The sky over the sea was streaked with pale blue when John dumped his duffel at the foot of the bed and sat down to wait for the sunrise.
After the previous night's stress and action, the predawn calm was a relief.
John took full advantage of it, resting his elbows lightly on his knees and folding his fingers over each other as he watched the sky brighten by degrees.
He hadn't complained when Edwards assigned him a dawn departure. Every moment more he could have in the city was precious. Of course, he would rather have spent it with his team-mates, but they'd needed their sleep and he wasn't going to disturb that just because he wanted their company.
Heat exhaustion had Teyla out for the count, and while Ronon refused a bed, he was apparently willing to snooze in the chair beside her infirmary bed. Strictly speaking, she probably could have gone back to her own rooms, but Ronon had brought her to the infirmary and she'd flaked out in a matter of minutes.
Apparently Ronon hadn't been too far behind.
Rodney had tried to check that everything in the city was working before his stimulants gave out almost between one sentence and the next. He slumbered noisily on the stretcher bed in his lab that was kept for this very purpose. Zelenka, at least, had possessed the sense to find his own bed before his eyes sealed shut and had even come by to reassure John that Rodney was well and all systems were stable.
John would have been more worried if Carson hadn't indicated that he'd expected everyone to sleep a lot in the aftermath of the move.
"Frankly, Colonel, I'm surprised more of the city doesn't resemble the walking dead after the last few days. We're doing pretty well, all things considered."
All things considered.
Keller said Elizabeth had been lucky. Edwards' actions on the scene had been timely. To give the Colonel his due, he'd started the clean-up efforts even as John brought the city down. Whatever else could be said of him, he'd held everyone together, and kept command of the situation.
The infirmary had been busy with people — mostly cuts and scrapes — and John had argued hard to be allowed to look in on Teyla, and although Keller had granted him persmission, she'd warned him against waking her.
He'd checked in on everyone that needed to be checked on, then come back to his room to wait for morning.
It was morning now.
John clenched his fingers into a fist, shaking slightly with tension — the tension of the last week, of the last day, of the morning.
Atlantis had made it. They'd all made it. And now John would leave Atlantis.
He let the fist go and looked up, out past the dark shadows of the lower spires that the window towards the sea where the horizon sat. Pale as mist, the blue edges blurred to a haze of gold as the sky began to burn with the rising sun.
His time was running out.
John wondered if he should go see if Elizabeth was doing okay after her surgery. He could go past Rodney's lab and see if his friend could be woken up long enough to say goodbye. Maybe he could check in with Ronon by Teyla's bedside, and wait until her lashes lifted over eyes that understood too much and not enough.
What stopped him was the knowledge that if he went to see them now, he wouldn't be able to leave.
His gut twisted as the first rays of light speared over the horizon, touching the tip of one of the taller outermost spires of the city, turning dark grey to silver incandescence as the sun pushed back the night and brought the new day with its rising.
John closed his eyes against the tide of golden sunlight that crept down across his forehead to warm his face and body.
Around him, the city glowed with the first burnishing heat of the morning sun, cold metal steaming gently in the light. On the edge of his awareness, Atlantis stretched like someone just woken, rising and shining with the new day.
The last morning in his city.
He took a long breath deep into his lungs — sea air, brine, and the fresh scent of the dawn — held it, let it out. His doorbell chimed.
Time to get going.
John rose to answer the door.
It began as just another day in Atlantis, with no hint of where it would finally lead. John woke just before sunrise and turned over in the bed, pulling the covers with him. They came without resistance, and this time the surprise only lasted a moment before he shifted in the sheets and ducked his chin down into the warmth of the blankets.
After sharing a bed for two moons, getting used to sleeping alone again was more difficult than he'd expected.
But that could be said of a lot of things in Atlantis.
As the golden light of dawn slid in through his curtains to make its slow way down the wall, John swung his legs out of the bed and tucked his feet into the sheepskins that he'd left by the bed. They didn't do much for his military dignity, perhaps, but they were comfy and, more importantly, warm.
Not that it was that cold in Atlantis right now — the winter had been cold and wet, but mostly wet. Compared to the winters back in the US, it was barely anything to fret about.
Compared to Antarctica, it was practically tropical.
Orawi had been going into summer when he'd left it. The tava uololo had been ripening, the thick scent of the golden grains carrying on the wind. The villagers had been waiting for the last of the fields to ripen before they brought the lot of it in, harvesting, threshing, bagging, and taking it out to be sold at the open markets.
He could see it now, as though he stood at the gates of the village in the morning, the sun's light casting his shadow before him as he paused between the posts.
That last morning on Orawi, instinct had urged him to turn back, to take one last look at the place and the people who had been home to him; wings of delicate memory had beat lightly against his head — a woman who was warned not to look back, but had turned and been lost.
Yan Stormborn had chosen to set his face forward, to discover the man he'd once been but forgotten. But in regaining that forgotten life, John hadn't lost what Yan remembered.
It ached in him sometimes — the memory of a simpler life. Being John Sheppard was a complicated thing.
He rested his wrists on the edge of the mattress and put all thought of the village out of his mind. He wasn't Yan Stormborn anymore — a stranger who'd made himself a home among the Orawi, found a life he could be content in, found a woman to love. He was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of Atlantis, a descendant of the people who'd built this city and sunk it before returning to the planet from which they'd come, and the former military leader of the Atlantis expedition to Pegasus.
As he rose to his feet, John thought he'd never felt the weight of being himself before Kolya and the Wraith. John Sheppard had always just been who he was; he'd never actually thought about who he was.
He'd never had to.
It took him less than five minutes to change into a tracksuit. It took almost as much time to persuade his hair to pretend it had a claim to being normal, and in the end, he gave up and just went out to meet Ronon.
The big guy was already at their meeting point, stretching in a long, sinuous movement that he claimed loosened all his muscles in preparation for the run.
"Short, medium, or long?"
"Short, today." At Ronon's lifted eyebrow, he explained, "I've got the medical with Carson this morning and I don't want to run myself ragged. And Teyla's due back from New Athos."
"She's back this morning?"
"Short trip." Ronon rolled his head and John heard the bones of his neck cracking with the stretching movement. "Ready to run?"
At this hour of the morning, the corridors were mostly empty — one reason why John preferred the early run to the midmorning or midafternoon one. Plus, he hadn't yet had breakfast, he could have a shower afterwards, and unless there was a crisis in the city, he could be pretty certain there wouldn't be any meetings scheduled.
Not that he was invited to too many meetings these days.
John put that thought aside and let his body take over.
Running was a rhythm that took his attention from whatever thoughts had been seeping through his head and focused it on the movement of his body, the stretch and tense of muscle, and the draw and hiss of breath in and out of his lungs.
He, like most of the rest of the city, had initially thought Ronon ran because, well, he was used to it. It had taken nearly nine months for John to realise that Ronon ran because he enjoyed running. It had taken him six months living as another man for John to realise why.
As Teyla would say, it cleansed the mind, readied it for the day.
"Didn't you offer to go to New Athos with Teyla?"
"Yeah. Edwards didn't like it." And Teyla had seemed a little non-plussed by the offer, although she'd seemed disappointed when John was forbidden to leave the city.
"Not much he does," Ronon rumbled with something that sounded like a huff. "When's the meeting with O'Neill?"
"After the weekly report."
"You'll get your position back."
"Yeah, well…" It was so much simpler to Ronon. Satedan society had been a lot simpler in some ways; the Wraith made a common enemy, and the military had operated without politics interfering in the way they commonly did in Earth societies. There wasn't much John could say as they pounded down a long corridor that curved gently past a series of storerooms. He wanted his position back, but it wasn't up to him. In the meantime, he had other things to do. "I'd like to get the team back, first."
Ronon's head turned, his dreads bouncing over his shoulders, the silver end-clasps gleaming in the sunlight streaming in a side window of the corridor. "You've already got us."
"Do you need it official?"
John thought about it and wasn't sure he could explain. At one level, he felt Ronon should have understood — he'd been a team leader among his own people. But the Satedan military had carried a greater social orientation — people were assigned to units, and once they were assigned, the unit was their family, their home, their life. They might marry or take lovers, have children, leave the Satedan forces; but first and foremost, they would always be a part of their unit.
Ronon had transferred his allegiance from the Satedan forces and his former unit to John, Teyla, and Rodney. They were his family now, and even John's disappearance hadn't swayed that loyalty to the two remaining members of his team.
"It's…complicated." Like so many things in his life.
"McKay'll be mad if you take him off the Outpost Project."
"He'll live with it," said John unsympathetically. Rodney was always annoyed about something — it might as well be because John had gotten him taken off an Atlantis sub-project that was essentially a whole lot of boring punctuated by the occasional 'Ooh'. "Teyla said he's been complaining about being stuck in the lab anyway."
"Probably." There were fewer civilians going out with the military teams these days — fewer military teams that would 'put up' with a civvie. Rodney wouldn't stand for being considered a 'hanger-on', especially not after working with John. "I heard you've been eating with the new doc — Kelly?"
"Keller. Dr. Keller. Yeah. She's…interesting."
"Is it going anywhere?"
It was hard to see the shrug amidst the morass of bouncing dreadlocks, but John thought that Ronon might have shrugged. "Just friends."
"Tending to more?"
Ronon just grunted. "Maybe. What about you and Teyla?"
"What about me and Teyla?"
"You knew she was coming back this morning."
"It's in the schedule."
"You wanted to go to Athos with her."
"Haven't seen the New Athos camp yet." John felt nettled by the questioning. And it got worse when he glimpsed Ronon's smirk. "What?"
Ronon shrugged. "I always figured you had a thing for her."
John wanted to say that there was no 'thing' involving Teyla, but the words stuck in his mouth. Teyla was Teyla: ally, team-mate, friend. And even if he'd had a 'thing' for her, there were rules against John doing anything about it. Discomfort uncoiled in his gut, churning his nerves. His instincts were warning him this was a dangerous conversation to follow, and he should shoot it down now before it flew out of familiar territory and into dangerous airspace.
John forced a lightness into his voice. "Teyla? No. You know we're just friends. And," he added, "I've done the marriage thing before. It didn't go so well."
He couldn't imagine marrying Teyla. A house, kids, a dog, a settled, everyday life — that didn't belong to anything in his experience of Teyla. Even if he translated it to a tent, a community, and a hireni herd…
No. Teyla wasn't a woman for that kind of life — and John wasn't the kind of guy who could have given her that anyway.
He certainly hadn't managed it with Nancy.
Thinking of Nancy reminded him that he should send his family a message of some kind. They'd been notified of his MIA status, but O'Neill said that they'd held off informing them of John's return, mainly because informing them that John was back would necessitate their being given access to see him, which wasn't possible as long as he was going to be stuck in Atlantis.
As they jogged up a set of stairs, their boots slapping the grating with metallic emphasis, John wondered how long before the IOA started putting pressure on Elizabeth to have him sent back to Earth for evaluation. If Beckett gave him the medical all-clear, it would probably start tomorrow.
Something else not to look forward to.
Still, when looking at the final result, John figured he'd submit to their evaluations. He'd do their psych tests and their physicals. He'd jump through their hoops. And he'd get his team back, one way or the other, through sheer stubborn mule-assedness, if nothing else.
Up ahead of them, a group of Marines emerged from the transporter, headed back to their quarters after spending the night on duty. It was time for the changing of the guard.
They saw John and Ronon coming and split neatly down the middle, moving out of the way so the two guys could run on unhindered. As they did so, one of the younger guys with a shock of reddish-brown hair turned to follow their passage. "Hey Ronon, you gonna test-drive the newbies today?"
Ronon turned on one foot and jogged backwards for a few steps. "Busy today. Maybe a few days."
"Save it for our shift if you can."
The Marines fell away behind them, and a moment later, Ronon caught up with John, increasing his pace with little to no effort.
"Test-drive the newbies?" Once upon a time, John would have known everything that was taking place in the city as far as the military went. These days, he was kept carefully out of the loop, thanks to Edwards and his sidekick, Major Camberwell.
"Edwards wants the new personnel run through a survival skills course before they're allowed out."
"All of them or just the military?"
"Mostly military, but the important civilians, too."
"And he asked you to do it?"
Ronon's head turned look at John, and he bared his teeth in a wolfish grin. "Nope. But Kirkegaarde back there persuaded Henries to let me have a go at them. Better to take a fall in Atlantis than out there." The grin faded a little. "I was going to tell you yesterday, before you headed into the meeting with Weir."
And this was the state of the city right now. With John out of the loop, what he knew of the military decisions in the city came from Ronon and Major Lorne, both of whom kept him updated on what was happening. But even they couldn't tell him everything — and sometimes they didn't know what was going on at a command level.
Edwards didn't exactly keep Ronon and Lorne out of the military loop; but he was careful of anyone in the city who might turn out to be an ally for John. Of course, that included most of the military personnel from back when John had been in the city, but it also included most of the scientific personnel — old and new.
John frowned a little as something occurred to him. "You don't mind being pulled off the general roster?"
"Why would I?"
"I just thought…you're pretty friendly with the Marines."
"So you might prefer to keep working with them."
"I can keep working with them from your team." Ronon shot him a sharp glance. "Unless you're rethinking."
"No." He'd never rethink this. He upped the pace, just a little. "I just thought you might prefer to work with the guys you've been working with for the last few months."
"No. I want the team back, too."
It was what John believed — what he'd wanted to believe. But in quiet moments, he watched his team-mates in the lives they'd carved out for themselves without him and he'd wondered.
With Rodney heading off to the Outpost Project on a semi-regular consulting basis, Ronon involved in military activities John wasn't informed about, and Teyla going to see her people for days at a time — John had been left adrift.
It wasn't a case of fault or guilt; he didn't blame them. They'd kept going with their lives in his absence, and now he was back, it wasn't easy making a place for him to fit back in.
But they seemed willing to try and that was enough for him, at least for the moment, even if what he really wanted was for things to go back to the way they'd been before. Getting the team back together — officially back together — that was the start of it.
Getting the rest of it back — the life he'd lived as John Sheppard — that would be harder.
The main corridor they were in branched off, with one fork leading through doors out along another corridor that ultimately ended in a pier, and the other looping back towards the centre of the city.
John veered towards the city loop and increased his pace yet again. He wanted to push himself, give himself a challenge, but not so much that he arrived worn out for his appointment. He let himself fall into the rhythm of the pace, and tried not to think about anything much at all until he and Ronon were back near the personnel quarters, walking to cool down after their run.
"Dinner's still on?"
"If you're not busy."
"Don't have much to be busy with." Ronon shrugged. "You'll be able to make it?"
John frowned. "Why wouldn't I?"
Ronon looked up and down the corridor. "Thought you might be in meetings about Earth."
"Not until tomorrow — unless they changed the time and didn't tell me." Which Edwards might, but Elizabeth wouldn't. "There's a brief meeting after lunch but nothing otherwise."
"Sparring with Teyla?"
"That's not a meeting," said John without missing a beat. He'd started training regularly against Teyla again. Whatever time John could claim of her — or Rodney or Ronon — he did; in the absence of the duties he'd once performed as military leader in the city, he had time and to spare.
"Uh-huh." For a moment John thought Ronon was going to pursue that line of thought but the other guy just glanced down the corridor in both directions again. "There's a rumour that the IOA wants you to go back to Earth."
"It's not a rumour."
The thick brows furrowed. "You'd just go?"
"It's an evaluation," John explained, leaning forward against a wall to give his calves a good stretch. "Earth wants me to check out before they reassign me again. So they know that I'm in my right mind."
"Heightmeyer's not good enough to tell them that?"
"Heightmeyer's Atlantis expedition," said John.
"Isn't she accredited?"
"With the Air Force," John confirmed. It bugged him, too. Whatever he thought about shrinks generally, Doc Heightmeyer was an excellent psychologist. She was more than capable of working through whatever therapy the IOA decided he needed to have. She'd been in Atlantis from day one, and had a good grip on all the issues that the personnel faced, having faced many of them herself.
She hadn't ventured an opinion on the matter, presenting a calm, professional face to John even during the discomfort of their evaluation sessions, but John figured it would sting her to have someone else called in over her work. It would sting him.
"So, politics?" Ronon's growl made it pretty clear what he thought of that.
"It's always politics," John said, switching his legs and feeling the stretch in his left calf. He'd head back to his quarters for a shower, then breakfast, a quick trip up to the Control Room to see Elizabeth while he waited for Teyla to get back from New Athos. She'd arranged to come back today so they could all celebrate his medical clearance.
John was determined to look at this as a positive, however small.
"Never liked politics."
John grinned. "Me, neither." He was about to comment on the irony of that considering he'd once been military leader for the city, but stopped as a tall figure turned the corner and came down the corridor towards them.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Ronon shift. Without looking, John knew the big guy had taken on a wary, watchful stance — not quite a fighter's challenge, but something very like it.
Ronon just grunted as the Colonel stopped beside them.
"I hear you've got a busy day today, Sheppard." Edwards sounded conversational, but his eyes were cold.
"Medical evaluation with Beckett this morning," John said, "and the usual in the afternoon."
"I see. Make sure you've left tomorrow afternoon free for the meeting discussing the results of the evaluation. The IOA's sent through advisory information regarding the execution of Stargate duties and the personnel carrying them out that's relevant to your situation."
John's eyes narrowed. "Advisory information? Or directives?"
"Advisory," said Edwards. "Although implementation is at the discretion of the expedition leader."
Which should have been comforting, since John knew that Elizabeth wanted him back on the active roster as soon as he was cleared. However, something about the way Edwards said it suggested he wasn't concerned about Elizabeth's personal stance on this matter.
"So, nothing much to worry about?"
It was a thin smile, gently edged with unpleasantness. "Nothing at all."
John made a note to ask Elizabeth about it while he waited for Teyla to arrive later in the morning. "Good. Then I can expect your reply to my request to have my team formally reassigned in the next few days?"
He watched the man's nostrils flare and his lips pinch at the corners and felt a small wave of petty satisfaction at the visible sign that he'd annoyed the man.
"You should be aware, Sheppard, that this fitness appraisal is only the first step on the road to you being returned to an outgoing Stargate team. The requirements of the IOA are fairly clear that a proper evaluation is required before you're deemed fit to go through the Stargate as a representative from Earth."
"More hoops," Ronon said, and John bit back a grin as Edwards' head jerked to the side, as though he'd forgotten Ronon was there at all.
"I don't know what kind of standards Sateda had for their military, Mr. Dex, but on Earth, we don't just send our people out to be slaughtered. We prepare them for what they're going to face."
Ronon tensed and suddenly all John's amusement fled the situation.
Sateda had been prepared against the Wraith. They just hadn't anticipated how far the Wraith would go against a threat.
"I'm aware of the requirements, Colonel," John told Edwards, cutting off any reply Ronon had been about to make. He'd rather this go down as a black mark on his record than see Ronon beat the shit out of Edwards for implying that the Satedan military had been sub-par by Earth standards. "And I'm willing to fill them as necessary to get back to work."
"Just as long as you are, Sheppard. We don't shortcut things around here anymore."
"Didn't know we shortcut them in the first place." Ronon's voice was almost a growl.
Time to disengage and get the hell out of dodge. These skies weren't safe, and John disliked flying blind — or with a reckless wingmate. "Thanks for the heads-up, Edwards," he said, using the man's name rather than his title or the honourific, knowing it would piss Edwards off — for whatever that was worth. "I'll see you at that meeting then?"
And without waiting for an answer, he walked away, trusting Ronon to follow his lead, trusting that he could make it to the corner and out of sight before Edwards called him up, trusting that he would keep his own temper on a leash until they were out of sight and home free.
But silently, he fumed. Using Sateda was underhand. Using anything against John's team was underhand. This wasn't about John's team, about Ronon — or it shouldn't have been. This was about Edwards' dislike of John.
In the weeks since John had returned to Atlantis, Edwards hadn't warmed to him at all. John supposed he couldn't be surprised — he wouldn't have been pleased either if he'd come into a position of authority only to discover that his well-loved predecessor had returned from the dead.
Initially, Edwards had reminded John of Colonel Marshall Sumner, whose position as military leader had fallen to John after his death — except that however parochial Sumner had been, he'd at least had a reason to distrust John's reliability based on his service record.
Lately, though, Edwards had gotten sharper, more petty in the face of John's return and the city's reaction to it. He'd started 'forgetting' to put John's name on memos, had left him out of significant military communiques, and dismissed any of John's ideas for change — passive-aggressive behaviour that was frustrating at best and obstructive at worst.
The crazy thing was that, so far as John could see, Edwards' animosity was based in his fear that John's return threatened his position.
In John's opinion, if the man had made an effort to be civil and polite, he'd probably have more people on his side. But he'd seen the expedition as a military base and tried to run it as though he were the senior officer. Which might work with the military, but fell apart with civilians.
And in Atlantis, the civilian population outnumbered the military two to one.
"I never liked politics," Ronon said, repeating his statement of before as they reached the next junction.
John grimaced. His mind was still on the conversation with Edwards, too. "Yeah, well, that's the way the IOA works. It's mostly politics."
"If they're sending you to Earth, you could talk to them."
"They wouldn't listen to me. I've got a vested interest."
Ronon snorted, "On Sateda, a vested interest is a considered good thing. Means you're not puffing the wind."
"Yeah, well, this being Earth, they'd worry that a vested interest meant you were puffing your own wind," John said without thinking. A moment later, he realised how that sounded and grinned as Ronon guffawed. "Teach me to think before I speak. I'll see you at breakfast."
They split to their separate rooms.
In the shower, though, John let the spray beat down on his skin at near-boiling temperatures and knew that it was more complicated than Ronon understood. Hell, he was from Earth, and it was more complicated than he understood.
The truth was that the IOA had good reason to distrust John. He'd been a prisoner of the Wraith for at least a month, and if he'd kept himself from telling the Wraith everything he knew about Earth, they only had his word for it. He'd been living in the Pegasus galaxy as a native for five months after that, oblivious to who he'd been and his responsibilities here in Atlantis, and while it had been obvious he'd lost his memory, the what and why of it had been more complicated.
Why hadn't the Wraith drained him dead? 'Because one of their number owed him a debt' was hardly a good explanation — they were Wraith. Why hadn't they tried to coerce him into leading them to Atlantis — or, better still, Earth? John refused to believe that they'd given up hope of finding such an abundant food source. How had he escaped unscathed? What had they done to him in those few weeks he still couldn't remember? Was he so sure that he was who and what he thought he was?
John remembered the green, tattooed face of the Wraith he'd allied with to escape Kolya, the rasping voice saying, You would do no less, were it in your power.
It hadn't started nagging him until the morning after he'd woken up in Atlantis in the full memory of who and where he was.
Why had they let him go?
He had no answer to that. He doubted that the IOA did, either, safely away on Earth.
But answer or not, they'd want to be sure of him before they let him back out into Pegasus. They'd want to rattle him, to shake him until they were sure he was empty, until they could be certain he hadn't been subverted somehow — although how they could prove a negative was beyond him, beyond John, beyond anyone.
Still, as he ran his face and hair under the pounding spray, John wondered if, maybe, this time, the IOA wasn't right after all.
By the time the sun rose over the glittering wash of the river, Teyla had her bundle packed and bound, ready to go. There was little enough to take back — she had not brought much with her during this brief trip.
She paused at the tanning clearing, partly to speak with Miva and partly to allow Halling and Kanaan to catch up with her before she returned to Atlantis. Certain agreements among her people had been in negotiation and she had been unable to leave them hanging any longer. In the midst of the chaos of Colonel Sheppard's return to the city, she had not been able to make time for her own people. As it was, this had only been a short visit — the space of a day and a night with which to arrange the business of her people.
"I thought you'd stay longer," Miva said, glancing up from the hides that she had stretched out in preparation for the tanning solution.
"You would be bored of me if I stayed too long," Teyla said, smiling.
"You are our leader." The older woman's glance was swift yet sharp, like the piercing thrust of an arrow through the heart of a bird. "The daughter of Tagan."
The phrase caught her unprepared — it had been many years since anyone had mentioned her lineage. In Atlantis, the lines of birth and birthing were not considered so important as they were in Athos, and Teyla had found it a relief to live without her antecedents looking over her shoulder.
"That," she said simply, "is not for the now."
"Then when?" Miva crossed to the centre of the clearing, lifting a stirring stick from the nearby hook on which it had rested. "You should have had children long since, Teyla."
"To be food for the Wraith?" The argument was specious, and Teyla knew it even before Miva's frowning look her way. It had long been a question among her people — why she had not formed an alliance of blood and childbearing?
Before John and his people had come to Athos, Teyla had contemplated several such alliances. There had been a boy from among the Genii — her first lover at seventeen, a Mathran man who had found someone else more to his liking, various encounters both casual and pleasurable while trading, and even hints from among her own people. But the seed of her lovers had never taken root, and she had supposed it was not the time.
When she went to Atlantis, she had seen it as a sign that children and childbearing were not in her future — not when the Wraith were still to be defeated. If she had ever held a hope that the Lanteans might contemplate a more intimate alliance than the one they held, then that had been soon put away. With a world crowded full of people, the Lanteans held little value in the perpetuity of birthlines.
"Perhaps there will be a time for children in the future, Miva," she told the tanner firmly as she watched the stirring of the pot of tanning solution. "But not now."
For starters, Teyla presently had no lover — a rather essential part of the conception of a child.
"If it is always to be 'later' then it is more likely to be 'never,'" said Miva. "Charin would have told you as much if she'd lived, and you'd do well to think on that, Teyla."
And without a further word, Miva picked up a giant ladle and began dishing out the tanning solution onto the prepared hides. The liquid reeked of offal and the herbs that would help preserve the leather, and Teyla breathed carefully through her mouth for a few minutes.
Teyla watched for a moment, before footsteps along the track caused her to turn.
"Are you ready to return to the city?" Kanaan asked, pausing just before her at the clearing.
"Halling is not coming?"
"Jinto brought news from one of the hunting parties." Lean shoulders shrugged beneath the loose, comfortable shirt he wore in the summer warmth. "And Halling has spoken of all that lies on his heart."
"Was Jinto's news of any concern?" Teyla asked as they headed off up the path through the rocky bluffs that 'hid' the Athosian encampment from the easiest trails past the Ring.
"Only that they needed more hunters — the hireni are flocking."
Which would require not only the hunters, but many other hands to do the jointing and skinning of the fleet-footed creatures, who usually only met to mate in the early autumn amidst the cooling rains. "It is early in the season for this," she murmured as she made her way up a rocky path that wound its way up and along the hillside.
"Not truly," said the man behind her, sounding easy and comfortable. "Sahsha said that the warmer, wetter weather might mean an earlier mating gathering and therefore earlier flocking. But you have not been here to see it."
There was a chiding in his words that Teyla felt keenly.
"Things in Atlantis have been busy."
"With the return of Colonel Sheppard," Kanaan finished for her as they came onto the track that would lead them to the Stargate. He fell into step alongside her as he had so many times before. "His memory has returned in full?"
"So it seems."
"And you will be rejoining his team?"
She heard the layers beneath his question, the delicate threads of curiosity and condemnation in his voice. If Halling had revered the Ancestors while resenting the Lantean influence, Kanaan had never cared for either Lanteans or Ancestors. In the social circles of the Athosians, that had gained him no small amount of status after the Ancestors had refused to interact with any of the Pegasus cultures they had grown, then abandoned. His star had risen since that revelation.
"If he is permitted to leave the city again," Teyla said after a moment.
"They would prevent him from passage?"
"It is…complicated," said Teyla, thinking of all the angles and aspects of the Lantean politics. Some she understood, others were so foreign to her thinking as to be almost incomprehensible. "They wish to be certain that he will retain his memories and his health."
"Lantean caution again."
"There is no shame in being cautious."
"Nor any in trust."
"You know it is different for us."
"I know that after so many seasons, they have not integrated into Pegasus. That they cluster together in distrust of any others."
"They have reason." Teyla said, a little shortly. "Kanaan, we are not going to argue about this."
"I was not arguing." His mouth curled a little at the side, beneath the dark beard that covered his jaw. "You were taking offense at my criticisms."
"They have their faults, and yet they are our allies against the Wraith."
"Your allies against the Wraith," he corrected her. "Teyla, we have survived this long—"
"Survival is not enough," she said, interrupting him. "Our people have survived the long years of wandering, never remaining still for more than a season-cycle. Yet we have made no advances, learned few things anew — the Genii built themselves cities underground, while other cultures sought to resurrect their heritage. The firelighters are a lost technology to us, the rot-rods the same. We can be more. We should be more than we are, Kanaan."
Kanaan stopped in the centre of the path. "Yet we are what we are. Will Athos never be enough for you again, Teyla?"
Teyla turned to behold him, framed by the great trees that lined the light forests they had chosen to surround the Ring on New Athos. "Athos will always be my home, Kanaan, wherever you and the rest of our people live. But I am committed to the fight against the Wraith, too." And to the friends who shared that purpose.
His lips pressed together, as though he had something he wished to say, but when she tilted her head in silent question, he only shook his head and walked on.
Teyla chose not to make conversation. She understood Kanaan well enough to know that he would speak when he had something to say. If he would not be silent in the face of what he deemed foolishness, neither would he stand in her way when she had determined a course.
That much, she understood of him.
Yet this dissatisfaction with her chosen course sat uneasy with her.
They had been friends since childhood, sharing the same gift through a familial connection. Teyla trusted him above and beyond everyone else in Athos, even Halling. They were, as the Lanteans would have said, cut from the same cloth. And yet Kanaan had never felt the drive to fight back, to claim their people's safety inviolate. He traded and bargained, gathered information and settled disputes — but the kind of war that Atlantis might propose was not something he could comprehend or support.
Teyla had never expected her people to enter the fight alongside her. They would defend Athos, but more than that was beyond them.
She had always thought Kanaan had accepted that the fight was an intrinsic part of her desire to protect her people.
They continued on through the forest paths in silence, unerring, unhurried through the morning's dappled sunlight, until they reached the Ring. Kanaan stood back as she contacted Atlantis and sent through the recognition code. But when she turned to bid him farewell, he stepped in and his head lowered to hers.
Expecting the touch of forehead to forehead, Teyla was surprised when he dipped his head even lower to brush his lips across her mouth, a gentle kiss of invitation.
She froze for a moment, shocked by the gesture. His lips were warm and soft, and tasted a little of the morning's grainmeal.
When she did not immediately reciprocate, he released her shoulders and stepped back without an apology in his expression. His eyes met hers, and beneath the dark-fringed lashes she saw the steady calm that she had always expected of him, touched with a heat that brought an answering warmth to her cheeks.
Words eluded her, confusion spreading through her mind. "This is…unexpected."
"I know that you will fight the Wraith to your dying breath." His eyes sought hers, their darkness an anchor she had always clung to. "You feel loyalty to the Lanteans for what they have done. I would not expect otherwise."
"And yet you waited to make this claim until I was about to leave."
Something like a rueful smile touched his expression, gentle as dawnlight across the pillow. "Call it cowardice if you wish. Only…consider my tent open to you when you return to Athos."
"And this is all you would ask of me? To share your tent when I am here?"
"I would ask of you whatever you are willing to give. Nothing more."
And yet, from both his demeanour and the way his eyes sought hers, Teyla did not doubt that Kanaan would not accept anything less than what she was willing to let him take.
There were many things she wanted to say, questions she wished to ask. Yet the passage lay open and beyond, Atlantis must be wondering where she was, why she had not yet appeared.
"This cannot be answered now."
She felt as though he had seized a rug under her feet and dragged it out from beneath. Had that been his purpose? To leave her unbalanced, questioning?
No. That was not Kanaan's way, surely.
Something flickered across his face as she hesitated in her answer. Pique? Disappointment? Resignation? Whatever it was, it faded too swiftly for her to read.
"Then go," he said, simply enough. "And I will see you when you return."
And rather than wait for her to go through, Kanaan turned away, glancing back only once with a twist gracing his lips when he found her still watching him go.
Hurriedly, her mind in confusion, Teyla stepped into passage and rode the memory of his smile back to Atlantis.
She walked out of passage and into the eye-dazzling brightness of morning.
At this hour, the mid-morning sun reflected up off the Gateroom floor, a wash of light that blinded any traveller coming through the Gate. It dimmed the surrounding balcony of the control room and the corridors leading from the Gateroom, turned people into mere shadows, and filled Teyla's eyes full of tears as her eyes tried to compensate for the brightness.
There had been some debate as to whether the choice of angle was deliberate — one of the Marines had suggested it might be a weapon against invaders, until someone else pointed out that that would only work if you could rely on your enemies to attack through the Gate between the hours of eight and nine-thirty.
Either way it was an inconvenience, however momentary.
Walking forward, Teyla could hear the sound of weapons being stood down from their ready positions, the click and clatter of the technicians up in the Gateroom as they ran diagnostics, or managed the city systems, the occasional voice lifted in commentary or conversation. The noises reassured, a comforting familiarity — as much as, if not more than, the peace of the woods on New Athos.
As she reached a line of shade out of the vivid blaze of sunlight, Teyla paused to get her sight back. The dark splotches faded from her vision and John morphed out of the dark shadow that had cast stark contrasts against the reflecting brightness.
"We were getting worried." Features burned by the mid-morning light gradually lost their dark blurriness and developed definition enough for her to see his smile. "Welcome home, Teyla."
Teyla took one long draw of breath in the salt-fresh air and let the mantle of Atlantis settle around her. Accustomed as she was to travelling through the Ring, there were still moments when she needed to accustom herself to the minute changes in air, temperature, weather, and even gravity. There were moments when she needed to feel with all her senses that she'd returned home.
And Atlantis was home to her now, as much as, if not more, than Athos.
Will Athos never be enough for you again, Teyla?
Her old friend's question had stung her pride, even as his stated desire for a change in their relationship had confused her. What had changed? Why had he chosen those last few moments to make his intentions known? What would she have done had he given her time to think about it?
Questions for which there were no ready answers.
Resolutely, Teyla put those thoughts to the side and returned John's smile, warm and easy, with the tilt to it that lately had begun to curl something in her stomach.
"It is good to be home," she said with perfect truth and more fervency than she had initially intended. A glance up at Elizabeth's office showed a crowd of people in there, and John's gaze followed hers.
"Meeting with the biology department," he said. "Something about extending the hydroponics suite. She said she'll drop by to chat with you after."
Teyla nodded. "What news has come while I was gone?"
John fell into step alongside, matching his pace to hers as he stuck his hands in his pockets. "Not much. Elizabeth's authorising the start-up of the geothermal deep-sea station down beneath the outpost and Zelenka's been assigned to put the procedure together. Apparently Edwards isn't going to let them touch a single thing until he's sure they know what they're doing."
