation," Rodney offered in full defensive mode, though not even Jeannie's eyes held accusation. "One of the evacuation sites, well, let's just say that when we'd first scouted it, we didn't know it had a monsoon season that would make India's look like it was part of southern Nevada."

"We lost four people along with the control crystal in a flash flood," John quietly finished the unpleasant news. "We never found their bodies, so the likelihood of finding a crystal smaller than a fist…"

"Why had you removed it in the first place?" Jeannie asked.

Still not accusatory, Teyla was pretty sure, the scientist and logician in her simply curious.

"Because we couldn't be sure that our efforts to destroy Atlantis were we to fall to the Wraith would be enough to also destroy the gate," Elizabeth answered when Rodney took Jeannie's question to heart anyway. "So that even if the Wraith managed to successfully comb through the virus-disabled database, or to capture one of our people who wouldn't turn out strong enough to hold out against their torture, so that even if the Wraith found the gate address to Earth, they wouldn't be able to get there through a stargate."

So that even the world that had abandoned them would never be endangered by the enemy that Earth's wayward children had found.


Day 1472 AA
Rodney's Personal Quarters
Sector 3C, Atlantis

"Day 1472 After Arriving on Atlantis," John heard as the door to Rodney's quarters opened before him.

"Diplomatic relations with Earth are underway."

"Is that what we're calling it?" John asked, moving quickly up behind Rodney and giving him a hug from behind. He rested his chin on Rodney's head. The position gave him the perfect opportunity to watch the cursor write out Rodney's dictation.

"Do you have to do that now?" lumbered next across the screen, his own contribution since Rodney set his voice recognition parameters to work even if he decided to pace back and forth while he struggled to put thoughts into words.

"I thought when you invited me over, that we might – "

"Might what?" Rodney shrugged John's chin off. "Try to have sex when we have only one functional hand between us?"

"I don't need any hands to work you correctly," he waggled his eyebrows and just hugged Rodney tighter. "Besides, Carson says the new skin is a good as the old." He wiggled his new skin fingers over Rodney's chest, making sure to brush them against tightening nipples.

Rodney squirmed all right, but not in the fashion John was going for. He also gave a exasperated huff as he backspaced through John's words still marching across the screen, before he then turned off the voice recognition.

John let go immediately and took a step back from Rodney and his desk, not in the mood to cajole Rodney out of his own pissiness, not if he was going to be doing all of the work alone. He didn't go quite so far as to head back out the door, though.

"You just pissed at Earth or is it me?" John took the chance in asking, no longer too insecure to hear 'yes' even if it meant a real argument could break out between them. If this was just Rodney needing to vent, well, if John was honest, he usually enjoyed listening to Rodney's diatribes. Nor was it as if Rodney didn't offer John his own version of the reverse, often enough. Or that the end result of frustration and absolution didn't generally become more physical means of calming down. All without having to actually discuss their feelings, like the expectations in all of John's other – failed – relationships.

Like Nancy.

Hadn't that been a surprising kick in the stomach? To hear that she was remarried to a lawyer, and was actually working for General O'Neill, even if she didn't know about the connection. To discover the news pissed him off a little. It wasn't that he actually cared, of course, or that he wasn't happy to hear that his ex had moved on and sounded happy herself. Happy is all he'd ever wanted for her… for them. No matter which permutation of 'them'. But hearing that someone had been able to do what John hadn't, well that was –

"And you accuse me of living too much in my head," Rodney said from right in front of John, despite John never noticing Rodney had left his desk. Rodney pushed against John's head with the fingers of his good arm in a 'wake-up' nudge, then snaked that arm around to the back of John's neck, his fingers immediately starting to play with the chain of John's dog tags which, even after most of four years of access, had never seemed to lose their fascination for Rodney. Enough so, that he'd asked for his own copy. John chose to believe it was Rodney's form of a wedding ring, and not some kind of kinky sex toy. Even if they had been used that way. Once or twice.

"Yes, I said, I am mad at them, and at you, and at life in general, including my baby sister," Rodney then spoke into John's lips with his own in prelude to a kiss. "My baby sister who is sleeping with your older brother, by the way."

"Shit! What?" John stumbled as his brain moved from yes, (okay, not unexpected) blah blah, blah (kiss him now or let him go on a little more?), to sister sleeping with your brother! He would have fallen had Rodney not tightened his grip and let John paw at his shoulders, barely wincing when John brushed against the broken bone that John immediately pulled back from, nearly stumbling again.

"Jesus, your new skin may be back to normal but obviously your feet and brain aren't," Rodney groused and directed John quite capably over toward Rodney's scrounged, over-sized mattress. "Sit down before you end up back under Carson's care and I just leave you there to rot." He then followed John down, further manhandled him so that they were eventually sitting with John leaning back against Rodney's sturdy chest, while Rodney leaned back against several pillows propped against the headboard and wall.

"Oh, don't strain yourself," Rodney groused a little more, repositioning John more comfortably now without any regard to his injury. "I made them use the Goa'uld healing device on me before I let them use it again on you," he said remarkably matter-of-factly, showing off his new mobility by shoving his recently broken arm down the vee of John's shirt and resting his so very warm hand against John's chest. Rodney had an unnatural fascination with John's chest hair, too.

"And you didn't mention this before now, why?" John pulled away enough to twist and raise a brow in Rodney's direction.

Rodney smirked. "Because wearing the sling gives my minions the illusion of it being their own free will and compassion that has them scampering around at my beck and call, and I don't deserve being cheated out of that, just because it didn't take as long to heal as they expected. "

John raised his other brow, something Rodney couldn't do well with either of his. "And you didn't tell me, why?"

"Because I wanted to show you, not tell you," Rodney huffed as he did his own nipple tweaking and John did his own squirming. "Because it does still hurt despite it being miraculously healed. Carson says any remaining pain is psychosomatic, that my brain wants to feel it and that I'm living out some kind of pre-programmed phantom pain bullshit because of past expectations."

Another huff, directly against John's ear, just as he was settling back down had John shivering more than squirming this time. Especially when Rodney then started tugging and carding his other fingers through John's hair.

"The stupid sheepherder," Rodney ranted a little more. "Like my brain would ever be so contrary to my wishes."

Except when falling in love, but John wasn't about to say that; Norina and Nola and Sam Carter being well behind them, along with Chaya and Teer and Mara and Larrin. Not that Rodney didn't bring up John's alleged girlfriends every chance he got, regardless. Not that John had ever done anything with any of them, well, he supposed he'd allowed them to do things, so maybe that counted. A little.

"I know what you mean," John said instead, not just placating Rodney, since he'd been feeling some of the same type of aches himself. "No new scars." He wiggled his fingers again, wiggled his ass too where it rested against Rodney's groin, finally getting the response he'd come in hoping for. "No additional scars or burst lungs or even bloodshot eyes, but I swear it's like when I stuck my hand in that damn time dilation field before falling completely through. Like I can feel that my body moved out of synch with my brain – "

John broke off and twisted his head toward Rodney again after he was nearly squeezed out of breath. Not because he was protesting Rodney's clutching, but because he wanted to make sure they'd just clicked onto the same wavelength.

"It can't be an actual time dilation field that the healing device projects," Rodney was actually a step ahead of John's sudden epiphany, his eyes bright with the excitement of discovery. "No field like that could be narrowed to a pin-point, so it wouldn't also affect the wielder. Now, with the Goa'uld, I suppose that wouldn't have mattered so much, just get a new host when the first ones ages however naturally or unnaturally. But the Ancients, at least pre ascension, didn't have extraordinarily long-life spans. Right?"

"And I don't care how good they were, they wouldn't have been able to affect changes to the body yet not the brain," John agreed. "Trust me, you don't just brush off falling out of synch with your normal time stream, so healing physical problems just to then create psychological ones would be a zero sum game. And what about those instances when the brain holds part of the injury?"

Rodney tightened his hold again for a few seconds, his way of offering comfort when neither of them were prepared to talk about that time dilation field as something other than an abstract experiment. They'd dealt with it back then, talked as much as they'd had to, about how it had affected each of them and, as it had been before they'd actually gotten together, the feelings his out-of-synch six months had engendered weren't all that clear, anyway.