Was there a thin thread of mockery in his statement about his senior officer? Teyla glanced sideways at him, found him looking grim-mouthed.
"Radek is putting the plan together? Has Rodney yet complained?"
"Every time I walk into his lab," said John. "Which is why I'm avoiding him right now."
Teyla did not shake her head at his statement. She would go past Rodney's lab later — a habit into which she had gotten during the months of John's long absence from Atlantis. Ronon would find her, seek her out if he wanted company or needed her counsel, but Rodney insisted that people come to him, that people meet him on his terms.
She did not make issue of it. Rodney was Rodney — without that insistence, he would not be the man she counted friend.
"Are you prepared for your appointment with Carson?"
"What's to prepare for?" He shrugged. "It's just a final check-up before I'm cleared to go through the Gate again."
And yet his discomfort — and Teyla's knowledge of the Lanteans and the way everything required documentation and care — suggested otherwise.
Teyla hesitated before asking the next question. Her conversations with Elizabeth over the last couple of weeks had been enlightening, but also somewhat disturbing.
"Would the IOA attempt to prevent you from resuming your duties?"
"Maybe, on Edwards' recommendation." John shrugged, his hands tucked deep into his pockets as they walked along the corridor. "At some stage, they'll want me to go back to Earth for 'evaluation'."
"If they are so determined to return you to Earth, will you be allowed to come back?"
"I'm still the strongest gene carrier we've got," he said after a moment. "I'm needed here."
Yet Teyla could sense the doubt in him. Atlantis had survived several seasons without John, and if they had not thrived, they had managed. The city did not revolve about John — life had continued on without him. For a man whose identity was so tied into the city and its people, that knowledge would be a struggle.
John had gained his place in the expedition through luck, then kept his position as Atlantis' military through heroism — and no small amount of politics. Atlantis was where he had made — or, perhaps, remade — himself; where he had accepted who he was and started to become who he could be.
Kolya and the Wraith who had betrayed John had not merely taken his freedom or his sense of self, they had taken John's sense of his place in the universe.
Without it, he was as a tent without anchor-pegs, loosely dashed and torn against the landscape.
That the IOA would try to take that from him again knotted a hot anger in her chest.
Even after several years with the expedition, Teyla found it difficult to understand why the Lanteans would so blithely waste a useful, brave man by putting him aside to do nothing. Life was not so plenteous in Pegasus that they could afford to waste even one person — certainly not someone as resourceful and determined as John.
"General O'Neill would support your return here, surely."
"If only to keep me out of trouble in the Milky Way," said John with a wry smile as they approached the transporter that would take them out to the rest of the city.
"If you cannot be famous, be infamous?"
This time the humour showed in the twist of his mouth to one side. "Who showed you Chicago?"
"That is the movie from which the quotation comes?" There were so many Lantean entertainments, sometimes she felt it was a wonder that anyone from Earth completed any task they were set. "I do not believe I recall it."
"Catherine Zeta-Jones in garter stockings? Or, in your case, Richard Gere singing and dancing?"
Teyla laughed. "That is no assistance to my memory, John." She never remembered who any of the Earth actors were anyway. According to Laura, an entire industry had grown up around these people, what they did, what they wore, who they bedded, their children, their lives. It made little sense to her, although she kept her thoughts on this to herself and merely asked, "Perhaps, after your evaluation this evening, we could watch it?"
His expression froze, halfway between dismay and embarrassment as the doors of the transporter slid smoothly shut behind them.
"Yeah," he said with a weak smile. "Sure."
"If you would rather dig your own eyeballs out with a rusty fork, I quite certain we could find something else to watch," Teyla told him, struggling to hold back a laugh but not disguising her amusement at his horror. As far as she knew he had planned some 'team time', although he had not specified what activity they would be doing. More often than not, it involved watching a movie or a TV show from Earth; sometimes it involved playing Pegasus games, or telling stories until late into the night.
Sometimes it simply involved them sitting in the room together, doing their own things, whatever they might be.
"See, I don't mind it," John said, lifting a hand to jab at their destination. "It's not that bad — kind of crazy, maybe. Okay, we can watch it. But only as long as I don't have to put up with anyone singing along to the musical numbers."
Within the transporter, there was no sense of movement, nothing that might indicate that anything had happened. And yet when the doors opened again, they were far from the central spire of the Stargate, out towards the personnel quarters of the city.
"So, no Lieutenant Vogel?"
"Definitely not Lieutenant Vogel," he said with such emphasis that Teyla let her laughter fly before she restrained it.
"Perhaps," she suggested, "rather than watch it in the rec room, we could have a private team movie night with Ronon and Rodney?"
"Watching Chicago?" John sounded incredulous. Then something like a gleam of mischief appeared in his eye. "Okay."
Teyla's eyes narrowed. She distrusted such willing capitulation, especially from him. Elizabeth had once said that when John changed his mind, she started looking for the trapdoor and the whoopee cushion. "John?"
"A team movie night sounds good, Teyla," he said, and did not bother to disguise his glee. But when she eyed him with suspicion, his expression turned innocent and she did not have the heart to bully him into telling her his plans.
She would find them out soon enough, anyway, if his expression was any indicator.
"So how are your people, anyway?" John asked as they hit the edge of the personnel quarters. Teyla was a little surprised at the question, and more surprised to realise he seemed to intend to follow her to her quarters as she put her pack away.
It took her a moment to answer.
"They are well," she said at last. "Busy with the summer's activities."
This time, it took him a moment to answer, and when he spoke, there was a strained quality to his voice. "Harvest?"
"Hunting," she said and felt his tension ease. The Orawi had been farmers, she recalled, although John had been a hunter among them. Even as John Sheppard he retained the memories of Yan Stormborn — of a less complicated life. Living in Atlantis, among the Lanteans, Teyla understood that feeling. "There was news of a flocking just as I left."
This time, the pause was thoughtful rather than tense.
"Flockings — that's when the hireni gather to mate, right? Or…after it?
"They become like…big working parties, don't they? Everyone joins in?"
"It is a big event," she agreed. "Most of the camp joins in — even the children are set to help by picking herbs and fetching water, and the older ones are taught the skinning and jointing."
Her own childhood memories intruded — days of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the other Athosian children as they were taught how to carve and to skin, of sneaking through the woods to collect herbs and fragrant woods for the smoking process, even of daring into the cold-caves to steal scraps of meat from the carcasses before escaping to toast them by the children's fires.
Startled from her memories, she found John watching her and smiled. "There was a hireni flocking in my ninth year — we had to send through the Ring for other allied clans to help us with the preparation. It was…a great celebration."
Even amidst the death of the beasts, Teyla had remembered the life and liveliness in everything from the skinners and jointers, bloody to their elbows, to the youths who sang their songs as they hewed wood — a female and male harmony, to the Elders who combed and spun out the great manes of the hireni into threads while they spun tales and lessons for the children to learn as they helped with the work.
She had never shared that with her allies from Earth, suspecting that they would find the slaughter barbaric. And yet the core of it was a community working together for survival, just as Atlantis did, the living threads of her people woven into a cloth of memory.
John was still watching her.
"It is hard to describe," she said, simply. "It must be experienced."
He nodded, accepting her explanation. "Ivali said that when the hireni flocked on Orawi, everything stopped."
There was a hint of wistfulness in his voice as he spoke, and Teyla found herself regarding him with surprise.
John had not spoken openly of his time among the Orawi since he had regained his memory — at least, not in Teyla's presence. This was not something she would have expected John to share with her — either the memory of his time on Orawi, or something that Ivali of the Orawi had told him.
Teyla had supposed it too painful, too intimate for him to share with the other Lanteans, although there was curiosity from many quarters regarding his experiences as 'a Pegasus native', from Elizabeth's curiosity about the trade and interaction of the Orawi leadership with the planets beyond Orawi to the anthropologists' avid questions about the minutiae of daily life.
She had not ventured questions; the missing time of his history was not hers to demand and never had been.
"It is much the same among my people — both work and celebration. It is a good time."
Envy flickered across his expression before he moved out of the way of a group of scientists making their way down the corridor. She felt the warmth of his chest close by her shoulder; then they passed, and John stepped back again.
"I never saw the hireni flocking while I lived on Orawi."
"The hireni will flock in future years on Athos," Teyla said as they reached her quarters and the doors slid open. "When they do, you will be welcome to come and participate."
"I'll hold you to that, you know."
It was surely her imagination that painted him with a soft glint in his eyes as he paused outside her room. Teyla answered evenly in spite of the catch in her heartbeat.
"I would not expect otherwise."
Still, as she swiped at the entry panel to her quarters, Teyla reflected that, of late, John's behaviour had become uncharacteristic of what she'd come to expect from him in the years before he was taken. The lines had been drawn long ago, and in her dealings with John Sheppard, they had become familiar. She knew where they were and how close she could tread; she knew when she was crossing them and what his reactions would be; she knew her own mind and heart on this matter and trusted that she knew his, also.
After the return of his memory while saving the outpost, Teyla had presumed the old boundaries had retained their inflexibility. She was beginning to doubt that initial presumption.
Something had changed within him, and she was uncertain as to what.
In truth, she found it a little unnerving. She had always been attracted to John Sheppard — as were many women in the city. Attraction, however, was not the only thing she felt for him. As team-mates they had become good friends, and she had become accustomed to his manner and his idiosyncrasies — the markings of his trails and the pitch and sway of his tent, as went the Athosian phrase.
This was new territory.
"If you will wait a moment for me to unpack, I will accompany you to the infirmary. I have questions I would like to ask of Carson."
"Do you want me to wait outside?"
"No, this will only take a moment."
She could feel his eyes on her as she began pulling out the clothing and tools in her pack. She had travelled light, not intending to spend very long among her people, so there was little to clear up.
John was silent, scuffing his toes against the floor. Clearly he had something on his mind. Teyla glanced up at him but did not ask him his thoughts. He would tell her if he felt she needed to know.
"Are you okay with this?"
"With what, John?"
"With coming back to the team."
Startled, Teyla paused in hanging up her coat in the wardrobe. "Why would I not be okay with returning to the team?"
He shrugged and his eyes skittered up to hers for a moment, then drew away as though ashamed. "You're… You've been spending time with your people again, and now that they've got this new planet and everything… I wouldn't blame you if you'd prefer to stick with them rather than come back to the team. I'd understand."
She smoothed her hands down the nubbled fabric of the coat, giving her a moment to choose how best to say what she wanted him to understand. When she closed the wardrobe door, she had the words she needed.
"I wish to be on your team, John," she said. "We have missed you."
"Ronon, Rodney, and myself." She waved one hand to indicate the city beyond. "Atlantis."
She wondered if she should tell John that, since his return, there had been a measure of life to Rodney that had been missing during John's disappearance. At his best when in disagreement and disagreeableness, Rodney had found no-one willing to constantly engage in conflict with him in John's absence — no-one who could satisfy that part of him that craved someone to push back, to prod, to provoke.
She wondered if John realised that, if Ronon had made friends among the Marines, he also missed the silence and acceptance of someone who comprehended the solitude endured through those years running alone. John had run by himself for a long time, too, before making himself a family here in Atlantis.
She would not mention that her own life in Atlantis had been lonelier without him — without someone who was both willing and able to reach out. With the advent of Colonel Edwards, Elizabeth had become limited in the time she could spend with Teyla, and even when they spent time together, it was not the comfortable closeness Teyla had enjoyed with John.
Sometimes she wondered if John realised how much of a gap he had left in their lives.
"Your friendship is important to us, John," she said, trusting the simple affirmation to convey her meaning. "You are important to us. Of course we would wish you back, to return to our work together as a team."
"I just…" He hesitated. "I wasn't looking for reassurance."
"You have it nevertheless." She turned to put her empty bag away in a storage chest, and gave him a moment in which to be private.
"It's pretty mutual," he said after a moment. "Just so you know."
It was so very John in its delivery. Halting and uncertain of reciprocation, offering up and yet holding back, all at once — a contradiction in body and spirit both.
Teyla felt the grip of profound tenderness at that difficult, halting confession that nevertheless came from his heart. Which was foolish, because she had heard such sentiments before when they had gone to find Ronon on Sateda. She had known how much John cared for his people before he even realised it himself. And yet, there was something in the confession from him now — quiet and raw from a man who doubted himself so wholly and yet should not have.
She swallowed hard and blinked before she straightened up from the storage trunk and faced John where he stood by her door, his hands casually in his pockets, his head turned aside.
"I am ready to see Carson," she said gently, changing the tone of their conversation. "Shall we go?"
He lifted his gaze and his eyes held hers as he stepped back and swept an arm out to show the corridor behind him.
"You pulled me off the Outpost Project just so Carson could say you're medically unfit to go back out through the Gate?"
Ronon hid his grin behind a forkful of mash. In spite of changes in command, memory loss, and time, some things remained essentially the same. McKay would have complained even if Sheppard had been declared ready to go; that Beckett had been forced to hold off signing the authorisation another day was just falithit to the spark.
Sheppard knew that, of course, but his pride demanded a response to McKay's accusation. "I'm not medically unfit, Rodney."
"It's a medical fitness test," said Rodney, huffing slightly. "You weren't cleared. Therefore, you must be medically unfit."
They were sitting in a room off one of the recreational spaces — a room of great black lounges that started off hard against your skin but softened after a few seconds, becoming malleable as they form-fitted themselves to your body. Ronon and Sheppard had brought dinner up from the mess hall, Teyla had brought the drinks, and Rodney had produced a stash of the crisp-bits and jellies for snack fare during the movie.
Privately, Ronon would rather have been doing something else — something fun, like fighting or picking a random planet to go out and explore. But it was Sheppard who'd wanted this, and so Ronon acquiesced. Sometimes it was good to retreat, hunker down, and tell stories of old in the silences.
Sheppard rolled his eyes, but it was Teyla who answered. "Carson said one of the tests revealed an anomaly in John's DNA typing."
"So medically unfit?"
"Edwards wouldn't sign the paperwork without it," grumbled John, poking at his stew. "Beckett even said it was probably part of a shipment of contaminated swabs from a couple of years back."
It hardly seemed possible that McKay's voice could go any higher, but it did. "They've been using contaminated swabs?"
Ronon reflected that his team-mate had had an arrow in his butt, had caught all manner of Ancient bugs and viruses, diseases, sicknesses, and had accumulated his own set of scars — impressive by Rodney's standards. The news that a pack of swabs had been contaminated was small by comparison.
"They were not known to be contaminated when they were delivered by the Daedalus after the siege," Teyla said, and Ronon caught the soothing pitch of it. "It was only after they arrived and were unpacked that a recall was made on Earth. They thought that they located it all, but Carson says perhaps not."
Rodney sniffed. "And the upshot is that we're stuck waiting another week for Sheppard to get his act together."
"We'd be waiting anyway," Ronon reminded him. "IOA's got to have their say."
"The IOA can kiss my—"
"Rodney " said John warningly with a glance towards Teyla.
"If it comes to that," said Teyla as she poked her fork through a chunk of meat, "they may kiss mine."
This time, Ronon couldn't help the guffaw that escaped him. The Lanteans had strange notions of politeness — strange to Satedan standards, anyway.
"Yeah, laugh it up, fuzzball," Rodney muttered.
"It won't be a week," said Sheppard. "Just a few more days. And, yes, I'll have to go back to Earth for a few days at least, but it'll be a cursory interrogation before O'Neill sends me back."
"I thought they were sending you back for mind-stability testing," Ronon said.
"And that." Sheppard sounded like he'd rather have his tongue cut out of his head.
Ronon thought he had finally gotten to the place where he understood that reluctance.
The military on Sateda had been nothing like that of Earth. On Sateda, everyone got mind-stability testing — it was part and parcel of your fitness report, like your daily run, or your Wraithkills. People got damaged in the course of the fight against the Wraith — body damaged, mind damaged. Some people had weak knees or ankles, some people broke bones more easily than others, some people struggled with the scenarios they were put into, but the Satedan attitude towards weakness wasn't to avoid or deny it — it was to know where it was so it could be watched, dealt with, and prepared for.
He'd said as much to Teyla, who merely shrugged. "They do not accept life as we do. Perhaps because their dominant cultures have not had to struggle towards it, so they lack the ability to empathise."
"What if you don't pass their psych evals, though?" Rodney persisted.
John didn't look happy at the idea. "I'll pass," he insisted. "And Elizabeth said O'Neill wants me out here anyway. So I'm coming back."
"Whenever they send me back!" John threw his hands up into the air. "When the second coming happens! Jeeze, Rodney, I don't know!"
"You know the final plans for the Outpost Project"
"I spoke to Elizabeth about it this afternoon," John interrupted. "You're earmarked for the preliminary stages — which is all that you'd be interested in. You'd get bored later on, Rodney."
Another man might have been grateful. McKay, deprived of the excuse to grumble, subsided into a momentary grumpy silence. It was, being McKay, only momentary. "Do we have to watch Chicago?"
"Teyla wants to."
"You may blame me, Rodney," Teyla said at the same time.
John looked at her, slightly defensive. "I didn't say anything about blame."
"It was implied," she said, so matter-of-factly that Ronon couldn't help a grin. When Teyla wanted to hit back, she didn't pull her punches. "And while it is true that I would like to see it, it is not true that we must."
"It's a musical."
"I thought you liked music," Ronon said to Rodney.
"I like classical music. Not this…singing and dancing stuff."
"You like the singing and dancing at the harvest celebrations," Ronon noted, remembering at least one night involving beer and what Rodney had termed 'the funky chicken'.
McKay scowled pinkly and glared at his dinner plate. "That's…different. It's a different kind of singing and dancing."
Ronon frowned. The way McKay phrased it suggested that one type of singing and dancing was acceptable, but the other was not. Yet both were practised. He'd noted the same reluctance among the Marines — there were some activities considered suitable compared with others, He opened his mouth to ask, but caught Teyla's eye. She shook her head slightly. Ah. One of the Earth sexuality limits then. The Lanteans were inordinately fond of that — of binding up their ideas and ideals of gender and sexuality in so many restrictions that Ronon considered it a wonder they ever had sex at all.
"How about we compromise," said John in a tone so reasonable, it made Ronon narrow his eyes. Across from him, Teyla had a similar reaction, her lashes lifting in flaring surprise as she looked at John. "How about WALL-E instead?"
Rodney's agreement was instantaneous, and Teyla took only a moment longer to acquiesce, although the speculative look she shot John suggested something had been made clear to her in the last couple of hours. Ronon shrugged — it was all the same to him, whether singing and dancing stories or the kinds of stories that Earth children were taught. It was still a sharing in which they all participated. If it was more passive than he would have liked, well, this wasn't Sateda, and they weren't his troop.
The screen was not one of the bigger ones in the city — only 32 inches, but it was big enough for them all to see, even if Rodney complained that they could have booked the projector in the main rec room or gone to his lab where a projector screen was set up — mostly so he could play computer golf.
"It's a trade-off, Rodney," John said, with pointed patience. "We won't get disturbed up here."
"Nobody would disturb us in my lab!"
"But you would work," said Teyla.
"You would," Sheppard was unsympathetic. "You'll survive the smaller screen, Rodney — you spend most of the day staring at a smaller screen."
"Only because Helen Gregory stole the 28-inch screen after Kavanaugh went back," Rodney grumbled.
"God, Rodney — you're not still angry about that are you?"
"I deserved that screen!"
"Can you not put in a requisition?" Teyla asked. "Carson applied for the large monitors in the infirmary, and I believe the control room personnel have an arrangement with many other divisions in the city…"
"It's the principle of the thing. I was promised that screen…"
Sheppard sighed and Teyla's mouth curved. "Just remember," she said. "You asked for this."
"I did. And I bet that Elizabeth told you to say that, didn't she?"
"She might have mentioned it," said Teyla with a hint of smugness. "But it is no less true."
Ronon grinned at the exasperated look Sheppard shot her. "Thanks." The sarcasm had an edge that could slice through bone.
"Regretting it, Sheppard?" Even McKay was in on it, a smug twist to his lips.
Sheppard flashed them all a pointed glare. "Not even for a moment."
They ate the rest of their dinner in comfortable conversation since Sheppard refused to allow them to do a 'TV dinner'. Instead, they traded city gossip and various items of news from around the city, and listened to Rodney complain about the people he was working with on the Outpost Project.
"So they believe they can get the geothermal station working?" Teyla asked.
"That's what Ottley thinks," McKay sniffed. "Although if she's trusting to Asehi's equations then she's going to be disappointed — it can't provide that much power — not by a long shot."
Ronon remembered a conversation with one of the scientists, one afternoon during a hand-to-hand lesson. "Hayes said that even half that would help."
"They'll make it work," said Sheppard. "Even without you, Rodney."
As they settled back down after dinner, Ronon reflected that he'd missed his friends without John. He and Sheppard had just been growing familiar when the other guy was taken. They'd been working out what they knew about each other, sorting out how they would work together. Ronon had instantly known that he and Teyla would get along, but it was different with guys who hadn't trained in the same squadron.
A team was a delicate web of personality politics interwoven with professional skills, and as soon as he walked into Atlantis and met Dr. Weir, Ronon had known that he wouldn't be an easy fit with most of the personnel in the city.
As it turned out, though, he'd been a perfect fit for Sheppard's team.
Sprawled in his lounge as the movie started, Ronon glanced around at his team-mates.
Sheppard was teasing Teyla with the bowl of popcorn, a faint smile hovering about his mouth. In the couch beyond, Rodney was typing what he claimed was an urgent email on his laptop. He'd been threatened with dire consequences if the laptop wasn't closed down when the email was done, and Ronon had been given permission to take it off him if they caught McKay doing anything else.
"Rodney, are you done yet?"
A patter of clicks later, McKay closed his laptop. "Look, it was important!"
"It couldn't wait until after the movie?"
"If it could, then I wouldn't have said it was important!" McKay pushed the laptop to the side as the little lamp bounced across the screen and squashed one of the other letters. "See? I'm not on it now…"
They plunged into a world of flickering light and dusty earth; where an abandoned world was tended to by a tiny little robot who moved about his duty with cheerful persistence.
Ronon let himself be drawn into the story, ignoring McKay's comments on the technology, and Teyla's occasional inquiry regarding some detail or another that caught her eye. As far as Ronon was concerned, he didn't need to know the details, he was content to let it all flow past him and let the little things be lost in the broad flow of the story.
It was a good story, too. After two or three years, he was beginning to get the hang of the Earth stories — the visual cues they used to associate things with concepts. Very Lantean.
Some time during a sequence in the captain's chambers, Ronon glanced over and saw that Sheppard had fallen asleep, his body easing down to one side, his head cupped by the form-fitting chair cushion that had formed a kind of pillow in support.
For a moment, he thought about waking the guy, but decided against. No reason to have Sheppard shaken out of what looked like a well-needed rest. Ronon hadn't noticed anything particularly wrong for his team-mates, but then, he hadn't been actively looking lately.
McKay and Teyla were still watching the screen, though — Teyla looked utterly rapt in the story, her hands folded in her lap, her legs crossed beneath her as she leaned back in the seat.
The robots saved the ship, the ship went back to Earth, and EVE saved WALL-E with his replacement parts and a kiss.
The credits rolled.
"Okay," McKay said at the end with something like a cough. "That wasn't too ba— Teyla?"
She was still sitting as she'd been halfway through the movie, her eyes fixed on the screen, her legs beneath her, her hands in her lap, barely blinking.
"Teyla?" Ronon touched her shoulder, shook her gently, but she didn't jerk out of it. "Teyla!" Sudden visions of the Wraith filled his head, and he gripped her shoulder and slapped her face, a swift, hard smack to break her out of whatever trance she was in.
She swayed a little, but no change.
"Jesus, he's freezing!" McKay looked up from where he'd just tried to wake John. "What's going on?"
"Don't know," Ronon said bluntly. "But she's not coming out of it. Sheppard?"
"He's breathing; just cold as ice."
Ronon settled his earpiece and contacted the infirmary. "Beckett?"
"Ronon?" The soft, questioning voice was definitely not Beckett. "Sorry, it's Jennifer Keller. Dr. Beckett's just gone out for a break. What's wrong?"
"Sheppard and Teyla, in the small upstairs rec room. We can't wake them. Sheppard looks asleep but he's cold like snow — still breathing. Teyla's in a trance of some sort. Eyes open but unresponsive."
"You can't wake— Okay. Um. I'm sending a medical team up there now—"
It was very sudden. One moment, Sheppard lay like one dead, the next, he thrashed like a man held down by the Wraith, knowing his death was coming, struggling against it.
"Sheppard!" Ronon added his voice to McKay's as they tried to gain John's attention through the flailing terror that marked the line between sleeping and waking. "JOHN!"
John jerked, turning towards Ronon. And there was an instant in which Ronon saw madness in the other man's eyes before it drained away, leaving only the man he knew. John blinked, lifted his hand, and pushed at his forehead. "God, that was the most awful dream…"
Teyla made a noise somewhere between a choke and a gasp. Her hands rose from her lap as her shoulders heaved, like she'd just taken the first breath of air after struggling beneath water for a long time.
"Teyla?" Sheppard reached out, his hand questing for her shoulder, and without even seeing it coming, Teyla twisted away.
Ronon grabbed her hands, held them in his own. Her fingers were chilled, like she'd been out all night in the cold. Her grip was fierce — as though it sought reality out of the smoke of whatever she'd seen in her head. "Teyla?"
Her eyes fixed on him for a moment, and if there wasn't madness in them, Ronon saw that who he was didn't matter in this moment. He wasn't the person she sought in this instant — he wasn't important. Then she turned her head, her gaze fixing on the man whose hands had fisted in his lap, whose gaze held the glimmering start of a terrible revelation.
"What just happened?" McKay demanded.
Teyla looked at him, looked at Ronon, looked back at John.
"The Wraith are coming."
And her fingers gripped Ronon's to the pain-point.
Rodney had never been particularly fond of the Atlantis infirmary at the best of times. It usually meant either he or one of his friends was sick or injured — and that was never a good thing.
This was nothing different — another bed, another checkup, another barrage of tests.
Okay, so not exactly a barrage, but a blood pressure check was usually the thin edge of a wedge of medical tests, each of which grew successively less pleasant. Rodney knew the drill; it didn't mean he ever liked any of it.
"You do realise that neither Ronon nor I zoned out in the middle of the movie?"
Jennifer Keller just smiled as she unwound the blood pressure cuff from his arm, and her eyes flicked up to Ronon, who was standing on the other side of the bed. He'd had his done a few minutes earlier, and had come up standard. "Dr. Beckett just wants to be sure you're in good health, Rodney."
"I'm not the one who woke up screaming about the Wraith."
"I did not scream," Teyla said as she and Sheppard entered the room, side by side. Sheppard's hair looked even less tamed than usual, and his expression was grim. Teyla looked…much the same as ever — maybe a little haggard after her zone-out in the middle of WALL-E. She was rolling down her sleeve, which suggested she'd also had her blood pressure taken, and the little bandage on her inside elbow suggested they'd taken a blood sample, too.
In contrast, they didn't seem to have done anything to Sheppard. But then, he'd had a medical check several hours ago, so maybe they didn't need to do anything more to him.
"Practically screaming," Rodney amended as Keller folded up the cuff and put it away. "So do we know what's wrong with you two? Other than the usual, of course."
Behind him, Ronon snorted. Rodney ducked away as he felt the mattress behind him shift a little and just missed the playful slap that Ronon had been about to deliver.
He glared at Sheppard. "You'd have said it if it had been the other way around!"
"Children," Keller said in a warning tone as Sheppard parked his hip at the foot of the bed and Teyla came to stand beside him. "Your pressure's fine, Dr. McKay — or, at least, it's no more elevated than usual."
"I told you I was fine."
"Your usual blood pressure isn't 'fine', Rodney," said Sheppard. "It's way above what's healthy for you. Carson's been saying that for years."
"Well, it's normal."
"As long as it is normal to be you," said Teyla. Rodney glared at her and caught the twinkle in her eyes.
"It's normal for me! And you haven't answered the question. What happened in there?"
The twinkle vanished. Teyla looked at John who looked back at her and shrugged, as though giving her permission to say.
"I believed it a dream at first," she said. "That I walked through the rooms of a hiveship and the crew turned to me as though I was their leader. We were travelling through space, on our way somewhere."
Rodney blinked, then pulled out his PDA.
"What are you doing?" Ronon asked as Rodney pulled out his PDA.
"Checking for Wraith, of course."
Keller paused in the act of wheeling the blood pressure machine off to the side and asked, "Why?"
"Because the only time Teyla dreams about Wraith in the city is when there are Wraith in the city!" Like during the Siege, and before they got Michael humanised, and during the alliance with Michael's hiveship. "And I'm pretty sure that if we were bringing some in, I'd have heard about."
Silence. Then Sheppard said quietly, "It's not just Teyla. I had the same dream."
Rodney paused in the act of tapping his PDA on. It had been weird that both Sheppard and Teyla had zoned out during the movie, but it hadn't occurred to him that it might be linked. "Exactly the same?"
"From what we can tell, yeah."
Rodney frowned. "Okay, that's not usual. I mean, Teyla's used to dreams of the Wraith, but this is new for you."
"The Wraith dreams or sharing them with Teyla?"
"Both!" Rodney eyed his friends. "Unless there's something you'd like to tell us?"
He'd been teasing — well, mostly — but Sheppard looked down and away, and the tips of his ears went red. In contrast, Teyla seemed very cool in her answer. "Were there anything to tell, you would not need telling, Rodney."
Ouch. Rodney didn't say anything, and he hoped he didn't show it on his face, but, behind Teyla, Keller blinked blue eyes, and her lips formed an, Okay…
"This Wraith ship you dreamed of — was it on its way to Atlantis?"
"Yes. It was not said," she explained after a moment's thought. "Yet the starcharts showed our position and our direction and I recognised the patterns. I could sense the thoughts of the Wraith whose mind I was touching — he was thinking of Atlantis and John."
They looked at each other — Teyla to John with a compassion in her expression, and John back at Teyla with the careful neutrality that meant he wasn't happy about something but he was going to play ball.
"They know where we are, and they're on their way here. Somehow, I don't think they're going to throw a party for us."
"Unless it's the kind of party where we're the main course," said Rodney, alarmed. "And what are you doing in Teyla's dreams anyway?"
"How," Ronon said as Teyla's eyes narrowed.
"We don't know," Sheppard said after a moment. "We told Beckett, but he didn't know—""
"Actually," said Carson as he entered the infirmary, "I do now."
A tablet was held in the crook of his arm and he was trailed by Elizabeth and Edwards. They both looked grim and concerned, but Edwards had a hint of smugness in his demeanour that Rodney immediately distrusted. He'd never warmed to Edwards and Edwards had never warmed to him.
Carson was addressing Keller, whose fingers were moving lightly across the tablet as she entered the results from her tests. "All good?"
"They're fine," she said. "Or, at least, as usual."
"No problem. I'll keep the rounds going," she said, heading out of the room pretty quickly.
Rodney vaguely recalled that she was fairly new to her responsibilities in the city and was still learning the way Atlantis operated. From the brisk way she moved out of the room, it looked like she was a little nervous about being in the same room as the command team of Atlantis and the foremost Gate team.
Okay, former foremost Gate team, although Rodney would have bet that, even after six months out of the field, they would still be more than capable of kicking the asses of the current 'foremost' Gate team of Atlantis.
Which was why John had been going in for the physical in the first place.
Carson pulled one of the screens around so everyone could see what he was putting up on it. It looked like this was going to turn into a full-blown medical session, complete with diagrams.
Rodney settled himself back on the bed, even as Teyla climbed up next to him, leaning back on the pillows in much the same pose she'd adopted in the room when she'd gone into a trance. Sheppard stayed at the end of the bed as though his hip was welded to the footboard. On the other side of the bed, Ronon leaned over, planting his elbows in snowy sheets. Beyond Rodney's sight, he was probably balancing on the balls of his feet, as though ready to go running yet again.
And they waited, along with Elizabeth and Colonel Edwards.
"It seems the anomaly we noticed in Colonel Sheppard's DNA this afternoon isn't an anomaly after all," Carson said as he pulled up two DNA mapping charts, identical in the peaks and troughs that marked out their details. "This is Colonel Sheppard's original DNA mapping from the earliest weeks of the expedition, measured against his DNA test from when he returned to the city six weeks ago in his persona of Yan Stormborn.
"From this DNA map, we ascertained that the Colonel was who we thought he was — even if he didn't realise it." Carson typed in another command and another DNA chart replaced the bottom chart. "This is Colonel Sheppard's chart from the test we took a few days ago in preparation for his medical today. As you can see, in the main, the mapping remains the same save these three points here. Because of the similarities, we presumed that the mapping had been taken from a batch of swabs that we believed were contaminated several years ago."
"What were they contaminated with?"
"Does it matter?" Edwards asked brusquely, cutting off the answer Carson had been about to give Ronon. "Get to the point, Dr. Beckett."
Rodney's eyes narrowed at the peremptory tone, but he caught Elizabeth's eye and saw her shake her head. Beside him, the pressure of Teyla's shoulder against his increased slightly, and he glanced at her, annoyed that they thought he might need restraining.
Carson glanced at Elizabeth, looking for a response. "Unless it's important to this, Ronon, I don't think we need to know right now."
Ronon shrugged, and with an apologetic glance, Carson continued. "We took another sample from Colonel Sheppard this morning, and although we haven't yet been able to do an in-depth test, the genetic markers have shifted again."
Another series of keystrokes, another mapping — much a sketchier one — superimposed on top of the one with the shifted genetic markers.
"The three markers have moved still further away," Teyla said.
"And another four points have begun to shift." Carson looked at Sheppard. "We've seen this happen to you before, though, Colonel." And he pulled another mapping over the first, unadjusted mapping — one that showed vastly different troughs and peaks to Sheppard's original DNA map. "As you can see, it seems that Colonel Sheppard's DNA is moving towards this pattern."
Edwards shifted impatiently. "And this DNA mapping would be?"
"The Iratus bug," said Rodney flatly. There was only one thing that Sheppard had ever changed into. "That's what he's reverting back to, isn't it? The Iratus?"
The hesitation was more telling than the reluctant admission. "At this stage, that's what it looks like."
Silence hung in the air. Most of them looked anywhere but at Sheppard.
Rodney looked and saw the stiff grimace on his friend's face: the unhappy realisation of what was happening to him and the unpleasant recollection of how it'd felt the first time. John's expression was echoed in the faces of the others. They'd never really talked about the Iratus virus and what it had done to John and Rodney had been involved with other stuff around the time that the change began. Unlike Ronon and Teyla and Elizabeth, he hadn't interacted with John during the Iratus transformation; he didn't carry the same memories.