"What about a suspension field, like the stasis chambers?" John asked instead. "If you took cells out of the time stream, could they even heal? The Other Elizabeth obviously had aged in her stasis chamber, but was that because of how long she'd waited, or because she had to come out every so often, to change the ZPMs and to deal with the alarms Atlantis couldn't handle on its own? Carson couldn't detect any aging in me after you got me back from my weird trip into the future, but was that because of the tech, or because you were the one who programmed my stasis chamber instead of Janus?"

They didn't talk about that trip out of synch either. It was still too raw and too close as it had happened only seven months past. John had been lost forty-eight thousand years in the future, on an Atlantis also dying under the last throws of an expanding red sun. John had been lost, so Rodney had fucking ascended (quite contrary to Elizabeth's orders), to find a way to bring John back. To bring them both back. No doubt there were still consequences from that just lying in wait.

They didn't talk about it, but they were obviously both thinking about it. John turned so he could straddle Rodney's lap, then brought Rodney's head down against his neck, tucking his own in the same while they just held each other. Eventually Rodney began fidgeting, though, never able to escape his thoughts, just ultimately redirecting them.

"You do realize I knew the answer once," Rodney muttered, staying close, but pulling away enough to starting petting John's hair as if he was Rodney's horribly missed cat.

John wouldn't have objected, at least right now, even if he didn't also enjoy both the attention and the touches. That had been an epiphany all in itself.

"You enjoy the puzzle as much as knowing the answer," John reminded him before Rodney got too pissed off, which was Rodney-speak for maudlin.

Rodney had been a Super Brain twice, thanks to that ascension accelerator, had figured out the secrets of the universe the first time, including how to not die or ascend, which had been his only initial choices when he'd inadvertently activated the stupid device. He'd developed his own math and saved Radek's life with just his mind, had thought he'd end up being Atlantis' savior, only to then find out that such gifts came only when you couldn't use them. He'd been bitter about it for months.

The second time Rodney hadn't even stopped long enough to rail against what he'd be losing again, had instead recovered the tech he was supposed to have destroyed, and embraced what it offered, fully determined to fight even the Ancients to get John home again. John still didn't know all of the details of what Rodney had done or said to get himself descended afterward, just as he'd never told Rodney what he'd learned had happened to Atlantis after they'd both been lost to her. Rodney no longer remembered certain things and John could never forget them.

"So, I've been thinking about something like an accelerating field for the Goa'uld device," John turned them back to the current puzzle before he lost himself in Rodney's petting, and lost Rodney to his bitterness. "Maybe it is closer to stasis. Could it put out a deceleration field instead?"

Rodney's hands stilled. "It's not time at all. It isn't time they're violating." He pulled back, moving his hands to grip at John's shoulders and give him a shake. "Fuck, John. It's entropy. Being ascended means existing in a state outside our isolated system that we call the universe. But maybe they're outside all of the isolated alternate universes too. A single set of Ancients able to interact with all the alternate universes, in some sort of perverted form of quantum mechanics."

For a moment Rodney's eyes shone brighter than any ZPM's energy output, and John fell a little bit in love all over again.

"The Ancients are outside of entropy instead of time, which is why some of them still have connections in our physical universe, because time does still matter to them, the one part of entropy their original physical selves can't escape."

It didn't matter that Rodney was talking mostly to himself at this point; he was aware enough of his audience to at least stay talking aloud, and it wasn't as if Rodney's brain wasn't the biggest part of why John had fallen for him.

"Let's face it, if Ascension really was the Nirvana or joining the godhead concept everyone claims it to be, the 'giving up of all worldly concerns', why would the Ancients ever concern themselves with what we do? Why would any of them want to descend? If time has no meaning to them, then nothing would have meaning, because they'd know everything that ever did happen or will happen, so why bother to care? Why would Teer have helped me – "

"Excuse me?" escaped out of John, though he hated interrupting Rodney in the midst of scientific breakthrough.

"Ah… " Rodney was obviously back in his body instead of lost in his head. He was blushing and averting his eyes, his hands switching from holding to rubbing, though it was obvious that he was half wishing they weren't touching at all.

John frowned, yet tried very hard not to be wishing the same thing. "I thought you said you didn't remember anything about being ascended."

"I don't, really. I only remember Teer and something about a lecture hall. If I try to think about it, all I remember is sitting in Marla Secor's Functional Classical Mechanics and Rational Numbers class. But I've also read some of what Daniel Jackson wrote about his own experiences, and about his encounter with Oma Desala, who was apparently an Ancient who got caught helping the unenlightened ascend, and was punished for it by the others continuing to let her subvert the rules just enough for her to keep getting in trouble so they could still feel oh so superior about it. He saw her in a roadside diner. I guess the clouds and pearly gates are for the true believers."

Rodney looked and sounded earnestly truthful. He'd never been able to actually lie to John, to lie to anyone, although he did also have a way of making the truth sound like a lie to misdirect certain Genii and others. Even when Rodney had been in his full ascended glory though, had appeared before John long enough to talk him into programming and then putting himself into a stasis chamber for seven hundred years give or take, to await the right combination of time and other factors that could send John back to his right timeline, Rodney had never mentioned Teer.

"My point is… was," Rodney was back to shaking him just enough to get John's attention. "Was that Teer, and especially the Ascended that are punishing Oma, are still very much involved in the day-to-day matters of the physical world, even if that involvement is only in keeping the others from popping back in to help us unenlightened. They don't want any of their people 'playing god', but they're all guilty of it regardless. Most of them are the scientists watching the Petri dish or watching the inmates in the asylum like we're all just one big experiment. Proof of Intelligent Design, only without the actual intelligent part, and not by any godly being; just the ones who aspire to become gods. Frankly, the Ori sound a lot more refreshingly honest about their ambitions."

Point to Rodney, not just about the Ascended, but also about the two of them. John let his frustration go. If Teer had helped Rodney, he should only be grateful, not upset. He did find himself hoping she wasn't being punished like Daniel's Oma.

"Admitting they want to be our Evil Overlords still doesn't mean we want the Ori to overrun the physical universe," John inclined his head in a peace offering.

Rodney looked at John with a confused expression. "Riiight." He then inclined his head back. "So?"

"So, will any of our great revelations here tonight help us against the Ori? Or save Oma and Teer from a life in Purgatory?"

"Ever?" Rodney couldn't completely stop the derisive undertone; it was part and parcel of who Rodney was.

Of who John loved, derisive superiority along with everything else all.

"Of course it will," Rodney scoffed. "The more knowledge we have, the more likely we'll come up with a solution. Even for your glowy squid girlfriends."

"But will it help us tonight?" John prodded.

Rodney let his head fall back against the pillows, the sudden twist of his lips saying he knew exactly John was driving at and wasn't adverse.

John let his own lips twist into a smirk. A smirk that Rodney then proceeded to kiss away in a prelude to certain other physical acts as the night wore on, that almost had John feeling sorry for the Ancients who had willingly, sometimes eagerly, given up.

It was almost enough to distract John from thinking about Teer maybe watching them like some sort of voyeuristic angel.

Or from thinking about Dave and Rodney's sister now doing some of the same things.


Day 32, Month of the Solstice
Tower 7, Equipment Gym
Atlantis

"Who in the hell is the Top working with?" Ronon heard as the two marines walked past his position on the floor.

He didn't bother to look, either over his shoulder to follow them, or over to where the Top, Master Sergeant Boyan Stackhouse, was spotting Lieutenant Kemp at one of the weight sets. Ronon had noted everyone's position when he'd first come in, just as he couldn't help but track these new arrivals and the rest of the people in the room in his head, anytime they moved. After years of knowing that not knowing everyone's positions relative to his own would get him killed, it was instinct now, not just habit.

"One of the officers off the Phoenix," came the answer, another thing that Ronon had already known.

New people weren't always threats, but they were always unpredictable while they remained unknowns. So Ronon had made sure to find out names, ranks where appropriate, as well as the position each of the new arrivals had held – on Earth, onboard Phoenix and, potentially, here. In Kemp's case, he was one of the marines tasked as the protection detail for the civilians and the scientists who'd come looking for the Lantean expedition, security first and then soldier had their ship stayed engaged in battle – or had they found someone other than expedition people occupying Atlantis. A marine, just like the two now settling in behind Ronon; a brother marine, yet obviously, not. Not after four years and festering feelings of abandonment coming back to the fore amidst the Lantean ranks, when news of the contact had first started spreading.