"Why now?" They looked at him as though he'd spoken in another language. "Why's it happening now and not, say, when Sheppard first came back to the city?"
Carson shrugged. "We don't know that yet. We'll have to do more tests—"
"How fast is he changing?" Edwards asked. The man didn't even look at Sheppard — all his attention was on Carson, and Rodney frowned.
"You can't expect him to know that right now—"
"I can and I do," said Edwards. "Doctor?"
To give Carson credit, he held his temper in the face of peremptory demands. "It's hard to tell right now—"
"Then give us an estimate."
Elizabeth shifted. "I think that, under the circumstances, what's happening to Colonel Sheppard is of less importance than what Teyla's told us — that the Wraith are coming."
Rodney heard the chiding tone in her voice — the approach of the Wraith was more concerning than John's regression — and if it was clear to him, it was certainly clear enough to Edwards.
"As to that, we have only Ms. Emmagan's word for it."
"Oh, and like her past experience and history with the city doesn't vouch for it?" Rodney saw John close his mouth about the words he'd been about to say.
"It's one thing to dream of the Wraith," said Colonel Edwards coldly. "Given what she is it's not entirely surprising. But I'd prefer some hard proof."
"Given what she is?" John beat Rodney to the punch this time.
Teyla intervened, sharp and cool as a blade.
"If you wish confirmation, I believe there are systems that have long-range scanners that send data to Atlantis. We have used them to keep track of the migrations of the Wraith in the past. The hiveship is due to pass through one shortly."
Of course, they hadn't been able to do anything about those Wraith migrations through the years. Even warning the locals didn't necessarily help — there were worlds that the Wraith passed by without touching, and others further off their path that they culled down to a handful of survivors, with no logic or reason as to why one planet was fodder and another spared.
Rodney still tasted the bitterness of that bit of programming. By the time of the siege, he'd come to realise that Pegasus was a lot more than he saw — and how little he could actually do to help them. At least, by being on a Gate team, he was doing something.
"Give me a tablet," he said, snapping his fingers.
"Excuse me?" Carson said, disbelievingly.
"I said I need a tablet. Since I haven't yet worked out how to access the intersystem traffic satellites using only the power of my mind — or my PDA — I'm going to need a computer to work from."
"Rodney," Elizabeth said in warning tones.
"He wants hard proof!"
"You can give it to him later," she said. "I'm happy to take Teyla's word for it for the moment, although I would like a confirmation on it. But later."
"In the meantime, and in the absence of proof, I want to know what's happening to Colonel Sheppard," said Edwards, rocking back slightly on his heels. The pale eyes fixed on Carson again. "You originally told us that Colonel Sheppard was unchanged by his experience as one of the natives."
"He was." It didn't sound like Carson much liked Edwards' tone. "All the medical tests between then and last week came up normal — exactly what we'd expect. Whatever the origin of this, it's recent."
As one, they turned to look at Ronon. He'd braced himself on the other side of the bed, his hands leaving folds in the sheets.
"What do you mean?"
He looked at John. "The Wraith who took you, he had you for a month."
"Ronon, that was six months ago."
"Doesn't matter to the Wraith — one month, six, a year " He shrugged, muscled shoulders tossing the nubbled dreadlocks about as he answered Teyla's statement. "They've got time on their side."
"But they couldn't know when Sheppard would return—" Rodney broke off. Understanding crashed in on him, forming a full picture of the situation, the realisation tumbling out of his mouth. "The chair. Your use of the chair at the outpost."
"Like a flag raised when an event occurs," Elizabeth said. "Is that even possible?"
"The Wraith certainly have the knowledge of how to set off a retroviral DNA adjustment based on an energy event," said Carson after a moment. "It's possible."
"It fits their behaviour," Elizabeth said, and now she looked worried.
Teyla's expression mirrored hers. "They would not want John back in the fight."
"So they'd take steps to be sure that, if you ever got your memory back, you didn't join the fight against them." He was on solid ground now — the pieces all coming together, sliding into position and locking like the bits of a puzzle. "They'd have done something so that you couldn't use the gene without it setting you off like this.
Sheppard looked grim. "Like setting me up as, oh, a Wraith homing beacon?"
The silence said what no-one else was willing to say.
Then Edwards' hand lifted to touch his earpiece. "I want a unit sent to the infirmary — make that two units — fourteen and eight. They're to come armed and—"
"What? Whoa!" Rodney blared, panic flooding him. "Elizabeth!"
"John is not a threat, Colonel." Her finger was already at her earpiece. "This is Dr. Weir—"
"He's a goddamn Trojan horse!" Edwards bit out, interrupting her attempt to belay the order. "One that we've welcomed into the city."
"You don't know he's a threat."
"We don't know he's not a threat! And the security of the city is in my hands. Camberwell, I want those units now. Weir, my concern is the security of this city, and Colonel Sheppard compromises that."
"He didn't know—"
"He doesn't need to know to be a threat," the ice-blue eyes had about as much warmth in them as a Yukon winter as they looked at John. "As we've already discovered today."
"So are you just going to terminate the threat?" Rodney demanded, furious at the way this was heading.
"No," said Edwards, his gaze never leaving Sheppard. "But I am going to confine it. Sheppard, as your senior officer, I'm ordering you to stand down and to go with Major Camberwell and the Marines who are coming to escort you to your quarters. What's to be done with you will be decided after we've discussed this."
"And you're just going to leave him out of the discussion?" Rodney's voice rose in protest.
"If he's a patsy for the Wraith, I'm not about to discuss city security in front of him," said Edwards. From the rooms beyond there was a small commotion; the tromp of boots and the sounds of astonishment as armed men intruded into the infirmary.
At the best of times, Rodney thought Major Matt Camberwell was a pain in the ass. Since this wasn't the best of times, and the smirk on Camberwell's face was barely disguised when he was informed of the situation, right now, he was simply an asshole.
Elizabeth noticed it. "Colonel Sheppard is to be confined in his rooms, Major. He may be a liability; he is not a hostile."
Camberwell glanced at Edwards, not even bothering to be subtle about it. "Sir?"
Edwards waved a hand, like a prince granting a favour. "He can stay in his own rooms. But he's not to have contact with anyone."
"No contact with anyone?" Rodney spluttered, outraged. Okay, so he understood the need to be cautious about Sheppard, but treating him like a prisoner was a bit rich — even for Edwards.
"Except his team-mates," Elizabeth said. "Until the link between John and the Wraith is proven, I think we can grant him that much."
"No need to be so magnanimous, Elizabeth!"
He glanced at Teyla, turned to look at Sheppard whose expression was rigid, cold.
"I'm not resisting, Rodney."
The resignation hit him like a blow, left Rodney speechless. Beyond John, Camberwell smirked, and he didn't need to look at Elizabeth to know that she was halfway between strangling him and chewing him out. He'd pay for that outburst later, he knew, but this situation sucked.
"Major," said Colonel Edwards after an awkward moment of silence, "I believe you can take Colonel Sheppard out now."
John looked at Rodney — and in front of and beyond Rodney, to Ronon and Teyla respectively. "Come see me later," he said.
And although there was the customary Sheppard defiance in his voice and his stance, he seemed somehow diminished inside, as though something in him had been snuffed out.
He went, almost meekly.
That was worse, somehow, than even the Wraith being on their way to Atlantis.
John hadn't escaped the Wraith after all.
They'd let him go at the end of their torture and testing, with his body aged and rejuvenated until his memory was scoured down to bare bone. They'd sent him out as bait for a fish they didn't know they'd ever catch.
And they'd come up aces.
After two hours confined to his room, John was antsy. He'd started off his confinement reading up on old reports — at least until Edwards had cut him off from the city servers. Then he'd IMed Rodney until his email and IM applications were cut off half an hour later.
After that, he'd entertained himself with his guitar and his DS, and those activities soon palled. War and Peace beckoned, but he avoided even picking it up. He wasn't allowed out of his quarters, he couldn't contact anyone, and the people he'd expected to visit him hadn't.
Rodney and Elizabeth, he understood. Elizabeth would be managing not only the city situation but Edwards and John's own situation. And before John had been cut off from the IM server, Rodney had confirmed a small flotilla of hiveships on their way to Atlantis. Rodney would be involved in whatever technical solutions were being bandied about as a way to keep Atlantis out of the hands of the Wraith.
He could understand Ronon, maybe. Involved with the Marines, possibly included in whatever military measures were being taken, Ronon might have duties of his own that meant he couldn't get away to see John.
But he'd at least expected Teyla to come and see him after the meeting.
So when the doors slid open to admit Teyla and Ronon, John wasn't just restless but frustrated, too.
The looks they exchanged were not encouraging. It was Teyla who spoke first. "We have confirmed the Wraith's approach on the inter-system long-range scanners."
"But Edwards wants a visual confirmation."
"What?" John stared. "He's not going to believe it until he sees with his own eyes?"
"The inter-system long-range scanners were brought online by Rodney," Teyla said simply. "That makes them suspect. And, I think, he wants the numbers we face and is unwilling to take me at my word. I am due to go with Evan, Major Camberwell, and Lieutenant O'Bannion to an intercept point."
It was wasteful and pointless. Sure, he and Teyla had done it the first time the Wraith had come to Atlantis, in the week leading up to the siege, but back then, they hadn't known what they were facing, what would happen. They hadn't had a fraction of the knowledge they now did. And back then, they'd been able to use trickery and subterfuge to hide themselves.
In two years, the Wraith had grown more cunning, and Atlantis had become more of a threat. With the attempt to humanise the Wraith, culminating in the creation of Michael, the gloves had come off. Neither side would ever underestimate the other again.
"Have they decided what we're going to do with the city? Once Edwards accepts that the Wraith are actually coming and that this isn't something we made up just to watch everyone scramble for cover?"
Teyla's mouth twitched a little at his sarcasm, but she didn't laugh. The situation was too serious for laughter. "They are still debating the best course of action for the city since none of the obvious solutions are satisfactory."
"Evacuate or take a stand." John had thought through the permutations himself, his mind laying out plans he'd never be allowed to implement.
All because of what the Wraith had done to him.
They hadn't just turned him into a homing beacon for them, they'd neutralised him. John was out of the fight entirely now, thanks to the Wraith who'd 'saved his life' after Kolya had tried to kill him.
"Evacuation's not an option," Ronon noted. He'd crossed the room to stand by the window and peer out at the city outside, while Teyla had paused by the bed, her fingertips trailing the woollen blanket folded at the end of it. He'd brought it back from Orawi as Yan Stormborn and kept it as John Sheppard — one of the few things he'd retained from that life.
"Both Elizabeth and Colonel Edwards are reluctant to leave Atlantis in the hands of the Wraith."
"Not when it's a gateway to Earth," John said, more to himself than to them. They knew the state of affairs as well as he did — if not better. "Which leaves standing and fighting."
Not a good option, either.
"This is not a fight we can win," Teyla said, echoing his thoughts.
Still, habit made him correct her. "It's a fight with bad odds."
"More enemies," said Ronon, "Easier to fight."
"But no more winnable," Teyla said, and sat down at the foot of the bed, her fingers still tangled in the woollen weave. "So far, the suggestions have involved sinking the city as the Ancestors did, or using the ZPM to fight the Wraith. However, we are not sure whether these Wraith have shared this information with any other hives as yet."
"If they reach Earth, they'll share it around," John said grimly. "There's plenty for all, come and join the feast. Has Carson come up with anything, yet?"
If he had to stay in here for the duration of the crisis, he'd go stir-crazy. Something that would halt this change might not help his standing in the city much, but it would be better than nothing at all.
"Not yet," Teyla said. "He is working on it. However, it seems that what the Wraith have done to you is more complex than he expected — more than merely restarting the Iratus virus in you. He believes they have spliced your DNA with it such that he cannot easily undo it." She looked apologetic. "I could not keep up with the terms."
"But there's no quick cure."
"No," Ronon said. Then, "How is it?"
John shrugged. In the last couple of hours, his arm had begun to itch. It was probably psychosomatic — after all, if it had taken a month to get him to the point where his DNA had begun to change, the Iratus probably wasn't going to take hold overnight. "Same as usual."
"Carson was…interested as to how it was that we connected in our dreams," Teyla said, and when John swivelled in his desk chair to look at her, she met his gaze evenly. "The last time you were Iratus, it was not until the change had true hold of you that our dreams began to overlap."
They hadn't realised it at the time.
And after that first realisation, they'd never discussed it again. Considering how Teyla felt about the Wraith, John had figured she probably didn't want to remember dream-screwing their close cousin, his hands leaving bruises on her thighs and arms, her heat leaving scent trails on his hips and thighs.
Going to see her after he was human again had been as much an inquiry as it had been in apology; to find out if she'd dreamed that of him, too.
She'd shot him down. Gently, perhaps, but John hadn't been under any illusions — she'd intended to bring him down. She'd made that clear when she walked away from him.
John didn't blame her. After what he'd come so close to doing to her after their sparring session, he'd have walked away from him, too.
"Maybe it's easier the second time around?"
"Maybe. Or perhaps proximity?" Teyla arched a brow. "I remember watching where the little robot takes a ride on the outside of the ship and thinking that you would like that scene. And I turned to look and you were already asleep, and when I turned back, I was on the Wraithship."
He didn't remember falling asleep — only a vague recollection of the movie and then the dark shadows of the Wraith hiveship. "You only got Atlantis and me from their recollections?"
"No. They were very focused on their goal." She looked down at her hands, which had been flexing in her lap. "And I was…afraid."
"You weren't the only one." John blew out a breath. Those first few seconds when he didn't know what he was doing on the hiveship had been some of the worst in his life. He'd never expected to die quietly, but getting into a situation on a Wraith Hiveship was usually the kind of thing he noticed before he got into trouble on said hiveship.
"So, what happens now?"
John didn't pretend not to know what Ronon meant. "Now, I can't stay here, but they can't send me to Earth either." Not if the Wraith could track him.
Another glance was exchanged between them, and this time, John saw the layers in it. "What?
"We offered you help to get out of Atlantis once before," Ronon said. "Do you need it again?"
The offer had been made to 'Yan Stormborn', back before John remembered who he was. To the man who'd felt everything he knew and loved was being taken from him, it had been a gift he appreciated but didn't understand.
Here and now, John understood much more of what was being offered. It was a simple thing on the surface — it just got complicated beneath. Teyla's and Ronon's places in Atlantis were more precarious under Edwards than they'd ever been under John. John had taken the view that helping Pegasus would help the expedition — and the expedition had a responsibility to Pegasus for waking the Wraith — in no small part because he'd been the one to wake the Wraith. Edwards took the view that Earth should be for Earth, and that Pegasus would only get in the way.
Helping John might get them kicked out of Atlantis — or, at least, no longer made welcome. And it was more precarious for Teyla than it was for Ronon, because in spite of New Athos, her people were still dependent on Atlantis in many small ways.
Either way, the offer squeezed his chest. He wouldn't ask it of them — if he left Atlantis on the run, it would be on his own steam, not involving anyone else.
"I'll keep it in mind," he said, forcing the words past the tightening in his throat. "Thanks."
Ronon's shrug said as much as Teyla's quiet statement. "You are not the only one who may sacrifice for those they care about, John."
He didn't deny it; but that was different. They were worth it.
John looked away, awkward with what was said and unsaid. He struck out for something to change the tension he could feel building beneath his breastbone, unfamiliar and therefore dangerous.
"So," he said lightly, "I guess you don't want to re-watch WALL-E, seeing as I missed most of it thanks to the Wraith?"
He wasn't sure he wanted to sleep right now — he wasn't sure he could, not with the city in danger and him left here twiddling his thumbs. There wasn't anything he could do about it, wasn't anything he could do to stop it — hell, he was the cause of it.
"I cannot," Teyla said, standing up and brushing off her pants. "I am due on the recon mission with Major Lorne within the hour. But I am sure Ronon would like to stay."
The look Ronon shot her suggested she was going to pay for that. "Wanna spar instead?"
"I'm allowed out of this room?"
Ronon shrugged. "Won't know until we try."
He seemed pretty confident about it, and John grinned at the casual insouciance of the Satedan. Each of his team-mates brought him something different — a different perspective and aspect — and he valued that more than he had ever let them know.
Maybe it was time he did.
"Okay," John said. What did he have to lose anyway? He turned to Teyla, who was smiling at them both. "Be careful out there, okay?"
"I am always careful," she said with a smile that somehow managed to convey prim dignity at the same time.
"Yeah, well, just in case." John glanced down at his boots for a moment, embarrassed. He wished he hadn't dragged Teyla into this with her Wraith gene. He wished he could have avoided it. They'd never spoken much about the Iratus — not after he'd attacked her in the earliest stages of his change.
It hadn't come to rape, but sometimes he wondered if it might have. If he hadn't stopped. If she hadn't been able to push him away. He remembered his fingers around Elizabeth's throat and her helplessness to stop him but that had been different.
Harder to forget had been the feel of Teyla's mouth in his, the curves of her jaw and throat beneath his hands — and the way she'd shoved him away.
No woman wanted that.
And John was only too aware that Teyla had put them at careful arm's length after that.
The man he'd been before Kolya and the Wraith had been content with that. Yan Stormborn had been involved with Ivali of the Orawi, and if he'd trod the line while regaining his memories of being John Sheppard, he'd never crossed it. Thanks to Teyla.
Once again, she'd put him at arm's length and kept him there. So John knew his limits; he knew what he could and couldn't have.
So why was he thinking about it now, looking up at Teyla where she stood at the end of his bed, about to head out on a recon that John should have been doing with his team?
"Come see me when you get back." The words escaped his lips as the doors hissed open. "I won't be doing much."
Already out in the corridor, Teyla turned back. "I will," she promised just before the doors closed.
When John turned back to the window, Ronon was watching him, brows lifted. "What?"
"I cleared the sparring with Edwards. The Marines will be tagging along, but otherwise, you're good."
The big guy shrugged. "They've got other things to think on right now." He paused. "They're worried about what'll happen when you sleep."
So was John. "I guess we'll find out later."
"You didn't know."
"About the Wraith and what they did to you."
"So it's not your fault." Ronon glanced out the window at the night-time city. "The first time they let me loose, I thought about going home. Dreamed of it."
"But you didn't."
"They'd spared me for a reason. Found that out pretty fast. But I'd have gone home if I didn't know they were hunting me."
"That won't be good enough for Edwards."
Ronon gave him a look that suggested he was being stupid. "Doesn't have to be good enough for him."
John heard what Ronon was saying behind his words: It only has to be good enough for the people who matter.
He understood that. He understood that neither Ronon nor Teyla — or Rodney, Elizabeth, Carson, Lorne, or a whole bunch of other people — held him responsible for what was happening. They'd all been in Pegasus too long to assign blame without a very direct link to intent.
John just wasn't sure he believed it.
Whether or not he'd known wasn't the point. The point was that the Wraith had turned him into a weapon to be used against the people he cared about most.
The point was that, even unknowing, without any idea of what had been done to him or what he was doing, John had been used as a way for the Wraith to find Atlantis.
The point was that he had no idea what else they'd done to him.
More than anything else, John was afraid, not of what he'd done, but of what he could do.
There was still a sense of 'already done this' that haunted Teyla as she sat in the seat and looked out at a sky full of hiveships.
The Lanteans called it déjà vu which they said was the sensation that you'd been here before.
Certainly this was the sensation of having been here before — Teyla knew she had been here before.
One before, she had sat in a jumper, just like this one, staring out at a velvet sky torn by the massive bulks of the Wraith hiveships as they dragged their bulbous masses along the night sky like row-cutters behind the plough, leaving terror and death in their wake.
The difference was that she had been here with John.
Yet this time, John was immured in the city, forbidden from leaving yet unwelcome to stay. And Teyla was out here with others.
"My God," said Lieutenant O'Bannion from behind Major Lorne. "They're huge!"
"Have you never seen them before, Lieutenant?" Teyla asked, looking over at the stark, shining eyes of the young woman. There were many newcomers to the city since John had been taken by Kolya, and many of them had never seen a major engagement with the Wraith.
It would put them at a significant disadvantage if it came to a fight.
And, more and more, it seemed Atlantis would be forced into such a fight..
"Not like this, ma'am."
"She's not military, O'Bannion. No 'ma'am' necessary." Major Camberwell sounded grim and slightly grumpy. Rodney claimed the Major came in two modes: grumpy or smug and it didn't matter which you got because both were equally objectionable. To which Elizabeth had always quietly commented that it wasn't as though Rodney had the right to talk about coming in grumpy or smug modes.
"Well, whatever, sir," O'Bannion said. "That's a lot of hiveships."
"Only five," said Lorne, studying the HUD.
"'Only,' he says," said the young Marine, shaking her head.
In truth, Atlantis had faced worse during the siege of the city, two years ago.
Teyla remembered flying through the skies over Orin's planet before the siege. Then, the space had been crowded with ships, crawling with darts, intent on preying on the people who Teyla had counted her friends.
Then she and John had been stuck on the planet for hours while her mind crawled and buzzed and hummed with the sense of the Wraith above and about her, while her thoughts crawled and fretted and hoped that Orin and his family might make it to the rescue point before she and John had to leave.
Here, at least, there were no innocents on the planets below. A civilisation had thrived on this planet a thousand years ago and more, but there was nothing left of them now but the broken stone of their structures, mud-swamped.
"So, Teyla," said Major Camberwell with a delicately pointed malice. "Are these the Wraith we're looking for?"
Had it been Rodney or John asking her such a question, even Major Lorne or another of the Atlantis personnel who knew and trusted her, Teyla would have answered directly.
But if it had been Rodney or John or Major Lorne or someone else here, they would not have had to ask that question. They would not even have been here, on a foolish trip to 'prove' that the Wraith were coming, when it was clear enough from the long-range scanners that they were on their way.
There were other things to be doing in the city — preparing for another siege, at the least. Sorting out what had been done to John and looking for a solution. Working out how to set up the outpost as a secondary base for the personnel and technology that they did not wish to lose.
This was the politics of the city — a power struggle between Elizabeth and Colonel Edwards. And Teyla was growing weary of being used as one of the pawns.
"They are in the place where Dr. McKay's scanners said they would be," she said, keeping her voice level and light and her expression pleasant. "They are of the number that the scanners indicated. It is reasonable to assume that these are the hiveships that were seen in Atlantis."
"If you prefer that word," Teyla said. It would have been satisfying to give in to the temper that rose beneath her calm and urged her to punch him. Or to answer with stiff disdain at his nastiness. She did neither. Her leeway in the city was not so great — especially not when dealing with someone like the Major. "Either way, I believe we have the proof Colonel Edwards sought?"
Lorne leaned forward. "I'm headed back to the Gate—"
"Not yet," interrupted Major Camberwell. "Colonel Edwards has one more request. He wants Teyla to make contact with the Wraith, to find out what they intend with Atlantis."
Teyla blinked. "Colonel Edwards wishes me to contact the Wraith?"
"If we can find out what they intend with Atlantis, then we might be able to counter it. Or offer them something else in exchange."
"I believe it is obvious what the Wraith want," Teyla said.
"Our deaths," offered Lieutenant O'Bannion. She looked chastened as Major Camberwell shot her a warning glare.
"Destroy Atlantis and find the location of Earth," Lorne said, turning back to the HUD and the hives sailing past them like birds of prey sweeping across a meadow in which a bobbed-bouncer watched and remained still lest it be seen and hunted.
"They would prefer both, but I believe that either one or the other would suffice."
"But these Wraith have inside knowledge into Atlantis," persisted Major Camberwell. "They had a look into Sheppard—"
"If they'd actually gotten anything useful out of Sheppard, they'd have been at Atlantis long before this," said Lorne sharply. "We should get back to Atlantis. This isn't doing anything."
"Well…is there anything we can do?" Lieutenant O'Bannion asked, a little timidly.
"No." Lorne said. "Look, we've been through the options: evac the city and leave it so the Wraith find nothing, or fight back. We're not going to evac because that leaves the way open to Earth, and if the Ancients couldn't win a prolonged war against the Wraith, we're not going to manage it either. That's the facts."
Teyla could not see Major Camberwell's expression, but she didn't need to. She could feel his silent fury with Lorne, without ever having to look upon his face for confirmation of it. And she sensed that there were layers here, subtleties of the various Earth military commands that she still did not fully comprehend — a competition, an antagonism, and, she was sure, further politics of the city.
"My orders are from Colonel Edwards. We get a reading of the Wraith before we come back. It'll only take a minute."
Nothing had been said of this before they'd come on the mission. There had been no intimation that this would be required of her — no suggestion that she should do any such thing while they'd still been in Atlantis.
Teyla had seen into the Wraith leader's mind through John's dreaming. That had been enough to tell her the Wraith were coming and that their intentions were not like those of the hive Michael had brought to Atlantis. Beyond that she had sensed no cunning, no greater plan that might involve Atlantis.
His peremptory manner was no encouragement to do as he and Colonel Edwards requested, but to argue now would be counter-productive and only spend time they could not afford.
Lorne caught her eye in question. Apparently Elizabeth had not given orders one way or the other, although he seemed willing to disobey the Colonel's edict if she was not willing to risk contacting the Wraith.
Teyla shook her head at him, almost imperceptibly.
She would rather have done this without the audience, but that was preference, not requirement. Closing her eyes, Teyla blocked out the noises within the 'jumper, the sounds of the others' breathing, the soft hum of the 'jumper's power. Instead, she focused on the buzzing noise that had been in her consciousness ever since they'd come out of the Stargate, as her gift let her know that the Wraith were near.
At the best of times, she could block it, but not turn it off. Now, she did not even attempt to block it, but welcomed the immersion of her thoughts into that of the hive.
Elizabeth had once asked her what it felt like, to think with the Wraith. Teyla had described it as sliding beneath the surface of a river and allowing herself to drift to the riverbed. There was a conscious denial in the act, the severance of her human individuality and the embracing of the Wraith plurality, in much the same way as river-drifting cut her off from the air and denied herself the light, yet freed her to the mystery and thrill of the underwater world.
Her heartbeat speeded up in those first few seconds, then slowed as she reached the state in which she was not only aware of the hiveship consciousness, but also of the minds that made it up.
Their thoughts drifted through her mental fingers, inhuman, inconsequential, attentive to their tasks but almost incapable of free thought. The drones were multitudinous and almost mindless, but their consciousness made up the river in which the thoughts of the others swam.
Teyla brushed lightly across the minds of the thinkers, intent on their more complex tasks, from working on the drives to experimenting on their DNA structure. That last caught her attention, and she yearned to look closer, to chase down that trickling thought and possibly discover more of what had been done to John.
That was not her purpose here.
With effort, she forced herself to keep going, seeking out the other minds in the morass — the warriors that called themselves 'blades', those males capable of thought, of independence, of disobedience. Individuality was dangerous where the male would not submit to the Queen; and yet that independence of mind could bring prosperity to the hive as a whole…
Her mind danced more carefully among these: they were clever and cunning, capable of sensing her if she was too clumsy, capable of controlling her if she left herself open. And that, right now, would be folly.
Each blade was his own web of thoughts, his own miniature hive of threads entangled, with one or two thoughts glittering clear and sharp, and many others drifting around those central thoughts.
Brushing across each mind as delicately as she might handle the softest, finest hide, Teyla followed the trail of thoughts that led from this Wraith to that, from that one to the next, and from the next to the one after that. Delicately picking out the thoughts that she sought, Teyla formed an image of the Wraith leading this attack.
Sickly green skin, white hair, with tattoos that formed almost star-like outlines on his face, the leader of this expedition was old, even as Wraith counted the years.
He had prestige and power, too — having been counted among the dead and gone for many years before returning. And he had brought with him knowledge of the humans — and, moreover, knowledge of Atlantis, with a prisoner whose life was owed as part of a debt, but whose living might serve as his hive's access to not only those who defied the Wraith, but also a planet bursting with food.
He was visible from far away, the hard, cold mind at the centre of the web, the still, confident leader in the midst of the chaos; the one who acted in the assurance that he was close to his goal, that his pieces were in place. He did not expect it to be easy — no, he had seen enough in the man called 'Sheppard' to know that these humans were resourced and resourceful, cunning and determined.
Teyla shuddered and dragged herself out of the Wraith consciousness with a gasp that was mental as well as physical. The Wraith mindset was seductive in its own way; all that power laid open to her will should she choose to exert it…
She had never yet tested the theory that she might be able to control a Wraith and not merely read one. It was nothing more than a theory — a possibility she had never explored.
"Teyla?" Lorne was watching her, concern in his gaze. She felt his relief like a burden on her shoulders. "You okay?"
She nodded and tried to find her voice amidst the change in consciousness — the sudden solitude of her thoughts, familiar and yet…lonely. "I am fine."
Teyla was filled with the sudden conviction that Major Camberwell did not much care if she were healthy or dead, only so long as he had the intel his senior officer required.
"They know nothing of our preparations," she said. "They know that we are aware of their coming, but they have not gained any new knowledge beyond that."
"So we're safe?"
"I believe—" Teyla began, and halted.
On the viewscreen the hiveships continued to sail on, inexorably making their way towards Atlantis, but even as they watched, a swarm of tiny ships emerged from one of the openings in the hive. They sped on through space, gaining in size and deadly intent as they came towards the 'jumper position. She did not need to read their thoughts to know where they were headed — directly for them.
Camberwell breathed a curse. "What the fuck did you do, Emmagan?"
"I did nothing." She had felt nothing as she touched the hiveship; received no reaction to her coming. If they had been aware of her presence, their thoughts could not have held the semblance of indifference so long — that was not the way of the Wraith.
"Yeah, well, that's not nothing."
"Camberwell," Lorne said through gritted teeth, even as he turned the 'jumper on its tail, "Shut up for a minute."
"You don't have to listen."
"No, but I have to fly this thing. If you want to survive, don't distract me."
Teyla did not need to look to know that Major Camberwell's jaw was probably gritted, and that his teeth were probably clenched.
Her own jaw was tightening as she felt the Wraith consciousness begin to claw that the back of her head. She did not believe they had been aware of her presence while she was in contact with them — if they had, the attack would have come sooner, while she was still open to them.
What had tipped them off?
In the end, she reflected that it did not matter what had tipped off the Wraith, only that she kept them out of her mind now. She would not betray Atlantis with the knowledge she held; and this close, it was a struggle to keep them from her thougths.
Dimly, she was aware of Lieutenant O'Bannion's cry, of Camberwell's exclamation of shock, of Lorne twisting and turning the 'jumper through moves he was unaccustomed to performing.
And the Wraith were getting through.
Their thoughts battered against her, hunger and determination and an echoing resonance that seemed to throb through her attempts to shield them out.
"I am fine," she told Lorne. "But hurry."
"Wait! If she's been taken over by the Wraith…"
Lorne wrenched the jumper through moves that John would have done without effort. "She hasn't been taken over by the Wraith. She's fighting them!" By the glow of the approaching planet's atmosphere, Teyla could see the sweat beading his brow. Her own brow was feeling similarly damp as the toll of blocking the Wraith took a physical price out of her. "Teyla, I'm giving this all I've got."
"Even Rodney cannot change the laws of physics," she managed, and sensed his smile before something scraped across her brain, leaving a red-hot welt through her mind. Teyla felt breath rasp in her throat, knew her pulse was racing, straining against the tide of blood, against the tide of minds stacking up against hers. Clawlike things scrabbled in dark corners, poking, pushing, prodding at her barriers, seeking a way in.
She was vaguely aware of the twists and turns of the 'jumper as it sought to escape the darts firing upon them. Inelegant moves, without John's thoughtless grace, but sufficient to keep them from being hit.
"I thought we were cloaked!"
"Then why the hell are they firing on us?"
"Maybe it's her."
Teyla saw the gun muzzle come up in a moment, and spun out of her seat as Lieutenant O'Bannion exclaimed, "Whoa, what?"
"Major!" Lorne yelled, and his shout slammed through Teyla's skull, weakening her defences. She could feel them getting through, beginning to seep through her shields — the hungry buzz of their minds pressing, pushing, insistent. Between the tension in the cabin of the 'jumper and the tension in her head, she could feel herself being pulled apart. "Are you crazy? She's on our side!"
"Do you know that?" Lorne hesitated, and Teyla's fists clenched. "See?"
"What I know," Lorne emphasised, "is that you're distracting her from fighting them. And risking us. Put the fucking weapon away, Camberwell."
"And sit down and shut up?"
"It would help!"
"Major, I think—"
"You're not called on to think, Lieutenant."
"Fine, then, I say that you let the Major get us out of here, and leave Emmagan to do whatever she's doing." She sounded nervous but determined. "When she turns and attacks us, then you can shoot her and no-one will gainsay you."
"What are you? A goddamned lawyer?"
"Military law and regulation, sir. Whatever you think she might be doing, until she actually does it, she's innocent."
"Evan?" Teyla felt the first ticklish tendril of thought breaking through her shields.
"Hurry." That was all she said. It was all she trusted herself to say.
Had this been her team, confident in her loyalty, with trust in her abilities, she would not be fighting the Wraith like this — what Lieutenant Ford had once termed a 'rearguard action'. But Major Camberwell's persistent disbelief, Lieutenant O'Bannion's uncertainty, even Major Lorne's piloting skills — they were not an anchor into which she could safely put her trust.
But they would have to do.
She locked her teeth as her brain exploded into fiery agony, like hot metal rods stabbing into her skull. Something wrapped around her thoughts, cold as ice, freezing her. Tell me what you know!
"She's losing it."
"Put the gun away, Major! Gate's dialled, we're going through."
Fighting back was impossible, unnecessary. She flung herself around her memories, around the knowledge she held, gathering it all together as the blue-green passage beckoned and they slid forward.
Teyla thrust one mental tendril into the morass of the Wraith, empty and blank. It was like plunging her hand into boiling water, and her scream vibrated every nerve in her body as the fullness of the Wraith hive mind poured into it — a template waiting for imprint.
Then they plunged into the Stargate.
In the few seconds it took, Teyla felt the grip of the Wraith fade as distance and dimension exerted their dominance. The tendril she'd plunged into the Wraith snapped back into her with a sensation of tearing. She flung up shields as they stopped dead in the Gateroom — as the shields went up over the Gate and the passage closed — and felt the last claws of the Wraith scrabble and fade.
"Teyla?" Lorne peered at her from around his chair, his expression tense and uncertain. "God, Sheppard's going to kill me!"
"I will speak up on your behalf, Major," she tried to say, but her tongue would not obey her, lying thick and useless in her mouth. Human speech seemed more effort than she could supply; she managed half a smile, even as she heard Major Camberwell calling for a security squad to deal with her.
Then there were voices all around her, surrounding her, drowning her. She doubled over with their babbling cacophony and the world went white.
Elizabeth's momma never said there'd be days like these — but then her mom had never been in Atlantis. Not even once.
Having started the previous day with the hope that she could get John's team back out on active Gate status, she supposed she should have expected it would end with something as dramatic as Atlantis facing re-discovery by the Wraith.
And the morning was a whole new ballgame after the report from Majors Lorne and Camberwell, and five hours of sleep.
"All right." A glance around the briefing room gave her a good view of the department heads and assorted key personnel she'd called into the briefing. "We've got a problem"
"We've got several," snapped Colonel Edwards, his arms folded over his chest. "Starting with the fact that the Wraith have two sympathisers in our midst—"
Accustomed to Edwards' ability to grab the paranoid end of the stick, Elizabeth only regarded him with disbelief. Rodney was less restrained. "Sympathisers? Are you nuts?"
"—And no plans are being made to deal with them."
"Oh, and how exactly do you plan to deal with them?"
Elizabeth frowned in Rodney's direction. She didn't expect that he'd subside, but she could hope that he would restrain himself a little. Anger wasn't the way to deal with Edwards and never had been. "Neither Colonel Sheppard nor Teyla are Wraith sympathisers. They've been with Atlantis from the beginning. Teyla's people have lived on the run from the Wraith since Atlantis was abandoned, and no-one's done more for the city than Colonel Sheppard."
"Yet, even now, the Wraith are on their way to Atlantis — thanks to those two."
"Thanks to the Wraith." Elizabeth shot him a pointed look even as she knew it wouldn't do much good. Edwards was too politically motivated, too much a creature of his masters. The IOA had always been a beast to placate, wanting to dabble their fingers in the pie, to 'look out for Earth interests' — as though anyone from Earth wasn't able to look out for Earth's interests. "I think it's important to remember that neither Colonel Sheppard nor Teyla are involved in this of their own free will."
"With all due respect, ma'am, Teyla let the Wraith into her mind on her own."
Lorne's head turned to stare at Camberwell, his lip curled. "Only after you told her she had to contact the Wraith to find out what they wanted with Atlantis. She went in there because you insisted on it — as though it wasn't obvious what the Wraith wanted of us!"
"Destroy us, get the address or location of Earth, then head for the all-you-can-eat Wraith buffet? What?" Rodney demanded. "You know I'm right."
Right he might be, but there were better ways to put it. And there were more important things at hand than the political games that it seemed Colonel Edwards wished to play right now with the city in danger and two of their best people sidelined.
Elizabeth had pushed hard for John's team to return to duty as much for the sake of the city as for them. Atlantis needed people who could think outside the box; who were problem-solvers, and experienced in the kind of issues that Pegasus threw — who had a Pegasus solution for the kinds of problems that Pegasus experienced, not just a one-size-fits-all Earth experience.
But she'd have to work with who she had — and a significant portion of who she had was Edwards and his cabal of IOA-influenced military.
"People!" She let her voice ring through the room, cutting through the noise and waiting until they were silent. She hadn't called this meeting to point fingers. "This meeting isn't about Colonel Sheppard or Teyla. It's about the Wraith that are coming to Atlantis and how we're going to meet them. So," she looked around the table, catching every eye she could as she leaned forward, "let's acknowledge there's a problem and focus on the solution. Rodney, what's the power status of the city?"
"Bad. At present power, we have less than a week's worth of time in which to hold off the Wraith in a protracted siege."
Camberwell frowned. "We have a full ZPM—"
"Which is only going to last us a week."
"—as does Earth and the Odyssey."
"I thought the Odyssey was fighting the Ori," said Ronon.
"They are," Elizabeth told him. She'd been a little surprised when Ronon turned up to this meeting, although relieved. Since John's disappearance, he'd been invaluable in keeping her updated regarding the military state of the city. She'd taught him about Earth in a way that John had only just begun to do; he'd taught her about Pegasus from a fighter's perspective, rather than Teyla's trade and culture orientation.
And it was a relief to have someone here who she could rely on not to undermine her. Whatever other things Ronon could be accused of, disloyalty was not among them.
"We're not relying on the ZPMs from those sources," she told the room — a small gathering, without either John or Teyla, both of whom were still confined to their quarters. "Our solutions have to be self-contained; we're not going to get any help from Earth."
"So why don't we evacuate?" That was one of the scientists, plaintive and bewildered. "The Ancients couldn't stand against the Wraith — and they had all their knowledge and technology and three ZPMs."
Edwards cut in before Elizabeth could make an answer. "The IOA are not willing to sacrifice Atlantis."
"I think we can agree that abandoning the city is not an option."
Their last stand in Atlantis would have failed miserably, but for the unexpected arrival of Earth, and Teyla's ability to fool the Wraith. They couldn't count on that working a second time.
"So what suggestions do you have, Dr. Weir?" The mockery in Edwards' question was thick as winter fog, and she was tempted to snap back a quick retort, but kept her voice even as she answered. He wanted her to lose her temper, to 'prove' her unstable, or emotionally compromised — anything that would give him absolute control of the city.
Even Mr. Woolsey — unsuited as he'd been to Atlantis — had been better than that.
"That's why I called this meeting — to collect ideas about our course of action."
"We played dead for the Wraith once before," said one of the scientists — Dr. Pudinski. "We could do it again."
"Roll over and play dead?" Rodney snorted. "They won't fall for that a second time. And it only worked because we had Teyla mentally reinforcing it."
"Well, we've got Sheppard as well this time, so maybe—"
"Sheppard is to be left out of any solutions for our situation," said Edwards with a cold stare at the scientist who'd made the suggestion. "As of his incarceration, he's to be considered a hostile and treated as such."
"Dr. McKay, he's given the location of Atlantis to the Wraith. I think that says a lot about his position on this matter."
"His position on the matter is that he's being used as a pawn of the Wraith. The Wraith made him into a homing beacon — it's not something he consented to!"
"A statement for which we have only his word!"
"And, of course, his word isn't good enough — even when it's backed up with a lifetime of service!"
This was getting out of hand. Elizabeth stood up, laying her palms down on the table with a soft smack. The physical movement had the advantage of drawing the eye as well as providing an audible focus for interruption.
Every eye in the room turned to her — even if Rodney and Edwards took a moment to leave off glaring at each other.
Edwards wanted to play politics while the Wraith came? Fine. She'd play politics.
"Gentlemen, let's keep the focus on the city and our options for defending it. Rome is burning; let's not fiddle." Hinting to Edwards that he was playing political footsie during a time of crisis might shame him into actually being the leader Atlantis needed. Although Elizabeth's personal preference would have been to slap him into next week, there were some things you simply couldn't do — political survival was a tricky thing, whether on Earth or in the Pegasus galaxy. "If the options suggested involve Colonel Sheppard or Teyla, then they'll be considered before being accepted or discarded — like all other suggestions.
"In the meantime, Dr. Beckett is working on a retrovirus to restore Colonel Sheppard, and Teyla has shown herself to be on our side for the better part of the last three years — a record that is unmatched by even personnel such as Major Lorne. We can't afford to shut out ideas just because they don't fit our preconceptions."
A glance around the room showed most of the people nodding — the handful of exceptions were mostly Edwards and his cohorts. Edwards' eyes had narrowed down to slits, and his nostrils flared white as though he was in the room with a bad smell.
Not so nice to have to compromise, now, is it, Robert?
"You're proposing we risk Atlantis, Dr. Weir?"
"Atlantis is already at risk, Colonel. Our best option for reducing that risk is to use the full extent of the resources we have — technology, weapons, people, and the skills they possess. Both Colonel Sheppard and Teyla have skills significant to our situation and have used them in the defence of Atlantis before. Excluding them from the solutions process would be limiting our options. So," she said, looking around the room and tacitly giving permission for people to throw out ideas again, "do we have any other solutions?"
Then Ronon shifted, swivelling his chair from one side of the table to the other. "Don't be where the Wraith expect when they arrive."
"We already said evacuating the city isn't an option!"
"No, wait!" Rodney jerked up and began typing into his open laptop with a sudden burst of frenzied energy. "Atlantis isn't just a city."
"What do you mean?"
A few seconds later, the shifting screensaver of the meeting room screen vanished to be replaced by a cross-section diagram of the city. Heads turned to study it as Rodney began explaining.
"It's a ship. We've been living in it as a city, but it's really a spaceship! And Ronon's right — the way we're going to get out of this one is by not being where the Wraith expect us to be."
"We don't have enough power, Rodney."
He brushed Radek's statement away as a man swatted at a fly — an inconvenience. "Then we find more power — we work something out. Look, if we can work out a way to stretch the power we've got, we can have the city orbital before the Wraith arrive and be nowhere in sight when they turn up!"
Possibility and uncertainty warred with each other, a delicate balance of conflict. It would solve a lot of their issues with a second siege, and give them a new start elsewhere in Pegasus.
And it was a better chance than any other they'd had so far.
"You're overlooking a major point, Doctor." Edwards' drawl ground against Elizabeth's nerves. "The reason we're in this situation is because Sheppard got us into it in the first place!"
"Dr. Beckett is looking at a retrovirus to undo whatever the Wraith have done to the Colonel," Elizabeth said firmly.
"And if he can't find a solution?" Surprisingly that wasn't either Edwards or Camberwell, but someone else — one of the newer personnel to the city.
"Then we looking at other options — for both Colonel Sheppard and for the city. We keep looking for options right up until the Wraith jump into the system and start bombarding us."
"Never say die?"
Slowly, Elizabeth turned her head to look at Edwards and kept her composure through the mockery. "If you want to think of it that way, Colonel. We're not dead yet."
"Emphasis on 'yet'," someone muttered.
"Well, thank you for being Miss Positive," Rodney snapped, oblivious to the irony.
Up the back, someone sniggered too loudly to ignore, and someone else's snort turned into a full-bellied laugh. Then most of the room burst into laughter — perhaps edged with hysteria, but a release valve all the same.
Elizabeth wiped tears from her eyes. Ah, Rodney.
After that, the meeting was fruitful enough. An evacuation plan was laid out for most of the city, including any personnel in non-critical positions. Elizabeth assigned Radek and his team to work on the power requirements of the city while Rodney and his team checked over the city's engines. And when Edwards tried to play interference, she blocked him with as much grace and tact as she could.
She'd hoped for a respite once the meeting was over, but Edwards followed her up to her office, his silence portending an angry storm.
"Don't think I don't know what you did in there." He barely waited until the doors were shut. "This is no longer your personal project, Dr. Weir — this is an outpost of Earth, due all the consideration we'd give if Earth itself was under attack."
"It's not Earth." She didn't sit down, because that would allowed him to look down at her from the standing position he always adopted. With Colonel Edwards, everything had to be used to her advantage, because the fight never ended. "And if the IOA isn't willing to offer any more help than platitudes and prerogatives—"
"The IOA's first priority is Earth — as should yours be."
"My first priority is Atlantis and the preservation of this city and its people. As it should be." It came out sharper than she'd intended, frustration rising up in her throat with grim intensity. She saw his brows rise — the inevitable reaction to any 'emotional' outburst she made. Oh, what the hell. She was in for a dime, she might as well go in for the shiny silver dollar. "To that end, I'm telling you to call off the Marines who've been assigned to keep Teyla in the infirmary."
"You don't have the authority."
"Actually, I do." She opened one of the side drawers in her desk to produce a letter she figured she'd have to use sooner or later — ever since it became clear that Edwards was never going to acclimatise to Pegasus.
Edwards' expression was grim as an onion as he pulled the heavy paper out of the Air Force envelope. Elizabeth hated to use this — she'd hoped that they'd learn how to work together as the months went by. But when Edwards was more involved in playing politics than actually protecting Atlantis and the galaxy it was in, then she needed this weapon.
To Whom It May Concern,
I, President Henry Hayes, appoint Elizabeth Weir leader of the Atlantis expedition and give her the override authority in any situation in which she deems her authority necessary. She is hereby appointed with the honorary rank of Lieutenant General for the duration of any crisis in Atlantis.
The letter went on, detailing her powers and limitations — and there were limitations as well as powers. Elizabeth had neither the intention nor the desire to be a dictator in the city, but when they sent the expedition back to Atlantis after the Ancients had come and been dispatched by the Asurans, she'd known she'd need something more to deal with the new commander in the city.
Dealing with John Sheppard had taught her a lot about command, even if, in the end, she'd been able to take a stand, sure that he would back her up. When it came to Atlantis and its independence from Earth and the machinations of the IOA, she could trust that he'd follow her lead as long as the Air Force wasn't directing him otherwise.
Elizabeth had no such assurance with Robert Edwards, so she'd asked General O'Neill for a trump card.
Paper rustled as Edwards closed up the letter, and creased the fold between his pinched fingers. "You shouldn't play games with the IOA, lady."
"And you shouldn't be playing politics when Atlantis is in danger." Hot satisfaction coursed through her at being able to say the words out loud. "Teyla comes out of the infirmary — apart from having the Wraith gene, she knows how much of the city works."
"And I suppose Sheppard's allowed free run of the city?"
"No," Elizabeth said, coolly. She remembered scaled hands around her throat choking her while she tried to reach the man he'd been through the monster he'd become. She wouldn't risk that again, didn't dare as long as the Wraith were coming to Atlantis. "Colonel Sheppard stays in his rooms unless he's authorised to go elsewhere. Carson will keep on with his research on the retrovirus and Dr. Keller will manage the infirmary during the evacuation. And if Colonel Sheppard wants to see his team-mates, he can."
Knowing John, he'd want to at least see Teyla and Ronon. If he asked to see her, Elizabeth would go — but this time, she'd keep the door open.
Last time, she'd been solicitous of John's dignity and it ended up being at the cost of her safety; this time, she'd be cautious. John would probably understand.
"All right." Edwards handed back the letter with crisp precision. "Have your way with Sheppard and his team, then. But if they so much as sneeze the wrong way and bring the Wraith down on us as a result—"
"Then they'll be confined as you wish. We're not on opposing sides, Colonel."
"Really? Because that letter looks like it was drafted specifically to tread on my authority."
It had been. But it wouldn't help to tell him that. "I haven't used it until now," Elizabeth reminded him. "And I'm only doing this because we need Colonel Sheppard and his team. You may not like them, but they're the best Atlantis has."
"They're also the ones that got us into trouble in the first place!" Edwards drew in a long breath and then exhaled slowly. His eyes glittered at Elizabeth. "With your permission, Dr. Weir, I'll start overseeing the evacuation, then?"
"After you call off the Marines guarding Teyla."
A few barked commands and the Marines were reassigned to help the city evacuation. "Thank you." She could be gracious in victory — not that it would make much difference.
If leading Atlantis had been an unsteady partnership before this, it would be all-out war once things had calmed down. A man like Robert Edwards didn't like being thwarted.
Edwards stalked out of her office, and behind him, the techs turned their heads, while Major Camberwell frowned after his superior officer and Lorne looked to her.
She ignored them all.
Closing the door of her office again, Elizabeth put the Presidential letter back, then pulled up her email and began typing up the evacuation order. Once it was done, she'd make the announcement of their imminent departure from this planet.
But as her fingers rattled the keys of her keyboard, Elizabeth reflected that the problem of John and his connection with the Wraith could become a significant problem if they couldn't deal with it.
They had to find a way to break the connection between John and the Wraith. If they didn't, the only solution she could see was to ban John from Atlantis entirely.
Ronon saw the blow coming, but couldn't move fast enough to get out of the way.
He tucked his head and shoulder under as he tumbled. His dreadlocks dug into his neck and hard wood bruised his shoulderblade as he rolled head-over-heels and sprawled on the warm floor, panting.
Spring, it seemed, was coming early to Lantea. The morning's coolness had soon given way to a pleasant warmth, and the afternoon sun poured through the open windows and glared off the floor — a glare he'd hoped to use against Sheppard in their sparring.
Unfortunately, it hadn't worked.
"Shoulda seen that one coming, buddy." Sheppard sounded jaunty as he flexed his hand. No surprise. The man didn't train enough to beat Ronon in hand-to-hand. Not when he was human.
"Yeah, probably." Ronon didn't feel like getting up, but he wasn't going to get a choice. In the face of enforced inactivity, Sheppard was growing restless. This was his way of letting off steam — properly sanctioned by Edwards, of course.
Ronon suspected it was also Sheppard's way of getting his own back against Ronon.
As McKay would say, Payback's a bitch.
A blue-streaked hand reached down to help him up. Above it, Sheppard regarded him, brows raised, jaw set. Ronon took the hand up without hesitation, rocking himself up onto his feet.
"Ready for another round?"
"After a drink." And a chance to catch his breath. That last fall had taken more out of him than he'd expected.
The water was cool and refreshing down his throat, and Ronon sucked it back with relief. Over by his bag, Sheppard chugged down half a bottle of water, the morning light highlighting the azure spread of the Iratus virus across his skin.
As yet, the Iratus had only just begun spreading across his arm, although Beckett was worried about the speed of it. "It was a few days before he started showing these symptoms last time. I'm guessing the change has been accelerated, and since his DNA's already re-patterned itself once before, it's easier this time."
John seemed mostly the same as ever — other than the ability to beat Ronon. Maybe a bit quieter. Ronon understood that. Many things had happened in a short period of time and the city was in a frenzy of activity and fluster.
Teyla, Rodney, and he had agreed not to leave John alone for more than a couple of hours. McKay had complained, of course — he had important things to do. "More important than keeping John sane?" Teyla had asked. McKay had given in.
"Why didn't you do this against Teyla?"
Sheppard paused as he put down his bottle. Then he shrugged. "Didn't think she'd want to. Besides, she's busy."
"It's just the scientific teams."
"It's just co-ordinating their evac." Sheppard took up his position in the middle of the room. "Equipment, research, computers, drama-queens… Getting scientists to agree is like shepherding guachi."
Ronon lifted an eyebrow as Sheppard used the Pegasus term for trying to manage something that resisted organisation by its very nature. The closest term among the Lanteans was 'herding cats', although it failed to imply the chaos guachi could cause when their blood was up. After six weeks, Ronon still found it a little surprising when Sheppard dropped into Pegasus vernacular — although not as much as the Lanteans seemed to find it surprising.
"I guess your section's managing okay, then?"
"They know where I am if they need me." Ronon picked up his bantos and made to move as though he was taking up his stance across the room, casual and innocuous before he lunged.
Sheppard leaped back, twisting so he spun out of reach of the bantos, bringing his own bantos down on Ronon's wrist — hard enough to sting, not so hard that Ronon dropped his rods. "Gotta try harder than that, buddy."
Breath huffed through Ronon's teeth as he tried to get through Sheppard's guard. But the man was too fast and too strong for him to get through his guard even to touch.
"Alien DNA is cheating, you know." He grinned at Sheppard as they circled, watching with the eyes of warriors, of fighters. The Lanteans were big on not winning by cheating.
"Cheating doesn't matter. Surviving does."
Sheppard attacked, and Ronon only just managed to defend himself, partly surprised at the speed at which Sheppard moved, and partly by the fact that Sheppard had just quoted a Satedan proverb back at him.
In a way, it was exhilarating to have an opponent he had to work to beat. Too many of the Marines were an easy win; even the toughest and fastest couldn't match him time after time. They'd lived too soft, too easy, with their distant wars and their comfortable country. Sateda had trained for war, every man and woman, from the moment they were old enough to understand the Wraith and what they did. It made a difference when you were fighting for your life.
At least Teyla knew, although her people had chosen to run and hide and survive rather than stand and fight.
Maybe the Athosians had the right of it. Their culture, their traditions, their histories would continue through generations while Sateda faded, the memory clung to by a scant few survivors — and maybe Atlantis.
Maybe he was over-thinking this — as the Lanteans would say.
"Beckett hasn't come up with anything yet?"
Sheppard grimaced. "He's working on it. Says it'll take time." He defended against Ronon's unsubtle attack with swift, easy movements, lithe as a hireni, powerful as a darbul. "Rodney said they'll need me to fly the city out of here."
Ronon remembered that argument — and the aftermath. "Edwards is still sulking."
"So I heard from Rodney." There was a grim satisfaction in John's expression. "I heard Elizabeth gave him an ultimatum this morning."
He didn't know about that and said as much. But it made sense. There'd been undercurrents in the city after the meeting that hadn't been there before. And Edwards had been shorter with Ronon than he usually was.
A little distracted — something that would have been unthinkable back when he first came to Atlantis — Ronon barely blocked another attack from John with a grunt and spun away, trying to feint to one side before attacking on the other.
He might as well not have bothered. Sheppard rapped him across the knuckles, moving faster than Ronon could follow, then kicked his legs out from under him.
His butt ached as he hit the floor, his back and shoulders following. He knew better than to try to break his fall with his elbows — it took a lot of training in the Satedan Armed Forces to overcome that instinct, but the butt had muscle and fat to insulate it if you knew how to fall without wrecking your back, while the elbows were bone and cartilage — slower to heal.
Rather than roll over and climb to his feet again, Ronon let himself lie there. He was getting soft with all this easy living in Atlantis. Solid meals, too much rest, not enough dependence on his skills to keep him going.
"Yeah." Ronon lifted one hand, silently asking for help. His butt hurt after that — he didn't usually take too many hard falls while sparring against the Marines. And he might have stretched something a little too hard — something he hadn't done since he'd been a Runner for real. "But it's still cheating."
John grinned. "Maybe." He tilted his head, apparently noticing the stiffness as Ronon got up. "You wanna stop?"
His body wanted him to stop. His pride wasn't about to take it lying down. "Maybe after the next round."
Sheppard shrugged and took up the ready stance again. "It's your funeral."
It nearly was his funeral. He twisted and defended, parried blows and blocked strikes, ducked and dodged and could almost keep up.
Later, they sat on the steps together, soaking in the late afternoon warmth and sipping the beer Ronon had brought. Sergeant Matthews had slipped him a couple when they were clearing out the stores, and told him to take it around when he saw Sheppard.
"You nearly got me that time." Sheppard managed not to sound too gleeful.
"Kinda. The whole realisation that I'm going to turn into the Iratus again? Not so much." Sheppard took a swig from the can and tried to seem nonchalant. "Pity we can't use this against the Wraith somehow."
"Maybe we can."
The other man halted in the middle of shoving his hand through his hair. "You wanna share, buddy?"
Ronon shrugged. The idea had been turned down by Edwards anyway. "Teyla suggested using you to follow the Wraith back to their hives."
"It'd cut down their numbers."
Sheppard eyed him. "Edwards didn't like it?"
"No." Not possible, too involved, too risky, over-complicated, not the time… "Weir didn't seem to like it much either."
Which Ronon had thought odd. Weir was usually open to ideas, particularly during a crisis. He got the feeling there was politics at play here: concessions and allowances happening behind the scenes. Not his business, not his interest, not his battlefield.
"Yeah, well, she's probably got a lot on her mind right now." Sheppard shrugged. "I'm not sure I could track them back anyway. Beckett reckons I'm just a receiver, not a sender."
"I guess. That is, we've used her to misdirect the Wraith before. That was before you came."
"Yeah, well, sometimes I think I preferred it before we knew what we were up against." Sheppard slouched back, hooking his elbows on the next step up. "I mean, we knew, but we didn't realise."
"You could always go back." The first time Ronon had realised there was a place where the Wraith didn't go — a whole galaxy's worth of planets and people who lived out their lives without the constant threat of death over their heads — he'd wondered what the expedition was doing here. Teyla had been the one to point out that at the time they arrived, the Lanteans had no way home.
"And leave you and Teyla out here? No." There was a bitter, burdened expression on the other man's face. "I started this and I'm going to finish it."
It was said more to himself than to Ronon — a private promise to himself.
Ronon didn't say anything — there wasn't anything to say. He'd known, early on, that Sheppard wasn't a leader like Kell — the kind who'd trade others' lives for his own. Over time, he'd learned that the man was courageous, tenacious, foolhardy, reckless, and stubborn as a diedros pava. A lot like Ronon — or so Teyla had noted over the years.
"Hey, can I recruit you for something later tonight? Kind of…a test project with Teyla."
A cagey expression flittered across Sheppard's expression — not entirely unlike the one he'd sported yesterday morning when Ronon suggested Sheppard had a thing for Teyla. "Yeah. It's…something I want to try with her."
"While I'm there?" Ronon guffawed as his friend's mouth twisted.
"Hey, don't laugh. You're the insurance policy in case…"
Laughter died. This wasn't a laughing matter anymore. "In case what?"
Sheppard hesitated, then scrambled to his feet. "Edwards."
Ronon got to his feet, bewildered. He couldn't hear anything…
A few moments later, he heard what Sheppard's enhanced senses had told him: that there were people coming. Military, judging by the tread of their boots. Unhurried and without urgency, so not a crisis situation, but intent.
They were facing the doors when they slid open to show Edwards and several of the Marines.
Edwards' gaze dropped to Sheppard's arm and the spreading patch of blue on the skin. "Sheppard. Dex."
Ronon didn't bother answering. Niceties counted to the Lanteans, but you didn't have time for them when you were trying to read the next blow coming.
"We have a problem, Sheppard."
The pale eyes flashed with annoyance. "Your…connection with the Wraith is endangering Atlantis."
"With all due respect sir, I thought we'd already ascertained that."
"Do you care about this city, Sheppard?"
Ronon didn't need to see Sheppard's back go rigid; he felt it as though the other guy had been leaning against him.
"Then you'll probably see what I'm getting at when I say that as long as you're in the city, you're a problem for us. Anywhere we go, the Wraith are going to follow us, and all the ship drives in the world are not going to stop that."
"Only while I'm asleep."
Sheppard shrugged. "The Wraith can only reach me while I'm asleep."
That seemed to give Edwards a moment's pause. Then he shrugged. "Are you going to spend the rest of your life awake, then? No. Dr. Beckett hasn't been able to come up with a cure for you, and until he does, we can't have you in Atlantis."
"A pity there's no airlock you can throw me out of, sir."
"Contrary to what Dr. Weir and Dr. McKay seem to believe, I don't want you dead, Sheppard. I just want you out of Atlantis."
Ronon suspected that the man meant it in more ways than one. After all, Edwards had gained Sheppard's job after Sheppard went missing, and the loyalty of a lot of the long-term city personnel was still to Sheppard. Not an easy thing for a commander — especially one as inflexible as Edwards — to deal with, never mind accept.
"Sergeant Appleton has come up with an idea for how this could work. I thought I'd run it past you before I took it to Dr. Weir," there was an ironic lean on the last sentence. "Seeing as she's taken to making end runs around me lately, I wouldn't trust her to throw the idea out the window before she'd heard the end of it."
Which tied in with the alleged ultimatum of this morning. Ronon made a note to go pester Rodney about it — or one of the technicians up in control. They might know what had happened.
"The way I wouldn't trust you not to throw out Teyla's idea about using the link with the Wraith against them?"
"We don't have the time, resources, or energy to do that, Sheppard. We've set ourselves to a path—"
"Time to hold the course?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact."
Ronon didn't quite understand the undercurrents that passed with those words. In fact, he didn't care. "What's Appleton's idea?"
The Marine shifted, his greying hair spare across his skull. One of the ones who'd come in with Edwards, but a solid guy. Reliable, trustworthy, and open-minded. The last counted for a lot in Pegasus. "The Colonel could become a Runner."
Insane. Running wasn't for the weak or the soft. Then again, Sheppard was hardly weak and after a week on the run, he wouldn't be soft.
Appleton continued. "You had a Wraith tracker in you for seven years and you managed to stay alive that long. Once Colonel Sheppard's out of Atlantis, he can planet-hop, as long as he doesn't visit any populated places."
"So, death or exile?" Sheppard grimaced.
"Would you rather death?"
He hesitated. Then, even as Ronon turned to look at him, said, "No. But I have conditions."
"You're in no position to make conditions."
"You're not in a position to refuse them." Sheppard put his hands on his hips, a belligerent stance — and one that drew attention to the scaly patch on his forearm, the brown and blue spotting that was even now beginning to mark his biceps. "I want a 'jumper."
"Out of the question."
"You want me to survive ahead of the Wraith, Edwards? Give me something to work with. I want a 'jumper and basic supplies. Not much to ask in exchange for Atlantis' security."
"We need all the resources we can hold onto."
"Even if they're not being used? One 'jumper, Edwards. And, if I've got a 'jumper and weaponry, maybe I can track the Wraith back and attack them instead."
Thin lips curled in contempt. "A one-man army against the Wraith?"
"Why not? Ronon did it without a 'jumper — without anything other than his wits and his skill." Sheppard glanced at Ronon, and there was bleak acceptance in his expression and his voice. "I'm not that good, so I'll need other resources."
"We might need that 'jumper."
"When you've still got over a dozen of them? Look, you have a handful of pilots who can do more than liftoff and landing, and none of them have my ability with the Ancient tech. You want me out of Atlantis, fine; I don't want to endanger the city — or Earth. If they catch me, they're not going to just suck me dry like everyone else, they're going to take what they didn't the first time."
"And how do we know they didn't take it then?"
"Do you think they'd have hesitated about heading for Earth if they had?" Sheppard glared.
"So if they could have taken the information off you the first time, why didn't they?"
Ronon saw Sheppard's throat work. "One of them owed me a debt. My life for his." When Edwards' brows rose, Sheppard lunged in, eyes narrowed, hand chopping out to end the conversation. "Look, that's my deal for agreeing to this. One 'jumper and its base supplies. Take it or leave it."
The new commander stared at Sheppard for a long moment, his eyes cold, his jaw grim. It was obvious — to Ronon anyway — that the man didn't like the deal he was being offered. Whether or not he was aware of it, Edwards had probably thought this a good way to be rid of Sheppard — one way or the other.
But Sheppard wouldn't last very long out there without supplies and support — not with the Wraith on his tail, locating him every time he slept. Ronon had run that life for seven years, and towards the end, he'd grown tired and weary. Only stubbornness, the refusal to lie down, and the hope that maybe Sateda had survived — or, at least, avoided destruction — had kept him going. Sheppard would need the 'jumper if he wasn't going to be picked up by the Wraith in the first week of running.
"Fine." Edwards snapped the word out. "You will fly Atlantis out of here ahead of the Wraith. Once we're out of here—"
"Once we're on the other planet."
"—you take a 'jumper and you're gone. I'm sure Dr. Weir will want to arrange timed meetings to check up on you, but you're out of Atlantis and the Wraith with you. If Beckett gets you cleared, you submit to the IOA appraisal on Earth, and then we'll look at your fitness to return to Atlantis."
Ronon watched as Sheppard considered it. Then the other guy nodded. "Deal."
"You'll be informing Dr. Weir of this before dinner, Sheppard, and there will be no mention of this meeting. As far as she's concerned, this is your own idea with help from Sergeant Appleton."
His bootsteps rang down the corridor, and the boot-steps of his flunkies followed after, with only Sergeant Appleton glancing behind.
"Not really," Sheppard murmured, walking back to his beer and drinking it down in one long draught. "He's wanted me out of the city for a while. This is just the perfect opportunity." He tilted the bottle as though studying the label, then put it down.
Standing to the side of the room, the man looked lost — as though he was alone in the universe, instead of in a city full of people who owed him their lives.
Ronon picked up his own bottle, almost empty, and accepted another from the ice box. "The Wraith only come at you while you're sleeping."
"So it seems."
"Did you sleep last night?"
Sheppard didn't look up from the metal cap he was wrestling off the bottle. "Some."
"Don't go mother hen on me, Ronon."
Ronon heard the disdain in Sheppard's voice, but the mockery was lost on him. On Sateda, the men and women were supposed to keep an eye out on their squadmates. If someone wasn't well, then the performance of the entire squadron suffered. They were your people. Looking after them was what you did — or else they weren't your people.
Sheppard took a swig of beer and swished it around his mouth. "Enough."
In Ronon's head, a number of pieces began to fit together. "Is that why you want me to turn up tonight with Teyla?"
"Turn up and find out."
It was something of a relief to Teyla to find Ronon already at John's quarters, sprawled in the chair by the window, with the faint glimmering lights of the city visible through the mirrored reflection.
John was sitting on the bed, his back to the door although the dark head was turned to regard her entrance. Something flared in his eyes when he saw her, but his greeting was easy and just as he had ever been.
"Hey, Teyla. Come on in."
She hesitated on the threshold, then gathered her courage and stepped inside. "I hope I'm not late." It felt wrong to be so careful — this was John, whom she trusted implicitly with her life and her people's lives and the lives of so many planets out in Pegasus, but her memories of John under the influence of the Iratus last time were…difficult, for many reasons.
"No, Ronon's only been here a few minutes." Ronon nodded at her, but her attention was on John.
So far, the Iratus change had not spread beyond his arm, but it was going far faster than it had the previous time. That was worrying enough; more worrying to her were the shadows beneath his eyes and the quiet air of a desperate man.
"So, you've heard that once we've moved, I'm outta here, then?"
He sounded easy about it, but words were shields with John. Conversation was a form of misdirection, and he wore his solitude like the Lantean snail wore its shell. Without it, he would be lost.
"Elizabeth mentioned it to me. This was your idea?"
"Well, Sergeant Appleton's. Anyway, that's not important right now." And yet his eyes slid away and he changed the subject too hastily for it to be truth. Teyla noted the way Ronon shifted long legs. Whatever lie John had just perpetrated regarding his departure from Atlantis, she would get it out of Ronon. In the meantime, John continued. "I…haven't been sleeping well."
"You dream of the Wraith."
His eyes fixed on her so swiftly — a predator's eyes. And although she was no prey, Teyla felt something quiver within her, carefully still before that stare. "Yeah. I think the connection's only when I'm sleeping or drifting off. More often since…"
"Since you haven't been getting sleep."
Ah. That explained her presence here, but not Ronon's. "What did you wish to try?"
"You sleep without the Wraith finding you."
"Unless they're too close," Ronon added.
"Unless they are too close." She stopped and regarded John where he stood, his hands digging deeply into his pockets. "You wish me to teach you this?"
"I know you've learned some mental thing that keeps them from invading your dreams. Some kind of brain discipline."
"John, I don't believe I can teach you what I do not fully understand myself."
"Teyla, I need to be functional to fly the city out of here. And I can't do that unless I've had more sleep than nightmares."
She understood the need and what he was asking. She simply did not know if it was possible for her to provide what assistance he needed.
Yet he would not have asked if he were not in need. Teyla knew enough of John Sheppard to see that.
John looked to Ronon, his gaze level. "You're the shut-off valve. Anything goes wrong, you wake us or shoot us."
Ronon was not happy about the request, but he acceded. "Might have to wake me up, though," he said. "I don't meditate too well."