The Lantean marines weren't going so far as to consider Kemp and the other new arrivals as an enemy, but even if the SGC had kept in touch with Atlantis all along, even if Kemp was just coming to Atlantis as a new recruit, he was still an outsider, who'd need to earn their respect and camaraderie. In these circumstances, he was worse than that. Was an REMF, or Rear-Echelon Mother Fuckers, which had translated quite similar to the Satedan version. Not just the ones who didn't know the unstated rules and didn't fit, but the ones who didn't understand the command they were coming into, and still thought their way was the only way. REMFs didn't stay that way for long; they either learned the things that really were important, or they were gone. Usually through death.

Technically, Ronon was still an outsider himself. Twice now.

The first time around had been thirty-one months ago, just after Sheppard's team had found him, saved him, then brought him to Atlantis and did what they could to remind him that there was life beyond mere revenge and survival. Ronon had been given the opportunity to learn how to interact and treat people as something more than tools and potential threats. In return, he'd helped the Lanteans, offered them addresses of potential allies, and planets with abandoned tech. He'd even fought against the Wraith a few times with the Lanteans. Then he'd left, because they weren't his people and Atlantis wasn't his home. Because these Marines weren't his comrades in arms, and he hated being an outsider.

Eventually, though, Ronon had returned to join the Satedan survivors he'd discovered and sent on to Atlantis. Because he'd keep being an outsider on every world he traveled. An outsider and a freak. The Runner if he stayed, or the Lone Lufen if he didn't. Living alone was something the Wraith had forced on him, was something he realized he could finally turn away from and, in doing so, fight the Wraith in yet another way.

It was the same with reclaiming Sateda through its survivors; yet another way to deny the Wraith. Not by going back to the planet of their birth, too decimated to sustain life and too painful to see her that way. But there were enough Satedans banded together now, as part of Atlantis yet still their own people, that the word was going out through the Ring of the Ancestors. Anyone else who might have survived the fall could now find their way to Atlantis and Sateda's rebirth.

It hurt that, in some ways, his own people considered him an stranger themselves; understanding his circumstances but not quite able to forgive him for not being there when they'd fought to keep going on planets like Belkan. They didn't know the man he was now (even the ones who once had), any more than these marines did.

Despite that, he wouldn't ever apologize for Kell.

So he was still apart, still the lone lufan. Even though he had brought his people back together, and even though he'd fought alongside the marines and the other 'Irregulars', as the non-marines in the squad were called. He was still the one they didn't trust.

Oh, Sheppard did, Ronon was sure. And probably Teyla. McKay and Elizabeth trusted him to keep them safe, and that was something too. They, at least, no longer shrank away from him in the corridors and mess halls like the rest of McKay's people did. They didn't squeak or tremble when he said hello or offered to carry something, like Beckett's and Elizabeth's folk, and they didn't avoid him out of shame or distrust as did his own people.

Marines like Miller, and the security guys like Shane here, didn't do any of that either, but they also didn't include him in their lives outside of training. That, Ronon knew, was as much his own fault as theirs. He had to figure out how to trust them first, to be able to expect trust in return. Especially their immediate bosses.

Bates and Ford had both been scarred by the Wraith just as Ronon was; both had had their worlds taken away, in a fashion, like Ronon had. They worried about not being able to return to Earth while the rest of the expedition people wondered about the new future that the ship that had come from there had presented them. Yet Bates and Ford at least knew their families were still there, were still alive. That made it hard to equate their pain with his own, even when Ronon knew their outlook was essentially the same as his. Never able to go back.

Ronon imagined if he'd ever commit, to either joining as an Irregular, or to become one of Bates' City patrols, most of the distrust from the Lanteans would disappear. They seemed to embrace the Irregulars readily enough, no matter what world the new recruits had come from. Ronon would have a place within their chain of command, if nothing else, something every soldier understood and relied on. It would be good for the marines to know where to slot him compared to themselves, good for him too, he figured. To embrace this offered sense of belonging, since not only was Sateda gone, but now there was no Essav Squad. No Ara, no Rakai and no Tyre.

Only, he'd always thought himself better than the Lanteans and their Irregulars. That there was something lacking in the Lanteans. Something soft about them relying on their weapons, ships and other tech, and because they didn't fear the Wraith enough. Sateda had had weapons and ships and tech, too, better guns certainly (evidenced by both Sheppard and McKay even now, willing to do almost anything to find more guns like the one Ronon carried), and also the fire and courage to fight the Wraith without those advantages instead of accepting that cullings were just a part of life. For the last three years, Ronon had felt superior, and had thought that when the Lanteans fell, Sateda could step forward and be the new caretakers of Atlantis. Could be the ones to unite and lead multiple worlds to bring down the Wraith.

Yet it hadn't been the Lanteans who'd been betrayed by their own or had given in and submitted rather than endure torture and welcome death. It wasn't Atlantis that had fallen to the Wraith. Sateda might not have been soft, but its people had been weak. Maybe it was time to give up pride and revenge. To start accepting that all of humanity was flawed, and that much of humanity was worthy.

Ronon touched his knees to the floor on his last push up, then rose on up to his feet in one smooth motion. Normally he trained alone, even when others were present in the gym. He'd spot them when someone asked, would spar with anyone brave enough to consider taking him on, but he didn't normally volunteer to take part in their ritualized movements and patterns, not beyond slow running with Sheppard, and regular bantos work with Teyla.

Miller and Shane were 'boxing', were mainly feinting and touching one another, with thick leather straps wrapped around their knuckles as if their hits would actually do damage to their sparring partner or to themselves. Ronon didn't like boxing, didn't like having to pull his punches or hit stationary objects. The Wraith never pulled their punches.

Stacks and Kemp were working with weights, as was Ares at one of the weight machines. Sergeant Campbell was working with Doctor Simpson, who was struggling to get her chin up over the bar almost beyond her reach even standing to full height, and even with Chuck's help.

Of course, no one needed his help, now that Ronon had made his oath to stop standing alone.

Until Sheppard's brother showed up at the door.

Sheppard had let everyone know he'd be holed up throughout what was left of the day, in debriefs and reviews with Elizabeth, with Ford and Bates, even with Larrin as she was due in early for the evening ceremonies. This other Sheppard was dressed in training clothes, so he was obviously looking to get in some physical exercise, not here looking for Sheppard. After spending many days trapped on a spaceship, unable to feel the sun or breathe fresh air, Ronon couldn't blame him.

Of the others, Ares figured it out first. That this was the Warlord's brother and that maybe the standard derision the soldiers held for civilians would be unacceptable in this particular instance. He called the Top's attention to the new arrival and Stacks quickly took up Kemp's weight bar, signaling the lieutenant to stop. They then repositioned it on the supports before Stacks moved away to welcome the other Sheppard.

Teyla had reported back that this Sheppard was an administrator like Elizabeth, was someone who looked after people as well as projects, someone who moved in a world of influence and power. She'd thought well of him for all that he was obviously out of his depth dealing with spaceships and aliens. He seemed more outwardly reticent than Sheppard, who was all surface charm and pleasantness, but truly reserved to his core. Teyla described this brother as more genuinely friendly in private.

McKay had simply dismissed him as a merchant. Said that Dave Sheppard served his people and his property only for the money and prestige it offered him. McKay called him arrogant and privileged, his tone colored with all of the resentment of someone who'd had to fight for everything he felt he deserved.

As Dave Sheppard interacted with Stacks, Ronon saw evidence of the breeding and wealth McKay had so disdained; the training clothes this Sheppard wore were of a much finer weave and richer in color than anything the Lantean military had once brought. He was also fit for a civilian, fitter certainly than most of the Lantean civilians had been even after a year on Atlantis. Ronon could also tell that this Sheppard worked his body because it was expected, because he understood that first impressions were often made on appearance and it was advantageous to look attractive. The Lantean Sheppard knew the same thing, yet more importantly, knew that survival, not just of self but of others, could come down to who could run or carry or defend longer. Each had the same tools, but put them to different use.

If there was also arrogance, it was more in McKay's own mold; this Sheppard also comfortable in his knowledge and skills, yet without the defensiveness that caused McKay to lash out at other people and tout those abilities as if they were secret. To Ronon, Dave Sheppard looked and was acting more like a Satedan politician, like someone comfortable governing others, yes, but also someone who understood governance had its own obligations. His expression when Stacks reached out to him wasn't one of impatience or condescension for being initially ignored, but instead one of appreciation and welcome to be acknowledged now. He hadn't flinched to see the scarring and Stack's empty eye socket; the Top always removed his patch while working out. McKay couldn't say that, he still turned away every time, even though the scar had healed surprisingly well.