He cast a smirk in Teyla's direction, and she eyed him with a narrow gaze. During the months of John's absence, Ronon had come to her, asking her to teach him meditation techniques. After a number of sessions during which he had fallen asleep, Teyla had informed him that meditation was not a way for him to catch up on sleep, and he had improved his focus thereafter, although he was not good for longer periods.
She hoped that John would be better at it.
He seemed nervous as they prepared for the meditation session.
Teyla told him he could leave his shoes on, but he took them off and apologised for the smell of his feet before he tossed a blanket over them. She prepared herself to pull the desk chair over, but he told her the bed was large enough for her to sit on without disturbing him. He lay back and closed his eyes, and Teyla crossed her legs at the foot of the bed and let her lids sit heavy over her eyes.
"Begin by taking a measured breath deep into your lungs," she said. "Be comfortable — in your pose, in your skin, in your mind as you hold it. Then let it out slowly, keeping your thoughts on the flow of it as it leaves your body. Keep that pattern going — a slow breath in, pause, a slow breath out."
At times like these, her mind fell easily into the state she called 'alert relaxation'. "You must open your mind to the possibilities of what might come, yet do not let things outside distract you. And keep breathing."
In and out, they breathed until she felt him relax a little. John would always find it difficult to let go; she did not expect this to be easy, let alone short. But the stakes were high — the closing of his mind to the Wraith, the protection of Atlantis from the threat they represented in him.
"Form a barrier between yourself and your worries and cares. Imagine it as a wall that blocks out distracting and dangerous things and make it strong."
"Make it strong?"
She let her lids lift enough to show the outline of him by the city's evening lights, lying as though asleep. Only the faint drawing together of his brows suggested otherwise.
"Think of it as impenetrable, unyielding."
"Just think of it that way?" His eyes opened to stare at her, disbelievingly.
Teyla shrugged. "That is how I do it."
Her own shield was in her mind, a palely-glowing wall built like that which had once run around the city of the Ancestors on old Athos. She let it sit there, confident in its protection. It would take a strong Wraith indeed — or a score of them — to pass her boundaries.
If he seemed dubious, at least he was willing to try it again. His breathing steadied again and his eyelids pressed firmly against his cheeks, as though he willed the mental shield into existence. "Now what?"
"Now you hold it."
"For how long?"
"Until you wake."
Once again, his eyes opened. "You're kidding."
"You want me to hold this shield-thing while I'm asleep?"
"There are things you do because they are ingrained, John. They are no longer conscious actions on your part. Nor should this be." After a moment, when he made no move, she arched a brow at him. "You asked for my help. John."
His mouth twisted into a rueful smile. "All right. Concentrating." But only a few moments passed before he opened one eye. "Teyla?"
He surprised her. Always and ever, he surprised her.
She smiled as his eyes closed and his breathing resumed, steadying and even and all was still in the room.
Teyla sat and meditated, her own mind held carefully blank as she listened to not only John but the noises of the city at night. She knew when he relaxed into sleep, his breathing no longer so deliberate, growing shallower, easier.
Behind her, Ronon shifted in his chair. Someone walked past in the outside corridor. Wind gusted past the windows, gently whistling at the nooks and crannies of the city's architecture.
Bit by bit, Teyla let herself relax into a state of deep meditation, where her thoughts settled like silt in the riverbed. They might rise as the eddies of her subconscious took her, but they were still and quiet in the silence of the night.
She jerked up at the stomp of shod feet, eyes opening.
Around her, twining arches curved in sinuous shadows, backlit by uplights, and Teyla felt her heart sink.
John's attempt at shielding had failed, and he was once again open to the Wraith.
The hiveship wall beneath her palms was damp as she pushed off and took stock. She had come here 'piggybacking' on John's mind; which meant that he was here, somewhere.
Something screamed. Someone screamed, human and despairing, the last, dwindling cry of someone driven to death's edge.
Teyla ran, following her senses. She passed through the ranks of drones who never turned their heads to watch her go. The knot of thinkers at an intersection paused in their conversation as she plunged through their insubstantial forms, but made no move to stop her nor even noticed her at all. In truth, Teyla realised as she stretched her senses out — none of this felt real. The hum of the hive was distant and muffled, and the thoughts she could feel were vague, almost unformed.
Again, the cry rang out, strangely distant, as though the curve of the walls sucked sound as the Wraith sucked life.
The two guards at the entrance to the room didn't move as she passed through the web, insubstantial as the wind. Nor did the Wraith standing in the middle of the room, his back turned to her as he poised over what appeared to be an angled table with something shrivelled and withered on it. Even the warrior did not see her from across the room, standing tall and cold at the edge of the room's darkness with his weapon riding his hip as his gaze lifted from the table.
The Wraith with its back to her hesitated. Then the warrior's voice rang out, command in every resonance of it. "Return it!"
With a sense of horror, Teyla saw the central Wraith's shoulder's shift and realised the thing on the work table was a man, withered by age and the feeding — an awful sacrifice.
Then she moved around the table and saw his face. Her gorge rose and she fought back nausea.
Wrinkled hollows filled, flesh grew full and firm, lines smoothed out, and life returned in a scream of agony torn from his lips as his body grew whole and young.
Not a dream then. A nightmare of John's memories: helpless, violated, desecrated.
The figure on the sloping table didn't lift his eyes to her, dark lashes stark against the white of his cheek. He looked ashen with the life-giving, exhausted. Teyla reached out towards him — towards the sense of him that she might use to rouse him back to wakefulness and end this dreaming horror.
Unexpectedly, she met the gaze of the Wraith warrior — yellow eyes in a green face, watching her with a frown.
"What are you?"
She was not minded to answer that. "What have you done to him?"
Yellow eyes gleamed with something like humour, and its mouth curved a little. "I asked first."
Teyla felt the gentle press of its mind, sharp as a knife blade, with the promise of pain as it trailed along her mental shields looking for a way in. She held fast against it and saw an avid curiosity seep into its eyes. "So small, and yet so strong." The sibilants hissed through the chill air. "Not a Queen."
"What did you do to him?"
"Is he one of your warriors?" It stepped forward, and Teyla fought the urge to retreat before its looming height. "Are you come to claim him?"
"He is one of my own." The knowledge burst through her. Just as I am one of his. The possessive flared within her, an acknowledgement of something long-known but little challenged. And with it came an unexpected surge of strength. "And you will not approach."
His weight shifted, but his gaze dropped to the floor of the chamber, then darted up. "Interesting."
The whisper came from the table, and Teyla did not turn her head to acknowledge it, but held out her hand towards him. "Take my hand, John."
A moment of silence, then, "I can't."
"You must." Her gaze was locked with the Wraith, holding him where he stood. She could not spare the strength to look his way. "John, you are letting them in again."
He grunted, and she heard him shifting around, even as the probing from the Wraith came, stinging, as though it had scored skin. Teyla gasped at the pain and knew she could not hold this warrior off too much longer. He was old, yes, but in his age he had developed cunning.
A cold hand slipped into hers — cold, but human, and she dragged them out of there, the darkness along the edge of her vision pouring in all around them like dye spilled into the world. The last thing she saw was the thoughtful gaze of the Wraith warrior before she found herself back in John's room, staring at him as he stared back.
The hiss of Ronon's weapon charge drew both their gazes.
"Ronon, it is all right."
He lowered the weapon. "Didn't work?"
Teyla looked to John. His face was stark in the silvery light and soft shadow of the room, and his expression bleak. She needed no-one to tell her that he laboured under guilt for letting the Wraith into his mind.
It would not matter to him that he possessed no natural defences against the Wraith. It would not occur to him to allow himself the luxury of even that much forgiveness; John was John.
"No," she said, "it did not. But I have another idea."
The first time after Teyla encountered the Wraith, she'd had nightmares. For two nights in a row, she had woken, disturbing her parents from their sleep, and she had feared the darkness when she lay down.
To help her sleep, her mother had told her that the land of sleep was a far-distant shore across the dreaming river that must be reached by a boat. Teyla could climb into the boat and push off from the waking shore to travel through dreams to the other side where she would sleep.
"But the Wraith—"
"The Wraith have followed you into the river," her mother said. "But tonight they will not for I will bar their way."
The child Teyla had been doubtful that her mother could fight the Wraith — they were very large and very fast and had killed so many. But when she voiced this, her mother had rested warm fingers against Teyla's cheek. "A mother's love is stronger than the Wraith."
Explaining this to Ronon and John was complicated. To begin with, she did not know precisely what her mother had done to keep the nightmares at bay, only that her mother had stood between her and the darkness until the nightmares faded.
"'You shall not pass'?" John rubbed his hands over his eyes. "Okay. I'll take whatever you've got, Teyla — it's better than the alternative."
John lay down in the bed and Teyla sat at the foot of it. This time she adopted a more casual pose than before, her hand resting lightly on his ankle. "You do not mind?"
"As long as you don't drag me off the bed by it, sure." The smile was almost cocky before he closed his eyes. "No deep breathing this time?"
"Unless you wish to exercise it."
"Think I'll pass."
Across the room, Ronon settled down in the chair. Teyla closed her eyes and stretched out her senses.
Carson had once theorised that what she had from her Wraith gene was a type of telepathy — very faint, but still a sense of others. "You're good with people, Teyla. And you're a hell of a fighter." Her demurral of training and practise held little sway with him. "Maybe," he'd conceded. "But I think no small part of it is because of the proto-telepathy your gene gives you. You won't ever read minds, but you might sense them."
She had sensed John once before, as the Iratus. The common ancestry of Wraith and Iratus had connected them, unconsciously, in their dreams. Teyla had never acknowledged that time, had not been willing to accept what came with it: John's sexual interest, if not his emotional interest. At the time, it had seemed too risky — he was a stranger from a strange people, an ally, a friend, someone willing to cross the boundaries, but also someone it would be too dangerous to misstep with.
That was then.
Now, she reached out to what she thought of as 'the sense of John', a solid certainty of presence, and let the sense of him rest in her consciousness. She listened to his breathing and hers, Ronon's attempts to find a comfortable position in the chair by the window, the voices of people who passed by the door on their way to bed or a lab or a late-night meeting. And she kept watch.
Footsteps ran past the door, their boot heels ringing on the floor with an odd echoing sound, and Teyla opened her eyes and turned her head to see.
The wall before her was not Atlantis.
Nor was it a Wraith hiveship.
She turned back to John, found him lying back on white sheets in the pose he had fallen asleep in.
"This is your dream-river?"
"Not mine," she said. "Yours."
"Doesn't look like a river to me." His eyes travelled across the room. "It looks like Antarctica."
It was a small cubicle-like place — smaller than John's bathroom in Atlantis. There was space for a bed and what seemed to be a storage chest of bland, featureless material that echoed the bland walls around them. It seemed John had tried to 'brighten things up' with a few posters, but the room remained sterile, unlived-in. Teyla felt a new understanding of John settle softly on her shoulders.
"You are surprised?"
His mouth twisted a little. "Let's just say I wouldn't think of Antarctica as a starting point."
"Your unconscious mind would appear to disagree." Teyla looked around at the pale walls. It was not a 'home', perhaps — not somewhere that you would invite friends. But then, as she understood it, it had never been intended that way.
"Now you sound like Heightmeyer."
She felt laughter bubble up within her. His distaste for 'head-shrinking' was obvious enough, although she knew he thought well of Kate — as well as any of the military did of the psychologist. "Ah, but Kate would say that this is a representation of a location where your inner self believes you to be safe."
John glanced up at the Johnny Cash poster and grimaced. "Don't know why."
Teyla wondered if she should say it — if he would appreciate the observation or if he would accuse her of 'head-shrinking'.
"You were sent here to die, John. Perhaps not physically, but…you said that your superiors were displeased with you and this was your punishment."
His expression tensed. "Yeah."
Teyla remembered his behaviour on the planet with the Wraith device that had sent them all a little mad. The friend he had left behind, and the men he had tried to rescue. "This was meant to be your prison. Yet if you had not been here, you would not have encountered General O'Neill."
"It was a launch pad in a manner of speaking."
"Yes. A tomb and a womb."
His mouth curved. "You would look at it like that, wouldn't you?"
The smile was familiar — he had flashed it many times before. Yet today, her cheeks heated, inexplicably.
"Although, I guess it was in a way," he added, looking away and granting her a measure of relief. "I'd forgotten about this place."
Surveying the cramped space, Teyla could understand why and said as much.
"Yeah, well…" He sat up, his forearms resting on his knees as he regarded her at the end of his bed. "So, what happens now?"
"Now?" For a moment she was confused, the odd musky scent of him a distraction that momentarily clouded her mind before she remembered the reason she was here. "Oh. Now, you sleep."
"That is what you wished when you first asked for my help?"
"Well, yeah, but…" He indicated the walls of the room.
"John, you have chosen this place for safety."
"It's in my head, Teyla. It's not necessarily safe."
She looked around the room, quite deliberately, so she would not have to look at him. "And yet your subconscious selected here as the start of your journey into sleep, and there is only one door through which anyone may come." She rose from the bed. "You sleep, and I will go out and keep the Wraith at bay."
The dark brows drew together. "Doesn't that mean you won't get any sleep?"
"Perhaps." Teyla had not considered that. "However, it is more important that you sleep well, John. You are the one who will navigate us away from the Wraith."
"Assuming they let me take the helm."
They had to. No-one else would fly Atlantis as successfully as he — no-one else had both the strength of the gene and the natural skill with it. John would fly the city from this planet, or the Wraith would find them.
Teyla looked towards the door. Now that she was here, at the edge of sleep, she could feel the Wraith drawing near. She could feel it close by — the Wraith she had seen watch over John like a prize. An opponent who had given John his life but taken something far more precious to him: his ability to protect those he cared for.
She began to rise.
"Teyla." He caught her arm and she turned, surprised.
The bright overhead light gleamed off the dark of his hair as he tilted his head at her. "Don't I get a goodnight kiss?"
Beneath dark lashes, green eyes glittered with lambent heat. This was not the brief, almost wistful affection she had occasionally seen in his expression, but an undisguised desire.
Her breath caught, tangled in the images that filled her mind. Leaning down towards him, her hand resting on his knee for balance, their faces drifting closer until soft lips brushed one against the other — hers against his — and his hand cupped her throat, fingers tangling in her nape…
Teyla caught her breath.
They had not kissed, in truth. Her mouth still hovered over John's, a mere finger's width from consummation. His breath was warm against her lips, soft as a caress, fresh as mint, but the taste of him was not in her mouth, and his hand still rested on the bed beside him.
With great care, Teyla sat back. "I do not think this is wise, John."
One corner of his mouth tugged upwards in a rueful quirk. "Probably not," he agreed.
They looked away from each other, momentarily awkward with what had passed. Teyla moved first. Her hand pressed lightly on his shoulder, pushing him down to the mattress. It was not, perhaps, what her body hoped for, but there were more important concerns right now.
"Be careful." His fingers closed about her wrist in a light squeeze, and beneath the touch, Teyla felt the faint roughness of the Iratus virus changing his flesh.
She flashed him a brief smile, then stood and crossed the room. The latch of the door was a shock — biting as ice — but the darkness beyond the doorway was not.
Teyla stepped out into the blackness of John's 'river' and closed the door behind her, nodding at John before the edge of the door cut him off. She could feel the Wraith minds close by, mindlessly seeking entry to the room and the man they had set to be a trap among his people, a sweetly-baited hook for Atlantis to swallow whole and be reeled in.
They would not pass her.
"Try it!" She told the darkness in which she could feel them approaching. "You will not have him."
This 'gift' that she had once counted a curse — inherited from some Wraith-tainted ancestor of hers — was just one more weapon in an arsenal. She could deny what it was, what it could do, or she could use it in the service of those she loved.
A choice that was no choice.
Teyla stood her ground as the Wraith came.
Rodney only realised the entire night had gone by when John turned up at the door of the engine room, looking disgustingly perky.
"What? No!" He pulled up the taskbar and stared at the time. "It can't already be morning."
Sheppard snorted and popped the top of his lidded mug so the rich aroma of roasted coffee beans wafted through the air. "Smell that?"
"You'd better have brought that for me!"
"Sorry, nope. This is mine." And just to mock him, the man took a long slurp of the precious, precious coffee.
Rodney stared disbelievingly at the smirk that spread across John's face.
"You should see your face. Give me credit for knowing you better than that." Sheppard leaned back out the door, and a moment later leaned back in with a thermos and a small tin. "And I brought you that Pegasus sweetener you like so much."
"So other than the urgent desire to bring me my morning coffee," Rodney said after he'd poured himself a mug and downed it all in one gulp, "what brings you down here?"
"It's not as though I have a dozen other things to do," said John dryly. "And Elizabeth said she was heading down here to give you and update on the night's meetings."
Caffeine did amazing things to the human brain — even the smell of the stuff was kick-starting Rodney's thoughts down new paths of possibility. But Sheppard's words brought him up short.
"There were meetings during the night?" And no-one had thought to tell him?"
"Apparently." John grimaced. "I get the feeling they don't want us to attend."
"You mean Edw—" Rodney glanced at the doorway as John coughed loudly and remembered that being under 'city arrest' meant that John was being followed about by two Marines who might or might not be Edwards-sympathisers. He scowled. In the last six months, the military politics of the city had gotten way out of hand, thanks to Edwards and his psychological need to be in control of everything and everyone. "Okay, so…what'd they decide then?"
"Don't know. But Elizabeth said she was on her way down here to let you know the details once she finished with the reports in from the outpost and the delta site. And probably to send you to bed before you collapse over your laptop and inadvertently cause the Armstrong labs to lose power."
"That was once!" Sheppard would have to bring that up. "And the only reason they lost power was because Andy Talmore decided that he could switch the control to manual without either documenting it or letting anyone know about it because it was just a test and he wasn't expecting it to take long — except that then he got called away to the mission with Sergeant Jenson and died. What?"
John moved the thermos out of his reach. "I think you've had enough coffee for now, Rodney."
Rodney snorted as he leaned back against the cover for the engine board. He felt more awake now, although a little hungry, too. "Don't take it anywhere. I haven't even started today. I need to get through the—""
"What you need is to get a few hours sleep." Elizabeth walked into the room with a plate of toast in her hand. "After you have something to eat and get an update on the city."
"Have we found somewhere, yet?" John asked, helping himself to a slice of toast without being asked.
"Yes. I just saw off Major Lorne and an exploratory party in a 'jumper."
John looked interested. "Basic recon?"
Privately, Rodney thought it ridiculous that Sheppard had been immured in Atlantis for so long. Of course, the thing that had started all this off had been the medical checks intended to start their team heading back out through the Stargate and look how that had turned out!
"Reconnaissance and environmental check," Elizabeth said. "If they don't see anything unusual, I told the major to find somewhere to land on the main continent and to let the biologists and environmental engineers out to play."
Rodney glanced towards the doorway, then figured he might as well just say it. It wasn't as though it was a secret that a swathe of Atlantis' population wasn't particularly fond of the military leader. "And Edwards didn't try to shoehorn any of his men in?"
"Four other military personnel went with Major Lorne." Elizabeth folded her arms over her chest, but her expression faintly smug. "Major Camberwell was needed to manage an munitions issue over in the armoury, so he wasn't available to go."
"Lorne's good," Sheppard said, as though he was still the military commander of the city. "So where's this planet, then?"
"Halfway across the galaxy. We never assigned quadrants to the various sectors of space, but according to Chuck, it's four degrees ascendant of galactic centre, in a system just off the tail end of this arm. P5T-915," she added when Rodney opened his mouth to ask for the designation.
Wiping the crumbs off on his pants — someone would wash them off anyway — Rodney switched screens and connected up to the galactic maps of Pegasus so he could see the planet for himself.
Elizabeth had her mouth full with a slice of toast, and Rodney had the file open with the salient points so he figured he could read them out rather than wait for her to finish. "The planet had a space Gate that we culled for the Gate bridge. No apparent sentient life-forms, very old signs of inhabitation. Huh."
"The notations in the Ancient database — the original database we pulled from the city after we'd just moved in — says that the habitation ruins predate the Stargate being put there. That was why they put a spacegate there — because of the ruins."
"I saw that." Elizabeth's lips curved. "Ten thousand year old ruins — can you imagine what kind of a culture it would have been?"
"Probably not." Rodney pulled up the next page of statistics. "The Ancients couldn't, and if they couldn't, you probably can't either."
He ignored John in favour of a quick skim of the information showed the basic statistics — astro-geological markers, xeno-biological ranges of life, and a landmass map. Another planet with a lot of sea and a large landmass. There was what looked like a ring of small islands in what had probably once been a massive crater, but apparently none of this was populated or had been since the Ancients found it.
In his background, Elizabeth was quizzing John.
"How's the arm?"
"You look rested."
"I got some sleep."
Now that someone else had drawn attention to it, Rodney did notice that John was looking less haggard than he had yesterday when Rodney had gone by to see him. The problem with Sheppard being under room arrest was that it was hard to get out to see him when there were deadlines of the 'fix this or we'll be dead by the Wraith' variety.
"Good." Elizabeth sounded pleased. "Your idea worked, then?"
"Sort of. It needed some fine tuning."
That roused Rodney. "Idea?"
"Just something I thought of yesterday afternoon. Teyla lives with the Wraith in her head and manages to keep them out. When we had the Wraith delegation in the city, she didn't have nightmares."
"Maybe she just didn't tell you." The silence stretched a moment too long and when he looked up, they were both giving him a Look. Rodney rolled his eyes. "Fine. So you thought she could teach you how to keep them out?"
"Huh." Rodney turned back to the screen. He wished he'd been there to see that. Sheppard wasn't exactly the meditative type. "Okay, so it'll take us about four days to get there — assuming we don't have to take any detours. Has Radek seen this yet?"
"Radek is asleep in his quarters." Elizabeth fixed him with a gimlet gaze. "Which is where you should be right now."
"After two cups of coffee? I can go for another four hours at least. More if you'd authorise Carson—"
"You're not getting any medical stimulants, Rodney."
"Fine. I'll go down for some sleep in a few hours once I've gotten one of these working."
Elizabeth surveyed the engine room. In spite of its name, the room didn't have any actual engines in here; both the atmospheric and hyperdrive engines were huge — whole sectors of the city. But this was the control room for the engines, if you wanted to put it that way, with each of the engines serviced by a different board.
"How's it coming along?"
He shrugged. "We making progress. Engines Three, Five, and Six are definitely working, One and Two are okay, and I'm working on Four now. But none of them look like they're going to be a patch on Seven. Seven's a mess. It's in the middle of the others, so it's the main thrust." He waved a hand at the other engine controls that surrounded the central one. Two other board covers were open, but the three that worked had been closed to indicate that work on them were finished. "The others collectively provide about 25% of the thrust, 80% of the manoeuvrability, and all the stability."
"But without the main thrust…"
"We won't make it off planet." Rodney finished Elizabeth's sentence for her. "Which is why I need to get this done."
She wasn't impressed. "You also need sleep." She held up one hand to forestall the protest that had been about to slip off his lips. "We're not so pressed for time or people that we can't allow you six hours of sleep in a day, Rodney. And you'll feel better for eating real meals and getting rest."
He thought about saying something about her being motherly, then left it off. The few times he'd made a joke of it, it hadn't gone down too well with her.
As Sheppard reached across for a coffee refill, Rodney noted the spreading blue patch on Sheppard's arm. "Carson hasn't come up with anything for that yet?"
"Not yet." John sounded grim.
"Which reminds me. I've gotten General O'Neill's permission for your leave, John. He's willing to authorise your absence from Atlantis for three months — after which they'll review the situation."
"Leave?" This was the first Rodney had heard of John going anywhere. "They're sending you back to Earth?"
John held up the arm. "Homing beacon for the Wraith — I'm not going anywhere near Earth. I'm being allowed to take a 'jumper with me out of Atlantis and on the run."
"On the run?" His mind refused to make sense of it. "Like a Runner?"
"Ronon gave me some tips. And both he and Teyla probably have useful information about living in Pegasus…" John shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets.
He seemed nonchalant about it, but Rodney could see it disturbed him to be leaving Atlantis.
He was finding the idea of Sheppard leaving Atlantis disturbing.
Where would he go? What kind of life would the man be stuck with, living on the run without anyone to watch his back? Even as one of the Orawi, he'd been part of a community — had a girlfriend and a niche and everything. And setting Sheppard adrift like that was just…wrong.
"And what are you going to do?"
John glanced at Elizabeth, then back to Rodney. "Apparently, Teyla made a suggestion that Edwards shot down. Use the link between me and the Wraith to find the Wraith and take the fight back to them."
Huh. That didn't sound like such a difficult thing to do — although, knowing Edwards, the man wouldn't have trusted the idea since it came from Teyla and involved using Sheppard — even if it was as the equivalent of a Wraith sniffer-dog.
"We don't have the time or resources right now, John. If we didn't have the option of moving the city, we'd probably look at it as a last-ditch attempt to take the fight back to them. It's no shame to run and hide."
"I never said it was." John shrugged. "From the sound of it, it wasn't even discussed."
Elizabeth heaved a sigh. "We're sticking with the plan we currently have — get Atlantis out of here to another planet and then work out other options. Which is where Rodney's work comes in. Will we have enough power to get us off the planet?"
"Power? We'll have enough to lift off, enough to get there — unless Sheppard insists on doing fancy flying — and land. The problem isn't power — the problem is the engines. Which I can't work on as long as you're here distracting me."
Elizabeth arched her brows. "Is that a hint?"
"And after we brought him breakfast, too." But John had a half-smile on his face. "Mind if I stick around?"
"As long as you're not going to be a distraction. You can bring me more coffee when I need it."
"Well, I'd better be getting back to my office before someone comes looking for me." Elizabeth sighed. "John, if you see Teyla before I do, can you ask her to come up and see me? I'll drop her a mail, but you know she doesn't always get to a computer. And see that he gets some sleep."
Sheppard made all the right promises, then hopped up onto one of the engine covers as soon as she left and swung his legs like a child on a vacation.
"You know, I slept really well last night."
In the middle of the coding for the power shunt, Rodney lifted his gaze to Sheppard.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll get some sleep. Later." He didn't have time for it right now. But as long as Sheppard was here. "Get that laptop over there and boot it up. If you're going to sit around, you might as well be useful."
And if it would stop Sheppard nagging, then that was a secondary bonus.
A few minutes later, he'd transferred a bunch of equations for Engine Seven over to the screen and told Sheppard to work on them. He could do complex math, but it made his head hurt. Too many other things already floating around in there, and if he had someone for whom it wasn't such a pain, it made sense to hand it over to them.
They worked in relative silence for a while. Relative, because Rodney muttered to himself about the results as he ran the diagnostic tests again, and tried to program the power conversion routine.
"Hey, these look like the power-to-feedback ratios of the 'jumpers."
"That would be because the propulsion techniques of the 'jumpers is probably the same as those used for the city. Seeing as they're both made by the Ancients. Have you done them already?"
"No." Sheppard scrawled a few more numbers in. "I just recognised the patterns. Although there's a bigger feedback shunt."
"Yeah, well, considering the throughput of the city engines is going to be — oh, I don't know, several billion times the output of the 'jumper, there's more to worry about than heat washback."
They worked for a couple of hours, conversing on and off, comfortable. It seemed that Elizabeth had done something to make sure they wouldn't be bothered, because no-one came in to find them or tried to interrupt them ask stupid questions over their headsets. Meanwhile, amidst the programming routines, Rodney's mind was ticking over, thoughts unrelated to the upkeep of the engines percolating through the filter of his mind as he programmed and ran the diagnostic, programmed and ran the diagnostic.
"All right." John's fingers flashed across the keyboard and hit the enter key with a flourish. "Done."
"Good." Rodney glanced over the page of equations just to check that everything was in order. "Want some more?"
"No. How far off are you from finished?"
"This? A couple of hours, maybe."
"Put it down. Get some sleep, Rodney."
"When I've finished this."
"You're punchy. As witnessed by the fact that you've spent the last half hour periodically yawning, coffee and all. Your body can't take it. Now you can either go quietly, or I'll have Carson dose you to sleep."
"You can't do that. You don't have the authority."
"Maybe I can." One hand reached for his earpiece. "I'm sure Elizabeth would authorise it."
That was blackmail. Forcing his hand. But he was feeling a bit punchy, his neck and back protesting that he'd been hunched over for most of the night and that it was going to hurt. Better posture, Carson had been telling him with affectionate exasperation. Better posture and less hours at the computer.
Maybe at least a few hours flat on his back.
"Fine." He saved his work, closed up his laptop, and stuck a sign on top of it that said, DO NOT DISTURB.
"Will that actually work?"
"No. But it makes me feel better." And that got a laugh out of John, short though it was.
The Marines fell into place behind them just outside the engine room, silent and dutiful. Rodney glanced over his shoulder at them, unnerved by their presence. Sheppard didn't give them a second glance, though.
"So," Rodney cleared his throat. "You're really going on the run when this is done?"
John jammed his hands into his pockets. "I don't have a choice. It's go on the run or risk endangering Atlantis."
"I thought you said you sorted out the sleep-dreams thing last night."
"Yeah. It's…complicated. I can't rely on it. Or on Carson working out a serum to reverse this." He lifted the blue-streaked arm for Rodney to see.
"Does it hurt?"
"Mostly itches." There was more to the statement — Rodney sensed that much — but John wasn't going to say it while walking through the corridor with two guards behind him. He could imagine John didn't much like what was happening to him — turning into an insect, an animal, mindlessly running on instinct.
"Okay, so…where are you going to head when you get out of here?"
John shrugged. "I'll talk with Ronon about it, work with one of the techs. He's going to give me tips on running."
"It's not really running, though — I mean, you won't be running, so much as…'jumpering."
"Don't go there, Rodney."
He smirked as they began climbing stairs. "Look, if there's anything I can do to help…"
"Of course I'm busy! That's not the point." The point was that one of his friends was in need and Rodney couldn't help. He was off saving the city, when what he really needed to be doing was saving John. This wasn't his area, this wasn't something he could do — not like Carson, who was working on a retrovirus, or Ronon, who could tell John about survival in Pegasus, or even Teyla, who was teaching John how to shield himself against the Wraith, who'd survived, too, and who did reassurance and encouragement better than almost anyone. "Just…if you want anything…"
"Someone to play GolfPro against?"
"Or that." In spite of his one-time fondness for computer sports, John hadn't warmed up to GolfPro at all. Not surprising.
"I'll keep it in mind."
By the time they reached Rodney's room, he'd given up all thought of trying to evade Sheppard and head back out to the engine rooms for some more work. His brain was feeling fuzzy — the caffeine hit never seemed to last very long, which was why he kept drinking. He really did need some sleep, although after this round of downtime, he'd go by Carson's office and see if he could wrangle some stimulants.
Later today, he'd finish off Engine Four and start on Engine Seven. That was the big one and it was going to be a doozy.
"Hey, Rodney." John's call turned him in the doorway, just as he was about to stumble into his room and collapse on the bed. "Thanks for the offer of help."
There were a lot of things he could have said at that moment. None of them seemed anything other than cliché and dreadful in his head, and God knew they'd probably sound worse on his lips.
Rodney shrugged and went with the least cliché. "You're welcome."
Exhaustion was beginning to overtake him in a race that Rodney could delay with chemicals and medication, but would never win. He managed to reach his bed before he fell asleep but it was a close thing.
John stood under the shower spray and let the hot water slough off his skin, washing away the night's weariness. He sniffed the steaming air in the cubicle, and smelled not only the fresh water, but also the anticipation in the city.
It was moving day in Atlantis.
Everything was ready. Three hundred and forty-seven non-essential personnel had been evacuated along with supplies and equipment, and the city's current complement of seventy-two personnel were drilled in their responsibilities and duties. Rodney and Radek had the engines sorted out, and Carson and his skeleton staff in the infirmary were just waiting for trouble.
In less than three hours, John would start up the engines of the city and they'd begin the four day trek from Lantea to New Lantea. He'd sit in the chair and let his gene do the heavy lifting as he piloted them out of atmosphere with nothing more than the shield between them and the cold vacuum of space.
And then, once they Atlantis was safely on New Lantea, John would pack himself up into a 'jumper and vanish into the Pegasus galaxy, leading the Wraith on a wild goose chase everywhere but Atlantis.
He wasn't thinking about it just now, more intently focused on what needed to happen today and the next three days. Get through the next week and then worry about the future.
Hot clouds puffed around John, fragrant with the heat, and he let it all swirl around him, like the fog of memory that had prevented him from knowing who he was, where he belonged.
The water turned off with a thought, although it took a split second longer than he'd expected. As John unhooked his towel from the railing, he considered that the city functions had been getting slower lately. He'd mention it to Rodney after this crisis was past, and see if the other man had any solutions. There were more important things to worry about than the question of whether the city functions were running smoothly.
As he lifted the towel to begin drying himself, John paused. Against the fluffy white of the towel, his hand looked alien and blue, scaly to almost the elbow, the skin blue-streaked to the shoulder. Slowly but surely, it was spreading, changing him in ways he remembered and feared.
By the time Atlantis touched down on the other planet, he'd be half-Iratus.
All Carson's attempts at solutions had failed; what had worked last time John had turned Iratus was failing them this time, the Wraith's work thwarting all retroviral attempts to re-engineer his DNA back to it's original status.
What they'd done to him, they'd done good.
All the more reason to get out of Atlantis.
He dried himself off by the hum of the fan, and pushed open the door to his bedroom. Started across the floor to his wardrobe. Halted.
In bed, Teyla turned over, dragging the blanket with her as she turned onto her side. She'd been so exhausted after the last couple of days that she'd stumbled getting up this morning. John had told her to sleep in his bed rather than try to make her way back to her own, and it was a sign of how tired she was that she hadn't even protested, simply tugging the blanket over her shoulders before falling asleep.
John's breath snarled in his throat.
Asleep, Teyla's scent mingled with the scent of him that pervaded the room — wood and moss and fresh air and linen weave mixing with musk and sweat and heavy cotton and salt spray. Which was one thing when she was here during the night but gone during the day, but something else entirely when she was lying in John's bed.
His heartbeat seemed very loud in his ears as he crossed to the bedside, fingers clenching in his towel as he drew close.
John felt his blood heat with desire as he thought about bending down over her and letting his mouth slide over hers. Teyla in his bed, tangled in his sheets as he moved in her, his teeth leaving marks on her shoulders as she left bruises on his hips, willing and wanting and wanton. He'd ached a little these last few nights, quietly, in the simulacrum of what had been his room in Antarctica, when she walked out the door and into the darkness to do battle against the Wraith for him, and when she returned at the end of the night, weary but not conquered.
She shifted as she sensed him, and her lashes fluttered but didn't rise as she murmured, "John?"
This wasn't just an ache — this was a driving need that whispered up out of his gut and spread through his limbs, pooling in belly, making him hard.
"Yeah. It's me…" His voice was husky, soft as the kiss he bent to give her with his hand bracing against the mattress, blue scale against white cotton.
He froze as his hand moved into the light and the hard carapaces of his scales reflected the day into his eyes — reflected reality into his mind with the visual knowledge of what he was becoming. Iratus.
John yanked himself upright, standing tall and terrified beside his bed. Then he turned on his heel and strode past the dresser, grabbing clothing with scant regard for what it was, only needing to be clothed and out of the room as swiftly as possible. He dragged the clothing on, never looking behind, not pausing to try to wrestle his hair into submission, and then plunged out of his quarters so fast, he nearly got shot by the Marines as he came out.
He ignored them, barely acknowledged the greetings he got from others just rising in the morning's wash of gold. In fact, he didn't let himself stop moving until he was several corridors away, out by a window that looked out over the sea.
Then he let his hands rest on the railing, and stared blindly out at the glittering sunlit water.
John didn't know how long he stood there, only that the Marines shifted more than once, restless and worried by his stillness.
You stopped. At this moment, it was cold comfort.
On the sill of the window, his hands rested — tanned human and scaly Iratus, man and creature. A contradiction, a horror and a danger to Atlantis and the people in it.
He hadn't intended to do more than kiss her — at least, he thought so. But could he be sure? His fingers closed into fists. He couldn't. Maybe he would have stopped at a kiss. Maybe he would have restrained himself after that first taste. Maybe he would have waited for her to wake up and decide if she wanted to take this where he wanted it to go.
Or maybe he would have kept going, seducing her with inexorable purpose, never allowing her to say 'no', without giving her the chance to think whether she wanted him or not.
John let out a long breath and braced himself on his hands. He didn't know what he would have done, and the not knowing terrified him.
I don't know what just happened.
That was the hell of it — not knowing what he was capable of, what he might do — what he might still be driven to do. The Iratus was reckless, erratic. It didn't think or consider, it reacted on instinct. As it took over his mind and his body, he'd think less and react more. In time, he'd probably stop thinking at all, and then…
Only an innocent or a fool leaves a weapon around for someone else to pick up.
O'Neill had said that to Yan Stormborn the day he'd come to Atlantis to tell him about John Sheppard — the day Yan had realised he could run from who he'd been as John Sheppard, but he'd never be able to hide from it.
John didn't need the realisation he was a weapon for the Air Force: he'd known it a long time, accepted it. What he was struggling to accept was the realisation of the extent to which the Wraith had made him into a weapon against Atlantis and its people. Not just a homing beacon for the Wraith to follow in Atlantis, but a blade held at the city's throat.
He might have raped Teyla this morning, human reasoning and restraint drowned out in the Iratus' febrile instincts to mate, to claim, to possess…
Blood thrummed in his veins, roused by just the thought of possession.
John clamped down hard on his thoughts, dragging them away from the memory of the sight and scent of Teyla this morning, of the thought that she was still there in his bed, all curves and hollows and warm skin and soft flesh… No. He forced himself to stare at the blinding glitter of the sea, sweat dampening his skin and tears springing to his eyes at the glaring brightness.
Do you care about this city, Sheppard?
Nothing else would induce him to leave. And tangled up in that fear for Atlantis and what John was becoming was fear for those around him and what he might do to them.
So he'd look at this morning as a wake-up call, and not a moment too soon.And he'd try to forget that he'd ever wanted what he couldn't have.
Heavy footsteps rang through the corridor behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder at Ronon.
"Just checking out the view." He managed nonchalance, turned back to the window. "Not going for a run today?"
"Thought I'd skip it." Ronon shrugged. "Teyla got to bed fine?"
John tensed, then forced himself to relax. Ronon wasn't accusing him of anything; he didn't even know anything had happened. Nothing had happened, and John was going to keep it that way. "Yeah. She's sleeping. The whole mentally fighting the Wraith thing takes a lot out of her."
"Good day for flying."
"It always is. Breakfast?""
"Sure." From the corner of his eye, John saw Ronon glance his way. "You ready?"
John took one last glance at the sun over the sea, then pushed himself upright against the rail, setting his shoulders, stretching his back, preparing to face what was coming. "Yeah. Let's go."
"Everything's ready up here, ma'am."
Elizabeth nodded at Chuck Campbell as she walked out of her office. Having recorded her reports up to this morning, she'd authorised a quick encrypted subspace message off to Earth and the Daedalus. "Have we heard from Colonel Sheppard yet?"
"No, ma'am. But Dr. McKay is on his way up from the engine room…"
Her brows rose in surprise. She'd expected Rodney to stay down in the engine room, overseeing things from there. Then again, she reflected, it wasn't like Rodney to stick with just his area. He'd prefer to oversee everything from up here in the Control Room.
Judging by the resigned expression on Chuck's face, he knew or had guessed why Rodney was on his way up here, too. Elizabeth shot him a sympathetic smile. "Please inform the sections that I'll be wanting a report from each of them in five minutes. Then get hold of Colonel Edwards and ask him if his people have each section secured."
She drew a deep breath and keyed her earpiece on. "John?"
"I'm here. Just settling down in the chair and doing a pre-flight check." He sounded almost jaunty, with the familiar cockiness that she'd come to expect from him in their years working together. Whatever else the Iratus change was doing to him, it didn't seem to be affecting his spirits, although Kate Heightmeyer had pointed out that the Colonel was extremely good at hiding his personal issues, however transparent he might be about his likes and dislikes.
Second-hand through the earpiece, someone spoke, the cadences of their voice well-known and familiar. Elizabeth blinked.
"Is Carson there with you?"
"I'm here, Elizabeth." Carson's accent came clear and strong through her earpiece. "I'll be keeping an eye on him in case anything happens. Dr. Keller's well able to manage the infirmary without me — that's something you might wish to look into after this, I think."
Elizabeth was stunned. Carson had been in charge of the infirmary since the day they'd arrived here, looking after the personnel of the city with his firm compassion and calm competence. He was thinking of leaving Atlantis?
"That's something that we'll discuss later, I think," she told him, managing to keep her surprise hidden. "How's Colonel Sheppard holding up?"
"He's holding up fine so far. Of course, we're not in the air yet."
"He's sitting right here listening to your conversation." John's emphasis made his annoyance plain enough, and Elizabeth smiled to herself. "And just remember that if I don't 'hold up fine', Beckett, you'll be flying this city out of atmosphere!"
"We're good." Ronon was down by the engines with several of the engineering techs and a handful of Marines. The feedback wash of the engines meant communications to the base of the city would be erratic and possibly non-existent. Ronon and the Marines were the emergency communication system if things went wrong and they needed to relay messages. "McKay's on his way up."
"So I heard. You're all ready to go?"
Elizabeth forced herself not to answer before she switched channels. Often when she spoke with Ronon over the earpieces, she got the feeling she was babbling. In their face to face discussions, he'd indicated he didn't mind her explanations, but without the visual cues of his expression and the solidity of his presence, she found herself chattering to fill the silence. "Colonel Edwards?"
"Most of my men have their sections locked down. The exception seems to be section six. From the sound of it, Sergeant Ingram is arguing with McKay."
The faintly malicious note in the drawl raised her ire, but Elizabeth kept her tone light. "Well, tell Rodney to hurry up, please. We'll need him in the control room to monitor the power draw and the engine usage while Colonel Sheppard is flying the city."
Edwards grunted and there was nothing more from him. Which was a relief. It still nagged her that she'd used the letter from the President to override him; her conscience told her she should have tried to work it out with him rather than using strongarming tactics. He'd been subtly rebellious ever since. There wasn't anything she could do about that, other than keep the city running and put up with it.
"Dr. Weir? The sections are coming in with their reports. Dr. Zelenka is ready."
Turning from the balcony towards the control room and the personnel running over their last-minute checklists, Elizabeth nodded. "Put him through. Radek?"
"The ZPM is in place, and we are monitoring all power outputs. We are ready to go."
"We're ready. That is, the infirmary is ready, Dr. Weir." Dr. Keller sounded uncertain, but then, this responsibility was new for her.
"You'll be fine, Dr. Keller. John?"
"Pre-flight checklist is green. Ready to go."
There was a shout down in the Gateroom and Elizabeth turned to peer over the railing as Rodney huffed his way past the Marines and up the stairs. "So glad you could join us, Rodney."
"Yeah, well, if Edwards hadn't played bad cop on the way up…" Rodney peered around the room and made a beeline for his accustomed chair. The control room technician sitting there gave up his seat with an audible sigh, and one of his fellows made space for him at the second tier panels. "All right. We're ready to get this party on the road."
She shot him an amused look, while in her ear, a very John-like snort sounded.
Elizabeth glanced at Chuck. "Patch me through to the city, please."
A moment later he nodded and she took a deep breath.
"Atlantis, this is Dr. Elizabeth Weir. You know what we're doing and why we're doing it. We knew the risks when we took this assignment and if we didn't, we learned fast." Or died trying. But she wouldn't think of that now. "We—"
"Dr. Weir!" The interruption spun her around on her toes as two of the techs suddenly began typing frantically into their computers. A moment later, everyone was accessing their laptops, a frenzy of activity.
"What is it?"
Chuck glanced up from his screen. "Outer system sensors, Dr. Weir. They're going off."
"Two…three…four…Wraith ships. Hiveships."
"Not all of them. Three are cruisers. No, wait…four."
Rodney was wide-eyed and busy with the keyboard. "They weren't supposed to be here for another two days!"
"Did anyone actually let them know that?"
The Control room was cacophony and chaos. Elizabeth opened her mouth to continue the broadcast — with a revised topic — and stopped.
The city was trembling. Quivering with a deep rumble that resonated through the bones of the city. However he'd been warned of the situation, John had started the engines.
"Atlantis," she managed. "We're on the move. Everyone please remain in your sections and keep calm."
Teyla woke shivering from a dream of hiveships dragging their ponderous bulks though the empty darkness.
For a moment she could not imagine where she was. The bed smelled strange and musky — male. The pillows were bigger and puffier than she was accustomed to, and its orientation to the morning sunlight was wrong for her room at any hour of the day.
Memory reasserted itself. She had not gone back to her own rooms but remained in John's last night. The last few days had taken such a toll on her that she had felt wrung dry and pounded flat after last night's resistance against the Wraith, and had accepted an offer she might otherwise have rejected. On Athos, sleeping in a man's bed assumed a relationship that she did not have with John, however innocently it might be viewed in Atlantis.
Outside the window, the sun shone bright in a vivid blue sky. So they had not yet moved the city? Teyla frowned and checked her timepiece. The time was correct for the departure, and yet she had asked Ronon to wake her when the time came.
Why hadn't he?
Realisation dawned as she pulled herself out of bed. Ronon would have sought her in her own rooms. Upon finding them empty, he would have presumed her awake and busy elsewhere. And in the chaos of the move, what wonder that one person should not be counted missing?
As Teyla began pulling herself out of the twisted sheets of John's bed, she stopped.
A familiar humming sounded in her head. She stared out the window at the blue sky over the sea in shock. So soon? But Rodney had said yesterday that the Wraith were still three days out from Atlantis…
Her fingers fumbled with the earpiece as she tried to slide it into her ear and key it on all at once. It slipped through her fingers and she cursed as she leaned out of the bed to scoop it up and put it on.
As she did so, Elizabeth's voice came over the announcement system, indicating that Atlantis was ready to leave this star system on their way to the new location.
Teyla keyed her earpiece, trying to reach Elizabeth, but could not. She switched channels. "John?"
"The Wraith are coming."
"What? How do you—?"
"I dreamed them, John." She did not know why he could not feel it. Their approach was like an itch she could not scratch, infuriating. Perhaps for the same reason he could not block them out while he slept: the division of his conscious and unconscious minds? No matter; what mattered was the city. "They are coming."
Murmured voices on the other end of the line, barely audible beneath Elizabeth's words. "We knew the risks when we took this assignment…"
"…would have heard…"
"…is she sure?"
"…got a line to Control…"
Over the announcement channel, Elizabeth's voice broke off. "What is it?"
"John? Do you feel them?"
"No. At least, not yet. Where are you?"
"I just woke. Ronon was supposed to wake me, but…"
He did not say where she was sleeping out loud. "Ah. Wait. We've got news…"
Teyla closed her eyes, the better to 'hear' the Wraith as they approached. "John. We must leave now."
The silence over her earpiece was telling — or perhaps thoughtful — and then the city began to tremble, a deep rumbling resonating through its base.
Dragging herself out of John's bed, Teyla stumbled to the window, her ear full of the noise and cacophony of many people talking all at once, the communication channels full of transmissions.
With her hands on the glass pane, she saw the waves down by the water's edge pushed back, creating wavelets that rippled out in cross-patterns on the sea's surface. The city shook and strained like a living being — like a bato chained to the plough and restless for freedom. And still the Wraith approached, slower now that they'd entered into the system.
"I'm kinda busy here, Teyla."
"It will come to a fight."
"Tell me something I don't know?"
"They have come prepared to destroy the city if need be." Teyla could feel the hive in her mind, the collection of buzzing thoughts, overlaid by the connecting blocks of the thinkers and warriors, and the sharp purpose of a handful of minds, led by a Wraith whose cunning knew no bounds.
Beyond the edge of the city, the distance between the city and the horizon across the sea began to shrink. She caught sight of white-crested waves churning down below the piers.
"You know," John's voice betrayed the strain of simultaneous conversation and piloting, "Edwards would probably see this as a very good reason not to trust you."
"Yes," she agreed, turning from the window. "But you are not Colonel Edwards."
He snorted. "Touché. I'm kinda busy right now!" The abrupt change in tone startled her, before she realised he was speaking with someone else but had not changed the channel. "Teyla, talk to Rodney."
"Teyla? Where the hell are you? Did you know about this? Carson says Sheppard was talking with you before— Yes, I know that. Look, we need to get the shields up, which means additional power drawn off the— Well, go bring it up with Radek's group! I'm trying to— Teyla—"
"I am coming up to the Control Room." Where she should have been when this began. Small comfort that she had known of the attack sooner; the Wraith had still taken them by surprise.
Teyla walked out of John's room, pulling on her jacket as she went.
"They weren't due for another two days." Rodney managed to sound both annoyed and plaintive in his statement. "Our sensors never suggested—?"
"I think the question is how they knew we were planning to get out of here?" Colonel Edwards' harsh tones cut through the earpiece. Teyla winced as she took the swiftest corridor to the control room. "Who told them our departure date?"
"I do not believe that they knew we planned to leave today." Teyla kept her temper. She knew what Colonel Edwards was implying, and as much as it displeased her to be so distrusted, it was an assumption she had grown accustomed to defending — however wrong. "It is within their cunning to travel at a faster rate when they are not near Atlantis transmitters."
"And how would they know where those transmitters are?"
"Subspace transmissions," Rodney interrupted as Teyla glanced out a long window that displayed the horizon and the sky, rapidly sinking. "Since they know where we are, they can trace the surrounding area for subspace transmissions."
"Including messages to Earth?" Elizabeth's voice came through, horrified.
"But then the Wraith know—" Colonel Edwards broke off. Teyla could almost see his eyes narrowing.
"If they knew, they would not bother with Atlantis."
It was something she knew deep within her soul. Ultimately, the Wraith's goal was Earth; Atlantis could be dealt with at leisure — the core of the Wraith's desire was to find Earth. A spear head might cause damage, but it would struggle without the weight of the haft behind it.
"And you want us to risk Earth on that say-so?"
There was a comment somewhere in the background, barely within Teyla's hearing — and only then because two people were hearing it. "…wouldn't be able to…regular Stargate transmissions are directed signals…general messaging is broadcast…could read it, but it wouldn't tell them where the receiver was…"
She only half-listened to the arguments taking place on the channels as she moved through the corridors towards the centre of the city and the intersecting corridors that would lead her to the 'ring road' that circled the city's central spire.
As she turned in at the final corridor, she saw the four Marines milling by the doorway and nodded briefly at them. "May I go through?"
"Sorry, ma'am. Colonel's orders — no-one's to be moving between the city sectors while we're in transit."
"Especially not you."
Upon seeing the Marines, Teyla had not expected to be allowed through. However, neither did she expect the comment from the officer in the group. She stared at him as he stepped out from among the cluster of his fellows. "Excuse me?"
He had the grace to look embarrassed beneath a shock of hair like dried tava stalks. "Ma'am, given what you are…"
"An ally of Atlantis?"
"We're to keep you here until we're into hyperspace." He gestured towards the niche where a guard station of sorts had been set up. "Then Colonel Edwards wants to see you."
She could imagine he did.
"I am held up at the connecting corridor between living quarters in the north-east sector and will not be coming to Control after all."
"Did you want me to intervene?"
"That will not be necessary." At this stage. "The Wraith?"
"Rodney says it'll come to a fight."
"Can John use the city to fight at the same time as he flies it?"
She heard Elizabeth's breath on the other end of the connection. "I think we're about to find out."
Then there was nothing to do but look out the window at the falling sea — the horizon dropping away at the edges as the sky turned from pale blue to midnight blue and from midnight blue to empty black — and wait.
He could feel the sweat beading across his brow as the city struggled out of atmosphere.
John had sat in the chair before, multiple times as either a guinea pig or a drone gunner, depending on the situation and the need. He'd been in the chair — although not the Atlantis chair — the day he'd regained his memories, sent to the outpost as someone in possession of a strong natural gene and the ability to use it. That flood of power had washed away the barriers that had held him from recollection of his life as John Sheppard, and started the chain of events that had led him and Atlantis here.
But he'd never sat in the chair as a pilot before.
Flying a 'jumper was an unconscious thing — at least, it had been the last time he'd taken a 'jumper out into the skies. John barely had to think about what he was doing at all — the 'jumper did it all for him.
Piloting the city took effort.
It didn't help that his vision was overlaid with not only the glowing, swirling lines of the 'place in the galaxy' visual and the chair room around him, but also the sight of space itself. It was as though John was using the city's senses as his own, rising up from the surface of the sea, feeling great rivulets of water drip back into the ocean, interrupting the waves, watching the arch of the sky above him darken as he rose up, up, up.
Even when he closed his eyes, he could feel the others in the room talking, reporting, arguing, complaining. The atmosphere skidded over his 'skin', cool and smooth, but heavy, too. John ignored it, his gaze fixed blindly on the glowing lines and sparks still floating above him, his senses fixed on the sense of the city.
Atlantis was not like the Wraith hiveships and their organic collectiveness. Instead, cool edges pressed firm against John's senses — the feeling of presence and weight and distinct individuality.
Flying Atlantis took the control and concentration of the type he hadn't had to use in years. Not since he'd started flying had he had to focus like this — first, the biplane his first instructor had taught him in, then the various birds used by the USAF flight squadrons, then the choppers he'd learned to use down in Texas.
And now a city.
We've got the new location fixed in the city's hyperspace navigation systems. Rodney's voice echoed in his head, a memory of this morning's pre-departure meeting. All you have to do is get us to hyperspace height and tell the city to go and we're on our way.
At first, down on the planet, John had thought the faint buzzing in his head was simply the hum of the chair. Teyla's urgent call had changed that, confirmed a moment later by the satellite systems.
And, with the arrival of the Wraith, everything got complicated.
It was getting cold and thin outside. John brought up the shield with a thought, felt the ZPM compensate for the power drain. They should have had at least two ZPMs — one for the shield, one for the engines. Too bad. They could do it with one, they just needed to work harder.
Beads of sweat slid into drops, and trickled down through his hairline, dampening his collar.
There was some kind of argument taking place across the airwaves. He wasn't listening — didn't dare listen. Unlike the 'jumpers, the city wasn't obeying his every thought — sluggish and slow, like the controls had been dialled down to minimum responsiveness. They were moving, yes, the city's engines thrusting them up through the stratosphere and into the ionosphere. But John could feel his grip on the city's stability wavering.
Without that stability, they could easily slide into an angled ascent. The shield would take the worst of it, but it would be excess power that they couldn't afford to lose. And, like a broken pilot's yoke, John couldn't quite keep his grasp on the city.
It felt like he was battering his head against a wall, like he was shouting at someone several hundred yards away through heavy curtains.
Something wasn't right.
He shifted in the chair, uncomfortable, and realised his arm and shoulder felt burningly hot and tense, like he'd overtaxed the muscles while doing reps.
"Colonel? What's the matter?"
He took a moment to answer, trying to hold everything together. "Arm." It was all he could manage.
"Your vitals are fine—" Carson broke off. "Oh, dear God."
John couldn't look down, didn't dare divert even one iota of his attention away from his hold on the city. It was slipping from his grasp, bit by bit. He could almost feel the slide of the city as it was buffeted by the high-velocity winds of the middle atmosphere…
It hit him like a blow.
The Iratus virus was taking over his body, rewriting his DNA — and the Ancient gene with it. And if it was a struggle to fly the city, within days he'd be useless in the chair, without even the ability to fire drones if they encountered an enemy…
John shook with the pressure of holding the engines steady, with the weight of Atlantis' expectation and need. He could hear arguments in the background. Shouts and accusations in his head, in his earpiece, in his ear. The city rang with the expedition's alarm and concern, their voices echoing along the walls and transmitting back to him, a cacophony of sensation pouring into him.
Fine. The time for skill was gone; what he had left was brute force.
Get Atlantis into space, then let the hyperspace drives do the work.
He wrapped his mind around the city, ignoring the pain of his arm and the angry shouts in the room, and forced it to his will. There was no skill involved now, no elegance. This wasn't like a salmon slipping through a stream; this was a fist punched through paper.
John punched it.
Later, he listened to stories of how people grew light-headed as the city's inertial compensators failed to keep up with the gees, of how people standing up suddenly found themselves sitting or lying on the floor as the blood rushed from their heads and their bodies headed for G-LOC.
He remembered the wild rush of air as it burned past the shields. He remembered the crackle of sudden lightning as the city hit the ionosphere, and the tingle John felt all across his body. He remembered Carson yelling something at him about gees and force, about the problem with technology, and the frailty of the human body.
He eased back on the engine power, bit by bit, forcing the city back to a form of control. Vaguely, he was aware of someone barking at him — noisy orders that his brain wasn't listening to although his ears couldn't avoid the cacophony.
"Sheppard? What the hell was that?"
No point in getting into an argument with Edwards now. It wouldn't go anywhere, and there were other, more urgent things to worry about.
They were mostly out of the planet's gravity well now, just below the point where something might drift out to space or might drift down toward the surface. And John drew his breath and took one last look at the planet as he wrestled with the city's hyperdrive navigational systems.
It was one look too long.
Hello, John Sheppard of Atlantis. The mind seized him in a cold grip, like an icy pincer on his thoughts. It has been a while.
He retained enough defiance to reply, at least, although it was like shoving his brain through a sieve. Not long enough. We had a deal!
And I kept to it. You have your life back, and for what you returned to me, I will spare it.
But not Atlantis. Not Earth. John saw that now through the weblike maze of the Wraith's mind. He would survive whatever plans the old Wraith had, but the protection offered to his life didn't extend to anything he'd give his life to protect.
The awful irony of it stabbed at him, tearing through his gut.
And he flinched from the hand that touched his cheek, burning hot against the ice of his skin. Carson. "He's gone cold. Eyes are open but non-responsive."
A light flashed in his eye and he jerked his head away.
"Not now!" He ground the words out, over the cacophony of voices and conflicts, swatting the human hand away, fighting off the alien mental touch. He had control of his body, but his ability to interface with the city was suffering as his mind was held fast, his will subverted to that of the Wraith.
Someone was gabbling into their pickup a few feet away. John ignored them.
You won't have this.
You may fight all you wish, said the creature solemnly. The end result will remain the same; no matter where you run, I will find you.
The worst part? The Wraith wasn't gloating. This wasn't a victor taking pleasure in its victory, simply a statement of a fact.
"…seems to be struggling…"
"…Wraith are coming…"
"…can't disconnect him — he's the only thing…"
"…die than risk Earth! Sergeant…"
Hands grabbed him, dragging at his limbs where they lay rigid in the chair.
"…is mad. Do you know what kind of…"
"…nel Sheppard is…"
And suddenly there was no-one else in the room but him and a tall, spindly figure.
He was sitting in the chair, his body pressed back against the silver chasings of the chair while the Wraith stood before him, 12 o'clock position. He'd forgotten how tall the creature was, the hollow height of it towering above him. In Kolya's bunker, it had hunched more, bowed over with captivity and hunger.
Now, it stood proudly — an invader to the city who regarded the room it stood in with curiosity.
It had to be John's mind painting this place, which meant the Wraith was in his mind, which meant…
The open door out to the corridor slid closed and the locks snapped down. John felt better for the marginal defiance — perhaps the Wraith would break through his thoughts with nothing more than a mental flick of the wrist, but he'd done what little he could.
"I look forward to seeing your…City of the Ancients."
"Sorry I'm not in a position to give the tour." At least here he could speak, even if it felt like freezing knives were being thrust into his brain, stabbing deep into his thoughts. The pain was overriding his ability to speak, John was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to manage this conversation back in the real chair room.
As it was, he strained to keep the Wraith from completely overpowering his mind. It had him in a freezing, bitter grip right now, but that wasn't the same as having John's co-operation.
"It will not be necessary. We will have many aeons to look at this wonder of our Ancient enemies."
Behind its shoulder, something shimmered. John pulled back his lips in a half-snarl, half-smirk. "Or not."
The Wraith frowned. "You underestimate your strength, Sheppard. You will not last long."
"Perhaps he will not," said Teyla from behind the Wraith. Her voice was cool and strong. "But he does not need to."
And John felt the Wraith's grip drain away like water as she stabbed a long-bladed skinning knife through the Wraith's chest and cried, "Now, John!"
He yanked his thoughts from the grip of the Wraith, and reached for the city. It responded uncertainly, like a dog unsure if this was its master's hand, but he commanded it, forcing it through with all the will and strength he possessed.
Drones exploded from their firing shafts, whirling gold projectiles that swirled around each other in a brilliant dance before speeding towards the Wraith hives. Ten, twenty, forty, a hundred — John didn't know how many; he didn't care.
Atlantis' time was done here; it was time to go.
John felt the hyperdrives kick in with a growling roar, knew the hyperspace window had opened to receive them, felt the balancing moment before Atlantis leaped out of the system and away from the Wraith.
Behind them, fire bloomed along the hiveships in the black space above Old Lantea.
Elizabeth listened to John's explanation of what had happened while he was in the chair and tried not to feel as though this was an interrogation.
It didn't help that John looked as though he was a prisoner, the two Marines that Edwards had refused to take off him flanking him where he sat, the various departmental heads sitting around the triangular meeting table. Even the steady clatter of Rodney's keyboard could have been the court stenographer, making notes on the trial.
"I fired the drones and handed control of the city over to the hyperdrive navigation systems and we made hyperspace."
"You're sure the Wraith didn't see where we were going?" She asked the question before Edwards could. John would take the question better from someone he didn't automatically think was out to get him.
"All I know about the planet is the designation." He looked at her rather than Edwards. "The Wraith can't make anything from that — they don't have the knowledge of the Atlantis database. If they even got that much from me, which they didn't."
"And, given that the Wraith managed to freeze you as you've already admitted, what makes you think they didn't get that information from you?"
"They did not." Teyla folded her hands on the table before her with the measured movement of someone who understood the power of distraction in the middle of an argument. "The Wraith would've taken it from John had there been time, but he did not have the time, and John did not give it to him."
"And you, of course, can be sure of that?"
"Yes." The answer was simple, but Teyla had a look of inwards contemplation that suggested it would be folly to challenge her in this. "I can."
John's chair had turned towards Teyla during her statement. He flashed her a brief smile when her gaze turned to him, then turned back to Edwards like a compass needle drawn to its opposite pole. "They didn't get anything from me, other than that we were moving. And that was obvious."
"I don't like the Wraith knowing where we've gone."
Rodney snorted, not looking up from the laptop where he was monitoring the engine status. "It'd be pretty obvious we'd gone somewhere else when they arrived and found the planet deserted. And Sheppard's right. They'd have nothing more useful than a designation. Where's M5T-802?"
"How should I know?"
"So how would the Wraith know if you don't?" Ronon had declined a seat — there weren't enough of them. Instead, like the Marines, he stood and watched the proceedings with a shuttered expression. "Sheppard wouldn't give Atlantis up."
Watching John, Elizabeth saw the softening that the statement of faith produced in John and figured she'd add to it.
"Thank you for piloting the city out of there, John."
He shrugged, nonchalant about it, but she knew him well enough to see the pleasure that the praise gave him. It was important to John that his work was meaningful. In that light, Elizabeth had always tried to ensure he knew he was appreciated.
"In the meantime, we've got other matters to consider. Radek? What's our power status?"
Radek pushed his glasses up his nose and consulted his laptop screen. Unnecessarily, Elizabeth thought. Radek had a perfectly good grasp of what was happening in his section. "The encounter with the Wraith has drained the city's reserves a little more than we expected, but we should have enough power to get us to our destination and to bring the city down at the end of it."
"Good to know," she said without irony. "If things change for any reason, let me know immediately. Dr. Keller?" The young doctor jerked up, looking surprised at being called upon. "Infirmary status report?"
"Uh, well, there were a few injuries. A couple people fainted and hit their heads when they fell — nothing major. We had one broken bone — Dr. Frankwell was going down the stairs when we accelerated and he lost his balance, but it was a clean break. Otherwise…nothing much."
The slim shoulders hunched over a little and Elizabeth smiled kindly at her before turning to Rodney.
"Rodney, the engines?"
"They're fine, although Engine Four collapsed during takeoff. I'm trying to work out what we can sabotage to get it back online. What was with that sudden ascent, anyway?"
"Other than that the Wraith were coming? I wanted to get out of there fast. The longer the flight out took the harder it would be."
Elizabeth watched as John's gaze flickered away for a moment and knew that wasn't the whole of the truth.
"Harder as in…?"
His shoulders twitched. "The usual definition of 'harder.'"
She saw Teyla's gaze drop to the marquetry of the table in what was effectively a ducking of the Athosian woman's head and caught a hint of what the issue was. If not for Edwards, then John might very well have told them; but with a hostile superior at the table, he was guarded and wary.
Faced with a dilemma — between stating her suspicions and remaining silent, Elizabeth chose to speak out. She would rather not have said anything here, but for the sake of the city it was necessary that they all knew. Maybe it could wait while the city moved through space — they had four days of flight from here to the end of their journey — but if this was what she thought, the sooner it was laid out on the table, the better.
"The Iratus virus," she said. "It's affecting your ability to use Ancient technology, isn't it?"
John's head turned, and a trick of the light turned his pupils into Iratus slits before he met her gaze full on and was human again. He didn't deny it.
She ignored Edwards, feeling a chill steal over her, like a sudden cold breeze in the room. "Will you be able to fly the ship when we reach New Lantea?"
"I don't know. It's a fight now, it'll be more of a fight later, but I should be able to manage it."
Without John, they'd have to rely on one of the other personnel — less experienced, less confident in their flying skills — to bring them down. It was a recipe for disaster. At least, Elizabeth amended, more of a recipe for disaster than their situation already was.
"Should?" Naturally, Edwards leaped on the uncertainty. "You're going to risk the city on a 'should'?"
"Why not?" John's eyes glittered. "We've already risked it on a maybe, a possibly, and a could."
Thinking dryly of all the times they'd held onto the city with a wing, a prayer, and a little bit of luck, Elizabeth couldn't help noting, "It does tend to be a habit."
Still, entrusting this to John without having a Plan B wasn't wise. So far in her time as expedition leader of Atlantis, the universe had thrown enough curve balls at Elizabeth to make planning an alternative a good idea.
"While I agree that John would be more than up to the task of bringing the city down, I think that we should have a contingency pilot at hand in case you're not able to pilot the ship by the time we make landing." In the periphery of her gaze, she saw the nods of agreement, but her gaze was fixed on John, looking for his reaction.
There was none, his expression closed up and shut down as he stared at the table, not even looking up to see who was looking at him. And his thoughts were opaque to her — and apparently to Teyla, who looked away from John to Elizabeth and shrugged a little. It seemed she understood no more of his state of mind than Elizabeth.
She had hoped he would understand why it might be necessary, even if he thought he'd be ready when the time came. But his agreement was not required for her to set policy. "Carson?"
Carson glanced up from his notes. "Oh, no," he said. "I can't fly the city."
Rodney dismissed this with a sniff. "You can fire drones."
"Firing drones is something completely different to— No. There're other people who possess the natural gene…"
Elizabeth tried again. " The chair responds best to the natural gene, Carson."
Carson blew out a breath and looked down at his hands before he met her gaze again. "I still think we'd be better off with someone who's got real flying experience and an artificial gene."
Maybe they would. But of the personnel they had, only a handful had the gene naturally. Most personnel with the ATA gene were the artificial one, which worked well enough with the 'jumpers. But the city seemed to want a naturally-occurring gene, as though the mocked-up version didn't quite meet the requirements. And not one of the people with the naturally-occurring gene had anything close to John's piloting experience. In that, his skill-set and ability was unique.
"You have flying experience," Rodney said irritably from behind his computer.
"Of 'jumpers! Not cities!"
"Carson." She waited until he swivelled back to her and held his gaze, pleadingly. "We wouldn't ask this if it wasn't necessary."
"And if it's not necessary?"
It took Elizabeth a moment to realise what he was saying. "You've finished work on the retrovirus?"
"I think I've got a solution, yes."
"It's much the same as before," Carson said as he prepped John's arm for the injection. "I don't know how much of last time you remember…"
Lying in the bed, his still-human arm stretched out on the covers, Sheppard turned his head to look at his team who were waiting over by the next bed, a mostly-silent support group, although Rodney occasionally made comments. His eyes fixed on them and he gave a faint smile. "Enough."
Curious at the overtones of that smile, Carson half-turned before he reined in his curiosity.
He glanced over at Elizabeth, who was hovering at the foot of the bed and caught the arched brow she transferred from John to him. Colonel Edwards was off managing 'a personnel problem', which might mean that an actual situation had come up, or which might mean he didn't particularly care whether Sheppard made it or not. Either way, Carson didn't mind the Colonel's absence. It meant less questions and demands.
"Well, there might be some burning and feelings of restlessness. You'll want to take regular meals and sleep regularly, too, because your body will be undergoing a lot of changes." Carson pulled the tourniquet tight. Usually, he wouldn't bother looking for a vein, but the sooner they could get this working, the better. The bloodstream would provide both delivery system and energy source for the retroviral changes, and if the changes coming over the Colonel were more or less the same as last time, by the time they reached their new planet, he'd be back to human again.