Ronon started moving toward them, not sure what he was going to offer, yet decided upon making one.

Stacks looked surprised and then grinned, maybe to be relived of the obligation, or maybe because he figured the joke would be on Sheppard's brother. "Mister Dave Sheppard," he gestured to Ronon, "this is Specialist Ronon Dex. Specialist Dex, Mister Sheppard is looking for a sparring partner to work out the stiffness from a couple of weeks in close quarters."

Ronon let his lip twist with a promise for the Master Sergeant of what he was expecting Ronon to give to Sheppard's brother, which Stacks took good-naturedly enough. Ronon then turned something closer to a real smile on Sheppard's brother. No doubt the rest of the marines were expecting Ronon to treat this Sheppard as he did them, too. They had never seen him work with McKay or with Healer Beckett, had no clue that he was teaching Elizabeth some stretches and exercises that were, slowly, restoring some functionality and flexibility to her twisted leg.

Ronon gave no quarter to the marines when they sparred, in part because of their childish bravado, yet also because he knew they could take it. Because they, like he, were the ones the civilians relied upon, so to be nothing but their best was wasteful as well as harmful.

He wasn't a barbarian, however, McKay's complaints to the contrary. And he wasn't a sadist. A Satedan Specialist was foremost a teacher, was someone entrusted to pass on as well as emulate the traits of a warrior.

"We'll have more room to move if we go next door," Ronon gestured to the door between several sets of climbing ladders the Lanteans had fashioned against one of the side walls. Stacks acknowledged the silent rebuke with a nod of his head, and snapped at the other marines who might have followed, to guide them through some of the formalized aspects of their own training instead of letting them watch or goad. A good Top, if sometimes prey to the flaw of arrogance, just like most elite soldiers in Ronon's experience. The Master Sergeant had the respect of his men, though, as well as Sheppard's and his other superiors, and was a good man to have at your back. He'd respect in turn that this Sheppard was now under Ronon's protection, and would make sure any ridicule would be kept to a minimum.

"Why do I get the feeling that you think you've saved me from something, and the Master Sergeant thinks he's thrown me to the wolves?" Dave Sheppard asked after they moved into the other room, and the doors slid shut without having to signal the monitor.

"You have the Ancestors' gene?" Ronon gestured with his head toward the door.

Sheppard nodded, looking uncomfortable and awed at the same time. "Not quite as strong as John's apparently, but still something that has both Doctors Beckett and McKay excited."

Ronon nodded. "The answer to your question is the same thing. You have your brother's intelligence too, or he, yours. McKay said you were the older?"

Sheppard gave a wry smile. "I shudder to think what else Doctor McKay may have said about me. He doesn't like me."

"He's jealous of you, and scared Shep – John is somehow going to abandon him now that you're here." Ronon shrugged. "McKay doesn't trust you."

"Me?"

"Or any outsider."

"Sounds like he has self-worth issues, but who doesn't?" Sheppard said with a laugh.

Ronon nodded again. "They'll both come around. Right now, it looks like everyone is wary of your arrival, like they shouldn't trust it. Or you. They're worried that it's more mouths to feed, along with loved ones needing to be protected. They worry that you will all leave again, that they'll have been offered this taste of what they think they want – "

"Or that we'll end up making things worse," Sheppard said shrewdly. "You can't go home again. That's the title of a famous book on our world, and I can't believe I'm saying that like it's important." Sheppard then shook his head. "It's become a famous quote now because the meaning is important, because even if you could go back, to where you grew up, or hell, even back in time – which, standing here in the lost city of Atlantis, seems like it might be possible – it's never the same, because you aren't."

Ronon waited him out, figuring he'd get to his point even if Ronon already understood what he was trying to say. Probably even better than Sheppard understood it, given Sateda, old and new. The Earthers – the Tau'ri he guessed these new ones called themselves – though, liked to talk.

"It's a way of reminding yourself that the home you want to go back to, likely isn't the home you really had." Sheppard finally concluded.

Yes. That the past you remember might be a lie and that in any event, holding onto it prevents you from finding your future. Some things translated across all planets, all peoples. It was part of what made them all human and brothers, despite their differences.

"I think I liked your: 'The hardest thing in this world is living in it', better," Ronon offered.

Sheppard just looked confused.

"From Buffy?"

Sheppard then shook his head.

"The Vampire Slayer?"

"Oh. That. I never watched it."

Ronon grinned. "You end up staying here, you will. It's a pretty good primer, not so much in how to fight the Wraith or the Toasters, but in the importance of family and team."

Even if Ronon had forgotten that, for a while.

"I'll teach you how to fight the Wraith."


Day 1473 AA
Tower 4, South Pier
Atlantis

Rodney had appointed himself overseer for the supplies that the Phoenix crew had brought for Atlantis, in part to make sure he got a chance to look at everything before someone else bogarted it, yet also as much to avoid any further participation in the debriefing with the SGC lackeys. He knew his immediate dislike of them wasn't fair, that Lorne and Cadfael and Jennifer Michelle Gellar personally hadn't been in any position to come find them sooner. That he should be grateful instead of angry that they'd come at all. Grateful that they'd come with a cargo bay filled with medicines and more MREs, laptops and external hard drives and all of the latest software, including games and media entertainment, at least. Chocolate… Coffee.

Luxuries, though, were only that. They'd done pretty well with making do, with finding new things to make Atlantis feel more like home – certainly more than Area 51 or Colorado Springs and definitely Siberia had been. Still…

For a moment Rodney could almost envision the future being similar to the past when he'd been stationed at the Antarctic base. Regular 'fresh' food runs and the occasional new personnel. More or less being left alone, however, because everyone who knew anything about Ancient tech was already here, and not even the IOA would be eager to brave the deadly and austere conditions.

No doubt Elizabeth had had to deal with political wrangling and interference even in Antarctica, but Rodney had only ever the science to worry about there, no part in helping run a city or more than a handful of personnel to oversee. The politics had never affected him beyond whether all of the fruit being infrequently dropped off would be citrus. Or whose nephew/niece/mistress he had to pretend knew a wormhole from the hole in their head.

He just knew it wasn't going to be like that here. The one thing Rodney had learned best during his work with the United States Air Force, with all of the other militaries and governments and, yes, even the SGC, was that the more strategic the base, the more micromanagement the brass back home would want to perform.

If Earth really was up against a wall with the Ori and other threats back in the Milky Way, Atlantis would be no doubt ripe for the picking in their minds, no matter what kind of assurances Lorne – or Sam and O'Neill – spouted.

He could too easily see the SGC wanting the team to revisit Doranda, to throw the resources and manpower that Atlantis hadn't had the first time around at it, in order to see if they could complete what the Ancients had left unfinished. Rodney also knew himself well enough to realize that he'd end up trying to prove that he could out-think them, whether the project blew up in their faces too.

Supposing they kept Doranda a secret, there was still always Atlantis herself; the knowledge that they'd successfully fired up her stardrive and flown her to several different locations had not been overlooked in the sudden tizzy over the lost control crystal during the initial debrief. And if not Atlantis, there were always the Ancients' warships that the Travelers lived within. Forget America, the SGC didn't have any better track record with colonialism or in not trading beads for Manhattan than the British or Dutch had had. And there was always the Manhattan Project to remember.

Rodney could see how it might go too easily.

Already there were too many things that Larrin's people wanted and needed; just the opportunity to live in Atlantis had led some of the ship captains to think about exchanging their freedom for the assumed safety. None of them had yet turned their ships over to Atlantis' control to become part of Elizabeth's burgeoning colony, but Rodney definitely wasn't the only reason Larrin chose to keep away from Atlantis and have her people meet with various teams at offworld locations instead, to support their participation of the alliance.

If the SGC decided not to concern themselves with charming the Travelers, what about that society of devolved Ancients that Atlantis had run across back in year three? Not even for the possibility of new ZedPMs had Elizabeth or John wanted to risk traveling through their gate, since it had been housed directly in their city, just like Atlantis'. All too easy to imagine those people were Wraith worshipers, since any society that seemed to have the kind of technology they'd had should have been culled back to the Stone Age. That they'd also been unwilling to stand up in a fight against the Wraith had certainly proven they weren't going to be good ally material. At least Chaya had had a reason to turn the expedition away, and to keep her people hidden. Those guys, though? Nothing.

Atlantis had wanted no part of them, but would the SGC agree with that assessment?

Fuck that. What if the SGC wanted to make nice with the Genii? They could easily decide that with Earth standing behind Atlantis, the Genii would simply stop their empire building and fold their little Nazi selves into the Concorde; Western foreign policy at its finest.

Or, worse, what if they took John's freaky relationship with Todd as some sort of signal that the rest of the Wraith could also be reasoned with? It was much too easy to see the SGC or their watchdogs thinking that the race that had sent the Ancients packing would do the same to the Ori. Once more, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, only without the personal connection. Or honor.

That was just the kind of damage the SGC could do here. But what if renewed and steady contact with Earth did put Atlantis on the Ori's radar as Jeannie had implied O'Neill and Sam were worried about? It wasn't any stretch at all to imagine what the Ori would do once they found out Atlantis was inhabited again. Whereas the Wraith wanted Atlantis for the short cut it presented to their utopian feeding grounds, the Ori would figure it a direct channel to those they even more eagerly wanted to kill. And damn whoever got in their way.

Fuck. He and John had only talked about giving up Doranda or Atlantis, but there were so many other possibilities of disaster, even if Earth didn't mean to interfere. He was going to have to sanitize so many of his reports and papers, to –

"Hey, the really good stuff's in the boxes over here," someone interrupted him, causing Rodney to drop the barbell weight he'd unconsciously been pulling out of the box that looked like it contained the rest of a weight set, only just missing his foot.

"You could have killed me!" he turned toward the female voice, livid and shaking over his near miss. "What are you doing here?"

The small redhead grinned. "Nah, it would have only broken your foot, which hurts like a bitch, but isn't life threatening."

"It is if you have to run from the Wraith and you can't," Rodney tore apart her ignorant lack of concern. "And you didn't answer my question. What are you doing here? Who are you?"

"We already met, Rodney." She drew his name out almost as irritatingly as John sometimes still did.

Like she knew him and was entitled to that kind of intimacy.

"A couple of times, remember?" She snapped her heels and saluted. "Lieutenant Laura Cadman, United States Marine Corp and XO on the Phoenix. Oorah!"

"And you are here, why?" he repeated, gathering his disdain as tightly around him as she floated in her sarcasm. "Did you lose track of your I-Can-Be-Whatever-I-Want-So-There Barbie doll and came looking for it here?"

She cocked her head and looked surprised at his hostility. "Nah, I only played with GI Joes." She abruptly grinned again, more a baring of her teeth. "Well, up until I figured out that what they were missing mattered. Then I just blew them up by drilling holes and sticking bottle rockets up their asses."

"Of course you did," he dismissed her. "Thank you for that charming expose on your childhood. Now, I repeat, why are you here?"

She produced a clipboard from behind her back. "Your Warlord mentioned you were conducting inventory on the supplies we brought and I figured you might like a copy of the manifest. The best stuff is in the boxes with the little yellow lemon shapes. Colonel Carter oversaw their packing directly."

"He's not my Warlord and you don't get to call him that," Rodney started to protest then stopped. "Oh, very nice, Sam. Real mature."

"Hey, bosses take their fun where they can." Cadfael – Cadman – shrugged as if she only understood it had been Carter's joke, but didn't know the punch line.

Well, that was a small mercy. No doubt she was the type who also thought threatening someone with a lemon, with even a fake lemon, to get them to do things, would be funny.

"I'm sure Doctor Weir and your Warlord indulge – hell you probably would too," she grinned at him again, "once you remember to take the rocket stick out."

"Go away," Rodney shooed his hands at her before bringing one up to rub at the ache between his eyes. "I don't need – "

"Hey, pax, Rodney… Doctor McKay," she suddenly held her own hands out in the Whoa stance and stopped looking quite so smug. "I really did come out to help. You're going to be in here for days if you try to do everything alone and it's not like I have much to do other than sit in on debriefings, which, obviously," she gestured to him and around the room, "you agree are just plain boring. Some of the stuff here, well, it's not exactly perishable, but it also shouldn't be sitting in boxes for any longer than it has to. Most is staples and replacement equipment and necessities, but you guys really deserve the few treats we were able to smuggle on board. Those aren't on the manifest."

"Pax?" he scowled at her out of reflex, but maybe she wasn't that bad. "What are you, the love-child of a hippy?"

"Nah, that's Major Lorne." She had her grin back, and this time she looked like she was making an effort to share the joke. "His mom is an art teacher straight out of Haight-Ashbury."

"How did someone like that ever end up in the military?" Rodney wondered. "Looking for an easy education thanks to your GI Bill? Or was that the way he rebelled?" Only as he started down that route, that last option really wasn't a joke any more, not after what John had finally revealed because of his brother's arrival.

"Hey, the GI Bill has helped a lot of people who otherwise might not be able to go to college, Doc," Cadman defended. "And there are quite of few of us who happen to want to help defend our country, instead of taking the college deferment."

"I'll have you know I've done more for your military than you probably have."

"Yeah, I imagine you're right." She smiled widely, mockingly this time. "And you're not even a citizen. But there's a difference between doing the right thing to save your own hide," she then scowled, "and in putting yourself out on the front line like our teams back at the SGC do every damn day. Just because we don't always follow your little rules – "

"The immutable ones you mean?" He had his own way of mocking, perfected over the years. Knowledge fell to no challenger.

"Like the fundamental laws of the universe, Lieutenant?"

"We're not just all markers or components in your equations, Doctor McKay!"

Ah, so he was right. She heard about him from her buddies, from the 'teams' who still claimed he'd been eager to write Teal'c off as a lost cause. She'd not bothered to form her own opinion, preferring to rely on rumors and innuendo rather than thinking for herself. Or doing a little fact checking. Typical grunt.

"Lieutenant, I believe Major Lorne is looking for you." John interrupted before Rodney could set her straight.

Cadman was smart enough to pick up that John was angry. Was livid, actually, and that probably said the most as to how long he'd been lurking and listening to the two of them.

"Yes, sir." She snapped to attention, despite John not having raised his voice or speaking a word of reprimand.

"I don't need you to fight my fights for me John," Rodney couldn't help but bristle a little after she scampered out.

"I wasn't," John said blandly, still obviously pissed but trying not to get into a fight.

Rodney really wasn't either; the admonishment had just come automatically. A reflexive defense from the time when he hadn't been confident of standing up to the military tasked to protect him, lest they forget that part of their mandate. Sure, he'd always, eventually gotten even, but it had taken him longer than it should have given his genius brain, to figure out that John and Aiden had been running interference for him back in those early months. That the marines hadn't been cowed by his elaborate (and never traceable) schemes of revenge, but instead were only toeing the line their COs had drawn for them.

"Your major happened to be looking for you, that's all."

Which had probably been meant as something to defuse the remaining tension, but John couldn't hold his smile. And he would never apologize for defending Rodney, even those times when Rodney could take care of himself. Protecting people was a compulsion for John, even when he wasn't in love with them.

"It's time to get ready for the ceremony."

Oh.

Rodney looked down at the watch that had been John's until Rodney had broken the last of his own, and saw that John was right. They'd have just enough time to shower and maybe eat before changing into their 'best', not that John ever had an appetite before or after these things.

"So did Major Lorne agree to hold his for Griffin with ours?" Rodney asked, moving to John's side and brushing their shoulders together as they left the room.

John shrugged. "That was a conversation between him and Elizabeth. I didn't bother to stay. All I know is some of Phoenix's crew have asked to attend, and that Elizabeth is suspending all nonessential work for the rest of the day. Whether we intend to go to any of the wakes afterward or not. Nola and Baden decided to stay over, by the way. And Norina has already come through the gate, as has Larrin and her people."

Rodney couldn't stop his frown.

"Larrin lost as many people as we did, damn it. She's not here to fucking flirt, Rodney. And you don't see me bitching about Nola or Norina."