And Carson wasn't going to think about what would happen if things went wrong.
He took a deep breath. "All right." The needle dipped smoothly into the flesh, injected its payload, and came smoothly out. "I want you to be in here overnight so we can monitor the progress of the retrovirus. If anything starts to hurt, tell me. I'd rather be informed of your troubles than kept in the dark because you don't think I need to know it."
"Yes, Doc." The smile was old-school Sheppard, slightly insouciant, a little wry.
Carson couldn't help returning it. He often despaired of the men and women of this city — so many over-achieving types who didn't know when to stop — but for all that, they were the best, and all of them had a certain charm about them. Even the ones like Rodney.
It was, as the military would say, an honour to serve them — but it was a pleasure, too.
Sheppard's team crowded around the beside, seating themselves with an assumption of right. Rodney produced a laptop from the bed behind him, and a moment later they were arguing over whether or not to watch House or The Office`.
Elizabeth gave them a rueful smile and followed Carson out. "How long until it takes effect?"
"If it all goes according to plan…the spread of the Iratus should stop in the next day, with the reversal a day after. He won't be human when we touch down, but he should be on his way. I'm sorry it took so long."
"Moving the city took priority," she reassured him, then craned her neck as a burst of laughter came from the Colonel's group. "Thank you, Carson."
Carson set the syringe aside for sterilisation and went to write up his notes. With any luck, things were looking up — not only for the Colonel, but for everyone in the city.
Rodney took one look at John as he put his tray down on the table. "Carson let you out of the infirmary looking like that?"
The dark circles under the other man's eyes suggested a rough night. "It's just tiredness. Curable with sleep."
"Which you don't seem to be getting right now. Actually, no-one's getting much of it — including myself."
"I'll work on it later. Anyway, how's the work on Engine Four going?" John began arranging the tiny dishes of food, picking through each one to determine what was today's meal.
"It's going." Rodney shrugged. "We got them back online, although I'm never going to let Davis do the configuration work for one of these. It was an incredibly sloppy job."
"Heard you ended up having to crawl through several access tunnels to fix it."
"It was horrible. Manual crystal recalibration? Ugh. Do you know what dark, cramped conditions do to my thinking processes? I mean, a city full of people — half of them Marines — and they send a theoretical astrophysicist to do the job!" Rodney was pissed off about that. There were plenty of other personnel available to go worming through the bowels of the city — people who were more expendable than him.
"Is the astrophysics so theoretical anymore?"
"Not the point!"
"Okay, so could the Marines have done the fixes that were needed?"
"No." And everyone said that it was faster for him to go in and do it than for them to do it before messing up and finding he'd have to go in there himself anyway.
There was a certain correctness about that statement, of course.
"So a man's gotta do…"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Don't. In the end, we had to cannibalise a bunch of parts from the secondary shield to get it working though, so if the primary shield fails, we're in trouble."
"I thought Zelenka said we had more than enough power to get us down to the surface."
"Yes, well, Radek says that sort of thing. "He's an optimist at heart." Rodney flipped a dollop of tuber mash into the sea of gravy. Then, because he was feeling a little guilty about so casually dismissing Radek's research, he added, "He just doesn't take into account all the possible problems we could run into."
"Like the fact that you had a harder time getting the city into space than we thought you would? And you had to fire the drones, which took energy — oh, and the hyperdrive engines aren't working at 100% after sitting dormant for ten thousand years, so our power conversion routines aren't as accurate as we thought they'd be?"
John snorted. "You're so cheerful, Rodney."
"Yeah, but I'm not paid to be cheerful."
"You're paid to crawl through claustrophobic spaces and save the city?" John grinned and dug his spoon into the tub of Jell-O. Rodney noticed blue of the hand holding the cup nearly matched the blue of the jell-o and lifted his gaze to find Sheppard looking at him quizzically.
"How's the retrovirus working?"
"Burning, tingling, itching. I had a headache earlier but it seems to have gone."
"Yes, but is it working?"
"The change seems to have stopped." John glanced down at his arm with a grimace of disgust. "It hasn't moved any further, anyway."
"But you're still sleeping with Teyla." Rodney snorted at the brief flare of colour that washed over John's neck, amused. John Sheppard might be a closed book to most of the city, but he was pretty open if you knew how to read him. "Oh, please. You know what I mean, I know what I mean, everyone else knows what I mean. Get over it. You're not a teenager with a crush, you're a grown man of…what? Forty?"
John glared and took a moment to answer, although the flush didn't fade. "We figured it was a precaution."
"Sleeping with Teyla is taking precautions?" The line was too good not to use and the look he received was a killer. Rodney smirked. "So was it precautious enough?"
The flippancy earned him roll of the eyes. "She said that the Wraith were still waiting for her when she went out so that hasn't changed."
"Yeah, but you've been like that for a few days now, so even if the Iratus change isn't on the march anymore, you're still open channel for the Wraith."
"Do you have to put it like that?"
"No. But I enjoy it." Rodney smirked and went back to eating. The Pegasus stroganoff with mashed tubers was always good, in spite of the meat's gamy taste and the disconcertingly dove-blue mash. If you closed your eyes, you'd hardly realise it wasn't Earth food — venison and potatoes, maybe.
Okay, so weird venison and potatoes, but — most importantly — non-allergenic venison and potatoes.
"Anyway," he said after a few mouthfuls eaten in silence. "I'd written this program to randomly pull planetary designations from a list of empty planets we've seen, and now we're not going to need it, so…"
John's fork fell to the table with a noisy clatter.
Rodney looked up as John made an odd grunting noise, low in his throat. The hand that had been holding the fork was clenched into a fist on the top of the table, and the cords of this throat stood rigidly out beneath the clenched jaw.
His eyes glanced up to meet Rodney's and he gave an unconvincing smile. "It's nothing."
Considering the way John's body was beginning to shake, Rodney disagreed.
"Carson, this is Rodney. I'm with Sheppard in the mess hall." He kept a wary eye on John, while not touching the man. He didn't know what this was and he wasn't about to take chances. No point in risking both of them if it was something contagious — and it might be. "He's not looking to good. In fact, it looks like he's about to go into convulsions."
"I'm fi-i—" The statement turned into a choked noise that screamed pain from every inchoate vowel, and John twitched once and crumpled like a sheet of paper.
Later, Rodney would hear how he stood up so fast, he kicked his chair into Dr. Byrne's, two metres away. He'd learn that he was around the table faster than it took for most people to turn around to look at what they'd just noticed was happening. He'd be told that the blow from a scaly hand sent him sprawling as Sheppard's Iratus-enhanced instincts made short work of him.
What he remembered was the world spinning and then going black.
Teyla knew the news would not be good, even before Carson entered the infirmary with a solemn expression.
Her team had sat around and on John's bed, silent but for Rodney's occasional mutterings about John's mishandling of him. There was nothing to be said that would not ring of false comfort or pointless cheer.
John, at least, did not protest their presence from his place at the head of the bed. If he was not quite hunched over his arm, he had covered the scaly blue skin of the Iratus hand with the human one and had half-turned that arm away from the door. She sensed he was glad of the company — of something to balance out the frustration of failure, never mind that the failure was not his.
Nor was it Carson's failure, either. Some things were simply beyond the capabilities of even those in Atlantis.
"Do you want the good news or the bad?"
John didn't hesitate. "The bad."
"The bad news is that the retrovirus doesn't seem to be working. At least, not the way it did last time. It doesn't seem to be stopping the Iratus change, although it's slowed it. Last time, you were further gone, but even after twenty-four hours it had halted the changes and started your DNA back to the path of being human."
"What's it doing this time?"
"Well, as I said, it's slowed it. But I think the clash between the two retroviruses is what caused your collapse."
"You mean you're not sure?" Rodney looked appalled.
Carson seemed annoyed, most likely by Rodney's tone, which had been disbelieving. "It's hard to tell. I haven't had the time to study more than the basics of Colonel Sheppard's condition since it first appeared, although now that we've moved the city that should change."
Teyla glanced sideways at John, noting the faint whorls of blue that were developing beneath the skin of his neck. They were new to her sight, something she had not noticed until now. "How much slower is the change happening?"
"Without a long-term observation, it's hard to tell."
"So how'd you know he's still changing?"
"Because we can see it in his blood work." Carson indicated a screen by the bedside and pulled up three graphs. "On the right is the work from two days ago — before we left the old planet. The middle one is the work we took just before we issued the retroviral injection, and the left one is the one from today."
There was a strong difference between the first and second one, but not much change between the second and third. At least, little change that Teyla could read.
"They look pretty much the same to me. The last two, anyway." John seemed to echo her opinion on the similarities between the images.
"They do on the surface of it — until you look at the values beneath." Carson typed something in and the view changed to a series of coloured bars on the screen, grouped in threes. "This is the concentration presence of a protein that's used to catalyse the retroviral process for the Iratus."
"Which means absolutely nothing to us."
"It's a catalyst, Rodney. It's presence indicates the degree of change taking place. There were initially a lot of these proteins, causing Colonel Sheppard's swift reversion to the Iratus. Now, there're less of them, but they're still present."
Teyla worked this through in her head. "How do we not know that these proteins are not related to the other retrovirus — the one that is attempting to counter-write his DNA?"
"Because we used an entirely different proteins set to the ones the Wraith used." Carson indicated a small series of bars that showed little change in value. "These are our protein counts — as you can see, there's not much change in them, indicating that they're barely being used at all."
They mulled this over for a moment, Carson's gaze on John. "I'll keep looking at the problem, Colonel — you have my word on that. But I haven't had the time these last couple of days."
John nodded. "Not your fault, Doc." But Teyla saw him rub a hand surreptitiously over his wrist. "Can you make a guess as to how long before the Iratus takes me over?"
"Define 'takes over.'" Carson sounded more than a little wry. "Look, Colonel, there's no telling, but judging by the catalyst proteins, I'd say you have months instead of days now."
Another nod, this one with resignation in it. Teyla felt something twist in her chest, a gentle ache at the pain he only half hid.
"Will I be able to land the city?"
"I don't know. Assuming that things haven't changed too much, it should be no more difficult than it was taking off."
"Considering how bad taking off was…"
"Would you rather have me flying you down, then, Rodney?"
Ronon chuckled as Rodney blinked, taken aback by the tartness in Carson's reply. "Uh, no. No, that's fine." He seemed chastened, although Teyla knew it would not last too long.
"Do you want the medical details now, Colonel?"
"No." Teyla saw him smile, knew it to be John's attempt at smoothing things over. Like John, Carson took failure in a very personal way. "Maybe later, doc."
Carson was no fool. He, too, could see the disappointment in John. But he did not mention it, either. "John, I'm sorry that all I could do was buy you time."
"Hey, it's more than I had," John said after a moment. "It'll do. Thanks, Carson."
The use of the name was deliberate, a way of conveying a more personal message, and from the brief smile Carson gave John on the way out, Teyla gathered that Carson appreciated the measure of trust.
"So," Ronon began. "You're out after we land?"
"Don't have much of a choice." John stared down at his hands. "At least I'll be human a bit longer."
"And what about when you're not?"
Teyla answered Rodney's outburst with the only answer she had. "Carson will stop at nothing to restore him, Rodney. And we will help him however we can." It was a poor answer, and they all knew it. But there was nothing else to be done for John. As long as the Wraith could find him, he could not stay in Atlantis. And until they could work out how to not only stop, but also reverse what had been done, John would be at the mercy of whatever life he could lead while on the run from the Wraith.
A glance up at Ronon brought the reminder that it was more than possible to survive on the run from the Wraith. And John would be given all the possible advantages that Atlantis could afford him — a 'jumper in which to travel, planets through which to travel, medical help if it became necessary, and the assistance and concern of friends whenever he needed it.
Teyla had no intention of leaving John to his own devices out in the galaxy.
"Still doesn't help him in the now," Rodney grumbled.
"There's nothing can help me now." John shrugged. "It'll be okay, Rodney."
Rodney's huff might almost have been a sob, except that none of them were the type to cry in a situation they could not help. The spilt milk was spilt, and there was otherwise no help for it.
"So," John turned to Ronon, "you gonna give me those tips about running?"
"Well, maybe tomorrow. Assuming I don't have any more convulsions. I shouldn't though."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Well, sure as I can be." John sat up. "Guys—"
He hesitated with the sentence unfinished.
Rodney made a disgusted noise through his nose. "Sheppard, don't get maudlin on us."
"Yes, you were. And I'm going to finish my dinner — the dinner you interrupted!"
Once, Teyla would have been shocked at Rodney's apparent callousness. Time and experience had taught her that such outbursts were often a shield for her friend's more tender emotions. They all coped in their own way, and Rodney built a shell around himself and covered it with prickles that people might not risk growing too close.
She understood. Her own defence was to be calm — so calm that no-one might question the fear beneath.
"I could do dinner."
"Perhaps we could all have something to eat." Teyla watched John as he lifted his lashes to meet her gaze, then dropped them, swift as if he had been caught staring. "I do not believe you finished your meal either. Are you permitted to leave the infirmary?"
He glanced back towards the main infirmary office. "Carson didn't forbid it."
"We can bring stuff back from the kitchens."
"No." John climbed off the bed. "We'll go to the mess hall." Behind the words, Teyla knew his thoughts. I'm not going to hide from the city.
Silently she approved.
They moved out from the infirmary as a group, talking among themselves of the city, of the move, of Colonel Edwards' disapproval and the various odd situations that had occurred in the last two days since they had left the planet.
Yet as John gestured them into the transporter, Teyla noted that the thing that touched them all — the thing that affected them all — went unsaid: that this was, in a way, the end of something they had known they must someday lose, and yet were unwilling to relinquish.
The blue glow of hyperspace pervaded every inch of the room, making the down lights seem more orange than usual by comparison. After two days, Ronon still found it strange.
"It gets to you after a while, doesn't it?" John followed his gaze to the window and the weird light that shifted and shimmered beyond the city's shield. "It's worse here than it is on the Daedalus. At least there are rooms without windows on the ship."
"On some planets there are light curtains. Not stars — like great swathes of colour and light washing across the night." He'd come across them more than once in his travels.
"Like the ship we found?"
"Yeah. Like that." John leaned back in his chair, putting down the magazine he'd been browsing through. "Do you remember the address?"
Ronon scrawled it down. "Might be a time of year thing, though."
"It usually is." John shrugged as he craned his neck to see the symbols. The light flashed off the faint blue patterns beginning to manifest themselves under his skin — not yet the full growths of the Iratus hybrid, but getting there. If the changes to John had slowed, they hadn't stopped. And as of tomorrow, Sheppard would be on the run through Pegasus, one jump ahead of the Wraith.
Since his collapse yesterday, and Beckett's verdict, John had moved cautiously through the city, never without someone there to keep an eye on him — someone who wasn't Edwards' lackey. But Ronon thought the sooner Sheppard got out of Atlantis, the better. Nobody wanted the Wraith to find Atlantis again — not least of all, Sheppard. And the Lanteans were starting to give him sideways looks, especially after the seizure in the mess hall. Everyone had heard about that by dinner that night, and the one thing that none of the Lanteans lacked was curiosity. Now that the Iratus had spread fully over his hand, Sheppard seemed to be considered something of a spectacle. McKay's term was 'sideshow freak', with the qualification that, "That's not what I think — that's just what everyone else is thinking!"
"Thanks for all the tips, buddy."
Ronon shrugged. It was the least he could do for Sheppard. The man had rescued him, given him a life and a purpose and held out his hand in friendship. To the man who'd spent seven long years running from the Wraith, waiting for the moment when he could turn around and fight them back, that meant a lot.
He just wished he could help more.
"You'll be good," he said, a little gruffly. "You've got the 'jumper, too."
"Yeah. And you'll be in touch."
It was half a statement, half a question, but the answer was a given. "Yeah."
John glanced down and away for a moment, his smile fading, and when he looked up, there was something in his eyes that Ronon couldn't identify. "Look after Teyla."
"She can look after herself."
"I know. But…" John hesitated. "I know you guys are close."
Ronon felt his eyebrows lift. A week ago, Sheppard had been denying there was anything between him and Teyla, and now he was asking Ronon to look after her? "She's a survivor."
"Yeah." Still, John seemed to be looking for something, unable to quite express his thoughts. Ronon wondered if he should spell it out or just let it pass. Sometimes it was hard to tell with the Lanteans. Their society didn't seem to follow any kind of sane rules — and their relationships in particular.
In Ronon's experience, you loved where you found it, you gave all you had to give, and life was too short to play heart-games with yourself.
John shifted, but said nothing. He'd apparently decided not to pursue whatever train of thought had led to his concern about Teyla. Ronon glanced at him, then went back to reading the Genii 'newssheet' that had recently come from Ladon's crowd. He didn't like the Genii, but Weir was teaching him about Lantean sayings, and the one that went, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, seemed pretty relevant in this case. So Ronon read through the stuff, and if he didn't get the fine details of the technical stuff, he'd seen and experienced enough Satedan tech to have a good idea of what was being done by the Genii and what they might try on Atlantis.
It looked like they'd found an old Wraith ship on an explored planet and were trying to get it to flight-worthiness. Ronon found himself a little surprised that they were willing to say even that much — the Genii didn't strike him as particularly up-front about their tech.
The question caught him by surprise.
"If you'd known you were going to be a Runner before that last battle on Sateda, what would you have done differently in the run-up?"
The first thing that came to mind was, "Killed Kell." Then he saw John's eyebrows rise and remembered that he had killed Kell, but that they'd never told the Lanteans of that incident. "If it would have made a difference."
"And if it wouldn't have?"
"I'd have killed him anyway." Ronon only had to think about it a moment. After all, he'd killed Kell after the fact, for nothing more than vengeful justice. As for anything else… "Otherwise, no."
"You wouldn't have done anything differently?"
Ronon wasn't sure what John was aiming at — and he was aiming at something that Ronon simply didn't get. "I'd have made Melena leave with Kell's transports." At least then, she'd have survived. He'd run as much so he could sleep without remembering her broken, burned body crumpled on the hospice floor as because the Wraith had been chasing him. There'd been freedom in it — freedom from painful memories, freedom from cares and worries and growing too close to people, freedom from himself and his failed people.
If he'd known that Sateda was doomed and that he'd become a Runner…
But he hadn't. And he wasn't the kind to second-guess it.
"Regrets don't help." It was all he had to offer John, and he wasn't sure it was enough. John didn't usually ask such questions or offer such insights, so this was precious, in a way. A gift that Ronon didn't feel he'd done justice.
"No." John turned his head to stare out the window. "I left a message for my family. I'm not sure whether they'll let it go through considering I've been MIA for six months."
He turned back, very fast. "Nancy? No. Not… She wouldn't care what happened to me."
Ronon doubted that, but he didn't say as much. That wasn't the matter on which his friend wanted reassurance.
"You'll be visiting, right?"
"Try to stop us." Something glimmered in his thoughts, faint as starlight. An idea. Ronon folded up the paper.
"Just remembered. I said I'd meet Weir after lunch about contacts for after the move." He got to his feet and paused. "You'll be okay?"
"Sure." The answer came a little too facilely to be the truth, but Sheppard was putting a good face on it — the way he'd been doing so for a while. "If you see Rodney, remind him that he promised to come around for dinner. You want to join us?"
"Sure." Ronon flicked his dreads off his shoulders. "Get Teyla in on it, too?" It should be a team thing. Something with all of them for the last time. No more breakfasts, lunches, or dinners, no more gearing up together for a mission while cracking wry jokes or making fun of each other.
"Yeah. I'll contact her now."
John reached for his earpiece, and Ronon left him speaking with Teyla.
Once outside John's rooms, he nodded at the Marines still assigned to minder's duty, then headed off — but not towards Weir's office. He hadn't lied — not entirely, anyway. He did have a meeting with Weir about contacts around Pegasus, but it wasn't until just before dinner.
Instead of heading up through the city, Ronon went down into the bowels of the city, through corridors that echoed, empty of noise but for the slap of his boot soles. And as his feet ran, the glimmering idea blossomed into a spark of possibility.
The doors to the engine board room hissed open to show an empty space. Then something banged beneath a console, someone yelped, and an annoyed voice rang out. "Ever heard of knocking? That's seven million brain cells I'm never going to use again!"
Ronon shook his head as he circled around and found Rodney under one of the consoles. "What are you doing?"
"What's it look like I'm doing? I'm fixing a glitch in one of the running programs. Which is my job. What are you doing down here?"
"Come out of there."
"Oh, for God's sake, if this is about—"
Exasperation bloomed, rough and authoritative. It made him sharp. "Shut up and listen, Rodney."
John had forgotten how quiet Antarctica was. It wasn't completely silent of course, there was always the white noise of the heaters, the soft buzz of the fluorescent lighting overhead, the distant voices down the corridor, discussing things he didn't know about and didn't care about.
Somehow, though, it seemed very…isolated. As though it belonged to a different world from anything else John had known. Which, he supposed, it had.
A womb and a tomb, Teyla had said. She'd gotten it right on the money. John's career should have died in Antarctica; instead, he'd been reborn there.
He sat on the edge of the bed, fully aware that all this was in his mind, that it wasn't real, and yet content to let his mind supply the details as though it was — the cotton weave of the sheets beneath his fingers, the chill that seemed to emanate from the walls, as though the glacial ice and snow was only the wall's thickness away, although it had to be far more through the layers and layers of insulation, the air processor's whirr and the fluorescent light's hum.
They'd been making progress over the last few nights. Once Carson's serum had failed, things had become easier. John reflected that it was probably because he'd realised there was no way out of this, so he'd have to learn to block the Wraith out.
He was learning, anyway. It wasn't foolproof, which was why Teyla continued to meditate through his sleeping periods, in the representation of her going out the door to fight the Wraith every night. But if the Wraith attacks hadn't abated in the last couple of nights, they hadn't gotten worse either.
John looked up as the knob turned and Teyla came in.
She seemed surprised to find him awake, and set her back against the door as she closed it, her brows lifted in a silent query.
"Couldn't sleep." He let his eyes linger on the shadows beneath her eyes. "How'd it go?"
"Well enough." Her mouth curved a little, as though too tired to do more than that. "You are growing stronger in your shielding, I think. This time, they did not even try to get through the door."
"Maybe they're waiting for you not to be there anymore."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps you have improved." Her eyes laughed at him, teasing, soft. "Stranger things have happened."
"Hey, practise makes perfect. And I'll be getting a lot more practise from tomorrow."
"That is true." The laughter faded from her expression, leaving her solemn. "John…"
He waited while she struggled with words, sensing that whatever she had to say, she didn't need his interruption to say it.
"We will find a cure for you," she said at last. Her eyes slid down to the floor, then up again, but her smile was distant and careful, and John knew it wasn't what she'd intended to say.
Maybe she knew he knew, too, because she pushed herself up from the door. "I should—"
He was across the room before she got any further. Her lips were soft against the finger he pressed against her, but her gaze was steady and she didn't struggle or try to push him away. Taking heart from that, he leaned down to her, tipping her face up to his.
John could feel his pulse heavy in his eardrums, throbbing at his temples, knew that somewhere in the back of his head, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard was swallowing hard and waiting for the crash. There was always a crash — the long fall from the sky with the knowledge that the hard ground waited below. A parachute meant he probably wouldn't die, but the impact would still hurt.
The part of him the Iratus had loosed didn't care. John kept a careful leash on it, afraid that it might take control, that it might just take without asking. He didn't want that.
The broad emptiness of Pegasus was less than a day away. He could feel it coming at him like the ground, too fast, too hard.
Regrets don't help. Maybe Ronon hadn't given him the answer John had wanted; but he'd given the answer John needed.
All John had now was the question to ask of Teyla.
He moved slowly, mindful that she might not want this, mindful that the Iratus instincts lurked beneath the surface, controlled but never gone. However far this went — if it went anywhere at all — Teyla would want what he gave.
She seemed to want this kiss, anyway.
There was a soft sweetness in his mouth, like honey. It took John a moment to realise that she'd parted her lips beneath his, welcoming the delicate flicker of tongues — a teasing dance of sensation that invited him to play.
Hands slid up his chest to his shoulders, her fingers resting either side while her thumbs brushed over the skin of his throat, making him shiver. Beneath John's hands, the soft curve of her waist trembled as he stroked it, and when the kiss slid deeper, Teyla made a noise of pleasure in her throat.
Long and slow and tender, they barely stopped to breathe, to think, to question. Teyla's hands slid down his arms, up his arms, down his chest, around his neck, as though searching for something. It wasn't until his mouth found her throat and his hips pressed her back against the door that he felt her tense.
John's blood was running hot, his body full of adrenaline. It took him a moment to realise what the tension meant, another moment to ease himself back to rational thought. He kissed her throat once, her jaw once, and lifted his head to look into Teyla's eyes.
The soft haze in them almost made him jettison restraint. He closed his eyes against that, rested his cheek against hers and forced himself to stillness. "Sorry."
After a moment, a hand slid through his hair to frame his cheekbone. "This is not real, John."
"I know." He lifted his head and made himself look her in the eye. She didn't flinch from him, or look away, and in her gaze he saw compassion laced with her own uncertainty. "I don't expect—"
Her thumb silenced him, the pad resting against his lips. "Will it be enough?"
"Would you give more if it wasn't?"
The question slipped out, gone before he could bring it back. John braced himself for the crash as Teyla hesitated and told him all he needed to know. It was too much all at once; too demanding, too needy, more than she'd ever been willing to give him, more than he should have betrayed himself by.
Even the Iratus had its limits.
"I shouldn't have…" He began to shift himself off her, then stopped when she moved with him, one hand on his chest, prompting him backwards across the room.
John's thoughts were a blur, the only clear thing in the room her face; the only solid thing in the world her hand. Then the backs of his knees hit the mattress and his knees buckled. He nearly missed the edge of the mattress, too shocked by what his body thought was happening, too stunned for his limbs to get with the plan.
Strong hands set him down on the bed. Strong legs straddled him either side of his hip. He let his hands skim the lean lines of her thighs up to her waist and felt her hips tilt, nestling into his. Then he cupped his human hand behind her head as the Iratus slid beneath her top to linger in the small of her back.
Teyla shivered at the touch, and John felt the tingle play down his own spine. Her mind in his mind, her body's reactions becoming his.
Teyla becoming his.
A growl lingered in his chest, but he restrained it. Instead, his hand splayed against her back and he urged her in close, her hips snug against his hips, rubbing, teasing, yielding.
Then her hands took his face, she tilted his mouth up to hers, and they slid into hot desire.
"So Teyla's got you ready for your trip out?"
John paused with his hand hovering over his bishop, his brain stuttering to a halt. "What?" Rodney couldn't know; Teyla wouldn't have told him.
From across the table, Rodney frowned at the laptop he was typing into. "Hiding from the Wraith using only the power of your mind? Hello? What planet are you on?"
"Yes, that." Rodney shook his head as he began typing — probably an email. "What else did you think I meant?
"Not that." John went back to pondering the board, hoping that Rodney wouldn't ask further. He wasn't ready to discuss what had and hadn't happened with Teyla last night.
Maybe it had been a goodbye fuck, but John had no complaints.
In the last six months, his life had turned upside down too many times — from being Kolya's prisoner to escaping with a Wraith; from becoming the Wraith's toy to losing his memory on Orawi. He'd been content to hunt on Orawi as Yan Stormborn, to share Ivali's bed without knowing who and what he was — until John Sheppard's life came looking to claim him back. And now, with the realisation that the Wraith hadn't just let him go, that they'd turned him into a weapon to be used against Atlantis and Earth, with the Iratus virus running through him, inexorable and unstoppable, John had come to realise how fragile his life really was.
For the Iratus, there was no tomorrow, there was only today.
Sex in his dreams might have been cerebral, but when he'd woken up this morning, it had felt very real in his body. John had felt relaxed, satisfied in the way he usually did after a good night. And ready to go again — this time in the real world. Unfortunately, Teyla's watch had beeped the morning alarm, just as things were getting interesting and all John's powers of persuasion hadn't been enough to make her stay just a little longer.
He moved his bishop across the board to threaten one of Rodney's pawns. "She thinks I can keep them out now. Apparently they haven't been attacking as hard the last couple of nights."
Rodney squinted at the chessboard. "Maybe they realise you're not available anymore."
There were several ways John could answer that. He took the most innocuous. "Maybe."
"Hm." The white queen was edged across the board to threaten one of John's knights.
John grimaced. He didn't have anywhere to move the knight — hedged in by other pieces as it was. Not unlike him, come to think of it.
His hand hovered over the board, considering his options, then stopped.
"What is it?" Rodney demanded as John's head reared up from contemplation of the chessboard.
It was like the city hiccuped, and suddenly became real — which might be a weird way to describe it, but the best John could do.
"We've dropped out of hyperspace."
"What?" Rodney looked down at his watch. "We're two hours early!"
As Rodney called up the Control Room to find out what was going on, John stood, his head turned towards the windows of the mess hall and the vast blackness of space that loomed beyond the protective shield off the balcony. His eyes narrowed. The star field beyond the shield was rotating gently, as though Atlantis was tumbling in space in an unstable orbit.
A little alarm went off in John's head.
He headed for the door, dodging the people who'd risen from their chairs in surprise to look at the new spectacle. "I'm heading for the chair."
"What? Already? But we're—" Rodney broke off, probably because the curve of the planet below was rising into view. "Oh, God that's making me dizzy. Go."
John ran through the empty corridors, only vaguely aware of the Marines tailing him as faithfully as shadows. "Elizabeth?"
"John. Where are you?"
"On my way to the chair room. We've come out in an unstable orbit."
"And hours early." Edwards cut into the conversation. "What's going on?"
"You'd be better poised to know that, sir." John passed a knot of Marines who were staring out the window at the planet below. "Are we where we're supposed to be?"
"Campbell says yes, we are. We're talking to Radek—"
He hardly listened to the conversation as he clattered down the stairs to the chair room level — background, all of it. What occupied his mind was the awareness that something wasn't right.
"Hey, Teyla. I need you to head up to the control room and fill me in on what's happening." He needed someone to keep him apprised on whatever was going on, Elizabeth and Rodney would be in the thick of it. He couldn't count on being able to grab them at a moment's notice.
"You are setting us to rights?"
"Well, I don't know about setting us to rights. But I am going to reorient the city." A smile ghosted across his face. "What've you been doing this morning?"
"Planning our initial scouting trips. The landmasses are not too far, and the hunting should be reasonable, so Atlantis will be fed."
"Yes. But according to the initial survey there are plenty of other creatures here, too."
Casual conversation, meaningless in subject, but meaningful in who was saying it. John tried to forget that she was talking about something he probably wouldn't get to have a say in, and just focused on the lilt of her voice as she described something so simple and yet so meaningful for the expedition.
He reminded himself that this morning had been a one-off — circumstance, opportunity, willingness. They hadn't talked about where he'd be going after he landed the city. He hadn't wanted to break the mood, and Teyla hadn't seemed to need any promises from him.
Will it be enough?
Would you give more if it wasn't?
John entered the chair room and tried to drag his mind back to the conversation. "Don't forget to invite me when they flock."
"I will not. You would be most welcome." He was grateful that Teyla wasn't referencing the fact that by the time any hireni flocked, it was more than likely that he wouldn't be even vaguely human. The small but meaningful inclusion squeezed his chest, lightly. "I am nearly at the control room."
He settled himself in the chair, the silver patterns on the seat's surface rapidly warming up to his body heat. "I'm in the chair. Tell them that if I need to make corrections, I'll do so without warning. The inertial dampeners should keep everything stable."
"They were not quite up to it the other day."
"Well, the other day, our acceleration exceeded the city's ability to comfortably compensate."
"According to Amelia, we experienced over nine gees on the ascent."
John blinked, shocked as he prepared to start correcting the city's descent. "Nine gees?" Their atmospheric exit had been fast, but he hadn't thought it was that fast. At nine gees, they should have all been unconscious. "Wait, you mean before the inertial compensators did their work, or after?"
"I am not sure." Teyla sounded resigned. "I merely offered the information. You must ask the technicians for the details, John."
"Yeah, sorry. Professional curiosity." It would only have taken four to six gees for most personnel to hit G-LOC, although anyone who'd been through pilot training would have experienced way more during their course.
But that wasn't something John needed to think about now. "Starting the corrections."
He sank his mind into the city with a little difficulty and forced his hands to lay still on the arms of the chair as he reclined back.
"Sheppard, what's happening?" Edwards cut in. "What are you doing?"
He ignored the question for a few moments, allowing himself to get a grip on the city. Over the earpiece, he could hear Teyla explaining what he was doing, and someone else making a comment. There seemed to be several voices chiming in, and it was hard to follow it all and manage the city.
He tapped the thrusters on the subspace engines — just a twitch, really, reorienting the city so it was no longer in a tumble. With the peculiar awareness that came of being in the chair, John adjusted the balance — wobbling a little here, shifting a little there, taking into account the sheer weight of the city — delicate as building a house of cards. He could feel little crackling bumps on his skin — probably some aspect of the integration of a human mind with the city's interface. Given how much had been going on during their departure from Lantea, no surprise that he hadn't noticed it before this.
Lift-off had been a lot more chaotic; he hoped that landing wouldn't be quite so busy.
John opened his eyes, let a slow smile touch his mouth. This was like flying — that careful co-ordination of everything together, yaw, pitch, roll, and thrust. Like one of those games whose purpose was to get all the little silver balls into the holes. John had always been good at those. And, like flying the Tweety Bird, or flying a Chinook, he could feel it in his balls and in his bones in that moment when everything came together as a whole — a perfect moment.
Of course, it didn't last very long.
"Sheppard here. We're stable."
"Stable?" Edwards gave a short snort of disdain. "You're not anywhere near a window are you, Colonel?"
"No, but I can—" John broke off. This wasn't just a tickling trickle of sensation, but a sharp sting, like someone had pelted him with a marble while his back was turned. "What's that?"
Rodney took over the conversation. "We came out four hours early in the middle of a meteor shower. Someone didn't think very hard about our exit vector — or look at the astronomical events happening in the locality!"
In the background someone — probably Chuck Campbell — was defending their actions.
At one level, John knew that Rodney was annoyed and taking it out on whoever happened to be available. At another, they'd been on a fairly tight schedule and there'd been no opportunity to do the double-checks they might otherwise have done. And Rodney could be annoying as well as annoyed.
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Dr. Zelenka." As though John wouldn't recognise the distinctively accented voice. "This meteor shower is going to be a problem. You see, the power it took to get here was greater than we anticipated and our engines are not working at full potential. There was more drain on the ZPM and so our power levels are not what we expected."
"It's not the engines' fault — they're ten thousand years old! You didn't acc…!" Rodney's voice faded.