Rodney pulled John to a stop and turned him until John's back was against the wall. "I know, John," he said softly and leaned in a little, not trying to trap John or anything, just to keep them together. To let John feel Rodney's warmth and weight and Atlantis' calming presence. Not kissing either, because as much as they might joke that kissing, like blow jobs, were always welcome, sometimes they really weren't.

John closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, the hardness that had been there for Cadman was gone, leaving only the sadness.

Rodney wasn't any happier to see that, but at least it was an emotion worthy of John feeling.

"Yeah, I know that." John took a deep breath, then licked his lips. "Sorry. It's been a long couple of days."

Rodney had to correct him. "A long week, you mean. Unfortunately, I don't see it getting much better, at least not until everyone leaves."

John tipped his head and laughed. "You do realize that not all of the folks off Phoenix are planning on going back, right? Your sister and her daughter, my brother, some of the other family members, and some of the crew? Rodney," he now sounded exasperated (and whiny), when Rodney could only offer him a blank, maybe slightly horrified look in return. "Don't you read Elizabeth's emails?"

"I've been busy," Rodney defended himself. "Saving pilots and cleaning up the messes my people make when I'm away, conducting inventory and skimming off the good chocolate and coffee – and popcorn. They brought popcorn, John. You know Teyla is going to be all over that."

John brought his hands up to curl around Rodney's shoulders. "Jeannie brought her daughter with her, Rodney."

"Because she didn't want to leave her behind." A little needy, but some parents were like that. So Rodney had always been told.

John just gave him a look. "Exactly, Rodney. Because she wasn't about to leave Madison behind."

Rodney felt his eyes widening as he suddenly got it. "Fuck. You're serious? Jeannie – some of them want to stay? And Elizabeth has said yes?"

"And Elizabeth said yes." John dropped a kiss on Rodney's nose, then tipped their foreheads together in the Athosian way they'd adopted for the own intimacy in public.

"I don't know that all of them are planning on making their lives here like us, but in addition to the various involved families, some of the SGC alumni would like to at least spend a rotation here, for the three or four months it will take Phoenix to go back home, report, resupply and hopefully come back to pick them up. They're even willing to accept the consequence of being cut off again if Earth decides we're not worth the bother. Including eight new scientists."

"Who? No, I don't care who," Rodney dismissed that thought. He'd care eventually, because if they sent more people like Kavanagh or it included that architect, he'd have to Take. Steps.

"What are their specialties? Please don't say they're all linguists or archeologists as surrogate Jacksons."

John looked nonplussed, then he smiled and tilted his head.

Apparently, kisses were welcome right now.

"I've met the two botanists, and yes, there is at least one linguist. Whose existence has made Elizabeth very happy," John eventually answered when they came up for air. "When you deign to check your email, I'm sure you'll see that Elizabeth's provided you a spreadsheet of names, specialties, and their CVs as attachments. I got five new Marines, an Air Force PJ, and a SAS parachutist, myself. Both Major Lorne and Lieutenant Cadman want to return too, and stay after Phoenix's next trip out if they're allowed to return."

Rodney dismissed the warning about Cadman. "I'm guessing by your sudden enthusiasm, we needed a parachutist? And that you're no longer worried about answering again to 'The Man'?" Rodney even made the finger quotes.

John still looked too excited instead of properly reacting to Rodney's goad. "Two actually, but it's not the damn parachute, Rodney." Excited and maybe a little pissed that Rodney wasn't getting this any more than he had that Jeannie wanted to stay. With him. Them.

"SAS, Rodney. Special Air Service, which is another name for the original Special Forces. And PJs don't just jump out of copters and planes either; they're Para rescue men who jump out to provide recovery and medical treatment."

Okay, so maybe he could understand a little of John's eagerness. They had Carson, and Doctors Cole and Biro, plus Marie and a couple other trained nurses, but they'd also lost almost half of the military's medically-trained personal in the field, because most of them hadn't been adequately trained to be healer and soldier both.

"Why is it PJ, instead of PR?" Rodney's brain jumped to the obvious contradiction.

"Because PR has another meaning and it would sound stupid for someone not a member of the Air Force Press Corp," John retorted with a roll of his eyes. "Because the Air Force has to identify everyone on a plane on a crew flight log, and the PJs only 'in flight' duties were to jump out, back when the program started," John then corrected. "PJs. Pararescue Jumpers."

Rodney rolled his eyes.

"What?" John snorted and suddenly pushed Rodney away a little. "You thought I wouldn't know? I flew CSAR for twelve years before fucking Antarctica, Rodney. Half of my crew were PJs."

Rodney muscled John back again, highly aware of the sudden spark in John's eye and his quick intake of breath, even if John wasn't. While John wasn't really a typical anything, was decidedly atypical in fact, he still reacted to aggression in one of two ways: getting aggressive himself, or backing down. And in either case, he stopped thinking about people dying.

Also in either case, it was always a coin toss as to which way John would go.

Rodney liked that John defied categorization, even in certain sexual preferences.

It made it easier that Rodney still preferred variation in data collection, even if now he only worked with one control.


Day 1473 AA
Gate Room
Atlantis

As John reached the stairs leading down to the gate room, he was struck by the splashes of Mess Dress and Dress Blues in amongst the sea of cottons, silk and leather below him. The expedition had given up on maintaining any type of uniform sometime toward the end of their second year in Atlantis. For the most part, cloth here in Pegasus was simple weaves, tanned hides and fur. The societies that had manufacturing capabilities … well, Lantea had more dire needs from them in trade than for polyester blends.

As far as the societies that favored their own form of uniform? Most of them took after the Genii: militaristic, expansionistic. Something that hadn't been in Atlantis' best interest to emulate.

The concept of a 'Sunday-best' seemed to be universal, at least during the rituals for honoring their dead. So everyone here tonight was dressed in their finest; still practical, only a few long dresses or lengthy tunics. Still all things that could be run in, for when the Wraith decided to be gatecrashers.

Like Teyla, Ronon and Keras. Who stood before the gate, not representing the three allied worlds who considered themselves Lanteans alongside the expedition, but as voices for all of the planets and peoples who looked to Atlantis, as the voices who would speak for the dead. Princes, the both of them, with their shining and deadly Queen before them. The three looked much more like the elves out of Lord of the Rings than any SCA or Dungeon and Dragons posers.

No, the D&D styles were the rest of them, a mix of Ren faire and barbarian chic.

Like most of the original expedition members, John was wearing a nicer garment over his usual handspun and leather. His, a collarless decorative shirt, had been a gift from the Vedeenans after their Seer had died a peaceful death while visiting Atlantis. It reminded John a lot of the formal type of wedding clothes he saw when he'd been stationed in the Philippines, although his wasn't sheer and was black, with ocean color threads woven in some sort of almost Celtic pattern to relieve the austerity of it, and tiny pearl buttons down half of the front. Elizabeth had received a matching dress with the colors reversed, styled more along a knee-length cheongsam, complete with knotwork fasteners. Carson wore the third gift from Davos' daughter, collarless again but more a jacket than shirt or dress, hued in golds and reds: the Vedeenan colors of life and blood.

Somehow, Rodney had managed to preserve a tailored suit from Earth, which he'd still never properly explained why it had even been brought along. (John had eventually decided it was his 'Nobel' suit; that it probably traveled with Rodney everywhere, including Antarctica.) The satiny shirt he wore underneath the navy pinstripe and black silk tie was a gift from now Queen Harmony. Rodney fidgeted in it, he seemed as uncomfortable in it as John's had ever felt about his own Mess Dress, but he looked damn fine; the blue of the shimmering fabric matching the color of Rodney's eyes exactly.

Larrin's crew stood out only because they stayed clustered together, accepting comfort and sympathy only grudgingly, although Larrin herself had attached herself to Major Lorne. Much to Rodney's obvious pleasure if John was interpreting the timing of Rodney's little moue of satisfaction right after Rodney's completed his own scan of the room. John suspected this wasn't any sort of redirect of Larrin's interest, but simply because Lorne had been the one who'd save Larrin's crew, and this was her first opportunity to talk to her rescuer.

As John, Carson, and Rodney started down the steps, Aiden called his soldiers to attention, Lieutenant Cadman echoing him seconds later. Elizabeth stayed on the gallery, with Gene and Pelius standing as her attendants. The scientists, civilians, and native populations also stopped talking and milling, but it still took John a moment to pick out Dave in the crowd, standing with Jeannie Miller and her daughter Madison, along with Nurse Jennifer – who turned out to actually be Doctor Jennifer Keller. He guessed about half of the Phoenix's population was here, with mostly the rank and file of the crew staying onboard to look after the ship's operations and the officers and the civilians turning out. All of Atlantis, too, save for those necessary to maintain sensor stations and patrols.

Having been through too many of these, John let his face and mind go solemn and blank as he and Rodney took their places near Teyla's trio, looking out over the people standing before the gate. John had agreed to speak on Elizabeth's behalf and his own, but other than standing to honor those who'd sacrificed their lives, grief was a private thing for John. Funerals only gave him a headache.

The one thing the SGC hadn't sent from the first, or with this second coming, was any form of chaplain. Probably because at least half of the SGC was, at best, agnostic, and those others who did practice some form of religion, practiced many forms of religion. They had Halling, anyway.

The Athosian spiritual leader opened the ceremony with his benediction of the Ancestors; one that John had noticed changing over the years, the original leanings of worship toward the Ancients slowly becoming more an acknowledgment that they were the progenitors and not the gods so many cultures had once looked to them to be. Teyla would start the liturgical songs of Remembrance and Release of her people that bookended the mixture of prayers and eulogies in between, the part that was a reflection of whatever society the deceased had come from as well as Atlantis' personal contributions. John figured this one would run a little over a two hours, since so many had died representing several worlds, with his own part coming thirty to forty minutes in.

He suddenly felt Rodney's fingers brush and then enclose around his. While John didn't think he'd let his restlessness show, Rodney certainly knew him well enough to make his conclusion without the evidence. The welcome for some sort of distraction was, John figured, mutual. They'd stood at too damn many of these things. John didn't see it actually getting better with the reestablished contact with Earth, just more people to get to know, then lose. Like the F-302 pilot, William Griffin.

"I've got contact of an unknown ship!" Chuck suddenly shouted out over the first of Larrin's halting eulogies. "It's directly over Atlantis!"

"That's impossible," Rodney complained, already pulling off his tie and turning to start up the steps behind them. "You must have fallen asleep. Our long range sensors would have – Was there a hyperspace window?" he interrupted himself.

"No, it just appeared over Atlantis," Chuck held his ground, long used to Rodney. "Out of nowhere."

John pulled off his own finery, took it and Rodney's jacket and shoved them off on someone. Kate Heightmeyer, he thought as he chased Rodney up the stairs, but she'd already disappeared into the crowd that was disbursing to their emergency stations before he thought to check. Aiden and Gene were directing their people with the calm efficiency that made John's job a whole lot easier, and even Cadman seemed to intuitively know to send her people off toward her ship. Or at least out of the fucking way.

Lorne and Larrin were following him, as were Teyla and Ronon. Because Larrin had chosen to use the gate for her arrival over one of her ships, there wasn't too much she and her people could do, but her second was directing most of them to follow Carson it sounded like, volunteering to act as corpsmen and message runners should they been needed.

"Identification?" John asked as he skidded to a stop next to where Rodney had taken up the console position next to Chuck. It didn't look like Rodney had realized he'd thrown that operator out of their chair, or that Pelius and Elizabeth were now helping Amelia to her feet. Not even Amelia bothered to point it out.

"Nothing yet," Rodney began, fingers flying over keys to access the list of ship types and registries they'd managed to add to their database thanks to Larrin's people and the Taranians.

"I've got a sensor visual," Chuck announced.

John twisted away from Rodney's screen to take a look at Chuck's.

"I know that reading," Lorne sounded amazed. "That's a 303."

Rodney started to crane his neck to look, then lifted up out of his seat, holding onto John's arm to keep his balance. "He's right."

John fixed his gaze on Lorne. "I don't suppose the IOA might have considered the Phoenix a threat to their authority and would have sent the Daedalus out after you, Major?"

Lorne blushed and rubbed the back of his neck, but immediately started shaking his head. "I suppose it could have been sent independently of us, it's not like we were keeping in close contact with the SGC even before we passed out of range. But how would they have known to come directly here? We collected your original message buoy from Atlantis original resting place, so they couldn't have followed the same trail."

"Oh, maybe because one of your crew decided that going behind the IOA's back wasn't in their best self-interest?" Rodney sounded even more accusatory than John figured he had himself.

"Yeah, well, your sister oversaw a lot of the retrofit to the transport, McKay," Lorne bristled, not backing down from Rodney any more than Chuck had, though obviously not for the same reasons. "If anyone had the opportunity to plant a transmitter – "

John barely stopped Rodney from charging through Chuck to reach Lorne. Rodney's chair still went flying, nearly clipping Elizabeth and that brought everyone to a halt before John or Gene could further intervene.

With Pelius and, crap, Jeannie's help, Elizabeth walked to Chuck's console, not asking or saying anything as they moved aside for her, not until she leaned on Chuck to press the button for the long-range communications channel.

"Unknown ship, this is Doctor Elizabeth Weir of Atlantis. Please identify yourself."

Rodney stayed on his feet, arms crossed defensively over his chest, refusing to look Jeannie's way despite him being the one who'd defended her honor. Lorne was making some gesture of apology, John suspected, but Jeannie waived him off with a small smile. John took the moment while they awaited an answer to track that Dave and Madison had disappeared from the room below along with everyone else but the Guard. Before he could wonder or ask where they'd been directed to, Aiden was sliding up to him with a report on the alert readiness of Keras' flight wing and Gene's security forces.

They'd done the siege thing often enough to have a routine. Even in times like this with their ZPM so nearly depleted it necessitated holding off on the city's shield until the first weapons hit one of the towers. Aiden's military would be prepping the city's evacuation, ready to switch places with the security patrols should the fighting in up ground-to-air and air-to-air combat. If this was the Daedalus or one of her sisters, John wasn't sure their shield would hold against Asgard beaming technology so, for the moment, the soldiers who knew the city best would stay the ones tasked to protect her people, while the marines prepared to protect the evacuated.

"Ah, Atlantis, Elizabeth, it's really great to hear your voice. This is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, on board the Earth ship Daedalus. I'm expecting, hoping I guess, that you have a John Sheppard already there, but if you don't, well, we're still not from your universe. If you have a Rodney McKay with you, a Sam Carter or a Radek Zelenka, one of them should be able to explain it if this is your first time at this kind of parallel universe rodeo."

Elizabeth drew back a little, unsettled but also amused, as were most of the other people standing around. Rodney looked fascinated, his brain obviously working out the probabilities, and maybe not just the ones about the science from the way his pupils were dilating. For himself, John was trying to assess if another him was going to be a threat – and figure out if he always sounded like that.

"Glad that you mentioned me first." Rodney sounded a little frosty, no doubt to cover for his not completely inappropriate arousal, which drew John back from his own disturbing thoughts involving the possibility of two Rodneys.

"How did you get here?"

"Good to hear your voice too, Rodney," the hey, wow, Lieutenant Colonel version of him just laughed at Rodney's pique.

"In answer to your question, that would take my Rodney to explain properly, and he's kinda busy right now. Suffice it to say, this Daedalus, which isn't ours either, has an Alternate Reality Drive that we think yet another Rodney managed to design. It's either not working properly or got damaged somewhere along the way and the crew abandoned ship. Oh, if you start reading a big build up of energy, we're not prepping an attack, that's just the drive in action. Once that power spikes, we skip to the next universe so if we don't say goodbye… Anyway, Rodney's trying to figure out how to stop and throw this thing into reverse so that we end up back in the right universe before we've gone too far to remember where that actually is."

"Is there anyway we can be of assistance?" Elizabeth asked.

She appeared to be accepting what they were being told at face value, but this wasn't her first time at this any more than it was John's.

"No, do not send anyone else to the ship, " Alt-John said, all traces of ease abruptly gone. "We've already got one dead team up here that apparently got trapped before we did."

"Oh, John."

Elizabeth looked and sounded stricken, showing that she worried even for a different, unknown John Sheppard, which made John's stomach twist with something indefinable.

"Elizabeth, it's okay, we're okay," Alt-John's tone was just as raw, speaking Elizabeth's name, as John might Mitch, Dex, Holland or Marshall Sumner's.

Oh.

Fuck.