In the background, John heard Teyla commenting that perhaps it would be better to let Radek finish.
"It is no-one's fault." The patient tones suggested that Zelenka knew exactly what was going through Rodney's mind. "It is an unfortunate concurrence of circumstance, and there is nothing that any of us could have done differently. But we are still in need of a solution."
"How much power do we have?"
"Less than fifteen percent." When that produced no response, Zelenka added, "It took us nineteen percent to get off old Lantea."
"So it's gonna be a close shave?" John nodded to himself. "Okay, so we wait a few hours and then go down."
"Yes. Unfortunately, there is a slight problem with that plan. Holding both the shield and our present orbit would be more of a drain on the ZPM than would be worth staying up here."
"Okay." John grimaced. "I'm for going down now."
"Yes, well, that would be everyone's vote."
It was a few seconds before Teyla answered. "A position was located for Atlantis to rest in. However, that part of the planet is presently in the midst of a storm."
"Not the first time I've landed in the rain."
"Yeah, and if it was just rain, then it wouldn't be a problem," Rodney broke in. "We're talking hurricane force winds, Sheppard!"
"And there's nowhere else on the planet to land?"
"We have a secondary site that isn't too far away from where we are now."
"So we'll use that. If we're that short on power, our priority should be getting down to the ground. We're best off just landing wherever we can find somewhere to settle, and worry about moving the city later." There was a pause on the other end. "Hello?"
"We're discussing the options, John."
But not including him. Fine. John blew out a long breath and addressed Rodney, but left his channel open so Teyla could hear if she wished. "Rodney, seen Ronon today?"
"No. Why would I have seen Ronon today? I'm not his keeper, you know!"
"I know." It looked like Rodney was in one of those 'don't blame me' moods, where any question would set off a flurry of defensiveness. John turned his mind back to what he was supposed to be doing — bringing the city down. There was still nothing on that channel, and although he could hear what sounded like Elizabeth and Edwards having it out, he couldn't hear Teyla. He switched channels again. "Teyla?"
"A decision has been made on the secondary site, and Technician Banks is being sent down to you. I believe Carson is also on his way down to monitor you."
"And to provide backup if things fail?"
"That has not been said, but it is a fair estimation."
Teyla fell silent, although John could hear other voices in her background. He didn't bother trying to hear what they were saying — something about reps and relays to the engine control room; instead, he prepped for descent.
The sublight engines were all running, even Rodney's much-maligned Number Four. It sounded a little tired, but it was going. Engine Two had a slight flutter in it, almost like a hiccup, which might prove a problem on the way down. He pushed them all a little, listened to them whine slightly, then let them fall back to an idling state.
A few minutes later, Carson arrived and began setting up. He held up a series of sensor pads and wires. "Colonel?"
John waved a hand. "Yeah, go ahead." The sticky pads were cold on his skin, but started warming up within seconds, and he watched Carson as the doc began activating the sensors. "The inhibitor seems to be working pretty well."
"Yes. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner."
"Don't beat yourself up about it, doc. Too many things happening all at once. It's understandable."
"Understandable, aye. But still a frustration. Right, then." Carson glanced up as footsteps sounded outside before a young woman entered, brown hair sleeked back from an oval face marked by strong bones and dark eyes. "Ah, Amelia. Are we nearly ready to go?"
"I've brought the co-ordinates for Colonel Sheppard." An apologetic twist touched her mouth. "Dr. McKay said he would have come but he wanted to stay up in the control room in case anything went wrong."
"Thanks." John indicated his knees, and Banks hastily turned the laptop towards him and rested it on his legs. "Okay, Elizabeth?"
"John. You've got the co-ordinates?"
"Yes." He waved the laptop away, relying on the city's internal mapping sensors to tell him where the planet was, where he was headed, like a gyroscope in his mind. "Did you want to make an announcement?"
Somewhere in the background, a voice made a comment about how well a speech went down last time. Edwards — John thought it was Edwards — growled something out, and Elizabeth's next response was sharp and stiff.
"Thank you for that, Rodney."
John barely listened to the announcement of their descent. He was too busy working the engines up to descent level, too busy trying to estimate how much burn they'd encounter on the way in, how much turbulence they'd see once they got into atmosphere. A six mile city was more solid than a fighter jet, but even with Ancient technology, it was subject to the forces of nature, friction and gravity among them.
And this wasn't just his life and the mission; this was everyone and everything he cared about.
So don't fail.
It was so simple when his mind put it like that.
Of course, it was never that easy when in the middle of the situation.
"Shields up, diagnostics running. I'm taking her down," he murmured, more to himself than anyone else. "Please keep all heads, limbs, and anything that you wish to keep inside the city until landing is completed."
He touched the engines, settling them in his mind, then began the descent.
John had done the calculations with Rodney, Zelenka, and a bunch of the techs yesterday, consulting the other 'jumper pilots, even researching all the logs and diaries of the shuttle pilots from Earth. Ancient tech could take so many things out of the landing equation, but even all that knowledge couldn't make Atlantis descend through 600 miles to light on a planet's surface like a feather.
Especially not when the pilot was rapidly losing his ability to fly the city.
It was harder to control the city than it had been on the way up, the steady march of the Iratus retrovirus crippling him. But John held on. They weren't in a rush, there was no need to hurry. The Wraith weren't after them this time — the Wraith didn't even know where they were. He didn't need to take it fast, he could take his time and bring the city down whole and safe.
Outside the shield, the air pressure increased as they hit the exosphere — the edge of the planetary atmosphere. From here on, vacuum became molecules of atmopsheric gas, held around the planet by its gravitational field. And with gas came friction, heat, and pressure on the shield.
Heat grew all along the underside of the shield as it warmed up around the edge, an inferno of flame, like a fire surrounding him. In the half-world between awareness of the city and John's own senses, almost everything seemed blurry and out of focus; with the occasional detail coming through here and there, in sharp relief.
The shield felt very hot, although John knew it was holding. He could feel the city's engines straining against the gravitational pull of the planet, already tired from getting off the first planet, struggling now in the second.
Just hold on, guys, he told them, knowing it was stupid to be talking to inanimate object, still feeling as though he should at least try. Just a little further, and then you can rest.
"We're in atmosphere." He spoke out loud, not sure if anyone could hear him. The chair room seemed dim and distant against the immediacy of the engines, the thrumming pulse of their power vibrating in his veins. John felt as though he was the city, quivering with the strain of holding everything together, of keeping everything going. "We'll start encountering turbulence pretty soon — another fifty miles. Let the Control Room know."
He heard Banks pass the message on, heard Elizabeth make the announcement to the city.
He struggled with the controls, trying to keep the city balanced as the air resistance grew greater. Whatever the Ancients could do about inertial dampeners, they hadn't been able to do anything about turbulence.
There was no graceful way to bring down a city six miles across. And even if he'd been able to do it gracefully, John wouldn't have. This wasn't an air show, he wasn't displaying his flying skills; all he needed was to get them down to ground without crashing.
Engine Four disagreed. It whined loudly for a couple of miles of descent, then died.
John tried resetting it and kick-starting it live again. No luck. He set the city to run a swift diagnostic that came up red with a hardware malfunction — nothing that John could affect from his position in the chair.
"Rodney! Engine Four's out!"
He had another problem on his hands. Without the downwards thrust of Engine Four, countering the gravitational pull of the planet's core, the city began to tilt.
"I see the diagnos— Oh, no. No, no, no. Not now. Now is the worst possible timi— Damn. Teyla?"
"I am here, Rodney." Her voice sounded oddly echoing, as though she was speaking from inside a tunnel of some sort or another. "What needs to be done?"
"We've lost the catalytic synaptors from Engine Four. Do you remember—?"
"I do. They require replacing?"
"For starters. Remember the access shaft that runs along the outside of the engine zone? Then you'll have to run a manual recalibra— Damn! That's the one I rejigged the heat shunt— Sheppard, the tilt's getting annoying — can't you even…?"
John had already dropped the power on engines One through Six, and upped the power on Engine Seven — the central one — to keep their descent rate steady. There would still be a slight tilt — enough to drop pens to the floor, but the heavier things wouldn't slide off desks and people would keep their feet, although they'd feel it walking up the slight incline. "I can't do better than that. And we can't land on this, Rodney." They might not be in free fall, but their stability was shot to all hell.
And when they were descending into a storm, stability would be crucial to their safe landing.
Hang on a minute… A visualisation of the engines provided sudden inspiration, and he boosted Engines One, Three, and Five to full, killing Two and Six entirely to match Four. The city's descent slowed a little, giving them a little more time, although a rough landing lurked ahead like an iceberg in a Titanic future.
"How close is the storm system we're going into?"
"Uh…a couple of hundred miles away."
"Do we have any other weather readings? Wind speeds, rain, lightning, atmospheric ionisation?"
"We only have one weather satellite in orbit right now, and it's closer to our original location. We're picking up heavy ionisation to the north, though."
"A storm? At least we know where not to go." John's lashes hovered just over his cheeks, letting in the faintest line of light beneath them as he contemplated their options. "Rodney?"
"I'm working on it! And Engine Two is showing signs of failing as well…"
"I'm on it."
"You're on it?"
In situations like these, ignoring Rodney was the best option. John mentally hunted down the connections for Engine Two — an issue of software configuration, not like Engine Four's hardware — and did something that felt suspiciously like dissecting his brain with scalpels. God, that hurts! Breath hissed through his teeth as Rodney noticed the change and made an exclamation of surprise.
"Okay, whatever you just did— Oh, I see. Okay, Teyla?"
John's mind suddenly flashed to an image of Teyla half-crouched in what looked like an access tunnel that ran along the engine space, facing what looked much like a motherboard that was in an even smaller tunnel. Rodney had complained of the size of the tunnel, and looking at it now, John could see it wasn't very large — maybe a yard and a half across and a yard and a half high. It seemed a weird height for an access tunnel, but then perhaps the Ancients — having created things like the Asurans — hadn't needed to make them big enough for actual people.
He focused on Teyla. The image of her was blurred around the edges, fuzzy and somehow multidimensional, as though he was looking at her from several different perspectives at once. He wasn't looking at it with his eyes, but his eyes hurt just thinking about it all the same.
Still, he kept an eye on her, even as the city descended, bit by bit.
"I have reached the problem and am working on it, Rodney." Her voice echoed oddly, as though John was hearing her through a tunnel. Small hands shifted panel configurations, deftly replacing burned-out ones with new, and adjusting the connections. "This does not appear to be the only point at which the synaptic connectors have failed, either."
"So can you reach the other ones?"
"I can." She twisted something and the panel lit up with a yellow glow. "But it will take another few minutes…"
"We don't have a couple of minutes!"
John saw her face; the way her mouth twisted a little to the side as she pushed back damp hair with one graceful movement. The space inside the engines would be hot after initially stabilising the city and starting the descent. She was feeling the heat — in more ways than one.
"All right." Her voice held an infinity of patience, although her expression was tired. "I will hurry."
She replaced the cover panel, but didn't secure it, moving off down the crawlspace at a swift crouch. John wanted to follow her, to watch her as she went along, but other things were demanding his attention — the increasing winds about the city, the rumble of overworked engines as they struggled to keep the city from freefall, the way he could feel the city shaking with growing turbulence.
He blocked out the image of Teyla crawling through the access shaft, her face barely lit by the blue-green glow of the underlighting, focussing instead on Atlantis and the air currents beginning to shift around it.
The problem was not the same as the one had by a small craft in high winds: a fighter or a chopper was a minnow in an ocean; Atlantis was a whale. And while it could be incredibly graceful out in the ocean, it would founder on a beach or in a shallow bay.
With the amount of power John had in which to bring down the city, they were definitely looking at foundering.
John felt the city shake as it began hitting pockets of turbulence in the atmosphere — but he wasn't feeling it with his usual senses. Instead, it was something he felt through the city, as pilot to Atlantis, wired in to the city's sensors. He tried to exert greater control over the four active engines, but couldn't seem to make the city respond as delicately as he would have liked. "Rodney?"
"Teyla's still fixing the connectors! I can't do anything until she finishes the— Wait. I can start the configuration on the one she's already done…"
"Do it! Elizabeth?"
"John? What's going on?"
He could feel the wind shearing off the sides of the shield, knew the pressure was building around them. "We're getting more turbulence. The inertial dampeners should take most of it, but tell people to be ready to brace, just in case."
"Just in case. All right." There was humour in her voice. "Are you okay?"
"I'll survive." His left side — the side succumbing to the Iratus — was beginning to feel warm. It wasn't painful, exactly, but it was growing increasingly uncomfortable. Nothing he had to let slip. He was fine.
And still they dropped from the sky while John struggled with the remaining engines, needing more control the lower they dropped and unable to summon it with only three engines.
"Rodney, we need those engines back!"
"All right, Teyla's done! I'm configuring the last of the three and Teyla's back on her way out."
Fear slid into John's gut, cold as a knife. "No, she's not."
"What? Teyla?" Rodney's voice leaped several octaves. "Teyla, respond!"
Through the swirling, shifting images the city was sending him, John could see her lying on the crawlspace floor, her body limp. She shifted a little at Rodney's call, as though struggling to come up, but from the way she moved, it looked as though she was drugged. A quick request for information from Engine Four showed the CO2 levels dangerously high in the access tunnel.
"It's leaking CO2," he told Rodney shortly. "Who's down there?"
"Dr. Engheart, and Sharon Mallet. But they're working on— Damn, damn, damn…"
John felt the change in air pressure a second before the city shivered in his grasp, the engines failing to keep up with the wind. Nothing was felt in the city yet, but with each yard, the difficulty of maintaining his control of the ship was getting worse. "Why's there a leak in there anyway?"
Rodney was a moment in answering. "It's the feedback shunt. I reprogrammed it because the old one— Okay, Engine Four is ready to go."
"Except that Teyla's still in the crawlspace!"
"I can't help that!"
Another gust of wind swept over the city, and this time the inertial dampeners couldn't disguise the way the city shook. John fought for control of the city, minute changes in the individual engine directors keeping them on course, but it was getting harder. They needed Engine Four, but not with Teyla still stuck there.
Someone was gabbling into their earpiece in the room, something about Teyla's situation that John tried to tune into amidst everything else, but couldn't actually process through all the other things taking up his brain.
"Sheppard?" Edwards' voice growled over the comm. "McKay says Engine Four is ready to go, but Zelenka isn't reading any power draw and we all just felt that shake! What's the hold up?"
A foolish heart that I leave here behind. The quotation snuck into his brain from nowhere, oddly apt.
He knew what Edwards' response would be before the man even spoke. "You'd risk hundreds of lives and this city to save one person?"
John wanted to say there was a difference, that between the choice of Teyla against the rest of the expedition it wasn't a question of choice, but a question of hesitation. He knew the 'right' choice — the one he had to make — but to act upon that decision…
"John." For a moment, he thought it was Teyla's voice, cutting through his pause. Then he registered the resonances of Elizabeth's regret. The city shook again, and he felt it slipping from his grasp. He only had moments. "John, I understand…"
"Do you?" Another shake of the city. No more time to wait. It only took a thought to set Engines Two, Four, and Six on. And John forced his voice through his too-tight throat. "I'm taking us down."
If he thought of her skin blistering in the heat as her hair burned away and her body suffocated for lack of oxygen, he'd never get the city down. He had a duty — a responsibility — and she'd understand that. She'd done it once herself — been prepared to shoot him for the sake of the city. She'd understand.
So John shut the thought of her away with all the repression he could summon. He locked it in the room in Antarctica. Antarctica, where he'd died and been reborn, where he'd found a sanctuary and love.
Then John focused on the moment, on getting the city down.
Even with all the engines going, it wasn't going to be an easy ride.
Turbulence was a function of form. The shield had been built to withstand everything from the friction of atmosphere to asteroids to the Wraith energy beams off a hiveship. Which was fine when it was in vacuum, or stationary in atmosphere. But a flattened sphere was one of the worse shapes for flying through air, particularly when that atmosphere was already rough with storm winds.
He struggled with the city, fighting gravity, fighting the wind that skimmed across the shield's surface, fighting the Iratus retrovirus that was burning up his body.
Not enough power. Not enough control.
He couldn't do anything about the first; but he could do something about the second.
Carson was hovering, an anxious exclamation on his lips. Blue eyes looked into John's. "Colonel— "
"I'm going to try something."
"What? What something—?"
The shrill tones of Rodney's alarm faded as John plunged himself into the city.
This wasn't the half-and-half world he'd inhabited before while lifting the city from Old Lantea but a complete absorption of his senses into the city. He wasn't John Sheppard and he wasn't sitting in the chair; he was Atlantis and the city was him.
He thrust back against the gravity that dragged him down towards the stormy sea. He manoeuvred through cold clouds and blustering rain, almost blind in the grey slush. He trembled with the air currents whistling at tremendous speeds, hard enough to make the shields shake, and with them the steel and glass of his construction.
But he was solid. He had his own mass, his own gravity, his own strength in the engines that whined and burned up their power as they lowered his bulk down, down, down towards the rapidly approaching ocean.
A part of him, still human, separated from the consciousness of himself as the city.
Is this where we want to be? John asked himself, and tried to visualise the land, the sea, the markings on the map Amelia Banks had handed him.
There wasn't time to ask the question.
They were down to the last dozen miles, and he couldn't afford mistakes. Flip the city up in high atmosphere and it could be righted before it hit the ground. Flip the city less than a mile up and they were all goners.
No room for error. No room for distractions.
John brought Atlantis down.
Back down on the thrust turn the engines down, down. Seven first, it's the biggest, it needs to go down while we up the others. Slowly, steady, easy, easy, you're a big girl, I know, but you've got fucking amazing control. The Ancients knew what they were doing when they built you. Okay, time to reduce Two, Four, and Six — Shit! Watch the wind, watch the eddies off the ocean, convection currents are a bitch and you don't need to worry about the yaw just watch the pitch and the balance. I wonder could I spin the city like a top and settle her in like that. Probably not the time to try it, especially not when the wind's threatening to tip her up. Down, so close I can taste the sea — Jesus—!
The gust came out of nowhere, billowing down from the sky and skimming up off the sea to the underside of the shield. The city jerked like a leash had been yanked and tilted along its horizontal axes.
John acted on instinct. To counter the imbalance, he poured all power into the stabilising engines.
He didn't mean to include the shield, but he felt it come down in the midst of the storm. He felt the sudden rattle of wind and splatter of rain against the like a slap in the face with a fistful of snow. He felt something tear in the sudden gust of wind, felt it break free like a snapped tendon, felt crashing glass and twisting metal of the city's central spire, brutal as a fist in the kidneys.
In John's mind, his body jerked upright — and for one horrific moment Atlantis jerked with him—
John forced himself to concentrate on their elevation.
Water churned beneath the base of the city, kept from boiling by a set of heat shields that surrounded the underside of the city, keeping hot metal from encountering cold water. He brought her down with as much grace as she could manage, the great wallowing mass of Atlantis easing into the choppy waves like someone settling back into a familiar couch.
Inch by inch, he let the engines wind back down, transferring their power to the anchoring stabilisers that would keep Atlantis from drifting. He listened to the city, felt it settle on the sea's surface, instigated the routines that would start drawing geophysical data in about this planet. The wind still blustered beyond the edge of the falling shield, shivering the city, and John drew the shield back up again, an impermeable veil between the storm and the spires.
Then he drifted out of the city, back to his body, back to the chair, back to the real world.
He opened his eyes to light — the bright overhead lights of the chair room — and hastily squeezed them shut again. Someone was talking softly, but his brain was still scrambled from interfacing with the city so wholly. A few moments later, he eased the seat up into a position that was more sitting up than lying down and opened his eyes.
Technician Banks glanced up at him from her laptop. "No, I can't— Chuck, the Colonel's out of his trance. Colonel Sheppard?"
"Where's Carson?" There was no sign of Carson.
"He went up to the control room, Colonel. There was an accident."
"What kind—?" John stopped, recalling shattering glass and splintering steel. "What's the damage?"
"One of the communications arrays came off when the shield went down. It went through the Gateroom window — the one at the top of the stairs. There's glass and metal everywhere they say. Dr. Beckett went to help — he thought you'd be okay since you made it this far." She stood and offered him a black twist of metal and wire. "Ronon called to say Teyla's okay and in the infirmary."
"Ronon?" John stared at the earpiece as though it might bite him. Maybe he was still recovering from the flight down, but he didn't get where Ronon came into it all. Instead, his mind latched onto what it understood.
Teyla's okay and in the infirmary.
"I called him and told him where Teyla was. He was down near the engines." Her eyes were watery pale, John noticed, and very direct.
"You did that?" She nodded and he felt a rush of gratitude. "Good work. What's their injuries?" There was no way they'd gotten out without some injuries. The engines had been running hot, and if the feedback shunts hadn't been working properly, it must have been a furnace
"They're both okay. He says they're a bit scorched but nothing Dr. Keller's worried about."
So they were in the infirmary being looked after. John hadn't believed in a God in years, but he gave silent thanks now to anyone or anything who'd been watching over them. Ancient, God, Devil, he didn't care — he was alive and so were his team-mates.
It was enough.
He activated his earpiece, ready to hear the rest of it from the horse's mouth. "Rodney?"
"Sheppard? Sheppard, get up here." Rodney's voice sounded even thinner and sharper than usual.
"It's Elizabeth. She's been injured."
The sky over the sea was streaked with pale blue when John dumped his duffel at the foot of the bed and sat down to wait for the sunrise.
After the previous night's stress and action, the predawn calm was a relief.
John took full advantage of it, resting his elbows lightly on his knees and folding his fingers over each other, human fingers over Iratus, as he watched the sky brighten by degrees.
He hadn't complained when Edwards assigned him a dawn departure. Every moment more he could have in the city was precious. Of course, he would rather have spent it with his team-mates, but they'd needed their sleep and he wasn't going to disturb that just because he wanted their company.
Heat exhaustion had Teyla out for the count in one of the infirmary beds. Strictly speaking, Teyla probably could have gone back to her own rooms, but Ronon had brought her to the infirmary and she'd flaked out mere minutes after her treatment.
Ronon hadn't been too far behind. Although he'd refused a bed, he was apparently willing to snooze in the chair beside Teyla in the infirmary
Rodney had tried to check that everything in the city was working before his stimulants gave out almost between one sentence and the next. He slumbered noisily on the stretcher bed in his lab that was kept for this very purpose. Zelenka, at least, had possessed the sense to find his own bed before his eyes sealed shut and had even come by to reassure John that Rodney was well and all systems were stable.
John would have been more worried if Carson hadn't indicated that he'd expected everyone to sleep a lot in the aftermath of the move.
"Frankly, Colonel, I'm surprised more of the city doesn't resemble the walking dead after the last few days. We're doing pretty well, all things considered."
All things considered.
Keller said Elizabeth had been lucky. She'd been on her way down the stairs to the landing when the communications antenna slammed through the window and half taken her out with it. Scratches, scrapes, and a slice across her thigh. She'd walk with a limp, but at least she'd be walking. Edwards' actions on the scene had been timely — according to Rodney, he'd been the one to staunch the bleeding first. To give the Colonel his due, he'd started the clean-up efforts even as John brought the city down, held everyone together, and kept command of the situation.
The infirmary had been busy with people — mostly cuts and scrapes — and John had argued hard to be allowed to look in on Teyla, although Keller had warned him about waking her.
He'd gone with the marines still tailing him, he'd seen her with his own eyes, and he'd come back to his rooms to wait for the morning.
It was morning now.
John clenched his fingers into a fist, shaking slightly with tension — the tension of the last week, of the last day, of the morning.
Atlantis had made it. They'd all made it. And now John would leave Atlantis.
He let the fist go and looked up, out past the dark shadows of the lower spires that the window towards the sea where the horizon sat. Pale as mist, the blue edges blurred to a haze of gold as the sky began to burn with the rising sun.
His time was running out.
John wondered if he should go see if Elizabeth was doing okay after her surgery. He could go past Rodney's lab and see if his friend could be woken up long enough to say goodbye. Maybe he could check in with Ronon by Teyla's bedside, and wait until her lashes lifted over eyes that understood too much and not enough.
Maybe rest his head beside her hand and walk into the room in Antarctica. Claim a kiss for the road, and maybe more? Possibly too tacky.
Either way, John knew that if he went to see them now, he wouldn't be able to leave.
His gut twisted as the first rays of light speared over the horizon, touching the tip of one of the taller outermost spires of the city, turning dark grey to silver incandescence as the sun pushed back the night and brought the new day with its rising.
John closed his eyes against the tide of golden sunlight that crept down across his forehead to warm his face and body.
Around him, the city glowed with the first burnishing heat of the morning sun, cold metal steaming gently in the light. On the edge of his awareness, the city stretched like someone just woken, rising and shining with the new day.
His last morning in Atlantis.
He took a long breath deep into his lungs — sea air, brine, and the fresh scent of the dawn — held it, let it out. And his doorbell chimed.
The duffel weighed heavy on his shoulder as he went to answer the door. He was going to start off light and if he needed anything, he'd call back to the city and ask for it. Not too difficult to do.
The doorbell chimed again, and he rolled his eyes. "Jeeze, Rodney, a bit of patience?"
But when the doors slid back, Elizabeth sat in a wheelchair, an Athosian blanket wrapped over her knees, and Ronon at her back. "I was just about to send Ronon in."
"Should you be out of the infirmary yet?"
"No." She grinned, although she looked exhausted. "But I promised to be a model patient if they let me out for this. And Ronon was good enough to offer to accompany me."
"She made it an order." Ronon shrugged, grinning.
It was John's turn to snort and shake his head as he moved out into the corridor and the door slid shut behind him. "You're my farewell party?"
"The others are already at the 'jumper bay." Elizabeth glanced up at Ronon. "We should hurry up, too."
"Trying to get rid of me?"
"Well, you have been trouble almost all the way, John." Her smile took the sting out of her words, though, and the fact that she'd probably argued Keller into letting her out of the infirmary did a lot to comfort him about her state of him.
"Uh, yeah. About that leg…"
Ronon made a noise halfway between a grunt and a snort. "Told you."
"It could have happened any number of ways, John." She seemed calm about it. Too calm. "It's not your fault. And, even if it was, it was an accident. Besides," she added, "you've given me headaches before that were worse than this."
John judged that she was probably still hopped up on painkillers for this, and hoped that Carson and Keller would take good care of her. He'd mention it to Teyla and Ronon on his way out — keep an eye on Elizabeth so she didn't wear herself out too soon.
They moved through the city, tailed by his ubiquitous Marines. John figured that, if nothing else, he'd be glad to get out of the city just so he didn't have them following him around everywhere.
Not exactly the most positive thought.
They didn't speak on their way to the transporters, although John could hear someone talking in the Marines' earpieces, and one of the wheels on Elizabeth's chair squeaked when they turned a corner. Privately, John was glad they let him be silent. He wasn't sure he could cope with conversation right now. The light on this planet was subtly different to that on Old Lantea, but the sense of the city, the sense of being home would be the same, whether John came back tomorrow or in forty thousand years.
He'd be back. He promised both the city and himself.
He would come back.
Colonel Edwards was waiting for them at the transporter. His arm was in a sling and there were some superficial cuts on his face, but his thin, pinched face looked unusually beneficent
"Edwards." John didn't feel like giving the man any more acknowledgement than that.
"Dr. Weir, Ronon."
Ronon grunted, and John had the satisfaction of seeing Edwards' expression twitch with annoyance as they crowded into the transporter. Small things, perhaps, but things all the same.
Elizabeth was more vocal. "Colonel Edwards. How unusual to see you up at this hour."
"It's unusual circumstances. You shouldn't be out."
"I make a persuasive case. And I wished to see the Colonel off."
John let them talk, only answering questions if he was directly asked. Where he was going. What his plans were for the next week. How often he'd be calling in to Atlantis.
Trust Edwards to spoil his departure.
There were few people about the city at this hour; the personnel who'd come with the city were probably still asleep, while the personnel who'd been evacuated had been contacted to let them know that everything had gone okay. John figured someone would have already calibrated the Stargate to send off a quick message to Earth and probably the Daedalus, too.
John didn't ask where Teyla was, where Rodney was. He wasn't sure he could get the question out of his throat, parched as a rocky river bed in Diyala province. He just walked.
They reached the 'jumper bay too soon for his liking. And as he stepped inside, John saw that someone had opened up the ceiling, and the pale light of morning poured into the enclosed space from the clear sky above, pearl rose and dusky blue.
Beneath that light, the figures milling around the prepped 'jumper were distinct, even in their shadows, as were the duffels that rested on the floor at their feet. A third duffel sat nearby, unattended, the buckling and strapping on it distinctly Satedan.
It took John four steps into the room to realise what the duffels meant.
It took Edwards only two. "What is going on here? Dr. Weir?"
"Dr. McKay, Teyla, and Ronon requested permission to join Colonel Sheppard while Atlantis seeks a solution to his condition. I've authorised it."
"You authorised it?"
John barely heard what Edwards was saying to Elizabeth; he was focused on his team-mates.
Rodney had his feet planted and his arms folded, as though expecting a fight. Or maybe he was just grumpy at having to wake up so early. "You couldn't have chosen a reasonable hour to leave, like, oh, say, midafternoon?"
Yeah, grumpy. John would have grinned if it wasn't so serious.
"You guys can't do this."
Ronon paused behind his duffel and turned to Teyla with a grin. "Told you."
Teyla smirked at him, as Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, and you really think we're going to let you go off and face the Wraith without us? I mean, a second time?"
Sharp steps rang behind John. "You really think that you can breach the terms of your employment so flagrantly, Dr. McKay?"
"With permission from the expedition leader," said Rodney. "Yes. Look, there's nothing — almost nothing — that Radek can't do here in Atlantis. He knows, oh, about eighty percent of what I know and that's most of the common stuff. It'll take him twice as long and it won't be half as good, but he can do it. And if you need me, you know where to find me."
And this is more important.
Rodney didn't say the words — nobody did. But John heard them all the same: heard them from Rodney, heard them from Elizabeth, heard them from Ronon, heard them from Teyla.
John felt those words wind something around his chest, squeezing hard, and struggled to breathe through the wash of it.
The soft roll of wheels heralded Elizabeth's arrival at the edge of the scene, gently propelled by Lorne. The major nodded briefly at John, but otherwise didn't say anything as Elizabeth spoke. "I left a message to be included with this morning's contact package for Earth. Dr. Kusanagi compressed it, and Chuck said it sent through fine this morning.
"Like Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay has permission for a three month leave-of-absence, so long as he's willing to come back for consulting purposes."
"This is reckless endangerment of Atlantis!" Edwards' voice had risen. "Even individually, Colonel Sheppard has knowledge that the Wraith would find invaluable. With the addition of Dr. McKay, that knowledge — that risk — doubles!"
"Oh please. Doubles? Triples, at least." Rodney turned to John, who was finding himself hard-pressed not to grin at the display of essential McKay arrogance. "Are we going to get a move on or are we going to stand here yapping about endangerment?"
"You take this lightly, Dr. McKay, but the safety of Earth — of your sister and your niece, if that means anything to you — is at stake!"
"Given our experience as a team in the time before your coming to Atlantis, Colonel Edwards, I should say that Colonel Sheppard's chances of successfully evading the Wraith are greater with us than without." Teyla didn't raise her voice, but her words somehow rang through the 'jumper bay.
And before that stubborn loyalty and the knowledge that his friends wouldn't let him do this alone — the knowledge of what they were giving up for him — John felt humbled.
"Colonel, I wouldn't have allowed them to go with John if I hadn't thought they'd do better together. If they wish to come back at any stage, that's acceptable, too. They've instructions to keep an eye out in Pegasus— their finger on the pulse of things." Elizabeth flashed a smile at John and his team. "Now, we should let them leave and get on with their day — and ours. We've got a lot of cleaning up and sorting out to do."
Rodney seemed to take that as marching orders. Ronon certainly did, scooping up his duffel and striding into the 'jumper. In the corner of his eye, John saw Teyla hesitate, but then she was gone, too.
He turned to go.
"Atlantis detachment!" Lorne's voice rang out. "Attention!"
They saluted him, hands at their foreheads. And John saluted them back — not his to look after anymore, but still his all the same. He looked Lorne in the eye, knowing the other man understood what he didn't say: Look after them, Major. Edwards would look out for himself and Earth; Lorne would have to be the brakes on that — and the support for Elizabeth. John figured the man was up to the job.
Then he turned around and walked into the 'jumper where Rodney was grumbling as he moved his stuff from the front passenger seat.
"You insist when you call shotgun." Ronon was stretched out in the seat behind John's, his long legs tucked beneath the pilot's chair.
"Yeah, but that's usually because I've got something important to do. Not just because I want the seat with the best view!"
John slipped past Teyla where she was settling herself into the passenger seat, not touching her, just close enough to smell her. They'd have to talk about what had happened the other night; have to make sure that she was okay with what she'd thought would be temporary becoming more. If she wanted him.
If she didn't…
The Iratus hunger rose in him briefly, before he yanked it back. He wouldn't go there as long as he had the will to resist. John had his team-mates. That was enough for now.
Habit prompted the pre-flight check. Teyla was looking over a list that someone had left on the dashboard — supplies and trading goods, he supposed. In the back of the 'jumper, the bickering was growing annoying.
"Am I going to have to separate you two?" Teyla asked without looking up.
"He started it!" Was it scary that Rodney only had to whine a little harder to sound like a sullen eight year old?
"I'll turn this 'jumper right around…" John threatened as he powered up. His hand hovered over the door mechanism and he turned to look at his team, no longer joking. "Last chance to make a break for it."
In their opinions, that didn't even require an answer. John got a set of flat stares before Rodney threw up his hands. "Shut the damn door, Sheppard!"
"You guys are crazy."
Ronon folded his arms. "Are we there yet?"
Teyla laughed, a burst of joyous freedom that unfolded in John's throat. He focused on getting the 'jumper airborne before he contacted the Control room. "This is Sheppard. We're ready to go."
"Copy that, sir. Opening 'jumper bay doors. You're cleared for P3G-242 and the Pegasus Galaxy. Good luck, sir."
John turned the 'jumper slowly around as they floated down into the Gateroom, taking a long last look at it — at the morning sunlight streaming through the jagged-edged landing windows, at the pillars and spires he momentarily glimpsed beyond, at the blue sky and the bluer sea.
His city. His home. He'd be back, someday.
Then they were facing the open Gate, ready to head out.
John glanced at his team — his team. "Ready?"
"To infinity, and beyond!"
"Oh, please, spare us!"
"We are ready, John. Let's go."
They soared through the Stargate, out into a galaxy of possibilities.