"All we're asking for is a chance to exchange information," Alt-John continued after clearing his throat. "We've had a little time to put together basically a rough database of planets containing threats or allies, plus whatever data we've gleaned from this Daedalus. Oh, and some random Rodney notes about various projects and whatever he'd been distracting himself with, stored on his mission laptop. You might already know all of it, or have no use for it, but I think I can safely saw we all have a vested interest in looking after Atlantis."

"Of course, Colonel," Elizabeth smiled as if Alt-John could see her. "Give me a minute to figure out what we might be able to arrange. Rodney," Elizabeth then pulled back away from the mic, "the data files you've prepared for Major Lorne to return to the SGC. Can you make a quick copy of them?"

"Quick enough if I use my compression algorithm, but the delivery is going to be a problem. We can't just send and receive unknown data packets over subspace frequencies. Sure, he sounds like Sheppard, but we can't just blindly trust him. He could have a goatee!"

Fortunately, Elizabeth was geek enough to get the reference. Even more fortunately, they'd done something like this before, participating in a very odd exchange of information with Todd.

Not anything useful about specific Wraith strengths or weaknesses, of course. Not even ship details and migratory movements of his rival hives.

Not too long ago, Carson had had a breakthrough in his research into Wraith genetics, including some possible alternatives to their biological imperative to feed off of humans. Todd had been interested enough to offer up some general, historical background about Wraith, plus a few personal details as long as he could get a copy of what Carson had already put together. Along with whatever new conclusions Carson reach based on the Wraith data. With neither side willing to completely trust one another, Rodney and Simpson had come up with two stand-alone computer systems, fire-walled out the ying-yang and impossible to be connected to Atlantis intranet. They kept one on Atlantis, Deep Thought, and turned the other one over to Todd.

Somehow, John didn't think Todd had bothered to name his, even if they had books like Hitchhiker's Guide. Or books at all.

The Alt-team might not have something quite so secure, but they already knew Rodney had had at least one laptop on hand. The drawback here, as with Todd, was that the exchange needed to happen over very short-range frequencies. Not so short-range that someone was going to have to land on the other ship, but still meaning that someone was going to have to fly up near the Daedalus.

"Rodney, where is Deep Thought right now?"

"In various pieces in my lab, which is why I didn't suggest it in the first place," Rodney scowled, looking a little hurt as well as pissed. "And it would take too long to find and set up one the computers that have just come out on Phoenix," he preempted John's next suggestion with a sneer.

Okaaay. Yeah, Rodney wasn't an idiot. But neither was John. And Rodney did have a tendency to over think when it came to tactics or strategies instead of opting for the simplest approach.

"That needs to be fixed, like yesterday," John frowned in return. "Todd's due tomorrow for the exchange of information about the Toasters, damn it!"

Rodney simply lifted his chin belligerently, then gave John a very pointed look that reminded him why Rodney might not have time to finish his repair or upgrade or whatever.

Oh, right.

"So I could maybe ask Atlantis to cut a jumper out of the system," John put out as a peace offering. "Use it to handle the transfer?"

"You'd have to be able to cut out your brain too," Rodney thumped John on the back of his head.

"Ow."

"Baby," but Rodney gave him a private smile.

"The problem is that the city can't disconnect from the jumpers as long as there is an operator interfacing with it. With them." Rodney shook his head. "If we cut out the operator, the jumper can't fly. And, no, no matter how much you want to trust your other self, I'm even less willing to take a chance of a virus or corrupted data entering into Atlantis organically. I'm sorry, John, Elizabeth."

"What about an F-302?" Major Lorne suggested. "Its computer system is completely autonomous."

"Sure, then the malevolent virus could take over a fighter ship and strafe Atlantis," Rodney was back being nasty again.

"You're just saying that because you don't want our help," Jeannie began at the same time John thumped Rodney in return.

"I think the Daedalus can handle that all on its own, Rodney," he pointed out dryly. John then directed his attention to Lorne. "That's one of the sweet craft Griffin had been flying?"

A sober nod and John found himself mirroring Lorne's look back down to the gate room floor although there hadn't been any bodies laid out to rest, just small polished boxes, big enough to hold of flag – if they'd had flags anymore. Or their Allies used something like that.

"Sweet?" Rodney squawked. "Tell me you are not considering flying it yourself, John." He turned a sour expression John's direction. "Despite your luck with the jumper, a couple of Larrin's ships and the Aurora, you can't just fly everything you sit down in if you haven't had any training or sim time," Rodney protested.

John grinned. "You forgot the Wraith dart," he riposted smugly.

"And you forgot Jamus' rock," Rodney outsmirked him.

"Hey, I got it down in one piece," John protested. "That's all that was required. Besides, isn't the F-302 the same ship you claimed you could turn into an X-Wing Fighter if you only had the time and an unlimited budget? Hell, I've gone over those schematics probably more than you have, Buddy. But if you're that worried, it's a two-seater. You can come with me."

"Hey, maybe you could include Rodney's mods for the 302 in your outgoing packet?" Alt-John reminded them the mic's pickup range exceeded the area just in front.

"Oh, yes, John, that's the information we need, not Wraith movements or where they've had Replicator sightings," they heard in the background, proving that their mic wasn't the only one set for wide pickup. "I already have those mods anyway, idiot," Alt-Rodney said way too fondly.

"Now, not to take sides or anything," followed from Alt-Rodney again, obviously directed to Atlantis this time, "we really are on a time limit here. And your Sheppard is right if he's even half the pilot my John is. I'd give you ninety-five percent odds that he really can fly anything with wings."

"Why thank you, Rodney," they heard Alt-John say in a tone John recognized despite the overlaying sarcasm.

He didn't really want to think about what it might mean to be with Rodney in an alternate universe too, although there was a part of him comforted by that idea.

"Elizabeth?" John turned back to her, never so much aware of how happy he was to have her there to make these kinds of decisions.

"Do it," she nodded. "Aiden, recall the flight wing and stand down the evacuation." She exchanged a complicated glance with and got a nod in return from Gene; Security wasn't going to stand down.

John gave his own nod in agreement, although the sergeant hadn't needed John to tell him his job for quite a few years now.

"Colonel Sheppard," Elizabeth was continuing, "if there is a limit to data storage space as well as time to deliver, feel free to leave off the information about the alternate reality drive. Thanks to just hearing that any Rodney managed the design means my Rodney will think about doing the same. Now, I can't stop his brain, but I can at least discourage him by denying the head start – "

Rodney's, "Elizabeth!" sounded scandalized; indignant but also guilty.

"No, Rodney," Elizabeth's voice lost all trace of a playful mood. "I can't imagine any Atlantis that could afford to lose you, could afford losing any of you." Her voice gave just the smallest crack as she swept her gaze to the people around them.

John couldn't meet her eye; it was his biggest fear too.

"I shudder to think what the lost team's Elizabeth will go through," she managed to finish with.

The sudden choked off noise from Alt-Rodney pretty much confirmed what John had thought he'd heard in Alt-John's voice earlier. That team had already lost their Elizabeth, and John was sure she hadn't just been recalled back to Earth. He reached out to squeeze Elizabeth's shoulder, then very deliberately caught Rodney up by his collar and pulled him to follow; earning another squawk that, as he'd intended, disrupted the overly-charged atmosphere.

"Major, you have the lead," he prodded Lorne next. "Teyla, I'd be happy to have you up in a jumper watching our backs. And Big Guy," he addressed a thoughtful Ronon. "Maybe you'd like to join her?"

Teyla's face broke out in one of her beatific smiles of approval, while Aiden gave a whoop the likes of which he hadn't let loose since before his Wraith encounter. Even Rodney looked pleased that John had made the offer – hell, like it had been John's fault he hadn't offered before.

As for Ronon himself, he offered a grin that made him look all of seventeen before nodding.

Finally.

"Can I come too?" Jeannie's question stopped them short, her face looking just about as young as Ronon's in her excitement.

Rodney's sister, definitely.

"Why the hell not?" John laughed. "And you too, Major," when he caught Lorne looking left out. As cool as Phoenix was, any pilot worth his wings would be salivating for a shot at riding in a jumper. Maybe if Lorne did come back, he'd be one of the lucky forty-three percent, and Carson's gene therapy would take. Flying a jumper would blow Lorne's mind.

"Keep the light on for us, Elizabeth."

Just another day in Pegasus

Catching sight of Dave watching from a doorway, encouraging Madison to wave them goodbye, John knew he wouldn't want it any other way.

The End